Max Weber’s famous thesis about the spirit of capitalism in summary says that ascetic Protestantism created a way of living which not only supported capitalist economy, but endowed it with the insurance of grace. In short: capitalism is conditioned by religion. Of course this thesis was formulated against Marx, who claimed that ideas were always the product of social circumstances.
Against these contrastive foils, Walter Benjamin developed his idea of capitalism as a religion. In opposition to Marx, Benjamin understands the relation between existence and consciousness not as a causal relation but one of expression. In opposition to Max Weber, he sees capitalism not only as a religiously conditioned way of life – Benjamin is concerned with the “essentially religious structure of capitalism”. This thesis recognizes the Reformation as the historical moment in which Christianity transformed into capitalism. Occidental history is characterised by the formation of a parasitical relationship: capitalism comes into being as the parasite of Christianity and feeds on its resources of power to an extent that finally produces the identity of both. The modern history of Christianity is the history of capitalism.
Benjamin’s position seeks to distance itself both from secularisation and from political theocracy. Religion has a specific and specificatory meaning for the order of profane life, but it should not pass its laws. Theology should not be politically instructive. Obviously the function of religion for the profane order is determined by the fact that there seems to be a “human and a political compulsion to ‘believe’”. Here, Benjamin draws a line of demarcation to the Enlightenment. Existence is not good, and therefore society needs a substitutional system of answers to replace what is traditionally called religion. Capitalism is a religion because it is able to provide a satisfying answer to all the questions born of human suffering. And indeed, it provides answers that produce gratification and satisfaction.
Let us distil the essentially religious structure of capitalism from an immanent interpretation of Benjamin’s famous fragment. Benjamin names four characteristics:
Capitalism is purely a cult. This implies that capitalist religion has neither dogma nor theology. Like the first forms of pagan religiosity, it has an immediately pragmatic function. Capitalist religion is neo-pagan. Its rites do not need the justification of the divine logos - and this is precisely what Benjamin has analysed in his famous essay on Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften [“The Elective Affinities”] as the “common characteristic of all pagan ideas”: the “primacy of cult over doctrine”. In our case it is the primacy of capitalist practice over Christian doctrine, on which it parasitically feeds. Hence, capitalism is a form of neo-paganism.
The duration of the cult of the capitalist religion is permanent; each day is a festive day of consumer fetishism, and its adeptes celebrate their cult with utmost exertion. The cult of the capitalist religion is of course the cult of the commodity. In other words, exchange value becomes the object of religious idealisation and a medium of religious ecstasy – this is the religious-sociological foundation of a key concept in Benjamin’s work: the phantasmagoria, which refers to a space of joy and distraction that opens up where the functional value of the commodity becomes irrelevant. Benjamin writes these coordinates into his Arcades Project: the enthronement of the commodity, its worship as a fetish according to the ritual of fashion, is the only contents of the capitalist cult. The theological caprice (“theologischen Mucken”) of the commodity addressed by Marx, i.e. its ontologically ambivalent status as something sensual, suprasensual and supernatural (“sinnlich-übersinnliches”) appeared to Benjamin as the constituent of modernity. He was not speaking metaphorically when he wrote that “world exhibitions are sites of pilgrimage to the fetish of the commodity”. And the arcades are “temples of the capital of the commodity capital”. Yes, Benjamin even goes as far as constructing an analogy between the iron body of the arcades and the baroque church: the “row of commodities” in the Parisian arcades were “remnants of the nave”. In this sense, the Arcades Project analyses the sacred architecture of the capitalist religion. Here, Baudelaire’s religious ecstasy of the metropolis finds its specific setting: “the warehouses are temples dedicated to this ecstasy”. In accordance with this, Benjamin reads pictures on bank notes as pictures of the saints of the capitalist religion. In them, the emblems of the 17th century return as the commodities of the 19th century. As a pure expression of exchange value, bank notes are also allegories. The ornamentics of money, the emblematics of notes are the purest expression of an idealisation of exchange value; as an umbrella of the phantasmagoria, it moves before the threshold to the realm in which all hope must be dropped – as both Dante and Marx have informed us. Benjamin’s definition of the image world of money as a “facade architecture of hell” is directed precisely at this.
