Anthropologists and sociologists have long rejected the impersonal model of money and markets offered by mainstream economics. Viviana Zelizer, for example, shows in The Social Meaning of Money that people refuse to treat the cash in their possession as an undifferentiated thing, choosing rather to ‘earmark’ it — reserving some for food bills, some as holiday savings and so on. Her examples generally come from areas that remain invisible to the economists’ gaze, especially domestic life. People everywhere personalize money, bending it to their own purposes through a variety of social instruments. This was the message too of Parry and Bloch’s Money and the morality of exchange. When money and markets are understood exclusively through impersonal models, awareness of this neglected dimension is surely significant. But the economy exists at more inclusive levels than the person, the family or local groups. This is made possible by the impersonality of money and markets, where economists remain largely unchallenged. Money, much as Durkheim argued for religion, is the principal means for us all to bridge the gap between everyday personal experience and a society whose wider reaches are impersonal.
Money is often portrayed as a lifeless object separated from persons, whereas it is a creation of human beings, imbued with the collective spirit of the living and the dead. Money, as a token of society, must be impersonal in order to connect individuals to the universe of relations to which they belong. But people make everything personal, including their relations with society. This two-sided relationship is universal, but its incidence is highly variable. Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control (the market). Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside (home). This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves every day, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between their own subjectivity and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society. It is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful.
The two great means of communication are language and money. Anthropologists have paid much attention to the first, which divides us more than it brings us together, but not to money whose potential for universal communication is more reliable, in addition to its well-advertised ability to symbolize differences between us. As a symbolic medium of communication, money informs our subjectivity and gives concrete expression to our desires, releasing and fixing our imagination in many ways. It is a store of individual and collective memory, the stuff linking persons to their communities.
‘Just as my thoughts must take the form of a universally understood language so that I can attain my practical ends in this roundabout way, so must my activities and possessions take the form of money value in order to serve my more remote purposes. Money is the purest form of the tool (…); it is an institution through which the individual concentrates his activity and possessions in order to attain goals that he could not attain directly.’ Simmel The Philosophy of Money
Indeed, as Marx argued, money is a means of communication so powerful that we often ascribe human or quasi-divine agency to it and what it buys. In some ways, Money is the God of capitalism and most of the inmates are believers. [...]
Oswald Spengler on money and number
In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler emphasized the part played by money and number in the history of Western European civilization and its North American offshoot. The first idea I draw from him is that money is just one of several abstract universals of which number, time and space may be more relevant than language. The second is that, for all their apparent universality, these should be approached as cultural particulars with their own historical patterns of growth and decline. Third, world history in our period has been dominated by the West owing to its adoption of a specific form of economic life, based on money and machines, that normally goes by the name of ‘capitalism’. Fourth, rather than adopt a timeless form of words for what interests us today, we should embrace the dialectic of ‘becoming and become’, in order to understand both the immanent direction of our present circumstances (history) and their finitude as the residue of what has already happened, the past (nature). So, finally, the question of money’s power is historically and geographically relative: we need to attend to the relationship between measurement of money as something perceptible to the senses (magnitude) and money as a category of thought expressed intangibly as abstract relations (function).
According to Spengler, the West had exhausted the historical impulse given by its modern version of economic life (featuring money and machines) and a new phase, based on politics, national religion and war, was about to take over. This was not a bad prediction, but Spengler’s interest for us lies in how he conceived of the relationship between money and other universals. Following Goethe, Spengler made a contrast between history (becoming) and nature (what has become). The counterpart of longing, of the desire to move forward that is becoming, is the dread of having become, of finality or death; and this pair together drive cultural creativity.
‘Life, perpetually fulfilling itself as an element of becoming, is what we call ‘the present’, and it possesses that mysterious property of ‘direction’, which men have tried to rationalize by means of the enigmatic word ‘time’.’ [...]
The Apollonian idea of money as magnitude (which is classical) and the Faustian conception of money as function are opposites. ‘Classical man saw the world surrounding him as a sum of bodies; money is also a body’ (talents, coins). [...]
Spengler concludes with a prophecy that the world of money and machine-industry will be overthrown by ‘blood’ as the dominant life-principle; and at this point we leave him. But his framework contains much of value for an analysis of the conscious and unconscious influence of money on our actions today. [...]
Money is the ocean we swim in these days. Despite or because of this, its role in human affairs continues to be demonized and the attempt to return it to the marginal role it was confined to in agrarian civilizations always finds a ready audience. Money surely generates value and significance in human interactions as much as it erodes it. It is a symbol of our relationship as an individual person to society (hitherto more often singular than plural). This relationship may be conceived of as a durable ground on which to stand, anchoring identity in a collective memory whose concrete symbol is money. Or it may be viewed as the outcome of a more creative process in which we each generate the personal credit linking us to society. The potential for shifting meanings, identities and memories lies in the reflexivity of money and language. This latter outlook, however, requires us to abandon the notion that society rests on abstract grounds that are more solid than the transient exchanges we participate in. Few people at present are prepared to take that step, preferring to receive the money they live by, rather than make it. When the meaning of money is seen to be what each of us makes of it, we may be less inclined to think of Money as the somewhat archaic God of capitalism that it has become. Paper presented at the workshop ‘On either side of the economic science of money’, Université de Paris X, Nanterre, 18-19th September 2009