Midrash on Money

Stan Goff

He that puts not out his money to interest, nor takes reward against the innocent. He that does these things shall never be moved.

-Psalm 15:5

And now, you rich people, listen to me! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches have rotted away, and your clothes have been eaten by moths. Your gold and silver are covered with rust, and this rust will be a witness against you, and eat up your flesh like fire. You have piled up riches in these last days Your life here on earth has been full of luxury and pleasure. You have made yourselves fat for the day of slaughter.

-James 5:1-3,5

The detached observer is as much entangled as the active participant.

-Theodor Adorno


Introduction: Show me a sign.

It’s what people will say in times of painful indecision.

God, show me a sign.

What do people mean by that?

And does God respond?

And if God does respond, do we always recognize the sign?

It becomes apparent very quickly that this word – sign – may, like Mary Poppins’ handbag, unpack far more than we might believe by outward appearance.

Here’s Google™ on the word “sign:”

• a perceptible indication of something not immediately apparent (as a visible clue that something has happened); he showed signs of strain; they welcomed the signs of spring
• a public display of a message; he posted signs in all the shop windows
• signal: any nonverbal action or gesture that encodes a message; signals from the boat suddenly stopped
• mark with ones signature; write ones name (on); She signed the letter and sent it off; Please sign here
• signboard: structure displaying a board on which advertisements can be posted; the highway was lined with signboards
• approve and express assent, responsibility, or obligation; All parties ratified the peace treaty; Have you signed your contract yet?
• sign of the zodiac: (astrology) one of 12 equal areas into which the zodiac is divided
• be engaged by a written agreement; He signed to play the casino on Dec. 18; The soprano signed to sing the new opera
• (medicine) any objective evidence of the presence of a disorder or disease; there were no signs of asphyxiation
• engage by written agreement; They signed two new pitchers for the next season
• polarity: having an indicated pole (as the distinction between positive and negative electric charges); he got the polarity of the battery reversed; charges of opposite sign
• communicate silently and non-verbally by signals or signs; He signed his disapproval with a dismissive hand gesture; The diner signaled the waiters to bring the menu
• augury: an event that is experienced as indicating important things to come; he hoped it was an augury; it was a sign from God
• place signs, as along a road; sign an intersection; This road has been signed
• a gesture that is part of a sign language

No matter what the vast differences between these various definitions of “sign,” what stands out is that these are all media of communication or ideas about media of communication.

Communication… another word pregnant with many offspring. Two separate beings are presumed by the idea of communication; and signs always presume the existence of two subjects. Subjects – unlike objects – do not merely exist. We dwell.

We live in a world that is abuzz with signs and communications; we dwell in a world that is abuzz with signs and communications. We are part of it. In those times when we can grasp that connectedness, we have a sense of embodied transcendence, a moment of dwelling within something that is sacred.


Molecules signal to molecules, like species to like species, unlike species to each other, minerals to other minerals and to animals and vegetables, which also sign to each other, and the lion’s share of our own physical activity (brain and somatic activity, etc.) involved in communication with each other is non-verbal, and even non-linguistic.

We leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, on whatever we touch. One of the odd discoveries made by small boys is that when two pebbles are struck sharply against each other they emit, briefly, a curious smoky odor. The phenomenon fades when the stones are immaculately cleaned, vanishes when they are heated to furnace temperature, and reappears when they are simply touched by the hand again before being struck.

An intelligent dog with a good nose can track a man across open ground by his smell and distinguish that man’s tracks from those of others. More than this, the dog can detect the odor of a light human fingerprint on a glass slide, and he will remember that slide and smell it out from others for as long as six weeks, when the scent fades away. Moreover, this animal can smell the identity of identical twins, and will follow the tracks of one or the other as though they had been made by the same man.

We are marked as self by the chemicals we leave beneath the soles of our shoes, as unmistakably and individually as by the membrane surface antigens detactable in homografs from our tissues.

So begins the chapter entitled “Vibes,” in Lewis Thomas’ fine little book, The Lives of a Cell (Penguin Books, 1974).
In all this activity at every scale of existence, how do we discern the signs that hold together our natural universe, our culture, and what we might call our personhood?

Are we exchanging sings right now?

We are.

This is the point-of-view of semiotics. Our talking and especially our writing are but the latest instantiations of sign exchanges, along a continuum from the tiniest microcosm to the most vast macrocosm.

This midrash on money is based on the premise that money – this thing that dominates our lives in so many, often mysterious, ways, is just that: a sign.

At some point I will call money a language. But modern money is much more. Modern money is an extra-linguistic, culturally-and-politically constructed “sign.”

We seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely Homo significans – meaning-makers. Distinctively, we make meanings through our creation and interpretation of signs. Indeed… we think only in signs. Signs take the form of words, images, sounds, odours, flavours, acts or objects, but such things have no intrinsic meaning and become signs only when we invest them with meaning. Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign, declares Peirce (Peirce 1931-58, 2.172). Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as signifying something – referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions. It is this meaningful use of signs which is at the heart of the concerns of semiotics.

(Daniel Chandler, “Semiotics for Beginners”)

Energy-matter flows constitute the universe. So does the flow of signs. Every atoms signals to its neighbor, every photon carries messages, every being – organic and inorganic – is aware and responsive in some way.

If you observe an urban street scene on Saturday night, the streets are filled with people in motion. Yet without much talking to coordinate their motions – in fact, many people are talking to someone else while they navigate the crowds – these flows of people manage to weave in and out of each other. There are millions of flowing signs being passed among the people in these “rivers” of human foot-traffic, most non-verbal, not linguistic at all. Language is just one aspect of signing. That’s why it is very appropriate for someone to say, when they are faced with a dilemma, “Lord, give me a sign.”

God does communicate with us.


Anthropologist Alf Hornborg, writing about the destruction of Amazonian rain forests by international commercial interests, said that “ecosystems are constituted no less by flows of signs than by flows of matter and energy.”

…nature and society [are] interconnected systems, both of which are simultaneously material and communicative.

Christians will sometimes say things about “dwelling in Christ.” It’s an old notion, dwelling, and one that we understand viscerally – what philosophers call the dimension of experience that is “being-in-the-world.” When children gleefully enclose themselves in big cardboard boxes, in what appears to be an ancient den-making instinct, they are experiencing – and celebrating – their sense of dwelling-ness.


Modern money – global currency, the dollar – is a sign that becomes “hegemonic,” that is, wielding “preponderant influence or authority.”

But what are the effects of this predominance of influence?

One effect we need to emphasize is the effect of general-purpose money on understandings of the Sacred. General-purpose money has the tendency to desacralize (profane, remove from the realm of the Sacred) our relationships with nature and other people. As Hornborg’s own studies in Amazonia showed, money was the sign, the language, the medium, the entitlement… that allowed foreign contractors to mow down vast swathes of rain forest, land that then sprang up with American soft drinks being peddled at stands along the barren landscapes.

“General-purpose money,” said Hornborg, an anthropologist, “is what allows tracts of rain forest to be traded for Coca-Cola.”

Human beings are meaning-makers; and that is how the door is opened between us and God. We are too capable of good to accept an abject servitude to money, or to refuse to take action to direct and limit its flows.

We have learned collectively what ecology means in the last few years: the relational, systemic character of biomes. Now we need to get our heads around a less popularized way of knowing: semiotics.

Ecosemiotics can be defined as the semiotics of relationships between nature and culture.


Semiotics… is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. It includes the study of how meaning is constructed and understood.

“Ecosemiotics” is Hornborg’s way (borrowing the term from W. Noth, 1999) of saying to be aware that Creation is alive and communicating, not the dead thing of the post-Enlightenment. When we see that the universe, the world, is alive, we know how to treat it as sacred. When we treat the world as a dead thing, we profane it.

Money commodifies. Things-for-sale are not seen as sacred.

Creation, whether viewed through scientific inquiry or contemplative retreat, is full of wonder, constantly creating and revealing. One of the reasons Sabbath is such a central notion to our faith tradition is that we need to stop and appreciate that wonder once every seven days without being interrupted by work. Work concentrates our attention on details. Contemplation and open questioning require us to throw open the doors and windows of consciousness and let the breezes blow through.

The itemization of consciousness that is created by the phenomenon of monetary pricing is, likewise, an obstacle to contemplation of wholes; and the attachment of a price to anything profanes it… removes is from the realm of the Sacred. That’s true whether we attach a price to a “nice view” or sell indulgences.

Money Masks

In this midrash we’ll jump from the Book of James to the arcane – to the term “securitized finance”? We are bilingual; we speak past and present.

In the beginning there was money, then money began putting on masks. It puts a mask on itself, and a blindfold on us. It is self-camouflaging.

Money blinds us to the unjust and un-Christian social relations involved in the production of anything. It also blinds us to the fact that money itself is not a constant.

I reach in my wallet and take out a twenty-dollar bill. I give it to the cashier, who bags up my kiwis, my oranges, my stew meat, my bag of sweets.

Neither of us sees the trucks rumbling across a Latin American landscape desiccated by poverty and want, the abattoir or the cruel feedlots, or the broken families of former farmers, or the wreckage of the biome created by the production of high-fructose corn syrup in the sweets. I give the cashier money; the cashier bags up my food. Money puts distance between the consumer and producer; and distance masks reality.

Neither the cashier nor I see the money as anything but routine either. We don’t think about how many times currencies have been drained of value by hyperinflation and economic collapse; and we wouldn’t understand why even if we thought about it. This is not taught in schools, not even to economists.

Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint. Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.

– Proverbs 23:4-5

Insecure Securities

Simple secular math: As of November 2008, the total assets of the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) – the central bank of the United States – were $73.4 billion.

It is difficult to estimate total exchanges in global financial markets; but in the foreign currency exchange market alone, there are almost $2 trillion of exchanges each day. In one day, financial exchanges of currency alone exceed total Fed assets by a factor of 27.

In March of 2009, the Fed announced that it was going to buy $1 trillion in securities, after more than $50 trillion (with a T) had been “wiped out.” We just said that total Fed assets were $73.4 billion. But the Fed is “buying” a trillion dollars of something called “securities.” That is like me buying a $1,000 boat, when my net worth is $73.40.

You sure can’t buy a $50,000 boat with $73.40. And this particular boat is sinking.

This is a stark example of how utterly toothless the Fed – and by inference, the US government – is to salvage a collapsing pyramid of debt built over the last 35 years.

So what are these “securities”? Are they actually secure?

Wikipedia says, “A security is a fungible, negotiable instrument representing financial value.”

Well, that clears everything up.

Let’s try a different tack. Actual, stable wealth is what we call an asset. Cash flow is money that moves into and out of an enterprise. It “flows.” It is not an asset. Securities – composed of odd and impenetrable-sounding things like bonds, equities, investment funds, derivatives, structured finance, and agency securities – have come to be dominated by “instruments” that treat cash flow as an asset which can be sold.

These are paper claims on wealth; but they are not based on real assets. These paper claims have vastly exceeded real wealth. This excess has been usefully called “fictitious capital.”

Fictitious Capital

Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with that income. This too is meaningless. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast one’s eyes on them? The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether eating little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, or wealth lost through some misfortune Naked a person comes from the mother’s womb, and as one comes, so one departs

– Ecclesiastes 5:10-15


Fictitious capital has far exceeded real wealth through a system ever more dominated by “securitized finance,” the domination of the global economy by speculation in these “instruments.” Securitized finance permits potentially infinite credit, which translates into potentially infinite debt.

This has been accelerating since the Nixon administration; and it has created an inconceivable and unprecedented pyramid of debt… which is now imploding.

You cannot buy a thousand-dollar boat with $73.40. This is not a cyclic problem, but a structural one. The boat that is sinking may cost $100,000.