The capitalist religion operates as an indebting cult. Here, the economic and theological concepts of “debt” and “sin” are identical. “The sin, debt or guilt of money” means both owing money, and the passing on of this sin or guilt through money. Within these coordinates, Benjamin’s early definition of fate as a relationship of debt or guilt of the living gains a sociological point: “the sin of money is a figure of eternal indebtedness, which is carried by the people. The terrible thing is that people of the capitalist age do not know how to purge themselves from that sin/indebtedness”. In this sense, the capitalist cult defines living as a relationship of sin/debt.
Benjamin’s hypothesis about a capitalist universalisation of indebtedness competes with Weber’s religious-sociological reasoning about Western rationality’s claims to universality. He also competes with Freud’s religious-psychological analysis of an occidental guilty conscience in late antiquity and in the present. “An immense conscience of guilt that does not know how to purge itself reaches out for the cult, not in order to purify itself, but to make the guilt universal, to hammer it into consciousness and finally, to include God himself into this guilt.” The capitalist cult does not purge, but rather throws us into debts. Corresponding to this, capitalism as a religion does not hope for the liberation from despair, but expects salvation from the manifestation of despair as a global condition. Hoping and waiting is replaced by enduring. Indebtedness is passed on as a “mental illness”, i.e. as the mode of spiritual hopelessness. To Benjamin, this is the true meaning of “worries” (“Sorgen”).
The concealed God of capitalism is not dead, but he is not transcendent anymore either. The universally indebting cult integrates him into human fate. This strange conception of Benjamin’s is the result of an attempt to interpret Nietzsche’s assault on religion theologically. The “Übermensch” appears as the first recognizable fulfillment of the capitalist religion – fulfillment also in the sense that, as an expression of the total immanence of the human, God is so concealed that he cannot even be questioned anymore.
From this perspective, of course, we also need to recognize Marx’s theory as a recognizable fulfillment of the capitalist religion, as a completion of the relation of debt: “if it does not turn back, capitalism becomes socialism”.
This economic theology of modernity has the advantage that it is obvious. Its quintessence is that money is that which holds the false world together at its core. Of course one does not reach this insight by observing social systems, but by reading the Classics. Critical Christians and critics of capitalism shake hands with each other – and they renounce not only an understanding of modern economy, but also an insight into the workings of religion.
The more modern, i.e. differentiated, complex and difficult to survey society becomes, the stronger becomes the longing for unity and wholeness. God is a traditional formula for the unity of the world. God refers to the possibility of viewing a picture of the whole, of which the self is a part. One can make one’s life easy be resorting to mysticism and esotericism to conjure up the whole. And one can make one’s life difficult by criticizing the whole. Radical social criticism as an incognito of theology - this is a familiar theoretical design.
Religion offers the design of compassionate shock (Betroffenheit) to the victims of society. It addresses the unresolvable problems of other systems (“fates”). The claim of religion is always to make meaning visible. At the same time, religious communication always means: the meaning is actually something completely different, it does not fit into this world. In correspondence with this, dogmatics have developed a completely different concept of society that is directed against society: the kingdom of God. The last word of religious belief, then, is difference – different from that which is. It is impossible to be more accurate here; and precisely this inaccuracy turns out to have a pragmatic function. Religious communication promises that it is possible to deal with the unknown – as if one could view the complex and fractured world from an external perspective. Through the idea of God, society refers to itself – but without knowing it, as transcendence. This creates the illusion that a truthful description of society from an external perspective is possible – the big picture.
As long as the function of religion remains occupied by the religious, religion is not totalitarian. Benjamin’s concept of the “capitalist religion” in contrast suggests a representation of the societal whole – similar, by the way, to “political religion” (Eric Voegelin) and “political theology” (Carl Schmitt). Religion cites the absolute, capitalism cites totality. In this respect, Benjamin’s fragment on capitalism forms an extreme contrast to modern systems theory. “The unity of society is the difference of its functional systems”, writes Luhmann.
The Marxist idea of class difference had already concealed the functional differentiation of modern society. The strategical purpose of this concealment is obvious if we remember that “capitalism” is a term that is always conceived of in view of its necessary end. Hence, it catalyses the protest of bourgeois society against itself very well. Capitalism provides a perspective on modern economy that presents the problems it produces as a terminable evil.
