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Verbum et Ecclesia

versão On-line ISSN 2074-7705
versão impressa ISSN 1609-9982

Verbum Eccles. (Online) vol.35 no.3 Pretoria  2014 



Spirituality for democracy and social cohesion versus the spirituality of money



Ulrich Duchrow

Department of Theology, University of Heidelberg, Germany





We live in a life-killing global system, and thus, we are called by our own biblical basis - re-read in the spirit of other than Western traditions - to search for life-giving alternatives and to develop democracy accordingly. However, this is not a geographical exercise. We cannot count on South Africa as a place where Ubuntu is practiced or on South Korea living in communities according to Sangsaeng. The reason is that Western civilisation, with its own spirituality, has permeated all corners of the earth. My thesis is that this is the spirituality of money; biblically speaking, of Mammon. Before we can talk about a spirituality for democracy and social cohesion, we need to address the spirituality of the status quo in order to understand what the alternative could be. The issue gets complicated by the new insight that Western civilisation has deep roots in history; in fact a history of almost 3000 years. Only by looking at this history can we really understand how money did not only change socio-economic and political structures but also hearts, minds and the spirituality of people.

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: This article challenges the normal Western assumption that democracy is but a political issue of voting every 4 or 5 years. Instead it shows that real democracy is linked to economic and social justice, as well as to deep cultural and spiritual roots. Authors should carefully identify the contextual perspective they challenge, identifying the potential results of the proposed research and whether it calls for a change in traditional discourse as well as whether such a change is possible. Key insights into the research results and its future function should be revealed.



Today we are faced with life-killing civilization, manifested in economic injustice, ecological destruction, the threat of Empire, and the escalation of religious conflicts. This compels us to urgently explore the possibility of life-giving civilization which affirms relationships, co-existence, harmony with creation, and solidarity with those who struggle for justice. This quest finds meaning in Ubuntu and Sangsaeng. (Transforming Theology 2007)



Today we are experiencing psychological and spiritual suffering and disease amongst a growing number of people. In India, about 54 farmers on average commit suicide daily out of despair because they have been driven into debt beyond their means (Martin & Kakde 2006). Workers suffer increasing stress and anxiety whilst middle-class people fall into depression, which in 2020 will presumably be the second largest illness according the World Health Organization (WHO). In contrast, nearly all people are making their decisions according to the one yardstick: ‘What is in it for me?’ They are thus motivated by an egocentric spirituality. What are the roots of all of this?


The spirituality of money in the Axial Age and in the capitalist civilisation of modernity

My thesis is that what we are now experiencing started nearly 3000 years ago within what is called the Axial Age, beginning in the 8th century BCE in the whole of Eurasia, from Greece to China. At that time, a new economy started to appear in daily life, built on money and private property. It had tremendous social as well as psychological and spiritual effects. To analyse what happened then helps to understand what is happening today. Looking at the responses to this development from the different faiths and philosophies in Israel or Judah, India, China and Greece may also help us to better understand the tasks and possibilities of a spirituality of democracy and social cohesion in our age.

It was the philosopher Karl Jaspers who coined the term Axial Age (Jaspers 2010). According to him, the experience of violent crises between 800 and 200 BCE might have prompted the parallel efforts of the prophets, the Buddha, Confucius, Daoism and Greek philosophy to find new foundations for living together. He characterised the new approach as intellectual and spiritual (geistig), looking only marginally at the economic and political context. Recently Karen Armstrong and, based on her findings, Jeremy Rifkin took up this theory, looking particularly at war and violence as causes for the responses within the different cultures (Armstrong 2006; Rifkin 2009). José María Vigil (2012) also recently published a chapter in his book Theology of axiality and axial theology. As far as the socio-historic context of the Axial Age is concerned, my thesis comes closest to what Graeber (2011) worked out in his book Debt: The first 5,000 years, although he is not that interested in the religious responses. Combining his insights with my own research (cf. Duchrow & Hinkelammert2004), let me summarise how the new economy affects the ancient societies and spiritualities.

