You work for it; you work with it. You need it to survive; you survive to need it. You’d steal for it; maybe, if the price was right you’d even kill for it. It commands armies, nations, and public policy; often times it means life or death (quite literally). It is both celebrated and lamented. The Bible claims it is the “root of many evils” yet the Church still insists you give it to them.
Money is a strange thing. But what sort of thing is money?
Here we must agree that what is closest to us often seems the most unknowable. Even though money is such an integral part of our daily lives we find it difficult to ascertain what exactly money is. What composes money? Generally it is some sort of paper or common metal; nothing special there. But is that all money really is? Certainly if all money is just paper then we have a serious problem: all of human society has been enslaved by an entirely inanimate object!
What is Money?
This is no doubt part of the story, but this is not the whole character of money. In fact, it is very problematic to claim that money is simply an inanimate object so “why bother with it!” let’s explore something else worthwhile that is not just an object of our own design. Let’s be very clear, here. I am not suggesting that one should spend all her time investigating or even obsessing over the content and character of money. Rather, our investigation into what money really is reflects our desire to investigate our social conditions as a whole. To understand and make sense of the world we live in. The fact of the matter is that everything is a product of our own design, not simply money. The world we live in ‘makes sense’ to us (at least on a very basic level) because this is a supremely human existence that we live. Every single thing you can imagine has been given a ‘meaning’ in our social realm: the most basic realm of our interaction with each other as ‘neighbors’ and ourselves. From the chair I sit on, to the computer I write with, to the screen you’re reading off of, to the language in which we are both able to communicate. Even the ‘natural world’ cannot escape this totalizing notion of ‘meaning’. Look outside at the grass, the trees, the clouds, the mountains. Did the mountains decide to be called ‘mountains’? Did they present themselves into ‘our world’ as ‘mountains’? Absolutely not. We called them ‘mountains’ and we ordered them into our reality by doing so; categorizing them as ‘such’ into our world of meaning.
Now ask yourself, how does this have anything to do with money? Perhaps more than you think. Money, like all things, has been ‘given’ a meaning in our social order. It has been tasked with a certain importance; an importance that is both broad in significance but very specific and unique in nature.
Very quickly, we should revisit what Marx wrote in regard to money.
Within the capitalist market there are commodities. These commodities, their production and exchange, form the ‘backbone’ of the entire system of capitalism. Without commodities there can be no capitalism. Commodities are said to have two characters which form a unity in the ‘commodity’: a use-value and an exchange-value. Use-value being the specific utility the commodity offers society. For example, the use-value of a pen would be that it is utilized to write. An exchange-value, on the other hand, is the value of the commodity when contrasted with other commodities on the market. For example, the exchange-value of one pen might be two pencils, or 50 pens to one vacuum and so on. Therefore, we see that exchange-value is necessarily abstracted from use-value and only ‘makes sense’ in regard to a market with which the commodities can be exchanged.
However, as Marx points out, we don’t go to the store to exchange 46 pens for 3 apples and a dozen eggs. We pay for these commodities; we pay with money.
Money then becomes this ‘be-all end-all’ of commodities. The way in which all commodities relate to each other is through money. We do not say one egg equals one pen, or two apples or whatever. We say one egg equals $.50 and one pen equals $1.00 and so on. Commodities come into relation with each other in our society through money; money is the mediator of exchanging values.
However, money is not a commodity in the classical understanding (the understanding put forward above). Money, in itself, has no real use-value. Money is also not produced in a labor process and then sold on the market for a profit (although modern economic theory adds many twists to the ‘commodity form’ of money but for the sake of brevity we will not explore all of these different avenues by which one might come to understand money as a commodity on the financial market and what not). Money is in actuality a social relation before it is any concrete commodity. Meaning, the primary purpose of money in society is not to satisfy some need or perform some concrete task but is actually an embodiment of a social relation between people.
Money as a Living Form: Social Relations
This is where we enter the ‘enigmatic’ properties of money.
Unlike other objects which seemingly exist in our world, only active when we work upon/with them, money seems to be animate in its own sense. Now obviously money is still employed by actors within a market but the way in which it moves in the market (becoming capital, which we will approach later) and relates between commodities is perhaps entirely unique.
Money commands, money demands, money flows, fluctuates, and tempers.
How we, as persons in society, relate to money often determines how and in what way we relate to one another. Recall it was Marx who referred to social relations in capitalism as ‘commodity fetishism’. Basically, relationships between people become mediated through material relationships between ‘things’; these ‘things’ are commodities and the master of all commodities is of course money.
Why do you work? For money. How are you paid? With money. How do you buy food? With money. Why do you go to college? To earn more money. Would you leave your family and quit your job? If there was enough money involved.
Money is a social relation, first and foremost. Certainly, there are a variety of reasons ‘one would do such’ or the common response is ‘not everything is about money’. Of course there are social relationships which exist beyond the realm of money (to what extent is arguable) and even motivations within human interaction totally unrelated to it. There should be no contention otherwise. However, what is clear is that money often mediates social relationships within the last instance. What does this mean ‘in the last instance’? It means that if all instances of one such phenomena considered, money would still be the final instance and the one which usually becomes determinant. Simplistic? Perhaps, and it is with no quickness one should go around reducing something or another to economistic paradigms.
