Before Christmas, I made it a priority to read and occasionally join in the conversation at Tara Gentile and Adam King‘s project, Reclaiming Wealth. It’s an innovative blog which aims to collectively think in new ways about wealth, fundamentally redefining it in healthy ways.
One of Tara’s questions which really struck me was “How have you challenged yourself to perceive wealth recently?” My immediate answer was, “By starting to unhook my perception of money from my perception of global capitalism.”
I’ve always known and experienced that wealth is more than money, but I’ve never really allowed myself to know or experience that wealth can also be money. My whole life, I’ve held a very deeply seated belief that money is dirty, that it makes me implicit in the unjust and oppressive system of global capitalism that has children working in sweatshops, and corporations and governments in cahoots to murder activists for people and planet such as Ken Saro–Wiwa.
But is that belief fair? After all, I’m implicated in all of that just by being alive, and being born and raised in the UK, with its colonial and imperial history and its role in the first seeding of global capitalism. How much or how little money I have or make doesn’t affect that implicit responsibility one way or the other.
And it isn’t really money that does all of that. Money is neutral. Saying that all of that bad stuff is down to money is like saying that a slashed throat is down to the knife, not to the hand that wielded it.
To look deeper into this, I’ve turned to two European Sociological Superheroes: Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim.
Say hi to Marx.
Yes, that Marx; the one behind Communism.
One of Marx’s fundamental propositions in Das Capital is that money alienates value. What that means is that it enables a product or a service to be separated out from the person who made it or who provides it.
Marx’s idea, prompted in part by the work of Bronisław Malinowski and of Marcel Mauss, was that before money, in a gift or a barter economy, a person and their ‘stuff’ could not be conceptually separated. Part of the person’s energy, soul or spirit was always perceived to remain attached to their product or service. In this way, the product or service never fully belonged to the person who it ended up with, but remained part of an ongoing relationship.
Money, on the other hand, breaks the conceptual link between a person and their ‘stuff’. It alienates it, and the value bound up in it, from its originator, allowing it to circulate freely as a commodity.
This has its downside.
First of all, the relationship in an exchange in which value is alienated is short-lived. This can mean that, at a fundamental level, in a money economy society supports the economy but the economy does not support society. (Although I’m getting on to a counter-argument to that in just a moment.)
Secondly, money becomes fetishised. Instead of being seen as a tool to enable circulation of commodities, it becomes a thing in itself, something to be gathered and horded.
Finally, when a group of people has power, they can set the money price of labour value – the work that goes into producing the thing, i.e. the wages of the production workers – as low as they like, and the exchange value – the product’s sale price – as high as consumers will tolerate, and make Huge Profits at the expense of workers and consumers alike.
But, if we listen to Durkheim, money also has its up side
Émile Durkheim pretty much single-handedly invented the discipline of sociology (but let’s not hold that against him 😉 ). One of his most significant concepts is that of the division of labour.
At its simplest, this is a recognition that as societies develop, people become more specialised in their work: some people grow food, others make farming implements, others are blacksmiths, etc., etc. The more complex the society, the more specialised and diverse the work, and the more divided the labour.
To add Marx and Durkheim together, in order to have the level of division of labour that we see today, a means of exchange is necessary, and that means of exchange is money. And money can do this job precisely because it alienates value. Money allows widespread exchange, and thus the division of labour. And money was around an awfully long time before global capitalism ever came along.
Now, personally I like not having to grow all my own food from scratch, not having to spin and weave my own fabric, not having to do absolutely everything. I like being able to focus on work that makes my heart sing and suits my health and my aptitudes, and money is what allows that to happen.
This speaks to Danielle Laporte’s Burning Question this week: “What’s your purpose for money?”
My purpose for money is for the economy to get sexy.
Money allows exchange to happen. You know what else is an exchange? Sex. And we all know what makes for good sex (I mean in addition to great communication and ongoing negotiation of consent): plenty of lube. What if we look at economic exchange as a kind of erotic exchange, with money as the lubricant?
(Or if you’re uncomfortable with the sexual metaphor, how about your economic life as an engine? Lubricant means you can keep functioning happily without jamming up, wearing out or breaking down.)
We don’t keep lubricant in the bank, we don’t horde it to make ourselves feel safer, or to wield power over others. The very idea is silly. The purpose of lubricant is to make things slide, to make things easy and smooth when we get down and dirty, running our engines, and we only keep enough around so that we can make sure that happens well.
The purpose of lubricant is in its use, and so is the purpose of money.
I would love to move forward to a world in which we could maintain our complex division of labour without money and our tendency to horde it, a world in which we live in full trust that when we need food, or our fence mended, or our health cared for, or when we want to be entertained, or to travel the world, or a new pair of sassy boots, someone will provide that, just as we make our skills and aptitudes freely available to our neighbours.
But until that time comes, one of my goals is now to earn, and to earn well, doing something I love. Not so I can horde money and keep it all to myself, but so I can use money to make things happen in my life and in the wider world that accord with my values: things like paying off my debts; things like paying more tax (yes, you heard me, more tax) so that the health and education systems can thrive; things like always buying organic, local and Fairtrade; things like transferring all of my economic activity to small businesses and mutuals; things like expressing my solidarity globally through Kiva and Triodos Bank. Things like that.
How about you? What is money for you? How do you see its purpose?