The problem for us all with this fictitious capital is that it is directly connected to money, while we are all dependent on a social grid, one that is navigable only by money. Our most basic needs, which God provided for with the earth, have been captured by a system dominated by money. We cannot eat without money. We have nowhere to sleep out of the weather without money. We cannot clothe ourselves without money.

The all-pervasiveness of the money-grid, which has literally transformed nearly every available space into a commodity – a thing bought and sold, leaves us no choice to be on the money-grid or off the money-grid. We are on it, captured by it.

The formative story in the Old Testament is that of escape from captivity, and reliance on God’s bounty. The first turning away from that freedom was the worship of a gold idol (raised out of fear for the future).

The only time Rabbi Yeshua, or Jesus of Nazareth, is reported to have displayed physical aggression was when he stampeded livestock through the tables of money-changers at the Temple. He constantly warned his followers that money would make them captives, and that money has the power to alienate us from God and God’s Creation.


Then there are the seeds which were sown among the thorn bushes. These are the people who hear the message, but the worries of this world and the false glamor of riches and all sorts of other ambitions creep in and choke the life out of what they have heard, and it produces no crop in their lives.

– Mark 4:18-19

Money is a claim on the effort and time of others. If I have the money for a meal at a restaurant, the need of others for that money causes them to serve me, to cook the food, to harvest the food, to grow the food, to make the pots and pans and dishes, to air condition and heat the restaurant, etc. etc. I, in turn, have to work to get the money.

Most of us have to work at jobs where we’d rather be someplace else. Our dependency on money holds us captive there. We are captives to our cars to get us to work, and to the clothes we are required to wear at work, and the insincerities we feel are necessary to keep our jobs… and all this is dependency on money. To relieve the stress of work, we “need” things that require money, and so we are again captives of the money-grid.

On the money we use, it says “legal tender.” What that means is that we have to use money to pay our taxes. The state runs on money, too. In fact, without money, the modern nation-state – as an institution – would collapse. Every institution we know is captive of the money-grid.

Even churches.

Tunnel Vision and Totalities

Tell those who are rich in this present world not to be contemptuous of others, and not to rest the weight of their confidence on the transitory power of wealth but on the living God, who generously gives us everything for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in kindly actions, to be ready to give to others and to sympathize with those in distress. Their security should be invested in the life to come, so that they may be sure of holding a share in the life which is real and permanent.

– 1 Timothy 6:17-19


We spoke above about fictitious capital – a concept necessary for us to discern the specificities of our own age. This totalizing perspective, this Big Picture view of the global economy, is not a perspective that is understood by the captains of finance. They are completely focused on what they call their portfolios. That focus made them rich; and that focus acts as set of blinders to the terrible storm approaching. That is why they do not know what to do now. Their “knowledge” is constrained by their standpoint… by the view from where they stand.

They have tunnel-vision. It’s structural.

Those who saw this coming – and they were many – were marginalized, excluded from the inner sanctums of finance and government. People with unrecognizable names like Ellen Hodgson Brown, Michael Hudson, Henry C. K. Liu, Susan Strange, Peter Gowan, Mike Whitney, Loren Goldner – and many, many more – warned about what was about to happen, and explained it in plain language, but that was a language that experts and economists had learned to exclude from their frame of reference.

The captains of Wall Street and all their disciples, however, were too personally invested (no pun intended) in their own orthodoxies, and too focused on an every accelerating cycle of return-on-investment to see the big picture. Ambition, competition, and groupthink blinded them, and continues to blind them.

It blinds us, too, because we are dependent; and because the business class owning the means of production means the business class also owns the means of cultural production (including what and how we “know”).

If we don’t get hold of money fast enough, then we are threatened with homelessness and starvation… or more immediately, with the loss of security for our children – who are hostages of the money-grid.

If we lose the jobs we have, now, at the advent of a long crisis for which we have arrived without any preparation whatsoever, we are more captive than ever to money. We don’t know how to live without it. We might say we are captive to our ignorance.

The first step in overcoming this ignorance is to get the Big Picture. Face the facts. $50 trillion dollars now (and perhaps twice that much at the end of this long road) has disappeared (it never existed, it was a speculatively-raised phantasm); and our plan to replace it via printing press will lead us to something that gives economic historians chills: hyper-inflation.

Too much money circulating against too few goods raises prices. When this happens in periods of closing enterprise and high unemployment, and in the face of crippling household debt, it is a social catastrophe.

The Fed was part of the high-tempo, tunnel-vision sector. The Fed had a singular way of controlling the economy. If inflation was advancing too fast, they raised the prime interest rate to put the brakes on. What this really meant was that they deliberately created an increase in unemployment, in order to lower the going rates for labor.

The Fed treated fictional capital as if it were real, then moved that excess around from one “bubble” to the next. Each time the bubble burst, masses of people were left broken while a small elite feasted: Mexico, East Asia, the dotcom bust, the housing bubble. Each time, Washington made Wall Street whole again.

But when securitized finance blew out this time, the accumulation of vacuity in the system created the ultimate dilemma for the one-trick pony that is the Fed: stagnation combined with inflation – stagflation. Last year, fuel and food prices soared – slamming most people into the financial wall, as the economy – in the oblique metaphorical language of the pundits and economists – “contracted.”

Kenneth Boulding, the Quaker economist and philosopher, said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

But this is part of that Big Picture that is invisible to economists, professional investors, and to politicians. Against this backdrop of the impossibility of infinite growth, first stagflation hit, then the tsunami of the so-called credit crisis. We were… are… utterly dependent, rich and poor, on this elaborate, global financial architecture; and the great wave slammed into it like it was a grass hut in front of the Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake.

The one-trick pony, the Fed, tried lowering interest rates to stir some activity; but the last time they’d done that – in the wake of the dotcom bust – mortgages were refinanced at the lower rate… and equity loans were encouraged. Houses became ATMs, and household debt exploded into the whole illusion of infinite growth.

The fictional capital bubble was reflated into the housing market.

The wave hit the edifice of finance.

Interest rates hover now at zero; and the wave keeps coming. The one-trick pony has run out of tricks. So it’s printing more money, even as the global basket of commodities to which it is supposed to correspond has not changed.

We know what happened. Or at least we experienced it. We need to know. Because we have to find our own way out.

This is a totality.

Loss of Faith

The belief that money retains value is an article of religious faith. It is an idolatrous assumption; but there it is, nonetheless.

It’s not like the faith that Jesus mandated for his disciples, to “consider the lilies of the field.” His admonition there was to have no fear (and this was specifically about money).

Have no fear. God’s got your back. Radically trust… God.

The false faith that money retains value – even in the face of historical evidence totally to the contrary – is a false faith born of desperate fear, not radical trust. It is denial. It is collective self-delusion.

Self-delusion corresponds to arrogance; and much arrogance is based on the deepest kind of insecurity, the kind of insecurity that needs the security of accumulation as its balm. This kind of security requires domination and control… of people and Creation. Pride and self-delusion are inseparable twins.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

– Proverbs 16:18

It is this self-delusion that led us into this impasse; and now we need to abandon it wholesale. We need to practice the faith that considers the lilies of the field. The faith that God can and will provide when we abandon our captivity, cross the Red Sea, and head into the wilderness of an evermore de-monetizing society.

Give this Vile Idol Back to Caesar

John’s Apocalypse is not a prediction of the future.

Jesus’ encounter with the Herodians and Pharisees is not a call on disciples to pay taxes and obey the government,

And the Parable of the Talents is not Jesus telling disciples to become good investors.

These three heresies – or call them bad scholarship – have become the three-legged milking stool of biblical accommodation to the present worldly order.

To the Heordians and Pharisees, intent on trapping Jesus on the question of paying taxes:

“Whose picture is on that coin?” asked Jesus.


“Well, give it to Ceasar then.”

Rabbi Yeshua knew. The graven image was an idol. The gold was an idol, the very material of the calf-idol constructed by a demoralized people of God who were wandering – disoriented and frightened – out of bondage and into the “wilderness” of freedom.

The very valuation of the gold was idolatrous.

Daily bread. That’s all that’s needed. As a devout and observant Jew, Rabbi Yeshua remembered Proverbs 30:8: Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.

It’s there in His prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

It is more than a little interesting that Jesus counter-posed food to money. The Kingdom of God is called a meal, a banquet table. Faith is seen as the ability to walk on water; as the ability to renounce one’s fear of living without money.

The faith of the desperate sees living without money as tantamount to walking on water.

You can’t serve God and money at the same time, Jesus said.

The reaction of the disciples: Rabbi, are you nuts? How would we eat, clothe ourselves, find shelter? You can’t live without money!

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

– Matthew 6:28-30

Show some trust. God’s got your back. Your fear is lack of faith.

Post-Constantinian Christianity failed to come to terms with this rather obvious and consistent theme in Scripture, Old and New Testament, and especially the teachings of Rabbi Yeshua… a construction worker who had matured and developed in a militarily occupied land seething with rebellions and sectarian bickering, and crushed by Roman enclosure that forced the population into dependency on money.

The moneychangers were in the Temple because Jews were forbidden to use the graven image of Caesar, and so changed Roman money into half-shekels, the only assured-weight silver coinage approved by Jewish religious authorities. The Temple was trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Faith had abandoned that place, driven out by the peculiar character of money that imbricates us into a grid of dependency on the very powers we are commanded to confront.

The powers are not sovereign. God is the only sovereign.

They will wage war against the lamb, but the lamb will conquer them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings. Those who are called, chosen, and faithful are with him.

– Revelation 17:14

This is not prediction, but prophetic poetry; not prophecy seen as fortune-telling, but prophecy seen as unmasking. “Apocalypse” does not mean “catastrophe.” It means revelation. It reveals.

It says, “That emperor capering down the street is butt naked.”

We non-millenarian Christians should learn to lose our fear of this book that tells us, assertively, that only God is sovereign.

Discernment versus Accommodation

Once the church began making accommodation with power in the 2nd Century – leading to the “conversion” of Constantine, a ruler who slaughtered even his own family members after that so-called conversion, and who profaned the sign of the cross by superimposing it on a sword – that accommodation masqueraded as discernment.

Money is an institution, subordinate to the Powers. What John of Patmos told the so-called “primitive” Christians, a tightly knit and defiant network of believers who proclaimed God sovereign over all, and who shared so thoroughly that none accumulated individual goods, was to hold out in the face of Domitian’s persecutions (Domitian portrayed in Revelation as the re-born Nero).

This gift-economy community was so attractive to many “middle-class” Roman women that they were converting, and giving away their goods to the small, intimate churches spread around the Mediterranean. The “primitive” Christians were not only preaching a gift economy, and the sovereignty of God over the Powers, they were teaching a radical doctrine of spiritual equality between men and women. In Roman ideology, women were not seen as moral subjects. Even in Paul’s most patriarchal epistolary language, the question of moral agency (the test of spiritual fullness, and therefore full humanity) is always implicit in his directions singling out women; and women were co-apostles – apostasy among the Romans.

So while Nero attacked Christians out of political opportunism, Domitian attacked them because they represented an actual political and ideological threat.

With the Constantinianization of the church, however, the discernment of the difference between God’s sovereignty and state sovereignty was effaced, and elaborate scholastic rationalizations were constructed to persuade people that there was a chain-of-command that started with God, passed through the state, and was mediated by the state for the people.

It was inevitable that with the state as mediator, and its money as the solvent that dissolved the bonds of personal relationships and replaced them with dependency on the money-grid of the day, someone would eventually begin selling indulgences.

Perversia optimo est pessima.

The perversion of the best is the worst.

Accommodations were passed off as discernment, the exclusive province of a church authority that no longer structured itself as a human family, but as an authoritarian, patriarchal state.

