economic, market

Money as Its Own Faith, We Call this Mammon

Theologians say this over and over, but its the atheist that gets a hearing. Still, Simon Critchley is right:

In other words, the legitimacy of money is based on a sovereign act, or a sovereign guarantee that the money is good, that it is not counterfeit. Money has a promissory structure, with a strangely circular logic: money promises that the money is good. The acceptance of the promise is the approval of a specific monetary ethos. We all agree that the money is worth — in the best of circumstances — more than the paper on which it is printed. To buy and sell in the U.S. dollar, or any other currency, is to trust that each bill is making a promise that it can keep.

This ethos, this circular money-promising-that-the-money-is-good, is underwritten by sovereign power. It is worth recalling that gold coins called “sovereigns” were first minted in England under Henry VII in 1489 and production continues to this day. It is essential that we believe in this power, that the sovereign power of the bank inspires belief, that the “Fed has cred,” as it were. Credit can only operate on the basis of credence and credibility, of an act of fidelity and faith (fides), of con-fid-ence. As historians of language have shown, there is a strong etymological link between ideas of belief, faith and forms of economic exchange. The goddess Fides or trust was sometimes depicted on the verso of Roman coins. “In Fed We Trust,” as the title of David Wessel’s new book has it.

There is a theological core to money based on an act of faith, of belief. One can even speak of a sort of monetary civil religion or currency patriotism. This is particularly evident in attitudes in the U.S. to the dollar, particularly to the sheer material quality of the bill. It can also be found in the U.K.’s opposition to the Euro and to the strange cultural need for money marked with the Queen’s head, underwritten by the power of the sovereign, who is also — lest one forget — the head of the established church.

… To push this a little further, we might say that in the seemingly godless world of global finance capitalism, money is the only thing in which we really must have faith. Money is the one, true God in which we all believe. It is this faith that we celebrate in our desire for commodities, in the kind of fetishistic control that they seem to have over us. It’s not so much that we revere the things that money can buy. Rather, we venerate the money that enables us to buy those things. In the alluring display of shiny brands that cover the marketplace, it is not so much branded objects that we desire, but rather those objects insofar as they incarnate a quantifiable sum of money.

To wear a brand is to display the money that was able to buy it. With us, it is not so much that the money-changers have desecrated the temple, but that the only temples where we can worship are places where money changes hands in some perverse parody of a religious service. This is the strange mass that we celebrate in the cathedral-like malls that litter the land.

It is an understandable misunderstanding of capitalism to declare that it is a materialism that consists of a voracious desire for things. I would argue that we love the money that enables us to buy those things for it reaffirms our faith and restores the only theological basis we have for our trust in the world. Money is our metaphysics. In that God we trust. And when trust breaks down, as it has done so dramatically in the last year, then people experience something close to a crisis of faith.


15 thoughts on “Money as Its Own Faith, We Call this Mammon

  1. masonmusic says:

    Great quote, thanks. This is perhaps the first quasi-theological thought relating to the recession that I can stomach! It is interesting to me that returning to hunting and gathering solves nothing here; i am now simply secure and proudly showcasing the power implicit in my numerous beaver pelts. We cannot escape the implicit security of resource, even symbolic resource. Take away one currency and there will be another. there is no radical substitute for coins (pelts are only a pictoral deviation).

    The thing that must be addressed is that feeling which Critchley describes, that is the real issue. revealing things like brands to be mere shadows of the deep human hunger to assuage the growing fear that we don’t know that we’re doing. The feeling that the money is good, that the pelt will trade well, gives us something beyond just the appropriate resource or item; we are left with the illusion that we (and our secure nation) are the principle causal agents, taming nature and enemy alike with our own manipulation of money. Perhaps the circle of money-promising-that-the-money-is-good is bigger, now encompassing ourselves in the sovereign: the money which says the money is good says i am good as well.


