The society of money: its utopian vision and grim reality
That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has [In the manuscript: ‘is’. – Ed.] power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?
— Karl Marx, from The Power of Money
The above passage, from Marx’s 1844 manuscripts, reveals a fundamental fact about the society of money: its driving force is that it offers the richest among us a utopia of personal possession — money will transform all of our incapacities into things others will do for us, and so we need not feel disabled if we are rich.
Of course, this utopian vision says nothing of the world it objectifies, thus the rest of human society (not to mention its resource base) exists as a mere object for the possessors of money. Marx concludes the passage by saying that:
Money is the alienated ability of mankind.
Money is not a thing in the ordinary sense, then, although to be a thing in any sense there has to be something representing money — and here the human race has creatively moved from gold and silver to paper-cloth to pixels on a computer screen. Money is a psycho-social entity, a universal fetish, a marker of social status, a redirection of collective human will and of the totality of nature toward the satisfaction of the whims of its owners. Money alienates our will-power — we do for money what we wouldn’t otherwise do for free. There is, in short, a society of money.
The society of people cares about its members; the society of money cares about money. Oh, and how does that “Power of Money” piece end? From the final paragraph:
Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc.
The Marx utopia is one in which human relations are relations between human beings, instead of relations between individuals and money.
The society of money as a capitalist society
In the society of money everyone and everything has its price. This “everything” extends to politics. When everything is a commodity, political services are a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. In the society of money we know what “more and better Democrats” means — it’s advertising for Democrats backed by money, just as “more and better Republicans” would be advertising for Republicans backed by money.
In the society of money people “have principles” to adorn their self-images — because everyone is, in one frame or another, selling themselves. People are more saleable when they claim to have principles, don’t you agree? In fact, political power means very little apart from the power of money in a society in which certain individuals have a greater net worth than nation-states.
The columnist Ian Welsh offers a similar sentiment about money to the one I argue here:
The simplest way to think of money is as permission. Money allows whoever has it to determine how other people spend their time. This can be directly, by hiring them, or it can be indirectly, by buying the proceeds of their labor, which economists call demand. (If you want something, and you don’t have the money to buy it, you are not demand.) Money lets you do what you want: start a library, start a company manufacturing electric cars, start a think tank; fly by private jet. Money is freedom for those who have it, and servitude for those who need it.
Welsh’s point about “demand” is one we’ll get to later. The point I want to focus upon here is the connection between money and power, and specifically between money and capitalist power. Under capitalism, as Welsh points out, money is the ultimate marker of power.
This brings me to the topic of capitalism, of what is capitalism and how does capitalism operate to produce capitalist power, because the society of money is specifically a capitalist society. From Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View:
Capitalism is a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor-power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where all economic actors are dependent on the market. (2)
Thus market participation is mandatory under capitalism. If you are a member of the working class, you must sell your labor-power to an employer who will pay for it, and the price of your labor-power must be high enough to keep you alive, otherwise there is no place for you.
If the general conquest of nature won’t force you to participate in markets, then your paid-off capitalist government will finish the job. An example:
Now, Robin Speronis’ resistance to the society of money is an individual, and not a collective, resistance, which is why it doesn’t have the power it could have. She merely wishes to live off of the grid, for herself, and not be dependent upon for-profit utilities. Yet nonetheless the capitalist state does not take her challenge to corporate rule lightly.
The mechanics of capitalism: the society of money as producer of social classes
One of the most direct effects of the society of money, and thus of capitalism, is the separation of the human race into a tiny cadre of owners of capital and a vast majority of the human race who merely stays afloat working for money. Now what is capital? Capital is typically defined in textbooks as a physical thing — but for Marx capital is the use of that physical thing toward its ultimate end. Capital is the property of money (in capitalist society) that allows money to make more money. I’m sure that the capitalists here will agree: investment is ultimately far more lucrative than work.
In chapter 4 of volume 1 of Capital, Karl Marx also describes how capital is formed through the circulation of commodities and money.
In its rituals of daily survival, the working class is obliged to sell a commodity (its collective labor power) to the owning class for money, which it then uses to buy another commodity (the basic necessities: food, clothing, shelter and so on). Marx calls this C-M-C. The owning class, on the other hand, gets to accumulate capital by investing money (as a capital asset) to buy a commodity (capital’s infrastructure, including the labor power of the working class) to make more money. Marx calls this M-C-M’, and the M’ at the end is the additional profit gained from the process, which is usually reinvested as more capital.
