The Perils of Pious Neoliberalism

Amid extreme wealth inequality, Vijay Prashad considers the appeal of reactionary new religious traditions that measure salvation in the present balance of your bank account.  

Reference photograph: Sandinistas at the Walls of the National Guard Headquarters: “Molotov Man,” Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16, 1979, by Susan Meiselas. (Magnum Photos)

By Vijay Prashad

Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research

The International Labour Organisation’s “Global Wage Report 2022–23” tracks the horrendous collapse of real wages for billions of people around the planet.

The gaping distance between the incomes and wealth of 99 percent of the world’s population from the incomes and wealth of the billionaires and near-trillionaires who make up the richest 1 percent is appalling.

During the pandemic, when most of the world has experienced a dramatic loss in their livelihoods, the 10 richest men in the world have doubled their fortunes. This extreme wealth inequality, now entirely normal in our world, has produced immense and dangerous social consequences.

If you take a walk in any city on the planet, not just in the poorer nations, you will find larger and larger clusters of housing that are congested with destitution.

They go by many names:

bastisbidonvilledaldongnehfavelasgecekondukampung kumuh, slums and Sodom and Gomorrah. Here, billions of people struggle to survive in conditions that are unnecessary in our age of massive social wealth and innovative technology.

But the near-trillionaires seize this social wealth and prolong their half-century tax strike against governments, which paralyses public finances and enforces permanent austerity on the working class.

The constricting squeeze of austerity defines the world of the bastis and the favelas as people constantly struggle to overcome the obstinate realities of hunger and poverty, a near absence of drinking water and sewage systems, and a shameful lack of education and medical care. In these bidonvilles and slums, people are forced to create new forms of everyday survival and new forms of belief in a future for themselves on this planet.

Reference photograph: Neighbourhood residents and other guests participate in a popular bible study in Petrolina, in the state of Pernambuco, 2019. (Popular Communication Centre, Brazil)

These forms of everyday survival can be seen in the self-help organisations — almost always run by women — that exist in the harshest environments, such as inside Africa’s largest slum, Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya), or in environments supported by governments with few resources, such as in Altos de Lídice Commune (Caracas, Venezuela).

The Austerity State in the capitalist world has abandoned its elementary duty of relief, with non-governmental organisations and charities providing necessary but insufficient band-aids for societies under immense stress.

Not far from the charities and self-help organisations sit a persistent fixture in the planet of slums: gangs, the employment agencies of distress. These gangs assemble the most distressed elements of society — mostly men — to manage a range of illegal activities (drugs, sex trafficking, protection rackets, gambling).

From Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl (Mexico City, Mexico) to Khayelitsha (Cape Town, South Africa) to Orangi Town (Karachi, Pakistan), the presence of impoverished thugs, from petty thieves or malandros to members of large-scale gangs, is ubiquitous.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the favelados, or “slum dwellers” of Antares call the entrance of their neighbourhood bocas, or “mouths,” the mouths from which drugs can be bought and the mouths that are fed by the drug trade.

Reference photograph: Bishop Sérgio Arthur Braschi of the Diocese of Ponta Grossa, state of Paraná, blesses food that Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST, donated to 500 families in need, 2021, by Jade Azevedo.

In this context of immense poverty and social fragmentation, people turn to different kinds of popular religions for relief. There are practical reasons for this turn, of course, since churches, mosques, and temples provide food and education as well as places for community gatherings and activities for children.

Where the state mostly appears in the form of the police, the urban poor prefer to take refuge in charity organisations that are often connected in some way or another to religious orders. But these institutions do not draw people in only with hot meals or evening songs; there is a spiritual allure that should not be minimised.

Our researchers in Brazil have been studying the Pentecostal movement for the past few years, conducting ethnographic research across the country to understand the appeal of this rapidly growing denomination.

Pentecostalism, a form of evangelical Christianity, emerged as a site of concern because it has begun to shape the consciousness of the urban poor and the working class in many countries with traditionalist ideas and has been key in efforts to transform these populations into the mass base of the New Right.

Dossier no. 59, “Religious Fundamentalism and Imperialism in Latin America: Action and Resistance” (December 2022), researched and written by Delana Cristina Corazza and Angelica Tostes, synthesises the research of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research (Brazil) working group on evangelism, politics and grassroots organising.

The text charts the rise of the Pentecostal movement in the context of Latin America’s turn to neoliberalism and offers a granular analysis of why these new faith traditions have emerged and why they dovetail so elegantly with the sections of the New Right (including, in the Brazilian context, with the political fortunes of Jair Bolsonaro and the Bolsonaristas).

Reference photograph: Participants of a march and vigil organised by the Love Conquers Hate Christian Collective light candles during a prayer with believers of various faiths in Rio de Janeiro, 2018, by Gabriel Castilho.

In the 19th century, a very young Karl Marx captured the essence of religious desire amongst the downtrodden: “Religious suffering,” he wrote,

“is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

It is erroneous to assume that the turn to forms of religion is merely about the desperate need for goods that the Austerity State has not been willing to provide. There is more at stake here, far more indeed than Pentecostalism, which has earned our attention, but which is not alone in its work in the slums of the urban poor.