    Joel Mason

  2. Good quote David. Thought I would post a comment on your blog since we’ll be in class together every week.

    This is a quite a good statement for the NY Times to allow on their website. I note that it is not an op-ed and published in print though (as far as I can tell, it’s a blog post on the NY Times site right).

    Mason’s comment is kind of silly, equating bartering for necessities with a money economy is like equating stepping on a bug accidentally with going off to war and dropping bombs on purpose. With that line of thought there is no use in doing anything different, it is all the same anyhow. The Derridian notion that there is only the text, so stop trying studying mythic origins like Genesis that give us a telos. There is no telos.

    Not only that but the distinction between external and internal goods comes into play here. Money is always an external good to any practice. It is not an internal good and therefore cannot help a person learn a practice and love it for its own sake, learning the virtues inherent in the practice. Money as a motivator gives no reason not to bypass the virtues of the game itself and do whatever is necessary to get the external good. Bartering for necessity is a very different sort of practice than money making. It involves goods that are not merely external. Mason should read MacIntyre, and in particular try to see how MacIntyre’s disctintions leads to Aristotelian anarchism because all institutions are concerned with external goods and therefore always threaten to undermine practices.

    It’s not only theologians who have said this but anarchists have said similar things to the Critchley quote. Ellul was both, and his Money and Power is a good read.

  3. masonmusic says:

    Thanks for taking the time to respond to my silly comment!

    I’m not sure where we’re disagreeing here andy. Perhaps you misunderstand my statement about bartering and coin. my bartering comment was directed at the oft expressed desire that we return to “simpler” times. I think we can do various “things” (i.e. practices) to change economic circumstances; i just don’t think that taking away coins will do it (not that this was the point of the article). also, bartering was not always concerned with necessity, but was as much tied into the politics of rich and poor as the coin is today. fur trade in Canada was a lucrative business for many, and it involved their identities and their securities in dynamic ways.
    I’ve read MacIntyre, and Ellul, which is why I make the point, similar to yours i think, that the external good, as you phrase it, is not the problem. the problem is the lack of internal goods or practices. That’s what I was trying to get at here. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood your response.
    all the best,

    joel mason


  4. Hi Joel,

    My apologies for being combative.

    Nevertheless unlike money which always alienates a person from work, bartering can be a way of exchanging things that one is invested in, one has made, things that one loves. Hence the alienating nature of the transaction is not there the way money abstracts work. So there is a radical substitute for coins. But of course, if your point is simply that doing away with money will do nothing to the larger systems of technique, that is a given. Of course.

    I think there is a lot to be said for “getting back to simpler times” though because in fact they were simpler. Hunter-gatherer lifestyle generally lacks for example, war. War arises with the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago and with settled existence that came with that lifestyle. A money economy, alienation from work, division of labor along gender lines, as well as patriarchy begin with “civilization.” Jared Diamond, perhaps the premier scientist on these issues today, has an essay along those lines: “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race.” Discover Magazine, May 1987, 64–66. Ellul talks about this in his book What I Believe (the three chapters on history). Moreover, the Genesis origins myths seem to support this type of reading.

    I don’t know how you get back to a simpler lifestyle in the technological society we are immersed within, but one thing that anthropology has near consensus on is that there was indeed a simpler time where money was not involved, the people lived in “affluence” working about 4 hours a day (this depends on where the people were…the south Pacific would be different). At the least it provides a critique of all civilizations as pathological, and at least a nudge to look for something better outside of it.

    If you are not familiar with anarcho-primitivism, I’d also recommend John Zerzan’s work. Especially his book, Twilight of the Machines.

  5. I think the point about a nonmoneyed exchange is that it works differently to the practices, if it is embedded within a larger system of practices that are not also tied to larger forces always operative in trade relationships between citied lifestyles. In some of these ways, the goods one trades are not really seen as owned or earned and so the exchanges are not really undermining of the practices. At least they would not have to be. So I guess that is the difference.

