Friday, December 2, 2011

Money without capital?

Ever since the rise of capitalism and its form of generalised exchange-value as a universal money (such as gold and later the British pound and United States dollar), people have argued that we could have money without capital. This argument was raised again at The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) conference at the University of Newcastle (Australia) 28 November to 1 December, specifically at the Permaculture session on Tuesday afternoon and again at the Life Without Money workshop on Thursday morning.

Ted Trainer's arguments, freshly iterated in his new title, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World and summarised at the permaculture session, in many ways coincide with ours except on this point. Ted maintains that money at some level could still be useful in a residual sense and could be a relatively useful tool. Again some of the participants in our workshop expressed the opinion that money could exist in a reformed version of the current economy, which somehow respected social and ecological values however no clear or detailed model was offered: how money might be re-defined, its boundaries and functions altered so it played a useful role in a world where equitable social and sustainable environmental values are paramount.

Our book is written partly to advocate the opposing point, which is the same one at the basis of Marx's analysis in Capital, especially in the first two chapters of Capital I. Chapter 1 of Capital I can be read as a careful exercise in showing that capital and money are conjoined as chicken and egg. The reference is worth making not only to encourage readers but also because it shows that definitions of money are based purely on how people behave; use of money is a form of behaviour replete with social meaning. Money is a social fact.

There are numerous reasons for questioning how a neutral simple money might exist. In the workshop we talked about various iterations of LETS and how they fail the test of necessarily expressing or supporting social and environmental values. Kinds of time-money also raise issues of equity and skill. While I wouldn't deny that right now and in some contexts these more community-based 'monies' seem useful I do question their ongoing roles in establishing and maintaining fair and sustainable practices.

In our book we offer a positive example in the labour credit system operating at Twin Oaks community. The key point here is that this system is carefully operated by the whole community, which has established fair and sustainable property, social and environmental relationships and values which co-define this unit of account. I would sharply distinguish this kind of labour credit from 'money' although, in certain other iterations especially, labour credit and money can have suspect similarities.

Tracts in Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The Poverty of Philosphy get to essential points that Ariel Salleh embellished in the TASA workshop, i.e. a universal money is the first step towards creating an abstract idealised sphere of human practices that is absolutely distinct from the material cycles of nature. This false objectification in turn leads to social confusion about the place of humans themselves within nature — a confusion that lends itself to hierarchy. The human objectification of nature and of other humans serves as a rationale for exercising power and exploitation. According to Salleh, this is a critical element in understanding duality and imbalance within the human-nature relationship, a false dichotomy which can only end in our damaging material relationships with each other and with nature under capitalism.

Towards the end of 'The Power of Money' section of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx critiques the role of money in capitalism and prefigures a world without money:

"Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society... It transform fidelity into infidelity, love into hate...

"Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and confuses all things, it is the general confounding and confusing of all things — the world upside-down — the confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.

"He who can buy bravery is brave, though he be a coward...

"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. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person... Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life..."

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