Fabulous Gnosis, or How to Not Think Ecology as Economy

How much sense does it make to think of nature as a gigantic system of exchanges?   Why does it seem so intuitive, so obvious, that what goes on in ecosystems can be mapped through economic language, through the language of opportunities, optimization, equilibrium, management, interests, investments?   Is it just because Darwin was reading Malthus when he penned The Origin of the Species?  Or is it because, as Philip Mirowski has been detailing for years, there is a long and complicated history of “transferred metaphors” between economics and other sciences (especially physics, biology, and cybernetics)?

Anthony Paul Smith has recently written a powerful work, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature:  Ecologies of Thought, that can begin to teach ecology to think without economic metaphors.

One of the implications I take from Anthony’s advocacy of “unified theory” is that if ecology mutates philosophy, non-philosophy must also mutate ecology.  It is not just that an ecological, scientific stance must be introduced into philosophy and theology, but that fabulation must infect ecology.  Not in some cheap postmodern way of claiming that all concepts of nature are fictions, but in the much more precise sense that the action of fabulation, the activity of fiction, is a generic structure in nature, insofar as humans who fabulate are natural.  Once the ecological stance makes the natural status of fabulation clear, then fabulation must be discerned in an ecology broader than humanity.  I have a specific reason for wanting to push this point, and it does not have to do with the “general” pursuit of “universal” truth.  Fabulation must be weaponized in ecological thought against economism.  Ecologies can be seen as transfers of matter and energy between the living, never living, and the dead, but on Anthony’s telling, these are regions of shared pain where species attempt to inhabit niches.  One of the most important insights we arrive at is that fabulation as a mode of dealing with shared pain must mutate ecological thought.

I am wondering about how “the scientific posture” itself might be mutated by its immanental inclusion in the ecologies (of) thought.  I’m not interested in this “in general,” but in view of a deep problem in what is called “scientific explanation,” especially explanation of the ecology.  That problem is the predominance of economic “metaphors” in ecology.

What we mean by explanation is generally a species of reduction.  When ecology “explains” the ecosystem in terms of “exchanges,” species having “options,” drives for “optimizations,” etc., it installs a master-narrative of economics, it theologizes (on) the economic.  The economic metaphor (which of course, as lived, is not a metaphor) implies a set of atomic individuals bent on maintaining their individuality at any cost (i.e. servicing their utility function in accordance with their fixed preference schedules).  In standard economic thought, forms of radical inequality (i.e. “asymmetry”) are supposed to be exogenous to models of marketplace optimization and equilibrium.  So a range of serious problems that plague human life can be seen as “external” to any “economic system.”

Ecologies are not so lucky, and the science of ecology precisely has to account for interpenetrating and overlapping biospheres, including elusive and shifting thresholds and borders at and around which species attempt to maintain their niches.  Ecosystems that overly-optimize become fragile, less resilient, because less open to change.  As ecologists like Walker and Salt realize, this places serious limits on the “explanatory” power of concepts like balance or equilibrium (and, as Nicholas Nassim Taleb has been arguing, in both Black Swan and Antifragile, economic optimization is subject to the exact same problem, since economic activity is, after all, also natural, also fully within the broader ecology).

Yet, try as they might, even Walker and Salt cannot avoid economism-in-the-last instance, even when they conclude, as Anthony quotes them, that “[t]here is no such thing as an optimal state of a dynamic system.  The systems in which we live are always shifting, always changing, and in so doing they maintain their resilience—their ability to withstand shocks and to keep delivering what we want” (152).  It is in this last phrase “keep delivering what we want,” that economism persists.  If by economism (or exchangism) we think in terms of fixed individuals with fixed preferences attempting to maintain or resist threats to the deliverance of what they want, and who make tradeoffs or bargains with others in order to maintain those perceived interests, then even when Walker and Salt jettison “efficient optimal state outcome[s]” as an explanatory principle for the functioning of ecosystems, there is still a dominance of an economic, exchangist paradigm in the last instance:  every species is still conceived as a more or less fixed interest in relationships of trading or bargaining with others in order to maintain those interests.

I am under no illusion that philosophy, as opposed to ecology, necessarily avoids the overdetermination of its vision by economism.  On the contrary.  But I think that one of the implications of Anthony’s work in developing a general theory, a unified theory of ecology and philosophical theology, is the demand for a mutation not simply of philosophy and theology by an ecologically-scientific stance, but the further mutation of what is meant by science, and meant by scientific explanation, given that science, too (even when it is practiced far below the radar of Scientistic metadisursive hegemony), is subject to a set of hallucinations that overdetermine what it means to know, to explain, to render an account.  Specifically, the hallucination of an “economy of nature” in ecology is especially toxic, given that it is vital to in some sense muster ecology or at least ecological materials in order to resist and explode the economic hallucination of reality, the hallucination that life = exchanges.

Anthony does this—provides a re-fabulation of ecology, beyond economic hallucination—it seems to me, through his usage of Negri’s reading of Job.  Here Anthony offers a set of concepts that can replace the economism within which ecology remains, as yet, constrained.

What is common to creatural being is pain.  One species causes pain to another in the working out of niche boundaries.  But corrolary to this pain is the necessity for biodiversity that niches witness to.  There is then a certain creatural sociality as universality at work in the pain of living among one another.  This pain is primary and emotions such as fear or anger are but secondary effects contingent upon the organization of that pain in the creatural socius.  Even violence is secondary to pain, insofar as that violence can be turned into peaceable force by way of creation.  It isn’t my intent to argue for an overturning of death in the ecosystem, but simply to disempower death, just as Job disempowers God.  The niche shows that death, as well as life, is secondary to a more immanent creative power at work as nature against Nature.  Niches witness to the exile of nature from hypostasized Nature.  The refusal of the value of Nature as halluncination of the immeasurable in the name of a grace of nature that is witnessed to in the perverse creative power of new species producing new ways of living indifferently to death (145).

Job creates his niche through a perverse “acceptance of God’s unlimited Power and yet required that God answer for it, so the niche is perverse in the face of the unlimited Power of Nature” (145).  Job’s identity (in the last instance?) is neither as simple product or effluvia of God’s unlimited power, nor as simple defiance or resistance to that power, but a complex acceptance-defiance of Power.  It is the acceptance (perverse submission?) that disempowers Power, since in the moment of “revelation” what is revealed to Job is not God’s awesome “alterity” as Power, but Godself as potency (as never-living?) or perverse creative power.  “In my flesh shall I see God.”  The perverse creative power is experienced “in-person” as a body, as my suffering body, my body in pain (223).  And yet the body itself, on this view, is a “cynical equivocation that locates within this same transcending nature the site of the appearance of the Messiah or a great number of potentialities achieved on this body” (223).

What can this re-vision do for ecology?  In the first place, ecologists, it seem to me, need to take much more seriously the “natural” status of fabulation, of stylization, or of the essential “grace” of all creatures.  It seems to me that Deleuze and Guattari pointed in this direction in A Thousand Plateaus, especially in the plateau “On the Refrain,” where they muse on the double becoming of Messiaen and birdsong:  as Messiaen’s compositions become “cosmic refrains,” birdsong’s functional and territorial aspects (their “utility” in evolutionary terms) are relativized by their expressive or “fabulous” character.  The suggestion would be that ecology could mutate if it could more adequately include culture in its conception of nature.  But this requires thinking through what is going on, naturally, in fabulation.  This is most clear, I believe Anthony is arguing, if we take that sort of ultimate or extreme fabulation called “theology” or philosophical theology as itself paradigmatic for fabulation (which of course means taking philosophical concepts as simple materials, disempowering them in advance of their Worldly status as non-fabulated, as hallucinations).

It was human beings (likely a group) in pain who imagined, in an act of fabulous gnosis, what a Job would be like in pain.  If intense enough, such fabulation is what we mean by “revelation” (as apophaticism and epiphany) and why it can take a perfectly generic character wherever fabulation does not allow itself to be overdetermined by fear or anger.  This, anyway, is how I read Anthony.


Perhaps every animal, every living thing, theologizes in the sense that it interrogates or explores or re-expresses its potencies as a way of receiving them.  I believe this is what Anthony calls the “perversity” of nature.

Put formally, separated from the One, the creature is only identified in the last instance by the One.  This absolute futurity of identity is sustained by (and expressed through) the power of the creature to resist the imposition of any identity not-yet-futural.  This looks like perversity or exile from the point of view of the World, which is the point of view that imposes an organon for identity, short of the radical future held open by the fabulation of creatures.

A “flow” of matter-energy between the living, dead, and non-living is not in any sense an “exchange.”  It is a changing co-belonging to an ecosystem.  When Anthony names nature “perverse,” I think he names it non-optimal, far from equilibrium, inefficient, excessive, risky, chancy, pointless.  But more importantly, an ecosystem is a shared experience of pain.  It is a shared process of trying to conceive or fabulate what it would be to do exactly what we are doing.  It is perhaps the refusal of this “as if” character of the One that defines the World.  But to embrace the fabulous gnosis of the One is to determine the as-if-One in as many ways as it is possible to fabulate.

