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Cooking the Books: After the Revolution

In its Review section of 17 December the Guardian invited various artists and others to design new banknotes. The subject was introduced by the anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber who broached the question, “what will money look like ‘after the revolution’? How will it function? Will it exist at all?” He wrote that with the exception of Pol Pot “no state socialist regime ever attempted to eliminate money”, adding, “none, in fact, even attempted to eliminate wage labour.” Which is true enough (though we’d call them ‘state capitalist’).

Graeber blames this on Marx:

“For Karl Marx, money ultimately represented the value of human labour, of those energies through which we create the world. It was a way of measuring and parcelling it out, though, in the process, allowing those who controlled the resources to play all sorts of tricks and games. Since socialist systems insisted that labour was indeed sacred and the source of all value, it would have been hard for them to simply stop paying people for their work. The usual idea was to keep the money, just remove the games.”

This is indeed what the rulers and supporters of these state capitalist regimes thought. But it wasn’t Marx’s view. His Labour Theory of Value was a theory to explain how capitalism works, not a model for a post-capitalist, socialist society. He did ague that work was the source of all economic value and that this was measured and represented by money. But he regarded this as arising only where wealth is produced for sale, as under capitalism. In socialism, where there would be production directly for use, there would be no economic exchange value and so no money.

In his early philosophical writings Marx identified money as one of the two main manifestations of human alienation (the other was the state) and looked forward to its abolition in a communist society where human values would apply: where the standard by which something would be considered ‘valuable’ would be human welfare.

Marx also fully endorsed the slogan “Abolition of the Wages System!” a system which he, just as much as Graeber, regarded as a form of slavery. That the state-capitalist regimes retained the wages system was sufficient proof in itself that they were not socialist.

Graeber went on to say that “money could equally be conceived as a ration chit. Here’s a coupon redeemable for so many loaves; here’s one for butter; here’s one that can be traded for anything” and that “what they’re calling a ‘free market’ turns out to be one where everything is rationed.”

Quite true. That is what the market system is, but does he think that money can be done away with?

Graeber has his own theory of the origin and nature of money and has written a couple of anthropological tomes on the subject. He doesn’t agree with the theory that money originated to facilitate trade, but argues that its origins go back further as a means of measuring what farmers and artisans owed temples in places like Ancient Mesopotamia and even further back as a means of settling social obligations (e.g. dowries) in pre-state societies.

Be that as it may, in his Guardian article he does say that we should ‘perhaps make basic necessities freely available, and provide coupons for the more whimsical stuff’. As a good anarchist he is against these coupons for non-essentials being issued by some central body but by individuals and groups producing such goods.

No doubt in a socialist society people will produce ‘whimsical stuff’ for each other, but why would they want to issue and be paid in circulating chits? Why would they not apply the ‘generalised reciprocity’ that anthropologists define as “the exchange of goods and services without keeping track of their exact value”?