Thursday, June 23, 2016

Today's Third Sacred Pair: Money and Consumption

In speaking of today’s sacred in The New Demons (trans. C. Edward Hopkin, 1975), Jacques Ellul states that our “modern sacred is ordered entirely around two [70] axes, each involving two poles, one pole being respect and order, the other transgression” (70-71). He said the first axis paired technology and sex while the second paired the national state and revolution (although I prefer politics and war).
He then makes a rather strong statement. “Those are the four factors (I say exclusive of any other) of our modern society” (71). I think it is important, though, to add a third axis of order and disorder: money and consumption. Using their Roman names, I would say that today, as in the past, we devote ourselves, as societies, cultures, and personalities, to Pluto, god of money, and Bacchus, god of consumption. I say this using the very criteria for identifying the sacred, in terms of function and form, developed and used by Jacques himself in establishing his two sacred axes.

Interestingly enough, Jacques specifically dismisses the possibility that money might be one of our sacred poles of order. But is he accurate in doing so?
He starts his discussion of money by stating that “much has been said about money as sacred, and of course that is true” (71). So he does affirm that we do continue to regard money as sacred.
He then makes two additional comments. One, he notes that money has been regarded as sacred not just in our time but in all times. He points out that, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, indications that money continued to be regarded as sacred included “the ideology of money, the religious fervor for capital (in no way the same kind of sentiment the miser might have for his gold pieces), the exultation of its role and of its virtues…[as well as the] splendid passages of Marx on capital as a vampire, or on money as capable of everything, or on the need for money becoming the only true need…” (71).
But, two, he nonetheless notes a decline in our devotion to money that he believes is sufficient to dismiss money as a major sacred pole today. Today money is so tangled up with technology that we have less certainty now that money can save us from the challenges that confront us. We are less sure that it is the primary factor in determining the future of “society, science, and the state” (72).
Jacques sees 1929, the year a great economic depression began, as the time when our devotion to money began to decline. When he wrote in 1973 (his French edition), he could say that if money (Pluto) “is still a god, it is a god on the wane, who is no longer loved except in secret and with a bad conscience. It is no longer the glorious divinity parading its triumphs…Progressively …its priests—bankers, money changers, and capitalists—are pointed to as wicked magicians. Money today is no longer the center of the profoundly sacred…It is not this world’s axis” (72).
I think, however, that Jacques’ evaluation of money misjudged the tenacity of Pluto. Jacques and I agree that money has always been sacred and was so especially in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We also agree that devotion to Pluto dropped after 1929.
But even if adoration of Pluto remained less significant as late as 1973, when Jacques wrote The New Demons, it never disappeared. More importantly, beginning in the 1980s, greed—devotion to Pluto—made a great comeback. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the bad conscience was banished, bankers were believed in once more, and getting rich once again justified everything necessary to do so.
But, if Pluto, god of money, is indeed a sacred of order, we still need to identify a related sacred of disorder to maintain the polarity essential to the nature of the sacred. We find that needed sacred disorder in Bacchus—the god of consumption. If Pluto wants us to hoard money, Bacchus wants us to spend it with abandon. If Pluto wants us ordering our lives to make more money, Bacchus wants us recklessly spending it, even going into the greatest possible debt, to indulge in the greatest possible sensate gratification.
So, in today's world, we devote ourselves to three pairs of gods: Jupiter, god of politics and Mars, god of war; Vulcan, god of technology, and Venus, goddess of sex; and Pluto, god of money, and Bacchus, god of consumption. Societies, cultures, and personalities worldwide are ordered in terms of politics, technology, and money, and disordered in terms of war, sex, and consumption.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.