Religion and Economy – Part One-by Keith Hart

Religion belongs to a set of terms that also includes art and science. Science began as a form of knowledge opposed to religious mysticism, but is now often opposed to the arts.

If science may crudely be said to be the drive to know the world objectively and art is mainly a means of subjective self-expression, religion typically addresses both sides of the subject-object relationship by connecting our inner being to what is outside. Religion binds something inside each of us to an external force; it stabilizes our meaningful interactions with the world, providing an anchor for our volatility.

Durkheim’s last book, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), is his most neo-Kantian work. Compared with his reductionist sociological approach of the 1890s, where consciousness is always collective, this study of religion conforms more closely to my definition above. He divided experience into the known and the unknown. What we know well is everyday life, the mundane features of our routines, and we know it as individuals trapped in a sort of private busy-ness. But this life is subject to larger forces whose origin we do not know, to natural disasters, social revolutions, economic catastrophes and, above all, death. We desperately wish to influence these unknown causes of our fate, which we recognize as being both individual and collective in their impact. At the very least we would like to feel they were less uncertain and to establish a meaningful connection with them. For Durkheim, religion was the organized attempt to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown in our lives, between a profane world of ordinary experience and a sacred, extraordinary world located outside that experience.
What is ultimately unknown to us is our collective being in society, he claimed. Through ritual we worship our unrealized powers of shared existence, society, and call it God. Society lies within each of us as well as outside; it is both subjective and objective. The chaos of everyday life attains some stability to the degree that it is informed by beliefs representing the social facts of a shared collective existence. Rituals instill these collective representations in each of us.

Assisting with the publication of Roy Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999) sharpened my appreciation of Durkheim’s perspective (see my Foreword to the book), because it is an extended reflection on ritual as the ground where religion is made. Rappaport’s own definition starts from an emphasis on formality, invariance, and tradition. The project of achieving our potential to be collectively human has barely begun. It is entailed, however, in our origin as a species, according to him in the discovery of language and with it religion. Religion, which is constantly being made and remade through ritual, is how we get in touch with the wholeness of things (‘holiness’). Various attempts, all of them partial, have been made to conceive of world society as a human universal. The new human universal, however, is not an idea, but the social fact of 7 bn of us trying to find a way of living together on this planet. As that part of the biomass that thinks (no non-human agents in this scenario), humanity must now assume responsibility for the stewardship of life as a whole. Religion is indispensable to that task.

What is economy? In some cultural traditions, such as the French, economy and economics are the same thing (Schumpeter 1954 History of Economic Analysis, Callon 1998 The Laws of the Markets), not a social object but a form of analytical reason. On the other hand, “the economy” is popularly a national thing, the British economy, indicated by figures on the TV news. The economy is neither subjective nor objective, but a subject-object relationship, a dialectic, like religion. This is the basis of their elective affinity.

An economy is something like the skin of an organism. Skin holds the inside in and keeps the outside out while allowing for some limited interaction between the two. Shells, on the other hand, perform the first function, but not the second. Marcel Mauss (1925 Essay on the Gift) and Karl Polanyi (1944 The Great Transformation) held remarkably similar views on economic evolution, although I find Mauss’s vision more powerful. He starts from the local. People live in local societies which aspire to self-sufficiency and they attach social rights and obligations to their mutual proximity. But no human society has ever been self-sufficient, whether materially or otherwise. People have to trade with foreigners in order to make good local deficits. This trade can take many different forms, but its institutional foundation is always money and the markets it makes possible. Money and markets in the most general sense are thus human universals, since society is impossible without them. Mauss based his critique of the Bolshevik revolution on this observation. They extend a society’s reach, just as the demands of home society pull this expansion back inwards. There is therefore a permanent tension between the internal and external dimensions of an economy.

All stateless societies and preindustrial civilizations tried to keep markets and money at arm’s length, outside normal society so that the control over society afforded by the landed property held by lineage elders or an aristocratic military caste might not be undermined (Hann and Hart 2009 Market and Society). This dialectic of local and global economy existed long before we came to perceive the modern world that way. The underprivileged members of local society – slaves, serfs, women, the young, ethnic minorities – found freedom of movement in markets which are always in a sense world markets, unbounded networks.