Acting Our Way into Right Thinking

There is a common saying in 12-step programs: “You can’t think your way into right acting. You have to act your way into right thinking.

It’s counter-intuitive, because we have been taught that actions reflect our thinking, when in actuality the opposite is true.

This is very important for our discernment, and for the practices we choose to live into our faith. What kinds of things do people do that create changes in how they think and feel?

In 1973, Stanford University tried an experiment with college students. They had them play roles, as prisoners and as prison guards. Within days, they had to end the experiment, because the guards had become so utterly sadistic and arbitrary. It was called the Stanford Prison Experiment. Look it up.

The actions implicit in their roles changed their “minds.”

Lived experience is reflected in our consciousness. Experience becomes our frame of intellectual reference, and experience provides us with our stories and metaphors.

First-ness, Second-ness, Third-ness, and so on-ness

To the extent that our lived experience is mediated and abstracted, our perceptions and ideas are mediated and abstracted.

(a) I till the soil. I plant the seed. I tend the garden. I harvest and eat.

(b) I work at the office. I get my weekly paycheck. I drive to the store. I buy something called food.

There is a first-ness to the planter’s consciousness. The experiences are direct, hand-to-ground, hand-to-mouth… unmediated.

There is a third-ness and fourth-ness to the office worker’s experience. Layers of mediation between any possibility of an I-Thou experience, mutual recognition, fusion… communion.

Work gets the money. Money is carried to an institution (a supermarket). Food is sold as a commodity – something created primarily for the purpose of valorizing capital, and only secondarily for its actual use. The food producer doesn’t care if you eat it or throw it away. The producer – a corporation – just cares if you buy it. The exchange takes place between intermediaries, with a cashier who is an alienated worker, working for a manager who bosses for money, performing for a higher boss who holds money over her head… etc. The buyer (you) and the cashier generally don’t know or care about each other. Their relationship is mediated by power and money.

The experience is mediated; so the perceptions and conceptions are mediated, are third-ness and fourth-ness, abstracted and superficial, not first-ness, like the hand in the soil, or the direct gift of the garden’s abundance.

Discernment is the ability to dig down from third-ness and fourth-ness back into first-ness.

The elaboration of rationalizations, that remain in the third-ness and fourth-ness, is accommodation masquerading as discernment, masquerading even to the elaborator.

Economics, for example. Massive, elaborate rationalizations. Book-length riffs on third-ness and fourth-ness.

Money is a sign and an instrument of third-ness and fourth-ness. The fruit of my garden no longer passes from my hand to yours in friendship. The fruit of an “industry” with an absentee-institutional owner is shipped to a chain store, where its exchange is mediated by an abstraction called money.

We need discernment about money; because money – unexamined – locks us into third-ness and fourth-ness, and conceals the first-ness of our own lives and the realities of power.

Money is a universal solvent. It makes everything the same. It replaces the complexity and diversity and richness of Creation with cold simplicity. It dissolves qualities into mere quantity.

This characteristic of money is the most important thing we can know about it. It is why money is so dangerous.

So what is it that we need to understand about money to make good decisions about how we interact with money.

Two Types of Money

Theology concerns itself primarily with our relationship to an original and all-inclusive power. Jesus’ life took on a very political character, which means that Jesus was living into the story and history of a rabbinical Jewish prophetic tradition at a particular time and place in actual human history.

Incarnation means this life – Jesus – was in the world and in history. And He constructed His life to make himself a Rosetta Stone, a translator between the creative God of that prophetic tradition and the actual circumstances of 1st Century Palestine.

The basis of His message was peacemaking – an active verb. The message can only be delivered by someone’s hands… and, not surprisingly, He understood that this message is generally delivered into someone’s stomach.

He identified violence, retribution, and domination as central to the character of the Spirit of Malevolence… the name for this wandering spirit according to Job… is Satan. In Luke 10:1-3, it says:

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.

Jesus commands the most perilous way: provocation with peace. Lambs among wolves. Let your fear fall away, and the temptations of Satan – to violence, domination, and retribution – fall away with it.

Luke 10:18-20:

I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

And so Jesus provoked authority, again and again, and refused the temptations of power inhering in his own movement; and that approach led him to the cross, “like a lamb among the wolves.”

How he concretely provoked that power, however, was not a template for all time. He did so in the situated context of 1st Century Palestine. He had to discern the details and trends and contexts of that actual place at that actual time.

We live in a different time and place, inside a different emergent reality from the environment where Jesus lived… as a human being.

So we have to understand our own milieu… zeitgeist… moment… conjuncture… world.

I think that Jesus understood money very deeply – epistemologically, sociologically, semiotically… even when thee concepts were not yet formalized into academic sub-disciplines. He had an intuition from his own experience, focused as it was through his empathy for those on the margins.

Money had then, and has now, a two-fold character: commercial and political.

First, it has a commercial character. Commercial money is used to facilitate exchange of unlike items through a desirable like item. It is, therefore, one degree more abstract than straight barter. It can be gold or corn seeds or cowry shells. It can be, and often is, local. As Manuel DeLanda points out (A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History), in prison, cigarettes become local currency.

Second, money that has begun to universalize based on migrations and overlapping social meshworks is subject to political control. This process moves money further away from spontaneity and toward being “planned.” Planned money is both more political and more abstract.

States and empires use planned monetary systems as mechanisms for population control. As a necessity (to pay taxes, or – in our ultra-dependent case – to live at all), money binds us. Yet as a dead thing, an abstracted thing, an apparently unresponsive thing, money is impervious to our grievances; and it presents itself to us without apparent correspondence to real human beings controlling real political systems.

We recognize money uncritically. It’s “just money.”

And so money facilitates the power of elites even as it keeps elites invisible. Money creates the illusion of choice and freedom; and it makes power invisible.

Planned money is not merely a stimulant to trade. It is a social regulation institution.

“Whose image is on that coin?”

Money Talks

We said at the beginning that “money masks.” Now we need to think about how “money talks.”

Money masks; and money talks.

Money homogenizes everything under its banner. It is a cosmic blender.

We know from the Old Testament that unification through homogenization is a problem. We see that in the story of the Tower of Babel.

The disguised name for Babylon is hardly subtle here.

Egypt. Babylon. Rome.

The great city and the empire are inseparable. In fact, the great city is the embryo of empire. Ferdinand Braudel, in Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800, wrote:

[T]owns… represented an enormous expenditure. Their economy was only balanced by outside resources; others had to pay for their luxury. What use were they therefore, in the West, where they sprang up and asserted themselves so powerfully? The answer is that they produced the modern states, an enormous task requiring enormous effort. They produced the national markets, without which the modern state would be a pure fiction.

Empire needs to be defined. It is difficult to do so without veering into polemics, because naming empire is itself a political unmasking.

But empire can be described empirically (which is not quite synonymous with “abstractly”). Empire is the systematic exploitation of the periphery to support the center; and this exploitation has a two-way dynamic. It draws consumables from periphery to center; and it exports waste and disorder to the periphery.

This is actually a thermodynamic process, and so can be described empirically without resort to moral norms. In our day, for example, we can see quite clearly that the US – with 5% of the total world population – consumes more than 25% of the world’s fossil hydrocarbon energy production.

Exploitation of the periphery by the city-center was well understood by Jesus of Nazareth, who – as resident of a highly exploited and marginal area (Galilee) – saw goods flow toward Jerusalem (the city-center of the Herodian colonial surrogate government) and more generally from Palestine to Rome, even as economic, ecologic, and social disorder were exported from the centers back to the margins.

Jesus’ use of the term “repent,” in meeting with John the Baptist in the countryside along the Jordan River, is extremely significant.

“Repent” means “turn around.” The flow of people, of goods, and even of the of the Zealots’ quests to overturn imperial power, were movements from margin to center… in other words, along the imperial current. But Jesus says to “turn around,” whereupon He himself heads not to Jerusalem, but to the wilderness. And His ministry was not to power, not to the center, but to the marginalized.

In the Tower of Babel story, God’s correction involves not only the destruction of the tower to human hubris, but perhaps even more significantly, the division of peoples into separate, local, linguistic communities.

If money is a language, it serenades the top, it speaks to the center, and it curses the margins.

Language to Describe Language

Christians’ discernment of the process of history unfolding around us ought to speak at least two languages for describing our own epoch – (a) the language of Scripture, rendered intelligible by scholarship as a responsibility of discipleship, and (b) the language of the present.

In our modernist idiom, we might describe money using a physiological metaphor.

Money is a solvent that dissolves the connective tissue of community.

Scripture language:

But Peter said to him, May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain Gods gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.

– Acts 8:20-22

The Magic Ring

In the classic Tolkein trilogy – now also a movie trilogy – a kind, humble, decent protagonist comes into possession of a magic ring that does two things at once: It renders him invisible to everyone around him when he dons it; but by doing so, he becomes directly visible to the malevolent gaze of the uber-demon, Sauron, and his relentless ring wraiths.

Tales involving invisibility are recurring imaginary constants in many cultures. Because we are all subject to the temptations inside this fantasy – of being invisible, we are alert to the correspondence of invisibility with a moral hazard.

We know what we imagine we would do if we could be invisible.

We are broken, and so we can know broken-ness, temptation. If I were invisible for a day, I would ____ (fill in the blank).

Invisibility-as-moral-hazard cuts two ways: Invisibility of power opens the door to power without accountability; and amoral instrumentality in the individual causes “the least among us” to become invisible.

Money plays a key role in both aspects of invisibility. Like Sauron’s magic ring, money contains a dangerous paradox in its very composition and existence.

The exchange of money in the marketplace puts a retail worker and a buyer in contact with each other. The social networks and character of life of the buyer are invisible – and of little interest – to the retail worker, and vice-versa; and behind the retail worker is also a completely monetized network of relationships – instrumental relationships – relations that would not exist except for a monetary (contractual) interest. This deeper network that, in effect, controls the encounter of the retail worker with the buyer, involves vast and unequal relations-of-production; and the built environment itself in which this exchange takes place is the product of money-“making” enterprise.

I drop by the store and buy a gallon of milk. In-and-out in five minutes.

And that’s what I saw. That’s all. The rest is invisible, even though it is manifest in the most basic and profound way. Power invisible is power unaccountable. Money invisiblizes power.

And the single-mindedness that accompanies a single magic key to survival in our actually-structured society – money – bends our personalities to instrumentalism (even with other people) by constant practice. In that process, we learn not to see the casualties. We know who they are: the ones we have to pretend not to see, and thereby do not see.

Time is money, money time. That’s what “they” say.

I don’t know if we can throw money – like the magic ring – back into the fires of Mount Doom. But we can know that the more general-purpose and de-localized the money, the more effective it is as a solvent eating away at the connective tissue of community. We can not simply dismiss the need for a deep critique of money, even if raising the question can seem more perilous than opening Pandora’s infamous box.

More specifically, we need to take a hard look at the currency that dominates the actual world-system economy, and the currency that is at the heart of the economic crisis we are inside of.

Dollar Hegemony

In 2002, investment analyst Henry C. K. Liu penned an article for Asia Times entitled “Dollar hegemony has got to go.” In the small circle of people who were then paying attention to the widening contradiction between the financial economy and the real one, Liu’s article popularized his term, “dollar hegemony.”

Dollar hegemony is a description of global economics that describes the impact of the dollar as the recognized, universal, international currency, since the dollar abandoned the gold standard in 1971, then decoupled from the fixed currency exchange rates of the post-World War II Bretton Woods agreements in 1973.

