Twilight of the Money Gods – Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong By John Rapley
Immagine one day you went to a cash-machine and found your money was gone. You rushed to your branch, where a teller said that overnight people had stopped believing in money, and it all vanished. Seem incredible? It happened, and it could happen again.
Twilight of the Money Gods is the story of economics, told not as the science it strove to be, but as the religion it became. Over two centuries, it searched for the hidden codes which would reveal the path to a promised land of material abundance. While its prophets, from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, concerned themselves with the human condition, its priesthood gradually grew remote from its followers, until it lost sight of their tribulations. Today, amid a crisis of faith in their expertise, we must re-imagine an economics for a new era – one filled with both danger and opportunity.
‘A must-read for all… Rapley reveals vast knowledge and is a master of powerful imagery.’
– Avinash Persaud, Prospect
‘Rapley’s book kept me spellbound, and I awaited the right moment to read the next chapter, while I pondered during my daily routine what I’d read in the previous one. He’s a wonderful writer, that perfect combination of traveller, journalist and academic.’
– Nina Rothe, Huffington Post
– Giles Fraser, BBC
‘Takes readers on a fascinating journey through the history of economic thought… Rapley manages this in a remarkable manner… It’s a damn good read, and an easy one, even for those who would be usually daunted by any prospect of “a history of economic thought”.’
– Roger Southall, Business Day (South Africa)
‘Rapley, Renaissance Man par excellence, combines a masterful, suspenseful writing style with encyclopaedic knowledge to deliver this tour de force in economic, political and religious history.’
– Ian Boyne, Jamaica Gleaner
‘Wide-ranging and entertainingly written’
– David Orrell, World Finance
‘A terrific read… the author reviews, with awesome confidence and a fluent, articulate style, nothing less than the economic and political history of the world since the beginnings of capitalism.’
– Colin Leys, Red Pepper
amazon reviews Mohammad Muaz Jalil I am an international development practitioner from Bangladesh. Every day I see firsthand how nice elegant economic models, with their neat assumptions, often don’t survive their encounter with reality. The premise of the book is that dominant countries nurtured specific form of economics (in an evolutionary way rather than by strict guidance) to justify their actions. I also enjoyed the other major theme of the book i.e. the comparison of economics with religion and the zealousness with which adherents, like the Chicago or the Harvard Boys, can sacrifice millions for the so called greater good in the “long run”; the comparison with the Anabaptist in Munster was interesting. We often identify traditional religions, nation states or even communism as the major cause for the bloodshed in 20th and 21st century but seldom do we ascribe it to economic doctrines. It might be interesting to estimate the impact of “Washington Consensus” or “Neoliberalism”, in terms of death toll around the world.
The book is steeped in economic history but not dense or academic- the fluid and lucid style of writing makes the book very accessible to everyone, even people who may not have any econ background. Anybody who is interested to know why economics has become so ivory ‘towerisk’ and yet to so effective in disturbing/effecting our lives, should read this book.
In my opinion, I think one part of the thesis can be compared to Edward Said’s critic of Orientalism, as a 19th century quasi-scientific discipline, which was ‘created’ to justify colonialism- painting the colonies as backward, uncivilized etc needing colonial masters. May be today’s Friedman, Sach, and Greenspan can be compared to Silvestre de Sacy and Ernest Renan of 19th century, the many Oriental Studies and Asiatic Societies of 19th century to the modern conservative think tanks and the colonial administrator to the modern equivalent international development practitioners, who take these market driven theories and apply to the third world, at times, without context (a bit of self-criticism from my side!). Great Read!!
goodreads reviews Jim Parker Ninety five per cent of the content is a standard narrative taking in everything from the enclosure of the commons, early industrialisation, the rise of the bourgeoisie, urbanisation, colonisation, the rise of the franchise and mass political parties, all the way through to the post-Cold War ‘end of history’ and the triumphalism of neo-liberalism.
It’s a shame the thesis of the book feels tacked on in the final chapter and not more woven through the preceding chapters. Perhaps Rapley was wary of giving away too much too early, but I would have liked to have seen him written more about how economic theory so often becomes an ex-post rationalisation of the winners in continuing to exploit the less fortunate or to cement their power. More political economy perhaps.
In 1944 two German philosophers, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, having fled from Nazi Germany to the United States, published their book The Dialectic of Enlightenment. It analysed the genesis of social dominance in Western society, concluding that, for a political model to gain predominance it needs to expose the preceding dominant ideology as a myth. In so doing, however, it creates its own mythology to replace that of its predecessor, thus sowing the seeds of its own decline.
In his book, Twilight of the Money Gods – Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong, John Rapley follows a similar dialectic approach with regard to the economics profession. The book consists of two elements: an excellent history of political economy and an analysis of the various schools of thought in economics seen as religions– in other words mythologies. To emphasise this approach, Rapley uses ecclesiastical metaphors and chapter titles (Filling the Pews, The Keynesian Revelation, The Great Neoclassical Awakening), describing the intellectual careers of the high priests of economics and their inev itable defrocking. In his narrative Rapley charts the rise and fall “of our economic churches, showing how all these scholars were united by a common quest: to give humans a doctrine that could deliver us prosperity and contentment for life.” ….
What Rapley describes in the following chapters is the repeated adoption of new orthodoxies by economists adapted to the dominant political and financial powers of the time, providing each with a dogma and moral code to fit its interests. Yet each new faith is doomed to decline as its myths are exposed: “Lose your flock, however, and you lose your pulpit” as Rapley observes.
