Piketty’s achievement in his recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is to demonstrate in the language of positivist empiricism—today’s most persuasive idiom—a longstanding truth. It is a reality that most societies have sensed and declared in a variety of ways. It is a dynamic that is seen as antithetical to the American dream and one that classical liberal and neoliberal economic theories have vigorously sought to suppress. While the truth risks being disregarded as cliché, what Piketty shows is that money is power and that, by extension, monetary economies are not inherently level playing fields. One of the ways this has been expressed over the ages is through money’s association with religious discourse and with the realm of the gods.

In modern, secular societies we might still speak of the “godlike” power of financial institutions and the near-religious intensity with which many people pursue wealth. But money has a long history of actual connection with divinity and with the prestige of the holy. In ancient Greece, money was seen as a peculiarly transgressive medium that could cross between human and divine realms, bridging the barriers between sacred and profane. Jewish and Christian traditions, among others, make use of monetary metaphors to describe moral guilt before God, or depict salvation as liberation from debt slavery. God has been imagined as a divine creditor, overseeing a cosmic balance sheet, calling in payments when due or mercifully cancelling what is owed. Early Christian theologians spoke of Christ as a payment and type of currency used to settle accounts between God and humanity.

These links with divinity stem in part from money’s emergence as a creation of states or other centralized authority structures, in coordination with a society’s wealthy. Contrary to a popular view that money is a neutral and naturally arising token of exchange, historically money has almost always been associated with and instituted by political powers.[1] While this at times generated friction with the aristocracy as holders of wealth, overall monetary economies were structured in their interests. Money’s conceptual roots appear in the ancient Near East in new accounting and tabulation methods used to regulate taxes and resources for palace and temple treasuries. These concepts were transferred to Greece and most likely merged with practices of exchanging symbolically valuable, metallic tokens as pledges to repay a debt. Hence the advent of coinage.[2] Coins were minted and regulated by territorial elites, paid to soldiers and other servants before being circulated to a governed populace, forging a unified space of rule under one accounting system. Money was imposed from above, and the tokens were made valuable by being reclaimed through tax and tithe obligations.

 

Money’s origins in the halls of religiously sanctioned, political authority allow it to draw on symbols of divine power, even as it offers back conceptions of how these divine realms might operate.

 

The close link between religious and political elites in many societies meant that money, as a political technology, could draw upon the prestige of religious symbols and practices. If kings share in the divine aura, shouldn’t one of their most crucial tools do so as well? Money tokens almost always bear images of authority, whether political or divine—and often both simultaneously.[3] This is why money could offer itself so readily to the religious imagination, to depict what one’s obligation to unseen authorities might look like, or to describe the mysterious sway that those with power can have upon others even at a distance. Money’s origins in the halls of religiously sanctioned, political authority allow it to draw on symbols of divine power, even as it offers back conceptions of how these divine realms might operate.

What Piketty demonstrates indirectly by the modern alchemy of data analysis is that money, as a creation of these centers of power, multiplies for and returns to such centers. To be sure, it is not state administrations that are growing wealthy. But monetary systems created and regulated by states are set to function at the behest of the elites who fund such regimes. Money’s function as a tool and technique of sovereign control—indexed all along by money’s association with discourse, images, and symbols of the divine, of the authority and power of the gods—is here documented through models and graphs.

 

Money tends toward concentration. And those sites of concentration have remained with those in power who set money into motion in the first place.

 

Piketty’s demonstration of monetary power is indirect because he is interested in wealth and capital, not money itself, although he regularly invokes the three together. Indeed, Piketty risks obscuring that capital ≠ wealth ≠ money. But while these must be kept distinct, it is fair to say that wealth, as an element of fixed capital, has largely become financialized in the period that Piketty documents. We measure and think of wealth in terms of money. Furthermore, wealth’s increase—the rate of return on capital, which he shows always exceeds the rate of growth through production and income (r > g)—is largely generated through monetary instruments. That such growth rate is “arbitrary,” as he calls it, is because interest rates—the key engine of capital returns—are socially and politically determined as opposed to being subject to some natural or physical law. Mechanisms of monetary economy are thus at the heart of the systemic inequality that he traces.

It remains to be seen whether money, as a creation of social, political, and religious elites, can be used for longstanding egalitarian purposes. While there is some evidence that coinage in the ancient Greek city-state was created to redistribute and democratize aristocratic wealth, such interventions were short-lived.[4] Historically, adjustments in monetary systems amount to a push-pull between political leaders and the wealthy who support them, for money is their personal game into which the populace is gradually habituated. Piketty’s proposal for a global tax on wealth, whether or not it is dismissed as utopian (as he himself acknowledges), may simply be another iteration in gentle tinkering with a system that remains fundamentally unequal. For money tends toward concentration. And those sites of concentration have remained with those in power who set money into motion in the first place. Like tales of gods visiting humanity, monetary incarnations of power eventually leave, returning to the hallowed realms from which they came.


Devin Singh is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Integrated Humanities and a Lecturer in Religious Studies at Yale University. He teaches courses on religion and economics, and his current book project explores the influence of money upon Christian doctrine and theology’s legitimation of economy in the West.

 

[1] On these points see Geoffrey K. Ingham, The Nature of Money (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2004); L. Randall Wray, Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[2] On the relation between coinage and pre-monetary Greek practices, as well as the impact of coinage upon Greek society and culture, see David M. Schaps, The Invention of Coinage and the Monetization of Ancient Greece (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004); Richard Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[3] See the vivid documentation in Marc Shell, The Economy of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); Marc Shell, Art & Money (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[4]Leslie Kurke, Coins, Bodies, Games, and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Image from Flickr via Daniel Foster

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  1. Ohr Shottan

    Interesting and thought-provoking piece; I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for Dr. Singh’s book on the subject. I can only hope, the modern publishing industry being what it is, that it won’t be too difficult fo snag for interested laypeople.

  2. Jade

    Very interesting piece. My second contact with Dr Singh which is surprising since we have such similar research interests. I am happy to have been enlightened and will definitely follow his work. Very interesting and timely work, indeed (despite my bias)!

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