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The role of money in a human economy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
12th November 2012


Money has a role in a post-capitalist society.

Excerpted from Keith Hart:

“To call the economy ‘human’ is to insist on putting people first, making their thoughts, actions and lives our main concern. Such a focus should also be pragmatic: making economy personally meaningful to students or readers, relating it to ordinary people’s practical purposes. ‘Humanity’ is a moral quality, implying that, if we want to be good, we should treat other persons, people like ourselves, kindly. Since theoretical abstraction is impersonal and leaves no room for morality, a human economy would have to pay attention to the personal realm of experience; but it would be a mistake to leave it there. Humanity is also a collective noun, meaning all the people who have existed or ever will. So the human economy is inclusive, in the sense reinforced by our contemporary witness to the formation of the new human universal that is world society.

Anthropologists and sociologists have long rejected the impersonal model of money and markets offered by mainstream economics. Viviana Zelizer (1994), for example, shows 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 Money and the morality of exchange (Parry and Bloch 1989). 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 (1912) 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 (Hart 2007b). 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.

Money thus expands the capacity of individuals to stabilize their personal identity by holding something durable that embodies the desires and wealth of all the other members of society. Money is a ‘memory bank’ (Hart 2000), a store allowing individuals to keep track of those exchanges they wish to calculate and, beyond that, a source of economic memory for the community. The modern system of money provides people with a wide repertoire of instruments to keep track of their exchanges with the world and to calculate the current balance of their worth in the community. In this sense, one of money’s chief functions is remembering. If the proliferation of personal credit today could be seen as a step towards greater humanism in economy, this also entails increased dependence on impersonal governments and corporations, on impersonal abstraction of the sort associated with computing operations and on impersonal standards and social guarantees for contractual exchange. If persons are to make a comeback in the post-modern economy, it will be less on a face-to-face basis than as bits on a screen who sometimes materialize as living people in the present. We may become less weighed down by money as an objective force, more open to the idea that it is a way of keeping track of complex social networks that we each generate. Then money could take a variety of forms compatible with both personal agency and human interdependence at every level from the local to the global.

The reality of markets is not just universal abstraction, but this mutual determination of the abstract and the concrete (Hart 2007b). If you have some money, there is almost no limit to what you can do with it, but, as soon as you buy something, the act of payment lends concrete finality to your choice. Money’s significance thus lies in the synthesis it promotes of impersonal abstraction and personal meaning, objectification and subjectivity, analytical reason and synthetic narrative. Its social power comes from the fluency of its mediation between infinite potential and finite determination. To turn our backs on markets and money in the name of collective as opposed to individual interests reproduces by negation the bourgeois separation of self and society. It is not enough to emphasize the controls that people already impose on money and exchange as part of their personal practice. That is the everyday world as most of us know it. We also need ways of reaching the parts of the macro-economy that we don’t know, if we wish to avert the ruin they could bring down on us all. Perhaps this was what Simmel (1900) had in mind when he said that money is the concrete symbol of our human potential to make universal society.

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. We cannot afford to neglect money’s potential for universal connection, choosing rather to demonize it as the source of our vulnerability to people with a lot more of it. It is high time for anthropologists to return to an earlier philosophical tradition, building on Kant’s (2006) example, but also on the early twentieth-century neo-Kantianism of Durkheim (1912), Mauss (1924) and Simmel (1900). I have been driven to this conclusion by studying how money and markets extend society at our moment in history. This constitutes the most tangible manifestation of the new human universal that is our shared occupation of the planet.”

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