  6. I’ve been meaning to comment, but the weekend became surprisingly busy.

    I believe you both have missed a key point, and one that Critchely passed over, but may help corral the discussion better: the authority that ensures the legitimacy or soveriegnty of the note. To put it simply, the state, or at least in the United States, authorizes the cash from the state’s own notion of authority/sovereignty. While Critchely is right that money as we understand it has become somewhat of a closed system, it is at the same time, still reliant on that which issues and governs it. If we were truly in a free market, Critchley would be entirely right, but here, even in Mammon, we encounter the ultimate policing arm of liberal reality: the modern nation-state. Even neo-liberal economic theory would bow to this, for it asked for help (or collusion) as it engaged (plundered) Latin and South America in the past sixty years.

  7. Ben says:

    Hey, I recognize this post. Good to see it up. Also, David, Critchley did mention that money is based on “a sovereign act, a sovereign guarantee” — so it’s implied, but you’re right, he did seem to pass it over quickly.

    Andy, I like the marxist emphasis on money as the commodification of labor power but unsure about the lingering romanticism. Are the forces of commodification and the alienation of labor power necessarily a part of the very essence of “civilization” itself? (also, what exactly do we mean by “civilization”? And can we really take Diamond as a “premier scientist” on these issues?) Such would seem to hold too much to what seems to be an ontologized dualism between nature and culture. Or is the emergence of money and its alienating structures more of a contingent and unfortunate historical rupture due to a perverse and divisive kind of “civilization”?

  8. Hi Ben,

    Is it “romanticism” when William Cavanaugh points to the historians’ near consensus on the fact that there was a time when there was not a modern state? He was picking up literature that theologians generally do not read, and saying this has implications for theology. Nobody in the Hauerwas/Milbank/Long crowd says to Cavanaugh, “You’re being a romantic, idealist. This cannot be true because our theology won’t allow it.”

    So why, if I similiarly point to a near consensus in a different literature, is that “romanticism”? Everybody knows that there was a time when there was not civilized life. It happens 10,000 years ago. The anthropologists and archaeologists find no record of organized warfare until after that time. Interpersonal violence is another story. But warfare is absent. Surely that has something to say to our theology, that the very basis of our social existence in the West is predicated on violence, economic divisions of labor, domestication, etc. Why would Hauerwasians resist that consensus but accept the one that blames the nation-state? Is it that the anti-liberalism has found its target and any other target is unacceptable, like the Marxists of old?

  9. Ben says:

    Come on Andy, you know I’m not saying that any appeal to anything historically past is romantic. I use romantic specifically here to highlight what seems like a desire for a pre-civilized purified state of nature which is entirely different than a critique of the modern nation-state project, a critique which does not seek to get behind civilization per se but rather implies a desire to creatively reappropriate older forms of social structures — which implies that culture and social structures are not inherently evil but themselves an active part of creation.

    I’m all for drawing on the full breadth and depth of history and I don’t necessarily doubt your historiography and the fact that violence seems to be inextricably bound with all civilization, but I’m just questioning whether that means that civilization as such is evil or rather only its fallen form, which is historically ubiquitous but needed not be so. There is a big difference here. It is not the fact that you are pointing at the connection between foundational violence and civilization, but rather it is how you are using the point that seems so curious. I’m just curious about the assumptions involved in a nostalgic appeal to the prehistorical which I think is qualitatively different from what Cavanaugh, Hauerwas, Milbank, et al are doing (none of whom appeal to a return to a prehistorical, precivilized anarchic state of nature nor even to that epoch as somehow minimally normative).

  10. Well that is the problem Ben. If you really think Hobbes’ notion of a brutal, short, nasty life outside of the structures of the Leviathan is true, then that seems to imply more than a critique of the modern state and capitalism. A rejection of that notion also implies something more fundamental than a critique of the Industrial Revolution.

