So it looks like I will finally write my book on The Sacred Economy, probably for Westminster John Knox. I have been gathering material for this for some years, so it is time to write an over-arching proposal for a Marxist reconstruction of biblical economics in the context of the ancient Near East. It has some Soviet-era parts (towards a Soviet biblical scholarship, as Sergey and I have been discussing), some Ste. Croix, Finlay and Polanyi, some freely adapted Regulation School economic theory, and a
shit- (sorry, mum) bucket-load of data. Why do this? We still don’t have a model that identifies the economic motor of biblical economics, and we don’t have a way of accounting for its perpetual crises and rare stretches of relative stability.
Big picture? why not? Grand proposal? Sure, you live only once, unless you are a Hindu or Buddhist, but then you forget everything that happened in your former life anyway.
One issue concerns the in-built anachronism of any study of ancient texts, societies and economics. So some thoughts in that direction (yes, it is part of one of my papers for that annual gathering of that bespeckled, bearded and tweed-jacketed species (and that, as I have mentioned before, is only the women) known as biblical scholars at SBL):
All too often an unexamined feature of biblical scholarship is what may be called the problem of anachronism. One encounters it frequently in the struggles between historical critical approaches to the Bible and what are variously called ‘newer literary’ approaches or even (with a profound misunderstanding of the term) ‘postmodern’ approaches – these include a disparate collection running all the way from Marxist methods to postcolonial or queer analysis. The reply to the challenge posed by these newer methods (although they now date from the 1970s, although Marxist biblical criticism goes back to Engels) is met by the point that they impose modern categories on an ancient text and are therefore invalid. The assumption is of course that historical critical or archaeological or even social scientific methods are not anachronistic, that they are approaches appropriate to the biblical texts, their histories and their contexts.
This assumption relies on a curious blind spot, for the supposedly historically sensitive methods championed by those who make the charge of anachronism are equally anachronistic. In short, all the methods we use have an inbuilt or structural anachronism that is produced by our very different social, economic and ideological condition. This structural anachronism is produced by the very act of studying the past in the various ways we do so, for that act and our assumptions about a ‘past’ that must be studied in certain ways assume notions about the past that are produced by the condition from which we do so. However, we may take this a step further and argue that precisely those approaches assumed to be historically sensitive to these ancient texts or economic conditions are the most anachronistic of all, since their practitioners do not see the structural anachronism at work in the methods they champion. I would extend this point also to efforts to identify approaches from ancient sources – one may think here, as a sample, of the ancient novel, Aristotelian poetics, epistolary practices or approaches to economics – for the very study of and deployment of these ‘ancient’ methods is caught in the same anachronistic net.
How do we escape the net? I would suggest that the best way to do so is to build an awareness of that anachronism into the theory one is using. What does that mean? The theory proposed should – in a scale of increasing intensity – at all times be aware that it is engaged in an anachronistic task, that such anachronism is a necessary feature of any analysis of ancient societies, and that one structures the theory in order to include such anachronism in its very workings. The first two items (awareness and necessity) may be achieved easily enough, but the question of structure is a little more challenging.
I suggest that we approach it in the following manner: the theory in question should include a narrative of difference. Both terms are vital. By narrative I mean an account of the vast distance travelled in time between the society we are investigating and the one from which we undertake such investigation. That ever-present narrative, which will itself always be contested, rewritten and contested again, means we have perpetually before us the distance from those ancient economies and societies. By difference I mean precisely that: the effect of the narrative is that it produces a profound sense of the difference between our own social formation and that of the societies, cultures, texts and so on we seek to study. Through that persistent difference is the issue of anachronism inescapably fore-grounded. Yet that narrative of difference is more dialectically complex than it at first seems, for we may, hypothetically, find elements that seem exceedingly familiar – money, agricultural production, trade, banking, tax, government spending and so on – but the way they are structured, their relationships to one another, the patterns of dominance and subordination, and, as we shall see with the Regulation theorists, their determining forms of social relations will be unfamiliar. At this point, the narrative of difference has its most difficult task.