Lecture IV: Spirit and prosperity in the United States
In my first two lectures I argued that in China the two sides of money—its ability to enhance pure interaction and to encourage personal liberty—are held together in the same institutions, and tamed for social uses. In the third lecture we saw what happens when the side of money that erodes social bonds is set loose, and our struggles to contain it and live or die with its consequences. In this lecture we will see the coin, as it were, opened out and the attempt made to use it as an all-embracing meaning giver for life. In Western history, through the medieval period and up until late Puritanism, people tried to bring everything in their lives, economic and noneconomic, within a single moral compass. The people we will discuss today also strive to bring all within a single compass, but there has been a startling reversal: now laws of economic process have become an all-embracing religion that dictates relations among persons. The “general illumination” of capital has become a searing, all-encompassing radiance.
The New Life Clinic meets every Thursday morning in a Methodist church in Baltimore. This church, which otherwise has all the normal characteristics of Methodism, is located in an old residential neighborhood with an attached commercial center near the outskirts of the city limits. The Clinic was begun in 1950 by Ambrose and Olga Worrall, who had by that time become well known for their ability to heal people by the laying on of hands (Worrall and Worrall 1965). It is this practice that comprises the most central part of the Clinic’s service in its present form, which otherwise consists of hymns, prayers, a Bible reading, and a sermon. For the laying on of hands, eight or ten healers form a line at the communion rail and the congregation then comes forward to meet them, roughly by row. Each healer places his or her hands on the kneeling person’s head, shoulders, or other part of the body, holds them there for some moments of meditation, whispers a blessing, releases the person, and proceeds to the next.
A dominant theme in the service is the extent of fame the Clinic has achieved, which has brought much publicity to Ambrose and Olga. Films of the service have been made for the BBC series Horizon (and the PBS version, Nova), and Kirlian photographs of Olga’s hands, made with a special process that shows the “aura” around them, have appeared in Life and Smithsonian magazines. This fame brings people from afar: one woman travels by bus every other week from Cleveland to attend the Clinic for her hypoglycemia and claims it is cheaper and more effective than her doctor; a family from Oregon flew to Baltimore to attend the service during Easter week; several people inevitably raise their hands each week when the minister of the church asks, “How many here from out of town?” and “How many here from out of the country?”
The impression I have from attending the services and lunches fairly regularly for more than a year is that many people who come to the Clinic believe they have been healed of some malady. One week at lunch I sat across from a woman whose hysterectomy and brain surgery had been canceled after a visit to the New Life Clinic when the doctor “could not find anything there”; another week, in the ladies’ room, a woman said, flexing one arm, “I couldn’t move my hand for two years and now it’s healed”; Olga herself welcomed a mother and baby during the service, indicating that the mother’s infertility had been healed at the Clinic. But many as those who claim to have been healed are, there are also plenty of people who are sick or maimed: adults and children bald from chemotherapy, blind, or otherwise disabled are not an uncommon sight in the congregation.
It is important to make clear that the tone and style of the service are extremely decorous. If anyone even threatens to lose control or make a scene, Olga, who has both the sweetness and the sternness of a rather firm grandmother, is quick to react. One week, a young man who obviously suffered from some mental impairment stood up and began to make noises. Olga immediately went to him and said loudly, “Young man, you stop that. We don’t allow that here.” The decorum of the service is no doubt related to the stratum of society from which most of the healers and congregation come. They are not “the half-baked, the uneducated, and the credulous” (Robert Laurence Moore 1977: 3). The healers who most frequently attend, for example, are two counselors from the University of Maryland medical school, a Quaker minister, a Presbyterian minister who is pastor to a wealthy suburban church, a former MD turned full-time writer and lecturer, and a Baptist minister. Occasional guest healers include a professor of theology from a seminary in an adjacent state and the chaplain of a local, private (and luxurious) mental institution. I have no systematic information on the income or occupation of the congregation, but the group is about four-fifths white and one-fifth black, and consistently well dressed. I have met no blue-collar workers but plenty of engineers, civil servants, college administrators, businessmen and -women, artists, and alternative health practitioners.
The dominant theme of the New Life Clinic is clearly the achievement of physical and mental health, often for those whom the medical profession has been unable to give much hope or help. I became aware of a subordinate theme, one that forms the focus of this talk, during one of minister Fred Orenschall’s brief remarks during the first part of the service. In the most enthusiastic terms I had ever heard him use, he extolled the virtues of a book by Catherine Ponder, Open your mind to prosperity (1971). I subsequently discovered that a large body of literature on the subject was on sale at the book table, some of it under the rubric “science of mind,” and including various titles by Ponder, such as Pray and grow rich (1968) and The dynamic laws of prosperity: Forces that bring riches to you (1962).
