Idols of Nations: Preface and Table of Contents

The manuscript for Idols of Nations went off to the press (Fortress) a month ago, so here’s some details, the preface, and a table of contents:

Idols of Nations: Biblical Myth at the Origins of Capitalism

Roland Boer and Christina Petterson

Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014)


How do the early ideologues of capitalism engage with the Bible and theology? Why do they wrestle with the Bible in constructing myths to justify what was still a new economic order? What is it like to read those whom Marx read when researching Capital? These are some of the questions that played in our minds as we read, discussed, and wrote this book, Idols of Nations. Hugo Grotius, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Malthus are our concerns, and into their thoughts we have delved. We have been intrigued, surprised, exasperated, underwhelmed at their banalities, and laughed out loud at their often astonishing contortions as they sought to retell biblical stories. Or rather, they try to retell the story of the Fall, and of Adam more generally, finding there the origins of private property, self-interest, labor, exchange, commerce, law, states, and what have you. In the process, greed becomes a social benefit, acquisitiveness part of the divine plan, and labor a result of God’s command to subdue the earth. Idols indeed, worshipped and justified by a text that systematically condemns those idols. After all, it takes some deft story-telling to make the text say almost exactly the opposite of what it does say.

In the process of writing, we have been assisted by those … To all these people, we are extremely thankful.

As we read and wrote, we were always mindful of the fact that we were treading in Marx’s footsteps to some extent. These were the same texts he read in the slow process of writing Capital. Although we cannot hope to match his critique and insight, we have undertaken this project with a similar approach: to ascertain the patterns of argument, the myth-making, and blind spots of what became the ideological carapace for capitalism.

On the Кра́сная стрела́ (Red Arrow) train

Somewhere between St. Petersburg and Moscow

September 2013

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: Hugo Grotius: Rewriting the Narrative of the Fall

Softening the Fall

Retelling the Myth

The Paradox of Liberalism

Class, or, The View from the Height

Chapter 2: John Locke and the Trouble with Adam

Something About Adam




A Myth Retold – Again

Setting the Scene

The Commons

Use and Appropriation


Tilling the Earth

Adam and the Plot Lines of the Fall

Downcast Ending

Conclusion: On Human Nature and Biblical Limitations

Chapter 3: Adam Smith the Story-Teller

Human Nature

Truck, Barter, and Exchange

Self-Love and the Invisible Hand

Tall Tales

Sayings, Moral Tales, and Vignettes



In the Rude State of Society: The Foundation Myth

In Ancient Times

Conclusion: On Myth, Utopia, and Transitions

Chapter 4: The Lust and Hunger of Thomas Malthus

A Melancholy Hue: On Human Nature

Fallen Creatures

Misery, Vice, and Perfectibility

Retelling and Retelling the Myth

From Savagery to Civilization

The Basic Postulata: The Reverend’s Lust and Hunger

The Traps of God’s Good Gifts

Facing up to Evil

Conclusion: On Good and Evil


September 2013


11 thoughts on “Idols of Nations: Preface and Table of Contents

  1. Long time lurker; first time commenter.

    I’d be really curious to read your take on Hobbes, who seems not to be here. IANAPhilosopher, and when I read bits of Leviathan, etc., I find myself getting sucked into moral positions I find repugnant. How should I read Hobbes?

    1. Hobbes was part of the original plan, but he actually has little to say on economics and what he does say is limited in perception. To be sure, he spouts forth on human nature and governance, all laced in with the Bible. No advice to give on reading Hobbes, but what moral positions do you find repugnant?

      1. What positions do I find repugnant? Authoritarianism, absolute monarchy, establishmentarianism. Some of this is no doubt part of my socialization as a USAnian.

        I also consider myself a secular humanist (I assume that’s okay), and the small bits of Hobbes I’ve read start with very similar premises to secular humanism, and then proceed to very different conclusions via a path I’m not knowledgeable enough to evaluate critically. (I much prefer Lucian, because I agree with him, but I realize that confirmation bias is not really a solid basis for a personal philosophy.)

        Thanks to the Internet, I can easily read Leviathan in both facsimile and contemporary orthography. But what’s hard for someone without an academic background in the humanities is finding the sympathetic handholding I feel I need to navigate Hobbes.

    2. How should you read Hobbes?

      Top tip: get the historical context.
      That means immersing yourself in British (especially English) from 1588 to 1679. at a minimum. More generally, from the Reformation to the Glorious Revolution.

      It was a period of wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions (a bit like today really, but only a bit).

      1. So it’s the authoritarian Hobbes that is a problem and not the Hobbes who sees human beings as naturally warring, struggling, seeking their own gain at the expense of others, etc?

        Not only is it the immediate situation, with its wars and revolutions. It seems to me that a new form of human nature was emerging, one shaped by and appropriate to the capitalism that was coming together quite rapidly. This is why Hobbes, and Locke, and the rest of them obsessed over human nature. They wanted to find an eternal version of that nature, but that was precisely because they could see it changing. Hobbes didn’t particularly like the new nature, but it did give him a strong doctrine of evil.

  2. This looks like a very useful book. I’ll be getting a copy. Now if I could only get some students to read it..

    On a different tack, what is your take on the nature of idolatry?

    The Roman Catholic Church’s concept of idolatry is not confined to pagan worship.

    “Man commits idolatry whenever he honours and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods, or demons (for example satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money etc.”

    So is ‘Stalinism’ idolatry? This question has been mooted on the Socialist Unity website.

    1. I have a draft of a longer discussion of idolatry here:
      This is a great topic and somewhat complex. Marx takes the idea of the fetish in the 1840s from the study of religion, and then deploys in all manner of ways for the next four decades. He absorbs idolatry within the fetish and then reinterprets the fetish as a way into the core of capitalism (in the second and third volumes of Capital). Here he coins the term ‘kapitalfestisch’, which is basically M-M’, that is, ,money produces money.

      As for Stalinism, or indeed Leninism or Maoism, being idolatry – I think it is more a matter of developing alternative modes of extra-economic compulsion for a new economic system. The most creative period was after lenin’s death and earlier in stalin’s era for this. I have a bit on it the Lenin book, but want to look into it further with a project called ‘Embalming our Leaders’.

  3. This looks great as a detailed unmasking odtypical capitalist myths that can complement educational discussions of dialectical and historical materialism (especially the part where idealism is contrasted to materialist thinking). When will it be ready? Howdo we order your book?

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