Symposium Introduction

I’ve received a lot of financial advice and financial promises from Christian preachers over the last few years. Most of them come from so-called “progressive” churches. More than one pastor has quoted John 14:2, saying I should look forward to having my own mansion (or two!) in heaven. They also make sure to tell me—in the same sermon—that being a “child of the king” means that I, too, am royalty, and so I should expect an abundance of riches and glamour in the world to come. Countless other pastors have reminded me to be a “good steward” of what God has given me. What that means, I soon find out, is to invest in a 401K and, therefore, root for multinational corporations to triple their profits by the year 2049. “Don’t forget to buy a home,” the pastor adds, “so you can hand it down to your kids.” Here, then, the Christian gospel is not about the abolition of wealth, but its accumulation. It’s not about the abolition of inheritance, but making sure my children are comfortable. It’s not about the rejection of power and privilege; it’s about kings, queens, and mansions with many rooms.

According to Vincent Lloyd, the Black theological tradition has always been uniquely positioned to expose the idolatrous roots of these prosperity gospels. “What white churches proclaimed as theological,” he writes, “was actually the interests of white Americans dressed in religious language.”1 Saidiya Hartman, while not necessarily identifying with any traditional religion, continues this idolatry critique in her recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Meditating on the experiences of a young urban Black couple at the beginning of the twentieth century, Hartman observes:

Aaron and Eva wanted nice things like everyone else, but like most black folks they didn’t adore property, believe in it as a principle like freedom or love or Jesus, or idolize and worship it like white folks did. What Aaron and Eva esteemed was autonomy, what they sought was an escape from servility. Owning things, land, and people had never secured their place in the world. They didn’t need others beneath their feet to establish their value. For white folks—settlers and masters and owners and bosses—property and possession were the tenets of their faith. To be white was to own the earth forever and ever. It defined who they were and what they valued; it shaped their vision of the future. But black folks had been owned, and being an object of property, they were radically disenchanted with the idea of property.2

For Hartman and Lloyd, it’s almost impossible to separate the idol of property from the idol of whiteness. We cannot discuss one without the other. But what’s worth noting in the above discussion is that not only do preachers commonly use financial metaphors to spread their (white, capitalist) gospel; critical theorists often resort to theological language to indict structures of racial capitalism.

Devin Singh’s profoundly important book, Divine Currency: The Theological Power of Money in the West, provides readers with invaluable tools to help us understand why it’s so hard to talk about God without talking about money, and why it’s so hard to talk about money without talking about God. In the symposium’s first essay, Alberto Toscano engages Singh’s rich exploration of “God as a predatory lender, the Messiah as a minted coin, [and] a Roman tax census as the sine qua non of incarnation.” Whereas Toscano focuses his analysis on ideology, sovereignty, and the way “money is bound to the state,” Danube Noel Johnson draws on Jacques Derrida to inquire “about the status of religious and racial difference” found in Singh’s theoretical scheme. Worried about the “dubious projects of conversion” often funded by Christian theology, Johnson invites Singh and his readers to consider what type of “currency,” human or divine, is afforded by God to non-Christian subjects.

In our symposium’s third essay, Heather Ohaneson asks whether we can properly view “soteriology is fundamentally economic in nature,” and, more broadly, whether a foundational metaphor exists at all for Christianity. While Ohaneson wonders if other metaphors might prove more foundational or generative than monetary ones, Sean Capener draws on Aristotle to assess how analogy operates as a “technique of thought” in Singh’s theoretical framework. If the goal is “to think against the divinization of coin, against the moral force of debt-slavery,” Capener concludes, “what does such a practice look like? And what force do we ascribe to analogy?” Finally, in the symposium’s fifth and final essay, Elettra Stimilli highlights Singh’s sophisticated engagement with critical theory, and asks how a more explicit Marxist or Foucauldian framework might help us better understand both the valorization of capital and the complex relations between state sovereignty and economic-governmental power.


  1. Jonathon S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, Race and Secularism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 12.

  2. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (New York: Norton, 2019), 270.

