Economic Liturgies

Economic Liturgies February 2, 2016

“We must continue to develop nonmythological narratives that synthesize and interpret our experience. These narratives must be based on the facts as we currently know them,” argues Scott Gustafson in At the Altar of Wall Street. He thinks Marx and Schumpeter offer some coordinates for a “demythologizing” of economics and an exposure of the religious bases of economics. His book is an effort to further that demythologizing.

Here is Gustafson’s idea of a nonmythical account of the origins of money: “Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not use money for many millennia. Money evolved from the social, political, and intellectual dynamics created by the agricultural revolution. Eventually, these dynamics created two sorts of people that we currently call creditors and debtors.” Money developed out of the distinction of meum and tuum applied to food (112; the Latin is Rousseau, not Gustason).

Morality also arises from the transformation of food into a commodity to be bought and sold: “morality emerges when the commodification of food demands that a distinction be made between those who merit food and those who do nit, and morality begins when this distinction is made. But morality achieves full power over society when religious leaders – through rituals and myths – convince the people that the divide between those who merit food and those who do not is of divine rather than human origin. When this happens, morality becomes universal at least within civilization.” Gustafson admits that hunter-gatherer societies distinguished good and bad, but they “did not universally draw the moral divide,” we we civilized people do (114-115). Morality is a mystification legitimizing ownership of food.

That Gustafson considers this a non-mythical, factual account of the origins of money is quite remarkable. He offers no real data or evidence to back any of this up – including the claim that humans (or proto-humans) were hunter-gatherers for millennia, or that religious leaders sacralized the distinction of haves and have nots, or that this was the origin of morality.

This is unfortunate, because the premise of Gustafson’s book is very promising. If Mammon is indeed an idol, and if many serve this idol, then we’d expect the religion of Mammon to parody true religion – with rituals, myths and stories, prophets and priests, rules of sacrilege and purity, sacraments, and a mission to redeem the world. Gustafson’s foundational premises, though, undermine his analysis from the outset.

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