Monday, March 9, 2009

Reflections: the Moolah

Money it’s a crime
Share it fairly, but don’t take a slice of my pie
~ Money, Pink Floyd

Money! You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. I’ve recently been embroiled in a typically nasty discussion of usury, on a site called Zippy Catholic. I have posted as a comment over there parts of this interesting take on money and usury from critic, Frank Kermode, in a review of Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money by James Buchan, which appears in Kermode’s book, Pleasing Myself:

Schopenhauer observed that ‘other goods can satisfy only one wish and one need – food satisfies hunger, sex the needs of youth; these are goods which serve a specific purpose. But money ‘confronts not just one concrete need, but Need itself in the abstract’. Thus it becomes a universal, inhuman answer to what Sartre called besoin; or it may even have created that generalized need, which makes it even more hateful. One ancient way of demonizing money was to accuse it of breeding like a sentient being. Aristotle in the Politics noted this indecency, the birth of money from money. His word for ‘interest’ is tokos, which means offspring – money out at interest offers a demonic parody of natural reproduction. A couple of millennia later Shakespeare is writing harsh speeches about the breed of barren metal. Usury was condemned throughout the intervening centuries, and often compared to homosexuality, also regarded as a perversion of the act of breeding; but it was practiced, as it had to be, under other names. Some methods of money-making were called virtuous, for instance adventuring, which entailed genuine risk; Shylock, who made money breed, and Antonio, who risked his wealth in cargo vessels, argue quite schematically about this in “The Merchant of Venice.” The Church, knowing that credit is necessary and that it cannot be had without interest, made the necessary accommodations.

On a subsequent page, we get:

[Buchan] is a radical romantic, despising Adam Smith for his selfish bourgeois certainties, cross with Mill for neglecting the imagination, and contemptuous of Keynes for being, at moments, tiresomely ethical about the proper use of money, while admitting that ‘the money-motive…does its job well’. He prefers Dostoevsky, who saw that the true consequence of money was ‘the world reduced to a scorching slum, its women to whores, its men to murderers’. And he identifies as ‘the great sadness of our civilization’ the fact ‘that by using money, we convert our world into it. Humanity…is estranged by money from its natural habitat, without any hope of appeal.’

Money! No wonder Jesus was so very unenthusiastic about the stuff.