One of the paradoxes here is that we cannot pass directly to science in the name of the earth (against the World).  We must always pass by way of fabulation (and be wary that so often the fables of economics lie ready to hand).  This attempt to identify science and fiction is perhaps the mistake Philip Pullman makes in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Trying to re-write Milton’s Paradise Lost from the perspective of a “fortunate fall,” Pullman imagines a multi-verse, a universe of multiple worlds where matter is conscious, but where religious authority is bent on eliminating knowledge (gnosis) of such potency in the name of the preservation of its authority (primarily over what pleasures and joys, what fabulations, are allowed).  His heroine, Lyra, and hero Will, are children destined to survive a war on heaven and to become a new Eve and Adam.  Their gnostic challenge is to fall again in the face of a religious authority (in the shape of Lyra’s tyrannical mother, Mrs. Coulter) that is trying to stop the fall from re-happening.  It’s an interesting re-telling of the Gnostic myth, from the point of view of a “materialism” (the traditional Gnostic myth is that the material world is corrupted; Pullman asserts, in more Laruellian fashion, that it is the world of abstract spirit, spiritual authority, not matter and its vitality, that is evil).

But Pullman’s fictional world falls apart because of its imperative that there must be a return to origins, to an original state signified by matter itself, or dark matter.  Instead of fabulation involving a complex tripartite structure of reception, resistance, and invention, the fiction collapses around resistance in the name of a fetishized, pristine materiality, an attempt at a “direct transcription” of the earth.  But as Anthony is teaching us, it is precisely the earth that resists (and thus fabulates) transcription.  The attempt to write fiction = science engenders an inevitably violent struggle rather than the itinerant paths of peace, fragile yet persistent, that Anthony points out to us.  His Dark Materials is profoundly violent, and luxuriates so much in its violence, in a way that I have found deeply disturbing as I have listened to the second of the three books, The Subtle Knife, with my 6 year old as we drive around Philadelphia.  Pullman is trying too hard to be “realistic,” to push the hard core “truth” of the necessity of violent sacrifice for the “cause” of the war on heaven, killing off main characters left and right.  While I completely resonate with the Gnostic vision of conscious materiality and the struggle against authority, Pullman’s insistence on sacrificial violence is not so much a failure of morality as it is more simply, and more consequently, a failure of fiction, a failure of fabulation, a failure to produce the fabulous gnosis that alone, because indirectly, obliquely, perversely, insistently, at every niche possible, interrogates and refuses the economy of violent sacrifice, the requirement of an economic world (or wording) of earth.

Ficitive Credits: Aesthetics As Economics in _Rockers_ (1978)

Fictive Credit:  Aesthetics and Economics in Rockers (1978)


            In the 1978 cult classic film Rockers (Dir. Theodoros Bafaloukos) we get a glimpse at what it might mean for economic credit to be grounded in fundamentally aesthetic categories.  While there will not be room to elaborate fully on the topic, what I am ultimately interested in, here, is the role of narrative, especially narratives about possible futures, in constructing credit.  I cannot argue at length for the position here, but my reading of Rockers is a part of a larger project in which I argue for the politically salient role of certain kinds of fiction in the creation and maintenance of economic credit.[1]  The gist of that idea is that stories we tell about ourselves, even when coded in complex mathematical models constructed from economic data, contain irreducible elements of projection into the unknown and the uncertain.  If those projections are in some sense more or less likely stories, then ultimately credit is given or withheld on the basis of fictions we find more or less plausible.  Simultaneously, our distributions of credit reveal the stories—the fictions—to which we are already committed and in accordance with which we are collectively and individually committed to give or withhold credit. 

            For the sake of my argument here, I propose that style can be considered a fiction in miniature, a condensed narrative.  By “condensed” I mean that style expresses individual and collective potency by simultaneously suggesting and suspending possible action, by compressing its potency.  Style operates not so much by simultaneously revealing and concealing, but by simultaneously engaging and disengaging in activity.  Style does not represent but persuades, partly by inviting others into an imaginary action that is not yet, but could be undertaken, on multiple levels and along multiple dimensions.  Style thus compresses a continuum of possible futures, and the most dramatic styles play on a power that Aristotle in the Poetics called the ability of the poet to concoct plausible impossibilities.  Style is a form of daring, challenge, and enticement. 

In Rockers (1978) the challenge is, a defiance of the poverty and degradation of tenement life in Kingston.  Thus the elaborate and continuously evolving styles of the “Rockers” (the reggae musicians portrayed in the film) are much more than mere personal expressions.  The styles here are tactics of survival undertaken in a mode of defiant chicanery and trickster hustle, echoing (dubbing, as it were) the ingenious sound engineering of the reggae studios, where distortion, error, and mere noise are transformed into unanticipated music. 

Rockers is perhaps the crown jewel of a cluster of films that emerged from Jamaica in the 1970’s, the most famous of which is The Harder They Come (1972), directed by Perry Henzell and starring Jimmy Cliff.  At the center of Rockers is Horsemouth, played by Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace.  Horsemouth is (and was, in reality) the most in-demand drummer of the roots reggae scene at the time.  He is known by his friends as the “hard” drummer, an appellation roughly equivalent to the current “badass.”  He’s the best.  He plays with everyone in Jamaica, including Burning Spear, and does regular session work for all the biggest producers, including Jack Ruby.  There are several scenes of Horesmouth drumming live, and as a long-time drummer myself, I can aver that Horsemouth is an extraordinary musician, with exceptional grace, touch, and creativity behind the kit.  Since the rhythm guitar tends to anchor the meter in reggae music, the drums are left to play an extremely light-handed role in the music, accenting, coloring, and in some sense “singing” along with the lead vocal.  This sung role of the drums is of course not accidental, since drums in the West African traditions from which reggae derives are always considered voices, and were originally designed for long-distance communication as well as communication with the spirit world.

            Horsemouth’s touch on the drums is not accidental to his ability to “touch” his friends for the credit he needs to start his own business.  Not content to wait for his big break as a hard-working musician, Horsemouth decides to try his hand hustling records.  This is profoundly ironic, since he is the drummer on many of the records he must now try to push to the various shacks that sell reggae scattered across the island.  Horsemouth needs to first raise the cash to buy himself a motorcycle from which to make his deliveries.  This he does by going around to his friends and asking for loans.  The nuance and subtlety of these requests for credit are fascinating.  Some of his friends demand a cut of the earnings.  Others seem to trust Horsemouth so much that they simply hand over the cash with best wishes, not questioning whether one day he will be good for the loan, let alone better off or profitable from it.

            Everyone Horesmouth interacts with, including his wife, is deeply skeptical that this venture will work out.  It’s worth wondering why everyone plays along.  The odds are against him. Surely these are not loans that would be approved by a local bank.  So what is the basis of the credit?   The mix of motives here is fascinating.  Perhaps some of it is sympathy, some of it is a desire for adventure, some of it is the trill of being part of someone trying to stick it to the man.  

The drummer is obviously “playing” his friends, but they are playing, as well, as they offer some minimal support for him to get his venture off the ground.  There are no formal contracts, no terms drawn up, as Horsey is handed various sized wads of cash.  They know he is good for it.  They know where he lives, who he is.  Their agreements resemble the Islamic tradesman’s handshake and glance toward heaven: God, or in this case Jah, stand surety between you and me, between I-and-I and thee.  Horsey has established his credit not by being a good businessman, but by being a good drummer, a great drummer—by being a known style.  His style is so important, so impressive, that many are surprised that he is hustling, at all—that he is not simply biding his time, waiting for his big break.    One of his friends in particular is shocked that he would even be taking up the hustle.  Just keep drumming, his friend says—that’s the way to get to the big man, to impress the big man.  But Horsey doesn’t want to impress the man.  He wants to be the man.

Originally conceived as a documentary, Rockers morphed into a fiction film during its production.  Although the production lasted only two months, and the film was created on a JA $500,000 budget, it is a masterpiece of filmmaking.  All of the main characters essentially play their real-life selves, and the scenes of Horsemouth’s home are shot in his tenement house in Kingston with his actual wife and children.  These scenes, in particular, are incredibly poignant, exposing the poverty and squalor, as well as the complex conceptions of culture and honor and integrity—at once patriarchal, chauvanist, and intensely emotional—that animate the Rastafarian world view.[2] 

The way that the film rides the line between fiction and reality is extraordinarily rich, and provokes a number of possible interpretive possibilities.  It might be argued, for example, that a certain minimum of fiction here reveals more of reggae culture than any attempt at straight documentary or cinema verite.  That is to say, to the extent that the culture itself is constructed through self-conscious performance, from styles of dress to modes of gesture, projections of affect and attitude through speech, then performance is essential to this culture, and essential to the establishment and promotion of credit.  Here it is clear that a person is a style—there is no person “behind” the style, no nihilistic or cynical calculator, because in some sense, apart from abject poverty, style is all there is.  This is yet another point that a musical film can help articulate:  style for this extraordinary cast of characters is paradigmatically musical style, but it is not musical style without also being a style of life, a mode of comportment, bearing, attitude, and affect.  Just as with the purpose of music in relation to life, the purpose of the style is not to adorn or represent or even hide who one is, but is rather a process of selection and improvisation that is meant to be expressive, productive, and ultimately persuasive.

Part of what Rockers exemplifies so well is a form of life where the aesthetic and the economic almost completely overlap.  It is a story of impoverished yet brilliant musicians who live by their styles, whose livelihood and survival is linked directly to style.  Style is quite literally the meaning of their lives, insofar as these styles are persuasive, insofar as they can be given enough credit to remain viable.  And because the film itself rides a thin line between documentary and fiction, it also serves, as film, as a mode of creating and maintaining further accreditation for reggae, for Rastafarianism, and for the stylized hustle that remains the essence of these lives.  It is a fiction about the aesthetic dimension of credit, as well as itself being a mode of persuasion, a style, that attempts to attract more of that same credit.

