Marx’s Capital and the Cult of Money

Published online 14 March 2010.

LaFeminista’s most recent diary points to the presence of cults in America, of which Scientology is one.  You look at those videos, and wonder why people would believe and say and do such stuff, and then you’re reminded of the cultists who run the Texas Board of Education… but, really, there’s one big cult, into which all of the other cults feed — the Cult of Money.  This diary will examine said cult through Chapter 4 of Marx’s Capital and then suggest deprogramming measures.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

No, really, if you haven’t done so already, I’d recommend you visit LaFeminista’s diary on Scientology — some of the YouTube videos posted on the diary are bizarre, with reporters being followed and attacked by members hoping to do damage control, episodes of “South Park” being censored, and so on.

Then when you add up the evidence, you realize that it points to one thing.  See, for instance, what Paul Breckenridge of the Los Angeles Superior Court said:

“[The court record is] replete with evidence [that Scientology] is nothing in reality but a vast enterprise to extract the maximum amount of money from its adepts by pseudo scientific theories…

Yep, this is why we object to Scientology.  Oh, sure, big cult, buncha people believing in X, Y, and Z.  No, that’s not it.  This is about the other big cult, the one into which we’re all being hazed: the Cult of Money.  We object to Scientology because they’re muscling in on that other big cult, the Cult of Money, yeah, that’s the really scary one.  The Scientologists have got big movie stars: Tom Cruise, Isaac Hayes, John Travolta, and they make big money.  You know, we’re concerned about them for some of the same reasons we were so afraid of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson back in the 1980s.  They had this big foundation because they knew how to swindle old people out of their money and give it to folks like Efrain Rios-Montt.  Not pleasant.

Now, in understanding this thing with cults, this is where one’s reading of the classics comes in handy.  Some people read the news all the time — I read the old stuff, because it gives me a foundation for thinking well.  Today’s classic author, in this regard, is Karl Marx, who revealed the Cult of Money in its full glory.

Now, Marx has a cult of his own, ‘ceptin I don’t belong to that cult either.  I’m more in favor of the view of Marx as litterateur, the view you see in Francis Wheen’s biography.  There’s clearly stuff in the Marx-Engels Collected Works which hasn’t been thought out before — the Communist Manifesto, for instance, has stuff in it which isn’t very well thought-out.  But y’know, if you wrote fifty volumes of stuff you’d probably crank out a good deal of crap yourself.  For that matter, George Eliot never really got rolling on her novels until the publication of Romola (1863).  Folks, Marx is literature — meant to be enjoyed (the good parts, that is), and to inspire deep thinking of one’s own.  (Note to readers: there will at some point be a diary on George Eliot, prob. Felix Holt, The Radical.)  You know, the humanities, the basis for democratic free-thinkers.  L. Ron Hubbard, on the other hand, wrote garbage science fiction.

Now, young Karl Marx wrote some fun stuff on the Cult of Money: there’s that piece “The Power Of Money,” written in 1844, in which money is shown to be the force turning the world upside down.  You know there’s some serious resentment of the power of this cult when Marx lays out passages such as this one:

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?

“I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor.”  Thus in the universe of money people are not liked for what they are, but for the money they possess.  This, then, is Marx’s first major description of the Cult of Money.

Now, the critics of Marx are remarkable for having taken snippets of Marx’s writings (and there are a lot of those: the Marx-Engels Collected Works runs to fifty volumes) and “going to town” with them.  For instance, the notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” briefly mentioned in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, has been distorted to redefine Marx as some sort of opponent of democracy.  (Marx’s model for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was an attempt at direct democracy, the Paris Commune of 1871 — thus Marx’s use of the word “dictatorship” is different from the one used by his critics.)

At any rate, the snippet I wish to peruse today is from Chapter 4 of Marx’s Capital.  This is the chapter on the “general formula on capital,” and in it are the guts of Marx’s distinction between the working class and the owning class.  (If you are looking at the Penguin edition of volume 1 of Capital, this passage is on pp. 247-257 of the book.)  The “general formula for capital,” in this distinction, is the relationship between the two classes, the cult itself, in which the cult leaders who form the owning class hoard money while the conscripted followers, the working class, provide its basis in value.

Marx begins by defining the process of the circulation of commodities which is the “starting point of capital.”  The circulation of commodities is important because it separates out into two different, interwoven processes, defined by who is doing the circulating of the commodities.  We have, Marx tells us, the process C-M-C, the process by which the workers and the small-scale producers make a living.  The shorthand C-M-C stands for “commodities-money-commodities,” in which you sell a commodity to make money so you can buy another commodity.  Here we will need to supply examples of our own as Marx is rather sparing.  We might imagine a worker selling her labor in order to buy basic necessities, or (to use Marx’s example) a small farmer producing and selling corn in order to buy clothes.  And then we have the process M-C-M, money-commodities-money, in which an investor buys a commodity (i.e. capital) with money in order to make more money.  This, then, is the vortex of the Cult of Money.

The critical passage of the fourth chapter of volume 1 of Capital is this one:

As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.

“His person, or rather his pocket…”  Note the cleverness with which Marx shows capitalists of tools of money.  Though at any rate there’s some serious analysis here, which we shall proceed to engage.  In getting into M-C-M, first of all, Marx makes it clear that the process is really M-C-M’, because the last M is the original money invested plus the profit.  So it gets a “prime” symbol.

In employing M-C-M’, then, by risking money in commodity production in order to make a profit, capitalists hope to make more money from money. That’s what they do.  They are not really interested in the production of commodities per se — the capitalist only promotes music technology or shoes or agricultural commodities as a matter of public relations.  They might love these things personally — but that’s really just a hobby.

