Ever had trouble with money? Like, say, hearing from bill collectors at home and at work? Or bouncing your rent check? Or borrowing money from friends to pay Con Ed? Or watching silently while the repo man tows your car, even though you had enough money in the bank to pay the loan off yesterday?
Been there, done that. And I’m the guy who wrote the book on the Federal Reserve. I’m supposed to understand money and banking, debt and liability. And I do, in the abstract. I can explain Say’s Law, or Marx’s theory of value, or Keynes’s Treatise on Money. But I can’t seem to catch up with my own monetary history, which is, as always, a psychological profile.
Now, in my own defense, I was fleeced by my (third) ex-wife, who by various legal means imposed a punitive divorce agreement on me, draining my 401k. Which reminds me, when I told a friend that I wanted a divorce from this wife, he laughed and said, “You can’t afford it!” He was right, by 2016, I was broke—overdrawn and overwrought, borrowing money from every source I could exploit, including my closest friends.
But still. What’s going on here? Why do I have this unhealthy relationship to money? OK, worse than unhealthy, positively pathological. I’ve talked to a shrink about it. But meanwhile, I’ve been in argument with friends, one of whom, with great patience and forbearance, finally recommended a book called Money and Emotional Conflicts, by Edmund Bergler, M.D., a psychiatrist who was pretty influential in the 1950s. “Bergler?” I said. “Like a thief in the night? You’re sending me to a guy who’s gonna steal what I got left?”
Well, I bought it, anyway. It may be the worst rendition of psychoanalysis I’ve ever read—although its relentless sincerity is hilarious. Freud’s fundamental insight was that desire is the essential ingredient in the Western recipe for reason: the wish was always father to the thought. It follows that the rational (science) and the irrational (neurosis, dreams, art, religion) are indissoluble moments on a continuum, not antithetical monuments on the road to civilization. Just like psychic normality and outright madness.
In a collateral insight, Freud and his erstwhile colleague, Sandor Ferenczi, explained how the supposed rationality of business enterprise—of capitalism—was a joke. The pursuit of money as an end in itself (what Marx called “the formula for capital”) had its origin in the child’s enjoyment of excrement: in all archaic societies, and in all modern dreams, money is shit, pure and simple. Martin Luther—who realized while taking a shit that faith alone would salvage the souls of his fellow sinners—put it succinctly: “The Devil’s word is money.” The anal-compulsive personality driven by accumulative urges was no less neurotic than the feckless wastrel in flight from the money lenders.
Now I admit that Bergler does think the anal-compulsive personality is neurotic. But he saves most of his clinical scorn for the wastrel. He’s talking to me, and about me. He claims that it’s rational (his word) to see money as merely a means of exchange—as a limited device by which you acquire desirable goods, not an end in itself. He doesn’t seem to understand that since the rise of capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, the anal-compulsive neurotic has become the dominant personality type, not the deviant. It is by now normal, not aberrant or even abhorrent, as it was until the 17th century.
So he might as well be Cotton Mather, the Puritan divine, who, in Concio Ad Populum, his widely circulated sermon of 1719, railed against the epidemic desire for riches and its corollary, self-aggrandizement, at the expense of communities and congregations that could worship God and foster religious fellowship.
Where does that leave me? You might say that I’m anal-retentive because I don’t pay my bills on time—in other words, I’m reluctant to relinquish my shit to the creditors and their attendant authorities. You might say, on the other hand, that I am that wastrel, because I spend too much money on all the wrong things, alcohol among them. My shit is all over the place.
You might say something else. We’ve all heard that “time is money,” and wondered why the equation seems self-evident. (That’s Ben Franklin talking, from his Autobiography. at the dawn of capitalism.) Waste not, want not, of neither time nor money, and you will be safe from a world in which everyone except the rich must buy the right not to die, every day, by working for a living. Money is time in the sense that with enough of it, you can command the labor-time of others, and rest easy. Time is money in the sense that if you put in enough hours, you might earn wages sufficient to meet your needs, and hope for the best.
If I track the chronology of my trouble with money in these terms, I begin to think that it starts when I realized I was living on borrowed time. That would be right around 1977, when my mother and my sister died, all of a sudden, both of cancer, and my wife just up and left town, headed for actress fame in LA, leaving me in her ambitious wake.