Part of why the film is so revealing about economics has to do precisely with how little “exchange,” in the sense of monetary or contractual transactions, actually takes place.  It’s clear that the biggest moves in the economic game are made, on the one hand, through theft and bribery, and on the other hand, through intricate and extensive modes of informal credit.[3]  The basis of credit is a certain kind of belonging, a belonging that is itself a certain kind of style, an ethos.  What affords credit, what is creditworthy, is the distinctive variation made by the drummer on the ethos.

The film thus joins a long tradition of heterodox thought about economics, a lineage including not only Marx himself, but also Marcel Mauss, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, Norman O. Brown, and more recently Giorgio Agamben, Philip Goodchild, William B. Connolly, and David Graeber.  It suggests how economics is not, as it is for the neoclassical view, a closed sphere of exchange governed by the rationality of utility maximization in the face of scarcity, but a general cultural form of antagonistic relations of credit and debt.  Such relations have an essential and irreducibly aesthetic dimension, in the sense that credit is grounded on powers of attraction, the ability to improvise, and above all on the maintenance, through style, of both the mystique and the prestige required to inspire and maintain the trust and recognition of others, a trust that constitutes credit, as such.  On this view, economics is antagonistic not because humans struggle with one another for access to scarce resources or for other modes by means of which to meet survival needs (for example, through the search for employment).  Rather, economics is antagonistic because subsistence needs are embedded in, and cannot be separated from demands for recognition, honor, and prestige.  As a game of honor and dishonor, games of credit both over-code and distort subsistence needs, since bids for prestige involve risks and gambles whose outcomes variously enhance, thwart, and generally obscure human survival needs.

            Through style one does not hide the real truth about one’s intentions or identity, any more than one escapes the struggle to survive.  Rather, the fact that there is no ultimate or fundamental truth of an individual identity, and no direct or simple path to survival, is evidenced by the fact that in human (and arguably in other animal) culture, style is taken seriously, performance is valued for its own sake.[4]  The point can be pressed:  one attains and maintains credit through repeated performances, through the maintenance of style.  Style is how one is who one becomes.  A highly contextual and collaborative process, style makes for elaborate and intricate patterns of individuation.  These patterns are continuously contested, provoked, and more or less realized variants of fictions.  From this point of view, Rockers does not tell us the truth about Reggae or Jamaica.  It tells us a story that persuades us to be attracted to a style.  This is what Horsemouth does, as a way of developing the credit he needs in order to try to move beyond the subsistence level to which even he, the best drummer on the scene, is nevertheless confined. 

            But I would argue that a great deal of the lesson of this film lies in the fact that Horesmouth is not directly concerned about improving his material condition so much as he is about addressing the shame and dishonor that attend the poverty that he and the other musicians somehow survive.  Even when there are scarcities that need to be addressed, the value of lives cannot really be attested to by any mere quantitative increase in wealth unless that increase is an effect of an increase in honor, a restoration of dignity.[5]  But that demand is precisely the one Horsemouth makes when he refuses to wait in line, refuses wait his turn for his big break in the music industry.  When he sets out to become an entrepreneur, he is not so much seeking the level of wealth of The Man, but to regain a dignity that is extracted from the musicians in the form of the honor (the surplus dignity, as David Graeber would put it[6]) of the Mafiosi who employ the musicians at their tourist resorts.  The gangster-resort owners also run theft and extortion rackets, and when the resort owner who has hired Horsemouth for a weekly gig hires thugs who steal his motorcycle, Horsemouth decides to take revenge in a big and stylish way.  The film ends in this fantasy of redistribution, when the rockers manage a big heist, cleaning out the bad guys’ warehouse and giving the goods away to their friends in the tenement slums.  We know that this is not generally how these things end.  Those who rise up to challenge the big boys generally lose in the end.  What is important, here, as Ernst Bloch might have said, is the “principle of hope” embodied in the style, itself:  the utopian overtures of beauty, elegance, and grace with which the heist is done. 

            From my point of view, this sequence is probably the most poignant and beautiful in the entire film. The camera lingers on each Rocker’s distinctive gait, each distinctive way of walking, of carrying hips and shoulders, of swinging the arms, of bearing a head or focusing the eyes.  As the forms by which these more or less desperate, more or less impoverished men create and maintain credit, they are styles become persuasive by inviting participation in the imaginative potencies that these men in some sense are.    

            As Georges Bataille saw with perhaps more clarity than any other thinker, economies are organized not on the basis of needs for reproduction, but around the expenditure of excess.[7]  And that expenditure takes the form of a specific cultural style.  This style is itself a complex of geographical, historical, and perhaps even biological determinants, which together form necessary but not sufficient conditions for determining the style in which the surfeit of energy will be expended in a given, relatively autonomous region.  Bataille catalogued a few variations:  human sacrifice for the Aztecs, Lamaism for Tibet, foreign development schemes for contemporary finance capital.  One of Bataille’s most salient points was that because surpluses of wealth (what he called “the accursed share”) cannot, by definition, be productively (that is to say, reproductively) used, it is impossible to understand surpluses outside of a “sacred” logic, a cultural logic that entails that what defines us as people is not what we do in the face of scarcity but how we manage our excess, “gloriously or catastrophically,” as he put it.  This becomes most evident at the “extremes” of social life, at the level of both extreme poverty and extreme wealth. 

            Part of why a film like Rockers can be so instructive for understanding the nature of economy is that it reveals the contours of what Bataille called “general” economy.  While “restricted” or “reproductive” economy appears to be intelligible through the use of models or tools that track variables of supply and demand, general economy is neither predictable nor rational.  It is driven not by need but by desire, not by prudence but by passion, not by measurement but by gambles, risks, and even by the defiance of death.  The highly contextual and contingent nature of these gambles, and the credit they command or refuse or struggle to retain, is, and will remain, the stuff of legend, the stuff of fiction, and essence of Rockers.  General economy is ultimately a matter of excess, of giving, and of play.  It is, in essence, the style of a life.

[1] I’m particularly interested in the narratives that are constructed in the context of divination practices—practices in which unforeseeable future contingencies are supposed to be intuitively grasped by competent practitioners or “oracles.”  I will explore and critique neoliberal knowledge claims from this perspective in my forthcoming Politics of Divination:  Economic Endgame and the Religion of Contingency (Palgrave Macmillan Press).

[2] For a study of Rastafari women and the paradoxes of their oppression in the context of an explicitly politically-liberatory religious movement, see Obiagele Lake, Rastafari Women:  Subordination in the Midst of Liberation Theology (Durham, NC:  Carolina Academic Press, 1998). 

[3] As Max Weber demonstrated in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it requires a particular religious style of life (one rooted ultimately in Calvinist doctrines) for the highly peculiar commitments to efficiency, thrift, and reinvestment that mark the form of economy in which wealth is created and maintained primarily in a context of regularized contractual exchange.

[4] See David Graeber’s recent provocation on this point, at http://thebaffler.com/past/whats_the_point_if_we_cant_have_fun.

[5] See Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code:  How Moral Revolutions Happen (New York:  Norton, 2010) for a brilliant treatment of the decisive significance of honor for moral life in general.

[6] David Graeber, Debt:  The First 5,000 Years (Cambridge:  MIT Press, 2011), p. 170.

[7] Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vol. I (New York:  Urzone, 1991).  

From Fraud to Play: Or, At Least What Full Communism Cannot Mean

Democracy, or democratic aspirations, as we have known them, are intimately tied to conceptions of equity or equality, whereby when it comes to decision making, no one is counted, a priori, “more” than anyone else (hence the crucial contrast of democracy is not so much with monarchy as it is with aristocracy).  Giambattista Vico must be credited with the argument that philosophy, taken in an extremely generic sense as commitment to principled debate, can be construed as a commitment to the authority of rational argumentation rather than the authority of precedent, custom, prestige, personality, or brute force.  The emergence of democracy, Vico argues in The New Science, is best understood, in materialist terms, as the rhetoric of democracy.  On Vico’s view, the masses “invent” philosophy (as Nietzsche also realized when he emphasized Socrates’ status as a “pleb,”) as an appeal for the right to participate in governance on the basis not of any actual but only the formal possibility of equality.  This of course sets up an excruciating dialectic, because culture, education, experience, and above all wealth are missing in the people, and so they are never (yet) equal.  Even in the minimal case of being consulted or invited to deliberate, it is obvious that there are often serious limitations on people’s ability to do so, grounded in health, education, experience, and so on.  Given that these are necessary for governance the formal equality insisted upon by the people is always short of actual, and thus “the people are always missing” (Kafka/Deleuze).

Thus communists and anarchists often point out that the formal notion of equality is a ruse (and Rousseau already realized this), that in fact this liberal conception of an individual as “equal” to another depends on conceptions of autonomy and agency (and ultimately on property) that are either impossible or undesirable.  At the heart of the weakness of contemporary democracy is the role that economic inequality plays in undermining our conception of what it means to be formally equal to one another, not only in the eyes of the law but also in terms of our ability to govern together (or on one another’s behalf, in republics).  There is a link, also, between impasses in modern epistemology and impasses in modern governance.  This link, or rather gap, is filled in by an economic and finally a religious set of imperatives that cannot be rationalized but must always be obscured (and glorified as obscure, mysterious, as Agamben has demonstarted) in order for the status quo to be maintained.