Money as unit of account was used in the palaces and temples of Mesopotamia as early as around 3000 BCE, but the ordinary economy of people in daily life functioned via a system of mutual credit. This changed when soldiers and mercenaries became professionals and war-making was raised to previously unknown levels. They had to be paid. The most important wage was the spoils. As precious metal could easily be transported, it started circulating in little pieces as a kind of money. Around 600 BCE, authorities in Lydia, India and China started nearly simultaneously to coin the metal in order to pay mercenaries and soldiers. With these practical currencies, local markets also developed for daily transactions by the normal people. This means that cash and unified markets are the children of war.

At the same time slaves, usually prisoners of war, but by now increasingly also debt slaves, were turned into a negotiable commodity. This is why Graeber calls this new system the military-coinage-slavery-complex. A kind of vicious circle emerged. New professional armies looted precious metals from temple or palace treasuries, jewellery of women and slaves from the populace. The slaves had to work in the mines to produce more metal for the coinage. The coins were paid to the soldiers and stimulated the local markets and so on. The whole system only functioned as long as it expanded through further conquest. So it is no surprise that this system was easily wedded to imperialism. Increasingly, the empires also requested the payment of tribute in the form of money. This development found its first climax in the Hellenistic-Roman empires.

On this basis, the logic and spirituality of calculated exchange in markets emerged. Goods for daily needs were exchanged with money as the unit of account. Money became the 'one' in the variety of commodities, but not as a 'thing', detached from the social process in which people recognise its value, as the Buddhist economist, Karl-Heinz Brodbeck, points out (Brodbeck [2009] 2012). This means that the daily use of money also changed the soul and the thinking of people. Besides communicating by speech, namely using words (logos), they communicated by calculating in money (ratio). In so doing, the individual ego gained precedence over relations in community.

The developments above were furthered by the fact that, in the process of exchange in the market, the money owner had more power than the producer of goods. Money as such offered access to the market whilst the product first had to be in demand. Coping with this risk is only possible by having as much money as possible. One of the 'sages of antiquity', Pittakos of Mytilene, underlined this by saying: 'Profit is insatiable' (Binswanger 1995:34). He does not say: 'The one who makes profit is insatiably greedy'. What he says is that an economy in which money is made a commodity is inherently greedy. This is why, in our new book, Franz Hinkelammert and I speak of 'greedy money' (Duchrow & Hinkelammert 2012). There is an 'objective' base for greed to accumulate money without limits.

The other implication of the new money economy is that money gives the right to private property beyond personal use. Money gives access to the market, cushions the risks, measures the exchange value and gives access to property rights. Combined with the development of hierarchies and classes in larger societies, money and private property started to determine the economic, social and political power of people within societies.

In any case, the new economy led to greed and the desire to accumulate limitless money. The institutionalisation of this greed was inscribed in interest. Debtors had to pay back more than they had borrowed, for example to purchase seed. They also had to put up their own land as security. If they could not pay back their debt plus interest, they lost their land and their family had to work as debt slaves for the creditor. Thus private property and money came into existence at the same time and led to debt slavery and loss of land. At the same time, creditors could collect more and more land, money and debt slaves. This is what scholars have called the emergence of a class society in antiquity (Kippenberg 1977).

Private property and money also reinforced the male domination of patriarchy since only men could own property, which was a way of giving them political power, too. The house father (in Greek: despotes, in Latin:dominus) was seen as the owner of the land, women, children, slaves and cattle. This meant that democracy in Ancient Greece was also a democracy of male property owners. In Roman law, private property even received the status of an absolute. Men were legally allowed to use, misuse or destroy it. Both the Hellenistic and Roman empires built on a calculating, conquering spirituality, from the household to the emperor.

So the result of introducing money as commodity and private property as an absolute, combined with imperial conquest, was an increased division in societies between masters and slaves, men and women, a more and more precarious situation of small farmers and, in general, a dire impoverishment and suffering for the majority of people. This was not just a structural problem, because money also changed people's souls. Besides communicating through speech and cooperation, they started calculating, which included calculating each other's performance in competition. So the problem was not just structural, but it took on a psychological and spiritual dimension.

