A thought for Xmas Day: Faustus, Scrooge and Debt in the Age of Capital

Some idle economic thoughts for
Christmas day:
In late 16th
century, Christopher Marlowe told the story of Dr Faustus who
famously contracted, using his own blood to sign on the dotted
line, to sell his body and soul twenty four years hence to
Mephistopheles.
[i] In exchange he demanded, and secured, a
long catalogue of marvellous instant rewards: huge wealth to share
with his friends, unimpeded travel to see the world, unlimited
power to visit distant times, revenge against enemies, sex with a
Helen of Troy lookalike etc. When his time was up, he regretted his
pact and tried to evade the Devil. To no avail. When Mephistopheles
appeared in front of him, Faustus enquired why he is not in Hell
but right there in Faustus’ mortal world, among the living. “Why,
this is Hell, nor am I out of it” retorted the
evil one, reminding Faustus that if one is in debt one carries it
everywhere; just like he carries Hell wherever
he ventures.


Much later, in 1843 Charles Dickens
published A Christmas Carol; the celebrated
story of redemption featuring Ebenezer Scrooge; the miser who
treated himself with almost the same misanthropic stinginess that
he treated everyone around him until, that is, the three ghosts of
Christmas (one of the past, one of the present and one of the
future) visited him, showing ‘videos’ of himself as he was, as he
is, and as he will be on his deathbed; thus causing him to change
his mindset and embark upon a spending spree (primarily on others),
eager to ‘produce’ as much happiness as he could before shuffling
off the mortal coil. I have
already
written

on why Scrooge’s austerity worship would not sit well with today’s
austerians. Today, I want to focus on another strand of this story.
My point is that, quite intriguingly, Scrooge’s story seems
like a Dr Faustus in reverse. Faustus encountered an other-worldly
figure early on in life, spent recklessly while young, and ended up
paying for it dearly at the end. In contrast, Scrooge suffered an
awful life at the beginning, not experiencing one moment of
pleasure for decades, before, toward the bitter end being
confronted by his own other-worldly figure that helped him embark
on the redeeming spending spree.
If the two lives are different only in
terms of the ordering of behavioural patterns, why was poor Faustus
confined to Hell’s eternal fires while Scrooge, a man of arguably
worse moral standing, achieved redemption (to such an extent that
his figure even graces Hollywood animated movies aimed at
children)? One explanation, consistent with our narrative on the
rise of capital as power through the
rehabilitation of usury, is that Marlowe and Dickens were separated
by the deep historical chasm which divides a pre-market from a
market society. In Marlowe’s time, Christians, very much like
Muslims today, were banned from charging interest on
loans
[ii] and were taught that it is easier to
squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle than a rich person
through Heaven’s Gate. By the time, however, Dickens was writing up
Scrooge, the Protestant Reformation had well
and truly put paid to all that and had established the idea that
one brings to St Peter one’s wealth as testament to his sacred
abstemiousness and a password that guarantees safe passage into the
delights therein. Jesus’ saying “By their fruits ye shall know
them” (Matthew 7:20) had been paraphrased into “By their
accumulated money capital ye shall know them”. All that Dickens had
to do to deliver Scrooge to the world, ready for his rise to
Heaven, was to find a trick that would convince him to become more
like Dr Faustus; that is, to open his purse and let money enter the
circular flow of income. For if Scrooge had been burdened by one
mortal sin, given the ethos of the 1840s, it was that he had
immobilised his money. Money, as all good banking apprentices know,
is only good if it keeps moving. Idle money is a sin infinitely
worse than any of Dr Faustus’ shenanigans. In fact, today’s
capitalism might want to turn Faustus into their blue-eyed pin-up
boy. If only more young people chose to borrow heavily to spend,
spend, spend. If only more capitalists borrowed to invest, invest,
invest.
As if to
confirm that Dr Faustus had to suffer a terrible ordeal (and fall
prey to Mephistopheles’ archaic logic) because he was a man ahead
of his time, Goethe’s version of the story (published in 1832, well
after the Age of Capital had commenced)
affords the troubled Faust the redemption that restores the
symmetry with Scrooge’s fate; a symmetry in accord with the new
market society’s reliance on futures’ markets in the presence of
which the only difference made by a reversal of the timing of
pleasure and of suffering is in terms of the rate of interest and
who charges it to whom.
In this time of debt
and reckoning, Faustus and Scrooge seem more pertinent than ever.
Merry Christmas
everyone…

[i] The play was staged a number of times
between 1594 and 1597 but was first published in 1604 after
Marlowe’s death.
[ii] This changed with Henry the Eighth who
permitted Christians to charge interest. It is interesting to
note that the very word “interest” bears the marks of this
prohibition. Since usura (lending on
interest, not just on high interest) was canonically forbidden both
parties the lender and the borrower pretended that they were part
in a common joint venture hence (inter-esse).
Much of the modern “Islamic banking” has its roots in scholastic
theology. The Scholastics also made use of Aristotle
“As this is so, usury is most reasonably hated, because its gain
comes from money itself and not from that for the sake of which
money was invented” (Politics
1258b2-5]

 

2 Comments

  • Idle thoughts sometimes lead to interesting parallels. If the only difference between the time of suffering and the time of pleasure is the rate of interest and who charges it to whom, could it be that the low pre crisis interest rates were charged by Mephistopheles and the current high on earlier heavy spenders charged by the likes of Scroodge? In the absence of some supranatural force, can we hope for redemption?