Alberto Toscano

Response

Divine Ideology

God as a predatory lender, the Messiah as a minted coin, a Roman tax census as the sine qua non of incarnation—to read Devin Singh’s Divine Currency is to be transported from our commonplace assumptions about the nexus between Christianity and economics into a world, that of late Antiquity, both wonderfully unfamiliar and uncannily resonant with our own. Though Singh pays tribute to his major genealogical precursors, Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, his monetary correctives to their influential perspectives on pastoral governance and oikonomia are at times quietly devastating, demonstrating that neglecting the orientation of patristic texts towards the real economy, mediated by the reality and representation of Empire, issues into at best truncated portrayals of the theological elements redeployed in later dispositifs of rule.1

Through his fine excavations and expositions of theological texts rarely considered in contemporary debates on monetary power, Singh estranges our tendency to presentism, forcing us to contemplate the often inconspicuous but consequential afterlives of late Antiquity in our amnesiac moment of crisis and circulation. Whilst Divine Currency is a conceptually assured and sophisticated book, it is also grounded in the patient deployment of historical knowledge and philological method, thereby eschewing a widespread tendency, when it comes to “economic theology,” to convert the various entanglements of money and religion into so many proofs of an overarching philosophy of history, be this a linear tale of secularization or a Heideggerian destruction/deconstruction of Western metaphysics.

This is made possible, at least in part, by Singh’s emphasis on the political contingencies of monetary form (a by-product of a sovereignty theory of money which may, as I will suggest below, also be fruitfully interrogated), as well as by his insistence that we always attend to the shaping pressures of the “real economy” on Christianity’s metaphorical repertoire. This means that notwithstanding an emphasis on the transfers and continuities evinced by money’s theological incarnations into a putatively profane present, Divine Currency does not require (unlike, say, Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory) a speculative belief in the persistence of the same paradigm, machine or dispositif across vast swathes of time, not to mention discontinuous modes of production or regimes of government.2

Singh’s meticulous forays into key episodes in the elaboration of a theological discourse on (and through) money in imperial Christianity is particularly welcome in its ability to track what he refers to as “a potent and rich web of conceptual tropes and impressions operating in the interstices between theological discourse and the socio-political imaginary” (124–25). Singh opts for an approach to monetary history that emphasises its political over-determination, thereby departing from classical political economy and traditional Marxism’s tendency to see monetary exchange as a material premise for state power, and not vice versa—a choice that chimes with the crucial place in late Antiquity of religiously-invested political power in the minting, legitimising and circulating of currency. And yet much of his approach could also be regarded as a nuanced corrective to the repudiation of historical materialism evident in Agamben’s genealogy of the onto-theology of oikonomia or Foucault’s account of pastoral power, both of which appear to scant the influence of material economic life on the history of political rationalities and metaphysical constructs alike. That much is hinted at in Singh’s own choice of words, as when he writes (my emphasis) of “a historical material dialectic between theological models and socio-political practice” (84).

And while Singh’s book is a powerful refutation of the early Marx’s perfunctory declaration, according to which “‘Christianity’ has no history whatever and . . . all the different forms in which it was visualised at various times were not ‘self-determinations’ and ‘further developments’ ‘of the religious spirit,’ but were brought about by wholly empirical causes in no way dependent on any influence of the religious spirit,”3 Divine Currency is also a compelling contribution to that much-maligned domain of inquiry, the theory of ideology. Elaborating upon Eusebius’s powerful theological synthesis of money and Empire, the following passage crystallises the core elements of Singh’s own account of the operations of ideology, in which the play of metaphor4 looms large:

Political and economic practices taken as commonsensical provide an orienting logic, as socio-political acts become theological metaphors. These metaphors accomplish the work of providing conceptual content to describe divine activity and to argue doctrinal points of view. Once wedded to transactions of cosmic significance, this theopolitical nexus can act back upon and legitimate the political sphere. . . . [Eusebius] arrived at the fact that monarchy was the divine form by first observing that earthly monarchy was the best way to maintain power and peace. He could then project this earthly political ideal upon God, suppress the dialectic, and act as if God were his conceptual starting point, moving in downward legitimation from heaven to earth, “ascribing monetary actions to God” . . . these widespread imperial practices . . . remain as potent ideological reserve. (125)

Eusebius is figured here enacting the classic gestures of ideology—projection, legitimation, concealment—and yet we could say that what, in a lovely turn of phrase, Singh terms the suppression of the dialectic, is also the foreclosure of another dialectic, namely the one operating between sociopolitical acts of commercial exchange and the sovereign issuance of currency (fiat money), on the one hand, and the domain of production, on the other. This dialectic, the one preoccupying Marxian accounts of the ways in which money’s power as a “real abstraction” consecrates the separation of intellectual and manual labour, is largely absent from Singh’s account.5

