Our religious transvaluation of money: From cosmic evil to “doing God’s work”
The cover feature for the current issue of Boston Review, titled “How Markets Crowd Out Morals,” takes the form of a hugely stimulating forum on the thesis put forth by Harvard government professor Michael Sandel in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (which I’ve referenced here previously). Sandel argues that America’s market-based master meme, which says absolutely every aspect of life can and should be commodified and conducted according to monetary ideas of gain and loss, has gotten out of control and begun to corrupt personal life and civil society by invading realms totally unamenable to them. In the forum, which is available in its entirety online, Sandel leads with an essay derived from his book, and this is followed by nine responses plus his collective reply to them.
One of the responses in particular caught my attention. It’s from Lew Daly, Senior Fellow and Director of the Sustainable Progress Initiative at Demos and author of God’s Economy and God and the Welfare State. The title is “Free Market Idolatry,” and for my money (pun definitely intended) it absolutely nails the spiritual and philosophical heart of what’s happened to us all in this age of — to invoke Morris Berman’s rhetoric — hype and hustling triumphant:
Sandel sees a world in which markets increasingly “corrupt, dissolve, or displace nonmarket norms,” that is, the expectations, customs, and interdictions that shape a common moral life and provide a moral structure for the common good. But his spatial metaphor of “crowding out” obscures the true depths of market corruption. When Goldman Sachs’s Lloyd Blankfein can even try to defend what he does as “God’s work,” the problem is not a crowding out of morals but their transvaluation: making money, formerly an exclusive realm of cosmic evil (or at least a cause of crippling moral diseases among the affluent), is now “doing God’s work.”
…Sandel’s important project on the moral limits of markets arrives at a moment that profoundly illustrates just how marginal such a critique has become. When Wall Street collapsed, the moral validity of market forces somehow emerged newly strengthened. This would be impossible in a time when non-market values had a part in the structure of power. Instead, we can see how religious imagination has filled the absence of non-market power, with non-market values commonly expressed in religious, sometimes apocalyptic, terms.
— Lew Daly, “Free Market Idolatry,” Boston Review, May/June 2012
A grateful nod goes out to the fine folks at 3 Quarks Daily — one of my favorite daily Web stops — for alerting usto this Boston Review forum.