The Rise of Spiritual Capitalism

Spiritual capitalism started in the sixties. Today it has been mastered. 

In a recent interview, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger discussed the nuances of what made his invention a billion-dollar app: an intense focus on quick upload time, user friendly features, and, well, luck. When Instagram began adding sponsored photos into user feeds, uproar ensued: how dare this Facebook-owned company try to make money from my free app.

A similar denouncement was bellowed with Facebook’s monetization efforts. Sure, it has that ‘icky’ feeling—damn capitalists!—but it’s a business. Capitalization is part of the game. More and more, it’s happening on both sides of this equation. One continually emerging trend is the user-generated income streams couched in New Age psychobabble pretending to be something it patently is not.

Product placement was addressed early on Youtube. On Instagram it’s harder to detect given that it’s often disguised by neo-spiritual verbiage. Gaze at the endless barrage of yoga-inspired posturing and you’ll see no dearth in the growing spiritual capitalism movement.

Thomas Frank addressed this issue when pointing out that seventies business mentality took its cue from sixties radicalism. Corporations profited by selling the cult of the individual. No longer did you have to rebel against society while dressed like a slob; anarchy gained an outfit. Our ancestors knew freedom comes at a cost. We're taking that concept to a new level. To witness the evolution of this ideology simply peek into boutiques on Bedford Ave and Abbot Kinney. 

Or simply follow any number of ‘celebrity’ yogis, nutrition ‘coaches,’ and other lifestyle gurus on Instagram. Spirituality does indeed have a price, but no longer does it require silent retreats, self-reflection, or simply being a good person. It is for sale, and there are plenty of people willing to sell you their brand. A few examples:

  • Believing that the ‘universe’ is on your side is a guaranteed seller: “Sometimes the universe knocks at your door when it’s time for you to make a positive change…” A swan eventually does something in this lackluster prose, but don’t forget the tag for the clothing sponsor. Swans can’t live on feathers alone.
  • My favorites always include mala beads; this amethyst string amazingly helps you “overcome addictions and protects in stressful situations.” How does it do that? Why be so analytical? It just does! Who wouldn’t pay $250 for a red garnet mala that “transmutes negative to beneficial energy?” What does that even mean? Who cares! It’s spiritual.
  • Naked Juice, owned by Pepsico, can’t resist this game either. The company’s Kale Blazer has found its way into one kale fanatic's feed. She promises to deliver ‘sweet nectar’ if you reciprocate with a tag—Pepsico does need to make sure her analytics match the pay. Sweet is an understatement: each ‘healthy’ bottle contains 34 grams of sugar. Diabetes be damned, there are beaches that I haven’t taken pictures of myself at yet.
  • In her article, ‘Taking Liberties: Cults and Capitalism,’ from Issue No. 30 of The Baffler, Ann Nuemann writes about the Synanon cult that set up camp in Santa Monica in the seventies. Self-styled guru Chuck Dederich eventually grew so power-bloated that his campus imploded, acolytes fleeing to Venice and beyond. Like many cult leaders, Dederich kept his hands on the purse strings while everyone else was forced to live impoverished for their spiritual good.

    Most cults operate this way, though Synanon made its money not only from tithing, but from Syanon Industries, which “operated gas stations, manufactured and distributed merchandise (such as Synanon-branded pens, rulers, and T-shirts), and begged and bartered for tax-deductible goods.” Dederich was ahead of the spiritual capitalism curve, the reverberations of his empire resonating today in the spiritual doublespeak of yoga lifestyle brands and fresh-pressed juiceries.

    Billions of dollars are spent where spirituality meets narcissism. In a culture in which people are more concerned with being brands than humans such a noxious cocktail was inevitable. We’re living on our own Island of Misfit Toys: if you tell everyone they’re broken, they’ll buy into it. As a solution these Insta-lebrities offer easy-to-digest solutions to life’s pressing problems (the universe loves you!). And they can be humble, too: Sure, these leggings might not fix you, but at least you’ll look good trying.

    As Neumann expresses it,

    The castigation of narcissism...has done little to wrest the yoga mats and herbal teapots from our tremulous hands. Nor has it convinced us to put down our self-chronicling digital devices.

    Because, if you didn’t take a photo of it (and tag your sponsor), it didn’t happen. I’m reminded of the beautiful moment when a bird landed on Bernie Sanders’s podium. Without reading anything metaphysical into it, it was simply that: a moment. Yet within a day my inbox and feeds were flooded with ‘Birdie Sanders’ mugs and stickers for sale. Like Insta-yogis, no one seems to let a moment be a moment anymore.

    A hero of modern yoga is Mahatma Gandhi, who you might recognize from the Apple ad. While Gandhi is generally unquestionably revered, he was a flawed man. He announced his (and by extension, his wife’s) celibacy without discussion; he forced servants and nieces to sleep naked cuddled with him to prove his spiritual prowess.

    What I always respected about Gandhi, though, was his constant growth. His dietary restrictions might be considered an eating disorder today, but he was steadfast in his devotion in locating his greatest good. Then there was the loincloth, probably his most symbolic aspect beyond the baldhead and glasses.

    To fight British rule Gandhi set off a national revolt in fashion. Combating Indian reliance on foreign products he inspired many to invest in spinning wheels. He himself lived in a dhoti of simple making. The initiative was twofold: get Indians off the teet of British commerce and empower them to take control of their lives. Nationalistic and economic. Gandhi wanted to see people rise above poverty. 

    America's spiritual capitalism has subverted such messaging. Freedom isn’t earned. It’s purchased. Clothing isn’t for warmth, it’s for chakra alignment. In a nation of plenty more is never enough. The capitalists have won, selling spirituality as shamelessly as whatever other product they can produce. Sadly, the people who should be fighting are nothing more than its over-sugared servants, desperately fighting for their fifteen seconds of Insta-fame.


    Image: Mario Tama / Getty Images

    Derek Beres is a Los-Angeles based author, music producer, and yoga/fitness instructor at Equinox Fitness. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.