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?

Circa 27 AD, Jesus Christ expels the traders and money lenders from the Temple. Original Artwork: An engraving by Mote after Jourenat. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) 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.

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Will Self
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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.

Oxford University students wearing their graduation gowns 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.

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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.

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Links to Merriam-Webster and Collins dictionaries

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.

Kent miners on strike, 1985 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.

Two racegoers are silhouetted at Royal Ascot

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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Here is a selection of your comments.

It is not wealth, assets or greed that power the economic model it is occupation that drives the whole lumbering machine forward; the time taken up between the hours of 8am until 5pm. Wealth is now measured by how busy you are and the word business is now so related to being busy and nothing to do with profit. those that are rich in such things are cloistered between these hours, those that are poor must stay at home and deal with their own neurosis. The rub being that should the economic model fail to occupy these people then there will be rebellion on mass scale - all they ask is that they are occupied. So be it, the factory workers of China or the office workers of Woking, please Father Christmas bring us the gift of being 'occupied'. There are some however, that are creating a movement out of this dependency, see: The Idle Foundation.

David Simpson, Chippenham

As someone who worked as a Senior Vice President in banking and has since become a full-time pastor this beautifully scripted piece resonates. There is no doubt in my mind that the influence and position of the parish priest has now largely diminished whilst that of the new professions in media, arts, sports, and digital age business has risen. So, I don't think we necessarily listen so much to economists as to those who judge as able to create wealth either for themselves or for for others: witness Simon Cowell, Beyonce. Richard Branson, Donald Trump et al And yes, money, power, and fame are the new Mammon, and were possibly the old Mammon too but as the article suggests reached through different intermediaries.

David French, Catford

It isn't true that economists failed to predict the crisis of 2008. It seems a significant number of them did. They were very often sidelined by the mainstream media and their warnings ignored. Go and look up Kyle Bass, Peter Schiff, James G. Rickards, Steve Keen, or choose from a selection of classical economists...the list goes on... The "nobody could have seen it coming" mantra is disingenuous. "nobody with influence wanted to see it coming" would be more fitting.

randomfactor, UK

I also started out studying PPE but dropped politics and economics and studied philosophy and psychology for my degree. Having then spent many years in the civil service seeing the holy writ of economists overriding common sense in policy making, I have long described myself as an 'economics atheist'. Personally I believe that people are more important than money and happiness does not equate with wealth. The fact that the Government employs thousands of economists but hardly any psychologists or sociologists implies that these in power do not share my beliefs.

Peter, London

Of course economists aren't the new priesthood. Monetarists may have been, but who now remembers them outside of columns like this? The new priesthood are the people who mock economists: Nicholas Talib on the one hand, and the behaviourists on the other. Mr Self appears to be trying to hitch a (very belated) ride on their vestment tails.

Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade

Economics is not in any sense a science. Like astrologers, economists use impressive sounding mathematics that has no evidence base. Economists exist to put a spurious intellectual gloss on political theories that justify policies which enrich their sponsors - who, today, are bankers and financiers. They practice a greivous Trahison des Clercs that is fast destroying the future of humanity. Back in the 1980s we could, perhaps, have stopped climate change by transitioning to a sustainable economy. We didn't because they said we needed growth. We've seen where that led - debt and bankruptcy. Truly, we sold our future to them for a mess of potage.

Stephen Watson, Lewes

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