In brief, from Liu:

…World trade is now a game in which the US produces dollars and the rest of the world produces things that dollars can buy. The worlds interlinked economies no longer trade to capture a comparative advantage; they compete in exports to capture needed dollars to service dollar-denominated foreign debts and to accumulate dollar reserves to sustain the exchange value of their domestic currencies. To prevent speculative and manipulative attacks on their currencies, the worlds central banks must acquire and hold dollar reserves in corresponding amounts to their currencies in circulation. The higher the market pressure to devalue a particular currency, the more dollar reserves its central bank must hold. This creates a built-in support for a strong dollar that in turn forces the worlds central banks to acquire and hold more dollar reserves, making it stronger. This phenomenon is known as dollar hegemony, which is created by the geopolitically constructed peculiarity that critical commodities, most notably oil, are denominated in dollars. Everyone accepts dollars because dollars can buy oil. The recycling of petro-dollars is the price the US has extracted from oil-producing countries for US tolerance of the oil-exporting cartel since 1973.

By definition, dollar reserves must be invested in US assets, creating a capital-accounts surplus for the US economy. Even after a year of sharp correction, US stock valuation is still at a 25-year high and trading at a 56 percent premium compared with emerging markets… [This was written in 2002. –SG]

… A strong-dollar policy is in the US national interest because it keeps US inflation low through low-cost imports and it makes US assets expensive for foreign investors. This arrangement, which Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan proudly calls US financial hegemony in congressional testimony, has kept the US economy booming in the face of recurrent financial crises in the rest of the world. It has distorted globalization into a race to the bottom process of exploiting the lowest labor costs and the highest environmental abuse worldwide to produce items and produce for export to US markets in a quest for the almighty dollar, which has not been backed by gold since 1971, nor by economic fundamentals for more than a decade. The adverse effect of this type of globalization on the developing economies are obvious. It robs them of the meager fruits of their exports and keeps their domestic economies starved for capital, as all surplus dollars must be reinvested in US treasuries to prevent the collapse of their own domestic currencies.

The adverse effect of this type of globalization on the US economy is also becoming clear. In order to act as consumer of last resort for the whole world, the US economy has been pushed into a debt bubble that thrives on conspicuous consumption and fraudulent accounting. The unsustainable and irrational rise of US equity prices, unsupported by revenue or profit, had merely been a devaluation of the dollar.

And so it came to pass.

The moral of this tale, and this extended quote, is that money has consistently been used as a weapon for imperial power; but that the more abstract, universal, and general-purpose the money is, the more destructive its payload.

I don’t agree with the idea that ignorance is like a closed room. Ignorance is unprotected. Ignorance is not matter; it is space.

We are not hurt by ignorance per se, but ignorance leaves the door unlocked to let the devil in. We need to know as much as we can about money, and be fearless in facing the implications of what we learn.

Money and Scripture

Master, I knew you that you are a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter. I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the earth. Behold, you have what is yours.

-Matthew 25:24-25

A hard man (like the heart of Pharaoh, hard). Rewarding usury. Money-making as virtue. A man who “reaps where he does not sow.”

Many interpretations read this passage as if it were a tract from Murray Rothbard. Usury was a sin among Jews. In Jesus’ story, the virtuous man, who the Master – an absentee landlord, the kind Palestinian peasants knew well as oppressors – throws into the darkness (unlike the merciful God that Jesus represented), takes this money (a talent was an extraordinary amount for a servant) and buries it.

Money allows many to reap where they do not sow. This is the most basic description of material injustice. The appropriation of the work of another.

Jesus was an observant Jew. The law was no usury between Jew and Jew. The law was no interest more than 12% to outsiders. Yet the servant commended by the master in this story – by this absentee landlord “who reaps what he does not sow” – has cashed out at 100%.

A charismatic Jewish renewalist in 30 AD Palestine, preaching to the poor, does not mean – nor his listeners hear – in this tale of the talents, that a despised figure (the exploitative landowner) is a stand-in for God, the bank manager; nor does he use a clearly-understood violation of Jewish law as an example of the virtue of successful usury.

Jesus told his listeners that discipleship is hard. A warning to his own disciples, Jesus – who will be nailed to the cross – lets them know in this parable that following him will lead the world – represented by this absentee landlord – to throw them into the darkness to wail and gnash their teeth.

Discipleship is not cheap or easy, this parable warns. And the question of money emerges again and again in these examples Jesus provides.

This story of the Parable of the Talents is frequently cited today as Christ’s personal blessing, nay, encouragement, of successful monetary return-on-investment schemes; just as Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees and Herodians is portrayed as a call to obey secular authority.

Both of these wrong ideas have great popular currency; and both are clearly based on the evasion of rigorous scholarship.

Confronting these opportunistic (and anachronistic) interpretations of scripture is a critical task in the struggle to reclaim a church with the Beatitudes as its constitution.

Just as important as the kind of contextualizing scholarship that reminds us of what 1st Century Palestine was actually like, the way social relations were actually structured, and the implications of context on text, is discernment of our own age. We have to understand and deal with money in ways that reflect deep discernment and avoid rationalization and simplification.

Paul Tillich described sin in its structural aspect. Social structures can force us all into complicity; and as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove pointed out, when the Bible says “you,” the meaning is “y’all.” Not merely a person, but a people.

Out entanglement in structural sin is a function of dependency; and no dependency is so thoroughgoing as dependency on money.

When I was in the Army, I was trained to use explosives. At least within the ken of the military mindset, there were times when explosives were necessary. But they were used when nothing else would get the job done; and we were taught to use them with great care. The potential for destruction was too high to handle them any other way.

I think we should begin to understand money with the same sense of extreme precaution. Money may be necessary to do some things… now. But our cavalier and undiscerning use of it contributes to massive destruction, so ubiquitous and frequent that we call it part of life, worse… part of God’s plan. We are getting better at naming people who are careless with the lives of others and Creation; but we still haven’t looked deeply into money’s role.

Gun culture is fond of saying that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” True, and a truism. But a partial truth, and an intentionally partial truth, worse than a lie. Put people into bad circumstances and introduce guns and things get a lot worse a lot faster. Guns add that special lethality.

But how often do we pass around money and call it service, and how self-critical do we need to be in light of the deeper dynamics of money, about our advocacy for the poor, for example, when we demand more money instead of more independence from the money-grid and more inter-dependence on the community?

I have lost track of how many times I’ve seen money – funding, it’s called – put service and advocacy organizations into structural antagonism, an economy of scarcity, in which people are talking like Jesus and acting like Hobbes.

Can we at least seek a non-monetary answer first, instead of reaching for the blasting caps and time fuse?

The implications are mind-boggling, because money is so thoroughly imbricated with every aspect of our lives.

I think that Jesus knew this. I think that in the best way it could be said to the peasantry of 1st Century Palestine, He explained it. I think we’ve been running from the implications ever since, because money makes things easier, more convenient… until it doesn’t.

You can’t serve God and money at the same time, He said.

Without the most convoluted rationalizations, how do we explain what he meant? I mean really.

I am not saying that we declare war on the money-form, or that we discontinue giving money to the poor. Jesus told people to do precisely that.

The poor use money for necessities, like a soldier uses explosives when nothing else will do. But do we tell the poor, your salvation (healing) is in a steady income, i.e., money?

I put these thoughts and questions out there to start a conversation. Structural sins may demand structural redemptions.

Last Word

Luke 6:17-49:

17 and he came down with them, and stood on a level place, and a great multitude of his disciples, and a great number of the people from all Judaea and Jerusalem, and the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases;

18 and they that were troubled with unclean spirits were healed.

19 And all the multitude sought to touch him; for power came forth from him, and healed them all.

20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

21 Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.

22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of mans sake.

23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy: for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same manner did their fathers unto the prophets.

24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.

25 Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

26 Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets.

27 But I say unto you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you,

28 bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.

29 To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also.

30 Give to every one that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

32 And if ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? for even sinners love those that love them.

33 And if ye do good to them that do good to you, what thank have ye? for even sinners do the same.

34 And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again as much.

35 But love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil.

36 Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

37 And judge not, and ye shall not be judged: and condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: release, and ye shall be released:

38 give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom. For with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.

39 And he spake also a parable unto them, Can the blind guide the blind? shall they not both fall into a pit?

40 The disciple is not above his teacher: but every one when he is perfected shall be as his teacher.

41 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brothers eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

42 Or how canst thou say to thy brother, Brother, let me cast out the mote that is in thine eye, when thou thyself beholdest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote that is in thy brothers eye.

43 For there is no good tree that bringeth forth corrupt fruit; nor again a corrupt tree that bringeth forth good fruit.

44 For each tree is known by its own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.

45 The good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth that which is evil: for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.

46 And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?

47 Every one that cometh unto me, and heareth my words, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like:

48 he is like a man building a house, who digged and went deep, and laid a foundation upon the rock: and when a flood arose, the stream brake against that house, and could not shake it: because it had been well builded.

49 But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that built a house upon the earth without a foundation; against which the stream brake, and straightway it fell in; and the ruin of that house was great.


After Sex War – or Reflections on Jesus, Gender and Postmodern Life

Stan Goff

“In many pre-modern, traditional societies it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others. I am brother, cousin and grandson, member of this household, that village, this tribe. These are not characteristics that belong to human beings accidentally, to be stripped away in order to discover ‘the real me’. They are part of my substance, defining partially at least and sometimes wholly my obligations and my duties. Individuals inherit a particular space within an interlocking set of social relationships: Lacking that space, they are nobody, or at least a stranger and an outcast. To know oneself as such a social person is however not to occupy a static and fixed position. It is to find oneself placed at a certain point on a journey with set goals; to move through life is to make progress – or fail to make progress – toward a given end. Thus a completed and fulfilled life is an achievement and death is the point at which someone can be judged happy or unhappy. Hence the ancient Greek proverb: ‘Call no man happy until he is dead.’

“This conception of a whole human life as the primary subject of objective and impersonal evaluation, of a type of evaluation which provides the content for judgment upon the particular actions or projects of a given individual, is something that ceases to be generally available at some point in the progress – if we can call it such – towards and into modernity. It passes to some degree unnoticed, for it is celebrated historically for the most part not as a loss, but as a self-congratulatory gain, as the emergence of the individual freed on the one hand from the social bonds of those constraining hierarchies which the modern world rejected at its birth and on the other hand from what modernity has taken to be the superstitions of teleology.”

-Alasdair MacIntyre, from After Virtue (1981), pages 33-34.

Alasdair MacIntyre


A Short Bibliographical History

In 2006, after firing my publisher, I used a publish-on-demand outfit to put out Sex War, a book about militarism and gender. At some point, I was talked into simply making the book free online; and so it is now. It was not a great work of literature; nor was it groundbreaking in terms of theory. But it is a book by a former military practitioner that attempts to be critical and self-critical about the gender-dimensions of militarism.


A lot has changed since then in the world and in my own life. For anyone who might be interested, this is an update and a reflection on the book and how my perspectives have evolved since I wrote it.

So why the MacIntyre quote at the front end?

MacIntyre’s work in moral philosophy is the latest piece of a puzzle that started coming together for me with Catharine MacKinnon around 2004 (the accumulation of Scottish surnames is purely coincidental, I think). MacKinnon is a law professor, and she published a book in 1991 called Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), that did a very systematic take-down of liberal law. I found that book languishing in a used book store, and since I was deeply into my Marxist phase, the subject of the state preoccupied me a great deal. It is probably no accident that MacKinnon, MacIntyre and I each went through a Marxist phase, and I’ll come back to that subject by-and-by. At any rate, once MacKinnon had unpacked liberal law for me, I had the tools to apprehend other writers, like Carolyn Merchant and Carole Pateman, who unpacked scientific “objectivity” and the “social contract,” likewise exposing the gendered history and character of these supposedly gender-neutral notions, and I was well on my way to questioning the basis of modernism – a topic that wasn’t really on my radar before, though the machinations and evolutions of capitalism certainly were.

