Religion and Economy – Part Two


We need to understand better how we build the infrastructures of collective existence, money among them. How do meanings come to be shared and memory to transcend the minutiae of personal experience? Property must endure in order to be property and that depends on memory. Money thus expands the capacity of individuals to stabilize their own personal identity by holding something durable that embodies the desires and wealth of all the other members of society. Money is a ‘memory bank’ (Hart 2001 Money in an Unequal World; http://thememorybank.co.uk/book/), a store allowing individuals to keep track of those exchanges they wish to calculate and a source of memory for the community. Economic history is dialectical. Most people become quite anxious when they depend on impersonal and anonymous institutions. This is an immense force for reversing the historical pattern of alienation on which the modern economy has been built. How we combine the personal and impersonal aspects of money has much in common with religion.



Humanity’s interdependence in a global economy made by markets and money has been increased by a digital revolution in communications whose symbol is the Internet (Hart The Memory Bank, see above; 2005 The Hit Man’s Dilemma). Time and distance have been shortened to an unprecedented degree. We need to understand this virtual world of abstraction in order to make meaningful connection with it from the perspective of our everyday lives. From having been an object produced by remote authorities, money is becoming more obviously a subjective expression of our own will; and this development is mirrored in the shift from ‘real’ to ‘virtual’ money. It is now possible to attach a lot of information about individuals to transactions at distance. The trend is thus to restore personal identity to impersonal contracts, not least in the market for credit/debt.


The idea is slowly taking root that society is less an oppressive structure and more a subjective capacity that allows each of us to learn how to manage our relations with others. Money symbolizes this shift. It once took the form of objects outside ourselves of which we had a greater need than the available supply; but now it is increasingly manifested as digitized transfers mediated by plastic cards and telephone wires, thereby altering the notions of economic agency that we bring to participation in markets. Cheap information is undermining the assumptions that supported mass production and consumption for a century. Economic anthropology should aim to show that the numbers on people’s financial statements, bills, receipts, and transaction records constitute a way of summarizing their relations with society at a given time. The next step is to show where these numbers come from and how they might serve in building a viable personal economy.


Because our ephemeral economic transactions depend on using money, it seems to be more stable than the relations it expresses (Simmel 1900 The Philosophy of Money). Money may thus be conceived of as a durable ground on which to stand, anchoring identity in a collective memory whose concrete symbol is money; or as the outcome of a more creative and open-ended process whereby we each generate the personal credit linking us to society. Simmel also argued that money is the symbol of our human potential to make world society. We all need to participate in global markets of infinite scope, using international moneys-of-account, electronic payment systems of various kinds, or even direct barter via the Internet. We must develop more effective impersonal institutions at the level of world society, as well as at the levels below. Money’s ability to sustain local meaning and universal connection makes all this a practical possibility.


It is relatively easy to debunk religion, but to understand its social force we have to enter the minds of believers. Searching for the source of money’s power is like asking how God gets us to believe in Him. Of course we made him up, just as we make money up. When all we can ever know is the past, why would anyone accept a claim to guarantee an unknowable future? But we do, because we have to—and faith is the glue sticking past and future together in the present. Simmel made a good case for why money is able to make this spurious claim, as we have seen. Because all the ephemeral transactions we wish to calculate are made in terms of it, money seems to be more stable than the rest, even though we know it is not so really. The river bank seems to be solid and yet it is just slow-moving deposits thrown up by the faster-moving water. But, if we are drowning, we settle for its presumptive stability. The physicist may have worked out what is going on at an abstract level, but for practical purposes we do not need to know what he knows about the infinitely restless movement of particles.


On the one hand, conventional money flatters our sense of self-determination: with some money, we can exert power over the world at will, moving from infinite potentiality to finite determination, back and forth. On the other hand, there is another kind of comfort in the notion that money, as presently constituted, is not in our control at all. The fact that it embodies an exogenous force of necessity serves, in a manner analogous to number, to generate clarity of judgment and action where otherwise things might be frighteningly wide open. Similarly, if they issued their own currencies, people would not only be freer, but would have greater responsibilities.


