Whose Face is on the Coin? The Split Economy and Political Theology


I have argued that economic theology should lead to political praxis and change. Economic theology has to open a space for emancipatory politics that resists the capitalist future.

This essay addresses the question before us by wedding a theory of the economy’s fundamental antagonism to the notion of immunitas, or immunity. With this combination of economic theology and political theology, I am able to argue that coin—and for that matter the Caesar’s coin that Jesus examined—represents a twofold immunization that fights against communal flourishing. The coin (state-issued currency) is a symptom of an economico-body politic autoimmune disease. Roberto Esposito has clearly explained the notion of immunitas in political philosophy in his oeuvre. The theory of the economy and its fundamental obstacle is spelled out in my book: The Split Economy: Saint Paul Goes to Wall Street.

In this book, I claim that Saint Paul, in Romans 7, tells us that human subjectivity is split. But, it is not only subjectivity that is split; the capitalist economy itself is split. The capitalist economy functions around a negativity at its core; that is, there is an irrepressible opposition between its fundamental parts and in its temporality. The economy fights against itself, against its essence, through finance. If the economy emerged by split, this means it will keep splitting; it is in its fundamental character to sustain the process of self-alienation. When we say that the economy is split we mean the primordial splitting of finance from the general economy and its compulsive repetition. Splitting is the engine, the self-revolutionizing power of the economy. The capitalist economy arose from this negativity, which birthed the promise of future enrichment and underlines the relentless dissatisfaction with the present. The point is that the modern economy is cracked, but this split predates the contemporary capitalist economy. Finance not only symbolizes this division, but also embodies it. Finance is a metonym for the relationship the economy has with its vulnerability. Finance exploits the economy’s own resources to hinder it.

I argue that the emergence of finance in the primordial economy marks the historical juncture of the split of the economy and its “self-objectification” or self-alienation. Finance is the structural incompleteness of the economy, the stumbling block of the economy, its inherent contradiction. Finance is not the economy, but its point of nonrelation, its deadlock. Finance is not simply a deviation from the original (primordial) economy, but also the point at which the primordial economy’s own inherent impossibility coincides with itself, gets articulated as such. Finance is in the economy and is the economy’s immune hyper-reacting system (more on this below). It opposes the economy by embodying its logic of split and dynamics of making provision for the future. By it the economy attacks itself; its immune system fights against its own parts. This way of looking atfinance forces us to think of it as a division, a split of the same economy. It also summons us to rethink our understanding of the ethical challenge of (global finance) capitalism.

Starting with Marx and Freud, scholars have attempted to identify the primary ethical challenge of capitalism. They have named injustice, inequality, repression, exploitative empires, and capitalism’s psychic hold over all of us, among other ills. Instead I argue that the core ethical problem of capitalism lies in the split nature of the modern economy, an economy divided against itself. Production is set against finance, consumption against saving, and the future against the present. As the rich enjoy their lifestyle, their fellow citizens live in servitude. The economy mimics the structure of our human subjectivity as Saint Paul theorizes in Romans 7: the law constitutes the subject as split, traversed by negativity. The economy is split, shot through with a fundamental antagonism. This fundamental negativity at the core of the economy disturbs its stability and identity, generating its destructive drive. 

The history, logic, and dynamics of this destructive drive are connected with humanity’s psychic investment in promises of better future, of making provision for “tomorrow” from today’s production. In humanity’s historical past a new orientation to living (existence) transpired: there occurred the division of produced magnitude (which was initially meant for the immediate, that is, today’s consumption) into consumption goods (today’s allocation) and investible goods (for tomorrow’s well-being). This engendered a split between present and future, between no provision and provision for the future. The economy was born when humans first began to make provision for the future by restricting today’s consumption and thereby creating savings or surplus as “seed” for tomorrow’s survival, well-being, and flourishing. With the creation of surplus or savings, we have assets and liabilities: the present supplying the wherewithal for tomorrow (creating assets), and the future holding the surplus (and its increments) as liability. Accompanying this is the birth of finance, where savings are set aside in the present to generate or augment production beyond the present. The necessity of humanity to provide for the future is the fundamental drive of economic activities. Capitalism has seized on this desire or orientation to structure or condition the economy according to its logic. 

The Split Economy offers robust discussions on how we can divest ourselves from the capitalist fantasy of the future, to step out of the future programmed and formatted for us by the logic of capitalism and our psychic investment in promises of better future. 