Rather, one should consider that money is more than just money. It embodies a degree of the entire social product and our relationship to such. This sort of embodiment is simply too significant to be taken lightly or understood ‘one-sidedly’ to borrow from Mao.
So, if money is a social relationship, what kind of social relationship is it?
A very good question considering not all social relations are equal. In fact, a simple study of history will conclude that social relations are as varied as they are transforming; transforming in the sense that they ‘themselves’ change over time but also that social relations often engender certain material practices found parallel to them. If anyone would contend such concrete social relations can transform I would ask then where are the feudal palaces of before? Where are the drove following behind their liege? Not as though oppression, repression, and ideology have suddenly disappeared over time; rather, these fundamental notions have transformed along with the social contexts they exist in: the social formations they sit atop of.
Money is destructive. It destroys previous relations of fidelity, prestige, and all those vestiges of the aristocracy. Recall it was the old landed aristocracies of Europe who first warned against this ‘godless system’ of free market production and exchange. Money is constructive. It builds lemonade stands, houses, cars, weapons, armies, even nations. When money moves through the labor process it becomes capital: the economic engine of capitalism and all subsequent ‘growth’. Money is the life force of any project. Not enough and what was will simply die.
Money is the alpha and omega of capitalism.
This is precisely why our investigation of money is so important. We must understand our enemy.
But isn’t money benign? This is often the retort of bourgeois economists and those right opportunists in the communist movement, alike. They both want to treat money as if it was the baby to the bathwater. A ‘powerful’ force and social relation which can be wielded on behalf of something revolutionary. The analogy of the brick is often drawn here. Bricks can be used to build a house, or break a window. Money likewise can buy death but it can also purchase life. We should use money in this ‘productive sense’ then.
Granted, although not without serious criticism and analysis to be made.
First, bricks are simple commodities not complex social relations (on the same qualitative plane as the money form), obviously. Second, to draw again upon Marx and Engels in a different light, we cannot simply “lay hold” of the ready-made state machinery. These instruments of the old society have to be held cautiously and with great skepticism. The same applies with any revolutionary usage of money. Money, as a social relation, engenders certain practices which must ultimately be done away with. Sooner than later. Although here is a paradox as well. The revolutionary movement today, maybe more than ever before, desperately needs money. We need money to fund our causes, promote our program, build dual power and so on. It would be ridiculous and simply adventurous to try and build a revolutionary movement without some significant monetary investment.
Beyond Good and Evil
However, let’s not confuse ourselves here.
Up to this point we have only done as much as to (very briefly) describe what money is and perhaps why it is but not truly contended if it should be. If socialism is to succeed, if all of humanity is to be emancipated at last, money must be absolutely destroyed. There is not a doubt regarding this. Furthermore, it should be noted that every socialist experiment has failed to do so (eliminating the money form). There were isolated examples of success and perhaps even systematic negations (the socialist accounting system, for example) but such was of course ‘limited’ and eventually failed.
And this is what we are left with: a book of truths and a history of falsehoods. Obviously, as revolutionaries we are in a far better position theoretically to analyze our present conditions and investigate the means of our own success/failure. What we need now, ironically, is money.
As the struggle for higher wages among lower paid workers continues the slogan for money seems to be “the more the merrier!”, and rightfully so. We should not condemn ourselves to poverty and in doing so to a stream of inaction and radical incompetence.
Let’s reflect upon the words of Mao when instructing his cadre on the relationship between the people’s army and the communist party: the Party must always control the gun, the gun can never be allowed to control the Party. An unarmed revolutionary is just an impending casualty. Another radical in the faceless void of dissent. On the other hand, an armed person with no revolutionary consciousness is as easily a reactionary as anything else. Money commanded by a revolutionary project, deliberately and according to a well-understood plan, can be used to achieve victory. Money absent of any revolutionary master is more dangerous than the most well-armed reactionaries.
The People must control the money.
Regardless, we are left with another brooding question: is money really the “root of all evil”?
Obviously one should contend whether or not something like “evil” exists as a categorical truism and what it could be contrasted with. A scholarly question if there ever was one (one that we will not attempt to explore here). However, if we are to accept the classical framework for what is good and what is evil, that what is evil seeks to make others miserable; to inflict suffering for the purpose of suffering. Then we should at least think of money as some sort of ‘possible evil’.
But money is far worse than evil. The maddening dance of capital is beyond good and evil; be that what it is.
Evil rarely presents itself as docile; just another object in our world, something entirely inanimate. Unlike money which is presented so innocently, a mere tool of exchange. Only an instrument to be wielded and determined by the plans of humanity. What a cruel joke. Our attempts to control the use of money should always reflect our radical desires and demands against the status quo. We should not be afraid of money, as long as we understand precisely what sort of beast. In the event of monetary success we would no doubt be far more prepared ‘capitalize’ upon the social conditions we so desperately try to excite. However, whenever money is within reach, whether in our current situation or a socialist future, the subjugation of humanity – exploitation of one by another – is only a stonesthrow away.