Prosperity, Ponder tells us, is governed by laws of the same sort as the natural laws that govern mathematics, music, physics, and all the other sciences (1962: 14–15). The “law of laws,” as far as prosperity is concerned, is described as “radiation and attraction” or “supply and demand.” This means that “what you radiate outward in your thoughts, feelings, mental pictures and words, you attract into your life and affairs” (1962: 15). Put otherwise, “you attract whatever you appreciate, and repel whatever you depreciate” (1962: 91). Applied to financial matters, this law yields the practical result that “if you think favorably about money, you multiply and increase it in your midst; whereas, if you criticize and condemn it in any form … you dissipate and repel it from you” (1962: 91).
In addition to thinking favorably about money, it is important to keep it in active circulation:
Money is filled with the desire for life, movement, expansion and activity. It does not like to be grasped, clutched or restrained in idleness. Indeed, it is the active circulation of money that brings prosperity, whereas depressions and recessions are caused by the miserly hoarding of money. Even as our national economy depends upon the active circulation of money, so your individual prosperity depends upon the active circulation of money. (1962: 95)
Since the process of circulating money begins simply with positive thoughts about it, and since thought is available to anyone, it follows that no one need lack money. Poverty, then, is unnecessary, a sin, and “in its acute phases, it seems to be a form of insanity” (1962: 3).
The most abstract formulation Ponder gives for how thoughts can lead to money concerns the nature of “substance.” “Substance” “stands under and supports every tangible and visible object” (1962: 100). It is filled with life, intelligence, and the ability to take tangible form. This is why Ponder says money is “divine,” “filled with the intelligence of the universe,” and “a God-given medium of exchange.” When one gives substance one’s attention, appreciation, and faith, it “manifests” itself as money or some other appropriate tangible form suited to one’s needs. In this way one has control of the “invisible world of rich substance and rich supply, as well as the visible world of riches” (1962:100). It is in the light of these principles that Pastor Orenschall closed a sermon at the New Life Clinic with a “meditation on prosperity”: “I am not subject to market conditions because all of my affairs are directed by an all-knowing mind, forever opening up new sources of supply.”
Substance will often manifest itself as money, but in its invisible form Ponder often describes it—metaphorically or literally, I am not sure—as gold dust. The introduction to The dynamic laws begins “There’s Gold Dust in the Air For You!” and elsewhere she makes “substance (gold dust, mind power)” equivalents for each other.
Ponder’s books do not leave the matter of prosperity in the realm of these rather metaphysical arguments. They include plenty of practical advice about concrete steps one can take toward greater riches. Consider, for example, the Vacuum Law of Prosperity: “if you want great good, greater prosperity in your life, start forming a vacuum to receive it! In other words, get rid of what you don’t want to make room for what you do want” (1962: 23). Ponder provides many examples of how this works. She herself once gave away two expensive velvet suits that no longer fit her. Within a week she received a letter from her sister saying that a lovely, extremely expensive velvet suit purchased abroad was on its way in the mail. Ponder comments,
It arrived just in time to accompany me on my next trip, and its color even matched the auditorium in which I spoke. Furthermore, it was even more expensive than the suits I had just given away. That experience taught me that by giving up the expensive, one makes way for something even more beautiful to come, without financial stress. (1971: 24–25)
In addition to the Vacuum Law, there is the “secret of permanent prosperity”: tithing one’s income, preferably gross income, and preferably all channels of income.
There is one basic problem in life: congestion. There is one basic solution: circulation. If your financial affairs have stagnated into indebtedness, hard times, and constant problems, you can clear up the congestion through beginning to trust God to help you, through your act of tithing to Him. Tithing is an act of faith that brings about circulation and dissolve scongestion. (1971: 63, original emphasis)
Ponder provides numerous examples of the immediate and dramatic improvements in one’s finances that follow correct tithing.
Another practical method, listed under the heading “Techniques for becoming financially independent,” is to mentally multiply your money by ten. For example, if you have $5 in your wallet, look at it and declare: “I give thanks that ten times this much or $50 is now on its way to me and quickly manifests in perfect ways” (1962: 127). For those who are advanced in this technique, Ponder suggests thinking your money is multiplied by 100: either technique will give you “freedom from the thought of lack, poverty and ‘not enough’! It completely changes your attitude to: ‘This is a rich universe and there’s plenty for you and for me’” (1962: 129).
A closely related technique is to image money with the aid of play money. A salesman who was having hard times carried play money in his wallet. Every night he would take out bills in denominations of $50 or $100, hold them in his hands, and look at them for some time. As he increased his daily sales, he increased the denominations of the bills he carried and looked at, until finally he was carrying and looking at bills of $10,000 and $20,000. In another case, which illustrates Ponder’s view of how poverty should be dealt with, a “domestic worker informed her employer that she needed more money for daily living. Her employer told her to get some play money to help her think definitely about prosperity” (1964: 100). The employer gave her maid $5 in play money, and subsequently she found a $5 bill on the street, which enabled her to buy a new uniform (1964: 100)!
As a chapter in American history, this treatment of paper money has come almost full circle. We began by treating faith in paper money as a patriotic act—during the War of Revolution only paper money, continental dollars, was used as money within the states, all available specie being needed to buy war materials from foreign countries (Newman 1967: 13). Refusal to accept paper money in payment was taken as treason. One hundred years later, at the end of the nineteenth century, there was a strong movement against reliance on paper money as being an insubstantial fiction (Wells 1896). With Ponder we return to faith in paper money, even play money, where pure form without substance can be given all the substance it needs in the realm of thought.
