Book Review: Declarations of Dependence

Scott Ferguson, Declarations of Dependence: Money, Aesthetics, and the Politics of Care (University of Nebraskra Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Jonathan Ben-Menachem, Columbia University

(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

What do we owe to other people? This question drove me to study ethics, where I first encountered a view called “effective altruism.” Textbook effective altruists pursue high-paying careers with the specific intent of redistributing as much of their accumulated wealth as they can to highly efficient charitable organizations. This atomized ethos asks a circumscribed question: What’s the most good you can do with your money and your labor power? Why aren’t you doing more? 

Scott Ferguson’s Declarations of Dependence inadvertently turns that question on its head, demanding (my paraphrase): What’s the most that we can do for each other, together? Ferguson’s answer to that question is multi-layered and occasionally circuitous, and it interrogates the metaphysics of “personal responsibility.” In doing so, he points to the enforced deprivation that structures capitalist political economy and the “cruel fiction” of fiscal austerity which accompanies it. This is compatible with a Marxist political-economic analysis wherein wealthy nations are aware of the grueling inequity endogenous to capitalist production, but choose to maintain low wages and a moderate level of unemployment through state violence. Ferguson frames this historical dynamic as an attempt at negating one’s obligation towards others (though it’s an attempt at an impossible task, given that humans are social beings). That obligation, which Ferguson calls “care,” is constitutive of the lattice of dependence that connects all people. 

In the book’s introduction, Ferguson establishes a dichotomy between two conceptions of money: a “private, finite, and alienable thisness,” or “a public, boundless, politically answerable relationship… that has the capacity to support every person.” Ferguson argues that the former concept is a dominant norm (“hegemonic”), and much of his book is dedicated to unearthing its origins. Ferguson traces the hegemonic, particularized, private concept of money back to a medieval theological concept called “haecceity,” which can be summarized as “thisness,” or the discrete qualities of a thing that make it a particular thing. He suggests that haecceity became and continues to be a blindfold of sorts, a fundamental limitation on how humans perceive and respond to “the riddle of care.” 

Sociologists and theorists may realize that Ferguson is far from the first contemporary scholar to rehabilitate haecceity. Ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel, for example, invoked haecceity in the context of conversation analysis to explain the use of terms like “this” which rely on immediacy and individual context. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari used haecceity to capture “the entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate that is a haecceity,” a sort of macro-structure of individuation. But Ferguson goes further in elaborating the metaphysics of haecceity and its deep influence on Western political ideology. 

With startling clarity, Ferguson draws on the scholarship of Christine Desan to locate both money and God within the history of the “boundless center” that is care, or the “locus of accountability” that connects and binds all subjects. To that end, Ferguson explains that in the late medieval political economy, papal taxation across European states gave currency universal acceptance and value. This led to an ontological question: “What does it mean to be interrelated at such tremendous distances?” One answer to this question was the conception of the Eucharist, originating from the writings of theologian Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas’ framework, the Eucharist is a symbol of the “riddle of mediation”: an inalienable, centered, and boundless construct that gains its power from “the cascade of interdependency that makes up the expansive body of Christendom.” In other words, the Eucharist can be everywhere, all-at-once, precisely because it is a public sacrament. In Ferguson’s terms, this is something like a collective (Christian) affirmation of centered mediation. 

This metaphysical concept grounded a fiscal theology wherein the centering, mediating force of interdependence was considered sacred and public. However, fragmentation of Papal authority and the “sacred fisc” contributed to the rise of Franciscan theology and the metaphysics of haecceity. Sociopolitical instability caused unemployment, poverty, and unrest, and money lost both its holy and public attributes. Instead of an inalienable centering technology, money came to be associated with avaricious accumulation and deprivation. Ferguson alleges that these events helped Franciscan theologians elevate “thisness” to the level of divinity (“omnipotence”), fueling their rejection of the Church as a mediating center. 

