December 2012

Some more shameless self-promotion: the irrepressible Tripp Fuller – of Homebrewed Christianity - and I did an interview in the quiet corner in Chicago back in November. He’s titled it ‘A guide to being a communist calvinist‘ – not bad, really. The title, I mean.

I have just signed a contract with Fortress Press for a book called Idols of Nations: The Bible and the Development of Classical Theories of Capitalism. It is the follow-up to The Sacred Economy and is due with the press by 1 September, 2013.

The title comes from Jer 14:22 (and Ps 135:15). Since Adam Smith drew the title of Wealth of Nations from Isa 61:6, 12 (and 60:5) and since my book is critical of the way classical economists used the Bible, Idols of Nations it is.


The book critiques the rise of early theories of capitalism in light of their engagement with biblical texts. It traces the way significant theorists dealt with the Bible in order to develop their positions. Why and how did these theorists use the Bible, is that use legitimate, and what are the implications for the influential theories they developed? How did those engagements change over time as those theories developed a life of their own? This study focuses on material often relegated to the margins of analysis. Thus, while Hobbes and Locke found it necessary to build their theories from biblical analysis, Grotius was an accomplished (and ecumenical) theologian and Malthus an evangelical minister, both seeking to reconcile their positions with their theological approaches. The study also traces the way biblical themes are subsumed at a less explicit but deeper level with the later moral emphasis of Smith, Mill and Ricardo.

In more detail: of late a recovery of the looser connection between Christian theology and neoclassical economics has been pursued by some economists and theologians. However, these studies really do not address crucial issues in relation to theology and the Bible. In this light, we find a disjunction: if the Bible is mentioned, it relates to the political or theological thought of the critic in question; where economics is discussed, the Bible does not appear. For example, while secondary literature mentions the Bible in relation to Locke’s political thought, the crucial role of Genesis in the opening section of Locke’s treatment of private property in Two Treatises on Government is ignored or even excised from printed editions. With Grotius, theology in general may be mentioned in his discussion of property, natural law, freedom of the seas and agonism in ethics and commerce, but the Bible is nowhere to be seen. In regard to Hobbes, the central role of religion in Leviathan is noted in relation to politics and ethics but the Bible’s role in his economic thought on property, money and interest is neglected. As for Rev. Malthus, his theory concerning the relation between population and long-term economic stability is recognised as having a general theological basis in theodicy: overpopulation and its problems be divine moral lessons, but ultimate responsibility lies with human sin. Yet the fact that Malthus grounds his moral arguments on the Bible (eg. Gen 1:28) is rarely, if ever, explored in detail.


1. Introduction: Concerning the Bible and Economic Theory

The book begins by emphasising the importance of the Bible for early theorists of capitalism and the simultaneous neglect of precisely that feature of their work. Rather than peripheral scaffolding that may conveniently be ignored once the theories have been erected, the Bible and their modes of engaging with it are crucial for understanding the development of those theories. The work focuses on four key economists who used the Bible extensively: Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), John Locke (1632–1704) and Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).

2. Grotius and the Biblical Seas

Concerning Grotius, an analogy may be identified between his Arminian theology and his doctrine of the ‘free seas’ (developed against claims to dominance by other European states) . Following Jacob Arminius (professor of theology at the  University of Leiden until his death in 1610) and his followers, Grotius believed that salvation involves not merely God’s inscrutable decision concerning election (predestination), but also the faith of each individual. This faith is eternally known, but the shift from orthodox Calvinism is crucial: God elects all who have faith. In other words, a window is left open for individual human agency, even if it is foreknown by God. The analogy with his doctrine of the free seas may be cast as follows: instead of states monopolising the sea, each state and individual is free to use the seas for trade, unhindered by any other state. That is, anyone who could be shown to be a user of the sea was thereby entitled to do so; so also, anyone who shows the true marks of faith is thereby one of the elect.

