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.


William R. Barker said...


Just to let you know, the Barker Charity Foundation IS indeed accepting donations! Any "excess" funds you have on hand that you fear may pollute your aura (*WINK*) will gladly be taken off your hand by... er... me.

Let me know if you want me to email you my mailing address!


Rodak said...

Apparently you missed my opening salvo.

Clare Krishan said...

I've followed the thread also, but am exasperated by the lack of ratio in analyzing fides as applied to our fiduciary system in crisis! Are you familiar with the critique of neo-classical economic theory (as being way too trusting of man's ability to predict social phenomenon in aggregate -- indeed his hubris to assume that this is a 'good' -- since it denies free will and the work of the Holy Spirit on conscience, basically its a form of utilitarianism, a tyranny of relativism if you will) by the Austrian school?

Read Menger on money
before you rush to a too-simple moralistic judgement, and fall into error - as Prof. Robert T. Miller of Villanova over at First Things makes us to understand in his comments popping the bubble of a rather too enthusiastic acolyte of Dorothy Sayers views of "the economy" here

Money, as all man-made institutions, can be abused. And yet the materials we use to conduct commerce are inherently good (God doesn't make junk). Money is only "bad" when we ignore the logic of its reason for being. It is a token for exchange of value, that enables human cooperation which would otherwise be disabled, see the diamond-water paradox. The understanding of usury as infraction against the natural law (money cannot 'breed') assumes there is no net increase in value in human action, which is of course preposterous. That deeds over time make no impact on our wellbeing...? Works are necessary for our physical AND spiritual growth, to discover the "price" of our salvation and to share it with others. The "labor theory of value" predestines the outcome of man's ingenuity, and is deeply unjust. Marx and Mill made the same error in assuming industry as the engine of value, but this ignores all 'industry' lacking publically-defined value (ie domestic industry, the care and feeding of souls to be the creative, productive imago dei their Creator intended). GDP does not include anything 'domestic' about it at all. Its a myth, a dangerous mercantilist fable that has put vast swathes of middle America at risk of losing their livelihoods and maintained global trade at subsistenance levels for the majority of the Earth's population.

Oh and by the way, great blog, I'll be back!

Rodak said...

Thank you for dropping by, and thank you for taking the time to comment. The discussion to which I was responding with this post was specifically on usuary (and its putative evils), rather than on the evils of money per se.
I happened, at the time, to be reading the collection of essays by Frank Kermode that I cited and quoted from. My use of Kermode there was entirely opportunistic. I was interested in that volume for his essays therein on New Testament exegesis. What I know about economic theory wouldn't fill the navel of a gnat.
I tend toward the ascetic, personally, and have a grave distrust of money and its uses. But, as I said at the beginning of the post--one can't do without it.