Benjamin, however, conceives of the end of capitalism in a completely different manner as does Marx. What separates him from Marx and dialectics is the “experience of our generation: that capitalism will not die a natural death.” Indeed, the idea of an interruption of the natural course of events is at the heart of Benjamin’s theory of history. “Not goal, but end” is the well-known differentiation in his historical- philosophical thesis. Hence, it is not enough to stylise modernity as capitalism. Benjamin has to outbid it with a second stylisation, which is religion.
When reviewing the most important aspects of the “capitalist religion” - permanent exertion, duration of permanence, increase, toleration until the end, the course of the planet human, hopelessness – we are strongly reminded of Max Weber’s notion of “inescapability”: capitalism as fate. Hopelessness lends a polemical edge to this description, and this is Benjamin’s decisive rhetorical sleight of hand. In its functional value, hopelessness compares to perfection – working on improvement is pointless. This rhetorical trick produces a shock, which is not threatening but, nevertheless, the fact that everything continues in the same way is a catastrophe. Because we accept things as long as they are acceptable, we are unable to see that the catastrophe lies in this continuation. This is why the idea of a return is the remotest of all possibilities. This, however, is exactly what Benjamin means when he speaks about the interruption of history: metanoia, atonement, purgation – or, to say it with a hot dressing: revolution.
The difference to Marx is obvious, as is the difference to Weber. A comparison of key metaphors is rewarding here. Max Weber’s metaphor is that of the Puritan spirit which finally dies in a spiritless case, which was constructed with its own energies of rationality and of innerworldly contempt of the world. Walter Benjamin’s metaphor is that of the parasitical relationship between capitalism and Christianity; the parasite, capitalism, incorporates its host, Christianity – this is why capitalism has an “essentially religious structure”.
No doubt: a magical glow emanates from both of these metaphors. To the theologian, both make irresistable offers to approach modernity from a fundamentalist perspective. But one could rephrase the question about the relationship between monotheist religion, the modern way of living, and capitalist economy in a completely different manner, for instance like Kenneth Burke. His Grammar of Motives centres on the historical irony that even the reinforcement of the ultimate motive facilitates the development of a world with an entirely different orientation. “For the affirming of the term as their God-term enables man to go far afield without sensing the loss of orientation. And by the time the extent of their departure is enough to become generally obvious, the stability of the new order they have built in the name of the old order gives them the strength to abandon their old God-term and adopt another.”
In our context we are of course concerned with money as a functional equivalent, as a “technical substitute” of God. Actually it is the substitution of a substitution, because the crucified Christian God, who is replaced by money, is himself already the symbol of a substitution. The motive of profit functions, like the one God, as a universal source of motivation. Burke speaks explicitly about the transsubstantiation of money: the agent of economic action becomes its purpose. “Money as a medium” becomes “money as motive”. The universal symbolism of money is a threat to religion, not as the dramatic diabolical temptation of mammon, the golden calf (-the devil is the dialectical opponent of God, and hence promotes belief -), but precisely the reverse “in its quiet, rational way as a substitute.”
The key concept in Benjamin’s fragment on capitalism is guilt/ indebtedness. Feeling indebted and making debts are radically identified. And here, Benjamin blocks his own way to the real problem; he mistakes the specifically modern transformation of the symbolism of indebtedness. Niklas Luhmann has marked the starting point clearly: “Indebtedness/sin was invented and institutionalized for the sake of salvation. Guilt is experienced as the presence of other possibilities of the past – namely as of the continuation of the possibility that one could have acted differently.” Original sin then conceptualises the future as a repetition of guilt, thereby excluding future hopes of redemption. So far, so pre-modern. But indebtedness/guilt as an investment credit is modern in that it points towards the future. Indebtedness/guilt means economic indebtedness. “the function of debt [...] today is [...] only conceivable with reference to other possibilities of the future; the past is done with and lies behind us.”
After Benjamin Nelson’s fabulous essay The Idea of Usury, modernity can be understood as a clever reply to the Biblical question of whether we are allowed to charge interest from our brothers. Calvin breaks with the scholastic view of sterile money. Now it mediates the communication with strangers, but also with the fraternal other. All humans become brothers, because the brothers from whom we can charge interest have become others. From Calvin to the French Revolution, brotherhood has become universal, which implies that there will be competition in the market. This is what the subtitle of Nelson’s essay means: “From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood”. Kenneth Burke has recognized very clearly what this means for the symbolism of debt in modern society: “As early as the Calvinistic sanctioning of ‘usury’, it was apparent that a primary aspect of our monetary economy was its stress upon credit – and the receiving of credit is indebtedness. Thus [...] it provides a technical normalization of ‘guilt’ or ‘sin’ by converting a religious psychology of ‘retribution’ or ‘penance’ into a commercialist psychology of ‘ambition’.” The technical normalization of guilt corresponds exactly to the technical substitution of God through money.