Before looking at the religions and philosophies resisting these developments in the Axial Age, let us briefly analyse how the modern capitalist civilisation built on the early money and private-property economy, giving it a new dynamic. In early capitalism, from the 13th to the 14th century CE, the market set out to conquer one sphere of life after the other. The basic step was the privatisation of land as commons through enclosures, subjecting agriculture to the mercantile coordination of labour. Another new element was the introduction of compound interest. However, the most decisive new element was the invention of double-entry book keeping in the upper Italian trade and banking cities. Here everything was calculated according to debit and credit, costs and return, input and output - with one goal only: to gain maximum profit. Double-entry bookkeeping was not just a social technique but the decisive characteristic of a new worldview. People started looking at the world as a functional mechanism to produce profit for oneself. The calculation of utility followed the means-end rationality, which is the typical way of thinking in European modernity that meanwhile dominates the whole world. As the economy serves the one purpose of maximising profits, normal people judge everything according to a single yardstick: 'What's in it for me?'

It was Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the 17th century CE who worked out the Western concepts of the human being and democracy (Duchrow & Hinkelammert 2004). Hobbes defined the human being as a competitive atomised individual striving for limitless accumulation of wealth, power and reputation, this in the context of the political body, called Leviathan, whose blood is defined as money. Locke defined the human being as property owner and democracy as the political order which has the only purpose of protecting property.

So, structural, cultural and personal greed came to be seen as something positive. Finally, Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith defined greed and egoism as a virtue and the decisive motor of the economy. The mechanism of continuously re-investing the profit in new projects in order to gain higher profits created an obsessive accumulation machine. Money that is constantly re-invested for accumulation purposes is called capital. Capital is not simply money but money or assets in monetary terms invested for getting more money. It can also be frozen to capital in the form of machines serving accumulation. So, greedy money is the exact description of the nature of capital, of profit thirsty for more profit. This is why capitalism is the precise term for the economic system and the form of society of Western modernity. Market economy is a euphemism in order to avoid touching the taboo. If you want to use this term in a capitalist context, you need to say 'capitalist market economy', because in the past there were, and in the future there will be, other kinds of market economies. There can, for example, be exchange markets without money, but there can also be markets with money although these may not have money in the form of a commodity geared at accumulation.

Industrial capitalism deepened the division of labour and increased the split between the classes. However, its key new feature is the increased throughput of energy and resources for profit's sake, aggravated by the fact that consumerism has to be stimulated for the sake of maximum capital accumulation. The result of this shift is only visible now as we face the energy and ecological crises. Karl Marx (Marx & Engels 2012) was prophetic when he stated:

Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the laborer. (s.p.)

He also analysed the obsession with accumulation by the commodity-money mechanisms as fetishism, driving people and societies even against reason. This means that capitalism is more than an economic system. It is a religion - an insight further developed by Walter Benjamin in his essay on capitalism as religion. This is exactly what we experience today as growth fetishism is destroying the earth. It can only prevail because people have internalised the spirituality of a calculating money subject.

Today this fetishism has taken the form of financial capitalism after it turned out that infinite growth is not possible in a finite world. Within the financial sector, the growth obsession has turned to speculation, with ballooning financial assets in all kinds of forms. However, it is not without a link to the real economy because when the balloons burst, as we experienced in the years following 2007, the neoliberal governments take real money from the working tax payers and throw it into the voracious jaws of the money owners and their agents, the banks. This shows that our formal democracy is unable to serve the interest of the people. It is a democracy of the banks, by the banks, for the banks. As this policy increases the debt of the public budgets, big capital is blackmailing the governments to pay even higher interest rates and curb social benefits. It seems certain that the whole system will one day collapse, thereby increasing the suffering of people even more. Financial capitalism is the ultimate climax of a development starting in the Axial Age.

Its spiritual dimension may be demonstrated by a poem about gold composed by the Swiss poet Mascha Madörin from advertisements of banks - especially because gold is one of the most fateful natural gifts to South Africa and its history:

Gold is validation; its promise carries weight.

