Counterrevolutionary Backsliding, from the Golden Calf to Keynes

One of the elements of the Exodus story I’ve always been interested in is the backsliding; it fits with my interest in counterrevolution, I suppose. The Israelites flee Egypt, bondage, and Pharaoh, but while they wander in the desert, they’re constantly tempted to go back. Literally, to Egypt, and figuratively, to bondage, to false gods, to idol worship. The Bible often speaks of these “murmurings” of the people of Israel.

And the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness; and the children of Israel said unto them: “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:2-3)

The two main reasons for backsliding are material need—hunger and thirst—and spiritual/political fear: when Moses goes up to Sinai, and seems to be gone too long, the Israelites grow frightened. Of what it’s not clear: that without him, they cannot fulfill the covenant, the laws and edicts of God; or that they are simply leaderless; or perhaps more broadly that they are not up to the task of moral freedom and collective agency that has been set to them in the desert. Whatever the reason, that’s when they turn to the Golden Calf (Exodus 32).

One can read the Golden Calf story as not merely a parable of fear or abandonment but also as the opposite of the murmuring from hunger and thirst: in the case of the Golden Calf, the Israelites possess enough riches to fashion a Golden Calf. Theirs, in a way, is an anxiety of abundance, of great material wealth yoked to political and spiritual backsliding.

As I was reading these passages this morning, I thought of Keynes’ “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” which he wrote in 1930. It too speaks of a kind of anxiety of abundance, an abundance born of freedom. Keynes wasn’t speaking of a revolution (and on many readings, neither does Exodus), but he sees this anxiety as arising in the context of an emancipation from material need.

I thought it might be interesting to pair these two readings here: the one from the Golden Calf, the other from Keynes’ Economic Possibilities.

Here’s the Golden Calf story (Exodus 32):

32 And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.

And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.

And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.

And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

And when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said, To morrow is a feast to the Lord.

And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves:

They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people:

10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.

11 And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?

12 Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.

14 And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.

15 And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the tables were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.

16 And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.

17 And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp.

18 And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do I hear.

19 And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing: and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount.

20 And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.

21 And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?

22 And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief.

23 For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

24 And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.

25 And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies:)

26 Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord‘s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him.

27 And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.

28 And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

29 For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.

30 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement for your sin.

31 And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said, Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them gods of gold.

32 Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.

33 And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book.

34 Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them.

35 And the Lord plagued the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.


What’s interesting to me in this Golden Calf passage is that in persuading God not to destroy the Israelite, Moses warns God of how it will look to the Egyptians: that God’s triumph over Pharaoh didn’t produce much good for the Israelites in the end. One can read that as a warning to God about what destroying the Israelites will mean for God: his name will not be praised or held in awe by the peoples of the world. Or it can be read as a warning to God about what it will mean for freedom and the oppressed: henceforward, no people will march out of bondage, lest they come to a similar end.

There’s also the switch from Moses the intermediary, trying to save the Israelites from the wrath of God, to Moses the agent of God’s wrath. Really his own wrath, for God has already repented of his plan to destroy them; Moses now seems to be acting in his own right, responding to his own disappointment and rage.

Finally, there’s the figure of the golden calf: obviously meant to be a religious idol, it historically has resonated as the symbol of a different kind of fetish: economic fetishism. For conservatives, the golden calf signifies the slavish desire for economic security at all costs, leading to the embrace of a tyrannical welfare state. For critics of capitalism, it symbolizes capitalism itself.

As I said, I think there’s another way of thinking about the golden calf: as a form of counterrevolutionary backsliding, but in this case, and more specifically, a mode of backsliding that arises after material security has been achieved. The fear of what may happen to us once our material meeds have been met, once the economic problem has been solved, once we have so much gold that we don’t know what to do with it. Except re-enslave ourselves.

That’s a fear that often seems to be most common among the people who already enjoy material security: rich people and a lot of intellectuals. Whether it accurately describes reality is a different question. I’m interested in it as a sensibility, one that recurs throughout our religious, political, and economic texts, a sensibility that seems to explain or compel a backsliding from the forward march.

Hence, Keynes’ Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1930):

Now for my conclusion, which you will find, I think, to become more and more startling to the imagination the longer you think about it.