Moving away from the destructive and narrow path of capitalist formatted future requires a type of politics bent on attaining the dynamic ideal of transforming communities for human flourishing. From this perspective, the book opens economy theology to political praxis and change. It defines the task of radical economic theology as enacting an authentic division within the citizenry—a split between those who want to continue with the future as defined and promised by capitalism, and those who want change. Economic theology has to open a space for citizens to make a decision based on a prepared future (that is, the new economy that flows from the trajectory of capitalism’s past and present, and late capitalism’s project of better future) or a proper future that could arise from the unforeseeable new economy that asks for, creates, and sustains alternative possibilities and unexpected, risky paths. 

Oikonomia and Immunitas

The key character of the economy is to make provision for the future. Put differently, the economy serves to immunize the community against material lack. What is the immune system of the economy itself? Finance (broadly conceived as the generation and management of “seeds” savings for future harvest/production or consumption) is the immune system of the economy. Finance was supposed to do “nothing more than express the logic of [economy’s] immune system in its pure state, so to speak” (Esposito, Immunitas, 164.). 

But finance is now the internal “foreign element” that threatens the functional integrity of the economy. Finance as a primary defense function is now transposed into an aggressive invader that subverts the “physiological” stability of the economy. It is the economy’s immune system that becomes the vehicle which is used to proliferate the “virus” that creates economic crises. The economy opposes itself, fights against its essence, through finance. This opposition, this perpetual splitting is the self-revolutionizing power of the economy.

 The split is at the core of the economy, the economy’s fundamental antagonism. We can extract this antagonism (what is in capitalism more than itself) from the capitalist economy only at the price of destruction of the economy. The split (negativity) is the “swerve” that defines the functioning of the economy. The split also disrupts the functioning of the economy. What all this means is simple: the economy can disrupt its own functioning. The economy repeats its originary “traumatic experience.” There is no way to establish a harmonious vision or operation of the economy as the battlefield of two opposing principles of economy and finance. We have to accept the inner inconsistency of the economy—its ontological fault—and not try to cover it by positing the inexistence of some reality of a true economy-in-itself. Most theologians or theorists are either ignorant of the ontological split or trying to cover up the trauma of its existence, working too hard to domesticate it.

How do we treat, manage, or address the split? There is no way to the lost unity of the pre-economy days, to get to its genesis. The angel with the flaming sword has barred reentry into paradise, the pre-economy era. There is also no site to combine the wisdoms of the pre-split and after-split worlds. Proper approach to “overcoming” the limitations of the split must emerge within the split economy. We heal the wound of the split by recognizing the liberation in the split itself, by recognizing the salvation in it. The salvation will emerge from splitting finance. To get a sense of how to do this, we have to understand the universality of finance. The finance universal is neither a totality that encompasses all forms of finance, nor a negativity that undermines any set of particular contents, concrete particulars, nor the gap that separates any set of particular elements from other elements. The universal is the noncoincidence of any particular content with itself. The universality is the split within any particular element (product). It is that which is excluded in any product, with no proper place within the order of the product, which directly represents the universality of finance and which represents the whole economy in contrast to other parts that represent partial or particular interests or features.   

The universal in finance is the null interest rate. We are onto the economics of the empty set, the void and its implications for rethinking finance. I argue in The Split Economy that what is left of finance is its form—the entire “contents” of financial products have been “disabled” as naked credit default swaps (CDS) demonstrate. CDS are a form of security that works by taking risk on risk, incestuous risking upon risking. At this stage what remains of the financial Cheshire cat is only its smile. What is left in this pure form? It is the gap between form and content, the gap which separates finance from itself, the empty self-difference of finance which now stands as a substitute for itself. This minimal self-difference has evolved from Wall Street’s drive for endless profit. This gap between form and content in finance is sustained by the split between economy and finance. The next radical thing to do is to throw away this pure form itself, to drop this minimal pretense of financing the economy. [1]Let us ruminate on the possibility of interest-free monetary system. The late Nigerian economist Peter Alexander Egom wrote a great deal on how a monetary system that is not interest-based, debt-driven, seigniorage-laden might work. 

