Money is Omnipotent

On the border and beyond/7 - The sacred tool that can buy anything. But how long?

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 05/03/2017

Sul confine e oltre 07 rid«In a world where money can buy anything, money becomes everything.»

Giacomo Becattini, From a Private Conversation

From the dawn of civilization, money has always had the invincible tendency to enter the territory of the sacred. The keepers of the sacred have always sought to keep the flow of money in its banks, but at certain times in history money and the sacred became allies and gave birth to idolatrous cults and many variations of the "markets of indulgences". In our time, the flooding of money has generated a much more radical and pervasive economic cult than that of the previous ages. But this new religious pathology is not generating antibodies and reformers who would be able to understand the seriousness of this new global market, and react effectively.

The distinction-separation between the sacred and the profane is a fundamental axis of religions and cultures, even if the experiences that people have made and are making of the sacred and the profane are very different from each other and occupy the entire spectrum ranging from the sacred that attracts and seduces to the sacred that terrorizes because it is tremendous. Biblical humanism knows the same separation, but it is also interwoven by a large and continuous attempt to break the threshold that separates the sacred and the profane, the city and the temple. Its prophetic and wise spirit has been, in fact, a long and tenacious pedagogy to teach us that God's "place" was neither the tent nor the temple but the earth. The whole world is sacred because it is creation, and so the whole world is profane because Elohim is present on earth without becoming the earth or the things on it. For this, at the height of biblical revelation, we read that in the New Jerusalem, "I saw no temple in it any more" (Revelation 2.22 to 27).

The separation of the sacred and the secular was (and is) primarily a system of social control, creation and reinforcement of hierarchies and caste. The first and original distinction of the sacred and profane generated, in fact, the other, radical separation of the pure and the impure. The impure ones had no access to the sacred, the place of purity that, in turn, was such only because it wasn't contaminated by impurity. In the world of religions it has always been difficult to help and truly redeem the poor because, being generally unclean, they could not be touched by the pure.

The development of the economy and so that of money are deeply connected to this radical distinction made by and in the world. At the centre of monetary economies, however, we find an element that has proved decisive for the fate of Europe, the world and capitalism over time: money is exempt from the laws of purity/impurity. Unlike objects, animals, people and organic materials, money does not become impure when touched by impure persons or things - there are only rare experiences of leper colonies and leper villages in which only a special type of money circulated that could not get outside those boundaries so rigidly designed and managed by the "pure".

This special immunity of money is as significant as little explored. Unlike all other things that become unclean if touched by an impure being or object, money does not become impure from a contact with impurity. The first "tool" that medieval money changers used to test the non-falsity of coins were their teeth: they bit them on their rim - and so the first skill of those proto-bankers developed from their tooth sensitivity. A coin so pure that it can be put in the mouth. Pecunia non olet (money does not stink) expresses this ancient immunity, too, as well as the non-contaminating nature of money, which we find in various forms in all civilizations. At the same time, however, also because of the decisive influence of Christianity, money was also "the devil's excrement" in the Middle Ages, stinking, of course, by its nature and in itself. It stinks, but touching it does not contaminate. It is the only dung which does not make things impure. No wonder, then, that in Christian Europe those who managed money were mostly the Jews, confined to their ghettos, and that in traditional India mainly the pariahs had to perform the banking functions. The cast-away, because they were considered bearers of some impurities, and as they touched the coins they turned them into the only "thing" that can circulate among all without contaminating anybody - two "negatives" multiplied that magically become a "positive."

This special protection from impurity thus enabled the coins to be exchanged anywhere and by anyone: between Christians, Jews, Muslims, believers and non-believers, even with people that those religions considered idolatrous. We would not have had the development of commerce in the Middle Ages and then the birth of global capitalism without this special status of immunity and exemption that money had.