Like Henri Atlan, Ian Hacking also draws the line connecting the impasse at the core of our conceptions of chance and probability to the contemporary crises in both knowledge and government.  In the 2006 re-introduction to his 1975 classic study, The Emergence of Probability, Hacking compares the dominance of “evidence-based” medicine over clinical medicine directly to democratic aspirations.  The crucial link, here, is finance.  It is cheaper to decide which cures to pursue based on randomized trials, to the obvious profit of pharmaceutical approaches over all other possibilities (or rather to generic, one-size-fits-all approaches over time consuming responsiveness to the needs of particular individuals).  Likewise, it is simpler and cheaper (in the short run) to govern demographics rather than communities, averages rather than individuals.  As Foucault already understood in the early 1970’s, just as neoliberalism was emerging, it is economics that is the crucial suture between the apparent power of modern modes of probabilistic and statistical inference, and new possibilities of governance of “the masses” by governing as little as possible, by determining how to adjust or intervene only in order optimize what is taken to be a stochastic (chaotic yet probabilistic) aggregate of desires, powers, interests, energies, and masses (sic).

What is crucial to see here is how the rise of probabilistic formalisms as a way of resolving political disputes makes the use and abuse of probabilities a defining issue of politics in the modern, post-17th century era.  Hacking observes, following Porter, that “trust in numbers is a consequence not of mathematics but of the drive towards democratic government,” (Hacking 2006:  Introduction 2006).  And yet this is not possible unless people (and their desires and potencies) can themselves be considered as atomic and isolated counters, specific and bounded units.  But given that people are irreducibly complex and unpredictable, how is this limitation and bounding possible?   This is perhaps another way of asking Nietzsche’s question about how we have made ourselves into “trustworthy” animals.

There are many stories here to tell.  But one important story, as David Graeber and others have shown, it that it is the long history of human experiences with money that facilitates the reduction of human complexity to an aggregate susceptible of induction over probabilities.  Money makes the variable and incalculable nature of value appear limited, finite, and subject to both calculation and indefinite storage.  But, as Graeber points out, it is only on condition that human beings can be (have been and continue to be) ripped from social contexts and enslaved that they can be treated as roughly interchangeable, and that thus a quantitative “value” can be placed on a human life, or more specifically, on human attributes (i.e. human capital).  And the ability to quantify ourselves in general, politically, depends on a prior experience of economic quantification.  This experience can only be an experience of enslavement, either in fact or in principle, since it is only a slave that, qua slave, is interchangeable with any other human being, and only as such capable of having her value fully monetized.  It is no accident that the predominance of American finance capital is coterminous with the imprisonment and forced impoverishment of most of its population, as well as with the subjugation to U.S. military power of the rest of the world.

What is extraordinary to realize is the way in which, behind the contemporary biopolitical holocaust, in which vast tracts of human life can be justifiably destroyed in the name of profit, lies an unresolved, and perhaps irresolvable debate between two diametrically opposed modes of inference based on probabilities.  On the one hand, we have the “Bayesian” view that what legitimates inferences from probabilities is their progressive confirmation or disconfirmation of beliefs.  On the other hand, there is the “Fisherian” view that predictive inferences can be made on the basis of experimental conditions under which probabilities are made perfectly random:  “we alter aspects of the world that concern us so that they resemble, as much as possible, artificial randomizers like dice” (Hacking, Introduction).

Hacking points out that these two options are both evasions.

“. . . it is instructive that each kind of probability has evolved its own way, not to solve the problem of induction, but to evade it.  The degree of belief evasion uses the idea of learning from experience by exploiting Bayes’ rule.  The frequency-type evasion deploys the idea of inductive behavior.  From a purely logical point of view both evasions are defective.  They are grounded less in logic than in a moral sensibility.  The degree of belief evasion demands that one should be true to one’s former self.  The frequency-type evasion relies, as C.S. Peirce understood, on the cardinal virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.”  (Hacking, The Emergence of Probability, 2006 Introduction)

But these two options, these two evasions, are not symmetrical, and are in fact the components of a wicked dialectic.  Today, the Fisherians have won (a situation which is very bad for statistical science, as McCloskey and Ziliak point out in The Cult of Statistical Significance).  What this means is that our social engineers (i.e. economists and their medical, social scientific, governmental and military lackeys) will do anything necessary to turn human life itself into a game of perfect randomness (including the ecological destruction necessary for this to occur, since ecological and geographical variation interfere with “frequentism”).  What is absolutely bizarre and horrifying is the way that this project of wanton human destruction continues to be carried out under the aegis of “progress,” i.e. the “frequentist’s” perverse “faith, hope, and love,” the virtues by means of which we carry on at any cost and endure any suffering.  Ironically, the stoic, Calvinistic faith embodied in the “Protestant ethic,” by means of which one works out one’s salvation with fear and trembling as the market fluctuates day to day, is no longer the ethos of the capitalist classes, as Max Weber thought it was.  As pointed out by Lazzarato in The Making of Indebted Man, this ethos of faith, hope, and love has become outsourced onto the laboring and impoverished classes, as they willingly and at unimaginable psychic and somatic cost take on the precariousness and systemic risk germane to the financial system as a whole.  (As Adam Kotsko pointed out recently, this is Marx’s point that people will do anything, even work for free, in order to express themselves through unalienated labor).

Obviously it is time for revolt, and as ever, the revolution is just beginning.  But a key strategy at this point is to disarm the theologico-political time bomb that is the modern mis-relationship to chance and probability, and to the putatively “natural” or “absolute” character of the uncertainty, randomness, and chaos to which it is supposed to “clearly” attest.  Modern governance (since the 17th but especially since the 19th century) has attempted to be a “positive” science of the “masses,” as if political decisions were quite literally a matter of correct thermodynamic equations.

The ridiculous “conservative vs. revolutionary” alternative is a double evasion.

In Atlan’s terms we can describe these two positions (Bayesian and Frequentist) as the nostalgically secular and the not-yet-fully-desacralized approaches to chance (probability).  The Bayesians are attempting to soberly and conservatively infer only what can be shown to be consistent with previously confirmed patterns of belief, thus justifying action in the present in terms of its likelihood to conform to past patterns.  They are the nostaligically secular (corresponding to contemporary “leftism”).  To put the matter in religious terms, this nostalgic view of chance as secular pretends that chance is nothing divinely creative, but simply the “next” opportunity to renew life as we have known it.  On the other hand, the Fisherians or “frequentists” are the radicals who would have us re-tool reality in order to make it predictable, turn life as we know it into a genuine crapshoot.  What is obvious is that contemporary “conservatives” (i.e. Republicans) are not interested at all in conserving the past but are in fact “radical” and bloodthirsty Fisherians in search of homogeneity—as we all know, the right wing wants to destroy and not to conserve life, while “liberals” (i.e. Democrats) are the pathetic Bayesians who want to conserve as much of the present as possible (in keeping with the past).  So the argument for full communism, to escape the liberal pathos, cannot be simply an argument for conservation of life via the state unless it also an argument for an entirely different relationship to chance and contingency, one that is willing to radically alter our conception of what counts as a “viable institution,” as such.  That this would be totally unrecognizable to us from our particular historical vantage point is not an argument against its truth.

It is of course a matter of real risk, throwing human life open to contingency in a very different way.  But this politics is also the “faith” and “hope” (terms used under advisement, or sous rature) that in so entering into a more attentive awareness of singularity, the very need we apparently have for the kinds of security apparatuses, actuarials, and contingency plans we currently rely on (and which in any case do not work) will fade like the nightmare it currently is.

A common misperception about full communism is that, under communism, the state would or should be able to control the economy in a way that it is either unable or unwilling to do, under conditions of capitalism.  On this view, full communism means a command or planned economy, with the implication that economic activity can be fully rationalized—if not perfectly or completely predicted, then at the very least subjected to constant scrutiny, re-evaluation, and re-assessment by all those concerned.  In the best case, this would look something like what Bruno Latour calls the power of “following up” in the sciences, whereby the various mediators or transitions between theories, experimental practices, the dissemination of information, the effects of technologies, etc., can always be (at least in principle) re-examined, subject to further investigation, more or less “democratically” contested, and so on.  Indeed, if only policy debates and implementation were, in this sense, more scientific, there would be incredible progress.

Be that as it may, I think it is crucial for all critiques of capitalism and capitalist ideology, and for all proposed alternatives, to come to grips with certain fundamental limits to human knowledge, no matter how pragmatically construed.  In all human activities, including not only market exchanges, but also up to and including human language itself, there are fundamental ambiguities, ambivalences, and unforseeabilities that are intractable.  This element of uncertainty in human activity is not only the occasion for deception, manipulation, and fraud, but also for creativity, innovation, surprise, and enjoyment.  What is at stake here is the fundamentally ludic or game-like character of human activity, generally, and it seems to me that any vision of state communism has to account for not only this ludic dimension of human behavior, but more importantly has to better support the necessity of games and game-like structures than capitalism does.

