Throughout the whole tawdry spectacle of controversy over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque,’ it has been interesting to follow the responses of American liberals. Some have cravenly attempted to track the mythical beast known as ‘public opinion,’ hoping to capture it and save their own sorry hides. Others have acquitted themselves well, taking a principled stand against racism. Despite the welcome display of backbone on this issue on the part of many liberals, I’ve nonetheless experienced a certain dissatisfaction upon reading their arguments. This feeling is especially acute regarding their treatment of the assertion that Ground Zero is ‘hallowed ground.’
People can certainly be forgiven for meeting this charge with stifled giggles. After all, as one much-reposted blog entry has shown us, the former World Trade Center site is surrounded by strip clubs, betting parlors, and all imaginable varieties of tourist terror kitsch. Furthermore, the repeated solemn intonations of the phrase by various talking heads have so emptied it of semantic content that one is left with the impression that it means little besides ‘no muslims allowed.’ Thus, many have concluded, this site is not hallowed ground, but rather one more piece of Manhattan where people will do anything to make a buck. While such a response is tempting, however, it is insufficient. For it is precisely the veneration of accumulation, embodied in the various supposedly profane establishments listed above, that makes Ground Zero a sacred space in the American imagination.
To understand why this is so, we must look, with Walter Benjamin, upon capitalism as a religion. Benjamin made this argument in a short unpublished fragment from 1921. A response to Max Weber’s famous treatment of Protestantism and capitalism, Benjamin’s fragment sought to demonstrate not merely that capitalism was strengthened by religious culture at key points in its development, but that it was itself a religious phenomenon. Thanks to Michael Lowy’s erudite exegesis of the fragment in Historical Materialism last year, those of us without a complete edition of Benjamin’s unpublished writings can see this fascinating argument for the first time.
Benjamin’s characterization of capitalism as a religion relies on three main points. The first is that capitalism is a peculiarly cultic phenomenon, one in which ‘nothing has meaning that is not immediately related to the cult’. The cultic activities – ‘capital investment, speculation, ﬁnancial operations, stock-exchange manipulations, the selling and buying of commodities’ – are the only ones invested with meaning, as all else is rendered valueless (p. 62). The idol of the cult is money, the only object worthy of worship. As Lowy notes, this description of capitalism is not Marx’s, focusing as it does on mercantile activity, and not the aspects of capitalism (the commodification of labor power) that Marx thought were decisive. Nonetheless, the practices Benjamin focuses on are those which are crucial to capital’s self-presentation — its church clothes, if you like.
The second religious aspect of capitalism is its conception of time. Benjamin’s phrase, borrowed from Weber, is “sans trêve et sans merci” (without rest or mercy) (p. 63). Capital’s time is homogenous, rationalized. It marches steadily forward without interruption, without pause. For Weber, this dynamic had its roots in the Puritan suppression of holidays, when time spent for one’s self was time stolen from God. For Benjamin, the accent is different, as the cultic allegiance capital demands, the ceaseless worship of its idols, transform every day into a sacred one, homogenizing our experience of time into a never-ending cultic ceremony.
The final religious aspect of capitalism is its production of despair. Capital recognizes nothing beyond itself. It forecloses on all futures except its own. This destruction of futurity can be seen as the essence of despair, since any hope is contingent upon the possibility of a future. Every capitalist must expand or be crushed by the competition, so that collectively the class ensures that none of its members may have any respite from this dynamic. As Lowy puts it: “According to the religion of Capital, the only salvation consists in the intensiﬁcation of the system, in capitalist expansion, in the accumulation of more and more commodities; but this ‘remedy’ results only in the aggravation of despair” (p. 68). According to the rules of the game, the pursuit of salvation only assures damnation.
All of these cultic aspects of capitalism were on exhibit in the original World Trade Center. Conceived in the 1940s as a means to revitalize lower Manhattan, the WTC was to act as a locus for international trade at the same time that it would be an engine of urban renewal by improving the value of the real estate surrounding it. The cultic devotion to the realization of profit here reshaped the urban form, restructuring the city environment in ways more conducive to capital. Architecturally, this same dynamic shaped the design of the buildings themselves. The WTC’s distinctive design, in which the steel support beams were placed on the building’s exterior, was intended to allowed maximum flexibility for the tenants of the various floors. The project’s planners envisaged every sort of commercial activity within the wide open spaces of the towers’ interior, from office space to trading floors hundreds of feet above the city. Every aspect of the project was to be devoted to the cultic practices of capitalism.