I draw the conclusion that, assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not—if we look into the future—the permanent problem of the human race.

Why, you may ask, is this so startling? It is startling because—if, instead of looking into the future, we look into the past—we find that the economic problem, the struggle for subsistence, always has been hitherto the primary, most pressing problem of the human race—not only of the human race, but of the whole of the biological kingdom from the beginnings of life in its most primitive forms.

Thus we have been expressly evolved by nature—with all our impulses and deepest instincts—for the purpose of solving the economic problem. If the economic problem is solved, mankind will be deprived of its traditional purpose.

Will this be a benefit? If one believes at all in the real values of life, the prospect at least opens up the possibility of benefit. Yet I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.

To use the language of today—must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown”? We already have a little experience of what I mean—a nervous breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women, many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations—who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.

To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed for sweet—until they get it.

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard—those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me—those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter—to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

Update (12:15 pm)

William Adler, a political scientist at Northeast Illinois University (he was also once a student in my graduate seminar on American political thought), tells me there’s a midrash that links the gold the Israelites used to construct the Golden Calf to the “jewels of silver, and jewels of gold” that the Israelites “asked of the Egyptians” before they left. Which Exodus tells us the Egyptians gave them; though it also says the Israelites “despoiled the Egyptians,” implying something more like stole (Exodus 12:35-36). Which has prompted, of course, no end of commentary from the rabbis. One of the more intriguing commentaries suggests that the Israelites left Egypt with quite an abundance of wealth. Which might add to the interpretation I mentioned above.

Update (1:30 pm)

Nathan Cedric Tankus responds on Facebook:

From a practical perspective I find the golden calf as a symbol of riches and the “solving” of the economic problem a little hard to swallow. Namely because the “wealth” you’re talking about is gold and jewels while the economic problem—especially if you follow Keynes in the quoted passage—is production sufficient to support the population comfortably. In other words, they’re in a freaking desert! What use are these things to the solving of the economic problem. In fact, I’d argue that unless it is put into the form of the golden calf, these jewels and gold have very little use (or for that matter, exchange) value to them.


  1. Steve White March 31, 2015 at 3:09 pm | #

    Corey, congratulations on a great post !! I seldom agree with you, but this time your ideas are timely, quite well considered and very impressive. Thank you for teaching me something (or at least giving me something to chew on for a few days)
    Steve White

  2. thom March 31, 2015 at 7:14 pm | #

    I think the following are the more interesting and revealing passages.

    Upon receiving ten “commandments” including one that says “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, Moses proceeds to kill. (!) Hypocrisy indeed.

    I agree with you about Moses’ rage being his and the conceit of Moses assuming for himself the task of being the instrument of God’s vengeance even though God had apparently gotten over it.

    It is these two passages, I think, which have fueled thousands of years of Judaeo/Christiano/Islamo strife, sword and killing of “the other”. Sunnis and Shia comes to mind as do the Sarah Palins versus the Pope Francises and, of course, Netanyahu, the very INSTRUMENT OF GOD in AIPAC/Zionist/Israel, not to mention the Indiana “religious Freedom Bill” and others sure to come — not forgetting for a moment that terminally unique “American Exceptionalism” which came to White people from their genocide of the Indians, enslavement of the Africans and theft of Indian and African land — which continues today.

    Can’t tolerate any dissent in these fascist, psychopathic monotheistic religions, now, can we? Let alone rationalism and revolution, perhaps, at the foot of Mt. Sinai? 😉

    And of course this begs the question of why it took Moses and the guiding light 40 years to make it across a geography that is, what, merely100 kilometers or so wide?

    THE Verses:

    7 And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.

    28 And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

  3. Harold April 1, 2015 at 2:35 pm | #

    A very thought-provoking read, even leaving aside the correlation to Exodus – I feel that Keynes’ dread is very apropos to our future.

    I believe it is spot-on to wonder what would happen if the need to strive – which evolution has honed our instincts toward – were removed. What then would be the purpose of mankind’s existence?