3. Hobbes and the Natural State of ‘Man’

Hobbes the materialist was the son of a vicar, taught by the puritan, John Wilkinson of Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and held rather unconventional theological views. Sporadic attention has been given to Hobbes’s economic thought, especially in terms of its contradictions, working on the tension between self-interest (greed) and public welfare, between homo economicus and absolutism, between the state and the need for individuals to engage in buying, selling and the pursuit of profit, but also of his anticipatory naturalising of capitalism’s functions as intrinsic to human nature in a way that universalised a particular form of economic activity (Levy 1954; Macpherson 1962; Viner 1991). Yet, what is not noticed is that Hobbes develops these arguments through extensive engagement with the Bible. Most significantly, his treatment is highly critical (he is often seen as a precursor to historical critical methods of interpretation), with scepticism concerning miracles, prophecy and traditional views of authorship. Here then I pursue a close analysis of precisely those sections of Leviathan where Hobbes develops his politico-economic arguments through his critical analysis of the Bible.

4 Locke: The Problem of Paradise and Property

Locke is particularly interesting, for he struggled to overcome the profound difference between the Bible and his own economic context. For Locke, the Bible ‘has God for its author; salvation for its end, and truth without any mixture for its matter’. Given that it contains infallible truth, he vowed, ‘I shall immediately condemn and quit any opinion of mine, as soon as I am shown that it is contrary to any revelation in the holy scripture’. The problem was that on his reading, the state of paradise, when human beings were in harmony with God, contained no private property. Human beings had free run of the Garden, with no sense of owning any part of it, since it was God’s creation. How then did private property arise? Through tilling the soil and using the earth for human sustenance. From this first step, the ever more complex patterns of private property developed. Locke thereby elaborates on Hobbes’s preliminary effort to develop the myth that capitalism is the eternal unfolding of basic human proclivities. Three points are worth noting. First, the Bible is naturalised as part of a grand myth of capitalism. Second, he embodies the very difference between the Bible and his own context by the effort to overcome the contradiction of property. Third, the development of private property becomes a result of the Fall, for the human beings only begin to till the soil after they have been expelled from paradise.

5. Malthus: Theodicy and Political Economy

The Reverend Malthus brought the problem of theodicy into the heart of political economy. How could an all-powerful, all-knowing and loving God afflict human beings with overpopulation and thereby famine, disease and starvation? On the one hand, the results of overpopulation may be seen as a moral lesson in order to make us reform our social modes of life. But God is not responsible, argued Malthus, for human beings are guilty (Gen 2-3). In order to counter the objection that Gen 1:28 encourages us to be fruitful and multiply, he argued that we have been reckless and misinterpreted that text, for we have not been fruitful in a responsible manner. Malthus’s answer was characteristic of early 19th century theology: repentance from sin requires a strictly moral life, with sexual abstinence and honest lives (only his followers proposed contraception). Malthus also signals on a theological register a central feature of economic thought, namely, its deeply moral nature.

6. Sublating the Bible: Morality and Classical Economic Theory

Thus, in the chapter on ‘sublating the Bible’, I focus on the work of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and J.S. Mill. Apart from Malthus, economic theory separated from theology in the 19th century (Waterman 1991; 2004), thereby producing the theoretical perception of an economic sphere independent of all else. In the process, explicit biblical engagements are increasingly sublimated by moral concerns. Thus, the Bible is peripheral in Smith’s work – Wealth of Nations is drawn from Isa 60:5 (and 61:6; 66:12) and the ‘invisible hand’ is a short step from the inexplicable and ubiquitous ‘hand of God’ throughout the Bible – but his argument is deeply moral, with an emphasis on both compassion and self-interest as universal elements of human nature that determine economic behaviour. In Ricardo, this moral focus is manifested in the theory of comparative advantage, while J.S. Mill sought to counter the element of greed in these theories by emphasising that at the end of capitalism, when profits, capital, industry and population had become static, people would turn from selfish to altruistic concerns – the ultimate maximisation of pleasure and happiness. A mark of the sublimation of biblical and even theological concerns is that Smith was a deist, Ricardo a Unitarian and Mill an agnostic who saw the moral and aesthetic power of religion in providing ideals and hopes for human improvement.