Marx continues in this same vein as follows:

Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; [7] neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at.

Here we must clarify “what is a use-value.”  Use-values are our immediate uses of things — our typical use-value for hammers, for instance, lies in their ability to pound nails into wood.  Capitalists, on the other hand, have no interest in use-values — the owner of a McDonalds, for instance, does not need to eat a billion hamburgers; they are sales items.

But here in the passage Marx wishes to insert the figure of the miser.  As follows:

This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value [9], is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save [10] his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation. [11]

“The miser is merely a capitalist gone mad; the capitalist is a rational miser.”  How are capitalists like misers?  Well, the miser wants more and more money, but misers merely hoard money without really making any.  Or at least that’s what many of them did in Marx’s day — today many of them put the money into Treasury bills, which is a different thing altogether.  Genuine capitalists, on the other hand, know full well that money must be risked, must be thrown into the process of supplying the funding for the construction of factories and so on, in order to realize profits.

The capitalists would prefer, then, to shorten the chain: M-C-M’ should in their eyes become M-M’, so that the messy trade in commodities need not even be broached, and thus they could all become misers and live effortlessly ever after.  Marx broaches this subject briefly at the end:

Lastly, in the case of interest-bearing capital, the circulation M-C-M’ appears abridged. We have its result without the intermediate stage, in the form M-M’, “en style lapidaire” so to say, money that is worth more money, value that is greater than itself.

So with the earning of interest, or also with the payment of dividends upon stock, we achieve the miser’s dream, M-M’.  Got money?  Get more money!  That’s the miser’s dream.

I would put risk-free investment in the category of M-M’ as well.  If you practically know you’re going to score a big profit, you might as well be living the miser’s dream.  The defense industries have got to be like that.  Health insurance will be like that after the Senate bill passes and the insurers are placed under permanent subsidy with your tax moneys.  When your investment is guaranteed, life is M-M’.

This period of history, say, from Reagan onward, and especially since the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999, will be regarded by future historians as the Heyday of Miserdom, in which the miser’s dream is closer to realization than it ever was in any previous period of history.  Inequality is at an all-time high, as the average global growth rate sinks further with the passing of each decade.  The early 21st century will be remembered as a period dedicated to the rich, and their Ponzi schemes, which they milked on both the up and the downsides of the curve.  This is the heyday of people like George Soros and Warren Buffett, whose wealth was gotten through currency manipulation.

The high priests of the temple of money have got to be, well, ultimately the Federal government, though proximately the Federal Reserve system and the banks, although actual physical banks are really just places of worship.  And its ultimate police force?  The Secret Service of course.  So don’t counterfeit — you’ll be cutting in on the cult monopoly.  The First Amendment may guarantee you freedom of worship, but there really is a state religion, and its god is the jealous sort.

Now, one way in which volume 1 of Marx’s Capital excels is in showing how the Cult of Money produces its victims.  The problem with C-M-C, the selling of commodities to buy more commodities, is that it is typically a raw deal — if you have to sell your labor to live you are susceptible to being “cheap labor,” because you’re thrown into competition with zillions of other laborers who are trying to do the same thing.  But this is the story of the exploitation of labor.  It is another story, for another day.

Listen: they trade $2 trillion of the stuff on the currency markets every day.  National GDP is maybe about $13 trillion.  You’ve read the bad news over on bobswern‘s and gjohnsit’s diaries.  What would happen to you if dollar panic were either to 1) suck all of the dollars out of your economy or 2) devalue them to any great extent?

Remember, money is the status item of the cult.  The leadership’s public face is the “economy” — but actually running an economy means they have to share some of their status items with other people.  What happens when the cult insanity gets so intense that they are no longer willing to do that — when the controlling powers at the top no longer want to share?

It’s good to remember, when considering such cases, that cults are unstable.  Jonestown is a good example of this: the cult leaders become unstable and destroy the whole thing.  Our cult leaders appear to have promised $12.8 trillion last year to their other cult leader friends — and we still spend our lives chasing after this stuff.

*****

Now, when it comes to cults, the first thought that comes to my mind, at least, is that of deprogramming.  The main issue here has got to be the dependence upon money.  One should be able to make an adequate living without having to use the stuff.  You might want to start with the concept of the Really Really Free Market.  Co-operatives and communes are a good thing, but in the end they settle down to a matter of insider-outsider relations, that for the folks on the inside, well, you get to share, but for the folks on the outside, you’re screwed.  The Really Really Free Market could loosen up the inside-outside ties.

We should also apply the ethic of Food Not Bombs to all of the other necessities.  If you’re not familiar with it, Food Not Bombs is a situation in which people get together and cook free food to serve to everyone.  Now, of course, certain political entities have attempted to keep Food Not Bombs from operating.  Their usual modus operandi is “serving food without a license” — of course, by this same standard the government could outlaw picnics.

What we need, then, is Shelter Not Bombs, Transportation Not Bombs, and other “organizations” dedicated to finding everyone the basic necessities, for free.

We will, in this sense, have to “fold up” the global economy that was made possible through the Cult of Money.  Production will have to re-localize — we are better off anyway in terms of abrupt climate change if we produce what we need for ourselves locally anyway.

We can expect a lot of people, moreover, to be “part in part out” of the money economy, depending upon money for some things but not for others.  We can also expect people to want other monies (e.g. “time dollar” arrangements) which are not part of the Cult of Money.  This would be the gradual approach, as opposed to going cold turkey.

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