I was caught up in the financial market turmoil some year ago – well since before the ‘credit crunch’ bankrupted Northern Rock as an independent financial institution. With the demise of Lehman Brothers, the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds TSB, and AIG on the brink, I thought I’d give the matter some thought. As a rationalist, these events have spurred me to find out whether it is the possession and exercise of such immense wealth and instruments of financial leverage that drive the world, or whether it is anything more. If it is just money that drives politics and world order, then we really are in trouble- not least because there are seismic changes in the characteristics of those who hold the levers of ‘money’. Most of our politicians are complicit in such changes and guilty of yielding to those with such intruments irrespective of ideology or moral fibre. It is almost impossible to be elected to many high offices unless one has such wealthy benefactors and bankers.
Let me start off with a paper that I was reading recently from Ethical Politics by Anitra Nelson that I think hit the ‘nail on the head’ in so many ways. For me, it compounds my view that absolute values have no place in a modern liberal democracy:
“The root of all evil” is the title Alan Macfarlane gives to a brief discussion of the social effect of money in a collection of articles on The Anthropology of Evil (Parkin, ed., 1985). Here Macfarlane briefly explores the basis of the idea that money is evil. He points to the obvious connection between money and evil demonstrated in the greed, consumerism and profiteering characteristic of capitalism. “Yet money, and all it symbolizes, is the root of all evil in a deeper sense than this,” writes Macfarlane. And he (71-2) elaborates:
“Viewed from outside the system, money can be seen to do something even more insidious. It subtly eliminates the very concept of evil. Or, rather, it makes it impossible to discriminate between good and evil…’Money’, which is a short-hand way of saying capitalistic relations, market values, trade and exchange, ushers in a world of moral confusion. This effect of money has been most obvious where a capitalistic, monetary economy has clashed with another, opposed, system. Thus it is anthropologists, who have…noted how money disrupts the moral as well as the economic world. As Burridge, for example, writes of the effect of money in Melanesia: money complicates the moral order, turning what was formerly black and white into greyness. Money, he argues, ‘…invites a complex differentiation and multiplication of the parts and qualities of man’ (Burridge 1969:45). More broadly, it is money, markets and market capitalism that eliminate absolute moralities. Not only is every moral system throughout the world equally valid, as Pascual noted, but, within every system, whatever is, is right.
I present this quote because I believe it raises an issue that is at the heart of the problem of Ethical Politics… In particular I worry about the political implications of accepting the labour theory of value. This is where I return to the Macfarlane quote, to Ethical Politics and money. The labour theory of value suggests that monetary exchange is rational in terms of socially necessary labour time. That implies an exchange of labour and the products necessary to sustain that labour giving the capitalist system rationality that I don’t believe it embodies. A bun fight theory of exchange might appear to be no theory at all, but war is war. Why is market exchange necessarily any more rational than gift exchange, love or war? Its quasi-mathematical appearance, made possible by the use of money, is a primary deception.
If the labour theory of value was correct monetary exchange might remain a useful technique to use in the transitional stage to socialism. Marx regards dispensing with the state and money as essential. But, in the same way as taking over the state was a new stage in the proletarian revolution, some have argued that monetary exchange can be adapted to socialist ends, at least temporarily. The communist experiments of the twentieth century in Russia and Cuba grappled with the difficulties of monetary exchange but never overcame them (Nelson, 2001). Especially in his early works Marx castigated the utopian socialist for their confidence in the manipulation of money to eliminate exploitation. Even though he designed his theories as a critique of their, as he saw it, muddleheaded proposals for reform, the labour theory of value has given solace to reformers following their tradition. In fact money seems to be a veil for social war; money is a weapon (Cleaver, 1979).
… I have access to certain natural resources. I have some knowledge of the potential and limitations of local human and non human resources. I have mouths to feed, generations to nurture, civilisations to reproduce culturally, socially and materially. I don’t need money to evaluate these human and non human resources. I don’t need money to distribute these human and non human resources. I do not need money to (re)produce these human and non human resources. I do need commonly agreed upon social principles and processes to assess the utility of these human and non human resources, to organise the reproduction of them and to distribute them. Our job, the job of ethical politicians today, is to design non monetary forms of appropriation and distribution of material and non material resources. I believe that this will constitute the basis of a truly postmodern society featuring ecologically sustainable behaviour (ESB) and social justice. A society without myths associated with modern society regarding money. The ethical politics of a post economic universe must feature substantive grassroots democracy and ESB. There will be no pretence at neutrality but rather a conscious and conscientious effort to create a balance within and between the fulfillment of the various needs and wants of all the contenders for existence. We want a world where people deal with people and non human nature directly and collectively and care.
Bellofiore, Riccardo, “Marx after Schumpeter”, Capital and Class, # 24, Winter 1985: 60-74.
Bellofiore, Riccardo, (Ed.), Marxian Economics, a Reappraisal, Volumes I and II, London/New York, Macmillan Press/St Martin’s Press, 1998.
Cleaver, Harry, Reading Capital Politically, Brighton (Sussex), The Harvester Press, 1979.
Macfarlane, Alan, “The root of all evil”. In Parkin, David (ed.) The Anthropology of Evil, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985: 57-76.
Nelson, Anitra, Marx’s Concept of Money: the God of Commodities, Routledge, London, 1999.
Nelson, Anitra, “The poverty of money: Marxian insights for ecological economists”, Ecological Economics, March 2001: 499-511.