    I will freely admit that I do not believe in anything like the fallenness of the structures of society, as if God created them somehow and we just messed it up. I read to much Yoder to buy that reading of Scripture. Yes I believe our Western way of life is inherently violent, and inherently organized against God’s will, as expressed in the origins myths, which though later writings responding to Babylonian myths, do reflect a deep consciousness from the Ancient Near East about how things turned out the way they did. After all, the first city archaeologists have found is in the middle of the Iraqi desert. It used to be surrounded by a tropical rain forest. They cut it down to sustain their way of life. That points to something pathological in what we are doing, that is absent from other ways of living. That is not to idealize the other ways…the problems there are just more immediate. But the problem of war, division of labor, economic inequality, those are part and parcel of civilized life. It was that way before the modern state, and will be that way if we move to some big brother world government or break down into small city states.

  11. Also Ben, you are implying that tribal way of life is somehow absent of social structures. Natives have “structures” or relating to one another and to nature. So the same way Cavanaugh and Mibank point out that premodern structures destroyed by the state had real value, and that the rise of the state created and compounded huge societal problems, so to we should look at the precivilized structures and folkways that the Agricultural Revolution destroyed. Those had real value and the rise of this new way of life created and compounded huge problems. It created war. It created division of labor. It created domestication which is at the root of all epidemics throughout history (hell, even swine flu is a result of domestication of pigs…that is easy to see). And on. Just as Cavanaugh and Milbank are not saying that Medieval society was a heaven on earth, so to is nobody saying that precivilized life is a heaven on earth.

    And also, my comment on going back is a little hyperbolic, meant to shock and provoke. “Going back” is not possible, with either the state or the other thing I am talking about. How to move forward, knowing what we know, and moving beyond this way of life, that is the question. I am not sure you now that our way of life is pathological beyond the capitalist state thing and to what I am talking about. But I would really suggest that before you pass judgment on it, you do some digging. Zerzan’s book, Twilight of the Machines is a good short introductory place to start and has lots of footnotes to studies. I see your reaction as a bit “reactionary”: impulsive and not yet based on a lot of knowledge of that. Which is fine. That is how some folks react to Cavanaugh. But if you read Stayer, Tilley and others, it becomes pretty clear he’s right, this has an impact on theology.

  12. Ben says:

    Wow. Jeebus help us. Things got combative quick. Where did you get the idea that I assume that structures are absent from tribal societies, or that the truly real pathological problems start only with the modern nation state and capitalism, or that the only reading of the state of nature is a Hobbesian state of nature (again I am trying to get out of a dualism between nature/culture as if either nature is good and therefore in no need of culture or nature is brutish and in need of the socio-cultural)? Or that I am ignorant of the histories/historians of which you are speaking? Or that I suggest that we can’t learn anything from the various epochs of history especially prior to the agricultural revolution? Or that there is no thought behind my comments other than a reactive impulse as if stemming from some unconscious fetish for certain social structures?

    Andy, your last comments in response to my questions suggest that you do not understand what I am getting at (though I am not getting at anything difficult)—this is evident especially by the fact that you tried to dismiss it all with the charge of “reactionary” and “ignorance” of special knowledge, charges that were leveled a little too early in this conversation. The position from which you are arguing is quite common and not really that unique/radical (and nor as different as you think from my views which aren’t all that unique either), but the theological assumptions behind it are not always that clear, so forgive me for seeking clarification.