Catharine MacKinnon

All these insights began to make me highly suspicious of abstraction, since I was beginning to see abstraction as a constant in this phenomenon called modernism, which contained capitalism and various resistances to capitalism within it, resistance often framed in terms of something called “development.”

At the suggestion of my late Welsh communist pen-pal, Mark Jones, who had taken a strong interest in matters of ecology-and-society, I looked into the work of Swedish anthropologist Alf Hornborg, specifically his book, The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Hornborg’s book clarified and consolidated my thinking on the relation between energy, money and semiotics; and his book did a great deal to resolve some of the apparent contradictions in the academic philosophical positions of “objectivism” and “constructivism.” More than anything, Power of the Machine exposed me to Polanyi’s “disembeddedness” and Weber’s “disenchantment,” which fit nicely into the puzzle that began with MacKinnon’s critique of liberal law.

Hornborg has described himself as a skeptical anti-modernist, which differentiates him from – I assume – a Catholic anti-modernist like MacIntyre or the late Ivan Illich.

In 2006, I began to understand that many of the ethical impulses of my own radical politics had their origins in Christianity, a point made by Nietzsche, with whom I had some passing familiarity, but not one that I had grabbed hold of in any decisive way. I became interested in the early church and Jesus as an historical figure, and in the pursuit of that interest, I experienced what Christians refer to as a call. In 2008, I was baptized.

I was then aimed at another writer, a philosopher professor and theologian named Stanley Hauerwas, who was working at Duke University just miles away from my Raleigh home. My pastor, Greg Moore, who had attended some of Hauerwas’ classes, arranged for me to meet Stanley Hauerwas for lunch one day, after I had read some of his essays. We had a delightful conversation, after which Stanley bought me a copy of John Howard Yoder’s canonical work on Christian pacifism, The Politics of Jesus (1972).

Hauerwas’ writing shared the critique of modernist abstraction that I had found in various feminist thinkers, as well as in Hornborg, and so I seized on Hauerwas’ ideas as well. Not surprisingly, Hauerwas – a nearly Catholic theologian in many respects – had actually approvingly cited MacKinnon, specifically on her point that sex in the real world cannot be separated from social power.

It was in reading Hauerwas’ bibliographies that I became interested in MacIntyre, a former Marxist who had also converted in his 50s, and who had deconstructed the moral incoherence of modernism in his book, After Virtue (1981). This completes – thus far in August 2011 – a highly abbreviated bibliographical account of my post-Sex War evolution.

Now I ought to explain this puzzle I’ve been putting together in greater detail.

I should say, as I similarly disclaimed in Sex War, that I am not doing anything original, but piecing together what I have learned from others since then, based on what I had pieced together what I learned from others back then in order to write the book.

I write things down, and I’ve been doing that for a while, so now I feel compelled to write things down, as much to clear up what I’m thinking more than to assert what I’m thinking, even when in writing I may sound far more assertive than I feel. It’s just something I do, and something apparently I need to do; and my hope is that once I get it down, there might be some conversations about it that make things even clearer.

“Nothing in history (collective or individual) is lost, but everything is qualitatively transformed.”

-Jacques Ellul


Identities and Privilege

For quite some time now, ever since writing Sex War, I’ve been insisting that much of what goes by the name post-modernism is merely modernism grown into its own reductio ad absurdum… sharing more with consumerism than anything else that comes readily to mind.

In the case of gender, or rather Gender Studies – because in this case I am speaking about a particular academic doctrine that had phagocyted feminism in the Academy – this is associated with “third wave” or “anti-essentialist” or postmodern feminism (not meaning to imply that these are monolithic either), which began as a sensible critique of modernist and ethnocentric certainties inside and outside of feminism, and which then fragmented into endless divisions and sub-divisions based on various “identities,” in the case of Gender Studies, identities based on sex in some manner.

(One does not have an integrated social identity in this scheme, but each person is the “possessor” of multiple identities, which seems to echo Erving Goffman’s ahistorical notion of selfhood wherein we put on and take off roles like costumes, the wearer of those costumes being a kind of disembodied ghost.)


Parallel to that activity, and because leftist politics was and is still a preoccupation that is closely associated with the Academy (leftist politics is virtually dead among the US working class), this tendency infiltrated anti-establishment politics, and showed up – again out of an impulse of good will – as a form of education called anti-oppression training, that emphasized recognition of one’s own and others’ privileges. I was involved in such training myself some years ago, where white privilege was the issue under review; and there was a great deal to be said for these trainings. They uncover a lot of hidden assumptions that we inherit from positions of privilege within the culture, and give us a greater appreciation of what it is like living in someone else’s skin.

The training concepts are summed up in the metaphor of an invisible backpack.

The invisible backpack was a notion introduced by Peggy McIntosh, if I recall correctly; and one was directed to unpack various privileges that he or she (as a white person) took for granted. McIntosh called these privileges invisible weightless … special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.


My friend and the editor of Sex War, who is also co-owner of the blog Feral Scholar, is De Clarke; and in 1981, she penned a poem called “privilege” that applied this insight to sex, which I will reprint here in its entirety, because it illustrates very well why this recognition of privilege is useful for explaining forms of social disempowerment that attach to some people (in this case over half of all people), and the disempowerment does not require legal inequality to exist:


a poem for men who dont understand what we mean when we say they have it

D.A. Clarke

[reprinted from Banshee, Peregrine Press
Copyright 1981 D. A. Clarke. All Rights Reserved]

privilege is simple:

going for a pleasant stroll after dark,
not checking the back of your car as you get in, sleeping soundly,
speaking without interruption, and not remembering
dreams of rape, that follow you all day, that woke you crying, and

is not seeing your stripped, humiliated body
plastered in celebration across every magazine rack, privilege
is going to the movies and not seeing yourself
terrorized, defamed, battered, butchered
seeing something else

privilege is
riding your bicycle across town without being screamed at or
run off the road, not needing an abortion, taking off your shirt
on a hot day, in a crowd, not wishing you could type better
just in case, not shaving your legs, having a decent job and
expecting to keep it, not feeling the bosss hand up your crotch,
dozing off on late-night busses, privilege

is being the hero in the TV show not the dumb broad,
living where your genitals are totemized not denied,
knowing your doctor wont rape you

privilege is being
smiled at all day by nice helpful women, it is
the way you pass judgment on their appearance with magisterial authority,
the way you face a judge of your own sex in court and
are over-represented in Congress and are not strip searched for a traffic ticket
or used as a dart board by your friendly mechanic, privilege

is seeing your bearded face reflected through the history texts
not only of your high school days but all your life, not being
relegated to a paragraph
every other chapter, the way you occupy
entire volumes of poetry and more than your share of the couch unchallenged,
it is your mouthing smug, atrocious insults at women
who blink and change the subject politely privilege

is how seldom the rapists name appears in the papers
and the way you smirk over your PLAYBOY

its simple really, privilege
means someone elses pain, your wealth
is my terror, your uniform
is a woman raped to death here, or in Cambodia or wherever
wherever your obscene privilege
writes your name in my blood, its that simple,
youve always had it, thats why it doesnt
seem to make you sick to your stomach,
you have it, we pay for it, now
do you understand

This predated “The Invisible Knapsack” by seven years.

Now it must be said that De is a representative of something that was retroactively named “second wave feminism,” by “third-wavers” in order to distinguish it and expel it from the “postmodern” third-wave; and this is an important point to which I will return later, after I explain how this privilege-analysis became problematic. These women who explored sex and power in this way didn’t see themselves as a wave, but called themselves simply “radical feminists,” a reference to the term radical meaning “at the roots.” They sought to understand male power all the way down to its roots, and they thought about how to resist that power, as women – women being not just a biological status, but a cultural and political identity.

The Abstraction of Identity


There is a kind of uprooting – of identity, not of political power – but an uprooting of personal identity; and it is important now to distinguish that so I don’t confuse you by using the same term “identity” for two different things. That other kind of identity is personal identity, or personhood, or how one experiences selfhood as a whole.

I began with MacIntyre’s points about the progressive uprooting of this kind of personal identity in the evolution of modernism; because it clarifies to some extent my own discomfort with the notion of “identity” advanced by this thing called postmodernism, which shares more than anything else this deracination that McIntyre describes as modernist.


This uprooting corresponds to two other phenomena: disembeddedness and disenchantment. Alf Hornborg has written about disembeddedness (as described by Karl Polanyi) and disenchantment (as described by Weber), and how these phenomena underwrite the ecological destruction of modernity. Polanyi was describing an economic phenomenon – how economic decisions are further and further removed from place and non-economic relations. Weber was describing the loss of a sense of enchantment, of the spiritual, mystical or divine, from modernist society.

Hornborg put the two together to show how each concept related to a sense of place, of belonging, and how that belongingness contributes to a sense of the sacred. Together, economic disembedding and cultural disenchantment were part of the objectification of the world, which allow us to think of something like a forest or a meadow as a “natural resource.”

The family pharmacy in the small town, where the children of the pharmacist attend school with the children of the pharmacist’s customers, perhaps attend the same church, is an example of embeddedness, when it is compared to the new CVS that opens at the new strip mall, a standardized and sterile presence unattached to any sense of place except as a matter of advantageous location.


The land that was once a farm among other farms, where there are associations between those farms, the people who live there, the history, the kinship relations, the shared cemetery, is rendered less “enchanted” by these emotionally resonant shared histories when it is bought by a developer and turned into a subdivision.

Once we accept the “progress” embodied by these changes, once we allow ourselves to be swept up in this general objectification and depersonalization, we inevitably reflect that acceptance in our sense of identity, as described by MacIntyre – who says that the uprooting of personal identity from personal and community history, kinship, and place “is celebrated historically for the most part not as a loss, but as a self-congratulatory gain, as the emergence of the individual freed on the one hand from the social bonds of those constraining hierarchies which the modern world rejected…”

There is no doubt that many of those kinship relations – for example, wife – under various circumstances were unhappy (or that some were happy). In certain places and times, this status is embedded – with all the sense of history and belongingness that provides an aspect of that identity McIntyre describes as substantive – and at the same time, this status in certain places and times may be a denial of full personhood, an absolute subjection to the will of a “husband,” and even involve acceptance of terrible abuse, including forced sex.

critique of this hierarchy by women who were and are part of the feminist movement, like the critique of master-servant relations by other groups, has been an aspect of modernism every bit as much as the ecological destruction of modernism, which has been facilitated by the same dissolution of cultural bonds that opened the door for certain political projects of emancipation.

So there is no easy way to dismiss modernism with a blanket judgment one way or another.

In MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, he also emphasizes that modernism as a philosophical phenomenon has removed all criteria for ethical judgments – a move he calls “emotivism,” in which every point of view is represented ultimately as a personal choice (presumably driven in the final analysis by personal desires and preferences); and conjoined this realm of personal choice in all matters with a political regime that exercises power through a bureaucratic apparatus controlled by a managerial class – which serves as a kind of umpire in conflicts arising between all these criterion-less personal choices. He calls this a system of bureaucratic individualism, which is “postmodern” at least in its individualistic pluralism.

Before this becomes interminably confusing, there is a caveat. MacInytre has been called postmodern, because like many self-professed postmodernists, he questions many of the certainties of earlier modernity. Like the term feminist, postmodern has become a modifier with so many contradictory meanings that we will be clearer by adhering to specific instances and contexts and spelling out what we mean as we go along.

The point here is not the overblown certainties of some modern thinkers, but pluralism down to the level of someone called the individual. MacIntyre’s use of the term “objective and impersonal” above is not the same as modern “objectivity and impersonality.” Modernity defines objective as everywhere and nowhere; whereas, MacIntyre’s account is the ethos of a community that transcends and defines its individuals, whose identities as members of that community are shared along with some baseline narrative that constitutes the community.