One is left to interrogate, or imaginatively reconstruct, how, for instance, this incisive account of the monetary dimension of Christian imperial ideology could be brought into dialogue with classically historical-materialist studies of the mode of production and forms of exploitation operative over the same historical span. It would be fascinating to connect, for example, the ways in which the metaphor of the Son of God as a coin “proves itself repeatedly useful in imperial attempts at consolidation of power” (130), with how fourth-century Christianity was also shaped by dynamics and conflicts in the domains of exploitation, in other words by “class struggles” surely not irrelevant to the mutations in imperial practice.

As Perry Anderson remarked in his classic study of the political-economic crisis of Antiquity, “The new coinage inaugurated by Constantine combined an elite gold standard for the use of the State and the rich, with constantly depreciated copper units for the needs of the poor, without any intervening scale of denominations between the two, so that virtually two separate monetary systems were created—a faithful tally of the social polarization of the later Empire.”6 Not only was this state riven, even in its monetary forms, by class, it was also materially grounded in slavery:

The permanent and direct use by the Roman State of slave-labour—a structural feature which lasted right down and into the Byzantine Empire—was one of the central pillars of the political economy of late Antiquity. The infrastructure of slavery found one of its most concentrated expressions within the imperial superstructure itself. . . . The imperial mints and textile factories (providing uniforms for the state apparatus, mandatory for civilians as well as military from Constantine onwards) were staffed with state slaves; so was the huge corps of manual labourers in the cursus publicus or imperial postal service, which provided the central communications system of the Empire. The weapons establishments were maintained by hereditary workers with military status, who were branded to prevent escape from their condition.7

Whatever the hermeneutic force of a theory of monetary metaphorics articulated around the nexus of imperial power and its theological legitimation, attention to the faultiness of class within the state itself, as evidenced by Anderson, is a necessary complement to Singh’s brilliant account, and especially necessary to cash in the promissory notes of a non-reductive theory of ideology. Such a theory will also require purposeful immersion into the vexed question of money’s role as a “real abstraction”—a theme tangentially present in Singh’s book through his use of the compelling work on money and Ancient Greece by Richard Seaford (which inherits a problematic formulated in more explicitly Marxist terms by George Thomson and Alfred Sohn-Rethel).

The French economist Michel Aglietta has recently made explicit the nexus between abstraction and the kind of political theory of money advocated by Singh in a lucid formulation: “Hierarchical confidence—the belief in a social form of sovereignty deposited in the state—is tested and experienced in exchange, in the unconditional acceptance of minted money. The invention of minting had enormous political implications. The most important of these, in the long term, was the advance of abstraction, through which the state united society by settling the social debt.”8 And yet, we may ask whether this nexus of sovereignty, money and abstraction doesn’t also risk a foreclosure of the kind of class struggles within the money form itself indexed by Anderson.

Or, we may take another tack, and locate in money a strategic instrument of conflict much more than a pacifying logic of abstraction. This was the direction briefly taken by Foucault in his first lecture course at the Collége de France—and abandoned by the time he undertook his explorations of patristic and pastoral literatures, which Singh rightly takes to task for their elisions of the material economy. In his Lectures on the Will to Know, Foucault intervened into the complex debates into the institution of money among classicists and historians of the economy. What is particularly striking in these lectures is Foucault’s effort to go against the grain of a mercantilist thesis of the commercial origin of money, as a function of representation and measure of exchange, and his countervailing effort to link money to political power and socioreligious logics of sacrifice, simulacra and substitution. For Foucault, “there is money when the same object is both sacrifice and tax, salary of the poorest and ritual redistribution, part of the temple or of fire and constraint or plunder by power, magical reinvigoration of the social body and everyday activity of potters at their wheels.”9