Perhaps the most elaborate practical method Ponder recommends for increasing prosperity is making a “wheel of fortune” or a “modern prayer wheel.” You begin by outlining a circle on a large piece of poster board and dividing it into the various departments of your life: financial, job, health, family, and so on. You then paste pictures on the board representing your desired good for each category. Finally you should hide your board and keep it secret from others, but view it yourself every day, preferably just before sleeping. Some further hints for success: use big, colorful boards if you want big, colorful results in your life (a college professor made a small, crowded, drab, colorless wheel of fortune for travel abroad and he had a crowded, drab, colorless trip); do not clutter your wheel of fortune (a housewife placed a small, crowded house on her wheel and got just that); be sure to put money on the board, not just the things you want (“otherwise you may get the things, plus indebtedness! [You can use ‘play money,’ also checks on the board]”) (Ponder 1971: 86–87).
Ponder gives a great many examples of how successful wheels of fortune can be, among them the story of a “tenement family.” An overworked housewife, mother of nine children, and living in a slum tenement, was dependent on the inadequate wages her husband made as a day laborer. When she learned about wheels of fortune, she made one showing her husband in a well-paying job, the family in a large, comfortable house with outdoor space and a car. “When the prayer wheel began to work,” Ponder tells us, her husband was offered a job overseeing a ranch, which included a nice house, a car, and hundreds of acres of ranchland for the children to play on (1968: 165–66).
When I first encountered the prosperity ideas of Catherine Ponder I had no idea that they extended beyond her books on the book table at the New Life Clinic, Fred Orenschall’s sermons, and people at New Life Clinic lunches who carried “Pray and Prosper” booklets with them. I could hardly have been more naïve. The motherlode of these ideas lies elsewhere. First there is the enormous publishing company, Science of Mind Publications, which, in addition to numerous books and pamphlets, puts out a monthly magazine called Science of mind. Second there is the Unity Church, whose Baltimore center sells literally dozens of books, cassette tapes, and pamphlets on prosperity, not only by Catherine Ponder but by half a dozen other authors as well, and in addition offers classes on prosperity every Monday night.
Unity had its historical roots in the American metaphysical movement of the late nineteenth century. For a while it was a part of the New Thought Alliance, but in the early part of the twentieth century it broke off on its own (Myer 1965: 23). Drawing on the mind cure philosophy, New Thought saw men as individualizations of God. Although they were not identical to God, nothing could hamper their communication with God when the person’s mind was properly attuned. Once in contact with universal knowledge (God), man could draw forth anything he wished to know, and this is one instance of what was meant by “supply” (Myer 1965: 59). To answer the question how mind could affect matter, mind cure theorists came up with an intermediate substance called “spiritual matter.” Healing took place as mind affected this spiritual matter, which in turn affected the body. This “matter” consisted of a storehouse of past experiences, thoughts, ideas, mental pictures. It could be culled over and, as it was “exposed to Truth, the erroneous, faulty, disease-producing, worry-inducing items [would be] eliminated” (Myer 1965: 71).
The founders of Unity, Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, began publishing their ideas in a small magazine in 1889. Today Unity publications include three English-language magazines with a subscription of almost two million and translations into eight languages, and scores of books brought to ten thousand readers through Unity Book Club (Freeman 1978: 215–16). Unity headquarters are in Kansas City, where Unity Village occupies 1400 acres, and Unity school and seven Unity centers stand nearby (1978: 219).
Seen in the light of the wider Unity literature, Ponder certainly represents the most flamboyant advocate of prosperity thinking. However, the basic tenants of her program are all contained in the writings of the Fillmores and echoed in other authors’ books (Fillmore 1936; Russell 1950), such as the enormously prolific and popular Orison Swett Marden, who published in the 1920s. One author, Eric Butterworth, has published a new book which is especially liked at the Baltimore Unity Center because, I was told, “it keeps prosperity thinking on a spiritual plane.” Butterworth makes easily identifiable references to Ponder’s ideas as “gross,” “sickening” materializations of “a beautiful spiritual truth” (1983: 184). In his version of these ideas, “The goal should be not to make money or acquire things, but to achieve the consciousness through which the substance will flow forth when and as you need it” (1983: 16). It is no less acceptable to Butterworth than to Ponder to attain material wealth, but one should attain it through “consciousness of ever-present substance,” which, like a magnetic force, will draw things to you (1983: 43–44).
There are many connections between prosperity and healing. For some authors, prosperity denotes a general state of well-being, in which one experiences freedom from financial worries, good physical health, peace, and harmony (Butterworth 1983: vii). In general, good physical health is attained the same way wealth is, by filling one’s mind with positive thoughts about harmony and right functioning. Sometimes, more explicit causal connections are drawn between one’s wealth and health, especially the circulation of wealth and circulation within the body.
