Theology of Money – 7. The Price of Credit

Interrupting the relentless slew of Goodchild’s apodictic statements, this chapter reads as an unexpected interlude, shifting to less direct metaphorical evocation. It is certainly the least cohesive chapter, an odd construction. A “summary” of this chapter, it seems to me, would fail to address its key implications, which are allusive rather than overt. So rather than summarize, I will attempt to draw out certain allusions in relation to the book’s larger themes. Many puzzling and questionable aspects of this chapter will go unremarked, since to focus on shortcomings and oddities here would displace the effort to grasp what is of greatest value.

The “-lude” in interlude has to do with play. Here Goodchild plays with literary implications of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in relation to other legendary “association[s] between money and blood.” He commences with a story of the Franciscan reformer Francis of Paola, who refused a bag of gold offered him by King Ferdinand I because it was the “price of the blood of the king’s subjects” (225). When Francis broke one of the gold pieces to demonstrate his point, several drops of blood fell from the broken coin. Next evoked is Judas Iscariot of the Gospel of Matthew, where John Ruskin’s defense of Judas is cited: “He was horror-struck when he found that Christ would be killed; threw his money away instantly, and hanged himself.” Ruskin asks, how many of our present money-seekers would have the grace to hang themselves?

This chapter addresses the “price” of credit, that is to say, of debt, indebtedness. A price is “the cost at which something is obtained” (American Heritage dictionary). Goodchild employs the “pound of flesh” in The Merchant of Venice as a metaphor for the true price of capitalist credit. His purpose is to sharpen cognizance of the discrepancy between “price” or “cost” in its quantitative monetary sense and “price” or “cost” in the ultimate qualitative sense that is extracted beyond all possibility of accounting.

“Would you know what money is, go borrow some.” The implication of the book’s second epigraph, by George Herbert, is that money in the form of credit creates debt, and debt is a claim on someone or something’s very being, in that sense, on a “pound of flesh.” Until you experience this claim indenturing your own flesh, you cannot know what money is, the true price of credit.

Capitalism functions through debt-creation backed by legal threat. Thus debt continually wrenches flesh, under threat, to generate commodity. So it is that money in the form of debt enforces extraction of a “blood price.” In the end of the day, the blood price paid may bear little relation to dollar price. It may be infinitely dearer. The blood price, the ultimate price, cannot be expressed in dollars. It can only be expressed in someone or something’s indenture or sacrifice. “Once the ‘veil of money’ is removed, there stands . . . a sacrament of flesh and blood” (227).

While Bassanio imagined he was just “borrowing money,” he was in fact staking his friend Antonio’s flesh. It is not Bassanio, the spender, but Antonio, the debtor, who is set up to learn “what money is” by contracting to pay the blood price of capital. This plot demonstrates how the one who spends capital may do so lightly and thoughtlessly (to marry Portia for money), while the one who contracts to pay the price of that capital with servitude rarely can (a price exacting not only a pound of Antonio’s flesh, but the watery deaths of his seamen). “Whenever money is lent on credit, there is always a Bassanio, an Antonio, and a Shylock”; that is, one who spends, one who is obligated, and one to whom obligation is due (226). Credit money is “contracted servitude,” Goodchild writes, for “whenever money is created as debt, such money is the pledge of someone’s life and liberty” (226). So the Bank of England ultimately guaranteed its reserves by the “sacrificial pledge by the state of the lives of its citizens” (235). Someone—or something—will have to pay the debt materially, in body or bodily servitude. But it need not be, and often is not, the one who spends.

At this point, in my view, Goodchild should emphasize more clearly that the flesh being pledged is not only that of a human “someone.” It may be the “flesh” of a mountain range or desert or waterway or forest, along with all its vegetative and animal lives; it may involve the bodily servitude and/or death of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of animals, or whole species of animals. The flesh indentured may be that of atmosphere, soil, water, whole ecosystems, all teeming with life that is thereby endangered or outright destroyed. The “flesh” of nature is everywhere subjected and indentured as the price of credit capital.

When we use money in a context of global capitalism, we are all like Bassanio, realizing our desires while racking up an ultimate price the reverberations of which we cannot begin to imagine or predict. The debt system puts industrial gears in motion that will have a life of their own over time, with unpredictable and uncontrollable effects, not calculable in the monetary price in principle because it is “the future” (time-determined events and lives) that is in hock. What is the actual environmental-animal-human cost of that $5 mass-produced plastic radio for sale at every Walmart? Who could even begin to devise an accounting that could track this cost? An accounting that projects thousands of years into the future?