Trends similar to Pentecostalism are visible in societies that are dominated by other religious traditions. For instance, the da’wa, or “preachers” of the Arab world, such as the Egyptian televangelist Amr Khaled, provide a similar kind of balm. In India, the Art of Living Foundation and a range of small-time sadhus, or “holy men” along with the Tablighi Jamaat, or “Society for Spreading Faith” movement provide their own solace.

What unites these social forces is that they do not focus on eschatology, the concern with death and judgment that governs older religious traditions. These new religious forms are focused on life and on living (“I am the resurrection and the life,” from John 11:25, is a favourite of Pentecostals.)

To live is to live in this world, to seek fortune and fame, to adopt all the ambitions of a neoliberal society into religion, to pray not to save one’s soul but for a high rate of return.

This attitude is called the Life Gospel or the Prosperity Gospel, whose essence is captured in Amr Khaled’s questions: “How can we change the whole twenty-four hours into profit and energy? How can we invest the twenty-four hours in the best way?”

The answer is through productive work and prayer, a combination that the geographer Mona Atia calls “pious neoliberalism.”

Reference photograph: “Doing the Ring Shout in Georgia,” ca. 1930s, photographer unknown. ( Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

Amidst the despair of great poverty in the Austerity State, these new religious traditions provide a form of hope, a prosperity gospel that suggests God wants those who struggle to gain wealth in this world; and which measures salvation not in terms of divine grace in the afterlife, but in the present balance of one’s bank account.

Through the affective seizure of hope, these religious institutions, by and large, promote social ideals that are deeply conservative and hateful towards progress (particularly towards LGBTQ+ and women’s rights and sexual freedom).

Our dossier, an opening salvo into understanding the emergence of this range of religious institutions in the world of the urban poor, holds fast to this seizure of the hope of billions of people.

Reference photograph: “The March of Daisies” or “Marcha das Margaridas,” a public action in Brasilia in 2019 involving more than 100,000 women, by Natália Blanco. KOINONIA Ecumenical Presence and Service. (ACT Brazil Ecumenical Forum, or FEACT)

In February 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, went to the town of Maarat al-Nu’man and beheaded a 70-year-old statue of the 11th century poet Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri.

The old poet angered them because he is often thought of as an atheist, although, in truth, he was mainly anti-clerical. In his book Luzum ma la yalzam, al-Ma’arri wrote of the “crumbling ruins of the creeds” in which a scout rode and sang, “The pasture here is full of noxious weeds.”

“Among us falsehood is proclaimed aloud,” he wrote, “but truth is whispered… Right and Reason are denied a shroud.” No wonder that the young terrorists — inspired by their own gospel of certainty — decapitated the statue made by the Syrian sculptor Fathi Mohammed. They could not bear the thought of humanity resplendent.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations.  His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and, with Noam Chomsky,  The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of US Power.

This article is from Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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14 comments for “The Perils of Pious Neoliberalism

  1. WillD
    December 23, 2022 at 22:16

    The biggest tragedy of all this is that we, collectively, let it happen despite the fact that we vastly outnumber those 1% with the wealth and power.

    We are the source of their wealth, as we are of their power. Yet we let it happen because we seem incapable of organising ourselves into large enough peaceful groups to force the much needed change. Most governments know that there is a limit to the size of resistance groups beyond which they cannot control or suppress, and there are also studies that show even a small percentage of people with the same persistent objective can trigger enough support to make change happen. History shows us this repeatedly.

    We know that it can be done, but we still cannot put aside our differences, and indifference in many cases, for long enough to make it happen.

    Our weaknesses are used against us at every turn, often with our full knowledge and awareness, but still we do not fight back. What will it take for people around the world to wake up and act?

  2. December 23, 2022 at 18:30

    Vijay Prashad rules! Great and important article.

  3. ray Peterson
    December 23, 2022 at 16:05

    “Christianity and Marxism” have much in common (see Paul Tillich’s essay),
    but they differ essentially on where the saving power comes from: Marx the
    proletariat, Christianity “the cross of Christ.”
    However, the rightwing fundamentalists are deceived by the corporate
    institutions Protestant and Catholic calling themselves churches when they
    display hypocrisy. Like Pope Francis speaking about Ukrainian children
    not being able to smile because of the war, while not mentioning the
    Russian children also suffering the from the same violence, and not
    telling the truth that it’s US/NATO refusing to negotiate with Russia’s
    reasonable demands that’s causing the violence. “father of lies” (Jn.8.44),
    at work in the world.

  4. John
    December 23, 2022 at 10:54

    The ignorance of the professional classes with respect to the working classes is massive, and this article is an illustration of it. I live in Calgary Alberta Canada. Here there is what is known as the Street Church. I do not like them or agree with them, but it offers something that no one else is offering. “Real Hope that peoples lives can be better”. Accusing them of catering to power, is simply not true, because they are a constant thorn in the side of the powerful of every stripe in Calgary & Alberta and the leader of the church is spending as much time in court as preaching. However, they do provide a real hope of a better life, and whether I like it or not, they deliver. Everyone else is delivering “Smoke & Mirrors” and fake promises.