This plurality of uses and practices is also a plurality of origins and institutions—in Lydia, money is bound to the state, in Phoenicia to commerce, in Athens to class struggles and debt. Above all, the “beginning of money is not a solemn origin which would already inscribe within it its mercantile and metaphysical nature”—a powerful warning against any absorption of monetary genealogy into a philosophy of history. Genealogy, in Foucault’s rather ultra-left Nietzscheanism of the early seventies, is a matter of struggle, and the same goes for money: “What is inscribed in the monetary seal [marque]—in these figures which are the horse in Corinth, the turtle in Aegina, and soon thereafter the owl in Athens—what is inscribed in it is not the sign, in its general semiological nature, but a struggle for and around political power: it is a displacement, conservation and reinforcement of that power.”10 Irrespective of Foucault’s polemics against the conventional conception of ideology (precisely as sign and representation), I think these insights from his Collège de France lectures resonate with Singh’s conception of ideology as steeped in the work of metaphor (which is, after all, a work of transport, transference, transcoding). Money, for Foucault, is “power conserved and displaced: the metathesis of power.”11

Such a conception of money would also require reconfiguring the theory of ideology not as one of the vertical determination of the political by the economic, or the framing of the latter by the former, but as the displacement between them. Or, in Foucault’s words: “The economic and the political are linked, but they lag with relation to one another [décalés l’un par rapport à l’autre]: their dependence is masked and the monetary sign is the instrument, at one and the same time, of their dependence, their lag, and the occultation of this lagged dependence.”12


  1. Singh pointedly speaks, for instance, of Agamben’s “failure to highlight the explicitly financial and properly economic trace that remains in much discourse about oikonomia in ancient and patristic contexts” (141).

  2. For further philosophical and methodological reflections on the limits of Agamben’s work, which to my mind complement Singh’s historical critique, see my “Divine Management: Economy and Secularization in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory,” Angelaki: Theoretical Journal of the Humanities 16.3 (2011) 125–35, and Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2017), 225–33.

  3. Karl Marx (with Friedrich Engels), The German Ideology (New York: Prometheus, 1998), 166.

  4. It could be very fruitful in this regard to bring Singh’s work into dialogue with Enrique Dussel’s fascinating study of the place of theological metaphors in the writings of Marx: Las metáforas teológicas de Marx (Estella: Editorial Verbo Divino, 1993).

  5. For more on real abstraction, see my “The Open Secret of Real Abstraction,” Rethinking Marxism 20.2 (2008) 273–87.

  6. Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London: New Left, 1974), 93.

  7. Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, 81 and n41.

  8. Michel Aglietta, Money: 5,000 Years of Debt and Power, trans. David Broder (London: Verso, 2018), 93.

  9. Michel Foucault, Leçons sur la volonté de savoir. Cours au Collège de France. 1970–1971, suivi de Le Savoir d’Oedipe (Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2011), 131 (my translation).

  10. Foucault, Leçons sur la volonté de savoir, 133.

  11. Foucault, Leçons sur la volonté de savoir, 132. Metathesis designates the transposition of sounds or syllables in a word, or of words in a sentence.

  12. Foucault, Leçons sur la volonté de savoir, 134.

  • Devin Singh

    Devin Singh

    Reply

    The Monetary Politics of Class Struggle

    I am grateful to Alberto Toscano for this trenchant, eloquent, and finely textured analysis. He rightly zeroes in on both the lacunae I sought to fill in the analyses by Foucault and Agamben and the lacunae that remain due to my choice to make state theories of money and neo-chartalism the governing frameworks for analyzing the operations of money in antiquity. On one hand, I have attempted to rectify the non-materialist economic genealogies set forth by these two influential thinkers, and also sought to challenge a popular understanding of money as merely a medium of exchange. On the other, devoting significant attention to the political context and institutional frameworks in which money operates has led me to undertheorize its relation to forces of production and to the slave economy, in particular.

    My opting for state theories of money is partly a reaction to my Anglo-American context, where economic departments and policy are dominated by neoclassical presuppositions that minimize the role of money in their models of exchange and diminish the place of the state in their depictions of money’s function. This coincides with the neoliberal agenda of privatization and its ideology of free markets. Money’s links to state power and the political realm threaten the fantasy of spontaneous and freely-constituted realms of commercial exchange. Yet this view has such appeal and has enjoyed such simplistic deployment that it has become the commonsense perspective, such that any person on the street will generally offer up a version of neoclassical monetary theory when asked what money is and does. My effort was in part an insistence that whenever money is considered, its links to sovereignty, political institutions, and the force of law must also remain central.