After the industrial revolution, the wage labour system led to an attempt to separate two complementary spheres of production and consumption in which paid and unpaid work predominated respectively. One is ideally objective and impersonal, specialized and calculated; the other is subjective and personal, diffuse, based on long-term interdependence. The first is a zone of infinite scope where things, and increasingly human creativity, are bought and sold for money—the market. The second is a protected sphere of domestic life, where intimate personal relations hold sway—home. The market is unbounded and, in a sense, unknowable, whereas the bounds of domestic life are known only too well. The result is a heightened sense of division between an outside world where our humanity feels swamped and a precarious zone of protected personality at home. This duality is the moral and practical foundation of capitalist society. Just as money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to the workplace; and the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres conceptually separate is huge as a result. This is why members of capitalist societies believe that a money payment transforms social relations, while most people in the world don’t (Parry and Bloch 1989 Money and the Morality of Exchange).

The current world economic crisis is not just a phase in the cycle of credit and debt. It is a profoundly significant moment in the history of economy and specifically of money. The dominant economic form in the 20th century was national capitalism: the attempt to control money, markets and accumulation through central bureaucracy ostensibly in the interests of the citizen body as a whole. Now the global money circuit massively outweighs national economies. This imbalance in national and global economic power was launched in 1971 when the US dollar was depegged from gold and money derivatives were invented in the following year. In the mid-1970s most international money transfers paid for goods and services purchased abroad. Now money is exchanged for money in another form: FX turnover in 2013 was $5.3tn a day! The global money circuit is largely lawless. Our dilemma today is that the economy is global and politics is national in the main. Somehow we need to extend the system of social rights and obligations to a more inclusive level before the political contradictions take us into world war. It is an urgent task to make a viable world society that reflects our actual human interdependence. But how?

If the “economy” is neither subjective nor objective, but somehow both, most of the variants that have found a named place in the history books have been conceived of as a specific strategy, expressing the interests of a class engaged with others in social conflict. Such a strategy must be discovered, articulated and disseminated. For an economy to be useful, it should be based on general principles that guide what people do. It is not just an ideology or a call for realism. The history of the word “economy” is both long and unfinished. Any modern English dictionary reveals the residue of that history in the way we use terms like economy, economical and economize today, referring as they do to order, management and thrift in contexts ranging from household budgets to the world of markets and money.

In its Greek origin, two and a half millennia ago, “economy” privileged budgeting for domestic self-sufficiency and was anti-market; it expressed the interest of a military landlord class (Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor and thus the ideological arm of the Macedonian cavalry that eventually overran Athens, leader of the urban capitalist faction). Economy remained domestic for another two millennia; then political economy promoted capitalist markets over military landlordism, profit over rent, public circulation of commodities over households. Urban economy retained a sporadic influence throughout. We should also recognize the immense role of world religions in shaping economy during this period: Catholic, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu etc. The strategy of “national economics” pioneered by Friedrich List (1841 The National System of Political Economy) employed a combination of free trade and protection to strengthen a nation’s position in the world economy. It was the forerunner of what I call “national capitalism”.

Casting around for a slogan that would draw attention to the need for greater coordination of world society, I hit on the notion of “human economy” as a way of envisaging the next stage, linking unique human beings to humanity as a whole. This would stretch the inside/outside dialectic to its extremes: individual persons meaningfully linked to everyone else. The social and technical conditions of our era — urbanization, fast transport and universal media – should underpin any exploration of how the principles of human economy might be realised. A human economy approach does not assume that people know best, even if they usually know their own interests better than those who presume to speak for them. Although we wish to restore people in their everyday lives to the foreground of economy, humanism alone will not deliver progress on the scale required for global development. For that purpose popular initiatives will have to be combined selectively with the efforts of large-scale bureaucracies, such as states, corporations, cities, regional federations and international agencies.

The Pretoria Human Economy research program, which I codirect with John Sharp ( is a new node in an extensive international network animated by a common desire to advance economic democracy through academic research, social initiatives and public outreach. Based in Southern Africa, our aim is to articulate a new perspective in South-South and North-South dialogues concerning a better world. This will be achieved through research, publication and intellectual exchange more than by issuing programmatic statements such as this one. [Hart and Sharp eds 2014 People Money and Power in the Economic Crisis; Hart ed 2015 Economy For and Against Democracy; Hart ed 2017 Money in a Human Economy,].

People want to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being a means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between them. Today it is the source of our vulnerability in society and a practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society. If money has indeed separated economic spheres and fragmented human experience, it can also join together what it has divided. If you have some money, there is almost no limit to what you can do with it, but, as soon as you buy something, the act of payment lends concrete finality to your choice. Money’s significance thus lies in the synthesis it promotes of impersonal abstraction and personal meaning, objectification and subjectivity, analytical reason and synthetic narrative. Its social power comes from the fluency of its mediation between infinite potential and finite determination. (to be continued…)

Keith Hart is International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money. His recent books include The Human Economy (2010) and Economic Anthropology (2011).