Marx’s point, described in full detail in other chapters of Capital, is that labor power is the only commodity itself capable of producing a surplus of value, and thus is the engine for capital’s creation of commodities. Capital uses labor power to create profits for itself, thus steadily increasing its power over society as capitalist history marches forward. The thing to remember, here, is that commodification, and its resultant profit, is the driving force, and the purpose, of capitalism. And money, for its part, is the circulatory fluid that makes the ever-growing body of capital possible as it drives forward toward the utopia of individual purchase (for the possessors of money) described at the top.
Marginalist economics: the society of money as an innate aspect of human nature
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the study of trade was regarded as belonging to a field once labeled “political economy.” The champions of trade, such as Adam Smith, felt it necessary to declare that economic regimes were also political regimes because they wanted to champion regimes in which less government economic intervention (“laissez-faire”) maximized opportunities for small entrepreneurs as opposed to government support for entities such as the East India Company, which were regarded as instruments of mercantilism.
But in the late 19th century in the United States a new discipline (“economics”) and a new doctrine (“marginalism,”) had taken hold in the growing universities of the time, significantly under the direction of John Bates Clark. In Dorothy Ross’s The Origins of American Social Science, this is described in relation to the growing class conflict and emergent radical political sentiment of the time:
In classical economics, value had been defined by labor, the economy driven by capital accumulation, self-interest transmuted to public good by an “invisible hand,” and distribution governed by class relations. With all these ideas under radical attack and often turned to radical purposes, Clark and the marginalist economists found a different way of conceiving the market economy. Basing value in utility, they viewed the market as a mechanism for the satisfaction of human wants and driven by consumer desires. Through the adjustment of prices, the resources of society were allocated to produce the maximum utility to consumers, with the maximum possible efficiency. (120)
As a response to the growing class conflict of the time, then, the marginalist economists retreated into an imagined market utopia in which human nature would be examined only insofar as it reflected the self-image of entrepreneurs. Human beings would be defined in advance as “utility maximizers” — entrepreneurs in embryo — thus eliminating the perceived need for socialism. If we are all really just entrepreneurs, why would we need socialism when the society of money will satisfy our every whim? And this is where the “science” of economics stands today — as an extended apologetics for the society of money. The marginalist economy is supposedly driven by “demand,” never mind that, per Welsh (see above), the only “demand” that really counts is effective demand. And effective demand, in turn, is calculated by multiplying the number of paying customers by the monetary price of each object being bought. So if you don’t have money, your demand is not effective, and the (marginalist) economists ignore you.
(Now, sure, one thing the working class can do within the society of money is, it can demand a larger share of the surplus it produces. This is clearly a good thing — a greater share of the surplus for the workers means a more distinct guarantee of material human rights, rights to food, clothing, shelter and so on. But, even at the height of worker power in the US during the Golden Age of Capitalism (1948-1971), the owning class was still in charge of the society of money.)
The society of money in the era of neoliberal economics
The ultimate expression of marginalist economics is, per Philip Mirowski, is neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is, in light of a declining global economic growth rate going on four decades now, an attempt to impose the society of money upon every aspect of human existence so as to keep profits afloat even though growth supports them to a diminishing extent.
Here I’m going to say something briefly about a book that discusses coming of age in the neoliberal era — Jennifer Silva’s “Coming Up Short” — which describes the ultimate result of the neoliberal imposition of the society of money. The young subjects of Silva’s study trust in nobody but themselves — not their communities, not their employers, and not the government. Her subjects spend their time trying to control themselves while their life stories read as hard luck stories, full of betrayal and disappointment.
Returning to the society of people
In America there is, as I understand it, no equivalent to the Zapatistas — that community of marginalized Mexicans who value autonomy above standard-issue neoliberal poverty and who have banded together to form genuine communities. (and I’m sure that, even with all their efforts, they’re still a bit dependent upon a NGO or two.) In the American context, perhaps some minor comfort can be found against the society of money in the movement against foreclosures. Laura Gottesdiener’s A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home is a recent volume offering stories of home foreclosure, community organizing, and the ability of mobilized communities to stand tall against the power of the bankers.
Now, of course, protesters against home foreclosure are not, merely through their protest actions, creating an alternative basis in human existence to that which is pushed upon them by the society of money. But they are beginning to recognize that human existence, in terms of the accessibility of basic necessities, is a priority more profound than that of money, and one for which they are willing to fight as collectives. From the conclusion:
This is all to say that the housing situation for Americans of all races and ethnicities has only grown worse as the so-called economic recovery has progressed. What has changed, albeit slowly, is the idea of home and housing… more and more Americans are arguing that housing should be a right, not a privilege. (162-163)