7. Conclusion: Economising the Bible

The conclusion explores the paradox in which it seems ‘natural’ to apply neoclassical theories of capitalist economics to the Bible, despite the evident difference between its economic context and capitalism. Two paths may be identified. For some (Locke and Malthus), the Bible presented them with a profound difference between its context and their own. Their work functions as both a recognition of that difference and a sustained effort to overcome that difference in order to naturalise the Bible. For the later theorists (Smith, Mill and Ricardo) and their moral focus, they assumed that human nature is always the same, being a mixture of self-interest and altruism. By connecting that human nature and the core drives of capitalism as a natural fit, they easily moved to the assumption that the history of economies is an unfolding of the same principle. Both paths converge with the myth of a long history of capitalism in which earlier economies function as ‘capitalism light’ – those ‘primitives’ did not know the complexities of fully-fledged capitalism. In regard to the Bible, it thereby seems perfectly ‘natural’ to apply neoclassical economic theory to studying its context. Yet, since it can be shown that early theorists misappropriated the Bible, and since biblical economies were very different than they imagined, such economic theory becomes highly problematic for the study of non-capitalist economies.

Since the Fall was actually the invention of agriculture and all its evils – such as bread, beer, wine, and wool – I’m joining the palaeo-crowd come new year. It’s the paleao-diet for me: huge hunks of dead animal, fish, a few plants that grow as they will. And just to make sure I go the whole hog, I’ll take up palaeo-exercise as well. I will spend my days pretending I am dodging wild animals, running down prey, lifting heavy things and walking long distances with them, strutting around a fire as my prey roasts.

To make sure it’s authentic, I’m going for the real palaeo-experience. I will ensure that I eat only game animals I have hunted myself. None of this domesticated beef, lamb and pork for me. That will involve a project to bring back the auroch, the predecessor of the domesticated bovine:

auroch 01


A mean bugger it was, standing more than two metres at the shoulders, aggressive, with long, inwardly curved horns.

Actually, that’s all crap, since the real palaeo-diet involves mostly stuff you can gather from the ground: spiders, cockroaches, grubs, bugs, marsh rats and other scrumptious vermin, odd looking grasses, unidentifiable mushrooms, strange roots. And I will go out for long runs and return dejected and weary, shaking my head at the game we were unable to catch, lamenting my companions skewered on the horns of some wild beast. I will crouch by the fire roasting my ‘catch’ – making sure I burn off the spider legs, retrieve the cockroaches from the fire at just the right moment, turn the field mouse that I grasped in a desperate lunge. For exercise, I will spend my days shuffling about, bent double, looking intently at the ground, and leaping upon whatever crawling thing happens to pass my way, since our hunter-gatherer ancestors spent most of their time doing precisely that. And there will be no alcohol at all, since one of the main reasons human beings settled into agriculture was for the production of beer and wine.

I will ensure that I die at no later than 30 – bugger, I’ll just have to commit suicide, since I’m already older than that.

As part of my Sacred Economy project, I have been enthralled by the animal remains that provide insights into the basic features of the economies of the Levant, with subsistence agriculture at their basis. Sheep and goats have turned out to be the key, with small numbers of bovines for traction.

But what about the much-debated pigs, with their lovers and not so enthusiastic consumers? Were they fostered and consumed in that largely dry zone between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The remains of pig bones fluctuate over time, with abundant distribution during the Chalcolithic, declining to a low in the Late Bronze Age, rebounding in the early Iron Age for a while, until full resurgence in the Hellenistic era. When they are present, they are so pretty much everywhere; when absent, the same applies. Rather than laying the cause of such a patchy pattern on an emerging ideological aversion to porcine products (and investing wasted energy in trying to determine ethic identity in the basis of pig remains), it is more realistic to focus on the limited possibilities of pigs within a subsistence survival institutional form. Although pigs provide good quality meat, they fare ill under temperature extremes, requiring relatively high levels of water. Pigs are limited to the 250 mm isohyet, much higher than that required by sheep and especially goats. And they do not provide fiber or milk for human consumption. Our porcine cousins provide only limited resources, under certain conditions, and are thereby not always the best option when conditions are tough.

As a footnote, it is worth noting that where the conditions were more well watered and therefore favourable, class issues often turned on the humble pig. More often than not, pigs were used by common farmers and shunned by the ruling class. A similar situation applies to Egypt, where the riverine environment is more favourable to pigs. Here the abundant remains of pigs are limited to the rural population, while they were denigrated and avoided by the ruling class.

