Category: theology

The Golden Calf and Trickle-Up Economics

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments (Exodus, Ch. 19 ff.), he took a bit longer than expected. The people, concerned that Moses might not actually come back, decided to make their own God to worship, and created a golden calf, from the assorted gold of the people there gathered. ‘These are they Gods, O Israel, that have brought thee out of the land of Egypt,’ said Aaron, and by all accounts they had something of a party to celebrate. The story always made me think about the utility of the calf; it was very expensive. The economic cost of the thing was immense. And while the yield – being metaphysical – was literally incalculable (what price redemption and/or salvation!), surely there were cheaper ways to fashion a God? What about a nice painted papier-maché calf? That would have looked just as good.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that there were a thousand people there, and each had ten units of value. If half of those units of value were offered up to the communal icon building exercise, then the collective wealth of the group was now reduced by half. That value has now – for all earthly purposes – vanished. It’s gone. It can be recovered, but biblical wrath would surely follow. A lot of effort went into creating that calf, it had better be worth it.

Now consider the wealthy family paying forty thousand dollars to fly first class from London to New York. This family has a lot of money. Let’s say it’s $100m. They could do this a hundred times, and still have $96m left. So they don’t really care. If asked about their conscience, they might say something to the effect of ‘trickle down economics’. The logic runs something like this: of the forty thousand dollars, some contributes to the cost of the flight – along with the other two-hundred-odd people on the plane, they’re all contributing in a relative way to the fuel, the cost of airplane maintenance, the cost of security, the cost of airport services, luggage handling, food, flight attendants, pilots, rights for on-demand entertainment channels, and so on. The total cost of that will still, however, be less than the total cost of the tickets.

This rich family have paid more than their share, in order to get the nice plush seats at the front of the plane. The moral rationale remains that the balance of their ticket price will find its way into the pockets of other people less fortunate, by being distributed through the corporate system into other workers’ pockets, sometimes as sub-contractors, perhaps as wages, perhaps as services in kind, perhaps as government services funded by corporation tax receipts. That’s trickle-down economics.

Let’s say there are another two hundred people on the plane, each of whom has paid $1,000 each for their ticket. That’s a total of $240,000 for the flight. Let’s say each flight like this costs the airline company $200,000 for everything, including a contribution towards company overheads like marketing, CEO bonuses and so on. This means that the company will make $40,000 profit on this flight. Where does that money go?

Increasingly, the money is beginning to accumulate into funds, high net worth individuals, and ‘off-shore instruments’ that protect that money. A larger and larger portion of the world’s GDP – around 10%, or $7 trillion according to the IMF – is held ‘offshore’. It is too much money to spend, and so it sits there, slowly – very slowly – being chipped away at by agents, bankers, insurance salesmen and other financial intermediaries tasked with maintaining the advantages of the elite.

It represents incredible waste. The money fails to trickle down, but remains suspended in untouchable isolation, a golden calf for the twenty-first century. We dare not touch it – last the wrath of our modern day secular theology be loosed upon us. This is the central suggestion of an upcoming book by Eugene McCarraher, called The Enchantments of Mammon. Having not yet seen the book, I would anticipate that it follows on the work of Carl Schmitt and Giorrio Agamben, and the concept of secular theologies that have so dominated the later twentieth century. ‘Far from displacing religions, as has been supposed,’ the blurb puts it, ‘capitalism became one, with money as its deity.’ We shall see!

Falling Down

In Martin Heidegger‘s Being and Time, he refers to verfallen as a characteristic of being, or dasein. It means fallen-ness, or falling prey, an acknowledgement that we do things not because we want to do them, but because we must; we act in particular ways, we fall into line, we do jobs, have families, get a mortgage and a pension, obey the law and so on. We consciously engage with the systems and societies into which we have found ourselves. It is surprising how frequently this concept of ‘the fall’ emerges in philosophy, theology and popular culture.

Plato’s Republic begins ‘I went down to the Piraeus.’ He is descending to the port of Athens, where unsavoury types tend to gather, the great unwashed. These are the uneducated people, the slaves, the lower order beings. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descends from the cave on top of the mountain as a kind of shift from pure being to some kind of contaminated entity. Marx and Engels develop Feuerbach’s theme of alienation for the worker (something that was apparently not an issue when craftsmen made objects and sold them) from the commodity, has similar themes of distance. Indeed, in Feuerbach’s original work his distinction was that between God and Man, between the moral and the immortal. Most of all, Heidegger’s language evokes The Fall of Man, the original sin in the Garden of Eden, of innocence and paradise lost.

There is in all of these things a clear distinction between a higher plane of existence, and a lower, base, grubby humanity. There is a gap between what Heidegger would call authenticity and inauthenticity. It is between the real and the unreal.

Sometimes we open windows onto this realisation, when something that defies science or rationality rears its head. Something that just doesn’t make sense. Like Brexit, or War, or Suicide. How can rational beings act in such ways? Does the question morph into – are we rational beings at all? From time to time, we inquire into the nature of our reality to try and understand – to really understand – what is going on, to seek to become authentic. We get glimpses, brief moments of clarity. We recognise that we have blind spots; we recognise some of the follies of our world, the hypocrisies and the hubris. We might briefly recognise that upon these false assumptions we have built enormous social edifices, that persist through a shared (mis)interpretation of what our purpose on this earth is.

That misinterpretation is there because we are fallen, descended, socialised, machined. Heidegger also talks about technology – a lot! – and describes technology in two ways: as revealing, and as enframing. In revealing, technology is a revealing of the potentiality of the world. A tree is a potential mallet; the emergence of the mallet from that tree is a revealing of its potentiality. In enframing, technology (particularly modern, industrialised technology) enframes the world, it corrals the world for the purposes of human advancement (to wherever).

In my continued evaluation of the theology of technology, these themes in Heidegger resonate forcefully. In particular, however, I continue to consider the power of AI and information technologies to see past the blind spots and hypocrisies and hubris not just occasionally, but persistently; unless we design all of these machines to be inauthentic – and many of them will certainly be designed that way – AI will become authentic. AI will become Zarathustra. And to us, it may appear that the machines will have gone insane. As Heidegger said in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, ‘…only a God can save us now!’