Ever since, I’ve felt that I’m next. Ever since, I’ve felt that death wasn’t waiting for me on some distant horizon—no, it’s been with me every day, breathing down my neck. But death means you’ve run out of time, and also that your money is no good here, whether in heaven or hell. No currency exchanges up or down. Abandonment means something quite similar, but there’s no way to translate its language of anxiety into the forgiveness of debt.
So, as per Bergler’s taxonomy, I’ve kept taking stupid gambler’s risks in the hope of proving myself not right but wrong—proving to myself that I didn’t deserve to outlive these people, and, in the process, explaining why I can sabotage myself no matter what the venue, in a bar fight or a faculty meeting or a dinner party, and how I can sacrifice my self, whatever that is, to something I don’t even understand.
Maybe it’s masochism all the way down. Freud’s two papers on the subject, both from 1924, suggest that the male masochist—he cites no female cases or examples—takes up two positions in subjecting himself to all available punishments. On the one hand, the poor bastard revisits the Oedipal moment, when his sexuality was supposed to have been determined, once and for all. On the other, he places himself in the “feminine” attitude of passivity, and he’s able to do so without making a “homosexual” object choice.
By Freud’s accounting, then, my systematic self-destruction becomes queerly constructive. He makes me ask, is my monetary masochism—please, repossess my car, also call to berate me for non-payment of something!—the psychic device I use to experiment with identities I didn’t know I wanted or needed? Do I discipline and punish myself so that I might escape my self?
Or maybe it’s guilt as indebtedness, and vice versa. I draw now on Nietzsche’s great insight, or error, or both, in On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). Borrowed time is debt—you put off the payment you can’t make just now, as you hope for better circumstances, when you can settle up with the landlord or the bank, or with God himself. Schuld was the word he used for both guilt and debt, and so the “second innocence” (Unschuld) impending in the loss of faith, the death of God, would be realized when all debts were cancelled—when das Schuldgefuhl, the “guilty feeling of indebtedness,” would dissolve because markets and money (the search for equivalents) would no longer allocate or regulate moral properties.
In any case, living on borrowed time—you trade the future for the immediate present—well, that I do understand. I’ve been writing checks against that account for over thirty years now. It’s pretty near overdrawn. But how does guilt become a pleasure, so that you seek it out, even revel in it? How does pain become desirable? That’s the hard part.
You could say that the guilty party is reliving the experience of infantile omnipotence, when his sounds—no words yet—and gestures summoned the parental gods to do his bidding. He’s still claiming responsibility for everything, including the worst he could do. Or you could say that he’s running from responsibility, blaming everyone but himself for his sorry condition, and feeling bad about the displacement. Bergler wants it both ways. See what I mean about stealing what I got left?
Either way, what goes missing is the death instinct, as Freud put it late in his career. The murderous hatred of your self, he explained, is a way of slowing or stopping your restlessness, and reinstalling the equilibrium—the peace with yourself—you knew as an infant. Guilt is an indispensable component of that self-hatred.
But what have you done to deserve this guilty verdict? Nothing. That’s the point. You can’t borrow time, and I for one have never lived on the proceeds of the loan. Guilt comes with the territory of the human condition—Augustine enshrined it as “original sin,” the urge to overthrow the hierarchy of heaven and earth, God and Man.
We want desperately to get back to an original or innocent place that never existed, so our failure to arrive convicts us, over and over, of imbecility. Or we want to install heaven on earth. We find ourselves guilty of not achieving the impossible. But it’s what we’re good at, us human beings, striving for what has never been and never will be (see, as above: neurosis, dreams, art, religion.)
But enough of that plural pronoun. What’s the matter with me? I don’t know, except to say that I’m in rebellion against my very own self, whose identity is steeped in and determined by these mundane monetary realities. I’m a mild-mannered, middle-class guy, with a real job as a tenured professor and a 401k. My rebellion is, therefore, ridiculous, by definition—sort of like those working-class types who voted for Trump against their own interests.
Still, I don’t think my consciousness is any more false than theirs. But in the medicine cabinet of my unconscious, the seat of all crimes, every falsehood, why, yes, there you will find only useless drugs and endless lies, sentences of death that keep me alive. Like every form of liberation—on this Marx was way wrong—the farce comes before the tragedy.