Anti-realism,  Economics,  Geog Simmel

Economic Anti-Realism

Just what is economic anti-realism? I began to think about this during, and especially after, the last election. For me, it has to do with that number, the number we kept hearing about, ignoring and not really understanding, the number sixteen. It appeared, to me, that the last election was a simple, no-brainer. Whatever social position one takes and whether or not one likes a candidate or not, the question was: can we afford to spend any more money we don’t have? It doesn’t matter much if you think it is a human right to have health care if there is no way you can pay for it. Keeping Big Bird at the cost of more debt just seemed silly. How is it, I thought, that one could get around such obvious problems?

But then I realized that just saying the number, sixteen trillion, had little to no effect on a substantial number of people, including many leaders themselves. Why? I remembered reading an article in the Wilson Quarterly that sheds some light on the subject. Jerry Muller summarizes an argument made by Georg Simmel:

A money economy creates a mindset that is increasingly abstract, Simmel argued, because the means of exchange become ever more abstract. Exchange begins as barter, the giving of one tangible thing for another. Then, in an early stage of the money economy, the means of exchange themselves–gold, silver, or other precious metals–have intrinsic value. In an advanced stage, money consists of pieces of metal or paper, the value of which is ultimately guaranteed by the power of the state. A mark is worth a mark, or a dollar a dollar, because the issuing government says so. With the development of credit, money becomes still more abstract–a bookkeeping notation. Today money can be as intangible as the flickering symbols on a computer screen. Through constant exposure to an abstract means of exchange, Simmel believed, individuals become habituated to thinking about the world itself in increasingly abstract terms.

I am not an economist, but one thing is clear – debt is a burden. It weighs upon one’s life like chains, dragging, restraining. One either has to pay it off or live in its constant shadow. However, one could opt for a kind of economic anti-realism – treat economics as abstract, disconnected from life. Money becomes an interpretation of exchange, but at a distance, mere symbol, rationalizing what no one can really understand.

May I make a tentative suggestion about our culture? I think we are more and more inclined to detach from reality in this way. This is true of many things – gender, foetuses, marriage, sin and the gospel. Gender is seen as a matter of construction – we are self-created. Just watch Avicii’s “Silhouette,” in which a  man remakes himself as a woman. Even the title illustrates the denial of a knowable real self. As abortion is defended in terms of women it is as if the child is not there, as if the unseen is unreal. And what of marriage, an exchange of vows? It is here we see an “intangible…flickering symbol” that no one seems to know how to define.

At the root of the problem is a wish to detach ourselves from fallenness, from sin. If only human evil was only symbolic, a way of describing, but not of referring  to the chaos afflicting the human condition. If struggle is morally neutral. If it affects everyone, but is no one’s fault. Then it is not real in the sense that it does not really count as debt. The burden of sin, we fool ourselves into thinking, can be abstracted from concrete experience; it never has to count, like a number that keeps growing while becoming further removed from the hearts and actions of a simultaneous fading self.

The gospel, on the other hand, assumes reality, that the debt must be payed and that an exchange has been made, determined by God to be real. And in this kind of economy no government gets to decide what is real, but the exchange is real because God says it is. If you are convicted of your sin it is like becoming a economic realist. You are suddenly acutely aware of the reality of the number, an insurmountable sum, all on you. For those who believe the gospel, the exchange is our sin for Christ’s righteousness. The sin is real and so is Christ’s clean robe. It is, what Luther called, a happy exchange, but only because it is a real exchange.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.

One Comment

  • John Moore

    Interesting connection between government debt and individual sin. The problem I find, though, is that you can't easily decide which party, Democrats or Republicans, is most likely to reduce the U.S. debt. Republicans claim they'd cut the debt, but in the past they never delivered. The whole thing about tax cuts for the rich is also very suspicious. Why would anyone trust the Republicans?