Gold is surprise; it exceeds the greatest expectations.

Gold is security; on its stability the world depends.

Gold has charisma; it never loses its shine.

Gold is faithfulness; it never betrays its owner.

Gold is eternity; its fascination outlives time.

Gold is secret; no one can completely fathom its allure.

Gold is gratitude; it knows how to express itself in immortal words.

Gold is love; there can hardly be a more noble manifestation.

Gold is trust; its value endures.

Gold is affection; it can express feelings better than a thousand words.

Gold is longing; its attraction never fades. (Madörin1989)1

For me, the conclusion is that we are not dealing with this or that crisis but that this whole civilisation is death-bound, not just the economy. It is only because the majority of the people and, to some extent, all of us are imprisoned in the same kind of logic, spirit and practice that the system is still able to operate. Are there possibilities of structural and personal transformation to find a new culture of life which could be nurtured? Before addressing our own options, let us look at some responses by the Axial Age religions. Of course, we have to realise from the beginning that all religious communities today have to a large extent assimilated to the dominating civilisation. So we have to realise with the classic South African Kairos Document that we are in the midst of a struggle between state or capital theology, church theology and prophetic (or liberation) theology when we look at the traditions.


Counter-cultural spiritualities in the Axial Age religions

In this section, I briefly discuss the responses of the Axial Age religions and philosophies to the then emerging imperial money and private-property economy and its effects on people's spirituality (Duchrow & Hinkelammert 2012):2

  • The prophets and the Torah in Israel or Judah responded with the call for justice and legal provisions.

  • The Buddha responded with overcoming the three poisons of greed, aggressive hatred and the illusion of the ego by mindful insight in the mutual interdependency of all beings, the new ways of living together in the Sanghas and admonition to the rulers.

  • Laozi responded with giving priority to the gentle over the hard in the way of the Dao and Confucius with the constant rectification of fulfilling one's role in an ordered society. Socrates responded with putting the search for the arete of the soul over wealth and reputation, Plato with justice in the politeia and Aristotle with his critique of the chremastic accumulation of money and the ethics and politics of the natural economy of the house and exchange without accumulation.

  • Jesus called for the decision between God's justice and the money idol Mammon, highlighting the religious character of money.

  • Muhammad condemned the illusion of limitless wealth accumulation, prohibited charging interest on loans (on the basis of the biblical heritage) and asked for the sharing of wealth through taxes (Zakat) in order to get people out of poverty.

Let me summarise the response of the Jesus movement and the early church on the basis of the Hebrew Bible. Historically it seems that the prophet Amos in the second part of the 8th century BCE was the first to react to the upcoming money and private-property economy and its spirituality. His central theme was the threat to the small farmers. They were losing their possessions through seizures, being sold into slavery for excessive debts whilst the women were abused as debt slaves etc. (cf. Am 2:6-8). Against the destruction of human and social relations through the mechanisms of money and private property, Amos places justice in the centre, correcting all power asymmetries (Am 5:24):

Let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Other prophets of Israel and Judah followed the same line: Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah. The latter identifies the knowledge of God with doing justice to the poor (Jr 22:16). The prophets and their followers were a minority in Israel and Judah. It was only King Josiah who made a difference in the second part of the 7th century BCE. It was under his rule that the message of the prophets started to be implemented in the form of legal reforms that eventually led to the Torah. Central to this process is the book of Deuteronomy. Here you find the Decalogue, presenting God as the liberator from slavery and therefore demanding and protecting just human relations because this is the only way in which freedom can be secured (Dt 5:6-21). It is not by accident that the last of the Ten Commandments is about greed and accumulation:

Neither shall you covet your neighbor`s wife.

Neither shall you desire your neighbor's house,

or field; or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey,

or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

The socio-economic laws are found in Deuteronomy 14-15, later elaborated in Leviticus 25. They contain the prohibition of interest, regular release of debts and slaves, et cetera. When the political economy and spirituality of greed and conquest became totalitarian in the Hellenistic empires, the Jewish faithful