Not the way we usually think about it. Like campaign money, lobby money, ad money, etc. The election is boiling down to a debate about money. How much money should the government spend, where should they spend it, and how the government taxes “our” money.
Of course neither party is talking much about money spent on war; and there are good (pragmatic) reasons for that.
War is currently the best of several bad options for the United States (speaking here of the nation-state and its “interests”). War simultaneously accomplishes “politics by other means” against other nation-states and non-state formations, and it is embedded in the economy in such a way that it serves as a surrogate export market as the US exsanguinates the last drops of its former non-war industries into distant maquilas. People can sell everything from fighter-bombers to frozen chicken to duct tape to angora goats to the Department of Defense, and they do.
Since war is a good option – from a strictly pragmatic perspective – then neither party will open real public criticism of war spending or the practice of war. These interests reach locally into individual communities in individual districts where this or that plant or this or that base circulates money through those local economies.
(Say what you want, ye moral paragons. Every time we drive or ride, we are doing so on a flow of oil which requires a half dozen naval battle groups to guarantee.)
These are relations of exchange and patronage; and while this is important, our topic today is money… itself. What is it? Neither party talks about that either; and with far better reasons than those they have for minimizing criticisms of war and war spending.
So what is money? What is this stuff we are all seeking, fighting about, hoarding, loving, and hating?
Not going down the road of past debates about gold standards or the way present-day banks and the government produce money. This is the minutiae of only the latter post-Enlightenment; and I just don’t agree with theories in which certain manipulations of money will teleport human society back into the Garden of Eden.
The reason I ask is that when people argue about whether to spend money on war or schools or surveillance technology or health insurance, and when people argue about “their” money, those wages and salaries and other personal remunerations called income, and they argue about taxes taking “my money,” none of these partisans ever takes the trouble to point out that the ability of money to do what it does is extremely contingent. It can gain and lose value, or be swallowed into black holes like the Wall Street bailout; and most of us – the overwhelming majority – have neither the knowledge of the system nor the authority – even when acting collectively – to protect, stabilize, or otherwise control the value of money when monetary crises emerge.
And they do.
And one has.
And they will again.
And neither those who want more bombers nor those who want universal health care are talking about this. Because thinking about money more deeply than mine-and-yours confronts them… us… with a crisis of faith.
In a world where production is far-flung and diffuse, and where consumption remains inevitably local, most of us no longer understand the specifics of how all those things get done that more or less stabilize our society. We assume that certain critically placed people with grave but obscure responsibilities are doing their jobs. These people are called “Them”… or “They.”
They and what They do is unknowable; therefore our belief in Them is predicated not on evidence, but faith. That’s no indictment. I am a Christian, so faith for me is not somehow the opposite of reason. I do however, believe that faith can be misplaced.
In this case, the crucial article of faith is that there is some firm and immovable ground upon which both money and politics rest. (Let’s not pretend they can be separated. The modern nation-state is a direct outgrowth of the monetization of economy, and the captains of the state are produced or selected by haute finance.)
It is far from clear that we can assume that our money now will hold its value… even in the near term. I can pretty confidently predict that US money will crash or phase out at some point in the future. There is no ground. It’s an agreement, and if the perceptions of a currency change (look now to Europe), an essence called “value” disappears into a gaping omniverse of nothingness.
What was once shells or red ochre became gold and silver, became IOUs, became paper, became digitalized. Money.
Money requires an agreement between people that it has value. That value corresponds to things-for-sale as prices. One medium for many things and so value is divorced from things we use. Value can fly around in pieces as a pure substance alienated from actual things. Flying value. As long as we all agree to recognize it as a valid carrier of disembodied value.
But money is something else, too. Money is an entitlement. Modern economies have intentionally been created to make as many people possible as dependent as possible on money to survive. That means that those who have a lot of money can compel those with very little money to do things those with a lot of money don’t want to do. If I have the money, I am entitled to whatever it is you are selling – even your obedience (like in a job). Since most actual things for sale are products of both material (nature) and labor, then money becomes an entitlement to nature and labor. Those with more money have more entitlements to nature and labor.
This is a legal entitlement. Money is a legal entitlement; its status is afforded by the state. The state underwrites a single currency that can serve both as an exchange-value and as a means of collecting taxes. That’s what “legal tender” means that is printed on dollars. “This note is legal tender for all debts public and private.” (I love hearing people talk about how the government is taking away their money, when the money they are talking about is backstopped and maintained at some value through the heroic interventions of the state.)
Our generalized dependence on money means that we are exactly as vulnerable as money is. We cannot “ride out” a hypothetical and sudden devaluation of money (or, for that matter, free-falling prices). In earlier societies, there were various mixes of gift economy, direct barter and other reciprocal economies, redistributive economy, and market economy. Our current system is one where legal measures were taken by past leaders to stamp out those other forms of economy, allowing the market alone as an economic practice. With the suffocation of other forms of economy, money became ever more essential for basic necessities – while the profit motive moved and concentrated production further and further away from consumption.
The flying-value of money created poverty. Only in a society completely dependent upon money can the lack of money become a a crisis. A peasant without a job can grow something at least. A city-dweller finds food at outlets… for a price. Poverty is the flip side of great wealth. The flying-value of money allowed some people who were very “good with money” to accumulate more than they ever could without that particular kind of entitlement.
If money fails, we will not abandon ship en masse. If money fails, most of us are lashed to the ship.
But there is more to money than just our lack of resilience in the face of its power, or the way it lets a few people gain dominion over others by the trick of flying-value. Money is a corrosive that burns through the connective tissues of communities.
“Without general purpose money,” Alf Hornorg wrote, “people couldn’t trade tracts of rain forests for Coca-Cola.”
Just a couple of thoughts.