Escape 17: Money: The New Universal Immortality Ideology
That’s the title of Chapter 6 of Escape from Evil. We all take money for granted, it’s such a common feature of our lives. It’s funny how we think about money. Technically, money is a social relationship. It doesn’t refer to the stuff we carry around in our wallets. Coins are technically called specie and the folding plastic (used to be paper) things are banknotes. They are actually the physical representation of money. So they’re kind of like a metaphor. Chapter 6 is Norman O. Brown’s chapter. Otto Rank and Brown share a unifying principle in their work, the universal urge to immortality. It underlies everything they write about.
In a pre-scientific world a person could get some kind of immortality by leaving behind children. That’s not entirely satisfactory because for men it’s never certain that your children are really your own. In this circumstance it’s not a bad idea to have a back-up plan. How about leaving something else behind that reminds the living of how great a person you were? How about things, physical things, things you know are yours. Surround yourself with things and maybe you have a little insulation against insignificance. Leave many wondrous things and maybe you gain a little immortality. Yes, indeed, have your name placed on buildings…that will not thwart the grim reaper but it will be a lasting symbolic reminder of your life on this planet. That’s about all we can expect. It’s not much, but for an animal like ourselves we need to reach out and grab any bit of hope we can.
Money it seems is a great way to get yourself a little sense of immortality. If you can, have a likeness of your face stamped into gold coins. Yeah, that ought to work. Money is a new magic object. As Becker writes: “Money is the new ‘totemic’ possession.” (p. 75) Money soon became the new ritual focus. The old rituals were just not doing it anymore. Time to move on. Money was the perfect replacement for the old rituals. Becker quotes Mary Douglas from her book Purity and Danger:
Money provides a fixed, external, recognizable sigh for what would be confused, contradictable operations: ritual makes visible external signs of internal states. Money mediates transactions; ritual mediates experience, including social experience. Money provides a standard for measuring worth; ritual standardizes situations, and so helps to evaluate them. Money makes a link between the present and the future, so does ritual. The more we reflect on the richness of the metaphor, the more it becomes clear that this is no metaphor. Money is only an extreme and specialized type of ritual.
Money, in fact, is religious. It has become the new immortality ideology. It provides life like no other ritual could. The more of it you have, the more mobility you have, the more liberty you have, the more assurance you have of your value to others. Life is mobility, death is immobility. From this perspective the poor are the walking dead. It’s not surprising that zombie movies are so popular these days and that zombie characters are often made up to look like ‘street’ people. Money gives life, it is life. There is no other way to put it. I take exception to some extent to Becker’s analysis here. If as Marx points out money is the average commodity then ‘commodity’ is the god here and not money. Or to put it another way, the market is the thing. Money is a representation of the relations of the market. The market is the venue par excellence of exchange, gift giving and receiving. It’s why we feel so good on a shopping spree and down when we are short of cash. We are feeling a little connection to the gods. It sucks to be poor. No connecting to the gods for you!
I’m not going to go into a lot of the content of chapter 6. It’s a lot about how money came to have such power a long time ago, how it came to have supernatural power.
A little money goes a long way, but a lot of money goes a lot further:
And so we see how it was that money came to buy many things: if it was magic, people would give anything to have it. As Géza Róheim put it in a very happy formulation, “originally people do not desire money because you can buy things for it, but you can buy things for money because people desire it.”
That’s a bit convoluted as a way to state it, but it’s clear that the evolution of money into want it is today was fairly slow. Now, banks have replaced churches and cathedrals as the favoured display of immortality. How many new cathedrals have you seen built lately? How many bank towers?
Ah, money. The best thing about it is that it can be accumulated and passed on. In our time, we’ve made this into a sacred duty. We sin if we don’t save. We get chastised by the finance minister for not saving while out of the other side of his mouth he is urging us to spend otherwise we’ll find ourselves in a depression…which reminds us way too much of failure, immobility and death. Spending means life and prosperity, even if we accumulate guilt as we borrow our way to communing with the gods. When the bills come in after Christmas, then what? But still, we believe in it. We trust it. It can be good to us, at least some of us. Best of all,
…[money] radiates its power even after one’s death, giving one a semblance of immortality as he lives in the vicarious enjoyment of his heirs that his money continues to buy, or in the statues of himself and the majesty of his own mausoleum. In short, money is the human mode, par excellence of cooly denying animal boundness, the determinism of nature.
Enough for now. I’ll finish up dealing with Chapter 6 of EFE tomorrow as Becker addresses what he calls The Demonics of History.