Theology of Money – 2. The End of Modernity

Today’s summary and reflection comes from Michael Burns, a PhD student in Philosophy at the University of Dundee. He occasionally blogs at Daily Humiliation.

Introduction

Goodchild begins this chapter stating, “Modernity has always been a utopian myth (43).” Part of this myth is based on a vision of reality that is coherent, consistent, and well ordered; in other words, stable. The end of modernity is the realization that this supposed stability of human, physical, and economic reality is little more than a myth which is beginning to unravel. In opposition to the dying picture of modernity as inherently stable Goodchild argues that “It is a brutal, physical, overwhelming reality. It is the breakdown of stable alliances between environmental, human, and meta-human processes (43).” Whereas for a small portion of those in the places of prestige in the decaying project of modernity life was, and still is, characterized by a stability largely grounded in finance; Goodchild notes that this “wealth is built on poverty (43)”, and thus while the project of modernity is alive for some, it is little more than a cancerous socio-political ailment for most.

The main thrust of this chapter, simply stated, is that the stability in physical, conceptual, economic, and market life has always been exceptional (44), and that when this underlying instability begins to emerge through the cracks in the edifice of a seemingly well ordered reality, the project of modernity has already sung her final tune.

To make this argument Goodchild divides the chapter into four sub-sections: Physical Instability, Conceptual Instability, Economic Instability, and Market Instability.

Physical Instability

In this section Goodchild argues that the seeming mastery of physical reality by human agency has only been successful insofar as the physical world behaves in a predictable fashion. When a stable nature is taken for granted, human projects can go forth with a confidence in their future; but when nature acts in a way in which it is not ‘supposed to’, we end up with the violent tragedies seen in recent situations such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Along with the trauma that comes along with nature acting out of the order that man has projected on it, Goodchild also notes the impending disaster which will be caused by overconsumption. He notes that “In 2002, some 1.2 Planet Earths were needed to sustain levels of consumption (47)”, and due to this rate of over consuming finite resources, we are thus “consuming our own collective body (47)”. An important aspect of this, as Goodchild notes, is that the effects of this collision between supply and demand will have a far less (initial) impact on the lives of the wealthy, but will likely mean certain death and tragedy for those on the underside of the system.

Conceptual Instability

“In Modern thought, concepts are formed by a process of abstraction and representation (49).” For Goodchild, this process leads to the instability of concepts, and the necessity of a sovereign decree of definition to provide stability to these concepts. This lack of conceptual stability thus creates a situation in which abstract concepts end up unknowingly infiltrating the thought of the thinking subject, and as Goodchild puts it, these concepts “are like the bureaucrats who govern elected politicians without those politicians knowledge (49).” He moves on to provide a critique of the concept of democracy along these lines, and notes that “the stability liberal democracy depends on the stability of its concept of wealth (51).” This also leads Goodchild to cast a serious doubt on the efficacy of the concepts of both ‘the will’ and ‘freedom’ within liberal democratic thinking. He closes the section by noting that “The freedom of modernity entails an unlimited debt to the future that it has created (57).”

Economic Instabilities

In this section Goodchild discusses the way in which money responds to the crisis of representation by providing a stable medium in which exchange value can be represented. Ontologically speaking, money also serves the role of mediation between representation and reality (60). While commodities must be sold to realize their exchange value, Goodchild notes that “money represents its exchange value without needing to be exchanged” and as such “money is the object of an unlimited desire for accumulation (61).” Money thus becomes the true sovereign power of our age, as it controls representation, and provides the only space which seems to be ‘real’. Thus, “In the face of money, even sovereignty lacks power. Modernity is at an end (63).”

Market Instabilities

Relating to the problem of physical instability, Goodchild notes that the market’s desire for continual growth “produces instability when consumption uses up resources and reaches its physical limits […] economic crisis results from physical instability (64).” To counter this instability, credit is created to further encourage the rate of production and consumption. But this creation of credit leads to the accumulation of debt, and “The spiral of debt can increase indefinitely, progressively enslaving democratic citizens to contracted debts until the physical limits of economic growth are reached (66).” This impending economic collapse is thus another outcome of the end of modernity.

Questions

Goodchild seems to paint a stark picture of the future efficacy of concepts like Will and Freedom for thinking political change, but are these concepts only seemingly dead when considered from the perspective of the powerful centres of modernity? I wonder if these concepts still have an invaluable importance for those on the underside of modernity, as many of the radical political movements taking place in South America and Africa seem to be marked by a conception of collective will and radical freedom. In a similar sense, I also wonder if this ontological picture looks the same to those existing on the underside of modernity? Are those who have already been systematically thrown outside of the system not the ones existing within the very space of political potential?

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7 Responses to “Theology of Money – 2. The End of Modernity”

  1. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Your suggestion at the end that the periphery of modernity may escape the stark picture painted by Goodchild is something I would hope for, but I’m not sure it is the case. The point about his analysis of money is that it doesn’t have a centre. In his chapter in the Theology and the Political volume he has a short discussion of how money mimics the univocity of being, how money is common and spread throughout the system. In the preceding chapter he discusses the necessity of things like food and water for political struggle and these things demand money to access them.

    It isn’t that one cannot overcome the power of money through will or freedom, but, if Goodchild is correct, the very condition for these concepts, both theoretically and in practice, is money. Thus, one has to rethink these concepts on the basis of a theology of money if one is going to understand how to escape from it. It may be that some groups in these political movements you mention do find some way to escape it, but I’m unable to think of any examples.

  2. No sleep for the wicked Says:

    I know someone who longs for freedom. Freedom to do what? It doesn’t matter, just as long as it’s freedom. Then there were those Neocons who longed for American power. Power to do what? It doesn’t matter, just as long as it’s power. Then I know someone else who longs to be close to God. Where is that? Doesn’t matter, so long as it is spiritual or divine. And there’s the person who wants sex. What kind of sex, and who with? As many people as possible, just as long as it is sex. And what about that person who wants money? To spend on what? No, not to spend it, just to have money.

    So did this all start with money? Or freedom? Or power? Or was it just sex?

  3. Alex Says:

    Let imagine you are a sub-altern group who is attempting to make revolution. How do you purchase weapons? How do you purchase seeds? How do you purchase paper to make revolutionary pamphlets?

    Goodchild’s vision is clear – money is power insomuch as money is access to all these things. This can be a stifling vision, but I think in today’s society, it is a troublingly true one. Though I have never experienced real poverty, all of us have experience when having no money means we can literally do nothing in a very banal sense – can’t go out, can’t travel, can’t buy food.

  4. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    The trick for a lot of these revolutionary groups, following Alex’s point above, is perhaps to make their lack of money in the face of their enemy do more with their political will. So, perhaps the most striking example of this, is the Zapatistas taking over La Realidad with many of its fighters using toy guns made of wood. However, inspiring as this is (for none of us are that brave surely), it doesn’t get to the root issue of the value of values at the global level (while it does at the local level).

  5. Alex Says:

    Naturally, non-violent protest seems to require less money…

  6. Jeremy Says:

    I found Goodchild’s discussion of the ontological implication of the theology of money to be especially interesting. In the US edition on page 69 he writes, “Money produces nothing – not even desire. It gives credit. It appeals to the future. To put it another way, it prays. Ontology is determined by eschatology. Life is determined by a possible future that attempts to actualize itself in us, even if the outcome of this actualization bears little resemblance to the future as conceived.”

    I haven’t read his article in the book Theology and the Political by Davis, Milbank, and Zizek. Does he develop this relationship more in detail in his chapter called Capital and Kingdom: An Eschatological Ontology?


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