Money and Class in America: Notes and Observations on Our Civil Religion by Lewis Lapham

This is a book of halves, a have and a have-not. Lapham writes of the mystic genius allotted the role of money in america, the conversion of the commodity into the sacrament. This part is very much the have: while a great many books every year deal in-depth with telepathy, ghosts, Templar conspiracies, I can think of almost none that deal with the idea of class in the United States, and the religious role money is given – not books dealing with dealing with this or that economic crisis, but on the pervasive idea of money as religion, that wealth falls in ways often arbitrary to hoodlums and pimps as much, if not more, to sages and saints, and that there is very much a system of manners and money in the United States, with a few within, and a few million without.

Lapham, it should be emphasized, does not write this as a socialist or communist. He does not deny money as a commodity, only as a sacrament, that there is no divine hand sorting out the just from the wicked, with a society designed where money becomes the only method of evaluation.

No matter how bitter the lessons of their experience, people stunted by the faith in money insist on believing that it is something more than an utterly colorless abstraction or a convenient arithmetic cipher. They imagine that it possesses an inherent spirit or substance. Wishing to assign to money a moral value, they resist the notion that money is neither a good nor an evil thing, the symbol, not the substance, of wealth. The devotees on the radical left attribute to it the sum of the world’s evil; the believers on the reactionary right conceive of it as the store of the world’s virtue. Enthralled by the Dionysian beauty of cash, the faithful of all sects and denominations blur the distinction between money as commodity and money as sacrament.

The book begins with a few notes on the “equestrian class”, the wealthy, and what the markers of old and new money are. It makes clear that this is a class, a financial and social milieu whose members are few, and through which others may not freely travel. I have only a passing acquaintance with this group, but based on observations at a distance and close-up, these points have the sound of truth.

3. The possessor of old money finds it possible to say, speaking of Frank Sinatra, “What’s his name…You know who I mean…the guy who sings.” A man with new money finds it possible to say, speaking of paintings by Picasso, “I’ll take two of the blue ones.”

4. Assured of its prerogatives, older money seeks to establish its genuine humanity, Thus its diffidence and its striving to appear no different from ordinary people, subject to the same desires, appetites, weaknesses and fears.

New money, all too familiar with those weaknesses and fears, seeks to put as much distance as possible between itself and the small-time sorrows of economy class.

9. The new money believes its money is as good as anybody else’s money. The old money disagrees. “I mean, after all, what’s the point in having a club?”

11. The old money reads the gossip columns with faint amusement, as if reading Restoration comedy or an account of some remarkable tribe in the uplands of New Guinea.

To the new money the columns are as serious as the stock market reports.

Written in 1988, this book has only become more acute in its perceptions. Here is Lapham describing the crucial role faith plays in any stock market, with a brief aside on a then notorious swindler:

To a large extent the stock markets depend on the willingness of all involved – seller as well as buyer – to suspend the faculty of thought. Consider the modus operandi of the Wall Street tout. Invariably he has acquired his information from a secondary source, from a man who heard it from a friend who knows the president of the company.

The tout needs only to judge the precise distance at which the buyer begins to see visions not unlike those vouchsafed to the early Christian saints…The transaction always takes place in the realm of magic – in the dark grove of the imagination where all things remain possible, where death and time never intrude upon the idiot dancing…The credulity of the rich accounts for the ease with which they can be persuaded to invest in nonexistent oil wells and fraudulent tax shelters…The newspapers every few weeks publish stories that begin with questions such as the one asked by The Wall Street Journal in October 1982: “SAN DIEGO – Why did hundreds of affluent, well-educated and successful investors turn over millions of dollars to J. David Dominelli?”

The swindler poses as a man of immense wealth, and the mark, no matter how well off, imagines that the man richer than himself stands that much nearer the godhead…The aforementioned J. David Dominelli otherwise known as “Captain Money,” set up his Ponzi scheme with no more than a few hundred dollars in the basement of a Mexican restaurant in La Jolla. Within five years the scheme attracted $200 million, and Captain Money, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, didn’t know how to shut down the flow of cash.

The players are only slightly different in our times, but the scales of the games are much greater, and the losses even more devastating.

Two notes are of particular interest for circumstances today. The first, on the importance of games for the wealthy:

The equestrian classes place their fondest trust in their games and their clubs. Within the interstices of a game time ceases to exist. For as long as the light holds or their money lasts, the players inhabit the realm of fairy tale known to the myriad captives of a thousand and one obsessions, to bridge and backgammon addicts, to alcoholics and the guests at an orgy.

The other, on the similarities between two revolutions:

Both the Republican Risorgimento of the early 1980’s and the countercultural insurrection of the middle 1960’s proclaimed allegiance to the manifesto of Peter Pan. The manner of dress had changed, and so had the age of the malcontents but the habits of mind were surprisingly similar. Both revolutions excited the passions of the radical bourgeoisie – “revolutions from above,” instigated by rich people believing they were entitled to more than they already possessed – and both revolutions wished to make time stand still. Like the admirers of Jane Fonda’s political attitudes, Ronald Reagan’s partisans cast themselves as rebels against “the system” and posed as romantic figures at odds with a world they never made – that is, a world encumbered with the sins of death and time.

