Theology of Money

What follows is a sort of review I did of a incredibly dense and thought-provoking book called Theology of Money, authored by Philip Goodchild of the University of Nottingham. I did this in conjunction with my friend Johnny Walker, whose blog you can check out by following this link! He’s a great guy and writes in a wonderful and thoughtful manner.

Philip Goodchild’s Theology of Money may be one of the more important works in contemporary scholarship on issues of economy, politics, divinization, and the importance of valuation. Because of this, the title may seem a bit deceptive, as the emphasis is not on the usual issues associated with theology, such a systematic analysis of what is meant by the signifier “God”, or the praxis of a community built upon ideals usually associated with the moniker “religious”.

Philip Goodchild. Looks like a rather jolly fellow. (http://www.wlv.ac.uk/files/SAD/RIP/philip_goodchild.jpg)

However, at the same time the title is wonderfully appropriate. Part of Goodchild’s analysis rests on the crucial point that money occupies in society the same space that God normally does in traditional religion. Money is religious precisely because “God and wealth are set in competition” in several key areas: for time, in terms of “storing up treasure”; for attention, in terms of the health of the eye; and, for devotion in terms of service”(6). Because all religions “direct and distribute time, attention, and devotion” money seems to occupy a religious space.  In Goodchild’s estimation the contemporary theology of money, however, directs such time, attention, and devotion in such a way as to evoke a social order that is essentially short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive. The aim, then, of the book is to “understand the conditions of existence within our contemporary age” and ultimately show that the life of humanity is based on local practices of monetary “contracting, accounting, and evaluating.” These practices, however, are to be exposed in all of their “contingency, irrationality, arbitrariness, and violence” because they ultimately enable “chaos, instability, and possessive[ness].” (xvi).

In order to accomplish this weighty task Goodchild divides the book into three major sections. The first section, “Of Politics”, is mainly introductory and serves to locate money theoretically in relation to political life. Goodchild identifies modernity mythically, both because a theory of money bases the political life on the valuation of money primarily, but also because the essential utopian ideals of modernity are short-circuited by money’s place in political life, and are necessarily contradictory. The mythic nature of the ideals of modernity can be summed up as one of mastery of the natural world through means of science, technology, and economics; nonetheless, such mastery is façade, as seen through ecological disasters and realizations that economics is less determined by “humane values and substantive rationality” and more so “autonomous processes driven by debt, profit, and the control of consumer desire.” (31,32). Such inability to control and master serve to undermine economics because ecology, specifically, cannot handle the consumptive practices of modern economics, and this speaks to the meta-human powers that both science and technology (despite the promises of modernity) cannot control (43-49). In the conceptual realm there is instability because utopian ideals of universal freedom, and a wealth that promises freedom, has caused a grasping that “has had the effect of subordinating humanity to the impersonal and abstract force of money” (67). Such opens up the realization that much determination in democratic institutions is due to propagandizing and political advertising, which short-circuits truth within open discourse (51-53). In all, it seems that value, broadly, then, results in a frenzied maintenance of monetary value through consumptive practices, ecological destruction, predatory production, and an appropriating and colonizing capitalism.

The middle section, A Treatise on Money, is divided into three chapters dealing with the Ecology, Politics, and Theology of money. Goodchild identifies this main section as having a two-fold purpose: to expose the main threats of humanity found in “illusion and error” and to “illuminate the principles necessary for reforming money as a social institution” (22). In the chapter on ecology Goodchild develops further the earlier thesis regarding the instability of natural ecology in an economic environment that does not take into account natural environmental concerns. But, he goes deeper, showing the conceptual problems that cause this disregard, namely regarding money itself. Money functions as value that promises value. It is fundamentally tautological as “money is a means of payment because it is a store of value, yet money is a store of value because it is a means of payment” (93).  Perhaps most important in this chapter, however, is the delineation of the economic issues of promise and desire. Money and economy enter the religious schema here because of the notion of faith in the promise of these abstractions. Money provides “the freedom to select and refuse within the marketplace . . . to disassemble current relations of mutual dependence to replace them with future, more desirable relations of mutual dependence” (103). Because money promises these freedoms, there is a generation of demand for it. However, Goodchild’s analysis ends with the conclusion that despite the promises, “money is fundamentally false and deceptive”, at least in part because of the relation of debt to society, but also because one’s evaluations are always of little weight and ultimately up to subjective fashions; or, “the consumer has no basis for giving value to value, apart from the value of money” (120-21).
In the next chapter, on the “Politics of Money”, Goodchild moves on to similar criticisms, though this time in relation to markets specifically. Here he levels charges against the market, calling it “a despotic social institution founded on violence” (128) because it allows for no contradictory claims and because of the mutual parasitism of market and state, a state that justifies “inflicting unlimited violence on their enemies in the name of freedom, democracy, and  progress that they may be establish in place of existing social formations” (128). Goodchild goes on to make the connection between money, contract, and value. Namely, that money is an implicit contract, and “contracts underwrite social cooperation” (132).