The substance that comprises your mind, body and affairs constantly seeks to express its life as activity in you and in your world. When allowed to do so consistently through the rhythmetic law of giving and receiving, order fills your mind, harmony fills your body and affairs, abundant good fills your world. If you do not allow the substance of the universe to flow through your mind, body and affairs systematically, you get out of balance with the pulsating rhythm of the universe. Congestion and imbalance follow. (Ponder 1966: 205)
Specifically, when you allow your thoughts about money to be stiff, hard, and unyielding, your arteries also become stiff, hard, and unyielding. You will be told you have hardening of the arteries, but “the arteries that hardened first were the main arteries leading to and from [your] seldom-opened pocketbook!” (Ponder 1966: 206). The solution is to make your money-substance circulate through tithing. One man testified that his first tithe “took away a strange circulatory ailment which defied medical help” (Ponder 1971: 63).
It seems to me that prosperity theory accurately represents aspects of the capitalist economy in the United States. The constant emphasis on the beneficial effects of circulation of substance and the disastrous effects of stagnation seems to relate to the fact that money does have to circulate through the economy in order to make more money. Some early prosperity thinkers had teachers who knew from direct experience how this worked. Ralph Waldo Trine, for example, made a pilgrimage to see Henry Ford. Although Ford said he had read and been sustained by Trine’s work, he proceeded to let Trine know he had misunderstood the operation of capital. As against Trine’s admonitions to save, Ford insisted people ought only to spend. “Society lives by circulation and not by congestion (Myer 1965: 198). To make his point, he rewrote an ad the company was using — “Buy a Ford and save the difference” — to read “Buy a Ford and spend the difference”!
Underlying the concern with circulation is a clear notion that when money goes out to circulate, it will return bringing more money. It is an ideology, not of giving and receiving, not of gifts going out and when they return bringing an obligation to give again, but of giving out and receiving more than one gave. Catherine Ponder’s suits, which she gave away only to receive even more expensive ones, and play money that makes real money multiply, both illustrate aspects of Marx’s famous formulas, M–C–Mʹ, C–Cʹ, and M–Mʹ (1967, I: 155).
The way prosperity theorists talk about money making money captures very well the autonomous character money seem to us to have, its occult quality of spontaneously generating itself and automatically expanding. As we saw last time, here again money “has acquired the occult quality of being able to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or, at the least, lays golden eggs” (Marx 1967, I: 154). In these idioms, the process of capital production seems to be a property inherent in commodities and in money.
Prosperity thinkers also see the process of capital production as the result of the interaction of money with money or commodities with commodities, not as the result of social interactions. Suits go out, leaving a “vacuum” which attracts better suits, and images on fortune wheels attract all manner of things, without the involvement of any social relationship. The only thing that is necessary for the accumulation of wealth is solitary thought and imagery. Because of their eliding of the social relationships that are involved in the production of wealth, prosperity thinkers can see poverty as a condition that can be fixed without any change in social relationships or any change in the allocation of resources among persons. In one case Ponder cites, a man got into dire financial straits by giving money to a needy relative. Giving money to a poor relative will cause stagnation in the donor’s affairs and keep the recipient in poverty: “It is far wiser to give him literature on how to use the laws of prosperity for himself. This will prosper him permanently, and make him independent of poverty programs or handouts” (1971: 63–64).
This kind of remark about poverty does not, I believe, result from callousness. Prosperity theorists often assert that there is more than enough substance for everyone to prosper. “There may be many ‘pockets of poverty’ in the world, and countless victims of deprivation. However, the Truth is, despite the appearance of great lack, in every area, in every human life, there is an infinite and eternal energy from which all things proceed so you shouldn’t be poor” (Butterworth 1983: 6). As Charles Fillmore, the cofounder of Unity put it, in the new era made possible by prosperity thinking, there “will be no place for lack. Supply will be more equalized. There will not be millions of bushels of wheat stored in musty warehouses while people go hungry. There will be no inequalities of supply, for God’s substance will be recognized and used by all people” (Fillmore 1936: 23). Throughout these writings, the assertion is made repeatedly that “supply is unlimited”; poverty is caused only by “lack of flow and circulation.”
Like these authors’ picture of how money makes money, this picture of how poverty can be overcome is partly accurate and partly false. Anyone who has looked at a chart of social stratification in the United States with information on the extremely unequal distribution of income and wealth would probably agree with Butterworth and Fillmore that supply is unlimited! Most would probably also agree that poverty would be eliminated if money and goods circulated differently. But the kind of change I, for one, would envision being necessary is that control over the means of production would have to be redistributed, which in turn would lead to changes in the basis on which money and goods circulate. Prosperity theorists, blinded, as Marx would say, by the “fantastic form” they give money and commodities, do not see what changes in social relations, what social action, would have to occur in order for supply to circulate freely throughout the population. For them, it is sufficient to believe that supply is unlimited. In fact, the reason our country is as rich as it is, they claim, is that many of us do have “prosperity consciousness.” “If we were all in a poverty consciousness, famines would be as common here as they are in India or China… . The burden of the poverty thought reacts on the earth so that year after year it withholds its products and many people starve” (Fillmore 1936: 90).