For Ferguson, haecceity haunts every corner of Western society, from Locke and Hobbes’ social contract to Das Kapital. Within the murky fog of haecceity, mediation is always inferior, suspect, and potentially alienating. It privileges the immediate over the mediated, the decentered over the centering. This conceptual framework is useful in assessing historical phenomena; for instance, it resonates with Moishe Postone’s analysis of how Jews became symbols and concrete instantiations of intangible, universalized finance capital in Nazi anti-Semitism. Ferguson’s conceptual framework should be useful for empirical researchers as well as theorists and historical analysts. Sociologist Monica Prasad broached similar questions in her study of white working class Americans who vote for Republicans. One of her informants summed up the connection quite neatly:

“Well, Democrats are liberal. I’m conservative so that has a bearing on my thinking. I was always taught if you don’t have the dollar, you don’t buy. Look at the trillions that our government is in debt, our nation, and they continue to spend, spend, spend.”

Following the intellectual legacy of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Prasad’s empirical work confirms the deep ideological-theological terrain that Ferguson decries in Declarations of Dependence. Americans’ attitudes towards money (and how public institutions use money) are deeply tied up in their false assurances of individualism, and any scholarship in this area should take note of this embeddedness. 

To escape this crushing conceptual prison of haecceity, Declarations of Dependence suggests that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) can facilitate a transformation of our perception of care and thereby demolish and restructure our contemporary political economy. MMT is a macroeconomic theory that basically says two things. First, money originates from public institutions, not private exchange, and to the extent that “private money” exists, it is permitted to exist through public governance processes. Second, limits on federal government spending are primarily political. Thus, the corollary to MMT is a political strategy and a normative ethical claim: because the American federal government has the ability to spend unthinkable sums of money (and because inflationary pressure can be managed with a variety of tactics beyond taxation), we should spend in ways that facilitate equity, and we should spend a lot. MMT, Ferguson argues, is therefore diametrically opposed to both fiscal austerity and haecceity: it rests on the metaphysical foundation of money as a “boundless public center” that can ensure abundance for all people. 

Crucially, MMT-money is fundamentally public. In Ferguson’s words, that sort of money is “a function of political will… forever capable of serving persons and environments.” Much like the “sacred fisc,” this money is necessarily directed toward the center, the inescapable care-relation and obligation that demands a response. By contrast, haecceity-money is imagined to originate from private exchange between individuals—and even Marx’s dialectical negation of Adam Smith’s “previous accumulation” is haunted by the stifling spirit of haecceity. 

Declarations of Dependence made me challenge my prior assumption, absorbed from Marx as if by osmosis: that money itself is the root of sociopolitical instability. Rather, the alienation caused by today’s money-relation is a symptom of society’s rejection of the boundless center of care; a self-deluding shirking of duty towards our peers. 

One of my few critiques of this book, however, is that Ferguson’s effort to rehabilitate the liberatory potential of money gives money an undeserved ontological privilege—almost like compensation for centuries of metaphysical misuse. For me, money is a tool, or a double-edged sword—an administrative technology without the telos ascribed to it by Ferguson or Marx. Neoclassical economists characterize the natural evolution of self-regulating markets with similarly teleological fervor. I am perhaps more cautious about construing potential or past metaphysical attributes of money as essential or constitutive features. That said, I do think the earnestness and sincerity of Ferguson’s account makes his view all the more persuasive. 

In my view, the morally worthwhile element of MMT and the requisite negation of haecceity is the affirmation of interdependence and mutual obligation. If money is used in an effort to meet that obligation, money could potentially be liberatory. But that would require no small amount of political work, not to mention dismantling the hegemonic ideology or theology of vicious American individualism. Even if money did not become the revolution’s administrative technology of choice, I would consider the defeat of haecceity to be a net gain. But thanks to Ferguson’s scholarship, I can now picture money as a potential technology of care. 

When I envision a liberated society, I no longer imagine a politics imbued with haecceity. If and when we affirm our mutual obligations, it will be an affirmation that points towards the boundless center. Perhaps this is why MMT scholars have recently begun to build connections to the theory and practice of prison abolition, a movement that demands a new society premised on care instead of the systemic violence of individuation and deprivation. Perhaps the best synthesis of these theories is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s assertion, via Allen Feldman, that contemporary crime control strategies  “individualize disorder.” So long as people believe that harm is primarily a drama played out between individuals, disconnected from structure, a society built on solidarity and abundance will remain out of reach. 

My hope is that with an affirmation of mediated interdependence, people will be able to conscientiously embrace their recognition of and obligation to care. If we act quickly, we can reach that point before the world burns. 

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