Religion and economy

(Delivered on October 22nd in the Economics Faculty, Humboldt University, Berlin as the Hermann Otto Hirschfeld lecture for 2015. With profound thanks to Prof. Rolf Schieder for his role in organizing this event.)

Religion belongs to a set of terms that also includes art and science. Science began as a form of knowledge opposed to religious mysticism, but is now often opposed to the arts. If science may crudely be said to be the drive to know the world objectively and art is mainly a means of subjective self-expression, religion typically addresses both sides of the subject-object relationship by connecting what is inside each of us to something outside. Religion binds us to an external force; it stabilizes our meaningful interactions with the world, providing an anchor for our volatility.

Durkheim’s last book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), is his most neo-Kantian work. Compared with his reductionist sociological approach of the 1890s, where consciousness is always collective, this study of religion conforms more closely to my definition above. He divided experience into the known and the unknown. What we know well is everyday life, the mundane features of our routines, and we know it as individuals trapped in a sort of private busy-ness. But this life is subject to larger forces whose origin we do not know, to natural disasters, social revolutions, economic catastrophes and, above all, death. We desperately wish to influence these unknown causes of our fate, which we recognize as being both individual and collective in their impact. At the very least we would like to feel they were less uncertain and to establish a meaningful connection with them. For Durkheim, religion was the organized attempt to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown in our lives, between a profane world of ordinary experience and a sacred, extraordinary world located outside that experience.

What is ultimately unknown to us is our collective being in society, he claimed. Through ritual we worship our unrealized powers of shared existence, society, and call it God. Society lies within each of us as well as outside; it is both subjective and objective. The chaos of everyday life attains some stability to the degree that it is informed by beliefs representing the social facts of a shared collective existence. Rituals instil these collective representations in each of us.

Assisting with the publication of Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) sharpened my appreciation of Durkheim’s perspective (see my Foreword to the book), because it is an extended reflection on ritual as the ground where religion is made. Rappaport’s own definition starts from an emphasis on formality, invariance, and tradition. The project of achieving our potential to be collectively human has barely begun. It is entailed, however, in our origin as a species, according to him in the discovery of language and with it religion. Religion, which is constantly being made and remade through ritual, is how we get in touch with the wholeness of things (‘holiness’). Various attempts, all of them partial, have been made to conceive of world society as a human universal. The new human universal, however, is not an idea, but the social fact of 7 bn of us trying to find a way of living together on this planet. As that part of the biomass that thinks (no non-human agents in this scenario), humanity must now assume responsibility for the stewardship of life as a whole. Religion is indispensable to that task.

What is economy? In some cultural traditions, such as the French, economy and economics are the same thing (Schumpeter 1954 History of Economic Analysis, Callon 1998 The Laws of the Markets), not a social object but a form of analytical reason. On the other hand, “the economy” is popularly a national thing, the British economy, indicated by figures on the TV news. The economy is neither subjective nor objective, but a subject-object relationship, a dialectic, like religion. This is the basis of their elective affinity.

An economy is something like the skin of an organism. Skin holds the inside in and keeps the outside out while allowing for some limited interaction between the two. Shells, on the other hand, perform the first function, but not the second. Marcel Mauss (1925 Essay on the Gift) and Karl Polanyi (1944 The Great Transformation) held remarkably similar views on economic evolution, although I find Mauss’s vision more powerful. He starts from the local. People live in local societies which aspire to self-sufficiency and they attach social rights and obligations to their mutual proximity. But no human society has ever been self-sufficient, whether materially or otherwise. People have to trade with foreigners in order to make good local deficits. This trade can take many different forms, but its institutional foundation is always money and the markets they make possible. Money and markets in the most general sense are thus human universals, since society is impossible without them. Mauss based his critique of the Bolshevik revolution on this observation. They extend a society’s reach, just as the demands of home society pull this expansion back inwards. There is therefore a permanent tension between the internal and external dimensions of an economy.

All stateless societies and preindustrial civilizations tried to keep markets and money at arm’s length, outside normal society so that the control over society afforded by landed property held by lineage elders or an aristocratic military caste might not be undermined  (Hann and Hart 2009 Market and Society). This dialectic of local and global economy existed long before we came to perceive the modern world that way. The underprivileged members of local society – slaves, serfs, women, the young, ethnic minorities – found freedom of movement in markets which are always in a sense world markets, unbounded networks.

After the industrial revolution, the wage labour system led to an attempt to separate two complementary spheres of production and consumption in which paid and unpaid work predominated respectively. One is ideally objective and impersonal, specialized and calculated; the other is subjective and personal, diffuse, based on long-term interdependence. The first is a zone of infinite scope where things, and increasingly human creativity, are bought and sold for money—the market. The second is a protected sphere of domestic life, where intimate personal relations hold sway—home. The market is unbounded and, in a sense, unknowable, whereas the bounds of domestic life are known only too well. The result is a heightened sense of division between an outside world where our humanity feels swamped and a precarious zone of protected personality at home. This duality is the moral and practical foundation of capitalist society. Just as money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to the workplace; and the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres conceptually separate is huge as a result. This is why members of capitalist societies believe that a money payment transforms social relations, while most people in the world don’t (Parry and Bloch 1989 Money and the Morality of Exchange).

