Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Is Money?

What is MONEY?

Thinking about money in this society is like being a fish wondering about the nature of water. We build our lives around money, we live money, we breathe money, we swim in it like fish in the sea. Millions of people spend (so to speak) 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year doing nothing but playing with money - printing it, minting it, counting it, recounting it, taking it from here, sending it there, juggling it, smuggling it... sitting in offices in huge buildings making phone calls and shuffling bits of paper, adding and re-adding endless columns of numbers to make sure that they come out exactly the same... yeah, but... "I don't know what money is today, and I don't think anybody at the Fed does either." -Richard Pratt, Chairman of the Board of the Federal Home Loan Bank, 1982.

Money is Inevitable: money is not an accident, neither was it the "invention" of some particularly progressive culture or clever individual. Money in various forms has arisen independently, in different ages and on every continent, wherever the local economy has evolved beyond the level of subsistence. Wherever there is surplus, trade inevitably follows, and primitive barter economies progress almost inevitably to money economies, as certain articles of recognized usefulness slowly come to symbolize wealth and are accepted at a fixed value. In an area where cattle are the common form of wealth, money is born when a cow comes to have the value of 1 cow, regardless of its size, weight, health, or other physical characteristics.

From there the process of abstraction continues: cattle come [to] be represented by tokens bearing pictures of cattle, the tokens evolve into coins symbolizing value in general, and on down to our own day where value is symbolized by marks on paper and the magnetic configurations of silicon wafers. And the inevitability of money is clear even in the present day. Wherever national governments have attempted to impose worthless currencies as the means of exchange, black markets dealing in "hard" currencies have arisen. This phenomenon perhaps reached the peak of absurdity in the 1970s in Communist Laos, where the official money of the country was the "kip", but the only money accepted by the Laotian government was the US dollar.

Money is Inequality: John Locke thought that money arose before society, and that by its use people have consented to class society: "it is plain, that Men have agreed to disproportionate and unequal possession of the Earth, they having by a tacit and voluntary consent found out a way, how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus, Gold and Silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one, these metals not spoiling or decaying in the hands of the possessor. This partage of things, in an inequality of private possessions, men have made practicable out of the bounds of Society, and without compact, only by putting a value on gold and silver and tacitly agreeing in the use of Money."

Georg Simmel, writing two hundred years later, was not nearly so naive about the nature of money and society. Simmel recognized that money is "entirely a social institution", and said that "when barter is replaced by money transactions, a third factor is introduced between the two parties: the community as a whole, which provides a real value corresponding to money." Those who become "rich" are those who manage to monopolize big chunks of the social wealth for their own ends. Far from being a tacit agreement, this is done despite the sometimes violent resistance of those whose share of the social wealth is being taken away.

The division of labor in society depends on a money economy, and so does capitalism. It's very hard to extract surplus value in a system based on barter exchange. The growth of the state has gone hand in hand with the growth of the money economy. The emerging nation-states imposed taxes payable only in money, replacing taxes payable in kind and driving more and more people into alienated labor and the money economy. Like S. Herbert Frankel says, "a trustworthy, disciplined monetary system is indispensable for the free unfolding of the extended division of labor on which the growth of world economies depends - a reliable standard in which long-term debts can be expressed is indispensable for the growth of capital."

So capitalists didn't invent money - but perhaps we can say that money invented capitalism. For once money has been born into the world it quickly begins to recreate the world in its own image.

Money Is Midas: like King Midas, money turns everything it touches to gold, or at least into commodities that can be exchanged for gold. Unique living beings become standardized things. "Trade is the reduction and quantification of the world to commodity equivalents, the leveller of quality, skill, and concrete labor to numerical units that can be measured by time and money, clocks and gold" -Murray Bookchin, author The Ecology of Freedom.

And as money itself becomes more abstract and divorced from concrete reality, so do the society and people that use it. As Simmel puts it, "the increasing replacement of metal money by paper money and the various forms of credit unavoidably react upon the character of money. In roughly the same way as in personal relations when somebody allows himself to be represented by others, so that finally he receives no greater esteem than is accorded his representatives. The idea that life is essentially based on intellect, and that intellect is accepted in practical life as the most valuable of our mental energies, goes hand in hand with the growth of a money economy."