What then does the conceptualization of null interest rate as the universal of finance mean? It does—at least theoretically—aim to displace the external limit between finance and economy to an internal limit within finance. The limit, the split runs within finance. It runs in the midst of financing (investment); financing as if we are not financing, the suspension of full commitment to interest collection (Paul’s hos me, I Cor. 7:29ff). This attitude of Pauline “as-if” is not a withdrawal from or an indifference to the outcome the financial sector will face. But it is about an engaged democratic citizenry pushing the logic of split to its extreme. 

            The task of democratic politics of the part-of-no-part is to minimize the difference between this null interest rate and any rate that functions as its stand-in. The task of minimizing the difference is the work of the political community, the remainder in the police state that is not held together by the system’s Master-signifier (“Caesar”) but by a fidelity to the split. Theirs is a commitment that goes beyond the good and evil of coin and Caesar.[2]    

Immunitas and Politics in the Shadow of the Split Economy

Earlier in this essay, I have argued that economic theology should lead to political praxis and change. Economic theology has to open a space for emancipatory politics that resists the capitalist future. The relation between the economy and finance must be grasped as “a complex game that includes a third term upon which it depends: [class struggle where the economy] lends itself to be preserved as such by” emancipatory politics (Esposito, Immunitas, 112-113).

While finance was originally an “immunization” against material lack. Politics is the immune system of the community against lack of being-with, expropriation, contagion of social relations. Politics immunizes the community against existential lack (nonbeing), to support the being that is at stake in how our lives hang together, the being of our existence that is always a coexistence. Politics as immunization is about working out the good and the fitting nomos to share a polity’s abundant being-with and material goods in ways that (can) promote human flourishing for all. The state is the immune system of politics. But today the state has turned against politics and its people. It now treats any disruption of the political order as anti-politics. Like finance the state is an immune system attacking its own body. Finance and the state (political system) are consuming the community; they are forms of immunitas that are trying to squash genuine community life, communitas. As Marx and Jacques Rancière taught us, the state has turned against the people, its own essence. It serves only to immunize the bourgeois, ruling class against the general demands for egalitarian politics from the rest of the community. Community as Jean-Luc Nancy taught us it is about members sharing of themselves, sharing in their exposure to each other under conditions of finitude.

The joint (auto-) immunizing work of finance and state is well illustrated by the coin. “They brought the coin, and he [Jesus] asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied” (Mark 12:16). The coin is a veritable symbol of the combination of finance and state. The image is a symbol of the hegemonic grip of finance and state powers on our common life. The image of the ruler (state) stamped on the metal coin depicts political-economic combination that f*cks community. This double immunization in the shadow of the split economy is the “unthought” of the general exegesis of the Markan passage. Our exegetes have failed to illuminate the ideological formation or the “play” of immunization of the Roman Empire implied in the coin in ways that shed light on late capitalism.      

In the Markan passage, Jesus proceeded to advise his followers “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” This message seems to advocate non-confrontation between politics and spirituality. Today, many Christians consider this advice as telling them to separate politics from economics or politics (economics) from spirituality. By extension, many theologians who work on economic theology do not take political theology seriously or often fail to show that every economic theology calls forth a political praxis to accomplish its goals. 

The ultimate victim of the non-confrontation is not the so-called contaminated secular, worldly political life (system), but spirituality itself. The radical disavowal of intervention or direct resistance transforms the inner spiritual struggle into an abstract mechanical process emptied of life, the excess of life, that spiritual disposition that orients one to know that there are certain things a believer must risk her life. She that will lose her life, her quiet spirituality, the same shall save it. She can only get into sublime spirituality by continually stepping into the messiness and ambiguities of life.Herein is the paradox of quiet spirituality, a paradox akin to the paradox of courage described by G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy

Today, when we are all under the hammer of late capitalism, in the grip of the split economy, the choice is not either Caesar or spirituality, but both in the name of social justice. We no longer have the luxury of choosing directly between finance/state and quiet spirituality. We no longer posit spirituality as a direct goal for choice, but it stands as an unexpected praxis, disposition that we receive as grace. The only true obedience to Caesar or state is to betray it for the sake of emancipation of those whose faces are not on the coin. Economic theology and political theology shall converge when we no longer ask whose face is on the coin, instead we ask: Whose face is not on the coin or how can we remove the face on the coin?   

[1]This is paragraph was inspired by Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 140-142.

[2]This is paragraph was inspired by Žižek, Puppet and the Dwarf, 56 and 109.

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