This is true even if the ludic is often agonistic and even painful.  One of the dirtiest (open) secrets about our addiction to capitalism, at nearly any human and ecological cost imaginable, is that it presents itself as a tremendously powerful, attractive, and intricate game, making even the pain involved (no pain, no gain) attractive to us.  It is a game played most purely, as Bataille was perhaps the first to see clearly, by the extremely poor and the extremely rich—that is, by those who give everything they have, placing everything on the line, every day, whether for a lottery ticket or for high-risk debt swaps.  Bataille shows very efficiently how important it is to insist upon the identity of the desperately poor and extravagantly wealthy, precisely from this point of view, rather than imagine that what human subjectivity needs or wants is some kind of middling or average viability or “sustainable lifestyle.”  Bataille saw that even in less extreme forms than lotteries and foreign currency arbitrage, any exchange, any transaction, is a game in which one is playing not only to gain wealth and/or power, but to see, at any given moment, what it is possible to get away with, how far one can negotiate, and to test the limits of possibility, as such.  To play for ultimate stakes.

In his recently translated Fraud:  The World of Ona’ah, Henri Atlan puts this problem in an extremely interesting way.  In his Sparks of Randomness, Atlan had argued that a secular age is grounded, in part, on the foreclosure of any “sacred” or “prophetic” meaning being ascribed to random events, including the more or less probable outcomes of various sorts of stochastic activities such as marketplace behavior.  In Fraud, Atlan continues this line of thought by arguing that secular cultures must encourage a similar tolerance of a certain amount of fraud in all human interactions.  The Rabbinic wisdom tradition, following Scriptures, recognized that on some level it is impossible not to defraud one another, in some minimal way, whether in commerce or in speech, unless we assert that we are complete masters not only of the means an ends of our own intentions, but that we would know in advance how all intentional activities would affect, support, or undermine the intentions of others.  The secular tolerance of fraud parallels a tolerance of the unknown that was formerly religiously mediated by sacrifice rituals.  In the “secularized” era of chance, we no longer ascribe chance to the influence or presence of a divinity, let alone to signs of divine revelation.  The theological-political problem, of course, is that this secularization is necessarily an incomplete tendency, even in the present day, and what tends to happen is that religious meanings are brought back in, at the last minute, to suture the unbearable anxiety of shared responsibility for the unknown and for the ungrounded character of human decisions.

But it is extremely difficult to know how much fraud to tolerate.  The Talmud gives the rule of one-sixth:  it is acceptable to over-charge someone for up to one-sixth of the fair market price, but not more.  This quaint conception seems impossibly naïve, especially in a market context as complex and high-velocity as contemporary global capitalism, where money flows as fast as information, and where the form of money itself (and by extension prices) is increasingly nothing but language:  a series of promises backed by other promises, with no fixed or finite limit (i.e. a gold standard) backing or controlling the flow of promises (credit and debt).  But the opportunity here, Atlan recognizes, is that we should be able to bring the same ancient and long-developed sense of appropriate and inappropriate speech into our conception of what is economically permissible and impermissible.

In this sense the struggle against contemporary neoliberal biopower is not to insist that economic problems can only be addressed in the “political” economy, stupid, but only in the “theologico-political” economy, dumbass.  For in the end, there is no way to regulate economic behavior other than by religious and moral (i.e. theological) cannons, and surprisingly, this can be seen at the most abstract level of what counts as economically “reasonable”—that is, precisely in the vision of the market as a place of “random” activity (as Adam Smith already well understood, but with a conclusion opposite to my own).  Whether or not we think we believe in providence, we always think we know something about providence.  The games we tolerate in the market are still sacred games, still reflections of what we actually believe about providence (or fate or destiny), about the sacred and oracular character of chance outcomes, and about the meaning or lack of meaning that human lives are deemed worthy of in relation to and in view of this game (or games).

So the objection to capitalism cannot be that it plays games with our lives.  The argument cannot be that life is not a game, but that there must be better games to play than the ones we are addicted to.

But for the moment, we are on the horns of a dilemma.

Either the economic endgame is sacred or it is not.

If it is sacred, then the results of marketplace activity are providential and oracular, and the game itself is beyond question (even if it can and must be optimized).

If the game is not sacred, then the results are neither providential nor oracular, and the game can always be abandoned or fundamentally changed, if it is seen producing undesirable or oppressive or unjust results.

But the dilemma can be evaded, through the following ideological ruse:

The game is explicitly secular and implicitly sacred:  it is incompletely desacralized.

The dominant classes exploit the ambiguity by presenting results that are in their favor as providential and oracular, since those results can be construed as preserving the game as a whole.  Simultaneously, it is necessary to reassure the subordinate classes that results not in their favor are the effects of a secular, non-oracular stochastic reality whose chances, when non-optimal for the subordinate, can be excused as insufficiently anticipated by current knowledge practices.  Thus the masses can be appeased by an appeal to their self-sacrificial participation in an ongoing project of the refinement of knowledge.  This suggestion placates the need of the subordinate for the appearance of democracy, since in principle knowledge is an open affair, not restricted in principle to the wealthy or powerful elites.  But in order to ensure that this democratic aspect of knowledge is not effective, access to education is increasingly cut off.  Hence (one consequence) the ongoing attacks on both higher education and public education, as well as public health (crucial for thought).

For Atlan, the key to overcoming the evasion, to overcoming the tacit and perverse sacralization of chance, is to completely desacralize chance.  It is scientific knowledge—the tradition, practice, and community of scientific knowledge—that for him has and will continue to desacralize chance, even if political and economic interests will continue to distort and pervert the open-endedness of scientific claims (particularly when those claims are based on statistical inferences).

But scientific practice will be impotent politically if its results are foreclosed by the control of dominant interests.  The revolt of the people and the refusal of the seductive passivity of comfortable spectatorship at our own live evisceration are also crucial.  But this will not take the form of some more sober or even particularly “reasonable” insistence upon regaining control of our lives.  Rather, it will be, at least in part, the collective recognition of the fact that the game played for money is the game played to destroy all other games.  Success proves nothing in a game rigged in advance, but the solution is not to refuse to play.  It is rather to play the ultimate game:  to playfully detach ourselves, slowly and deliberately, without fear of death, from the game set to destroy all other games.  This game, unlike the game of biopwer, takes chance not as an arbiter or judge, directly transcribed into differential equations,  but as the differential spirit of each unique occasion.

Theology of Money – Notes 10 (Conclusion)

In the final chapter of the book, Goodchild primarily seems to address philosophers of religion, offering his audience a brief reflection on how thinking into Theology of Money might cause them to view their own intellectual efforts in a different light. A political theology, he argues, needs to be embraced, which brings together nature, society, and God in a metaphysical unity founded on promise and credit. “The modern rejection of political theology consists in the ideal of autonomy: instead of asking how one may serve nature, society, or God, one asks how nature and society may be made to serve oneself. The disavowed spiritual energy that gives authority to such an autonomous subject is embodied in money. Money has replaced God. In its pure form, such energy is in fact the power of credit.” [pp. 258]

To think a metaphysics of credit will require a revolution in theology. The theology of the future must take its inspiration from the theology of money. If money promises value in such a way that value may be advanced, then any effective theology must do likewise. That is, rather than pursue the true meaning of value in the abstract, such a theology must identify potential in the concrete form of capital, the means of production that can itself be produced, and then pursue the proliferation of such capital. If money is the supreme value against which all other values may be measured, then any effective theology must seek to understand what those other values are, in terms of the intrinsic potential in each thing (what might it become?), rather than reduce all things to a uniform scale of evaluation (what is it in transcendental terms?). If money is a speculative value whose intrinsic worth awaits demonstration, then any effective theology must risk experimenting with alternative possibilities for the realization of value without prejudging the outcome. If money is “a social obligation demanding that all interaction be ordered in accordance with the repayment of debt” [pp. 260], then any effective theology must recognize that “as a spiritual perspective, debt cannot exist harmoniously in the world with other demands. It is ecologically illiterate.” [pp. 260] whereas the function of theology is to create new bases for cooperation between divergent demands on our time, attention and devotion. “Such is the true meaning of efficiency. Such is also the true meaning of redemption.” [pp. 260] Therefore, to redeem someone from debt is to create something new, a higher purpose to which that someone may devote his time, attention, and devotion. “Forgiveness is not a matter of sovereign decision. It is not something that already lies within our power. Forgiveness is a matter of divine creation. It consists in creating or discovering a new basis for cooperation. It is a challenge to be achieved. Redemption from debt therefore consists in the creation of a new basis for cooperation with debt. It consists in a new ordering of time, attention, and devotion alongside debt so that the renewal of life in all of its fullness is once more possible.” [pp. 261]

Theology of Money – Notes 9 (Chapter 8: A Modest Proposal)

In this, the final chapter of Part III of Theology of Money, Goodchild sketches for us the outlines of an institutional framework that will allow “evaluative credit” to be “produced” so that a proper distribution of attention to that which matters, may come about, and so that money may be made to flow in the direction of such evaluations rather than evaluations flowing in the direction of money. Briefly, Goodchild’s proposal consists in imagining and instituting “a secondary tier of the economy concerned solely with the production and distribution of effective evaluations.” [pp. 243] This secondary tier will consist of two new kinds of institutions – ones that produce evaluations, and others that make such evaluations effective. In the present system, these two functions are usually performed by a single kind of institution, the conventional commercial bank, and this is the problem because a conventional commercial bank evaluates proposals and also advances money towards proposals that are accepted, and therefore it inevitably allows the evaluation of proposals to be guided by the promise of money and nothing else. The system of evaluative credit that Goodchild proposes, on the other hand, delinks the power to evaluate from the power to make evaluations effective, so that the power to evaluate is able to exercise a perspective towards something outside of itself.