This special pass the coins enjoyed was also valid to enter the kingdom of the dead. It is a very old and widespread tradition to put coins on the body, over the eyes or the mouth of the deceased. The Egyptian priests refused the carrying of the dead along the Nile if their debts had not been settled before they died. And so, by extension, they put coins in the graves for the payment of the toll to Charon, or to pay off hypothetical unpaid debts or faults on arrival in the kingdom of the dead. In this creative "double game" between heaven and earth, money became the means to clear faults made in this life for the afterlife. This payment of the "obol", the fee for crossing the last threshold is very symbolic. Money that becomes the object that's most similar to gods and the most profane object at the same time, the thing that stinks the least and the one that stinks most, but is not subject to the first religious laws of impurity, which therefore can then be touched by everyone without any consequences.

So when the some Mediaeval possessor of money thought of using money to pay someone else to fulfil their own promise or a vow (the crusades, pilgrimages), or paying some poor to do penance and pray on their behalf, or even buying a discount of their years in purgatory or a piece of paradise, it wasn't anything innovative to do because those coins had always had a supernatural power and nature. In the biblical world and in the Gospels the "impure" money plays an important role. But the impurity of the coins was linked to the presence of images of kings, animals, or in any case, some idolatrous things. Even if not without difficulty and discomfort, the Jews, however, handled and touched the coins that seemed impure to them. There was only one place where those coins could not enter: the Temple. Only coins without idolatrous images were allowed inside it, and those pure coins were the language with which to communicate with YHWH through sacrifices and offerings.

The "disenchantment of the world" and the desecration of the earth are also - and perhaps mainly - the result of the pass that money received on all visible and invisible thresholds.

If we look at it carefully, we discover other interesting aspects hidden under the immunity of money. The exemption of the currency by the rules of purity and impurity has neither eliminated nor reduced the caste systems of the world - instead, it has only strengthened them and created new ones; it has exasperated them. First of all, the impure have always existed and continue to exist also in connection with money. They were and are those who are not in a position to own money; they are those who do not touch it. Because of another paradox of the economy, the impurity of monetary societies was founded by a non-contact: those who are impure cannot touch the money. They are unclean because they are poor, excluded, rejected from the havens of the rich and capacious, from the market clubs. Yesterday and today.

But there is still something more radical and therefore not visible to the naked eye. In ancient times, the money that passed between and beyond the various social classes allowed the rich and the Brahmins to use the services of manual workers and the poor without having to "touch" them, without the need to enter into a personal relationship with them. By paying something, usually very little, those who were in power by money could and can still make use of arms and hands without touching them. With the development of market economy and later financial capitalism, money has thus become the great mediator of our time, the tool that allows us to live close to each other but without touching each other in order not to get contaminated, not to be wounded by diversity. With the de-materialization of money that, thanks to technology, our era is witnessing, we have amplified the "spiritual" nature of money, which, just like the more developed gods, is not visible but it operates, acts, saves and condemns. The invisible electronic money is what increasingly gets to mediate our mutually immune relationships with each other, with the novelty that it is no longer even necessary to touch the coin, which has magically become a "zero mediator". We no longer see the pariahs that by touching money purify it with their impurities, but in the basement of our capitalism many people continue to launder our dirty money: new outcasts, the same old function.

Finally, there is a further, decisive novelty of our civilization of the invisible and all-powerful money when compared to the old ones. Until recently, things that could be purchased with money were, all in all, few and almost never decisive. Money could not buy the most important things of life, only a small part of health, a small part of esteem, a (less small) part of comfort and care. For millennia the coins could buy little, certainly not all, and above all these things were few and meant for few. The sacred nature and mystery of money depended also on its scarcity and therefore on the ignorance and incompetence that the great majority of people who came into contact with it experienced - similar to what the vast majority of people are experiencing about the new finance now.

Today, however, a lot can be bought with money, almost everything is on sale, we are being convinced that we can and must buy everything: from health to youth, from justice to beauty. And that's, in fact, the return of a new, global "market of indulgences", where paradise and purgatory can be promised and purchased with money, where the rich buy time, services, care, life from the poor. We do not pay a poor person to pray for us or go on a crusade or to Santiago de Compostela in our place, but to sell us a kidney, bear a child for us or help us to die.

Money still wants to buy paradise. And we allow it to happen, because we have forgotten how the real paradise was.

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