    My personal opinion is that, having material contentment set aside as a worry, there would be two paths – mankind would either then turn to intellectual and spiritual enrichment, and tune the social machines of government and religion accordingly; or mankind would turn to ever-spiraling appeasement of base appetites, resulting in decadence, debauchery and hedonism of a scale we’ve seldom encountered outside of fiction.

    My hope is that mankind would turn to the former, and be judicious in its pursuit of the latter.

  4. jonnybutter April 2, 2015 at 9:58 pm | #

    From a practical perspective I find the golden calf as a symbol of riches and the “solving” of the economic problem a little hard to swallow.

    An absence of preoccupying want is as good as ‘solving the economic problem’ for the connection to work. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the concept of spiritual fear at all, since it obviously predates the solving of the ‘economic problem’.

    If one were to agree to Corey’s stipulation of the two main causes of backsliding/counter revolution, and you eliminate the one (spiritual fear), then you have to explain how the Israelites turned to idolatry for a purely instrumental reason, which I think is further fetched than Corey’s alternative. I don’t see starvation being the point of this story; there is, however, a lot of detestable dancing. Sounds more like spiritual fear to me.

    What the two texts have in common (that I see) is the idea of the fear of responsibility, ultimately the fear of freedom itself. Hence spiritual backsliding, enui, an unbearable lightness, a longing for death, entropy, etc. Keynes is right to imply that this is *The* human problem – this, rather than privation (viz, if we as a species can’t become less incompetent politically, we may not survive even if we can produce enough food for everyone). The conservative impulse seems to be to avoid the problem by the deliberate, arbitrary prolongation of the struggle with want; keeping ourselves busy trying to survive as a way to keep at bay what is supposedly a universal wave of spiritual sickness.

    Interesting twist to think about Keynes rather than the usual suspects (Burke, et. al.) invoking this.

  5. Junius April 4, 2015 at 10:42 am | #

    The theme is “the fear of change”.

    The life is a struggle between having everything quickly or waiting patiently and working for it. Freud.

    Power – the gold calf, money, capital, monopoly – is to reach fast own state of quite (as kids do). Often backsliding.

    Work – follow the Law, God, Moses in the desert, create value – is to deal with frustrating feelings to growing up and… live. Generally walking straight forward. (The joy of the kid that learn how to use the toilet… before to “relax his muscles”)

    Some Europeans leaders admitted that the European Union has been projected to destroy welfare state «because the people need to backslide to the hard life» (Padoa-Schioppa, 2001)

    I argue that this last sentence, main drive of the neoliberal globalization, is simply the false consciousness of the upper class: the élite is not pessimistic because it “doesn’t feel sure” like Keynes, rather because it was sure it’s losing its privileges and power.

    Conservatives don’t want to change. Tautology. Not for responsability reason, but due to the scare to lose privileges.

    They want their safe gold calf, they want to backslide to Egypt: they want the chains for all the people… to free the people. Freedom is slavery. Orwell.

    Mors vestra vita nostra.

    Conservatives create progressives. Hegel and Marx. Action wants a reaction. Newton. Keynesian revolution has in itself the neoliberal counterrevolution. Robin 🙂

    • Rob Chametzky April 8, 2015 at 9:52 am | #

      People interested in this topic might do well to read (at least some of) the work of Benjamin Hunnicutt:

      Work Without End: Abandoning Shorter Hours for the Right to Work (Labor And Social Change), Temple University Press, 1988.

      Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day (Labor And Social Change), Temple University Press, 1996.

      Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, Temple University Press, 2013

      From Wikipedia:

      Hunnicutt’s major focus is upon the question of work, chiefly in terms of the length of time that we spend pursuing it, and its relationship with our leisure time. He has explored the history of movements for reduced working hours and shorter working days as well as working weeks.

      His work contrasts current working patterns, including long hours culture and a culture of ‘overwork’, with some of the utopian visions of reduced working time envisaged during the productivity leaps during the early twentieth century (or earlier, such as in the ideas of the theologian Jonathan Edwards in the religious ‘First Great Awakening’ of the 18th century who foresaw labour-saving devices providing more space for religious worship). He has documented the movements behind such ideas as the institutionalised 40 hour week or, more radically, the 4 hour working day.

      –Rob Chametzky

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