A Feature Review of
At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy
Reviewed by Alden Bass.
In the novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman tells the story of the transition between the Old Gods and the New Gods. The Old Gods – bearing familiar names like Odin and Thor and Aster – arrived in America as the patrons of Old World immigrants. They continued to fill the religious needs of the people in their new land, just as they had done for centuries before in Europe. In Gaiman’s fantasy, however, the Old Gods are losing ground to the New American Gods, portrayed as personifications of Media, Technology, Entertainment, and Finance (cleverly called “the Intangibles”). It is the last of these American Gods which Scott Gustafson tackles in his new book, At the Altar of Wall Street, though Gustafson utilizes anthropological tools to substantialize the truth behind Gaiman’s fictional narrative.
In brief, Gustafson argues that in our current global culture economics functions in the same way that religion functioned in traditional societies. Drawing on the terminology of religious studies, Gustafson devotes chapters to the “religious” phenomena of the Economy: its myths and rituals, its priests and prophets, its polity and sects. “Global Economy” itself, always capitalized, stands in for God. Christian critiques of the current economy are nothing new of course, yet a couple of features set Gustafson’s account apart from similar works. First, unlike the sophisticated theological works of John Milbank, Kathryn Tanner, and Stephen Long, At the Altar’s emphasis on praxis makes it easily accessible to the lay reader. Second, and also unlike the above-mentioned works, Gustafson targets the Global Economy as a whole, and not merely market capitalism. He gives attention to socialism and capitalism, the two major “denominations” of modern Economy (though Wall Street, as the dominant denomination, gets more ink). Finally, Gustafson has firsthand experience as an acolyte of the religion of Economy: he has traded stocks on-line since the early ‘90s, with some success.
Gustofson’s chief aim is to expose the Global Economy as a thoroughly human affair: the Economy has no clothes. He does this by concentrating on economic anthropology and economic history, two areas which he notes are not taught in any business school in America. Both of these fields are related to the mythology of the modern economy, which he treats in his second chapter, but insofar as his entire book seeks to “demythologize” the Economy, history and anthropology are at the heart of the project. Economic anthropology “discredits the idea that human beings by nature engage in exchange, that we have forever engaged in such exchange, and that human beings are isolated units who only interact through economic exchange.” Economic history “reveals that until recently no society was ordered in accord with market dictates” but rather “reciprocity, distribution, or householding” (83).
An example is the “myth of money’s origins,” which says that humans have always been engaged in some kind of exchange. In the old days before money, people exchanged goods and services: the proverbial sack of potatoes for a doctor’s visit. Because of the inefficiency of bartering (the myth tells us), money was invented. In the wake of money came government and regulatory policies. This myth was enshrined in the writings of Adam Smith and has been assumed by modern economists ever since: humans have a natural propensity to exchange, markets predate government, money is the most efficient form of trade. However, anthropologists agree that “no society ever operated using barter…indeed, barter – the immediate exchange of one item for another – probably would have undermined the social structure of hunter/gatherer societies” (36). In similar fashion he unwraps the myths of the Invisible Hand, Efficient Markets, and the logic of cost/benefit analysis.
One of the most interesting chapters of the book was on Money as Sacrament. In some of the chapters, particularly the chapter on ritual, Gustafson mis-categorizes (advertising should be placed under evangelization, not ritual), stretches categories beyond recognition (can a corporation be considered a religious congregation?), or simply makes banal comparisons (Fed Chair as High Priest). Yet describing money as a sacrament – a “visible sign of an invisible grace” – is apt and enlightening. Tracing the origins of money back to the Agricultural Revolution, he explains how money, or surplus wealth, was tied to morality. Like morality, money divides people into good and bad, haves and havenots. More precisely, money made out of everyone a creditor or a debtor. Major shifts in the history of money such as the transition from coin to paper, goods to capital, and from gold standard to fiat currency parallel philosophical and theological developments in world history. The wide distribution of Roman coin mirrored the flourishing of the intellectual tradition in late antiquity; yet when coins ceased circulating in the early middle ages, the intellectual tradition also dried up. Only with the rise of banking did Europe see a Renaissance of culture and thought. And of course, there would have been no Reformation without the penitential calculus of Johan Tetzel’s indulgences: “as soon as the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
The book is filled with such historical nuggets, and it’s well worth the read. Yet I remain skeptical of Gustafson’s overall attempt to demythologize Global Economy, a task he situates alongside the demythologization of religion. Let’s focus on facts instead of stories, he says. Here he yields too much to social science and the Weberian fact-value distinction. It’s true that the great world religions have always legitimated creditor/debtor logic of the Economy to some degree, but it’s also the case that these great Axial religions arose in tandem with the agricultural revolution in part as a critique of the exchange mentality. Rather than turning from “myths” to “facts,” (a feat which may not even be possible) let’s simply tell better myths. The imago Dei in place of Homo oeconomicus. Yahweh instead of Global Economy. Even Odin rather than the Intangibles. Which brings us back to Neil Gaiman…