MacIntyre’s critique of modernism is that it has become morally incoherent, a jumble of incommensurable moral positions, none of them analytically defensible, that are negotiated by bureaucratic authority (which itself relies on a utilitarian ethos that is at perpetually odds with the rights-ethos of individualism) – which might be reasonably called a postmodern recognition of the modern moral condition.


Pluralism of ethical norms, which preoccupies MacIntyre’s theses on moral philosophy, corresponds to pluralism of “identity” as suggested by postmodern academics. These pluralisms are made possible by the uprootedness of (post)modern culture, which corresponds economically, historically and culturally to consumerism.


A World System Divided into Producers and Consumrs


One of my favorite books is Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (1986), by Maria Mies. The awful title belies a marvelous book in which Mies (who co-authored Ecofeminism -1993- with Vandana Shiva) describes a process whereby married women were transformed from wives into “housewives,” a process she named “housewifization.”


In this process, which corresponded historically with an increase in consumer goods that needed to be soaked up by markets, the wife – who had been a critical actor earlier economies, whether agrarian, cottage-industry or even factory – was redefined as housewife, a person who was the colonial subject of the “little white man” (this was a white male working class and petit bourgeois identity, explained in the link to Mies’ analysis – the Big White Man is the colonial power-holder, over actual colonies and over great means of production), and whose main purpose – aside from serving the little white man, was to buy consumer goods.

In the United States, after the Great Depression followed by World War II (in which many women worked in factories), the war industries were converted into domestic engines of consumer good production – especially of household goods, like washers, dryers, vacuum cleaners, and various home maintenance products, as well as cosmetics and other goods that made women more “appealing” to the “little white man” each of them served. The man was available to the army of labor outside the home. The housewife, then, had four main functions: to maintain the house, to provide child care services, to be sexually alluring and available to the little white man, and to buy consumer goods. The virtue of frugality that corresponded to the Depression and the war were replaced after the war, during the post-war boom years, by relentless encouragement to purchase and consume, and eventually to use a lot of easily available credit.

Further along in the post-war years, as domestic industry floundered in the United States and neoliberalism emerged as the US resolution to its crisis, the world economy was reorganized in such a way that production of goods outside the United States became a method to obtain US dollars to service debts, and the US role in that globalized economy became global consumer-of-last-instance. The US was required to soak up excess production to ensure rates of profit and uninterrupted capital accumulation.

As this became the case, the demand to consume was enlarged from housewives to the entire US culture, and with this development, we saw the emergence of consumerism – and the expansion of advertising and public relations as a “demand production industry – as the hegemonic mindset. Our activity was more and more dominated by the consumption of commodities, often well beyond our actual necessities; and we came to identify more and more with the products we consumed.

Consumerist boosters, like politicians, economists, public relations people and advertisers, adopted the liberatory language of (post)modernist pluralism. Freedom, choice, self-invention, status, and desire (as well as cultivated insecurities) became the watchwords of a culture that – as the most primary matter – consumed… that is, bought things (using more and more credit, but that is another long story with a bad ending).

Hat tip to Amy Laura Hall for this ad

The website Ad Age lists the top 100 advertising campaigns, and the blurb-appeals include: “ “just do it,” “you deserve a break today,” “a diamond is forever,” “tastes great, less filling,” “does she or doesn’t she,” “good to the last drop,” “the Pepsi generation,” “have it your way,” “the skin you love to touch,” “share the fantasy,” “know what comes between me and my Calvins? … nothing,” “always a bride’s maid, but never a bride,” “you’ll wonder where the yellow went,” “when you care enough to send the very best,” “the ultimate driving machine,” and so they go.

Women were encouraged to smoke cigarettes as a symbol of their longing for emancipation with:

“You’ve come a long way, baby,
To get where you got to today.
You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby.
You’ve come a long, long way.”

-Virginia Slims cigarette commercial


CHOICE becomes paramount, and the question of how context places limits on CHOICE fades back out of the picture. This is at the core of what MacKinnon explained about liberal law, when she noted that abstract equality under the law served to conceal and reproduce existing concrete inequalities.

Those choices that MacIntyre speaks of, choices between which ethical stance one decides to adopt, or whether to adopt an ethical stance at all (as Kierkegaard then Nietzsche posed the question), are expressed in late modernity (or postmodernity, if you insist) as individual rights. I have a right to decide whether I want to be a Catholic, an atheist, an animist, a Buddhist or a hedonist. I have a right to do whatever I want, so long as I don’t infringe that same right in others – this is the essence of classical liberalism, an outgrowth of post-Enlightenment modernity; and it is obviously a political assertion. To assert a right (whatever a right is – another tricky issue once it is examined) is a political act.

The FREEDOM OF CHOICE becomes paramount, and the question of how context places limits on FREEDOM OF CHOICE fades back out of the picture.


The game-aspect of politics complicates this conceptual legerdemain, because these freedoms can be challenges to the entitlements and privileges of others; leading to backlash, which then polarizes people around political questions. That polarization causes the tactics to trump the original principles of position in process I will describe later as dog-waggery.

Because modern, disembedded society has no shared moral tradition to which it can appeal – for good or ill – to settle these disputes, and because disputants are frequently not even known to each other, the matter is referred to a bureaucratic state, in which a complex system of elections, administration and courts adjudicate the question of rights between all these deracinated “interests.” Political questions, therefore, are not settled based solely on the merits of disputing arguments, but are referred into a system that requires all manner of strategic maneuvering; and that maneuvering comes to overshadow the dispute itself – which may be nuanced, but which becomes further polarized into enemy camps whose primary purpose comes to be defeating each other.

Given that there are no strong communal ties based on historical association and kinship, people’s competing identities – selected on purely political grounds, often growing out of the most superficial kind of self-interest – lead them to assess others (manipulatively) as allies and enemies. Life itself is perceived to be wholly embodied in this contest between political identities.

Ironically, the more intellectually critical members of the consumer society are those most preoccupied with politics, with most of the rest participating out of direct and uncritical consumer self-interest… shopping and consuming.

As a former soldier and a former communist, I know this story very well. Our identities become abstracted and simplified into categories; and they are all political categories. At least it gives us some sense that we belong to some kind of community, and we have guidelines for what to do. I accomplish missions, or I advance the cause of class struggle. Then the mission to destroy the enemy subsumes the question of means… sigh.


Politics and the Abstraction of Identity


In a individualistic pluralist society, the function of ruling bureaucratic managers is to umpire – that is, ensure that each person’s rights are protected as far as is feasible… theoretically.

In fact, those with the most economic power exercise enough influence, as part of an interlocking directorate of the elite, to ensure no rules are established that will fatally undermine their position of power, even if popular forces occasionally force negotiation of certain aspects of power. Choices that are made available are circumscribed by what does and does not undermine the power of the powerful.

One result of the post-Enlightenment paradigm of bureaucratic individualism is that one social role has taken on immense importance as the specialty that sets up communication between the individual and the bureaucracy: lawyers.


No one point of view can be hegemonic, and so rule defaults to a strictly managerial class that relies on force overseeing a collection of disembedded, disenchanted, rights-demanding individuals, each entitled to choose who they want to be – that is, to choose an identity.

This, of course, conflicts with those aspects of identity that MacIntyre described as pre-modern: I am the son of Stewart and Jean Goff; I am the husband of Sherry; I am the father of Elan, the stepfather of Jessie, Jayme and Jeremy; brother of Celia and Glen, grandfather to Jaydin, Jaycen, Alyssia and Janae; I was a member of 7th Special Forces, a member of Freedom Road Socialist Organization; a member of Veterans For Peace; a member of All Saints United Methodist Church; like my father and mother before me, I like to fish (as do my brother and sister, as well as my daughter Elan); I am someone’s friend. Each of these instances “defin[ed] partially at least and sometimes wholly my obligations and my duties.” I “inherit[ed] a particular space within an interlocking set of social relationships.

Relations, not “interests” – obligations, not “values.”

In each of these instances, my identity was not abstracted onto a (political) demographic chart as (a) white, (b) male, (c) American, (d) heterosexual (I’ll question that “heterosexual” category later on, not just for me, but in general). You can place me in each of these categories by inference, but the categories themselves are what I find problematic.

These categories impute membership in groups the other members of which I overwhelmingly will never know, with whom I have no interlocking relations, and to which I owe no duties or obligations.

I do not know most white people, most males, most “heterosexuals,” and so forth.

None of our four grandchildren are “white” in this schema, yet none of them spends a great deal of time thinking, “I am not white,” and none of them think of me as white, male, American or heterosexual. I am to them a whole person, a grandfather they call Paw-Paw (or in Alyssia’s case, O-Paw, and Jaydin has taken to calling me “Stan” now).

I belong to two families, to a church, to a 12-step home group, to a committee that organized a community garden. These are not abstract choices, as far as I’m concerned, but crucial aspects of my whole social identity, which is not – as that identity is lived – perceived in categorical fragments as white, male, American, heterosexual. These community connections come from relations that intersect at this one point that is me – a breathing person; the “me” is not dissected and imagined out into these demographic boxes.

These generic characterizations are abstract, political categories. They emerged in politics (in struggles over power), and they are invoked in politics. It is important that I recognize my privilege in each category and that I understand the politics; but it is equally important that my life not become so relentlessly political that I begin to understand these abstractions as somehow swallowing up and erasing the more personal reality of me (and all those others in relation), this experience that is defined in my actions as father, brother, partner, friend, writer, worker, congregant, gardener, Christian (which by the way demands a blanket abdication of privilege when I live into it).


The Whiff of War

Politics is often understood implicitly as war, precisely because politics is seen as strategic. As that clever Jesuit Michel De Certeau explains on the subject of strategy, strategy forces each side to barricade and protect itself from the outside force within a controlled space or institution and divides the world into us (on the inside) and them (on the outside). That division between inside and outside comes to trump other considerations.

De Certeau

You can judge me on how I carry out my obligations and duties within those actual social groups where I live, if you know me. That would include whether I take advantage of those abstract demographic privileges in an unethical way. It is very difficult, however, to conclude much about me as a person on the basis of being white or male that is not immediately mitigated or altered in some way by the specificity of my circumstances.

In my past political work, consistent with De Certeau’s observations, I noticed that shift into the relentlessly political among my cohorts, especially the younger ones who were anxious to prove their political bona fides. They became watchful of their colleagues for displays of privilege, and they became self-consumed with rooting out any vestiges of it in themselves. Every action was analyzed and re-analyzed for the political substance of it, until there was little left but the politics.

Their relationships with one another, especially if there were multiple “identities” in the room, became stilted and probative, and they sometimes lost the capacity for spontaneity (thought they also sometimes simulated it). The formation of cliques was incessant.


Privilege became the singular lens through which they viewed the world, but not merely privilege – the privilege they could observe from their own occupancy in the privileged first-world. Some even became ascetic about it. This is not unique to the hermeneutic of privilege; it is typical of modern, ideological political culture.

I actually received an occasional lecture from someone decades my junior – white – on my white privilege, after having raised three black children and making some 21 trips to Haiti (where I lived with Haitians, not in hotels, and frequently in houses made of mud), where the devastation of power relations is on stark display every day. For many Haitians, a full belly is the main sign of privilege.

I was home with our non-white children, for the unfair suspensions, fights over name-calling, racist (and sexist) cops, and living, eating and sleeping in the same house with people who were divided from me by these abstract categories, and with whom I was and am in close, loving relation.

I got out of Haiti one time hours ahead of the last (US authored) coup d’etat, and went back twice to assist political fugitives (absolutely using some privileges to navigate where those under duress could not).

Privilege is a phenomenon so overlapping and nested and interlaced throughout the world that it cannot function as a singular hermeneutic; and when it is treated as one, it ends up creating cliques of the truly-enlightened. It must always be contextualized, and its treatment mitigated by context; and that does not mean merely ranking and re-ranking oneself and others according to privilege continua.