Treating money and commodities as if they somehow automatically created more wealth is a form of what Marx called fetishism, treating creations of the human brain as if they were “independent beings endowed with life and entering into relation both with one another and the human race” (1967, I: 72). In other words, what are really things are treated as if they were persons. The opposite, but inseparably connected other side of this process is depersonalization, in which other people are treated instrumentally, as things or abstract means, rather than as whole persons (1967, I: 105).
I have wondered a lot about whether the Unity Church or the New Life Clinic depersonalizes human relationships. This is a complicated question, and I do not yet feel confident of the answer. The remarks I have already cited about how the poor should prosper themselves certainly do not encourage active involvement in the particular circumstances of others’ lives, but neither are adherents of prosperity thought disinterested in others’ circumstances. Similarly, the familiar Christian emphasis on “loving thy neighbor” takes the following form in prosperity literature: when divine love (another word for substance) is manifest in a person, hateful thoughts such as resentment, criticism, sorrow, remorse, guilt, fear, anger, and jealousy are changed into life thoughts (Ponder 1966: 122). The result desired is harmony within the self and with other people, but this is never attained through interaction with others, only through internal thought. In this sense, whatever is going on in the lives or emotions of other people essentially escapes notice. In a real sense, they might as well be things. Historically, for early prosperity thought writers, the significant relationships in the economy and society were not between men, that is, they were not personal, whether in conflict or cooperation. They were between men and the pattern of all things, the laws, the infinite (Myer 1965: 95).
The idea of sectarian groups that see themselves as religious and identify themselves with Christianity, and yet stress the virtues of wealth and ignore the condition of other human beings, is quite shocking to me, doubtless because I have come to accept our culture’s dominant view of what the Christian religion is. There is indirect evidence that prosperity theorists are aware of this dominant view and feel a need to justify the way they diverge from it: they have undertaken a massive rewriting of Christianity’s sacred texts. Under the series title “The Millionaires of the Bible,” several Catherine Ponder volumes have appeared: The millionaires of Genesis (1976), The millionaire Moses (1977), The millionaire Joshua (1978), and The millionaire from Nazareth (1979). Some of the most plausible reinterpretations refer to Jesus’ miracles as evidence that “he was at one with all interior and exterior wealth”: “A wonder-working mind that could turn ordinary water into the finest of wine, multiply bread and fish at will to feed thousands, raise the dead to life, and heal all manner of disease could hardly be counted poor—especially if these invaluable services were being performed at today’s prices!” (Ponder 1979: 2).
Some of the least plausible—to me, at any rate—include the claim that Jesus had nothing against luxurious living: after all he dined with those of wealth such as the Pharisees, Zacchaeus, or Mary of Bethany, and while dining with Mary, he allowed his feet to be anointed with precious oils (Ponder 1979: 15); his seamless robe was, according to Orenschall, “the equivalent of a $500 Brooks Brothers suit,” so valuable that the Roman soldiers bartered for it.
Then there is the rewritten 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my banker; my credit is good.
He maketh me to lie down in the consciousness of omnipresent abundance;
He giveth me the key to his strongbox.
He restoreth my faith in his riches;
He guideth me in the paths of prosperity for His name’s sake.
Yes, though I walk in the very shadow of debt,
I shall fear no evil, for Thou are with me;
Thy silver and Thy gold they secure me.
Thou preparest a way for me in the presence of the collector;
Thou fillest my wallet with plenty; my measure runneth over.
Surely goodness and plenty will follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall do business in the name of the Lord forever.
(Quoted in Huber 1971: 313)
It is probably no accident that Charles Fillmore, the cofounder of Unity, was a man who repeatedly tried to make it rich as a small investor in real estate and mining. According to his biographer, he experienced numerous boom and bust cycles in towns in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas from 1879 to 1889 (Freeman 1978: 37–40). (Parenthetically, Lewis Henry Morgan’s main investment, a blast furnace, also went bankrupt during one of these busts [Resek 1960: 109]). It is surely also no accident that during these years, in contrast to Fillmore, other businessmen in the United States, such as Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Gould, and so on, were amassing gigantic fortunes (Zinn 1980: 247–52). In general the years between 1860 and 1900 were ones of many business panics: “firms were failing at the rate of 100 or worse to every 10,000 firms and even the Titans of this felt insecure. Rockefeller spoke of the hazardous and perilous oil business and Carnegie of being ‘overwhelmed by business cares’” (Kirkland 1956: 9).