Goodchild is battling a reign of powerful abstractions, above all the sovereign abstractions of property, liberty, and money. He would transform these by redefining capital, desire, and credit as concretely imbedded relations of evaluation and investment (237). The flow of money must be directed by effective evaluations, effective evaluations must not be directed by the flow of money; an increase in profit must effectively symbolize an increase in real wealth, not a consumption of capital (239). While these concrete evaluative relations are certainly partly economic, they are not monetary or reducible to quantitative accounting. Credit, for example, is redefined as the investment of nutrition, attention, and devotion that itself demands nutrition, attention, and devotion (237).

In abstract representation, one accounts all as wholly positive because one counts only the money or ideas that may be substituted for produced realities. 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. (238)

Goodchild broaches the nihilism at the heart of this bloodless ideal. Life itself, he writes, inescapably involves sacrifice, cruelty, exploitation, incorporation, and consumption—to which I would add, with special emphasis, terror, horror, and insecurity. “To ask who will suffer for us so that we do not have to is the implicit theology of the pursuit of money.” Ergo, he argues, “It is to seek to end the meaning of life” (238).

This is where Judas Iscariot comes in. He is one who, in sharp contrast to Shylock, renounces all right and power of contract, and in a purely “uneconomic gesture” sacrifices all, pointing to an entirely different power of credit (229). While some would interpret Judas’ suicide as a nihilism, it might enact an annihilation that is quite the opposite of the nihilism of capitalism: an annihilation that points to something that matters beyond all accounting.

Questions: My criticisms are piling up faster than I can articulate them as I read this book, and I trust that other commentators will advance their problems and objections. But the value of the work is its bold critical assault on the untenable foundations of the citadels of institutional power in our time; its attempt to expose their falsehoods, illusions, evils, and nihilistic tendencies, making a bid to transform them beyond recognition. The Bank of England and its correlated theory of political sovereignty, on which our current system is modeled, were constructed to solve historical problems that are now past (230–37, 239). Point being, “There is nothing necessary about the existing institution of capitalist credit money. There is nothing to prevent the invention of new forms of credit, contract, and exchange” (239). Though I would contest many particular contentions of Goodchild’s argument, great and small, I cannot argue with the core objective, his big thinking, or the stamina he shows in his fight. So here I am applauding while wanting to cavil with claims on almost every page!

Posted by Lissa McCullough

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12 Responses to “Theology of Money – 7. The Price of Credit”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Maybe since things are slow to start, you could share some of your criticisms.

  2. No sleep for the wicked Says:

    It seems there’s nothing to discuss, without provocation from us pseudonyms. That in itself invites discussion.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well, I find the book very persuasive so I don’t know what to say other than “Yeah, that seems really right”. The hope was that people who haven’t read the book would and ask questions, but it seems our readers have been very lazy.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I destroyed the book event by trying to stop the pseudonyms!

  5. No sleep for the wicked Says:

    Back to work, then. In this chapter, what is behind money and credit is fleshed out more fully, and some continuity is constructed between religion as offering or sacrifice, sovereign power as service as far as death, and debt bondage. Time has to be spent somehow, and it should be spent on what matters. Isn’t this rather puritanical? If value is constructed from sacrifice, spending, using up life, isn’t the whole picture a bit nihilistic itself? I mean, putting aside the question of using up the lives of others, how can you avoid simply using up your own life – to what end? Is self-sacrifice a good definition of love? Or if friendship is preferred instead, isn’t this self-interested, with all the dangers of using up non-human non-friends that Lissa was writing about?

  6. lissamccullough Says:

    No Sleep wrote: “If value is constructed from sacrifice, spending, using up life, isn’t the whole picture a bit nihilistic itself? I mean, putting aside the question of using up the lives of others, how can you avoid simply using up your own life – to what end?”

    Good question. In one hundred years we will all be dead, like it or not. That includes you, No Sleep. No sleeping through this one. In that sense life is nihilistic. To me life is a brief sacramental participation in a world that calls on me to figure out HOW to participate before I die. Decisions need to be made. “How can you avoid simply using up your own life?” Pose this question, act on what you learn. Or indeed you will have slept through it.