    If the left truly wants to have an impact on the working poor, they need to start delivering real change to peoples lives, and not dismiss those who actually are because the left does not like them. I do not like them, but when my indigenous employee, who is a residential school survivor with all the baggage from that, does not want work, because she needs to go to church, I let her go, because they are offering companionship and community to her.

  5. mgr
    December 23, 2022 at 07:42

    I started thinking of the Western led neoliberal order as the neo-feudal order back around 2016. In retrospect, a lot of things became clear as a result of the Sanders/HRC campaigns. The mask came off not only from the “democratic-in-name-only Party” but also in regards to America’s intentions in the world.

    Now, I am seeing this term used more often. Apparently, it’s becoming clear where this is heading to more and more people. A new feudal order, that is sprouting primarily in the Western countries, and for those who participate, is the logical, albeit malign, outcome of neoliberalism. And it inherently brings with it war and environmental destruction. I guess it is not surprising that it should, perhaps with some help, spawn a religious component. After all, it’s useful to keep the cattle docile on the way to the slaughterhouse.

    The ideology of neoliberalism, or rabid capitalism, has already become like a cancer in the body of humanity. Of course, with global warming and cascading climate change effects nearly upon us, the rules are fundamentally changed. The “masters of the universe” are no longer driving events like pushing a barrel up a hill. Now it is plunging down the other side and they can only hang on. There is no more buffer to absorb human foolishness and when things start to collapse, I suspect they will collapse hard and fast; ever worse, everywhere and all at once are the hallmarks of global climate catastrophe.

    This outcome cannot be unknown to planners. I can imagine that they have calculated that a neo-feudal order is the only way, at least for a few (that is, them), to survive. Of course, this is exactly the circular lunatic thinking that is causing it. And in fact, in contrast, the solution to all of this is extremely clear and simple to state. Just two little words: control yourself. Until now though, it has been a bridge too far, and ironically, desperate times do not seem to make it any easier.

  6. ray Peterson
    December 23, 2022 at 07:10

    “Christianity and Marxism” have much in common (see Paul Tillich’s essay),
    but they differ essentially on where the saving power comes from: Marx the
    proletariat, Christianity “the cross of Christ.”
    However, the rightwing fundamentalists are deceived by the corporate
    institutions Protestant and Catholic calling themselves churches when they
    display hypocrisy. Like Pope Francis speaking about Ukrainian children
    not being able to smile because of the war, while not mentioning the
    Russian children also suffering the from the same violence, and not
    saying the truth that it’s US/NATO refusing to negotiate with Russian’s
    reasonable demands that’s causing the violence. “Father of lies” (Jn.8.44),
    at work in the world.

  7. rosemerry
    December 23, 2022 at 01:56

    Vijay Prashad is one of the most compassionate, understanding and effective explainers of the world situation of “ordinary people” . We in the West lead the way with oligarchs (admired as rich businessmen) and this attitude is so much more disastrous in less affluent societies, though of course it seems the EU and the USA would like us to move in the direction of more inequality.

  8. Michael Harkness
    December 23, 2022 at 00:22

    Vijay you scratched the surface only. Is there a true meaningful longing for spiritual realisation amongst the poor and downtrodden? Do the rich powerful predatory class hijack this longing and pervert it into another form of oppression? How can the desire for spiritual freedom be harnessed to the material needs for justice and equality? Religion might be the opium of the masses but spiritual feeling could be and has been a cause of revolutionary change. I’m a Socialist Hippie I’m not afraid to admit it.

    • Newton Finn
      December 23, 2022 at 11:15

      Speaking as a Christian socialist, along the lines of the early church, my hope is that the preaching of a false gospel to impoverished communities will nevertheless plant a seed of the genuine one. Even more than Marx, Jesus was and remains the most radical enemy of exploitative, ecocidal capitalism. What will it profit a man to gain the whole world at the cost of his soul?

    • R. Billie
      December 25, 2022 at 13:45

      Right on, man. I’m a socialist hippie too, even now on the shady side of eighty-one. Peace.

  9. Anon
    December 22, 2022 at 21:26

    As confirmed by Goosearch… Earth’s Largest Property owner: Catholic Church.
    Additionally, quite Activist (in LA & Sacramento, Ca experienced personally)
    Homeless Services/ Logistics.

  10. Larry Gates
    December 22, 2022 at 19:00

    There is a huge difference between a religion that seeks to alleviate poverty and one that preaches the prosperity gospel. Chris Hedges calls the prosperity gospel a Christian heresy. What’s missing in this piece (by one of my very authors) is a discussion of Latin America’s liberation theology. The prosperity gospel is compatible with neoliberalism. Liberation theology is compatible with socialism. As to Marx, I have never seen it as antireligious to say religion is the heart of a heartless world. Opium was used to relieve pain. I’m all for consoling those who suffer.

  11. torture this
    December 22, 2022 at 15:05

    If Christianity was easy, Christians would put it into practice.

    • December 23, 2022 at 17:08

      Good one!

Comments are closed.