We routinely speak of the economy as a living being. “The Chinese economy is doing well,” we might say, or, “the American economy is suffering.” Such a fetishization of the economy—treating it as if it were a living being—brings to mind Karl Marx’s famous discussion of commodity fetishism. As Marx taught us, fetishization obscures human labor. In the case of “the economy,” this includes labor occurring in households and relationships, the labor of care, what James Ferguson calls “distributive labor,” such as begging and panhandling, and the labor that makes up so-called “informal economies.” Writing about the commodity, Marx used adjectives such as queer, metaphysical, theological, transcendent, mystical, fantastic, and magical (or, in the German original, vertrackt, metaphysisch, theologisch, mysteriös, übersinnlich, wunderlich, mystisch, rätselhalft, geheimnisvoll). To grasp how fetishization works, Marx proposed turning to the “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world [where] the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.” In the process of demystifying capitalism, Marx sought to demystify religion, too.
Rather than following Marx’s demystification all the way, some scholars of religion have proposed a different move. In line with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s and Robert Orsi’s rethinking of “history,” they ask: What might it mean to think of the economy with the gods and spirits fully present? How can we take seriously the queer, mystical, metaphysical, and theological underpinnings (and iterations) of the economy? How can we think of the economy as a field of multilayered relations that draws together the material and immaterial?
One way of bringing the gods and spirits back into the picture is genealogical. One can dwell on the ways in which the term “economy” at some point referred to the method of divine government of the world, expressed in phrases such as economy of heaven, redemption, or salvation. Or one could reflect on how the “invisible hand,” which Adam Smith praised in the eighteenth century as leading to the well-being of all, was not simply the hand of the economy but rather the hand of God. Another way of grappling with the economy’s mystical underpinnings consists of sinking one’s teeth into (rather than undoing) the fetish by showing how capitalism is itself magical and messianic, thrives on iconic figures, or is itself faith-based. Research on money offered to ghosts in Vietnam and spirits in China shows how spiritual economies can harness the capitalist market toward their own projects of value production. Others have described how a religious tradition like Islam can become intertwined with neoliberalism.
In my own research on Islamic charity, I have grappled with God’s role in observable economic transactions. Giving charitably in an Islamic context means giving to God (li-llāh), and it means that God gives throughyou. Often when I accompanied charitable interlocutors as they distributed food to the poor, the same scene would repeat itself: We have run out of food. Someone crosses our path asking for “something for God” as one does in Arabic to remind the ostensible giver of the true source and destination of all giving. We say something to the effect of being sorry and that God will provide but nevertheless reach into our empty bag, and there it is: more food. These moments of miraculous multiplication, of baraka, are etched into my memory. Through charity, a divine economy manifests materially.
And yet: When I returned from Cairo to Toronto and created an index to make sense of my fieldnotes, I divided the entry on “economy” into two parts: 1) this-worldly, which included terms such as austerity measures, currency, gated communities, insurance, microloans, money laundering, nouveau riche, poverty, and World Bank; and 2) otherworldly, which included terms such as asceticism, baraka, divine gifts, rizq (divine provisions), tagāra ma‘ rabbinā (trading with God), and thawāb (divine rewards). Looking back, I think that this twofold division is not only an effect of my upbringing and training in a secular, quasi-materialist world that separates out the gods and spirits. It is also an effect of my interlocutors’ own ordering of the world.
Many of my charitable interlocutors treat “the economy” as a separate realm that uplifts or depresses the country but forms a distant backdrop to their trading with God. This strict division has to do with a historical process: the separating of the “economy” and “religion” into distinct realms. Accordingly, my charitable interlocutors do not see their distributive acts as part of al-iqtisād, the Arabic term for economy. If pushed, they might link charity to the goal of overcoming or reducing poverty but more often, rather than considering it an economic act with this-worldly goals, my interlocutors see their charitable giving as a pious act.
It is against the backdrop of such stark divisions between “economy” and “religion” that I took note of moments when the this-worldly and otherworldly converged. Shaykh Salah, one of my Sufi interlocutors who spends all his time cooking for the poor, calls food a “divine minimum wage”—a phrase that collapses the distance between national and divine economy. Scholars have noted that the Quran itself describes God-human relations in economic terms, echoing the language of trade central to the society to which Islam was first revealed. As such, not only is capitalism always already enchanted, as Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin noted, but Islam is also always already couched in a language of trade and calculation—a language that we today associate with an economic (if not, capitalist) rationality.
In my research on Islam, the ethnographic challenge has been to defetishize the economy without secularizing it. Defetishizing the economy means drawing into view people like Shaykh Salah whose labor is crucial in light of the harsh economic conditions, caused by “the economy,” that a large number of Egyptians face today. Not secularizing the economy means leaving space for the gods and spirits whenever and wherever they turn up. In Shaykh Salah’s case, it means thinking through how he himself erases his labor by continuously foregrounding how God gives through him. Here, divine action (and not a fetishized “economy”) decenters human labor. Doing justice to such economic theologies means defetishizing not only “the economy” but also “the human.”