  7. No sleep Says:

    How do I spend my life? Well, sometimes I do indeed sleep, or might as well be asleep. And sometimes I listen to the thoughts of others and let their themes, rhythms and gestures penetrate my soul. And sometimes I hear the deafness of others, I hear the music that others haven’t heard, and I struggle to translate that music into the language of problems. And very occasionally, I listen to the body of another, and pose the problem of what I might do if that were our only moment, whether lived once and for all, or over and over again. And that’s about all. Pseudonyms only have a thin, fleeting, ephemeral life. We don’t have much depth, much flesh and blood to give. We don’t have big decisions to make. We may be parasites, we may be wicked, but that doesn’t preclude us from being awake when others sleep.

    But is awakening an end in itself? I was really struck by the problem of the ordering of loves. My point was until we know how to love, how will we know what to value, what to trust, what to credit?

  8. lissamccullough Says:

    No Sleep:

    Everyone on this site seems to know who you are, Mr. Pseudonym. I do not. Not that it matters.

    “We don’t have big decisions to make.” Well, that’s a big decision to have made.

    “But is awakening an end in itself?” Life is volition and sentience; in that sense it is awakening. So then, is life an end in itself? That’s a philosophical question worth mulling. I can imagine answering “yes” and “no,” both quite earnestly.

    “I was really struck by the problem of the ordering of loves. My point was until we know how to love, how will we know what to value, what to trust, what to credit?” This is the central question of Augustine’s entire lifework. He understands that love is a chicken-and-egg problem. He begins to articulate this problem in the first paragraphs of his Confessions. For him, God is Love. How can he love God unless he knows what Love is–that is, how to love?

    “Grant me, Lord, to know and understand whether a man is first to pray to you for help or to praise you, and whether he must know you before he can call you to his aid? If he does not know you, how can he pray to you? . . . Or are men to pray to you and learn how to know you through their prayers?”

    Augustine’s answer to his own question in the Confessions is to live praying continually for the power to love that Love has provided in grace. Love precedes us, we only need to unveil its presence already operating everywhere.

    Our answer? Has to be found wandering in a wilderness of disorienting ubiquity. Augustine’s world was violent and endangered, but nonetheless finite and relatively more explicable. Ours has exploded to the point that “horizon” has no sense either macroscopically or microscopically. It is very hard to imagine how any “creator” of this universe could possibly be anthropocentric.

  9. No sleep for the wicked Says:

    Such a danger of talking at cross-purposes. The agenda here is whether there is a thought insufficiently developed in Goodchild’s book. I was struck by your analysis of it as an Augustinian reordering of loves . . . after the death of God. If anthropomorphism and Neoplatonism no longer help us, perhaps Augustine cannot teach us how to love. Perhaps he knew little himself . . .

    My description of how I spend my time was not idle chatter, but a hint about how one might start to articulate love. So many layers of irony.

    I write as an ephemeral pseudonym, a mere possibility of thought, but you write back to the man. He is deeply compromised by having his withheld sincerity as an obstacle to mutual understanding.

    For me, the ephemeral pseudonym, this raises another interesting problem: can philosophical or theological inquiry proceed at all along mere possibilities of thought, or can it only be undertaken by flesh and blood?

    And my existence is refuted by your earnestness, your flesh and blood presence.

  10. Chester Herzog Says:

    Good night, No Sleep. But I’m still here.

    I reckon that one of the major themes of the book is the displacement of the centrality of desire in favor of credit and promise. The question is how we get our credit and promises in order. Once these work, then the right evaluations or loves will follow.

    And the death of God is hardly announced once more, but a new shift, the death . . . of modernity?

  11. lissamccullough Says:

    Chester wrote: “The question is how we get our credit and promises in order. Once these work, then the right evaluations or loves will follow.”

    This is nonsense, Chester. You are putting the cart before the horse. We would first have to DESIRE that new systems of evaluation take the place of money in order to change how credit and promises are handled institutionally. Desire for money would have to give way, at least in part, to desire for sustainability, fairness, full truth in accounting, etc., for any new form of institution to arise.

    I invoked the death of God because historically it came EXACTLY hand in hand with the rise of Mammon in its capitalist form. Capitalism became and still is the orderer of our loves in the social-political domain. What new force, principle, or “god” has the tenacity or coherence to displace its power? Though modernity may be dying, I don’t see any sign on the horizon of a contender of sufficient coherence–except for rising bids in the realm of theory (this book among a cluster of others). Let us remember, societies can lie dying for a very long time–i.e., centuries–before some form of “renaissance” begins to dawn. Some go extinct entirely because they function on systems incapable of reforming or transforming themselves. Capitalism may flame out because of its intrinsic illusions and absurdities, but it will still leave the earth a smoking poisonous crater full of trash.

    Here I end my conversation with bloodless pseudonyms.


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