Money in America

It becomes a value in itself. The horse rides the man.

Madoff big nose 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Madoff big nose 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Money is not the central American institution, or not the only one. Certainly in the American past money took its place beside other commitments. Religious principles came before it in the effort and work of settling America, at least in Puritan New England (in the Virginia colonies money was always king). Material prosperity was part of the story (the funding was as a joint-stock company), but only alongside community venture and community purpose. Yet, as Max Weber argued, Puritanism had a peculiar affinity for money, even if success was the expression and not the cause of divine favor. Even during the first century, it was a struggle for the community to control and contain the drive for success. Puritan communities passed regulations on dress and on profit-making, especially in situations of scarcity. But this attempt to offset individual advantage by community solidarity always walked the edge of failure. By the nineteenth century in America, with the advent of industrialization and urbanization, the pursuit of money was conducting a winning battle. The 1900s tell a story of the ever-increasing place of money in America, in strenuous pressure against other American impulses that lost increasing place to it. Community participation, religious values, voluntary associations, all remain the anchors of America society, as Alexis de Tocqueville claims in his work Democracy in America. But money emerges as the ultimate sign of individual initiative and social status. This is to say that money is symbolic. Of course it is: No one needs to have the numbers and sizes and varieties of things that American wealth procures. But what does money symbolize? On the one hand, it stands for a certain type of personality Americans admire: energetic, risk-taking, forceful, far-seeing, with enormous individual drive. Money stands, that is, for success itself, American success as a venture into the frontier, as individual strength confronting challenge and displaying individual victory over it. But on the other hand, money becomes a value in itself. The horse rides the man. Anyone with money becomes an icon of America, even if the money is inherited, or stolen, or acquired by fraud. The man of money is the man of success, with the success or without it. Through money, more than the place of a person in society is determined, social status as a kind of adjective that (partly) defines who a person is. No, money is a noun: It defines the person, the value of the person, the substance of the person. Money in America is an ontology. It is a ladder of being. Though money begins as the sign of the self-made man, it concludes as men made of money. THERE ARE LIMITS on this hegemony of money that is strong within the American tradition. Philanthropy arises from the equally foundational social norm in America of community commitment and voluntary society. Those with more money were to support the community in which all shared. This was a large part of John Winthrop's famous sermon as the Arabella sailed from England to the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: that all would be bound together with all in mutual commitment, the rich sharing with the poor (although also the poor respecting the rich). In this as in many other ways, the Puritan communities were like traditional Jewish ones, where the privileged would support the scholars and an ongoing, often precarious Jewish life. Bernard Madoff appears in this picture like the anti-philanthropist. Instead of using his wealth to support the community, he consumed the community for an illusion of wealth that for many years was enough to secure him that status of American being, that iconicity of success, even if cut off both from substance and from any of the values that in fact gave it meaning. And now the wealth turns out to be counterfeit, forged, a devouring beast. This is a grave challenge to the terms of the American dream which was not only a matter of money, but of invention, initiative and promise. There is something deeply contradictory when success, which is a social standing, destroys the society for the self. And without identification with others beyond himself, the self, as in Herman Melville's Confidence Man, turns out to have no identity at all. The writer is professor of English and American studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.