In the last chapter in this section Goodchild focuses on a theology of money. Here, by theology, Goodchild enters into an examination of the value of money, but also the concept ofevaluating value. His discussion begins with a critique of accounting practices, and specifically what accounting practices say about the nature of what is considered valuable in the first place. A portion of his critique is the metaphysical basis of accounting itself. It represents the shared fiction of money, yes, but it also motions to the immateriality and spirituality of money as an incorporeal reality that promises and powers desires. Accounting becomes the material basis of money, however, in the place of coinage and banks take over as the basis of credit (171). Yet, a more important portion of his critique reminds that “knowledge produced by accounting is highly selective and very limited” (172). This is the reminder that accounting is far from being distinct from the ethical or the evaluative; “determinate moral effects” result from the practice, as analyzed earlier in Goodchild’s discussion of the ecological, economic, and political intersections with the economic (172).

Theology of Money. This is the cover of a book. (https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/Books/978-0-8223-4450-6_pr.jpg)

It is in this section that Goodchild begins to engage more with construction. He does not intend to leave the reader with a largely critical account that does not lead to hints about what a more positive and concrete theology of money would entail. While this will be dealt with more depth in the final section, Goodchild reveals that for a “revaluation of all values” to take place practices of accounting must be reoriented. He claims that “if money is an expression of a practice of recording value, then new kinds of money can emerge from new methods of accounting” (180). Likewise, because accounting is primarily concerned with how much money can be given for a given product, it follows that accounting is not concerned with the evaluation of the actual product or process of production (188). Here is part of the moral problem, but also a hint at the proper trajectory to take in order to reorient the idea of money and value within society. He ends the chapter by mentioning that only the “creation, critique, and crediting of evaluation” can stand in as the theological activity that can lead “the economic order” (198).

Goodchild begins his last section with a properly metaphysical discussion, noting the opposition between God and money (here drawing on the words of Jesus). The metaphysical parallel is deep, noting the commonality between God, truth, and money as representing absolutes that help solve problems of “being and thought” (208, 212). However, the specific metaphysics that money evokes in action is one that counts all things as “passive objects of exchange”, names all people as “sovereign subjects capable of entering into contracts at will”, and considers all knowledge “science”. Use of money evokes, likewise, a politics, ethics, and theology. These require subordination to spirals of debt, the necessity of spending and acquiring money, and the obligation to state systems that “preserve the stability of a fragile financial system”; and, according to Goodchild emancipation can only come through “some reorganization of the institution of money”, hopefully away from the sort of organization of money as created through debt as began in the founding of the Bank of England (214).

Once again, the crux of the issue comes down to distinguishing what is truly the value of values. And, further, how do we evaluate value? This is perhaps the area where God and money are most robustly in competition. It is here that he branches off and engages in a reorganization proposal, stating as follows: “there needs to be a secondary tier of economy concerned solely with the production and distribution of effective evaluations” (243). Evaluation of products and productions would be the force of credit and investment. Because evaluation would take precedence investment and credit would flow to those things that are truly of value, not to those things that merely promise further gains in capital. Here, there would be attention paid to particulars and the wider scope of what allows the economy to exist (such as environmental sustainability) rather than an abstraction and isolation from concrete life.

Of course, Goodchild recognizes the tentativeness and work that needs to be done with the proposal. What is to be commended is the imagination and strength of the work behind the critique that leads to a proposal such as his. Bolstering the importance and far-sightedness of the work as a whole is its seeming “prophetic” nature, as the exact problems Goodchild points out could be seen clearly in the economic crisis in 2008 (original printing was in 2007). Of course, with or without such contemporary insight, the book as a whole, while incredibly dense, provides a deep analysis of money in the contemporary landscape and confronts the cracks and fissures in the modern theology and metaphysic of money with a strong tentative, future-oriented economic proposal.

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One comment on “Theology of Money

  1. jmedaille says:

    He has the nature of accounting wrong: it is not about valuation. It is a sophisticated mathematical system that starts with the premise of absolute balance. Everything sums to zero; for every credit, there must be a debit. Understanding accounting helps us to understand the nature of money, which few do. The real problem is when money becomes an end rather than a means. As such, it becomes (as the author notes) a rival to God.

    Nevertheless, the book sounds very interesting.

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