Money Is What Money Does: featured on the back of the Swiss 1000 franc note, the highest valued item of currency in regular circulation in the world, is a figure of the Grim Reaper.

Money Is the Secret Name of All Things: in many ancient cultures, to know the name of something was to control it, to have power over it. In the Christian Bible, Adam is given authority over the animals of the world when God allows him to name them. In the underworld of the ancient Egyptians, the dead had to pass through a series of gates to reach the Kingdom of Osiris, the Land of the Blessed. The key to passing through each gate was to know the secret name of the gate and the secret name of the gatekeeper. Today everyone and everything has the same secret name: MONEY.

Money Is A Pyramid Scheme: it's highly appropriate that there's a picture of a pyramid on the back of the US dollar bill, because money is the original pyramid scheme. Here's how it works: you go to work to help make something for the boss. At the end of the week you get a few pieces of paper that are a promise that somebody else will give you some stuff you want. So you worked all week for the promise of a promise - but where did the boss get the money to pay you? Well, either he sold the stuff that you had already made for him (and pocketed his share), or he "borrowed" it. And where did this "borrowed" money come from? From a bank - and where did the bank get it? In small part from somebody like you, who had some money to save, who wanted to wait a while to cash in their promises. So the bank gives the money to the boss, who gives it back to you - and all this works just fine, most of the time. The only problem is when everyone wants to cash in their promises all at once and they find out there are more promises than stuff. Every pyramid scheme eventually crashes.

Money Is A Disease: a 1972 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found 21 different disease-causing microorganisms living on samples of paper money. 42% of the bills tested carried one or more of the pathogens.

Money Is Freedom, Money Is Slavery; Money Is Community, Money Is Alienation; Money Is A Paradox. What money gives on one level it takes away on another. Money frees us to realize our wildest desires - money is pure choice - but at the same time it binds us to a system of wage slavery in which we have to sell our time to survive. Money strengthens our connections to our fellow human by tying us into a system of production that makes us all mutually dependent - but at the same time it cheapens and destroys even the most intimate of our interpersonal relations by reducing them to the level of commodity exchanges.

Locke celebrated the fact that "money replaced the utter dependence on nature by a new dependence, a dependence on other individuals and on society." Locke looked forward to the promise of such freedom with an optimism that seems naive from our jaded 20th century perspective. As Frankel explains it: "today we have more freedom but are unable to enjoy it properly; money makes it possible to buy ourselves not only out of bonds with others but even out of bonds with our possessions. We develop a rootless search for ever new things because money is our only nexus with them. Money's abstract power to command anything ultimately seems to command nothing."

And again with the paradoxes: while money as an institution may threaten our freedom and our sanity, in the short run certain forms of money work greatly in our favor. In particular, banknotes and metal money are a protection against the people who want to monitor our every motion. Consider this serious proposal from a lawyer who had a friend whose wallet had just been ripped off: ABOLISH PAPER MONEY AND ELIMINATE MOST CRIME. Paper currency is the lifeblood of crime and corruption in the United States - without paper money it would be virtually impossible for criminals and corrupt officials to profit from illegal activities. If all substantial transfers of money were recorded in bank transactions, nobody could conduct profitable illegal activities without creating highly visible permanent evidence of the illegal activities or of income tax evasion or both. With the chances of profit from illegal activities so slim, it is difficult to visualize large numbers of persons running the risks of imprisonment. Crime
would be reduced dramatically to the point where today's police forces could effectively control it. Technology has advanced to the point that today there is a substitute for paper money: a "payment card" system keyed to bank accounts.

