A Point of View: And all shall worship money

People catching money

If money is now society's religion, does it then follow that economists are the clergy of the modern age? If so, writer Will Self proclaims himself a heretic.

In her classic work on the social function of taboos, Purity and Danger, the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote this:

"Money mediates transactions; ritual mediates experience, including social experience. Money provides a standard for evaluating worth; ritual standardises situations, and so helps to evaluate them. Money makes a link between the present and the future, so does ritual. The more we reflect on the richness of the metaphor, the more it becomes clear that this is no metaphor. Money is only an extreme and specialised type of ritual."

The equation between a reverence for money and the worshipping of false gods goes back at least as far as the Old Testament, and probably a lot further. But if, as Douglas suggests, money itself, rather than being a mere graven image - and so potentially ignorable - is in fact a form of ritual integral to our daily lives, then it begs the question: what is the theological underpinning to these rituals?

Image caption Christ drives the moneylenders from the Temple in Jerusalem

I think I know - and I expect you do too. We may appear to live in an overwhelmingly secular society, but nonetheless we have a large and wealthy priesthood, many of whose members occupy positions of power - power in politics, in business, education, and especially banking. In the past, the children of the British establishment were earmarked early on for careers in the military or the church - and in the case of the latter this remains true to this day; however, the nature of the church has changed.

I myself was selected for this priesthood, the doctrines and rituals of which are taught not at seminaries, madrassas, or rabbinical schools, but in particular at the elite universities, and especially at Oxford. There's a nice continuity here, after all, in the early 19th Century over half of Oxbridge undergraduates went on to take holy orders, while the requirement that dons have taken them wasn't abolished until the 1870s.

The prime minister received his religious training at Oxford, as did the leader of the opposition. The shadow chancellor took his holy orders at Oxford as well; although the somewhat heterodox chancellor himself, while attending the same seminary, took his degree in modern history rather than PPE.

PPE, which stands for Politics, Philosophy and Economics, is the core curriculum of our current belief system, and while - as George Osborne's elevation bears witness - it is not mandatory for cabinet ministers to have followed this course, a large minority of them have, and those that haven't will have got their E somewhere else - because it's the E which is really important, the PP being there simply to sugar the tasteless communion wafer.

Image caption Oxford University - birthplace of the PPE degree

Indeed, if you're even remotely serious about aspiring to a position in the Church of Mammon, and officiating in its rituals, then you're better off dropping the philosophy early on; and if you bother with the politics at all, you're better off concentrating on governance and bureaucracy, rather than anything smacking of heretical ideologies.

I'm afraid I went in the other direction, and rather than abandoning the P, dropped the E. Really, I fell at the first hurdle - or altar rail if you prefer - being unable to lend credence to one of the most basic articles of economic faith, namely Pareto's concept of ordinal utility. I won't bore you with its details now; suffice to say that ordinal utility describes the hypothetical substitution by the consumer of one bundle of goods for another bundle, based on a perception of their relative usefulness.

That the model Pareto devised to express this "marginal rate of substitution" involved the marvellously named "indifference curve", wasn't sufficient to convince me, for, like so many theories of microeconomics, Pareto's rested on an assumption that my own experience of life - even aged 18 - simply didn't bear out: namely, that so far as their relevant behaviour was concerned, people acted rationally.

Thirty very odd years on, I'm absolutely certain that people don't act rationally - even when comparing baskets of goods, let alone when considering more complex choices. But if the small-scale assumptions about apparently quantifiable aspects of human behaviour bothered me, it was the willingness of economists to make large-scale ones about entire social classes that led me to suspect the entire belief system was a load of hokum.

When I was studying E at Oxford the emerging orthodoxy was monetarism, a belief that the control of the money supply was the primary way to keep inflation - that scourge of the 1970s - under control. At the core of monetarism was the so-called quantity theory of money; this had been around for a while, but had recently been reinvigorated by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics.

While on the surface their version of the quantity theory was value neutral - expressing merely a relationship between the circulation of money in an economy and price rises - Friedman added a whole string of additional factors to the equation, which included such assumptions as the workers' demands for wage increases.

Image caption The miners' strike (1984-5): Sparked by a clash of economic theories?

Living in the Britain of the early 1980s, where entire industries were going to the wall and millions were losing their livelihoods, it seemed to me madly dogmatic to assign a numerical value to such obviously cultural and psychological phenomena. But while these spurious notions of human behaviour that informed the ex-cathedra statements of tenured economists stuck in my craw, it was their investiture as the sacred prognosticators of our collective destiny that finally convinced me they were false prophets.

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And false prophets they remain. Anyone who consistently listens to the news media cannot ignore the regularity with which economics pundits are wheeled out to pronounce on this or that set of statistics. Following Mary Douglas, to say that this constitutes the divination of sacrificial entrails is not an analogy - that is precisely what it is. And yet the relation between economic data - which are often imperfect, and can only represent the state of an economy as it was some time in the past - and the future is tenuous at best.

That's why, if you spend sufficient time listening to these Panglosses or Cassandras, you'll notice that more often than not, they're entirely wrong - most spectacularly so in their failure to anticipate the financial collapse of 2008.

Like all priesthoods, the economics one depends for its hold over the credulous on a form of arcane knowledge. In the case of the economists their vulgate is mathematics - and in particular its baffling econometric form. And yet the basis of our economic existence is readily and intuitively understood by just about anyone: we wrest materials from the Earth, we make things and we provide services.

Our slice of the earth supplies us with some things, and in making others and providing services we operate at either an advantage or disadvantage in respect of other economies. Sometimes we do well - sometimes we do not; it does not take the doctrinal complexities of the economic priesthood for us to understand comparative advantage or competitiveness, even when the obfuscating veil of "globalisation" is draped over our eyes.

What we need now is a movement akin to the one that took place in the 16th and 17th Centuries. In place of the vulgate we require the holy books of economics to be written in the language we actually speak, and along with this we should actively seek a liberty of individual conscience, so that we communicate directly with Mammon, freed from the intercession of a priesthood who, when not arguing about how many angels can be fitted on the head of a pin, are spending our money producing elegant but utterly spurious mathematical models of possible future angel-on-pin scenarios.

Of course, such a wholesale recusance on the part of the economic laity will result in the downfall of the pampered economic priesthood - they will be turfed out of their cloistered temples, and dragged kicking and screaming from the boardrooms, cabinet tables and television studios where they currently hold sway. As for our political leaders, they may regret that they dropped the P instead of the E - hell, they may even wish they'd studied theology.

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