What else is the promise of the Republican Risorgimento if not the dream of American individualism regained, of capitalism unbound, of rescue from the vultures of federal regulation, of freedom to go plundering through a world in which the spoils properly belong to the rich, the strong and the well-connected? The promises aren’t so different from those of the open road traveled by Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, except that El Dorado is now to be found on the temporal instead of the spiritual frontier.

The counterculture found its converts among people who didn’t wish to grow up; the Republican Risorgimento recruited its congregation among people unwilling to grow old.

We live now in a time whose roots can very much be found in these quoted sections. The heart of american banking, the biggest donor to political campaigns, is simple abstract speculation. A capitalism as close to a a divine ether as possible, touching not cement, glass, or dirt, making and building nothing, entirely invisible, yet also very much like a game, where its only consequences are visible, in the few winners and the many losers.

The current Republican primary is made up almost entirely of adults who act like petulant children, children who put their feet down and insist on having things their way, and reality can get the hell out. A recurrent question is: how these men and women reconcile their christian faith with a belief in an unregulated, free market? There should be no question, since in both cases it is an issue of simple, irrational belief.

We have even now, something like what takes place when a cult predicts an earthly eden to begin on a day and it doesn’t arrive. They do not blame it on their own irrational credo, but the lack of faith of the heathens among them. So we have had a march to the baton of unregulated free marketry for the past three decades, which has led to poverty, inequality, as well as a massive economic crash. The problem, we are told, is not the principles themselves, but those who failed to believe: the impoverished who worked and were taxed too little, those who wished to regulate the financial and real estate markets, those who point out that the engines of an economy shouldn’t be financial speculation and a military. They were the unbelievers, and they must be cast out.

The other half of the book, is the have not, an unfortunate extension of the good half, like the murderous siamese let out of the attic. Lapham, having described, very effectively, much of contemporary America, then and now, as a reflection of this secular faith, proceeds too far, turning it into a prism through which all light must pass. Money as sacrament explains androgyny, rock videos, the minimalist fiction of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, news hysteria about illness, the obsession with celebrity, the ceremonial role played by most politicians, the Challenger disaster, etc.

More than a few I quietly and quickly debunked while reading them. Carver is indicted for writing stories about no one in particular, part of a plague of fiction that avoids touching the subject of money by not having anyone in it at all. I don’t believe this is correct. Carver’s work is very much about people almost always in financial need, and though his stories don’t have the quality of political agitprop, these characters are given a dignity that people of their incomes are rarely given in novels, and never in movies. Lapham writes of the hysteric reaction of the media at the time given over to AIDS, a plague that had no possibility of striking beyond the boundaries of gay men and drug addicts. It reminded me of the parts of Randy Shilts’ The Band Played On, where he points to the media reaction being tied entirely to the threat the disease posed to the straight community, while ignoring any outside it. Shilts’ point being, that there should have been an outcry, there should have been a media reaction, centering on the communities affected, because the fear and the devastation in these places were very much real.

When Lapham does this, the book becomes exactly what is its nemesis throughout – a beautiful abstraction, untethered to the facts, an intellectual ideal and nothing else. One is reminded of a scientist, who having found a curative for blindness, also promotes it as a remedy for hair loss, halitosis, and impotence. That it fails at these things does not make it any less a cure for blindness, though to speak of the metaphor of cures is to miss the point. The book is antithetical to money as commodity, but also money as outside agency, a divine instrument which bestows and neglects. Agency, the book makes clear, lies with ourselves. That this agency does not give us powers of limitless youth or power, does not mean that it does not exist. The ending of this book made me think of another, The Image by Daniel Boorstin, which details the realities that exist solely to be made into images, the false metaphors so prevalent that they are taken as axiomatic truth, a dawning pseudoeventry when the book was published and which has entirely engulfed us by now. Boorstin’s book, as Lapham’s, concludes with the attempt to turn away from all this:

Each of us must disenchant himself, must moderate his expectations, must prepare himself to receive messages coming from the outside…We should not try to persuade others to share our illusions. We should seek new ways of letting messages reach us; from our own past, from God, from the world which we may hate or think we hate. To give visas to strange and alien and outside notions. Notions of which neither we nor the Communists have ever dreamed and which we can never see in our mirror. One of our grand illusions is the belief in a “cure”. There is no cure. There is only the opportunity for discovery.

Even with all that has taken place in the past decade, I find it as difficult to conceive of a time when money returns to the state of a secular commodity as I could a post-christian america. Money and Class in America is a vital book, its good parts undiminished by its less good ones. It is of great relevance today; I look forward to when it will be of no relevance at all.

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