Metaphysic of the Empty Sign
- ISBN: 9781532617683
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: April 2018
In Mammon’s Ecology: Metaphysic of the Empty Sign, Stan Goff offers a creative and valuable interpretation of the power and scope of money in the contemporary world. The literature on money is replete with descriptions of its political and economic aspects. Less common, however, is scholarship that investigates money’s embeddedness in a particular ecological system, which is precisely what Goff provides.
The book can be divided roughly into three main parts. The first six chapters attempt to integrate accounts of modes of exchange, technology, and epistemology with an understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: all energy tends toward entropy or chaos, eventually dissipating entirely. Goff frames individuals and entire societies as “dissipative structures,” which can be interpreted to mean they use more energy than they eventually produce (51). This iron-like law of energy production and use grounds the study in Mammon’s Ecology. This integrative account, which argues that politics, economics, and ecology ought to be seen as inseparable phenomena, is intended by Goff to correct what he finds to be superficial definitions of money we currently possess.
The second part, consisting of chapters 7 through 10, utilizes the conceptual framework laid out in the previous section to critically interrogate the function of money in the contemporary world. Goff contends that money with its commodifying spirit, as well as a modern epistemology that draws sharp boundaries between culture and nature, combine to render ecological destruction “out of sight and out of mind” (53). The author draws this idea from Marx’s commodity fetishism, arguing that ecological relations that make up the globalized mode of production are effaced and hidden. Money functions as a sign without a referent and thereby reduces all things to a general equivalent, allowing utterly different commodities to be traded and exchanged with one another. The universality and abstraction of money disembeds communities, ecosystems, and people from their original contexts, “dissolving everything as it goes, breaking down what was stone-like into something that is sand-like” (72).
The final part advances Goff’s own position on how the crisis of money is to be addressed. This is where the book stumbles slightly. The first two parts have spent time building an account in which energy production and use only runs toward dissipation and entropy and that money ought to be seen as inherently dangerous. Additionally, Goff raises a criticism of the impersonality of money and institutions that try to correct injustice through “social engineering” (149). Given this, Goff advocates (1) the nationalization or worker ownership of all industries, with those deemed unnecessary being decommissioned; and (2) the “relocalization” of production, effectively dividing the world into distinct regions no longer reliant on global transport systems (164). Most radically, Goff also recommends that these regions operate on a dual-money system, wherein national currency would facilitate long-range exchange and local script—in many cases paid out by local authorities as part of basic income—would be used to purchase local commodities. The vision appears to culminate in small subsistence communities where the main occupation would be farming the land.
Goff’s pessimism regarding the possibility of addressing the climate crisis through renewable resources, money’s role in driving this crisis, and his distrust of institutional action appear to commit him to a return to premodern ways of living. If industry driven by fossil fuels is the cause of climate change, and money is the primary cause of large-scale industry, then there seems to be no other option. It can be difficult to see how this large-scale change might occur, especially given the necessity of enlisting governmental action to begin. Nationalization of industries does not seem to follow from distrust in institutional action correcting injustice.
In any case, there are two main strengths of this book. The first is its readability. Early on, Goff cites his hope that Mammon’s Ecology will be accessible to a wider audience, not confined to professional academics. I believe he has succeeded in this mission. His straightforward language and use of footnoted definitions to clarify key or possibly obscure terms allows the reader to absorb a complex topic more easily. Second, Goff points to something that is unavoidable for any scholars who think about money: it is ecological. Money’s participation in ecological systems ought to be addressed in any philosophical, theological, or ethical account of money. This book can provide an entryway for readers unfamiliar with the topic, as well as allow those versed in theory of money to encounter an important perspective on the relation between money and ecology. As such, this book would be suitable for general readers with an interest in money, undergraduates, and graduate students.
James Brumbaugh is a PhD student in ethics at Boston University School of Theology.James BrumbaughDate Of Review:September 1, 2021