This combination of the possibility of enormous wealth together with high risk in attaining it might well add to rather than detract from prosperity theory’s appeal. The greater the success of some corporations, and the greater the risk of failure of others, the more it must seem that “supply” in the universe is ample, if only one could find the way to get it. Most people “are pinching their supply by stepping upon the hose through which plenty would come to them” (Marden, quoted in Huber 1971: 155). Using another metaphor, Marden goes on:
We go through life using a little eight candle power bulb, believing we are getting all the power that can come to us, all that we can express or that destiny will give us, believing that we are limited to eight candle power bulbs. We never dream that an infinite current, a current in which we are perpetually bathed would flood our lives with light, with a light inconceivably brilliant and beautiful, if we would only put on a larger bulb, make a larger connection with the infinite supply current. (1917: 216)
Under conditions of relatively untrammeled competition, when over half of the population were independent entrepreneurs, one might even guess that an ideology like prosperity thought would arise. In the contemporary United States, this ideology might seem to be an anachronism, especially if one imagines that the domination of monopoly capital has meant the demise of the independent entrepreneur (Braverman 1974: 404). In fact, however, of the twelve million business enterprises in the United States, all but a few thousand are small or medium-size businesses, and well over eleven million can be classified as entrepreneurial firms (Edwards 1979: 34). The amount of franchising and subcontracting engaged in by large corporations may in fact be swelling the numbers of firms in entrepreneurial situations. And as in the late nineteenth century, the failure rate is extremely high, as is the rate of incorporation of new businesses (Small business administration annual reports). What has happened is that these firms exist on the periphery of the economy, dominated by monopoly corporations, and even more constrained in their activities than their counterparts were in the nineteenth century: giant corporations can now dictate whom they sell to, whom they buy materials from, and ultimately, especially if they are successful, who owns them (Edwards 1979: 72–73).
If one sought a correlation between similar economic settings and surges of interest in prosperity literature, it would not be difficult to show that we are currently experiencing a great renewal of interest in this literature. Titles available two years ago only from obscure mail-order companies have been reissued and they and many new publications are on sale at national book store chains like B. Dalton. Ads for prosperity thought publications are appearing in entrepreneurial magazines, such as this Financial independence, directed to Black businesses. Television has financial prophets who dominate Sunday morning programming on some channels. In some areas cable TV is almost entirely dominated by these prophets of capitalism: current estimates are that 40 percent of the nation’s TV households or sixty-one million Americans have at least minimal exposure to them (Ostling 1986: 63) and mail-order prosperity is flourishing. My favorite such prophet is the Rev. Ewing, from whom I have received twelve communications so far, each with an object I am supposed to use in a certain way and then return to start the flow of wealth, health, and happiness. The objects include a shower cap, a handkerchief, a Mexican peso, a five peso bill from the Japanese occupation of the Philippines to be used as a “seed,” and a prosperity cross—all of which are said to bring spiritual, physical, and financial blessings.
A new strain of writing has also joined the ranks. Former devotees of communal living and Eastern spiritualism are now embracing prosperity thought. Having rejected money before to avoid its individuating aspects, they are now embracing it to capture its social interactive aspects. “Money may most usefully be viewed as a symbol of energy. Money stands for energy that passes between us. It is not a thing but a transaction, a transfer, an exchange” (Fields 1984: 128). But money itself is not used to connect people in this new version any more than it is in the original literature:
When we feel guilty because we think there are poor people in the world … we associate this with money, because money is the conceptual connection that links us to the so-called poor. For example, parents in the United States perennially refer to “the poor people in China who are hungry” … the only real relationship between people in China and us is at a cosmic level. The real relation we have with them has nothing to do with the amount of money we have in our bank accounts or the amount that some Chinese have in yuans’ worth of cattle. (Phillips 1974: 154)
Some of the new spread of prosperity thought is almost entirely secular, in which the influence of thought on material wealth is kept, but reference to God drops out. This passes into the category of “success literature” generally, as in tapes for self-hypnosis or in “success” charts, which show you “the attitudes that lead to success and the attitudes that lead to failure.” “Look at it every day, See the difference it can make in your life. See the strange and subtle motivation that it has on your life” (Success magazine, February 1986: 79).
If prosperity thought represents a folk model of the economy, perhaps it does so from the vantage point of the small investor or small businessman, on whom certain costs of capitalism bear quite heavily: the necessity of taking investment risks, where failure may mean bankruptcy. One recent article on franchises warns the franchisee: “Remember you are taking all the risk” (Cornell 1985). Then there is the inevitability of experiencing low points in the business cycle, where lack of diversification or inadequate reserves also mean bankruptcy; the relative difficulty of obtaining capital and credit from lenders (Boone and Kurtz 1976: 526–27). Although I have no exact figures on the occupations of members of the New Life Clinic or Unity Christianity, many of the people I have met there share with Fillmore experience of the extremely high failure rate of small businesses (Schabacker 1971: 36). They could surely appreciate his plaintive remarks: “For many of us there is either a feast or a famine in the matter of money and we need the abiding consciousness. There is no reason why we should not have a continuous even flow of substance both in income and outgo” (Fillmore 1936: 20).
To me it is ironic and more than a little sad that the program of “action” that prosperity theorists advocate to overcome the very real costs suffered by small businessmen and investors involves only individual thought. If our “collective consciousness” is one of prosperity, if our individual thoughts are “bullish,” the whole economy can be turned around. “For the sake of mankind as a whole, as well as for your own experience, think substance, think prosperity, think plenty for all” (Butterworth 1983: 212).