In summary, money as God-term is no longer a figure of religion. Nothing is secularised here, either. The idea that God is replaced by money must not be understood as a thesis of secularisation (such a thesis would have to be rejected in Blumenbergian manner). Capitalism as a religion was the last invention of theologians who were supposed to justifiy their claim on a critical description of the societal whole.
The critique of capitalism has withdrawn into sociological libraries, and now we are able to recognize more clearly that what our good souls and hot hearts hold against modern economy is their actual cultural value. Money relieves society from human expressions of hatred and violence. It can easily be shown that civility and urbanity exist because of modern economy. Where money rules the world, we forsake the terror of the naked fist and attitudes of benevolence. Economic liberals could argue with good reasons that the world-wide network of those often criticized multinationals does more for world-peace than the United Nations. The US government famously established a network of Coca Cola stations for GIs in World War II to quench their thirst. After that, it was of course easy for Coca Cola to take over world-power on the soda market. And the Coke network does more for the Westernisation of the world than the presence of American troups ever could.
Where money rules the world, fanatic ideology and bloody violence do not rule. Monetarised greed conquers other passions. We can trust in the love of money – here, a calm desire for wealth unfolds. The autonomous circulation of money relieves us in many respects. It works like a medium. One could also say that money is a power without characteristics. And just because our economy is shaped by a power without characteristics, it can develop as an open system.
Money defines the economic framing conditions of our lives via exclusion, and these exclusions effect relief. Money means: no violence. We do not beat up each other for the last few seats in the sun. Instead, some pay, and others can or do not want to pay. And this code of paying and not-paying also means: no moral. The person who in the end gets the little house on the green is not the one who ‘earned’ it - perhaps after life-long hard labour - but the one who can pay. And anyone will have to agree: this is a good way. The impersonality and neutrality of money relieves our lives.
Learning to deal with money is the best education for dealing with short supplies. The possibility of society’s existence requires that humans communicate about the shortage of supplies. At the same time, social system is restablized expectation of shortages. It is safe to assume that whatever has a value is not available in plenty. At the same time, citizens of the Western world learn that shortages may exist in plenty: Bentleys in Wolfsburg, for instance – but nor for me. Flats are hard to get, yet thousands are on offer in the papers. In reverse, the production of plenty produces shortage – because the demand will be small. For decades, the European Community paid farmers for not cultivating their fields.
The central idea appears to be simple: even that which is available in plenty becomes a shortage if someone else has access to it. Only through the access of another, who pays, we become aware of the fact that we are dealing with supplies. And supplies are always short. Today we notice that even air and water can be short. Now, this access does not lead to murder and violence. Why? Obviously the other has the right to access, because he pays. The prudish landlord accepts the porn shop on his premises, and the racist maior accepts Arabs in Berlin’s Westend – because they pay. In paying we turn all others into spectators of this money magic. In other words: in the face of my act of paying, all other human beings sink into benevolent neutrality. For vendors, buyers and spectators of these economic transactions, the other does not have to be treated as an individual anymore. This is a relief effect for social life.
Trusting people is risky. Luckily it is possible in the modern world to trust the system instead of the other people. But the system is mysterious and uncontrollable. Therefore modern economy’s offer of trusting money instead of the system is irresistible. If we have confidence in money we do not need to trust others, or have the information that would be necessary to understand the system. Where we lack the information to analyse a complex situation, a glance at prices and money transactions suffices.
It is important to see that money functions as a medium, if we wish to understand this fascinating power of money. Money cannot be arbitrarily cut into pieces, payments are very loosely connected with each other. Money transfer has no integrating effect, and always produces absolute loss of information. The notes in our pockets do not tell us who last used them when and what for. Conditions of potentiality and encumbrance caused by payment are irrelevant. Pecunia non olet. Money has no memory and, as a consequence, is perfectly adaptable.
