Jacques Ellul, Money & Power, IVP, 1984.
Summary, Part 1
Money & Power is the english translation title for Jacques Ellul’s 1954 book L’homme et l’argent. A more literal english translation would be The Man and Money. Maybe we Americans only relate to money with power, who knows? What follows is a personal summary of this book. Because of the dialectical nature of the book, I’m just going to miss some things. I encourage other readers to comment on the points I may have inadvertently missed.
Ellul begins by explaining what money is in the twentieth century. Money is no longer a substance, but a symbol of the total economy. Money has been transformed since the nineteenth century into an impersonal abstraction. (pg. 10) Individuals are attached to buying power rather than coinage, cash, or gold.
To accept this abstraction is to be left with the question, “How should this power be distributed?” With this we turn moral and individual problems into the collective problem, to that of the total economic system. (pg. 11)
Ellul maintains that trying to solve the problem of money with a system is an error and an act of cowardice. Systems (Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, etc. ) always ignore the human element, and assume that human nature is nuetral and can be successfully molded with a particular system for the greatest benefit.
In theory Capitalism and Communism should work just fine. They don’t really need humans inorder to work. Systems work best within dictatorships where human will is conquered. In fact, Ellul writes:
“A similar but quicker way to solve economic problems and the problem of money would be to kill everyone! In Fact, the massacres required to maintain capitalism by means of wars or to establish communism by means of revolutions seem to point in this direction. In any case, any economic regime assumes the elimination of those who, by their need or lust for money, threaten to disturb the well ordered economy.” (14)
Human nature, lusting for money always corrupts the economic system. That lust is not just manifest in greed and hoarding. Ellul shows how it comes in the form of fear and just innate self-preservation. Without God money is always too powerful.
Depending on a system relieves us of responsibility. Joining the system gives me an alibi to remain uncommitted. (pg. 16)
Systems depend on what can be seen and counted. We do this in America with polls. “That which cannot be seen or counted does not exist. An action which cannot be expressed in numbers accomplishes nothing.” We argue over the science of Evolution, but no one ever brings up the science of polling. Polls are such an important part of our news activity that almost any points made about American social attitudes involve polls to prove a point, especially where it concerns politics and the economy.
Ellul leaves us with two choices: (pg. 19) “A coherent materialist position” that the global economic problem is most important, or that “individual decisions made in the presence of God have priority.” The book develops from here.
So is Ellul immediately excluding all but faithful Christians from this talk? That’s not the emphasis. He’s describing the Bible’s Spiritual torrent of activity. Ellul is not rejecting outright economic systems, or trying to set up a new Christian social theory. He’s rejecting the primary place they claim over our bodies. Essentially he’s saying that Jesus’ followers are not abandoned to systems. That is exciting indeed. Of course we may still take part in any of these systems, but not in swearing our allegiance or by depending on them to save us.
Ellul looks at the competing economic powers of his day, Communism and Capitalism, giving each of their solutions a say. (pg. 20-21) After describing how any balanced economy is threatened by human nature’s lack of balance he writes:
“It is true that we are catching a glimpse today of one possible solution: crushing human beings with propaganda, thus integrating them completely into the system. This would eliminate the individual’s problem with respect to money, simply by eliminating truly human beings themselves, leaving only psychological mechanisms in their place. Only by annihilating individual conscience can the system regulate both the objective organization of society and human passion, which form the beginning has both used and bowed down to the power of money.” (pg. 23)
When I read this passage I had to stop and shudder. Is this not exactly what has happened within our American society? We’ve become so inundated by merchandising methods that the control is complete. There is no free space left in which a body can live without the impulse to buy. To even stop and marvel at this makes one a curmudgeon, a pariah. Every political party is in agreement that “economic isolation” is impossible. Andrew Bacevich develops the recent history of this in his book American Empire (Harvard, 2002).
Ellul says that as Christians we cannot accept this dehumanizing method of crushing humans. Within these major economic systems we must “retain our sense of the relative along with a healthy skepticism for these inadequate recipes. . . . and above all we can’t think of our activity as a “direct and natural outgrowth of the Christian faith.”
So, is there ever a Christian doctrine of money? No! “We cannot extract any system from God’s revelation without twisting the texts and coming up with unwarranted conclusions because redemption is not a system.” (pg. 25)
Ellul discusses attempts at various systems taken by the Church in its history and how these met with failure. (pg. 27-29) He looks at two specifically Protestant views still very accepted, first that money = blessing. Money has a spiritual value, so get rich, for this is a sign of spiritual value! Secondly there’s the widely popular Calvinist and Neo-Calvinist view that we are stewards of money. We are responsible to God for what we do with money, but it is given to us to manage His affairs on earth. Ellul points out that the trouble here lies in not adequately taking into account Adam’s Fall.
“In reality men and women get wealth unfairly; they willingly strip God of it and appropriate it to themselves; they are not stewards. They are unfaithful trustees, and they take care of Satan’s wealth. It is idealistic to wish to extend to all humankind a situation limited to conscious Christians.” (pg. 30)
When we use stewardship to justify ourselves, to fix concretely what we’re supposed to submit to the Holy Spirit, Ellul says “it becomes downright vicious.”
Our temptation is to create an economic doctrine that we feel we can rely on and trust, but Scripture is the opposite.
“What Scripture shows has the strength and speed of a rushing torrent. We do not build with a torrent. At most, we can make it disappear into water pipes. That is exactly what we do when we insert the Word into our systems. And if we leave it free, it is like a dazzling rush down toward man and up toward God. . .” (pg. 31)