Each person wishing to spend money other than coins, which would remain in circulation, would be required to have a bank account. The bank or federal government would issue to each depositor a US payment card similar to plastic credit cards. In addition to the necessary codings, each card would contain the photograph and fingerprint of the depositor. Every business establishment, including taxicabs, would be equipped with a terminal in which the payment card could be inserted (and) make a visual display of the charge so that the customer could see the exact amount being deducted from his bank account. In the event the customer did not have the amount in his account the terminal would so indicate.

Money Is Faith, Money is Power: "Non aes sed fides" not by iron but by faith. This inscription formerly found on Maltese coins sums up a very important truth about money: that the value of every kind of money, including metal money, rests on trust. Money cannot be enforced, and money is accepted only when people exchange it for a certain amount of real stuff at some point in the future. This is perhaps an important point to remember in times of impending economic crises. In the face of short term economic upheaval, conservatives are correct to insist on accepting only gold and silver as "real" money, since they are relatively rare and can't be manufactured out of common materials by the government. Lydia, 6th century BC., value stamped on coinage for the first time [electrum (gold-silver); L / Gr. elektron, akin to elektor, shining, the sun]. But ultimately the value of gold and silver as money rests on faith and trust in the future, just like paper currency does. When the real crunch finally comes, it may be useful to remember that there are more calories in paper than in silver or gold.

And here we come to yet another of the paradoxes of money: while money depends on trust at the personal level, that trust ultimately depends on the power of the issuing authority. Our currency is backed not by the gold in Fort Knox but by the guns in Fort Knox. The value of money, whether gold or paper, ultimately rests on faith, and the value of the US dollar rests on the faith that the US domination of the world economy is backed by the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.

For several hundred years economists have recognized that our money has value "to the extent of our faith in a viable tomorrow." Thus it seems surprising that no economist has drawn a connection between the dawn of the nuclear era and the chronic inflation that has characterized the post-war economies of the industrial nations - perhaps this can also help explain the willingness of both liberals and conservatives in this country to rack up huge federal deficits. What's so bad about stealing from tomorrow when there's not going to be a tomorrow?

Money Is Information: the only problem is that it's not very much information. Money talks, but it doesn't say much. In the wonderful world of capitalism, everything - and everyone - has a price, and that price is the only information that matters in the marketplace. For the marketplace to work, reality has to be simplified and standardized. As our everyday life becomes more and more characterized by exchanges, by buying and selling, many of the facts and observations about the objects in our lives become irrelevant and are no longer valued - commodities have no history - there are no tenses in the language of money - prices are always now.

Interest rates, stock prices, and commodity index futures all provide information about the economy and provide clues as to how to most efficiently organize society's resources - but as with prices, lots of information is lost in the translation of daily life into economic indicators. Countless facts about millions of people doing millions of different things get reduced to a few bits of data which are interpreted by economists like Chinese mystics prophesying from the pattern of I Ching sticks. All economics is voodoo economics. Through their interpretation of the magic signs, the best allocation of economic resources is determined - but best for who? Priests who prophesy against their masters usually don't have much job security.

This development is an inevitable consequence of the increasing abstraction of money. When money becomes intellectualized, intellectuals control money and the economy - and, as always, the intellectuals are controlled by the governments and corporations that sign their paychecks, and thus the productive forces of a society are organized to maintain the existing power relations of that society. Simmel again: "Money is thus one of the great cultural elements whose function it is to assemble great forces at a single point and so to overcome the passive and active opposition by this concentration of energies. We should think of the machine in this context." Welcome to the machine.

Money Never Sleeps: the speed of electricity approaches that of the speed of light, and today the speed of money is the speed of electricity. Every day billions of "dollars" race the sun around the globe. As one financial market closes, the dollars rush on to the next so that not a moment is wasted. "Knowledge - Zzzzzp! Money - Zzzzzp! - Power! That's the cycle democracy is built on!"
-Tennessee Williams.

What Can I Do? Raoul Vaneigem says that "a truly new reality can only be based on the principle of the gift", and many have argued the need for the abolition of money, but history has shown that money cannot be abolished before people's need for money has been abolished. Until we have created a society of the gift that is no longer built on a system of commodity exchanges, money will be necessary or perhaps even desirable. So what we need are some practical short term strategies that will move us in the direction of the type of society we want to see, and at the same time we need to create new monetary institutions that will reduce some of the more destructive effects of money in the meantime.