Money provides the rare occasion of real equality: the equality of solvency. It does not matter if the other person has more money than me; it is important that I have enough to buy that flight, to buy a new stereo, or to rent an overexpensive flat. If the plane is booked, more money does not help; rich people have to search for new flats for months. And beer costs as much for a secretary of state as it costs for someone who is unemployed. Talcott Parsons has found the nice ironical formula: dollars are free and made equal. Money is real freedom, too, because it is independent from its origin, and it enables anyone who has it to free themselves from their origins.
Why are we always short of money? Answer: because shortage is neither a natural condition nor a condition of lack. Shortage comes into being as an artefact of society, as soon as future needs are treated as a problem of today. Today I have to make sure that I can satisfy my needs of tomorrow – this is expressed in the idea of a shortage of money. Chronic shortage is observed through the medium of money. If we encode our problem of shortage it means that we do not make moral judgements about it. Money is the means through which society directs the way we deal with that which is short. That is why we are always short of money. Saving up does not help here, either. Not spending my money only makes sense if I save it up in view of later payments. And I must never spend as much money that my liquidity would be called into question. In this sense, our modern life presents itself as a game of shortage. And if we view the world from this perspective, more and more becomes short. Globalisation means: universalisation of shortage.
When looking at our economic lives, an independent observer could find that there is an institution with surplus money: the bank. If we take a closer look at how banks deal with the level of interest, one may conclude: banks keep money scarce. Therefore, all of us – from the schoolboy to the minister of finance – can confidently present our empty pockets. But banks offer credits, surplus money. Banks are creative: they create credit. Someone who saves, i.e. pays money into his or her account, will be treated as the owner of the amount he or she paid in. At the same time, the bank itself pretends to be the owner of the money – it lends it to others. Hence the amount has a double function: as a deposit and as a credit. This is creation of money. Should I take up a credit, pay the first instalment – or save up, because the interest rate is high, in other words, not pay? The decision is accidental, and no calculation in the world can protect it from turning out as wrong tomorrow.
The encoding through money enhances the desire for wealth. Since we are living in a modern economy, all goods become short, regardless of whether they really exist in abundance. This leads to paradoxical situations, and one usually reacts with indignation: where wealth increases, poverty increases, too, and shortage increases where abundance increases. All the time almost all of us watch a few get the cake. Actually it should surprise us that there is no resistance. How does one appease the others, when a few access goods that are short? Money which is paid by someone who accesses short goods appeases someone else who has to watch because he or she is short of money. Here, freedom and alienation grow at the same time. My access to short goods does not need any legitimation but payment, and it excludes all other competitors. They do not need to be respected as individuals.
If we consider economy from the perspective of shortage, as we have done just now, we get an entirely different picture than if we consider it from the perspective of exchange. In a formula, one could say: exchange is symbolical – shortage is diabolical. If we attempt to understand economy from the perspective of exchange we are focussed on interactions. One delivers the goods, the other delivers the money. Exchange connects people, and others can join their operations without difficulties. If we take a look at the strategies of division, however, a much more diabolical picture emerges. Someone who does not pay has to watch someone else get the commodity. Theorists of exchange forget this excluded third person in transactions, i.e. the audience. And we are almost always spectators who are excluded from economic transactions.
Those who have fallen through the net of the economic system, in other words those who are unable to pay, can only hope for help – or do we have to say: reckon with help? Charity organisations suggest that charity can manifest itself in money. But alms and charity are economicly irrational, because money is short. When Tony Blair came into power, he boasted that he had never given any money to a beggar. This is very modern, because the end of charity corresponds to the right to organised, quantified help. We help in a modern way by giving beggars the address of the office that is responsible for their needs. In this case I do not have to give anything, because first of all, others have more money, and secondly, there are others who have even less money.
The annual donation that I can deduct from my taxes does not rule out the possibility that I help my neighbours when they are moving out, or that I hand a cup of punch to the freezing girl in Afghanistan. But of course it is apparent that thanking, helping and being friendly are privatised actions. Capital is the functional equivalent of gratitude and help. In the public sphere money is the quintessence of all human motives. And often, anything else is not appreciated; hence, we are likely to attract strange looks if we offer a sandwich to a beggar who asked for money.