The current world economic crisis is not just a phase in the cycle of credit and debt. It is a profoundly significant moment in the history of economy and specifically of money. The dominant economic form in the 20th century was national capitalism: the attempt to control money, markets and accumulation through central bureaucracy ostensibly in the interests of the citizen body as a whole. Now the global money circuit massively outweighs national economies. This imbalance in national and global economic power was launched in 1971 when the US dollar was depegged from gold and money derivatives were invented in the following year. In the mid-1970s most international money transfers paid for goods and services purchased abroad. Now money is exchanged for money in another form: FX turnover in 2013 was $5.3tn a day! The global money circuit is largely lawless. Our dilemma today is that the economy is global and politics is national in the main. Somehow we need to extend the system of social rights and obligations to a more inclusive level before the political contradictions take us into world war. It is an urgent task to make a viable world society that reflects our actual human interdependence. But how?

If the “economy” is neither subjective nor objective, but somehow both, most of the variants that have found a named place in the history books have been conceived of as a specific strategy, expressing the interests of a class engaged with others in social conflict. Such a strategy must be discovered, articulated and disseminated. For an economy to be useful, it should be based on general principles that guide what people do. It is not just an ideology or a call for realism. The history of the word “economy” is both long and unfinished. Any modern English dictionary reveals the residue of that history in the way we use terms like economy, economical and economize today, referring as they do to order, management and thrift in contexts ranging from household budgets to the world of markets and money.

In its Greek origin, two and a half millennia ago, “economy” privileged budgeting for domestic self-sufficiency and was anti-market; it expressed the interest of a military landlord class (Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor and thus the ideological arm of the Macedonian cavalry that eventually overran Athens, leader of the urban capitalist faction). Economy remained domestic for another two millennia; then political economy promoted capitalist markets over military landlordism, profit over rent, public circulation of commodities over households. Urban economy retained a sporadic influence throughout. We should also recognize the immense role of world religions in shaping economy during this period: Catholic, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu etc. The strategy of “national economics” pioneered by Friedrich List (1841 The National System of Political Economy) employed a combination of free trade and protection to strengthen a nation’s position in the world economy. It was the forerunner of what I call “national capitalism”.

Casting around for a slogan that would draw attention to the need for greater coordination of world society, I hit on the notion of “human economy” as a way of envisaging the next stage, linking unique human beings to humanity as a whole. This would stretch the inside/outside dialectic to its extremes: individual persons meaningfully linked to everyone else. The social and technical conditions of our era — urbanization, fast transport and universal media – should underpin any exploration of how the principles of human economy might be realised. A human economy approach does not assume that people know best, even if they usually know their own interests better than those who presume to speak for them. Although we wish to restore people in their everyday lives to the foreground of economy, a baseline humanism alone will not deliver progress on the scale required for global development. For that purpose popular initiatives will have to be combined selectively with the efforts of large-scale bureaucracies, such as states, corporations, cities, regional federations and international agencies.

The Pretoria Human Economy research program (which I codirect with John Sharp) is first of all a new node in an extensive international network animated by a common desire to advance economic democracy through academic research, social initiatives and public outreach. Based in Southern Africa, our aim is to articulate a new perspective in South-South and North-South dialogues concerning a better world. This will be achieved through research, publication and intellectual exchange more than by issuing programmatic statements such as this one. (Hart and Sharp eds 2014 People Money and Power in the Economic Crisis; Hart ed 2015 Economy For and Against Democracy).

People want to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being a means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between them. Today it is the source of our vulnerability in society and a practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society. If money has indeed separated economic spheres and fragmented human experience, it can also join together what it has divided. If you have some money, there is almost no limit to what you can do with it, but, as soon as you buy something, the act of payment lends concrete finality to your choice. Money’s significance thus lies in the synthesis it promotes of impersonal abstraction and personal meaning, objectification and subjectivity, analytical reason and synthetic narrative. Its social power comes from the fluency of its mediation between infinite potential and finite determination.

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), 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.

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 universal 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.


I know that religion and money are generally divisive, sometimes even more than race, ethnicity and nationality, but the world religions of the Axial Age — which either came from India or met there — united peoples who didn’t know each other, as they and money still do. This is something that the alternative money movement has to come to terms with.

I grew up in Old Trafford, Manchester when the religious divide (protestant/catholic) was absolutely dominant. Later the area hosted many Commonwealth immigrants and only the white old ladies remained of the pre-60s era. I knew my Grandma was racist — they all were — so I asked her what she thought of her new black neighbours: “He’s a medical orderly from Barbados, a lovely man, and you should see his two daughters dressed up for Sunday school at St. Johns (a local protestant church). Not like them f-king Poles before him who always got drunk on a Saturday night and then went to the priest for absolution the next day”. The Indians posed a problem, not being part of the protestant/catholic divide: “I like them dresses the women wear, but the food smells funny, don’t you think?” For her religion trumped race. Dress and food were important markers of difference too.

I loved her more than anyone else, without reservation — and still do love her memory above all others. She was a working-class Tory, an ‘Angel in marble’ — Disraeli “discerned the “Conservative nature of the working man in the same way as a sculptor discerns an Angel in marble” (Times obituary). For her money and Manchester, poor as she was, were sources of liberation from her origins in feudal agriculture, as equalizers — “my money is as good as yours”, “if you can’t pay, don’t go” — and I learned my basic attitudes to money from her. We lived across the street from each other when I was a kid and I could escape my mother’s discipline by running for refuge to my Grandma’s small terraced, but proudly kept home.

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