Burning money is always good theater, but until we have provided ourselves with a permanent non-money means of sustenance, doing very much of it will be counterproductive. Removing as much of our daily lives from the arena of commodity exchange seems important, since that's how the new reality will be created: by individuals consciously removing themselves from the old, destructive system - SYSTEMIC WITHDRAWAL. So freely giving and receiving as much as possible seems like a step in the right direction [freely ye have received, freely give; Matt. 10:8].

And while money is still with us, we need to place limits on the money we use. Instead of passively accepting ever expanding and accelerating forms of money like they were divinely commanded by some all-powerful god, we need to raise the awareness that money is essentially a social relationship and as such we have the right to collectively determine the nature of that relationship [refuse the ATM, the debit card, eCommerce, credit cards, etc.].

Some in the past have argued for placing time limits on money, such as issuing money that expires and has no value after a certain date. What seems more practical [one alternative] in the short term is to create new forms of money that are spatially limited - regional, decentralized currencies only good in a specified area. This may seem impractical, too, but experiments like this have worked in the past, and one such project is in progress right now in the United States [1987].

Part of the benefit of regional or local currency comes from the fact that a banknote essentially represents an interest-free loan to the central government. In the Isle of Man in the early 1800's, citizens there replaced all the English money on the island with their own local currency, invested the English money, and in a few years had earned enough interest to finance the construction of a new public hall.

In the Berkshires area of Massachusetts, the SHARE (Self Help Assoc. for a Regional Economy) program is currently [1987] making loans that encourage greater regional self-sufficiency in the production of basic necessities, and plans to soon issue a regional currency called "Berkshares", with a value based on the value of cordwood. Berkshares are designed to meet the criteria for an appropriately scaled currency proposed by Robert Swann of the E.F. Schumacher Society. Swann says that the new local currencies should be: 1. consistent with customary practices (ie., taking the form of cash and checks and being compatible with common accounting systems); 2. redeemable in some form of real everyday value; 3. based on local production but tied to a universal measure of value; and 4. controlled by the community, perhaps through a non-profit bank. It's too early to evaluate the success of the Berkshares program, but in its first stages it seems to be a short but firm step in the direction of local autonomy.

Closing Benediction and Words of Inspiration: capitalists understand far better than the rest of us what money does, but with rare exceptions they seem to have little idea about what money is. It's the same with computers; often the best programmers have little idea of how their machines are built, and Beethoven didn't know how to make pianos. But here is where our opportunity lies. Only those who understand their tools can really control them (what happens to Beethoven when his piano is broken?), and only if we understand the tools that are used to control us can we fight back effectively. So, by coming to understand the reality behind the shell game and light show of the current world economic system, perhaps we can learn to build the hardware for a new way of organizing our productive activities that will build community instead of destroying it and will empower us as individuals rather than enslaving us and reducing us to cogs in an incomprehensible and uncontrollable machine. -- [based on Fidonet, Practical Anarchy Online, this originally appeared in The Gentle Anarchist #15, Fall 1987]

Community Currency Magazine web page
Digital Gold Currency (DGC) Magazine documents page
BerkShares, Inc. web page

LETS - Local Exchange Trading Systems
Transaction Net home page
LETS Wikipedia web page
The LETSystem Design Manual web page

American Open Currency Standard (AOCS)
The Survival Podcast listen or download [59:30m]
Mar 10th, 2010 Episode-395 An Interview with Rob Gray of the AOCS
Today we welcome Rob Gray of the American Open Currency Standard and the AG Trading Center in Farmers Branch Texas. Tune in to learn about putting real value back into an honest currency standard and about Rob’s other projects. By participating in the AOCS, you have immediate access to the thousands of participating merchants across the country, as well as the approved Mints that will craft your private currency. AOCS Merchants are enrolled to accept any AOCS-approved currency.


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