It is difficult for human kindness to settle down in the free market. And that is why money works without any difficulties. Money is relieved of the human and all-too-human. In order to understand the market, it suffices to know the prices. The price is a hard piece of information, where history, needs and individualities disappear. The economic system operated without memory. This is true for each individual payment, of course: Money has no memory. That is why laundering money is possible, even though we are constantly observed by the revenue office.
The cosmos of modern economy consists only of events of payment – not of human beings. In order to make up for their loss of existence in these new economic processes, the people of modernity have invented a new cosmos of inwardness. It is wrong, therefore, to blame modern capitalism for having no soul. Quite the opposite is true: spiritual autobiographies as “soul histories” have only been written by individuals since our social structures began to be shaped by autonomous money traffic.
“The relational problem of economy”, writes Niklas Luhmann, “is the irritability of the present by the future.” In principle, it is true that attention is aroused by movement, novelty and pain. But these are always immediate experiences here and now. How then can one arouse attention for a future event? Money achieves precisely this. The loss of money is a surrogate of pain. In economic life, people learn to delay gratification and to secure it for the future. Thus, the economic system achieves the “opening, development and pacification of the future”. In renouncing the satisfaction of my present needs, I secure the satisfaction of future needs – I have money. We need to recognize that one always forsakes something: either one relinquishes the gratification and has money and the freedom of choice. Or one satisfies immediate needs, and relinquishes the freedom of choice that is embodied by money.
Economic straits are related to immediate consumption, which is limited by anthropological boundaries. It is impossible to endlessly eat Sushi; it is impossible to commute to Mallorca all the time. Thorstein Veblens’ contemporary term of conspicuous consumption [wrong spelling in original] shows how modern economy solves problems. Today, it “creates the estimation of money that is necessary for an encompassing hold over the future, through the illusory valorisation of consumerism.” The single purpose of money is to be spent, because it does not have a value of its own. This is why it triggers perpetual reflexion in customers about their possibilities of consumption. Because of the aforementioned anthropological boundaries, however, consumerism in the 21st century is increasingly directed at virtual satisfaction. Over Christmas I could fly to San Francisco; just like that. I can also invest the money in a mountain bike and go on fabulous tours. The more modern a product is, the less tried is its potential, and the more virtual is the satisfaction it grants. Just think of the computer – all the things that could be done with this graphic design software! The functioning of the market relies on fictions – on the construction “as if”.
Money is the most fascinating of all media because it is not covered by the actual possibility to consume but - by itself! In other words: economy holds much more future than can ever become present. Neither profit nor the satisfaction of needs put a limit to spending. It is possible to delay the decision to consume and enjoy the possibility in the abstract through having money.
Just as power, money provides the security in the present that unpredictable problems of the future may be solved. Power and money give reassurance, and they spare us the prediction of the future. It is no longer God but money that guarantees global security. To be sure, this is not about a carefree life, but about the transmutation of the knowledge of the future into the risk of spending money. One could show that money makes it safe to navigate into an open future. Money functions as an insurance for the future. And only in dealing with money, can the future be taken into one’s own hands.
This abstract insurance of the future in modern economy is tangible in the function of prices. According to Friedrich von Hayek, prices function as signals of change which individuals cannot know, but to which they have to adapt their plans. “It is not only a parable if we speak of the price system as a kind of machinery for the registration of changes, or as a system of mediation, which enables the individual producer to adapt their activities to these changes. They are registered through the observation of a few indicators, similar to the hands of a watch observed by a technician. The producer does not need to know more about the changes than is reflected in the movement of the prices.”
The indifference of money makes differences visible – like differences in price. Thus, money achieves a specifically economic ability to learn through the simple command: watch the prices! The observation of prices facilitates blind flying through the chaos of economy. In other words: the determination of prices on the free market is the great cybernetic paradigm which shows impressively how order is spontaneously formed when individual plans adapt to each other through negative feedback.
The financial world has an aura of cool rationality. There are objective reasons for this. Principally, payments and prices produce an enormous loss of information and context – after all, it does not matter who pays, and why. It has always been this way. Today, however, there is a new addition: nothing is more abstract than electronic financial transactions. Since the advent of electronic data, money and information have become increasingly identical. That means, however, that the financial market is the most important site of the 21st century technologies of communication: cash flow and data flow become indistinguishable.
