Psychoanalytic reflections on the nature of money: authority, regulation of standards, and the law of the father

Winter 2010

This essay sketches out a psychoanalytic contribution to historical and anthropological discussions about the nature of money. Setting out from an observation by Jean-Joseph Goux, according to which the genealogy of the Oedipus complex is analogous to the genealogy of money form (‘universal equivalent’) in Marx, I ask how the Freudian notion of the father might illuminate our understanding of money. In a new close reading of chapter 4, paragraph 7 of Totem and Taboo (1913), I claim that the historical father figure Freud had in mind most prominently was Caesar Augustus, who assumed a new kind of auctoritas and thereby managed to transfer the law of paterfamilias to the public realm. According to this reading, the paradoxical afterlife of the father’s law, which begins at the moment of his death, can be identified with the theological-political frame of Christianity, which both depended on and tried to overcome the Caesar’s auctoritas. Based on observations by Max Weber as well as by recent research on Roman monetary policy, I then go on to claim that the emergence of money form takes place under the rule of the Caesars as well. In my opinion a ‘universal equivalent’ is not established - as Marx claimed - as soon as gold becomes selected as primary means of payment, but only when a currency - not actually based on material value - is issued and regulated by a central authority. I thus suggest that there is a historical connection between auctoritas - the Freudian law of the father - and the emergence of money. I conclude by raising the question how in the Christian world the money form invented by the Caesars continues to live after its ‘death’.

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NF 72 Psychoanalysis, Money and the Global Financial Crisis