    My approach was also shaped by my impression that orthodox Marxist approaches tend to undertheorize money, privileging the exchange and fetishism of the commodity form as well as labor theories of value in ways that render money merely an abstraction. (Surely, money is abstraction, but it is more than this. I expand on these concerns in my response to Elettra Stimilli.) Such traditional Marxist analyses also tend to view the state merely as an agent of capital, a tool of the capitalist class. (Surely, it is this, but also more.) I am also wary of certain post-Marxian analyses that celebrate (à la Hardt and Negri) the fluidity of global capital as so untethered from state oversight and politicized pathways so as to undermine state sovereignty and usher in a utopia of global anarchic communion.

    These intuitions and contextual concerns help explain my decision to emphasize money as a political project. They do not, of course, excuse the gaps left in my analysis. So, what links might we explore between the state theory of money and concerns about the division of labor in antiquity, its slave economy, debt, and the forces of production? And how, then, do we figure theology and ideology in this relation?

    Toscano is right to indicate class difference and struggle as central to the tale. For, the story I told about sovereignty was not as finely grained as it could have been: while I discussed state management of governed bodies, this may at times have come across as a political class ruling over the undifferentiated masses via governmental institutions. I might have lingered on the important triangulations between the aristocracy, state officials, and laboring classes. While the interests of the former two classes were often aligned, my own insistence on the distinctiveness of the political realm is attenuated if I collapse them, risking a return to the problematic reduction of the political to the economic.

    In fact, the agonism between the state and aristocracy is deeply bound up with the origins and ongoing deployment of money. While money is a tool of sovereignty that instantiates its rule in a given territory—a governance that is felt on the ground by the working classes through the cyclical coercions to labor and consume—it is also a fulcrum of control either of or by the aristocratic class, depending upon the moment of analysis. As Toscano intimates, the Athenian story of money’s origins includes apparent state efforts to counterbalance the power of the aristocracy by using money to incorporate the (albeit land-owning and male) masses into the political process through a system of counting and representation we have come to call democracy.

    Furthermore, it must be acknowledged that the sovereignty that I traced, which is worked out through money on the bodies of the governed, manifests most clearly in the slave class, those with the least agency in the hierarchies of control marked by money. Counterintuitively, the class most affected by the power dynamics of money had no access to it, save when slaves acted as proxies for their masters in financial dealings. There is no doubt a resonance here with homo sacer that requires exploration, for as this included exclusion grounds the realm of law and the political, the slave as excluded from monetary economy grounds it and enables it to function. There may also be important links here with the representational assumptions of incarnation: whereas I highlighted the coin’s representation of the emperor as conceptually parallel to the divine Son’s (and Christ’s) representation of the Father, we must also consider how the slave’s representation of the master (a prevalent Pauline, Johannine, and Synoptic trope) qualifies both of these economies of signification.

    As I did explore, Gregory of Nyssa’s concerns over debt slavery touch on these matters, and his (and many others’) use of liberation from debt servitude (manumissio, redemptio) as a central metaphor for salvation places both debt and slavery at the heart of Christian doctrine and its effects. That many were drawn into slavery due to debt also signals money’s role in displacing sovereign debt onto the populace as a means of control. Money mediates and materializes this displacement that Toscano rightly invokes, this interstitial lag between the political and economic.

    This monetarily managed rupture or distance between the political and economic is another reason why the monetary resonances with incarnation are so striking: incarnation theorizes the relation between the sovereign providence of God and the governed destiny of the created order (a political register), while doing so explicitly by means of an economy (oikonomia), both in the sense of pragmatic management and stewardship and of an exchange and payment. Theories of incarnation (unwittingly?) take up this lag, this gap between the political and economic, and mediate it by way of monetary metaphor. Incarnation thus also becomes implicated in discussion of analogy and apophasis, as it seeks to negate or repress its mediation of an unbridgeable divide (see response to Capener). It is at once unsurprising and utterly astonishing that money, debt, and slavery are thus bound up with incarnation, as a type of ideology par excellence. Here monetary theology grapples, by way of idealized projection on the screen of the sacred, with the repressed fissures in sovereign attempts to consolidate economic forces that are both sovereignty’s constitution and its undoing.

Danube Johnson

Response

January 20, 2020, 1:00 am

Heather C. Ohaneson

Response

February 3, 2020, 1:00 am

Sean Capener

Response

February 3, 2020, 1:00 am

Elettra Stimilli

Response

February 10, 2020, 1:00 am

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