The word ‘belief’ originally meant “something held dear”, which is to say that exchanges involving money entail at some level a vision of humanity bound by mutual love (Hart 1988 ‘Kinship, contract and trust’). This is how Marx ends his remarkable essay on ‘The power of money’ (1844): “If you love without evoking love in return, i.e. if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, then your love is impotent and a misfortune.” But this takes us beyond the limits of a Durkheimian approach.


Religion has long played a major role in economy, as we have already seen. Indeed until recently political rulers often took their guidance from religious advisers. The switch from religion to social science in the late 19th century was in my opinion a huge mistake and the experiment has failed, because positivism is the sole province of experts and has no need to engage the actions of believers. I have suggested that there is an elective affinity between religion and economy. The movement of both is from the known to the unknown (or even the unknowable) and back again. The intellectual paradigm is neo-Kantian: subjects need to connect with the object world in ways that engage their subjectivity, while they retain an aspiration to objectivity however partial in reality. Humanity’s problems today come from the fact that our global interdependence outweighs our social and imaginative grasp. We lack the political and legal means of instituting economic order. We therefore need to find more effective ways of realizing our common humanity. This is a religious project not a scientific one. When it comes to linking self and world, social science focuses our attention on myriad divisions between the extremes – nation, religion, class, gender, race etc. But how does each of us relate to the whole? On the one side, each of us is a puny self; on the other, we inhabit a vast unknowable universe that could come crashing down around our ears at any time — and will when we die, as everyone must. How to bridge this gap on which the forces of alienation feed hungrily?


Traditionally religion performed this task and, as long as those governing society acknowledged its role, there was a tangible bridge between men of power and the masses. For over a century now this link has been broken in the societies which most influence world history. Rather, science presumptively rules and social science has even replaced the humanities. It is worth recalling the method of the humanities — truth of potentially universal significance is sought through the exercise of personal judgment on particular cases backed by scholarship and rigorous thought. Kant’s Copernican revolution consisted in this shift of emphasis (but we could just as easily attribute the movement to Michel de Montaigne): “Hitherto we have made our knowledge conform to the world of objects, but perhaps the objects should conform to our knowledge”. Great literature was always the main vehicle for this approach, but also history, law, philosophy and, let it be acknowledged, ethnography./span>

There is a common method for finding ways for self and world to come together which exceeds the limits of academic inquiry. We need to scale the world down and scale the self up so that they can meet somewhere with the prospect of making a meaningful connection between them. The classic means to this end is prayer. Religion is, among many other things, an attempt to maintain a binding link between something deeply personal and subjective inside each of us and the impersonal world out there that we inhabit. I can talk to God, privately or collectively in public. Marcel Mauss made prayer the topic of his unfinished PhD thesis because “speech is the unity of thought and action”. Many people in our world still bridge the gap this way.


The main way that we have attempted to reconfigure our relationship to the world in the first two centuries of industrialization is through the consumption of fiction: novels, plays, movies. Here the world is reduced in scale to a stage, paperback or screen, allowing individual members of the audience to enter it on any subjective terms they wish. Who would you identify with — Pierre or Andre? Sophocles, Shakespeare and Goethe stand out as preeminent social thinkers because their medium bridged the gap between human personality and an impersonal world more effectively than others. But the modern novelists and movie makers are not far behind.


Global communications are in transition between the age of the mass media and the possibilities for expressing ideas through the new media afforded by the Internet and mobile phones. At last we have universal media adequate to the expression of universal ideas.