To understand the innovative quality of Goodchild’s proposal, we must first ask why a democratic system devolves to a system of evaluation wherein conventional commercial banks have all of the power. The answer to this question should be clear by now: a democracy cannot focus its aspirations for the public good on anything other than wealth accumulation, since this is the summum bonum that the democratic faith in rational consensus will always end up converging on. Thus, even if democratic institutions (such as the media, think tanks, civil society organizations, pressure groups, political bodies, universities, etc.) may have the power to make evaluations, it is a power bereft of the capacity to render such evaluations effective. Rather than recognize that this differentiation of powers – between the power to evaluate and the power to make evaluations effective – may ultimately be necessary, and so inquire into the possibility of a proper institutional framework that would honor such a differentiation and at the same time mediate between the diverse opinions that different venues of evaluation might produce, it is easier to adopt a singular perspective – namely, money is the value of values – and vest both kinds of power in the single institution of a conventional commercial bank. Stated simply, consensus and debt money cannot form the basis for a proper evaluative system (where “proper” is to be understood, in the context of all of the arguments that have already appeared in Theology of Money, as qualifying that which accords a gravity and importance to what matters most, and what matters most is that for which the expenditure of flesh and blood, human and non-human, might be warranted).

A system of evaluative credit, then, must consist of two kinds of new institutions – “evaluative institutions” that will make evaluations, and “banks of evaluative credit” that will attribute credit to such evaluations by allowing a flow of money to occur to the objects of evaluations thereby making them effective. The first kind of institution may be constituted along the lines of already existing institutions in civil society (such as the media, think tanks, civil society organizations, pressure groups, political bodies, universities, etc.), except that its evaluations must pertain to local rather than universal needs. While the capacity to make evaluations should figure as an intrinsic good that every individual desires (money, as perhaps the only example we have of such a capacity in contemporary society, is already a universally desired good), not everyone in the local community may be allowed to participate equally in the evaluative institution, but rather, the evaluative institution must find a way to distribute the power to make evaluations to community members according to political, moral, and theological principles. Thus, an evaluative institution must have a particular orientation along the dimensions of politics, morality, and theology, and therefore it is entirely possible that at the local level, multiple evaluative institutions may coexist. As a simple example, different religious groups may constitute distinct evaluative institutions, and within each of these institutions, the power to make evaluations may be distributed unequally among members according to some principle of social authority. The second kind of institution may be constituted on the lines of conventional commercial banks, except that its charge will be not to make evaluations but only to intermediate the flow of evaluative credits (in the form of money loans) from depositors to evaluative institutions. As with evaluative institutions, there may be a multiplicity of such banks, each expressing its own political, moral, and theological perspective, and inviting subscriptions from individuals who find their own beliefs and preferences best represented by that bank. Now, whereas the second kind of institution may be driven by profitability, but not solely by it, since the entire point of the larger system in which the institution is embedded is to allow other motivations to spur the growth of enterprises, the first kind of institution must constitute itself as a non-profitable enterprise and seek its own funding from the second kind of institution. Thus, a particular evaluative institution may secure funding on the basis of evaluations to which banks of evaluative credit advance credit, but such an institution cannot itself be the producer of those evaluations. “The credit granted to evaluative institutions must always come from another. Moreover, any completion of a circuit of evaluation in the form A->B->C->D->A should be sufficient to negate the credit of the whole chain.” [pp. 247] Finally, between the two kinds of institutions, there must always remain a strict differentiation, and the resulting division needs to be carefully regulated so that no evaluative authority might be able to give authority to its own evaluations. It is important to appreciate that Goodchild is only offering the first intimations of a system that will necessarily self-organize and self-evolve through critique, adaptation and technical development. In this spirit, he articulates a set of principles (which I will not lay out here, but the interested reader may consult pp. 247-248 for them) in accordance with which the banks of evaluative credit might operate, but he also acknowledges that these principles are neither exhaustive nor conclusive and may well lead to further problems that will have to be addressed as and when they arise. An essential implication of these principles may however be stated right away. This is that a bank of evaluative credit should strive to invest credit in truly valuable projects that foster the healthy social forces of care and provision, and contribute to the creation of environmental, human, and social capital, all of which constitute the real wealth of nations. That is, even as evaluative institutions deliberate on what local needs are most urgent, they must understand that the true interest of an economic democracy is only served when such real wealth is created. Evaluative institutions do not, therefore, start from a blank sheet of paper, but rather emerge from a deep understanding of the arguments in the preceding chapters of Theology of Money. In turn, this means that banks of evaluative credit may make loans without an expectation of repayment in purely quantitative, monetary terms. Thus, something approximating a gift economy is being envisioned but only under the assurance that evaluative institutions will be able to evaluate whether the “gift” has been worthwhile or not.

The two institutions described above constitute what Goodchild calls “a secondary tier” of the economy, functioning alongside the flow of money, goods, and services, but with the mandate of something like an “existing nation-state in terms of enabling the funding of public services and care for the common good.” [pp. 249] The question remains as to how such a secondary tier might be incorporated into the existing economic and political framework. We may begin constructing an answer to this question by identifying two mutually interacting entities, an evaluative economy in which evaluative credit circulates, and the conventional economy in which conventional money circulates. At the locus of interaction between these two entities, conventional money turns into evaluative credit. Something whose value is directly transferrable transforms into something whose value inheres not in direct transferability but in the capacity to realize investment. A bank of evaluative credit is essentially the intermediary performing this transformation. So it participates in both economies. But the nature of such participation requires further clarification. Earlier we noted that a bank of evaluative credit accepts deposits – this is the conventional money – and directs it to enterprises identified by evaluative institutions – this is where conventional money becomes evaluative credit. Now, for the evaluative economy to function properly, we have already noted that profitability cannot be the sole motive for the attribution of credit, and this is taken care of naturally by the fact that it is not the bank of evaluative credit that performs the evaluations but rather the evaluative institutions. However, in the event that the enterprises that receive the evaluative credit are profitable (where profits are understood as profits before interest), then there is a reflux from such enterprises to the bank of evaluative credit. Some part of this reflux will have to be handed back to depositors as interest, wherein it becomes conventional money again, but the bank, if it were a conventional commercial bank (which is typically funded publicly through the widely dispersed ownership of shares), would have a choice as to whether to retain the remainder, thereby augmenting its stock of evaluative credit (owner’s equity), or to distribute it to its owners (as dividends). Goodchild’s proposal requires that unlike a conventional commercial bank, which is publicly owned and therefore subject to hostile takeovers and market forces, a bank of evaluative credit must retain no choice in this matter. All of the reflux must go towards augmenting the stock of evaluative credit. That is, a bank of evaluative credit must be owned either privately (i.e., funded by an individual subscriber or a small group of subscribers) or by the state (i.e., funded by taxation). Yet, because profitability was not the guiding factor in investment, such a reflux that is retained by the bank of evaluative credit is unlikely to be a primary source of augmentation of its stock of evaluative credit. Indeed, the reflux (and not just the reminder) may not even be enough to serve as a guarantee for deposits. Therefore, the bank of evaluative credit must participate in the conventional economy in another sense. Just like a conventional commercial bank, it must engage in financial speculation. This could take the form of making loans to commercial enterprises just as a conventional commercial bank might do, but it will more likely involve pure asset price speculation, such as currency speculation, in which vast amounts of global wealth are concentrated towards very profitable ends. We have learned that all forms of speculation extract their price ultimately in the form of flesh and blood, but speculation by banks of evaluative credit need not compromise the ethics of Goodchild’s system so long as the stock of evaluative credit is successfully augmented and the value of deposits is secured, and so long as the power of making evaluations is endowed upon those very bodies whose flesh and blood are staked by financial speculation, thus bringing the circuit of evaluation full circle. In this way, and via attracting deposits, more and more conventional money is transformed into evaluative credit, and so money is made to flow in the direction of evaluations rather than the other way around.

A virtuous circle begins to form in two respects as the evaluative economy begins to gain momentum and strength. First, evaluative investment funds effective capital growth, while effective capital growth, via either taxation or speculation, funds evaluative investment. Second, “The more credit that is given, the more credit there is in circulation. Rather like the Buddhist notion of merit, a moral quantity acquired through generosity, morality, and meditation that increases when it is transferred to others, so credit increases when credit is given, for credit itself cannot be reduced to its material representation in contracts for evaluative credit. There is a reflux of credit to sources of social authority that effectively issue credit. The more effectively a system of evaluative credit operates, the higher the renown in which it is held…. In short, the more the evaluative economy grows, the higher its reputation and the greater its degree of credit. Then withdrawing from evaluation to provide the conditions that make evaluation once more possible becomes a supremely meritorious act comparable to ascetic acts of renunciation.” [pp. 252]

We see that Goodchild’s proposal is seeking to break open the nexus between money and power. Money evokes its own power that supersedes all other social powers. Then, the only way to rehabilitate and re-fund a social power of evaluation distinct from money is to strike at the very heart of the institution that both evaluates and gives value to such evaluations, viz. the modern commercial bank which, since its origins in the Bank of England’s founding, has come to occupy center-stage in the global economic framework. From this perspective, Goodchild’s proposal hardly seems a modest one. Yet, can one read Theology of Money and arrive at a different kind of proposal for change? I doubt it. Still, many questions remain as to the practicalities of instituting such change, but Goodchild shows himself aware of the need for further reflection, critique, and amendment.

