Cooking the Books 1 – The moral mess

The subject of the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 on 8 February was billed as ‘Would the World be Better off Without Money?’ It turned out to be mostly about whether it was moral for the rich to have lots of money. Charlie Mullins, the proletarian founder of Pimlico Plumbers, said it was, because most of them reinvested it and so provided people with jobs and the government with taxes. Ash Sarkar said it wasn’t, because all wealth was produced by workers who were robbed of most of it by the rich. Darren McGarvey, the Scottish rapper, said there was nothing wrong with money as such; it was just that it wasn’t distributed fairly. He favoured Universal Basic Income. Sarkar seemed to favour cooperatives in which workers all got the same pay, missing the chance to argue for the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ she is supposed to be in favour of.

Up to this point, the assumption was that money was part of ‘the world as it is’ and the best that could be done was to distribute it differently.

A Czech economist, Tomas Sedlacek, finally addressed the question, arguing that the world would not be better off without money: the failure of past attempts to live without it showed that there was no practicable alternative to using money.

He and the Rev Giles Fraser got into an argument about the difference between price and value. But this was not about value in the economic sense of exchange-value but about use-value. What is useful is a matter of opinion or moral judgement. Sedlacek, who was an out-and-out defender of capitalism, made the point that price and use-value can never be the same — the buyer always places a higher (use) value on what they were buying than the seller does; otherwise there would be no sale.

This is a valid point which Marx made in chapter 3 of Capital on ‘Exchange’ where he wrote of the owner of an item for sale:

‘His commodity possesses for himself no immediate use-value. Otherwise, he would not bring it to the market. It has use-value for others; but for himself its only direct use-value is that of being a depository of exchange-value’.

An argument between an economist concerned with exchange-value (price) and a priest more concerned with use-value was never going to get very far. It did, however, bring out the contradiction between exchange-value and use-value that is a feature of the money system where goods are produced to be sold and not directly to be used.

The case for a world without money was put by Anitra Nelson, author of Beyond Money. She pointed out that ‘production for trade’ led both to people’s needs being neglected and to ecological upsets. She envisaged a world of relatively small-scale and more or less self-sufficient, democratically-organised moneyless communities, where households would be asked what their needs were going to be over a given period and then the community would organise itself to produce or acquire what was required, with people being able to access them without having to pay.

The right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips came up with the original objection that this was against human nature: it wouldn’t work because humans were naturally greedy and aggressive. Spiked editor Ella Whelan meanwhile denounced Nelson’s proposal rather unfairly as ‘austerity’ and ‘middle class miserabilism’ which the working class would never accept.

That was the problem. All those taking part seemed only to envisage a moneyless society as existing in small-scale communities, not even at national let alone world level. In some ways though, Nelson was on the right track. Organising production and distribution without money is essentially a question of assessing needs and then organising to produce to meet them. Given the level of development attained by the forces of production, this is only possible today on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources.

Next article: Bird’s Eye View – Marxism without myth ⮞

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