The basic abstractness of monetary transactions is drastically reinforced by the new technologies of telecommunication. Today, we speak in this context of Softnomics and mean the new computer reality of global money. It is already present in new standards such as electronic cash, electronic banking, home banking and the new customer self service in the hypertext. And today we observe the emancipation of banking from the banks. Electronic money has no value of its own, not even the trace of a physical existence. Thus, internet confronts us most radically with the question: what is it that lends money the value we assign to it?
With our credit cards, we switch into the neuronal system of global economy. And these plastic cards become increasingly smarter, i.e. they interlink cash flow and information flow. Alvin Toffler has aptly referred to money in the postmodern world as “supersymbolical”. On the level of central and world banks, however, even this supersymbolical money is too concrete. We then speak of units of account and special drawing rights. The calculation of relations of so-called leading currencies - and this calculation changes all the time. Money here becomes completely abstract, it dissolves in the calculation of another calculation. In a formula of evolution: economy became modern through the replacement of commodity money through contract money. Today it is constituted, in postmodern fashion, as the medium fiat money.
Therefore one could say that on the highest level of economy, money only exists in the form of globalised data – in the computers of the metropoles of finance. Each day, around 1000 billions of dollars are converted. 90 per cent of financial transactions on stock markets have nothing to do anymore with real commodity flow. Stock markets today create a cyberspace of the capital, in which virtual players place their bets with data. In this commerce with the future, the world of economy has gained a complexity which simply cannot be grasped anymore with Schumpeter’s traditional notion of money as a “satellite of commodity”. The relation between investment and speculation demonstrates this – it is 1:10.
Money manages the chaos of the world where everything has its price. One could say that money makes us resistant to chaos. The unknown dangers of the future can be remodelled as risks of commerce. Earning money is also a concentrated insurance of the future, and money is an available future. Whatever may come – money can manage it. In a formula: money is the “general problem solver”. If we have money, we do not know what will come either, but we can wait.
The purpose of money is its use in the market. In simpler terms: the purpose of money is to be spent. Each payment aims at a subsequent payment. Economic life is not primarily about having something or about needs, but about a better way of communicating – i.e. paying. This is why business people are not interested in the absolute size of the capital when the reviews in their companies are made. Instead, they are interested in the relation to cash flow, which is the sum of profit, deduction and reserve.
People have to live with this purpose of function today. There is no more meaning to it. To many, this sounds unbearable. After all, in order to bestow our lives with a sense of purpose, we need ideas like God, freedom and immortality. Our problem is, however, that these beautiful humanist ideas cannot survive the postmodern condition of living. Here, money comes in: money is now our functional substitute for the humanist ideas that have become impossible.
But how can money fill such a dynamic function? I need to be more precise here: instead of ideas, we now have not simply money, but money as a process. Karl Marx referred to this as “geldheckendes Geld” – money which begets money. If we do not understand this, of course we will be surprised if multi-millionnaires keep working instead of enjoying their wealth. This surprise is naive. The striving for more money facilitates a stable ultimate orientation in life which can renounce “authentic” motives.
And still, money transactions have a bad image. Our Christian culture has a very ambivalent relationship with money. On the one hand, everyone wants more money, and indeed one can state that more money functions as a kind of substitute of life. However, the Biblical prohibition of charging interest from a brother; the hatred of the “usury-Jews”; the critique of fertile money (“geldheckendes Geld”); the fear of the world power of the banks – all of these show how old and constant the cultural suspicion against money transactions is.
This ambivalence is most apparent in the moral discrediting of credit. The word credit has its roots in Latin creditum, which means: confidence. We have a problem here, because confidence is ambivalent, too. It includes a high level of insecurity and risk – it can be disappointed. One could learn that taking risks is not an exception but the rule of modern life; i.e. all options are risky. And he risks most who evades risk – because he risks lagging behind.
Whether or not we demonize money as a mammon or as a substitute for the meaning of life – it is doubtless the most prominent and most fascinating of all media. This has often led to the conclusion that economy rules the world. This is not true. Money is universal, but can only be used in the specific context of economy. It is neither total nor absolute. This is why one cannot say that money is that which holds the world together at its core. And at least for Romantics, this is good news. We can have the mass read for us, but we cannot buy redemption. We can subsidize scientific research, but we cannot buy the truth. We can give out student loans but we cannot buy the willingness to learn. We can bribe politicans, but we cannot buy power. We can buy women, but we cannot buy love.