The homogenization of time was also important in the project’s conception. The WTC was to be a command center of global capital, a place from which the expansion of markets and the battering down of trade barriers could be planned and executed. Its purpose, in other words, was to facilitate the imposition of capitalist time upon those areas of the world still outside of it. The WTC’s form also lent itself to the project of homogenizing time. The skyscraper, after all, is a particular attempt to control time through a spatial configuration. By gathering so many of capital’s prelates into one place, the planners of the WTC hoped to minimize the temporal disruptions caused by difficulties in communication. Through the manipulation of space, time could be smoothed into that frictionless medium demanded by capitalist theology.
Crucial as the homogenization of time and the domination of cultic activity were to the WTC’s design, the production of despair was by far the most important ideological element of the project. Minoru Yamasaki, the head architect, conceived of his design as a tribute to American democracy. Yamasaki hoped that his buildings would be a ‘a living and active monument to world peace,’ linking the globe through trade. Though couched in a language of liberal hope, Yamasaki’s dreams for his project reveal a profoundly desperate vision of the future. The WTC was to be a monument to a particular kind of world peace – that established under American global supremacy. Launched during the Cold War, the project’s goal of uniting the world through trade was a particularly American vision of global cooperation. As capitalism works through eliminating possible futures, ensuring that its future will be the only one, so the WTC was a symbol of the United States’ bid to ensure that the world’s future would be identical with its own.
With so much cultic energy embodied in the WTC, it is unsurprising to find that the project’s design expressed certain themes in common with sacred architecture. Portentously enough, Yamasaki chose Islamic architecture as the tradition from which he would draw. Capitalism’s relentless reduction of everything to ductile raw materials here worked its magic on symbolic motifs of pre-modernity, transforming the sacred architecture of Islam into adornments of the church’s of capital. This pattern was most obvious on the exterior of the towers, where transition from wide column spacing to “dense structural mesh” created implied pointed arches, one of Islamic architecture’s most recognizable motifs. The central plaza of the WTC was patterned after the Qa’ba in Mecca, the most holy site in Islam. All of this was quite conscious on Yamasaki’s part, as he described his project as “a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.” Just as other religions absorb the holidays and deities of their predecessors, capital absorbed the sacred architecture of Islam into its own hallowed ground.
September 11th, as they like to say, changed everything. But the designation of the WTC site as a sacred space of capitalism would remain untouched. Before the wreckage had even been cleared, plans for rebuilding were already under way. The eventual design that was settled upon, ‘Freedom Tower,’ was to be a monument to America’s determination to rebuild. It would be, as its designer Daniel Libeskind declared, “a global symptom of optimism.”
As Oscar Wilde told us long ago, however, “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.” In this case, truer words have never been spoken. Freedom Tower is a bathetic expression of American supremacy. At 1776 feet tall, its structure is meant to remind us of our hallowed past and sacred mission. Yet patriotic numerology cannot expunge from consciousness a certain awareness of the structure’s origins in terror. As dominating as the tower purports to be, it cannot conceal the paranoia built into its structure. As the New York Times’ architectural critic has put it, the structure’s ’20-story, windowless fortified concrete base decorated in prismatic glass panels [is] a grotesque attempt to disguise its underlying paranoia.’ Of course, the project’s devotion to the cultic pursuits of capitalism also remains. The current owners of the lease have hawked rental space in the tower with all the fervor of a revivalist preacher, assuring the tenants that their pursuit of profit is a noble service to their country.
So, next time someone tries to convince you that Ground Zero is ‘hallowed ground’ which would be defiled by a community center, don’t simply brush them off with a reference to strip clubs. Instead, join with the lost soul in religious brotherhood. There’s bound to be a Starbucks nearby where the two of you can take communion. Though it seems like the conflict over Park51 may tear this country apart, remember: we are a nation full of faith. With enough good works, we are sure to make it through.