The Trouble With Money
January 24, 2014 § 18 Comments
Rolling Stone recently published a piece titled, “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For,” which was apparently written by a “veteran” of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Jesse Myerson. The quality of the writing is low, in that the voice of the piece sounds like a character out of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The author describes everything negative about society using the choice phrase that these things, “Blow.” Of course, Rolling Stone is probably trying to appeal to young people in the hackneyed way that media outlets usually do, assuming that everyone between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are perpetually stoned and that they have never read a book voluntarily in their lives.
Despite the tone and vernacular of Myerson’s piece, there are concepts within it that are worth discussing. What Myerson does offer are these reforms:
1. Guaranteed Work for Everybody
2. Social Security for All
3. Take Back The Land
4. Make Everything Owned by Everybody
5. A Public Bank in Every State
I’d like to examine the first two of these concepts, but must start by noting that if these reforms are to be taken seriously, then we must start by accepting a handful of premises. The most obvious is that by implementing such notions as policy, we would be maintaining a large megalithic social organism, i.e. the nation state. With this nation state, we would also be preserving a hierarchical structure of rule, and a money economy complete with private property and banking. Deep green anarchists like myself are primarily concerned with industrial civilization’s strangling of the biosphere, so we don’t roll through life assuming that such institutions now and forever will be in place. However most people in our culture assume that institutions and social concepts like money, property, banking, and nation states are more immutable and more important to human life than the world of plants, fungi, insects, and animals despite humans relying upon these neighbors for the basic sustenance of life, but I digress.
Partly due to the horrid nature of Myerson’s writing, and partly due to the seeming influence of communism in his proposals, his editorial is garnering a bit of attention, primarily in conservative outlets that are looking for easy intellectual prey. It’s easy to debunk poorly articulated concepts, and it’s easy to then use this debunking as proof that your own concepts are thus well heeled and reasonable.
The rabbled response to Myerson’s five suggestions has drawn forth much defense of the status quo. Defenders of money economies usually speak of money from one angle, as a reward for work done. Their reasoning goes, that If a person doesn’t have enough money, it is their own fault for not having worked enough or for not having any particularly in-demand skills. Their reasoning also implies the inverse, that people who have plenty of money do so because they have done much work to achieve it, or that they are particularly skilled or ingenious in some capacity which society demands.
When money is viewed through this lens, it is presumed to be innocuous in and of itself. It’s merely a token, a chit for hours or labor put in. This view removes money from the context of the society in which it is used. It is ignoring the context of the social arrangements which make money a survival requirement, and also ignores the power dynamics that are born between individuals within money economies. When viewed with a wider lens which incorporates social context, it cannot be denied that money gives one the power to buy another’s labor. Money gives one the power to buy another’s time, power to buy their bodies, their minds and even, the power to buy their souls. Money is also the power to deprive others of land, of resources, and of autonomy. Point blank, money is power over other human beings.
There is a general attitude that capitalism is democratic, that it’s implementation was agreed upon by all as “for the best,” and even that we are all daily consenting to leave capitalism in place as our economic architecture. When describing the condition of a particular individual or set of individuals as either wealthy or poor, their life choices are often invoked to explain their financial standing. Consistently ignored is the fact that the overarching paradigm of the economy was not selected by the individual. We all don’t elect to “play the game” of capitalism. It’s thrust upon us from birth by those who have already entrenched their wealth and power. The language of capitalism’s defenders also creates a false equivalency between man made conditions and our natural state. To them, failing at capitalism is spoken of as if he who fails is a “loser,” and social Darwinism is invoked giving the impression that the poor, due to their own deficiencies, essentially don’t deserve to survive. The language used by capitalism’s defenders makes their position clear; they do not believe that poverty is a component of a system created and perpetuated by humans with conditions that make “success” extremely difficult for some and a guarantee for others. Capitalism’s defenders speak as if the economic system is as natural as the jet stream or the seasons.
This thinking is of course, ludicrous. It is insane to use the language of natural selection to describe economic failure or success despite the stark contrast between nature and the man made social paradigm in which individuals are forced to acquire money to survive. Such an inference is not only absurd, it’s an intentional obfuscation of what poverty and even wealth, are. If money is power over other human beings, wealth is access and domination while poverty is deprivation and powerlessness.
We cannot examine money, as defenders of the status-quo do, by merely looking at it as a reward for work done. We must also see the social reality by which people must acquire money to survive. Requiring money is not a natural condition. Requiring food or shelter are natural conditions, sure, but requiring the acquisition of a man made currency is a social construct. Money is a middle-man, if you will, between people and their needs. And here the picture starts to emerge; humans are made to need money by other humans in order to attain their needs, and the primary way of attaining money is as a reward for labor. Who benefits from this system? Who is the primary recipient of the labor of the masses? Who seems to be doing very little in the way of labor, yet are having not only their needs met, but surplus wealth with which to consume to excess?
If we are exploring what money is, we must investigate how it is that humans in modern societies require money. There is a quaint and conventional understanding that money is merely a tool that replaced barter, making trade more efficient. It is assumed then, that before money, humans met their needs via trade. This myth was shattered one hundred years ago in the work of Alred Mitchell-Innes which David Graeber invokes in his work, Debt: The First 5000 Years. In his book, Graeber states:
“We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when they for one reason or another have no access to currency.”
