“Money,” Philip Goodchild writes in his Theology of Money, exercises a spectral power that exceeds all human powers.” (12) Today that specter stalks the entire world.
First, the Greek economy implodes and convulses markets, sets up a confrontation with international creditors and conjures up an endless political crisis that seems to worsen by the day. Then the government of China seeks to prop up stocks and drastically devalue its currency, signalling to the world that the much vaunted, high-strutting Asian super-economy of the last twenty years may be in trouble.
Finally, commodity prices everywhere start to wobble and slowly unravel, suggesting that the economic drivers that once promised to aid in a rebalancing of wealth between the world’s haves and have-nots are no longer functioning.
And, meanwhile, income inequality on a global scale is at historical highs, according to an influential report by the International Monetary Fund, threatening to sabotage already lusterless recovery from the Great Recession of 2008-09.
As the prestigious magazine The Economist has recently observed, “relative to the hopes of five years ago, it certainly seems like the world is stuck in a traffic jam.” And the influential British newspaper The Telegraph talks now about the ticking “doomsday clock for global market crash” which it claims “strikes one minute to midnight as central banks lose control.”
According to The Telegraph,
Time is now rapidly running out. From China to Brazil, the central banks have lost control and at the same time the global economy is grinding to a halt. It is only a matter of time before stock markets collapse under the weight of their lofty expectations and record valuations.
What is the common denominator in all of these developments? The answer: money!
In my new book Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy, which just appeared this month, I have sought to offer a theoretical analysis that in many ways seeks to reassign the ongoing economic distemper about which we are all anxious and with which we are all-too-familiar to a larger political crisis which, ironically, only political theology itself can begin to address cogently and boldly.
The crisis of liberal democracy, I argue, is pre-eminently a crisis of value.
Note that I did not say a crisis of “values,” a topic about which moralists as well as cultural critics from both the right and left sides of the spectrum have been nattering incessantly as long as anyone can remember.
Values, as Nietzsche understood, are evanescent projections of will and desire. But the question of value per se penetrates to the core of who we are as human beings, and what determines us in our very social and historical situatedness.
As Goodchild notes in snipping a page from Marx’s Capital, the theory of value is the foundation of the theory of money. Money is “value in motion,” he argues.
But, Marx, who was ultimately not an “economist” but an “axiologist” (i.e., value theorist), sought to ground the concept of value in the fundamental interworkings of three fundamental human activities that are as ancient as humanity as a whole – production, consumption, and exchange.
What Goodchild terms the “spectrality” of money, or what Marx himself referred to as its “fetishism”, therefore, merely masks the underlying the functions – or dysfunctions – conjoining this triad of inescapable instrumentalities.
The grim specter haunting the global economy, which is often pictured by the choleric left as a kind of mythic monstrosity to which they can only give the misleading name of “neoliberalism”, does not merely come down to money run amuck. It is money that has become the sole source and substance of value.
We are not speaking here of simple “Mammon worship,” which implies a choice of what we choose to value. Christian theologians routinely miss the point when they try to diagnose the problem as consumerism versus altruism, or the vice of greed as opposed to the virtue of charity.
Because political theologians, in particular, always have one eye out for the transcendent purpose of our aims and action, they forget the every polis is at the same time founded, as Aristotle keenly understood, on the dynamics of its own constitutive oikos, from which the term “economy” derives. In short, there can be no serious political theology that ignores the factors of political economy.
The theory of political economy, therefore, surveys the intimate connection between the “political” in the form of our our supreme values expressed as the notion of rights as well as the nature of sovereignty and the “economic” under the guise of these very values operationalized as desires, which become the basis of systems of exchange through we consume what we want, while others produce what they realize we want, or calculate we might want under certain circumstances.
In Force of God I argue that in the past the kind of absolute valuation that authorized economic as well as the political could be seen as intimately bound up with the idea of force. For both Locke and Marx, who pioneered the implicit notion of political economy as axiology, value resides in labor, the quintessential force of production.
The Marxist critique of capitalism rests on this insight. Capitalism robs the economic producers of the value of their labor, and it is the sundering – or “alienation” – of this value from its source, conjuring up what Marxism terms “surplus value”, that is capital, in the form of the impersonal machinery of production that becomes the abstract Doppelgänger of the economic process overall.
According to Marx, a crisis of capitalism was inevitable. Marx predicted that the relentless replacement of human labor – the fons et origo of value – by the engines of technology and their wanton overvaluation by financial speculators would eventuate in a collapse of the very mechanisms of exchange because of the “immiseration” of the laborers themselves coupled with their inability to purchase the very commodities they produced.
The crisis struck with full fury in the 1930s. But it was then that John Maynard Keynes stepped in with his project for “rescuing capitalism” – ironically first put into play in Nazi Germany – through deficit spending.
The outcome over decades was the nurturing of today’s sovereign debt juggernaut which has quickly gone global, paving the way for the monetization of everything from entitlement payments to “stimulus programs” to massive student loan indemnification to bailouts for entire nations by the IMF to the strange alchemy of “quantitative easing” by central banks that props up a sputtering economies through exploding asset prices at the expense of rising middle class incomes.
The massive effect, as I discuss in my book, is not only the transmutation of what was once a real economy into a purely ethereal one where vagrant desire, fantasy, and consumer narcissism (think Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram) become the determinants of wealth, and the entrepreneurs of reactive rage (think Donald Trump) now speak for what was once a seemingly grounded and serious-minded citizenry committed to at least a minimal ideal of the res publica.
As Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic shows us, the much vaunted dialectic of labor versus capital has become largely meaningless, because the latter no longer constitutes the theft of labor, as Marx understood it. There is really no such thing as labor any more.
We are witnessing, therefore, a worldwide virtualization of value, a Baudrillardean hyperreal dystopia where the “force” behind the global economy is nothing other than a will-of-the-wispy obsession with ever proliferating forms of digital media and buttery promises of contentless and measureless consumer gratifications, a planetary “Strawberry fields” (in the immortal image of the Beatles) where nothing is real and there really is nothing to get all hung up about, until one looks at the Twitter feed.
Political theology must thus learn from Nietzsche’s method of genealogy. For Nietzsche, a genealogy is a diagnosis of how the play of forces crystallizes into a structure of value, in this case a default of value.
It must penetrate to the marrow of how these forces, which historically gave rise to the political and economic configurations we know as “liberal democracy”, and disclose how they have like once rushing mountain watercourses vanished into the desert sink of a spectral global order reigned over administered and by the unreal regime of money.
At the same time, such a new political theology must bring to lightwhat the real force behind both the political and the economic in the end amounts to – what Derrida calls the “mystical foundation” of the historical play of forces themselves.
It is what we call the force of God.