1990s >> 1998 >> no-1123-march-1998

The Curse of Money

An important new book presents a powerful critique of money. Everything money touches acquires a price tag. That’s the problem.

Many people see money simply as a useful tool to facilitate the exchange of goods giving people a wider choice of things to consume. There is an element of truth in this. Without coins, and nowadays bank accounts and cheque books and credit cards, exchange at existing levels would be impossible, and wage and salary earners are better off being paid in money than in kind as it means that they, not their employer or the government, can decide what to consume (within the limits of their pay cheque, of course).

But this is only one side of the story. The other side is told by James Buchan in Frozen Desire. An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money (Picador). This is a history of money but one written not so much from an economic as from a cultural point of view. It records money’s role not just as a technical means of exchange but also the effect it has had on social relationships between humans. This is not to say that Buchan hasn’t got a grasp of economics. He has (at one time he worked for the Financial Times) but this is supplemented by a wide knowledge of literature and art on which he draws to illustrate his points.

For Buchan, money is the “frozen desire” of the title of the book. Before money existed people satisfied their everyday concrete needs (meals, clothes, a roof over their head) directly by concrete means, by themselves working or by sharing the fruits of the work of the other members of their community. With money this changes. Because money is a universal equivalent—something that can be spent on anything—the needs of its owners cease to be concrete and limited and become abstract and limitless.

A money-owner’s desires are no longer limited to what they can personally consume but only by the amount of money they possess. The more money they possess the greater their “needs” and, since there is no theoretical limit to the amount of money they can own, there is also no limit to their needs or, more accurately, to their “desires”. Put another way, people come to desire more than they reasonably need or consume. However, although there are no theoretical limits to the amount of money a person can own there are severe practical limits to what most people can. So, with money, most people are going to be constantly and permanently dissatisfied, and they are generally, without hope of relief.

Money, says Buchan, as the means to satisfy the unlimited desire which it generates, can itself be seen as a part of that desire but in concrete form, as “congealed” or “frozen” or “incarnate” desire. Although money does give people a wider variety of choice, it is only a choice of things that have a price tag on them and so doesn’t—in fact can’t—include non-monetary considerations such as friendships, relationships, sense of belonging to a community, artistic values and other non-material satisfactions. In fact, the choice of these things, which most people value higher than material things, is diminished since they don’t count in a monetary economy which either makes them disappear or else devalues them by trying to pin a price tag on them.

Cuckoo in the nest

Money is a social relation. It links together people and their work, but, says Buchan, it’s an insidious social relation. Once introduced into society it tends to spread and undermine and ultimately dissolve all other social relationships. As he puts it, “money enters the system of values, and then displaces all other values like a cuckoo in a nest”. At first this freeing of people from all obligations towards other people except monetary ones was a liberating process: serfs and workers were freed from dependence on feudal and religious hierarchies; women’s dependence on men was reduced; discriminations other than those based on how much money you have began to die out.

But the process doesn’t stop there. It has continued and tends to dissolve all non-economic relations between humans not just hierarchical and discriminatory ones. It leads to everything coming to have a monetary price and to everything being judged in monetary terms. The process is not yet quite complete but it gets nearer and nearer to completion all the time. For instance, in recent years we’ve seen the idea progress that the victims of atrocities, crimes and accidents can be “compensated” for their suffering by monetary awards. It is obvious that money can’t really relieve their past and present suffering but it is becoming more and more acceptable, even to the victims themselves, that a money payment can somehow compensate, for instance, the surviving Jewish victims of Nazism, former British prisoners of war in Japan or the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.

Thatcher once notoriously said that society didn’t exist, only individuals and families did. As a description of the situation under capitalism it was accurate enough and is still true today to a large extent, but money is exerting pressure to dissolve the family too so that all that will be left in the end will be competing individuals whose only links with each other will be monetary. Buchan foresees the day when relations between the sexes to reproduce the species will be on a purely monetary basis: men will openly pay women to have their children and women will openly pay men to be the fathers of theirs. The signs are already there in surrogate mothers, divorce settlements and the philosophy and activities of the Child Support Agency.

Economics, says Buchan in a criticism of that old hypocrite Adam Smith (who preached free trade but took a job as a customs officer), instead of recoiling in horror from the prospect of all relations between people being reduced to monetary ones, positively welcomes this, indeed proclaims and preaches it, arguing that the pursuit of short-term monetary gain by individuals is the most efficient way to organise the production and distribution of wealth. This leads, Buchan says, not only to all social relationships being poisoned but to nature being raped. “For that is the end of economics: the world reduced to a scorching slum, its women to whores, its men to murderers”. Poetic licence perhaps, but who can deny that this is the direction the world is heading?

Unfit for humans

This understanding, Buchan points out, was the great contribution of the Romantics, the name given to those 18th and 19th century poets, artists and writers who objected to the rise of industrial capitalism and its utilitarian and money values:

“The Romantics reminded us of the evil of money: how the habit of calculating and making comparisons in money diminishes much that is strange and precious in creation, indeed abolishes quality itself as a mental category by which to understand reality; displaces trust in people by trust in money, and thus poisons the relations between human beings and atomises society; and submerges being in possessing”.

“These contradictions lie at the heart of the great sadness of our civilisation: that by using money, we convert our world into it. Humanity is . . . estranged by money from its natural habitat, without any hope of appeal. We are also . . . estranged by money from one another. It is this sense of a community of people atomised by money where all human relations are disrupted by money, that is the second great Romantic legacy to our age”.

In a chapter on Marx entitled “Death in Dean Street” Buchan, basing himself on Marx’s writings from 1843 and 1844, classifies Marx as being in the Romantic tradition because his objection to money and capitalism was not merely that it wasn’t an efficient economic system in terms of satisfying the material needs of the majority but that “a social system that evaluated men and women in terms of money and made morality a function of credit was unworthy of the human being”. This was why, explains Buchan, Marx’s utopia was “an ideal society without money”.

At the end of the final chapter (“Money: A Valediction”) Buchan hints that this is his utopia too. He doesn’t see why resources need to be distributed amongst separate owners and suggests that the unowned parts of nature pass “into communal ownership, which is no ownership at all” , and writes:

“I know you are weary of communism, of the lullaby of Calvary and Dean Street, but it will be heard as long as there is money; like the Sibyl’s books, it is offered to every age, and always at a higher price in money. To reject it is to persist in a delusion so complete that human beings exult in their irreparable losses; and like Hazlitt’s misers, ‘are not sorry when they die, to think they shall no longer be an expense to themselves'”.

A. Buick

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