Though money is seen in ancient Sumer as a method of accounting for the rations available in the great temples, it was not used for exchange. Money as coinage is a product of hierarchical social arrangements in which the leaders of a society pay soldiers with to protect their rule and expand their empires. Graeber:
“Say a king wishes to support a standing army of 50,000 men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem… On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you [to pay taxes], one would, in one blow, turn one’s entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with the things they want.”
This is all to say, money wasn’t an invention created to make survival easier for the masses, but to make hierarchical and state structures more secure and immutable.
In this culture, we have no common space where we can live without paying a sum of money. We also must pay for food, which is a situation caused by the fact that land is all privately owned or state held. This paradigm of restrictions, of deprivations by owners of non-owners creates a dependency of non-owners upon owners. I covered this in my essay, Privare. Non-owners cannot grow or wild harvest food, they cannot just build a small shelter to live in. As long as this paradigm is in place, every new human born (to a non-owner) in this culture is necessarily immediately in debt. This condition is not natural or accidental. It was intentionally created by elites via primitive accumulation and enclosure of the commons. In essence, those with power and wealth took control of all lands where free peasants lived, exploited the land for materials for industry, passed laws to prevent survival by gathering from the wild, and created social conditions in which the only manner in which it was legal for one to gain sustenance was by first working for wages which could then be used to buy food and other goods.
Those who refused were often cast as criminal beggars by legal edicts. Howard Zinn writes of this in his seminal work, “A People’s History of the United States.” Zinn writes:
“In England, the development of commerce and capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s, the enclosing of land for the production of wool, filled the cities with vagrant poor, and from the reign of Elizabeth on, laws were passed to punish them, imprison them in workhouses, or exile them. The Elizabethan definition of “rogues and vagabonds” included:
… All persons calling themselves Schollers going about begging, all Seafaring men pretending losses of their Shippes or goods on the sea going about the Country begging, all idle persons going about in any Country either begging or using any subtile crafte or unlawful Games … comon Players of Interludes and Minstrells wandring abroade … all wandering persons and comon Labourers being persons able in bodye using loytering and refusing to worke for such reasonable wages as is taxed or commonly given….
Such persons found begging could be stripped to the waist and whipped bloody, could be sent out of the city, sent to workhouses, or transported out of the country.”
This set of conditions allowing for only one legal means of attaining survival is still in place today. The wild has been devastated by ownership and economic “progress”. The closest one can come to “opting out” of participation in the money economy is either to buy enough land on which to attempt self sufficiency, or to live a houseless life dependent upon the excesses and waste of capitalism, e.g. dumspter diving. The former option still requires participation in the money economy in order to acquire the money with which to buy land, and at some level requires continued participation in order to pay property taxes. This option is also primarily individualistic while sustenance living is more practical as a communal activity. It is also unrealistic as an option for the majority of the poor. The second option is only quasi legal, as there still exist laws concerning loitering, vagrancy, trespassing, curfew, etc. By and large, the architecture of society forces participation in the money economy. The controllers of money, the wealthy, those who work in high finance, and politicians know this all too well. They understand there is a subjugation of the poor to the wealthy, and they very much intend to maintain this subjugation because they benefit so greatly from it. By depriving the majority of humans of access to the basic needs of survival, the wealthy “owner” class can make demands of the non-owners and confiscate the surpluses created by their labor.
To be sure, this arrangement was not invented with capitalism, merely refined and perfected. Humans can create a surplus of food using agricultural techniques, and the history of civilization is essentially the history of one set of humans finding ways to manipulate other sets into laboring. This first set can strip the second set of the surpluses they generate, and thus live toil free themselves. This is our society in nutshell, but it is packaged in flowery language, titles, laws, and many other forms of pomp used to legitimize the acquisition of these surpluses by non-laboring owners. Money is just some of this pomp. Money is a magicians trick used to convince the masses that their perpetual labor is owed to the perpetually non-laboring wealthy. With a wave of their wand and some academic babble, exploitation becomes merely, “the economy.”
When understood from this angle, a society based on the deprivation of the masses and inequity of the relations between the owner and the non-owner classes can never be truly equal or free.
Returning to Myerson’s piece, I would like to meditate on his second suggestion, “Social Security for All,” and his mention of a universal basic income for all citizens. This is a concept that has been making its rounds in various online discussions lately. I do think there is a kernel of merit contained within this suggestion. If the hierarchy of wealth begins between the owners of land (as well as the means of production) then some sort of distribution of sustenance income could begin to even the playing field. Land being the source of both home and food, and most people being deprived of free access to land, a basic income with which to afford a reasonable home and diet removes the immediate debt non-owners are born holding to owners. This is to say, that if a person is not even given the opportunity to build a home or raise their own food as any human would be devoid of the current set of social arrangements, then at least giving them the money to acquire these things could be said to mitigate this deprivation.
Defenders of the status-quo will of course, find this idea foolish because they see money only as a reward for work done. Their reasoning will be that people who have done no work should receive no reward. These defenders are failing to acknowledge the totality of what money represents, as well as where both money and wealth originate.