Since I am being flooded with inquiries concerning a high resolution version of the Marxist Map of European History, here are the links:

Version 1

Version 2

Please feel free to share, but acknowledge Christina Petterson, who dug it out in east Berlin.

Given that sheep and goats formed the economic basis (as far as fauna are concerned) of the sacred economy in the ancient Near East, one would expect creative uses of such animals. That is, one used every conceivable part of the animal, and the animals performed all manner of functions. Some would be expected – fibre, milk, meat, bones – others less so. Such as:

If a woman quarrelled with her man, she could seek to overcome his anger by knifing a sheep, touching its death wound, holding a magnet in her right hand and an iron boat in the left – not to forget the necessary prayer to the goddess Ishtar. Why? Her man’s anger would be as dead as the sheep and he would – like the iron boat – find her magnetism simply irresistible.

More intriguing is the ritual for the man with a twinge of regret for intercourse with a goat. Yes, there is a ritual for this too. It goes:

You take hair from the she-goat. On the roof, before Shamash, you tie up a virgin she-goat and you take hair from a she-goat whose hair and body are red. You lay them out before the virgin she-goat and pour a libation of beer over them.

Of course one wonders why, but it may well be that the opposition between one’s recent dalliance and the goat with whom one has not copulated, along with the opposition between the colours red and white (hair from the respective goats), all point to the wish for separation.

It goes on:

You tie that hair up in a linen cloth. You put it on the ground before Shamash. You kneel on it and say as follows … You say this three times and report your doings and then prostrate yourself. You throw that linen cloth into the gate of a beer distributor and after fifteen days you remove it. The gain of the beer distributor will be diminished but the omen will stand to one side and its evil will not approach the man and his household.

Why a beer distributor? Not only was beer a crucial product of agriculture, perhaps one of the reasons why human beings gathered together in the first place, but it may also be due to the fact that the goddess Ishtar was the patron of both goats and sex.

Who said capitalism is good for you? According to a recent study (passed onto me by Christina), the effect of rapid privatization and the ‘shock therapy’ of imposing capitalism on Eastern Europe in the 1990s led to a spike in the number of deaths – one million working-age men, and about 3 million in all.

The reasons:

a. 56 percent unemployment.

b. removal of extensive health and social care.

c. destruction of social networks (at its most basic level, this was the assumption that all workers are together).

In other words, had capitalism not been imposed, these people would not have died.

The source of these statistics is that dreadfully left-wing journal known as The Lancet, and the study was written by scholars from the havens of communist agitation, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

So we can add another 3 million to the death toll directly attributable to capitalism, which stands at over 1.5 billion.

To recap the more significant items in that figure:

100 million in India, with the instigation of the ‘democratic capitalist experiment’ from 1947 to 1979, with tens of millions more after that date
17 million killed by the British Raj in India
18 million slaves killed during the Atlantic slave trade
5-10 million native peoples during the invasion of the Americas
8 million by King Leopold’s forces in the Congo
10 million in the Nazi slaughter of Jews, gypsies, communist and gays
15 million slaughtered in the First World War’s ‘reordering’
55 million killed in the invasion of Europe by Hitler and then the Second World War (of which 8 million Russian soldiers and 16 million communists killed behind the lines after the invasion of the USSR)
3 million killed by the US led forces in Korea
3.5 million killed by the USA in Vietnam
1 million killed in the US bombing of Cambodia and Laos
1 million slaughtered in Indonesia by proxy by Suharto (helped by the CIA and MI6)
1 million slaughtered by pro-US dictators throughout Latin America
1.3 million killed in sanctions on Iraq
1 million killed in current invasion of Iraq
… and on and on.

For those who requested a high resolution map from an earlier post on ‘A Marxist Map of European History‘, I have now uploaded and sent a link – to Comrade Toothbruth, Communist Never Sleeps, and Karlo Mikhail. If anyone else would like a copy, please contact me.

Trust Hollywood in its chronic unoriginality to borrow yet another idea. The nauseous ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter‘ relies upon the much better ‘Stalin: Bankers’ Hunter’.

Stalin - Bankers Hunter a

(ht sk)

‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me. We were both on the train from Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother was from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as they did’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the working class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

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