Do I still have the advantages of being “white”? (One of my nephews recently asked me if I was white?) Of course. That is inescapable. The question is, aside from not taking obvious advantage of that in particular situations, how is one to live his life in a state of hyper-vigilance around this one aspect of social existence? It is not feasible without becoming paralyzed; and it is not even desirable. My own children would think I had lost my mind.

As I will explain further down, one alternative is to live into each relationship according to its unique obligations.

I am not arguing that understanding privilege is not important. It is extremely important. Using it as one’s overarching hermeneutic guideline, however, leads to its own form of “othering.”


The Masculinity Thesis


The universality of war has created the universality of dominator masculinity. That was my thesis in Sex War.
But I was talking about that paradoxical “othering” that is created by a ideological political culture and the danger of the singular hermeneutic.

What was especially peculiar about my experience with the critics of privilege (remember, I agree with their basic thesis, just not their single-minded devotion to this one analytical category) was that those same people were ready to go to war with me about the things I was saying about sex… not things that obscured privilege, but precisely how sex is mixed up with social power, and most specifically how men’s social power – as men – is a constant in sexual relations, of all kinds – not just monogamous heterosex.

Here I will return to the question of “second-wave” and “third-wave” feminism, and how I ended up – by simply insisting that sex is inflected by male social power and following that assertion up by applying it to specific situations – on one side of an academic polemical barricade.


My thesis is well-known to anyone who knows me: masculinity is a cultural construction (though this doesn’t make me a “constructiivist”); and masculinity is predominantly constructed as domination and conquest. There are subliminal versions of this construction, because obviously men have to do a lot of other things within the late capitalist division of labor besides conquer and dominate. They are forced to shuffle paper and cut grass and so forth. Dominator masculinity is sublimated through sports, games, pornography, automobiles, entertainment fantasies, man-talk, sexual harassment and so forth.

By that I mean that biological males are met by cultures (because this conquest-masculinity transcends many cultures, being based as it is historically on warfare – which gave it its universality) that immediately begin socializing males for this set of behavioral expectations we call masculinity. It doesn’t take as well on everyone, and in some instances, it doesn’t take at all, and these instances are seen as deviant (the source of homophobia, for one thing). But it takes on most, and men in turn, as well as many women who are socialized by the same culture, feel obliged to rear male children to be this way. Women who have found an accommodation within this regime participate in this socialization, and men are pushed by their gender status, and the whole thing becomes self-policing. In other words, gender as a system is self-organized.


Gender is an aspect of all societies, and I believe it always will be. But I am talking about gender today, hierarchical and oppressive, in a modern world organized by technology, war and empire.

This particular analysis – which I arrived at by studying feminist intellectuals and activists, while evaluating and re-evaluating my own experience as a male (and admittedly a former military male, which biases me toward my belief that war was and is formative of this masculinity) – is an analysis that attempts to form coherent connections between ideas and practices and their relations to evolving material conditions, a habit formed by my years as a Marxist.

I adhere to that kind of analysis, because it makes sense to me, and because it demands an element of rigor in my thinking beyond merely observing and reporting what I observe. So when I say “masculinity,” I try to define that in a way that makes it intelligible as idea, practice and historical phenomenon.

Thoughts, attitudes and actions are behaviors, and I call masculinity a set of behavioral expectations – most of which are easily observable, some of those observations constituting a good deal of the book I wrote with De Clarke’s able editorial counsel, Sex War.

So how did this run afoul of my young academic friends some years ago when I brought this up?

It started with that word – masculinity. They didn’t like my functional definition, because for them the word existed along some kind of continuum, suggestive of the butch-femme continuum, that is, a continuum of identities,” by which I think they meant something like “style” or “gender expression.” Since my use of the term “masculinity” was taken as pejorative (which it may be, but that doesn’t rule out its being descriptive), I was being disrespectful of those who were “masculine,” i.e, butch. Not what I meant by the term “masculinity.”

Surely this was a semantic misunderstanding, since I was very close – and still am – to a number of women who can be described as butch (but who are not at all into domination-conquest).

Alas, that was not the problem; because one of the things I was criticizing in the minds of my critics – though not my intent at the time, and I didn’t know where it was going at first – was sadomasochistic sex, which is seen as a somehow important transgressive “performance” that constitutes “resistance” in its transgressiveness. It can be “empowering,” or so I heard, though – again – we were talking about two very different things when we used the word “power.” This is no more transgression than the average video game today. It is indulgence – under the guise of being “sex radicals” or whatever – in the role of sexual aesthete and-or uncritical hedonist. Aesthetes and hedonists are inheritors of a lot of privilege.

Psychologically, this uncritical use of the taboo as a rush (seen as therapeutic), requiring one to cross the line to get the thrill, in the absence of any cultural brake, has an escalation dynamic. The lines crossed have to be further and further afield. There are people who experience the need to have people defecate on them as a form of sexual stimulation.

My young friends were the captives of counterfeit reasoning; but my implicit (in their eyes) criticism of sexually transgressive performances (implied by my allegedly pejorative use of the term masculinity) was still not their main complaint.

The critical stance I had taken toward pornography was bothering these young academics; though it hadn’t come up until I had given a public talk about masculinity-constructed-as-conquest, prior to finishing the book, where I was challenged by a small posse of people who had arrived with their grievances against me in hand. Part of my problem at the time was that I was not an academic, and I had no idea of the extent to which certain ideas about gender had become a new academic orthodoxy, one which my own theses did not support. (I had not been in universities, but mostly working with veterans, writing about the Bush administration, and going back and forth to Haiti.)

The book was not researched and written with the intention of explaining gender, but with the intention of better understanding militarism. The reason for trying to understand militarism was that I was actively involved in opposing US war-making at the time; and this opposition to the wars was based on the fact that a lot of people get hurt and killed in wars, and a lot of important things – living and non-living – are unnecessarily destroyed by wars. Destruction and suffering are real and terrible; and I had come to believe that one of the main phenomena that perpetuates war is how men are taught to think and act… as men.

That was my personal experience, and I just happened to find out that these people called “radical feminists” had some of the exact same observations.

Once I began studying this connection between sex and war, it became apparent that this went deeper than one might ever imagine. My own experience served as a constant reminder of how powerful my own socialization was to pursue this “masculinity.” That term did not refer to some aesthetic performance; it was My Lai and Fallujah and Abu Ghraib; and radical feminists were naming violence against women (a lot of which happened in My Lai and Fallujah and Abu Ghraib).

My Lai


Abu Ghraib

Now the complaint being leveled against me was that I was embracing “second-wave” feminism instead of the far-more-evolved-and-subtle “third-wave” of the sexual aesthete. Sex War was about power – the kind that drops a 500-pound bomb on your house, and – incidentally – the kind that rapes you at knifepoint. One segment of the book was about a former colleague who did just that in his secret career as a serial rapist.

Whether someone had the right to engage in consensual sadomasochistic sex games was not what I was concerned with; not with “rights” at any rate. Again, I was writing about power, not rights. I did say in so many words, however, that dressing up in expensive nazified regalia and swatting each other on the ass to get aroused might be an exercise of PRIVILEGE by those who had never been beaten, raped or attacked by fascists… it might be your “right,” but that doesn’t immunize it against critique. I said the same thing about pornography; and that’s when I encountered the term… “sex-positive.”


Positives and Negatives


“It is not a coincidence that postmodern paralysis is a condition that afflicts mainly academics, for it is at a distance that human meanings assume the appearance of ‘constructions.’”

– Alf Hornborg

Those same people who wanted to get me straightened out about my white privilege (themselves almost all white) did not want to hear that sex itself is always inflected by power.

My young friends told me they were sex positive.

Sex, you see, is something good; and if you don’t think sex is positive, then you are among those who think that sex is negative. This is utter bullshit, of course, and I have to say it that way, because this is not so complicated that people have to dig out of some mountain of mystification to get hold of it. Sex is not some floating signifier. Sex happens in a society that is utterly contaminated with the toxic effluvia of power.

As De Clarke so aptly puts it, eating is “natural” (i.e., biological) – like sex – but how and what we eat is always freighted with culture, meaning and morality. If I were to criticize eating at McDonalds, because the food is crap, because the corporation is exploitative and destructive, because the production of the food is immoral, that doesn’t make me food-negative.

Most pornography is made for men (and is largely patriarchal and misogynist in its themes); it is part of the commodification of sex; it is degrading to women generally, very often racist, and frequently made in circumstances that exploit and degrade women particularly. The largest quanta of the stuff is on the internet now, and it is easy to survey. I did, and all you have to do is enumerate how many porn hits you count while surfing the sites that degrade women, profane sex in general, represent the intentional humiliation of women, obviously exploit the “models,” or use racially offensive language. Using these criteria, you will find that I have covered the overwhelming majority of it.

It’s McDonalds; and defending it solely on the basis of “rights” is restrictively ridiculous. A lot like defending the right of the Klan to march through the middle of town. I’m not interested in the whole argument about rights and freedom of speech, because I’m talking about the specific content of what is communicated. Apples. Oranges. Klan speech is hateful. McDonald’s is crap. There are a lot of sexual practices are stupid, thoughtless, exploitative, unethical, violent, degrading, et al.

There is an controversial implication to this: sexual restraint is not tantamount to “repression.” Restraint of any kind is anathema to liberalism. That is why it has given us child porn, nuclear power, genetically-modified food, traffic jams, poisoned rivers, dead oceans, deforestation, the fashion industry, and global warming.

As I will explain further along, this version of sexual postmodernism has a great deal in common with plain, garden-variety consumerism – uncritical hedonism and the appeal to self-invention. Critiquing pornography endangers “choice” – that shibboleth of modernity, because it is above all else a “right” (immunizing it from critique), and besides, that is soooo “second-wave.”

This “sex-positive” label is pure polemic, a simple-minded phrase that is worthy of ridicule and little else. It evokes a rebellious adolescent who divides the world between anti-sex prudes and with-it freethinkers (both straw men). And prudery is one of the brushes used to paint the so-called “second-wave” feminists, because they insisted we ought not to ignore the element of power in all sex, suggesting – old fashioned as it might seem – that critical sexual restraint really is a pretty good idea.

The power issue, of course, suggests then that we ought to exercise some critical reflection and responsibility in matters sexual. It does not lump the “second-wave” in with patriarchal conservatives who want men to re-seize power over women; and the suggestion – by many – that the radical feminist analysis of sexual power is consistent with patriarchal conservatism is scurrilously dishonest. On the other hand, many religious people believe sexual restraint is a virtue absent a patriarchal agenda, and in this they are saying exactly the same thing as radical feminists – some things are not okay just because you want to do them. (Stanley Hauerwas has noted that what churches ought to be most vigorous in denouncing is not female unchastity but male promiscuity. But then, Stanley gets the power gradient.)

In De’s poem, “privilege,” you see the concept of privilege paired with the analysis of power, not power-to (accomplish things), not “empowerment” (that new-age trope), but power-over. The power to exclude, subdue, command, humiliate, rape or kill. It is about men’s power as men, and how that power is exercised over women.

The term sex-positive corresponds to a claim about rape; and this correspondence is telling. That claim, now a truism, is that “rape is not about sex, but power.”

Rape is not about sex, but power. Rape is not about sex, but power. Rape is not about sex, but power. Rape is not about sex, but power. Rape is not about sex, but power. Rape is not about sex, but power.


People say this with a straight face, even though it is patently preposterous. Rape is coerced sexual contact, and you can’t subtract its sexuality no matter what you do. The reason for the correspondence between a term like sex-positive and this untrue truism is that once we concede the reality that rape is a form of sex, we can no longer defend the claim that sex is an unmitigated good.