I wouldn’t say this basic income idea is one that I necessarily support, because I do not support the overall set of social arrangements which the basic income concept seeks to make more equitable. However I do think it’s an idea worth exploring conceptually as it reinforces the folly of money economies. If everyone is given a sum of money with which they can afford modest housing and a healthy diet, one of the first consequences of such a distribution would be for a large portion of people to quit their jobs. As it stands now, people must go to a person with capital and fall into their employment in order to attain money. This means that at some level, those with the most capital control the majority of society and what it produces and in which sectors the most work is done. Capitalist “investors” disproportionately control the momentum and direction of society. For instance, if an investor owns shares in petroleum extraction companies, they have little incentive to invest in any competing energy source until they have maximized profits from their petroleum investment. They will also dedicate a mathematically reasonable amount of money into preventing others from destroying the value of their in-the-ground petroleum assets, be this through political manipulation, corporate buy outs, etc. By holding the majority of the available money, the wealthy have the ability to steer both industry and the government. The sheer weight of their wealth outflanks even the combined wealth of so many poor, that even a union of the poor is unlikely to be able to shift society in a direction which benefits them.
It is kind of difficult to examine money without investigating where money comes from in the modern sense. Money in modern economies is loaned into existence, either by the central bank or smaller banks. The numbers in accounts, whether digital or annotated in paper ledgers, spring forth in the form of loans. That’s it. Reserve requirements exist to limit the amount of loans lower banks can make, but even these rules are easily circumnavigated. Central banks are limited in money creation by policy only, which boils down to their own fears of ruining the good thing they have going by opening the spigot too much or too little. The flip side of this is that loans need to be paid back with money acquired through labor. This is truly a con game, in that those closest to the control mechanism of money creation are in a position where for themselves, the social requirement to buy one’s life through money acquisition is essentially negated. A quote from Mayer Amschel Bauer Rothschild comes to mind.
“Give me control of a nation’s money and I care not who makes it’s laws.”
Many of the wealthy have learned how to game the capitalist system through participation in the machinations of finance. By manipulating numbers and laws, they have generated for themselves in some cases more money than can be spent. Combined with the corruption of usury (interest) the wealthy literally get paid just for having money, whereas the poor are told they owe the rich for not having enough. For the wealthy, this is essentially ultimate power. They can buy the time, labor, influence, and lives of virtually anyone. They can buy absurd land holdings so large they could not conceivably walk them. Despite the obvious system rigging evident in how the wealthy become and stay rich, defenders of money systems still convince themselves that the wealthy have earned their money through reward for work done.
The last conflict presented by money that I would like to address is that money as it currently functions, can be used as universal value conversion unit. Combine this fact with the fact that modern people must acquire money in order to exist, and the result is that they will destroy anything of perceived value in order to stay alive. Examples are tragically bountiful. In West Virginia, mountains are strip mined layer by layer for the coal they contain. The land base is irrevocably altered and the human communities surrounding this ecocide suffer many maladies including high incidence of brain cancer. It would seem strange to us then, that so many residents of these mining regions in West Virginia defend the mining industry and the corporations that are destroying the region, killing the wildlife, and immiserating the people. The defense always boils down to a word; Jobs. We hear it again and again in any environmental struggle. Jobs are prioritized over everyone and everything. This is of course because of the money requirement placed on non-owners by the owner class. Without money, these people will be thrown out of their homes and starved. They must work for money and the only option given to them is to destroy their landbase and their bodies mining coal. The more they mine for coal, the more the health of their ecosystem is diminished, making it more and more impossible to survive off of the land instead of the economy.
It is this cycle which has placed a price tag around the neck of every living being on Earth. People need forests, but people think they need money more, so out with the chainsaws and feller-bunchers. People need oceans, but they think they need money more, so out with the fishing trawlers which drag nets so large a 747 could fly into one. People need bees and other pollinators, but they think they need money more, so out with the neonicotinoid insecticides. It could be a rhino’s horn or a child sex slave, everything is convertible into money, and thus we are all at risk of being thrown into the hopper so someone else can squeeze out the dime they have been made to need by a completely imaginary set of social conditions.
As long as we exist within the confines of the capitalist paradigm, we will owe our lives to the controllers of capital. We will buy our survival day by day via the bending of our backs. Capital will accumulate, poverty will grow, and the natural world will be converted into an arid waste dump as we watch powerless to help. Mike Ruppert has presciently said, “We will change nothing until we change how money works.” When we understand that money came into being as a direct accounting of social debts community members had to one and other and to the whole, and has now morphed into the relation itself between people, it becomes clear that money is power over others, and that the accumulation of money establishes non-negotiable power dynamics in which those with large sums of wealth can subjugate those without. If we seek to interact with one and other horizontally and to destabilize the current pyramid of power, we must take the power out of money. There are likely several theories on how this can be done, and reforms such as those presented by Myerson are too little too late. We need to abolish money altogether, and we need to abolish monoculture and industrialism along with it.
The question is can we achieve this actively, or must cataclysm do the heavy lifting for us?