It may be that prosperity thought replicates the viewpoint of the small business or franchise in its late-nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century version. Or it may be it reflects a more general condition. John Kenneth Galbraith points out that the economy is now entirely on a non-metallic standard, and has been since the Second World War (1975: 136; see also Harvey 1982: 244). Occasionally economists discuss the possibility of returning to a metallic standard, only to realize that no one really knows how to do this. Our entire economy is based on faith in paper money, stocks, bonds, credit, and checks. So with the intensity of faith here, prosperity thought may make great sense: “If you gotta have faith, you might as well have faith.”
As a way of encapsulating my view of prosperity thought, let me turn to Habermas, who describes the difference between crises in early, or liberal, capitalism, and late, or state-regulated, capitalism. In early capitalism, “the accumulation of total capital is achieved by way of periodic devaluations of certain parts of it” (Habermas 1973: 364). This produced the boom and bust cycles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries experienced by Fillmore, Marden, and other prosperity thinkers.
In late capitalism, two major changes occur: the state has stepped in to regulate the market; and economic enterprises become more concentrated. (National and multinational corporations dominate the scene.) Habermas sees a new kind of crisis developing in late capitalism, a crisis of legitimation. This occurs, he argues, because “taken-for-granted cultural factors which previously were fringe conditions of the political system are now drawn into the administrative field of planning” (1973: 377–78). He means that in education, for example, in the past school authorities only codified a tradition that had developed spontaneously and had its own community-based legitimacy. Now, however, “the planning of the curriculum is based on the premise that the patterns provided by tradition could be otherwise constituted” (1973: 378).
The same process is going on in land ownership (regional and town planning), health (hospitals), family (family planning, marriage laws), and socialization (preschool education). Once these traditional areas are “startled out of their spontaneous development,” the unquestionableness of their tradition has been destroyed and they are not available as a source of legitimacy. The crisis faced by late capitalist systems, then, is how to secure legitimation in grounds that have the aura of “the unquestionable”?
What success and prosperity thought apparently show us is that the source of legitimation of a system need not lay outside it. For them the principles by which the system operates have been lifted to the level of a principle of divine truth. Ironically enough this has been done by those experiencing the competitive fringe around monopolies and therefore who reap few of the total profits and many of the costs (Baran and Sweezy 1966).
Let me try to pull a few things together by drawing a series of contrasts between our two cases.
In China we saw that usurious practices were regarded as contrary to the nature of society and that they were construed as a warning from Heaven—in other words, cosmic forces supported social needs. In the nineteenth-century United States we saw that usury was welcomed by some as a law of nature— in other words, cosmic forces supported the market.
In China we saw suicides occurring because when a person could not reliably repay money it was taken as a failure of his or her social links to others—in other words, personhood was constituted by social linkages. In the US farm depression, we saw suicide and murder occurring because when a person could not repay a debt it was taken as a failure of his or her ability to be a productive worker—in other words personhood was constituted by one’s ability to produce and own commodities.
In China we saw women—jurally disadvantaged persons—benefiting from the liberatory aspects of money in their unique ability to hold it privately. In the United States we saw women jurally disadvantaged here too—injured still further by the ways their bodies were imaged medically with models of production that seeped through from another sphere.
In China we saw pigs as depositories of household resources deliberately used to cause “congestion” in the flow of funds out to the state. In the United States we saw Levitt, an “irrational capitalist” who “ate” more from the trough than he was entitled to, subjected to intense moral and legal discipline.
In China we saw, in addition to earthly exchange, another realm of exchange with the spirit world, where spirit money and paper commodities could again cross between kin, linking them even after death. In the United States we also saw a second realm of money use among prosperity thinkers, where in isolated private contemplation of play money or paper images of commodities they imagined specific increments to their “supply.” Summing it all up, in China we saw the many roads across which money and objects traveled among people, creating and renewing exchange and interdependence. In the United States we saw the single road to success (in the success chart) traveled by isolated individuals and surrounded by isolated pitfalls at every turn.
In The gift, Marcel Mauss says,
We live in a society where there is a marked distinction … between persons and things. This distinction is fundamental; it is the very condition of part of our system of property, alienation and exchange. But are these distinctions not of relatively recent appearance in the codes of the great civilizations? Did not those civilizations pass through a previous phase in which their thought was less cold and calculating? Did not they themselves at one time practice these customs of gift-exchange in which persons and things become indistinguishable? (1967: 46)
As Jonathan Parry points out in his 1985 Malinowski Lecture, in the modern West, gift exchange, in which persons and things are not clearly separated, is fractured. For us, gifts seem opposed to market exchange, persons to things, interest to disinterest. We have an ideology that makes us think the “pure realm” of altruistic, moral relations is separate from the corrupt realm of cold calculating market relations.