Sex is good. Sex is good. Sex is good. Sex is good. Sex is good. This is the simple-minded opposite of the simple-minded straw man that says, Sex is bad. Sex is bad. Sex is bad. Sex is bad.

Sex is not a floating signifier, and therefore it cannot be morally universalized as either positive or negative. It happens in a context, and never ever absent a context.

Rape is about sex and power. It is eroticized violence; and in daily language we can see repeated instances of the erotic referred to in violent terms (“tearing that pussy up,” e.g.), and the violent referred to in erotic terms (“the Marines really fucked those hajjis in Fallujah,” e.g.). This merger of sex and violence is exactly what those stubborn radical feminists are unwilling to run past in order to arrive at the postmodern utopia of anything goes.


The radical feminist preoccupation with violent power is why their analysis predominated in the book I wrote about militarism and gender; I was writing about violent power – militarism. Those who believed that their performative transgressions in the bedroom constituted a politics of resistance didn’t like what my analysis of the military – based on first-hand experience – had to say about their academic constructions.




For several good reasons, the subject of rape preoccupied earlier radical feminists. It exposed male power at the same time that it exposed the limitations and hypocrisies of liberal law (in what MacIntyre describes as the “bureaucratic individualist” society).
Rape clarifies male-as-male power over women-as-women (and I know that men are raped, but we are talking about male-female relations for the time being). Rape is not clarifying of male power because it is easy to define, it brings male power into view precisely through its many “gray” areas. MacKinnon’s Marxist roots were on display early in her book, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, when she said:

“Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away.”

This statement did not go down well with many Marxists who were unwilling to recognize or deal with their own exercises of male privilege, and it was anathema to those most doctrinaire Marxists for whom labor (in a factory) was the singular world-encompassing hermeneutic. Ironically, MacKinnon had simply taken the framework of the Marxist critique of economy and applied it to gender. Voila!


Other feminists conducted Marxian analyses of women’s roles in the economy, noting sexual exploitation in the process. Nancy C. M. Hartsock’s book, Money, Sex and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism (1986) unpacked the unpaid labor of social reproduction along with the history of perception of warrior virtue that accompanied various developments in male power (and notes that pornography substitutes control for intimacy). Maria Mies’ aforementioned Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale merged with later developments in Marxism of world-systems theory, and emphasized women’s role around the world in the “primitive accumulation” processes of capitalist pillage, recalling Rosa Luxemburg’s theses on that topic (which Hornborg also cites), as well as David Harvey’s writings on pillage of peripheries as a continuing and necessary component of capital accumulation.

But radical feminists chose to maintain a laser focus on similarities in what happened between men and women regardless of class, ethnic origin, and nationality. The subordinated wife could be rich or poor, black or white, native or foreign.

In particular, radical feminists wanted to talk about rape, a form of sexual violence committed by men mostly against women – because they are women. They said that “the personal is the political” precisely because they took rape personally. The pain that comes through much radical feminist writing on the topic – I am thinking now of Andrea Dworkin, who has been demonized for how directly she let that pain come through in her writing – is something that should be treated with the same seriousness that this society affords the painful memoirs of soldiers. Instead, these women have been marginalized and misrepresented.


In reading their work on this topic, a couple of powerful associations came across to me. First, there was the subject of what psychiatry has named “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Setting aside my objection to calling this a disorder (it originates as a very understandable and reasonable response to the given traumas), I found that two particular groups of people suffered from this syndrome en masse: combat veterans and rape victims. Since I was researching militarism – and its gendered associations – how could I possibly ignore this correlation?

The second association that came across to me between rape and militarism was in how many ways the military itself met the criteria for something many people have come to call “rape culture.”

Wikipedia’s introductory statement on the topic is a pretty good summation:

“Rape culture is a term which originated in womens studies and feminist theory, describing a culture in which rape and sexual violence against women are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media condone, normalize, excuse, or tolerate sexual violence against women. Examples of behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming and sexual objectification.”

Rape, these feminists pointed out, is a legal term, or at least it became a legal term – and a contested one at that. It is based fundamentally on a legal notion called consent, as most people know; but few people understand how restrictive this notion is, how ahistorical and abstract it is.

“No means no” is the most unambiguous description of consent, or lack thereof, and on this both radicals and liberals have come to agree (though there are still men who want to contest this, or to blame women for provoking forcible sex even when they say, “no”).

But when feminists looked at the question of consent in the context of existing power structures, the notion became less definitive and meaningful.

The law assumes that both parties in a sexual encounter (and rape is sex, as well as power) are abstractly equal. The social power that each carried into the encounter is concealed by this abstract equality, by the legal force that excludes pre-existing power as relevant to the question of consent.

If a woman who is poor is working on a job where a co-worker offers her $100 to have sex, for example, and it is winter, with the bills falling behind, and her six-year-old has no coat; and she has sex with him because her child needs a winter coat, that encounter in the eyes of the law is between two social equals. Therefore, she consented to have sex with him, in exchange for $100, as an (abstract) equal. No different really than a bit of contract labor. It may be specifically illegal (for which she could be charged), but on the question of consent she entered into a kind of contract with this man as a social equal.

What this event would mean to that woman, in her life, and how it would affect her experience of the world thereafter, is external to the law.

Liberal law systematically denies meaning. It abdicates reality, and modern society has come to internalize this abdication of reality as more real than the real. The “rights” involved, and the primacy of law, take precedence over her poverty and her desperation.

“Consent” doesn’t capture either the complexity or the horror, and it conceals the actually-existing power. And seen from this perspective, it makes the question of rape far more complicated.

On the books, they are equals; and power as it exists is preserved off the books. Off the books, the fear of rape serves to keep women “in their places.”


As I said earlier, this insistence on coupling the issues of sex and power became inconvenient to later theorists to wanted to explore the permutations of sex and identity. While it is certainly a useful activity from the standpoint of psychology (and I quoted Jessica Benjamin’s work on feminist psychology fairly extensively in Sex War), it does not erase the structural realities of male power, which was and is seen as the basis for women’s solidarity by radical feminists – and the reason it is important not to reproduce male power by engaging in various forms of “sex play” that reinforce phallocentric gender stereotypes, the objectification of women as sex objects, the silencing, demobilizing, and humiliation of women as a class.

I have argued that men bear a responsibility, too; that we can begin by consciously avoiding the enculturated tendencies to humiliate, dominate, and retaliate… just as a way to start reconciling ourselves to women as our companions and not subordinates.

The third-wave “sex-positives” and identity-inventors have taken a purely political stance against the so-called second wave; and many of their categories are political fictions, which I will discuss at greater length further along.

But even in radical feminism, which shares much with Marxism, there is – I have come to believe – a fatal political flaw.


The Politics of Enemies

Now I will turn to my friendlier critique of radical feminism – to which I owe a great deal – and that critique is an outgrowth of my Christian confession of faith, and of my deepening critique of modernism.

While postmodernism is in some instances a reductio ad absurdum of modernism, both Marxism and radical feminism are modern phenomena, captured to a substantial within the categories and assumptions of modernism.

That does not mean that they have no validity. I strongly believe that both bodies of thought make a lot of extremely valid points, so many so that I feel compelled to defend them both – when they are right – against the often simple-minded, knee-jerk reactions to their insights. We live in the modern world, no matter how critical we become of its ideas and its moral incoherence. I want to make it very, very clear here – because I count radical feminists among my few real friends – that the criticism I make of radical feminism does not in any way single it out among other modernist intellectual or political developments. Among those developments, I remain convinced that this school of thought provides several of the most important insights of the epoch; and the main criticism I have of radical feminism applies equally to every modernist school of thought. I still see radical feminism in many ways as a first among those equals.

Here is the rest of MacKinnon’s introduction to Toward a Feminist Theory of the State:

“Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. Work is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital a congealed form, and control its issue. [emphasis added]

“Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the molding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes – women and men – which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its social structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue. [emphasis added]

“Marxism and feminism are theories of power and its distribution: inequality. They provide accounts of how social arrangements of patterned disparity can be internally rational yet unjust. But their specificity is not incidental. In marxism to be deprived of one’s work, in feminism of one’s sexuality, defines each one’s conception of lack of power per se. They do not mean to exist side by side to insure that two separate spheres of social life are not overlooked, the interests of two groups are not obscured, or the contributions of two sets of variables are not ignored. They exist to argue, respectively, that the relations in which many work and few gain, in which some fuck and others get fucked, are the prime moments of politics.”

As often as both generalities – the generalities of Marxism and the generalities of MacKinnon’s directly-transferred and formulaic template to feminism (note the italicized sections) – hold true, they are still generalities that fail to capture the complexity of particular existence in the world.

What is equally true of both sets of generalizations is that once you have grasped them, they impose a sense of responsibility on you – if you are inclined to care about what they mean to real people. The world cannot escape the reality of these formulations – as far as they might be accurate; and at the same time the world in particular can never be reduced to them.

You cannot tell from this photograph or from any political formulation what this family is really like.

I occasionally work for a friend, who pays me a wage that is less than he makes from my labor. He is my friend, and I haven’t the slightest intention of waging a political struggle against him. I am part of a family that is not the congealed form of a circumstance where some fuck and some get fucked. Every moment is not political. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of jobs that are impersonally exploitative and abusively so; nor does it mean that there aren’t many marriages in which a dominant male controls a submissive female. That does not mean these forms of systemic power do not exist.

Again, I am saving my points on “sexual orientation” as “identity” for later, because I want them to be perfectly clear and not laced together with other arguments in ways that are apt to confuse people about what I’m trying to say.

How people accept, resist or adapt to these conditions – no matter how closely they resemble the generalizations above or not – is a matter of infinite complexity because real life progresses through many contexts over time. So it has been throughout history; and so it will continue to be for the rest of history. I emphasize history and the passage of time, because when we advocate struggle, we need to think about where the particular form of struggle leads over time.

Remember, I began writing Sex War, because I wrote about war.

Marxism took its egalitarian aspirations from Christianity – which Christen-dom had done too little to advance – and attempted to merge them with “Enlightenment” science. Marx and Engels called their ideas “scientific socialism.” Being masculine in thought, action and attitude, they also adopted a framework for action that corresponded to war (called class struggle). The bourgeoisie and the proletariat were locked into a structural antagonism that would only be broken by the combination of structural instability, gestating in the belly of the system itself, and civil war that liquidated the bourgeoisie as a class. The bourgeoisie was The Enemy. The entire line of struggle was directed against this Enemy; and so the raison d’etre of the struggle itself – which took on the aspect of a religious calling – was based on the enemy’s status as Enemy.

Because Marxism was part of the Enlightenment, as MacIntyre – himself an ex-Marxist like yours truly – pointed out, and when the Marxists achieved power, they did so encumbered by the delusion of the Enlightenment, in particular its Weberian bureaucratism and its utilitarian amorality.

Mao Zedong

Feminism – of any stripe – has never taken political power, so we can’t say how that might look; but I suspect that it would look in many respects the same, because the incoherence of modernity – the interminable and irresolvable dispute between utilitarianism and deontological ethics – would force it to adopt bureaucratic controls, just as the communists did, just as capitalist democracies have, and just as every other modern polity has been forced to.

Christianity valorized the powerless, even when its practices too frequently did the exact opposite. The aspiration for “the last to be first” and the meek to inherit the earth were imported as the central values of socialist aspiration, and can be differentiated from both the worship of power in the classical age and the Nietzschean reaction against this “slave” mentality in the modern era. Marxism formalized a radical secular political philosophy that imported liberatory aspirations, in particular those of the 19th Century industrial working class.

Radical feminism, as MacKinnon states clearly in her analog presentation, took the Marxist liberatory template and applied it to women as the social underdog. I believe some of the masculinity got imported with it – in particular, the martial framework of the struggle.