Monday, September 27, 2010

Golden Calf

On Thursday I got to attend a talk by W. J. T. Mitchell at the Forum for Interdisciplinary Dialogue put on by the Jefferson Fellows at UVA. His talk was on idolatry. The tension I found throughout the presentation was between the impulse to counter idolatry and an argument defending it.

Specifically, the picture on the left (which is the work of Nicolas Poussin) became a platform on which Mitchell built a critique of the Second Commandment. There doesn't seem to be anything immoral going on in this picture, says Mitchell. The people are just enjoying themselves in front of a "totem" they have made. So maybe Moses should just drop his tablets and join the fun, eh?

There's more to Mitchell's critique than just a flippant interpretation of the story of the Golden Calf. He's trying to say that in general, iconoclasm brings with it an idolatry of its own. In the process of destroying an icon, a new icon has to be created--only the new icon is an icon of destruction, an image of devastation designed to evoke fear. Think of the image of the twin towers being destroyed.

However, I found something else Mitchell said to be in tension with this critique. In particular, he actually stated near the beginning of his talk that certainly idolatry exists today in the form of "market fundamentalism." It would appear that capitalism is something of a golden calf in his eyes. Then it's not clear to me whether this is a golden calf which ought to be destroyed, or whether we, per Mitchell's recommendation, should drop our tablets of stone and join the party.

Providentially, on Saturday Peter Leithart posted a very insightful piece about economics and the sacred. He was expounding on Robert Wuthnow's view that “the sacred order which structures individual action in American, Western, and, increasingly, world culture is primarily ‘represented’ in the economic realm.”

I grant that the economy is an idol, contra one of the other fellows who insisted that it is not an idol but an abstract concept. It is an idol precisely because we have made an image out of it. It should be nothing more than an abstract concept, but that is not how we in our idolatry have taken it. We have made the invisible hand visible.

Most things that are wrong with our economic outlook, it seems to me, stem from the desire to make explicit what should be implicit, and to make concrete what should remain abstract. Economics is about how to distribute the world's resources in the most efficient manner. The desire to actually formulate an explicit method of accomplishing this leads to the overbearing government policies that we have created. Not content with understanding fundamental market forces, we are bent on forcing certain outcomes on certain politically privileged goods and services (e.g. oil, corn, automobiles, etc.). Additionally, certain aggregate outcomes are taken to be mandatory. The GDP simply must continue to grow at a rate of about 4-6%. If it isn't, we need to fix something.

Progressives tend to have complaints about capitalism, but who's really building the golden calf, here? The Israelites couldn't imagine worshiping an invisible God, so they made a representation. They demanded their leader Aaron make concrete what should have remained abstract. I would even argue that they never meant to deny the God that Moses had proclaimed to them; they simply believed such a God ought to be depicted so as to be comprehensible. In the same way, many progressives (including socialists) completely buy into the ideals which capitalism sets up for society--economic growth, prosperity, wealth. You will notice that "helping the poor" always means helping them get a slice of the same pie that all the greedy scoundrels on Wall Street are eating. Political leftism seems to be based on the assumption that everyone should get an equal share in the spoils of consumerist materialism. After all, every American needs a TV, right? (There is nothing that makes the political right any better in this regard; admiring the rich for bringing prosperity to the rest of us is even more absurd than the leftist attitude toward wealth.)

Unlike Mitchell, I say we burn this golden calf, grind it into powder, scatter it on the water, and make the people drink it. Every assumption about how an economy is "meant" to grow, how wealth is meant to be distributed, how everyone needs this or that commodity--every assumption must be destroyed. Our political economic ideologies are based on the false god of continual prosperity, which is defined according to a narrow metric designed by powerful men seeking reelection and powerful businesses banking on political favoritism. In truth, the economy ought to be based on two things only: justice and liberty. It ought not to seem remarkable that people naturally achieve prosperity when they are protected from crime and allowed the freedom to work and trade as they please. But the kind of prosperity that they do achieve is not so nicely fit into graphs and mathematical formulas as Princeton economists would like.

I am more of an iconoclast than Mitchell. Not that I believe in blowing up buildings. Yet if an idol exists, it must be torn down, whether by words or by (reasonable) actions. Compromising with idols only leads to the perpetuation of lies.

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