I want to begin with a familiar story from the New Testament about the payment of taxes. This story (as told in Mark’s gospel) begins with the Pharisees and Herodians trying to get Jesus to say something incriminating in public so that they would have grounds to report him to the authorities. Knowing that Jesus authorized himself to teach, they asked him whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. Jesus caught on to their attempt to set him up, and he responded, saying:
“Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:15-17).
While most readings of this passage are concerned with the distinction between divine and earthly authority, what is of interest to me is that the sovereignty of the emperor is indicated through the representation of his image on coins. What this shows is that there is a deep connection between money, sovereignty, and theology. This connection is disavowed in the kinds of monetary theories one finds in standard economics textbooks. There, the account of money goes something like this: Economics is about the management of scarce resources undertaken by private actors pursuing their own self-interest, a task which entails the exchange of goods. A problem arises when it becomes apparent that people don’t want the same stuff and therefore do not always want what other people have to offer. This problem is solved by the invention of money, which in the words of a recently published McGraw Hill Economics textbook, operates as “a convenient social invention to facilitate exchanges of goods and services.” While the state plays an important role in regulating the market and establishing rules for transactions, it is not involved in the institution of the market or the emergence of money. Instead, market exchange and monetary systems are said to arise organically from human nature as opposed to politics. This story about the origins of money is so commonplace that Michel Aglietta and André Orléan argue that the refusal to grant a constitutive role to politics is one of the defining characteristics of economics as a field.
Breaking from the textbook economic position, others have sought to emphasize the political nature of money by highlighting the fundamental role of state power in the institution of monetary order. From the empires of the Ancient Near East to the modern international order, the monetization of societies—the process whereby direct social obligations are mediated by forms of currency (which serve as units of account and means of payment among other things)—has been intrinsically related to practices of state-building and militarism. The consolidation of centralized authority and its bureaucratic apparatus are necessary conditions for the establishment of a large-scale imperial accounting system that operates through the production and circulation of money.
That being said, money has both vertical (pertaining to the state) and horizontal (pertaining to the relationships between non-state social actors) dimensions. The difference between money’s horizontal and vertical functions speaks to what Michel Aglietta calls its “ambivalent character.” On the one hand, money serves to coordinate economic activity in state-based societies with specific social obligations (such as payment of taxes) directed towards the state for bureaucratic and military purposes. On the other hand, money serves to coordinate economic activity in societies where the social bond is produced through a network of credit relations between private actors within the political infrastructure instituted by the state. In Aglietta’s words, money is “a privately appropriable (concrete or abstract) object that we call liquidity.” As liquidity, money grants universal access to goods and services because it is the general form of wealth. Furthermore, commodities are only equal to one another in relation to money. For instance, if I spend $5 on some oranges, I cannot go to the used bookstore and try and pay for a $5 book in oranges. Thus, what we might call the private and public forms of money are both essential dimensions of money as a social phenomenon.
What is important to understand here is that exchange relations, bound up with politics as monetary order, are also related to institutions of organized violence. Exchange happens within the social relations that these institutions produce. This undermines the standard economic narrative presented above, where exchange relations emerge from our innate inclination toward commercial activity, and political-juridical structures are built upon these natural foundations. But if the state is essential for the institution of the space of exchange itself, then the state is not extrinsic to the economy. What Jesus understands and economists do not is that money is irreducibly political, and that “the economy” is an illusion. If money is tied to the institution of market exchange and to politics more generally, then the liberal-economic position—with its philosophical-anthropological assumptions—must give way to a socio-historical mode of inquiry that begins with the premise that, as André Orléan writes, “economic facts are, at bottom, social facts.”
Breaking from the liberal-economic tendency to render money epiphenomenal is a way into the orbit of political theology. Richard Seaford and Devin Singh draw attention to the relationship between monetization and the development of fundamental theological and philosophical ideas. For Seaford, the crises that emerged following the monetization of Athens in the fifth century BCE gave rise to metaphysical questions regarding identity and difference, universality and particularity, and questions regarding the nature of reality beneath appearances. “Presocratic metaphysics,” writes Seaford, “involves (without consisting of) unconscious cosmological projection of the universal power and universal exchangeability of the abstract substance of money.” In this way, philosophical problems and social relations are intrinsically related to one another.
Singh identifies related issues within the history of theology by tracking the way that money, monarchy, and monotheism form mutually informative triangles. Money economies require centralized authorities so as to institute a single standard of account and hold the diversity of money’s functions together under a single political order. This in turn is connected to the question of how the universality of the sovereign’s (e.g. the monarch’s) power relates to the plurality of subjects. The relationship between the singularity of sovereignty and the plurality of its subjects forms the background for philosophical and theological questions regarding the unifying principles of reality as such. Singh explains that to the degree that “political monarchy serves as a screen upon which to project and construct ideas of singular divine rule,” aspects of monetary exchange “may work their way into the assumptions and logic of monotheistic ideals.”
The triangulation of money, sovereignty, and divinity is a good point of entry to study the mutual constitution of theological and political concepts and the questions about ultimate value and social form that they raise. What is at stake here are the principles by which we organize ourselves and the reasons that we give for their legitimacy. This connects political theology to the philosophy of history, for we can track the epochal transformations of societies by looking at shifts in their structures of legitimacy and legitimation, what Sylvia Wynter calls “the sociogenic principle.” We could track the continuity and discontinuity between the monetary crises of late antiquity (and related problems of governance), the complex and varied forms of political rule that characterized the European Middle Ages, and the transition from the medieval period into the modern global-colonial order that defines the present. By engaging with the ethical-political problem of how to organize society, we can return to the remarks of Jesus presented above and recognize an overlap between the question posed to him and the questions we ask ourselves: Who do we serve?
Seaford, Richard. Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy. Cambridge, University Press, 2004.
Seaford makes the original argument that the origins of Greek philosophy are rooted in the monetary crises of ancient Athens. Because of the way he ties social practice to the genesis of metaphysics, this text is fundamental for thinking through the relationship between money and philosophy (and by extension theology), but also the relationship between thought and practice in general. On the latter point, Seaford’s argument is similar to Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s concept of “Real Abstraction,” which seeks to explain how abstractions in thought emerge from abstractions in practice.
Singh, Devin. Divine Currency : The Theological Power of Money in the West. Stanford, California, Stanford University Press, 2018.
Divine Currency serves as a much-needed corrective to Agamben’s theological genealogy of economy, which curiously does not have anything to say about money. Singh looks at the way that monetary concepts and metaphors suffuse patristic theology (especially the construction of patristic christologies and soteriologies) and how theological concepts, in turn, shape both economic thought and practice. This book is foundational for understanding the close connection between money and theology.
Goodchild, Philip. Theology of Money. Durham N.C., Duke University Press, 2009.
Goodchild’s Theology of Money is at once an excellent work of social theory—theorizing the relationship between money, sovereignty, and power in modernity—and an exploration of the metaphysical and ethical problems that money brings into view. While Seaford and Singh’s works are more genealogical, Theology of Money is a good companion text, taking up the theoretical questions that their works expose.