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In Mammon We Trust

Theology of Money, By Philip Goodchild, Duke University Press (July 2009)

London buses recently carried an advertisement offering good news for the public: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” What is intriguing about this message is that it does not call for an abstract investigation into the truth or falsity of the proposition that God exists. It appeals instead to one’s life, and even more pointedly to one’s temporal or daily repeated experience of life. Questions of religion become questions of worry and joy.

Such an approach to religion is not entirely misguided, according to Philip Goodchild’s recent book, Theology of Money, which claims that religion concerns “time, attention, and devotion.” Of course, the advertisement’s target audience is so exceptional as to prove the rule—for God is dead, which is to say that God no longer takes up the majority of our attention. Yet time, attention, and devotion must be given, and wherever we find them given we will find religion. It is in this sense that Goodchild asserts that money is our religion. We may very well be atheist and secular, but we are nonetheless religious, for we still attend to the divine power of money.

Goodchild’s approach is not moralistic. When he articulates a theology of money, his aim is not to provide a critique from above (as some theologians are wont to do), nor is it to demarcate some pristine space untouched by global capitalism. His goal, first and foremost, is to understand the nature of money’s power, and it is precisely for this reason that he adopts a theological analysis. The point is that money is inadequately understood from a purely economic vantage, which treats money objectively, as well as from a philosophical perspective, which addresses money in terms of subjectivity. Money, he contends, functions at a level beyond the objective and the subjective. If one is to approach this level, one must make a theological turn. Only then does it become possible to see how money exercises the sort of power that can shape both objective reality and subjective representation of this reality.

The book is composed of three parts, the first of which concerns politics. In this section Goodchild shows that political power cannot be understood in terms of the agency of “the state, the individual, or the corporation,” for such agency is inscribed in the overarching power of money. Every form of political power is granted by a prior “political energy,” which in the contemporary age is filled by money. “Traditional political means have no force against its spectral power. No institution, whether in the form of a state, a revolutionary vanguard, or a people, is able to control it.” Politics, if it is to have any effective power, must come to terms with the power of money.

The second part, “A Treatise on Money,” provides the basic substance of the book. Money, Goodchild argues, presents itself in abstract, atemporal terms of “private property, right, and exchange value,” but this is only to veil its deeply embodied and temporal operation. Its value resides in its capacity to make use of the earth, to command agreement, and to threaten (and if necessary punish) those who do not adhere to its decrees. The decisive power of money, however, is its capacity to give credit, which is the condition for funding all production and consumption. Money, by giving credit, creates value. In doing so, it promises the future, but it also takes over the future—for our future time becomes devoted to paying off the debt generated by credit. Every value we want to give to the future must be credited by money. This, then, is the paradoxical limit of freedom empowered by money: it creates value, it gives us credit, but it obligates us to itself. We thus encounter difficulty in finding value in anything apart from the value of money. “There can be little agreement on the value of values outside the creation of wealth.”

The concluding part, on theology, explains money’s power in terms of its ability to control our attention. Whatever our devotion may be, it must be credited by a primary devotion to money. If we are ever to resist this stranglehold of money, we must find new ways of giving credit and creating value, beyond money. To this end, Goodchild makes a concrete proposal for the invention of an institution able to distribute evaluation credits, which would hold a value not reducible to the sovereign command of money.

Goodchild’s book is immensely important for one who faces the spectral yet very real power of money (and if his thesis is correct, this one is everyone). The book expresses its own promise, that of a future in which thinking, feeling, sacrificing, and creating might achieve a value independent of money.


Daniel Colucciello Barber

Daniel Colucciello Barber is an author and literary critic. He has taught at numerous colleges in New York.


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