Theology of Money – Notes 8 (Chapter 7: The Price of Credit)

What is the price of credit? When credit is understood as bank credit, then its price, according to conventional economic theory, is the interest rate that the borrower must pay to the lender over the life of the loan. But Goodchild will argue in this chapter that the ultimate price of credit is always flesh and blood, whether human or non-human, and that this is nowhere more evident than in the case of bank credit, from the time of the origins of modern paper money in the founding of the Bank of England to the present day. It is only such an understanding of credit’s price that can give substance to a program of debt forgiveness and thereby recuperate a sovereign power of mercy that, due to the exigencies of a purely economic interest, has all but vanished from the modern world stage.

The founding of the Bank of England solved both operational and institutional problems. At the operational level, it became possible for private contracts of credit and debt to circulate as public money when the Bank was granted a monopoly on bills of exchange in return for raising 1.2 million pounds via public subscription as a loan to the state. At the institutional level, a social relation was established between the state and its citizens since the Bank’s reserves were guaranteed by future taxation. There was, i.e., no threat of default, but such absence had to do first and foremost with the notion of money as something embodying the power of a promise, since it was the monarch’s promise to pay back the 1.2 million pound loan that enabled the Bank to issue paper money in the form of bills of exchange. The arrangement produced nothing short of a financial revolution, by means of which England rose to an unrivaled military and trading prominence among emerging colonial powers. The price of this arrangement was ultimately borne by the soldiers who staked their lives in the wars that the state had borrowed from the Bank of England to pay for, and by the sailors who risked shipwrecking by undertaking seafaring adventures that the merchants had borrowed from the same Bank to pay for. And then there were the taxpayers who paid for the wars by giving a portion of their working lives over to the state. Alongside these commitments on the part of soldiers, sailors, and taxpayers, was secured also a commitment on the part of merchants and traders (debtors) to an ethic of self-regulation and prudence, and a commitment on the part of landowners and rentiers (creditors) to an ethic of unforgiving debt-collection. Mercy had no place in such a nexus, since any act of debt forgiveness threatened “the credibility of sovereignty as such, the credit of the political body, the principle on which all contract is based.” [pp. 229] In the language of conventional economic theory, any act of debt forgiveness might have threatened the entire system of interconnected credit with moral hazard, making it impossible for those who needed loans to secure funds. In the case of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, a play that Goodchild uses to frame the discussion, and also a play written almost a century before the Bank of England’s founding, we find that only a divine power of mercy is allowed to intervene. For Shylock must demand his pound of flesh when Antonio’s ships are wrecked at sea (rendering him unable to repay the loan that Shylock has advanced to him) but then Portia, disguised as doctor of the law, is able to convince Shylock of the Christian virtue of mercy (interestingly, by first framing him for the attempted murder of Antonio, since a pound of flesh from Antonio’s heart may not be obtained without wounding Antonio fatally, and then forgiving him after he has converted to Christianity). We see here that when credit is understood as staking flesh and blood, then a theological dispensation becomes necessary to trump moral hazard arguments. Otherwise, “Economics becomes divorced from ethics in the very act of considering the commonwealth.” [pp. 233] and “we all become Shylock, demanding our pound of flesh.” [pp. 233] The power of mercy to be exercised must therefore be that of “an absolute sovereign whose credibility knows no bounds.” [pp. 229] And yet, such a divine power is not beyond the conscience of human beings to enact, as was the case, Goodchild reminds us, with Judas Iscariot who took his own life upon discovering that his betrayal would result in Jesus’s death. Here, Iscariot’s failure to enact a divine power of mercy towards Jesus (by refusing payment to betray Jesus) comes upon his conscience too late, and it is that failure that he cannot forgive himself for.

If the Bank of England’s first notes were underwritten by a sacrament of flesh and blood, then the contemporary credit economy is no different. For we live amidst a political theology of money that demands the sacrifice, if not of flesh and blood, then of our time, attention and devotion towards the pursuit of wealth accumulation. And yet, “the value of money is also backed by profitability, including the drudge of labor in sweatshops and factories, the exclusion from the formal economy of those who are employed profitably, the consumption of natural resources, and the erosion of ecosystems and societies. The value of money is still paid for in flesh and blood.” [pp. 236] We have already seen in earlier chapters that not only does the ideal of wealth accumulation not conform to true democracy, but also that democracy itself is an unstable concept, so it is no surprise that the Glorious Revolution, as Goodchild calls it, has failed to deliver a political system in which sovereignty is not a mere institutional form that resolves the problem of what is to engage the public will, with the answer: debt-financed economic growth forever. The result is an interconnected network of credit in which sovereignty remains distributed and partial in the sense that “the sovereign power of mercy is held by no one.” [pp. 233] Freedom amounts to partaking of the means of possessing money, as debt, and is constantly undercut by the necessity of self-regulation so that one’s debts may be repaid. “Contracted servitude is the condition of all borrowers…” [pp. 236] and in the bargain, “One does not count the conditions of production. One does not count the investment of nutrition, attention, and devotion. One does not count the flesh and blood that is given to make credit, cooperation, and production possible. Thus, the cost of such a bloodless ideal is paid for immeasurably in uncounted flesh and blood. The dream of liberty ends in tyranny.” [pp. 238]

According to Goodchild, the abstractions of property, liberty, and money, which have laid the groundwork for our current global economic system, need to be fundamentally reworked in the concrete forms of capital, desire, and credit, respectively, from which they ultimately derive. Such a reworking must happen through institutional innovation, recognizing that the articulation of sovereignty and purpose must occur within an institutional framework, just as it did with the founding of the Bank of England. The new institution, about which we will learn more in Ch. 8, must ground itself in effective evaluations of economic opportunity that make whole the contemporary divisions between ethics and economics, sustainability and profitability, and the religious and the secular.

Theology of Money – Notes 7 (Chapter 6: Metaphysics and Credit)

We learned in Ch. 5 that the meeting of order (production) and desire (consumption) is made effective by the attribution of credit. Yet, such attribution cannot happen unless there is an inquiry into the source of evaluations, into the value of values. Such an inquiry will seek to answer the question – What, in the final instance, is worth valuing? Let us suppose that we have an answer to this question. That is, let us suppose that we are able to identify “X” as the value of values. Here we encounter a significant problem. How can we be sure that X is what we think it to be? That is, how can we be sure that our thoughts about the value of values are not mere opinion but rather the truth about the value of values? This is, in fact, a metaphysical question. Indeed, it has been, historically, the metaphysical question in Western philosophy since it establishes a criterion for the true nature of being – the true nature of being is that which is the same for thinking as it is for being. Thus, for example, a physical law arrogates to itself the status of a law because it claims to have passed this criterion. Or, as another example, to think water as a substance whose molecular structure is comprised of a particular combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, does not contradict what water is in reality, hence water is the same thing for thinking and for being. In Ch. 6, Goodchild will argue, however, that the criterion is faulty because it lacks a coherent structure by which the authority of knowledge over opinion may be deduced. We can see how this objection works for the water example – it passes the metaphysical criterion through a tautological argument, an agreement that it be so through the sovereign decree of definition. Therefore, no matter how convincing (according to such a metaphysical standard) the knowledge of God or scientific truth might seem, they are both, in the final instance, impregnated by belief. Both (conventional) theology and (conventional) science are rendered suspect in a tautological implosion, even if the tautology facilitates repeated usage of concepts towards material aims that impart to them a gain in credibility. Enter money, which is able to transplant both God and (scientific) truth as the value of values not only because it appears to embody the true nature of being, but also because it appears to embody the true nature of wealth, and the true nature of power. And yet, these remain appearances. In the first instance, this is because money too, at least as it is conceived in economics textbooks, fails the metaphysical criterion. That is, our thoughts about money (which reduce it to a purely passive object of function – as a medium of exchange, a measure of value, and a store of value) do not conform to what it actually is – as has been adequately shown in Chs. 3, 4 and 5 – so that money is not the same thing for thinking as it is for being. A thesis about money may, however, be recuperated if we learn to think of money as credit. However, to think credit means, in the light of what has already been said, to rethink metaphysics itself. Only thus might it become possible to think the value of values without having to name it as an “X” that conforms to the demands of (conventional) metaphysics. In sum, a revolution is required in reason itself, so that it might think credit.