    I apologize if I sounded like I was passing judgment on your reading, but I found your reading curious and asked for clarification on the matter of how you understand precivilized life and thus civilization in general. I am in much agreement with you about the development of civilization and its deep reliance on systems of structural violence and I don’t think we can find any form of civilization throughout history without really some kind of sacrificial economy organizing its complex social relations. But I was not questioning this reality here as we both agree on this. Rather my concern stems from what we’ve discussed already in personal conversations, so you know that this is not merely a pedantic issue. Granted that we prefer certain social structures over others, the issue is the very basic theological point of where does civilization and its complex social structures stand in God’s economy – is the very idea something that should never have been introduced into the order of creation or is the idea of a complex society already a good potential within creation that yet has gone horribly awry even to its core (that is, can a certain complex organizational structure of social relations have the potential—even if the world has never known such—to be established in continuity with the intrinsic goodness of creation and therefore itself be a participation in the proliferation of divine love, and contribute to the redemption of creation?) Again I am asking you to back up and give a kind of theology of civilization (or, among other things, how the new Jerusalem might be in continuity with such if at all) by which we can then understand the reading of historical development (not that such an accounting is devoid of a certain hermeneutic circle here where the reading of history already informs such a theology also).

    We obviously have some differences here as well as similarities but many of these variances have yet to be discovered. I would like to hear your thoughts on this real theological question as I’m sure you’ve given it much attention. But I think this is a conversation that might best be served if we continue it in person in order to eliminate an undue amount of rash judgments and conjectures—although they are entertaining! We could always use the first little opening we find in our seminar conversation on Tuesday to launch into this.

  13. Gotcha Ben. See Your Tuesday. Discussing this blog in class is probably not a good idea. Discussing it in person is a good idea though. Sorry if my posts see combative. Not meant to be at all. If I said these same things in person, I’d likely say them similarly and they would not be taken as combative…hopefully. Or I could at least make you laugh while I was trying to fight you!

    I guess when you wrote that Cavanaugh’s history “implies that culture and social structures are not inherently evil” coupled with charges of “romanticism” on historical work done on the origins of civilization, that seems to imply that pre-civilized people didn’t have the social structures or culture, depending on how we define both of those.

    “You tried to dismiss it all with the charge of ‘reactionary’ and ‘ignorance’ of special knowledge, charges that were leveled a little too early in this conversation.” Ben, what does employing the label “romanticism” mean but a charge leveled before you heard it out (not just from our brief interactions on this, but some looking into it in some deeper way)? Seems to me that reactionary might be a good term for that. I don’t mean it as belittling you as a person at all. We did talk about some of this, and you did say you had not read anthropologists or much archaeological studies on these particular issues. Maybe I mis-heard you then? It’s not Jared Diamond I am talking about either. He’s a pop figure. Marshall Sahlins, Theresa Kintz, and more.

    On this particular issue, though you think it is common a view, I have serious doubts about that claim. See you on Tuesday. I might not have time to chat after class, because I might be meeting with a local Catholic pacifist about Marquette’s ROTC program and how I can get involved in working against it.

  14. I reread my post previous post. I was assuming Ben that you do not hold to a Hobbesian view. It should have said “If you really think Hobbes’ notion of a brutal, short, nasty life outside of the structures of the Leviathan is FALSE, then that seems to imply more than a critique of the modern state and capitalism.” my fingers do not obey my brain. They are anarchists.

  15. Ben says:

    Andy, thanks for the little bit of clarification here but we still have lots to do. I was kidding about the classroom discussion but we’ll have to talk soon. I figured it was the romanticism quip that you were reacting against—-it is a pretty banal charge that I’m sure you hear all too often. But let me remind you that I said I was “unsure” about a lingering romanticism, thus leaving some room open for discussion and not as closed off as you thought. However, I should have qualified more what I meant with that rather over-applied term because there is something in it on a more technical understanding, as influenced by certain 19th century movements, which gets at how we understand history, nature, origins. Nevertheless the term probably should have been dropped for clarity sake as well as any presumptions that may have suggested your stance was mainly a Diamond fed position—-my apologies. And I will happily admit that I have much to glean from anthropological studies. I understand better now – you weren’t being combative and strategic in your responses, your presumptuous comments were just being rash and reactive against what you perceived as all too typical responses, which then blinded you to a better reading of the real issues that were still somewhat clearly stated. We will have to keep this conversation going but with more beer, less presumption!

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