Last time we saw that despite this ideology, in practice, market relations as people experience them are thoroughly imbued with moral relations; today we saw the attempt to use market relations themselves as a moral compass. In my view this attempt runs afoul of significant contradictions, and it may be that any efforts to use market relations as if they could give moral significance to life will do the same. Consider, for example, the use being made of gold as a symbol in the media. In the realm of pure exchange, finance banking and investments, transactions depend to a large degree on mutual trust, promises that can be depended on and tacit acceptance of a common code of conduct (Neale 1976: 60). This kind of trust, caught in the image of gold as it is associated with high finance, can be juxtaposed to and claimed to give meaning to the intimate realm of personal relationships. To see how hollow the effort is, we could consider a recent series of ads focused on gold and linking trust to banking, love to a woman’s heart. In China we saw gold as treasure, as a precipitate of preexisting dense webs of interconnections. In the United States we see gold as an aspect of the “general illumination” of capital masquerading as if possessing it meant we were loved and giving it away meant we loved.
Perhaps Morgan experienced similar contradictions, as an investor who used his profits to finance his studies of groups (Native Americans) whose dire circumstances were a product of other investors’ desire for land and resources. Or as a capitalist whose philanthropies to women’s education (Resek 1960: 56) could contribute to mitigating some inequalities created by the very system that was the source of his wealth. In his desire to avoid the consequences of a “mere property career,” Morgan deserves to be heard again here at the end, in the ominous prophecies that close Ancient society: “A mere property career is not the final destiny of mankind, if progress is to be the law of the future as it has been ofthe past. … The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim; because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction” (1877: 552).
Another way of putting what I have tried to suggest about our two cases is that in China, through rotating credit societies and marriage, what for us seem to be two separate realms are bound together; and so the destructive effects of money are tamed. In the US case, prosperity thought and success literature show us examples of how in the logic of market relations the ideology of money as capital can be loosed from any bounds, and perhaps out of desperation the attempt can be made to cast this as an all-encompassing, meaning-giving net capturing all spheres of life. Perhaps they are grasping for the “pure interaction,” “congealed exchange,” that money actually does represent, as a way to get more sense of interconnectedness with others in the desolate isolation of modern society. In my view the pathos in this is that money as a way to interconnect can be a mirage unless it is accompanied by other forms of social interaction. “The abstract form of the moral order (has been taken] for its living substance” (Nelson 1949: 135).
Maybe the danger prosperity thinkers fall prey to is the illusion that nothing does lie outside the “general illumination” of capital. Perhaps this is the “element of self-destruction” in Morgan’s prophecy. If that were so, we might as well join prosperity thinkers in letting the illumination take on the radiance of religious truth.
Given my usual penchant for finding resistance and awareness everywhere, I find myself pretty stumped by prosperity thinkers. The only area I can construe as resistance is their views on labor. As you may have realized already, the link they make between purely mental labors and wealth completely avoids the need to work in the usual sense. While this might seem a shocking departure from sacrosanct American beliefs in the necessity of labor (Rodgers 1974: 126), it would be more accurate to see it as a rejection of the drudgery of manual labor and an embracing of mental labor. Henry H. Brown’s 1903 tract Dollars want me is dedicated “To All Who Would Be Free from the Grind of Labor” and begins: “It will help you rise above the drudgery of enforced labor and enable you to enter upon the manifold expressions of life with the joy and spontaneity of childhood” (1903: 5–6). With the development of capitalism a purely mental realm of labor is actually created (management) and takes to itself a disproportionate share of rewards (Braverman 1974); prosperity thinkers are, reasonably enough, trying to emulate this sector.
But even in their views of work, I do think prosperity thinkers are operating within the terms of the system. Like the workers during the industrial revolution described by E. P. Thompson (1967), who first struggled against new notions of time and later accepted them, then using them to their own advantage as best they could, these people are not struggling against the forces of a new system; they are using the terms of the system to try to better their own lot. They have accepted that persons are isolated monadic individuals, and that wealth and power come from throwing money ever fresh into circulation. The most that can be said is that they are trying to coax money to flow along lines it usually does not—that is, to themselves.
However, I am not really discouraged by finding that these people have decided to play the game and win by its rules. For alternative visions of the world to develop, it is probably necessary for people to perceive accurately the workings of the ones they are in. I am continually amazed by the richness of the ways people manage to do this. We have seen examples in the homely but compelling Chinese images of hedgehogs and houses, developed on the brink of capitalism; and perhaps prosperity thought does some of this, in the ways it images the necessity for a continuous flow of money, or the links it makes between health in the body and money in society.
The ground on which people stand to launch a critique of the system is the ground of their own lives, as they experience and struggle with complex forces. These struggles are to be found nearly everywhere we look: in the inchoate feeling that something is not right about selling a doll bought for a child; in silences—the refusal of some women to talk about medical views of their bodies; in organized collective groups such as the alliance between factory workers and farmers happening in the Midwest. As I look at all this my mood becomes, not discouraged, but somber, as in Barrington Moore’s “becoming really serious about a very deadly and very serious world” (1972: 193). However great the difficulties of seeing, as Moore puts it, “the range of possibilities in a future that always carries on its back the burden of the present and the past” (1972: 193), I still have a lot of hope that a more satisfying and just basis for human community can someday be conceived and realized.