Friday, October 10, 2008

Vix Pervenit (On Usury and Other Dishonest Profit)

I follow Tom's suggestion and I leave here a couple of words on what I was saying yesterday regarding the relationship between commodity fetishism and the Catholic ban on usury. I do it even if, most probably, as someone said: "it's madness".

This will be indeed a very short post - just a bunch of confuse ideas caused by the accidental reading of an encyclical of Pope Benedict XIV called Vix Pervenit, On Usury and other dishonest profit. Nevertheless I thought it could be interesting to try to follow Marx in his speculations about the relationship between commodity fetishism and religious fetishism. In particular, I found myself wondering if one could see the Catholic ban on usury as a revealing instance in which our two favourite fetishisms, coming finally to recognize each other as conflicting belief systems, engaged in an hegemonic struggle over workers' fantasies and desires.
I try to explain myself. When confronted with the challenge of showing us the secret workings of that mysterious thing that is the commodity Marx can't find anything better than dragging us on a flight up in the misty realm of religious faith. He then shows us, side by side, two different types of fetishism: religious fetishism and commodity fetishism.
"There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands."
I would suggest that the Catholic Church was most certainly aware of the fetishistic character of the commodity, of the super-human power of the trinket which not only dance and move through the market but even seems to reproduce itself through the mysterious workings of finance, banking and usury.

What is it happening today in that most magic realm of finance?
At first sight, what we have is matter giving birth to matter, wealth springing up most mysteriously from the hands of the capitalist. Or better, what we have is matter destroying itself out of stubborn free will, disappearing, collapsing, imploding in spectacular explosions.

Isn't there something truely diabolic in the art of financial speculation? God is marginalized, pushed on the margin by this act of creation: He neither blesses the capitalist with the miracle of creation, nor He curses him with the necessity to work. The capitalist as thus a new fetish: money. A new godly thing which finally frees him from the "original sin" opening up a new Eden where work, sacrifice, muscular strain is forgotten. Value is not a product of labour - "congealed labour-power" - value comes from value, directly, out of magic multiplication.

I mean, the Church clearly had to get a little bit upset about that. And that is probably the reason why usury was condemned by many theologians and effectively banned after the Council of Trento (1545-1563). As far as I know St.Thomas Aquinas has written quite a lot on usury and his positions seem to point exactly to the fetishistic character of usury. St Thomas quotes Aristotle as saying that "to live by usury is exceedingly unnatural". Practicing usury is diabolic since it means nothing else than "to make money simply by having money" without neither work or risk implied. This in total disregard both of the labor theory of value and, most importantly, of the word of God: "In sudore vultus tui ovesceris pane: you will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow". (Genesis: 3,19)
Only God can make tables dance, reproduce and turn on their heads. Not the market!

It seems to me, thus, that the Church, and Aquinas in particular, had a fairly good grasp on the dangers of commodity fetishism. And they weren't the only: Judaism and Islam equally apply some kind of ban on usury (but I don't know much about it).

It seems like religion is an extremely jealous creature, it doesn't like fellow fetishisms coming alone. But what about commodity fetishism, isn't it a far more social and tollerant lad? And aren't they united in their "cultus of abstract man"?

Strange relationships...

(For reference: http://www.ewtn.com/library/ENCYC/B14VIXPE.htm ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_of_Thomas_Aquinas#Aquinas_and_usury ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usury ).

10 comments:

belbon said...

The end of diabolic usury is here.
This is a Biblical Harlot - Usury.

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