The main event of the twentieth century was the anti-colonial revolution, a process stimulated by world war whereby people coerced into world society by western imperialism in the previous century tried to establish an independent relationship to it. I study the intellectuals of this movement, of whom the greatest was M.K. Gandhi. Gandhi made a career from developing methods of bridging the gap (1927 The Story of my Experiments with Truth). His appeal to the West is that he forged a combination of East/West congenial to us — Victorian romantics and the Buddha — which is also why the Hindus killed him. Gandhi held that the purpose of a civilisation is to enable its members to be themselves, whereas the modern state disables its citizens, making us patients, students, taxpayers and in the extreme, prisoners. His anthropology (philosophical humanism) held that we are all unique personalities who participate together in our common humanity. The question is, how to span the gap between the two ends? We do so normally by emphasizing divisions of race, class, nationality, religion, gender, time and place which may or may not mediate the poles. He, like Rousseau and others, asked what size and type of social units were most conducive to enabling citizens within a common framework of belonging. And he came up with the village as being most suitable for Indians at that time, since most of them lived there already and could express themselves socially through it. Nehru had other ideas; indeed Gandhi’s politics were often decried by “realists” as being too religious, not secular enough. But the great leaders of the anti-colonial revolution offered their followers an alternative vision of the world to racist empire. A secular and scientific approach to politics cannot grasp such a possibility.


Two examples from his life illustrate how Gandhi practised what he preached to others. When he went to London to study the law, he couldn’t find anything he wanted to eat. He joined the Vegetarian Society, got on the committee and, two years later, there were 20 vegetarian restaurants in London. He developed his political methods during two decades in South Africa, then in the mid-20s a large strike broke out in Ahmedabad, an Indian industrial city. Gandhi made his way there and sat down on a street corner. Within a few days the whole strike hinged on him. This is scaling the world down and scaling the self up, so that the two can meet in some meaningful connection.


The great scientists too know the power of scaling the world down and the self up: the best of them can light up the world with an equation — E = MC sq. Stephen Hawking dreams of finding a theory of everything. The pedagogical message is “Do what I do and, if you are lucky, you will be one of the handful of recognized masters in forty years’ time.” It’s not surprising that the mass of graduate students that are now surplus to requirements can’t buy into that one. I have long struggled to make the big picture accessible to students without swamping their sense of self in the process. I always tried to widen the historical scope of anthropology, but I never succeeded in teaching world history. Ethnographic monographs score every time because they reduce the world to the size of a paperback, just as novels do, and students can imagine themselves making sense of Nuer society, using only the materials at hand.


To sum up an argument that is still inchoate, religion and economy – in their most cogent historical variations – encourage their individual members to develop a subjective relationship to the object world that they share with everyone. Human teleology is to discover universal means of coordinating our common interests that reflect our species being; for, as Kant rightly insisted, our human capacity for reason can only be realised fully at the species level, not that of the individual. The idea of economy is one way of envisaging a more rational basis for social order; but this idea cannot rest, being unevenly pushed outwards to more inclusive levels and often regressing in the face of conflict. The dialectic of economy’s internal and external dimensions is where this contradiction finds concrete expression. Even so, it is necessary to imagine and strive for a better world, one that takes us out of our illusory redoubts into wider human cooperation. The world religions have long performed this task in history, imperfectly for sure, but always seeking to reconcile the local and the global.


Following Durkheim, I have suggested that the forms of subject-object relationship that endow religious adherents with some capacity to bridge the gap between what they know and what they don’t provides one framework for thinking about how to devise an economic strategy that is more democratically inclusive. In touching on the properties of money, I have emphasised the fluency of its mediation between infinite and finite extremes – in both directions. I take this dialectical movement of both religion and economy to be solid ground for their positive mutual interaction. At least, it offers some promise of escaping from the undialectical rigidities that bedevil so much thinking about religion and economy in our times.


The possible variations are infinite, just as there are many religions, not one. What I propose is that we look at both religion and economy in a new way as sharing, in Goethe’s and Weber’s terms, an “elective affinity”. There is no causal relationship between the two, but there is a part of each that finds some resonance in the other. This affinity permits but does not guarantee mutually enhancing development; but the possibility is there. I hope that by pursuing research into the scope for a “human economy”, the team of African scholars that we lead in Pretoria will be able to make a contribution to bringing religion and economy into a fruitful relationship once more.


Keith Hart is International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money. His recent books include The Human Economy (2010) and Economic Anthropology (2011).

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