We begin with the criterion – what is the thing that is the same for thinking as for being? In the history of (Western) thought, we encounter first the (Christian) theological solution to this question: God. Thomas Aquinas was the first to properly articulate this solution when he claimed that God is his own essence and his own existence. Yet this does not pin down how God might be recognized. If Aquinas’s solution is conceived to mean, as Goodchild indicates it has been, that God is the True, the Good, and the Life, then a surplus remains in asking whether it is God that is true, good, and the one that lives, or whether it is truth, goodness, and life that are, in each instance, divine. This surplus lends to Aquinas’s solution a bad conscience, because if the former be the case (God is true, good, and he lives), then revelation trumps reason and the human subject orients to the world on the basis of beliefs derived from the voice of a transcendental authority, whereas if the latter be the case (truth, goodness, and life are divine), then reason trumps revelation and the human subject makes of his own presuppositions something of theological import. On the one side, we have theology and transcendence, on the other, idolatory and immanence. The bad conscience consists in the possibility of inverting subject (God) and predicate (Truth, Good, Life) leaving thought without a way to grasp God as any concrete object. Moreover, in Christian theology, God’s full revelation is yet to arrive, so that absent the eschaton, the Cartesian ploy of splitting thought from being (reality) produces an advance towards a more credible and practical solution which inheres in scientific truth. That is, (scientific) truth is the same for thinking and being since it unites thought with reality, at the same time that it implicates a threefold division of metaphysics: subject, object, and knowledge. “Yet such a metaphysics does not escape belief, for while truth remains true independently of whether it is actually thought or demonstrated, the truth of a truth can never be thought or demonstrated apart from thought.” [pp. 207] Fundamentally, then, scientific truth remains an object of belief because “neither being qua being nor truth qua truth is encountered independently of a discipline and orientation of thinking.” [pp. 207] The baton passes to money. Something remarkable is accomplished in the process. Whereas truth unites thought and being only in the form of knowledge that a subject may have of an object, but never in the form of knowledge that a subject may have of himself, i.e., truth can never collapse subject, knowledge and object onto a single being, money is able to unite thought and being by performing as subject, object, and knowledge all at once – as a measure of value, money is knowledge by which comparisons become possible; as a medium of exchange, money is an object that may pass from person to person; as a store of value, money carries a subjective element of evaluative judgment. Yet, money would be unable to perform these functions unless it were able to command belief in its power of a self-authenticating promise (its absolute purchasing power, as we have noted in Ch. 3). Thus, it is money’s embodiment of credit that allows it to unite essence and existence, thought and being. We still have not escaped belief, in other words, and yet the quality of belief invested in money appears to be more intensive than that invested in God or truth, which is to say that “Money becomes the most significant object of mediation for the philosopher and the theologian.” [pp. 208] What makes this possible? What allows money to rise to the position of supreme authority?

God, truth, and money – these are the three solutions to the metaphysical question of the unity of thinking and being. In each case, the integrity of the solution is underwritten by belief. In each case, belief creates a metaphysics as a tautological self-contained system. This is as true of science and of monetary evaluation as it is of theology. “A representation of the ultimate relation between being and thought is substituted in advance of the knowledge of the true relation to make an actual and practical relation between them possible.” [pp. 208] In each case, metaphysics is made possible by an ontological commitment, “a perspective arising from a dim awareness of the actual nature of life.” [pp. 209] In each case, then, there is a radical surplus of credit (recall credit’s grounding in a “dim awareness” from Ch. 5) that is the condition of possibility of these solutions. Yet, money rises to the supreme position. It becomes the value of values. How does this happen? Whereas God is a singular being that cannot be grasped in reality or in thought, money offers itself as a singular being that is tangible and exchangeable. Since God’s full revelation is still awaited, this is a significant advantage for money from a practical perspective. But something interesting happens due to practice. Becoming an object of use, money obscures its metaphysical origins in credit. It lends itself to a mode of representation that reduces its actual metaphysical nature to the space of representation by means of subject, object, and knowledge. Even as it performs all these three roles, the modern metaphysics of truth as representation sees it only in terms of an object. Having displaced God, money now conceals itself behind truth, appearing only as an object of knowledge. And yet, money is the very condition of truth’s possibility, for no matter how true the truth of a scientific idea is, it cannot be actualized without money being invested in its realization. Indeed, money is the condition of possibility for science itself, since the pursuit of ideas must become a source of livelihood if it is to displace other temporal pursuits. And, folding the argument back one step further, money enables self-determination itself, for an interval of time always exists between receiving money and spending it, enabling a prolongation of one’s absolution from social obligations. In each case, by virtue of a metaphysical ambivalence, the use of money does not require belief in money, since the element of credit has been erased from the modern metaphysics of money. In other words, it is possible to believe in the promise of value, knowing that money will be accepted in exchange, and therefore to be willing to handle it, without believing in the value of the promise, i.e., the value of money as credit. The use of money, therefore, evokes its own metaphysics, so that metaphysics no longer conditions use, but rather it is the other way around. Moreover, the use of money also evokes a politics (wherein an absolute right to ownership of private property is conferred upon the individual, and guaranteed by the state), an ethics (wherein money may only be spent, invested, or given, evoking in turn affects of pleasure, anxiety, or sympathy, respectively), and a theology (wherein the virtues of prudence and self-discipline are rewarded, while the vices of profligacy and indulgence are punished). In the final instance, money’s ability to evoke these potentials is once again to be traced to its nature of a self-fulfilling promise. This, and not the metaphysics of money-as-object, is the true condition of possibility for the demand for money, which is always therefore, a demand for itself – “while money promises to satisfy demands, the actual demand it satisfies first of all is the demand for money itself…. there is an intrinsic demand for money belonging to money itself.” [pp. 217] This is also why money comes to be used in accounting and to settle contracts, introducing “an evaluative perspective that treats money itself as the most secure and valuable standard of comparison.” [pp. 218] Or, the authority of money derives from its use as an evaluative standard in accounting and contracts, while the authority of accounts and contracts derives from their use of money as an evaluative standard. Money, in other words, bears its own authority.

We see, therefore, that even though God, truth, and money are competing sources of credit, money reigns supreme because of the universality of its use, and the potentials that such use evokes for the true nature of being, the true nature of power, and the true nature of flourishing. Money is able to displace God and truth, therefore, because of its unique position at the conjunction of metaphysics, politics, and wealth, making for a political theology that commands and exudes an energy all its own, an energy of the political (which, recall from Ch. 1, is a category of power that lies beyond both physical power and the power of the human will). While God and truth are also possible sources of such a political energy, and their uses also evoke similar potentials as money, the latter trumps them as the supreme source because it moves in the realm of objects as something visible and tangible, rendering God and truth effective, as it were, even as such effectiveness is underwritten by the same currency of credit – always, the real “invisible hand” – that underwrites faith in God and truth. And yet, we have also learned that such faith cannot be explained or authenticated by a metaphysical criterion that demands the unity of being and thought, since the quality of such authentication cannot escape the quality of thought’s own orientation. The criterion trades on the back of a tautology, so faith (or belief or metaphysics) cannot provide its own critique. In the case of money, a critique of the metaphysics of money-as-object is made possible against the metaphysical criterion because the metaphysics of money-as-object arises from use, independent of belief, as described earlier. Such a metaphysics conforms to the modern mode of representation which subordinates money to truth, supplanting the truth of currency by the currency of truth. As such, our thoughts about money – shaped by what we learn about it in economics textbooks – do not conform to what money actually is. Money fails the metaphysical criterion.

What does such failure signal to us? It signals, first of all, the necessity of a metaphysics of credit. But there is a deeper revelation before us: such a metaphysics must necessarily escape the bounds of the criterion itself.  Why? Because, in the final instance, the criterion is grounded in a philosophy of being, whereas credit is to be grounded in a philosophy of becoming. We return to the Deleuzian in Goodchild, and the occlusion of representation: “In modern thought, that which is real is that which can be represented, tested, and exchanged. Just as the value of the commodity can be tested only when it is offered for exchange in a market, when money may substitute or it, so the truth of the matter is substituted for the matter itself. Reality is that which can be represented in thought in abstraction from its own context, production, fertility, tendencies, and energy. Taking the form of money that may be substituted for it, reality may be represented in imagination as capital in the form of accumulated stocks, invented forms, and assembled parts. In each case, the energy that gives being to such a representation is the energy of the imagination that represents it, not that of the original matter. In short, the metaphysics of money prevents the same thing’s being for being and for thinking. Thus, when the world is reproduced in imagination, it is no longer reproduced as active being but as passive image.” [pp. 209] We return to the real nature of reality which is always irreversible movement, tendency, and process: “The true metaphysics of money therefore constitutes a metaphysical revelation. This revelation consists in a direct inversion of current metaphysical assumptions. To be real is not simply to be an accumulated stock, an invented form, or an assembly of parts; it is to accumulate stock, to invent form, to assemble parts, and to energize production. To be real is not simply to be actually present in time; it is to be committed to spending time. To be real is to promise and to affect what is actually present through such promise. One may even propose that to be real is not simply to be real…. To be real is to be not yet real; it is not yet to become what one is. Reality is invariably an object of credit.” [pp. 210]

A metaphysics of credit will disclose not only the true nature of money but also the true natures of being, of politics, and of religion. Since money is the philosopher’s stone, such a metaphysics may begin (following the insights of Chs. 3, 4 and 5 into the being of money) with a notion of being that is relational, temporal, and spiritual, and that accords a special emphasis to the degree of credit that is invested within it, not towards what it is, but towards what it may become. Goodchild is clear that a full account of this new metaphysics remains an ambition to be realized at a future date (perhaps in his next book?) but it is nevertheless possible to conceive that such a new metaphysics will facilitate the formation of a new kind of institution whose functioning will evoke a new politics, a new ethics, and a new theology. Chs. 7 and 8 of the book are, therefore, to be read as preliminary reflections on what principles might ground such an institution, and what such an institution might look like in practice.