As Rapley surmises, economists can preach whatever political/religious dogma they like, the problem remains that this has nothing to do with science. Economics is based on the behaviour of human beings, and there are few, if any, universal laws concerning our decision processes. A standard model of homo economicus simply does not exist. As he writes towards the end of his book: “Paradoxically, therefore, as economics becomes more truly scientific, it will become less of a science”, which brings us back to the dialectic. In Rapley’s opinion the future hope of economics lies in its distancing itself from the temporal world. Tell this to the academics whose salaries are paid by rich university patrons or by research grants from governments and corporations. They have become the minions of the system they helped to create and have propagated. Those in thraldom are not likely to sunder their chains, especially if they are gilded. So we are eagerly awaiting a new set of prophets who will lead us out of Egypt to the Promised Land.”
www.epw.in/journal Faith, Heresy and Economic Theory by Anshuman Singh
John Rapley’s recent book Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How It All Went Wrong is a riveting tale of the development of economic thought. “This fundamental critique of economics,” writes Avinash Persaud in his review (“The Corruption of Economics,” EPW, 24 February 2018), “is a must-read for all.” I argue here that although this is indeed a very important book for our times, one cannot agree with the first part of Persaud’s assessment.
I base my assertion on the following counts: It traces developments in the core methods and beliefs of mainstream economic thought without the conceptual rigour such a project demands. (Our age requires that the problem of faith/belief be located at the conceptual level of value itself. “Faith in the prophets,” which forms Rapley’s central point of attack, must remain central to the progress of all science.) It shows rather convincingly that economic “truths,” like those of any other science, are historically conditioned. It creates the theoretical space for new heresies.
recent article by John Rapley :
aeon.co/essays 7/2021 Plagues and empires – What can the decline of the Roman Empire and the end of European feudalism tell us about COVID-19 and the future of the West?
…”Spotting the foe among immigrants from the global periphery, Right-wing politicians who want to close the borders find support from scholars such as Niall Ferguson, who, in accounting for Islamist terrorism in Western countries, has written that immigrants today resemble the invaders of Rome in that they ‘have coveted [Europe’s] wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith … Like the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble.’ This, he says, ‘is exactly how civilisations fall’. It sounds reasonable but it’s not true. …
The more significant analogy is to the vulnerability to exogenous shock that comes from having accumulated so much wealth. The location of that vulnerability today is entirely different, though. Over the previous generation, as economic growth has slowed in Western countries, wealth has started growing faster than income. And whereas wealth once depended on income, now for much of the population income depends on wealth. This is especially true for the share of the population that is retired, which in Western societies averages around a fifth. Since a drop in wealth entails a loss of income for wealth-holders, that gives the state a very strong incentive to preserve the value of that wealth. This incentive is further strengthened by the fact that the retired share of the population tends to be the most engaged in politics (illustrating Machiavelli’s rule that today’s losers constitute a more formidable political constituency than tomorrow’s winners).
What threatens that wealth, which is held largely in real estate and pension funds, is not a foreign invasion whose purpose is to seize those assets, as happened to Rome. For all the talk of fearmongering and xenophobia, we would have to be facing something like organised raids by undocumented immigrants hacking into share-registries and appropriating the assets of pension funds for Ferguson’s analogy to be remotely apt. …
Consider the difference between market crashes today and those of history. When in 1929 the stock market collapsed, the Great Depression followed. Then, after the massive government wartime spending that John Maynard Keynes himself said was the first major successful experiment with fiscal stimulus, the economy took off. But it wouldn’t be until the 1950s that the stock market returned to the levels it had reached in 1929.
In contrast, over the past 30 years or so, Western countries have used a different set of tools when addressing market crashes, be they in stocks, bonds or real estate. They have pumped monetary stimulus directly into asset markets, and have targeted fiscal stimulus less at protecting incomes than at preserving asset values by, for example, bailing out banks or providing tax breaks for property purchases. After all, governments had committed themselves to the neoliberal dogma of fiscal prudence and were, if anything, cutting spending. So, while the economy has chugged along sluggishly, asset markets have repeatedly bounced right back. Those two outcomes might not be unrelated to one another. By inflating asset values, monetary stimulus amid fiscal austerity raises fixed costs and steers investment away from productive activities, thereby inhibiting economic growth. In other words, whereas government stimulus programmes once kickstarted economic growth, today they tend to protect accumulated wealth. Western societies spend a lot of money just to stay rich. …
The wealth of the Roman imperial economy lay in land. Owned by the 10th of society that comprised the nobility, its revenues were taxed to support the military, whose job it was to protect the asset from outsiders. The wealth of today’s Western economy lies in financial markets, and is owned mostly by the top 10th of society that belong to the global 1 per cent. A wider group than one might suppose, since it includes almost any homeowner with a defined benefit pension, this is effectively the modern nobility. Although it faces no threat from invasion, the cost to society of preserving it in its current state might be getting as onerous as that of the late Roman Empire.”
This lucidly written book, thoroughly updated, provides both an assessment of the current state of development theory and an extensive survey of the impact of evolving policies and practices throughout the developing world. Rapley critically traces the evolution of development theory from its strong statist orientation in the early postwar period, through the neoclassical phase, to the present emerging consensus on people-centered development. New to the third edition is a chapter on “”postdevelopment”” thought, as well as increased attention to the challenges posed by weak states and by critical environmental issues. Using a wide range of examples, Rapley shows where and how various approaches to development have worked or failed continuing to confront the question of why development remains so far out of reach for so many poor countries.