Ours is an age of money. If human society has any unity at this time it
is as a world 'market'. There is nothing wrong with people exchanging
goods and services as equals. Markets are indispensable to the extension
of society. The problem is that they use money: some people have lots of
it and most don't have enough. The unequal face of the age of money is
'capitalism'; and the principal source of that inequality has been a
machine revolution whose uneven development is only two centuries old.
The combination of money and machines is the engine pushing humanity
from the village to the city as our normal habitat. The result is a
polarized world society that resembles nothing so much as the Old
Regime, with an isolated elite controlling the destiny of powerless
human masses to whose fate they are largely indifferent. <#_edn1>
A lot hinges on where in human evolution we imagine the world is today.
I think of us as being like the first digging-stick operators,
primitives stumbling into the invention of agriculture. The second half
of the twentieth century brought the peoples of the world closer
together as never before. Future generations will be interested in us
for the single interactive social network we formed then. This has two
striking features: it is a highly unequal market of buyers and sellers
fuelled by a money circuit that has become progressively detached from
production and politics; and it is driven by a digital revolution in
communications whose symbol is the internet.
Three developments of the last two decades have been decisive: 1. The
collapse of the Soviet Union, opening up the world to transnational
capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies. 2. The entry of China's
and India's two billion people, a third of humanity, into the world
market as powers in their own right and the globalization of capital
accumulation, for the first time loosening the grip of the US and Europe
on the global economy. 3. The shortening of time and distance brought
about by the communications revolution. The corollary of this revolution
is a counter-revolution, the reassertion of state power since September
11^th and the imperialist war for oil in the Middle East. Certainly
humanity has regressed from the hopes for freedom and equality released
by the Second World War and the anti-colonial revolution that followed
it. If society is now caught between national and global forms,
neo-liberalism has opened up a range of political options -- from
transnational association via the internet and regional trading blocs to
new patterns of local enterprise and co-operation.
Anthropology is indispensable to the making of world society: not the
current academic discipline as such, but rather in Kant's sense of what
we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a world
fit for everyone. <#_edn2> This use of 'anthropology' could also be
embraced by students of history, sociology, political economy,
philosophy and literature. Ethnography was a revolutionary move a
century ago. For the first time, professionals left academic seclusion
to join people where they live in order to find out what they do and
think. But it will not help us much to understand money and world
The mystery of money
The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is
(John Kenneth Galbraith)
The film, Money as Debt seeks to explain where money comes from.
<#_edn3> All members of capitalist societies live by money, yet there is
remarkably little curiosity concerning its source. Most people probably
imagine that the government issues the money they use and that, under
its surveillance, banks lend amounts that are covered by assets such as
gold and property or at least by cash deposits. In fact, over 95% of the
money in circulation is issued by banks whenever they make a loan. The
'fractional reserve system' traditionally constrained them to lend up to
nine times the value of deposits with the central bank; but this ratio
has since increased and in some cases no longer exists. The real basis
of money is thus our signature whenever we promise to repay a loan. The
banks create that money by a stroke of the pen and the promise is then
bought and sold in increasingly complex ways. The total debt incurred by
government, corporations, small businesses and consumers spirals
continuously upwards since interest must be paid on it all. The film
briefly mentions some possible remedies, including local currencies.
This attempt to demystify money is admirable, but it addresses a North
American audience in terms that never move beyond the assumptions of
twentieth-century national society. It says nothing about the current
world economic crisis. This has features that are well enough advertised
in the media. The huge trade and budget deficits of the US economy are
financed principally by Japan, China, the Gulf States and Britain (but
not the US banks). The dollar's slide seems to be limited only by its
role as the world currency and unit of account for the oil trade and by
its creditors' desire to retain the value of their Treasury paper. The
interests at stake in the global energy economy are manifested in the
war for Middle East oil; the trade imbalances reflect the transfer of
manufacturing production and many services from the West to Asia.
Moreover, since the invention of money futures in 1975, world money
markets, fuelled by bets on the future prices of notional assets such as
stock market indices ('derivatives'), now dwarf the volume of
international trade and national budgets. <#_edn4> The US housing
market is a major part of all this paper debt, especially the dodgy
loans known as 'sub-primes' now suffering massive default; and the faith
of the British middle classes in consumerism financed by ever rising
housing prices is another key example. Reference is occasionally made to
the Great Depression of the 1930s, but rarely to the global slump
induced by the oil price hikes of the 1970s or to the crash of 1987, the
Russian default of 1998 and the dot com bust of 2000. We could be
entering a new stage of capitalism where markets have been rationalized
and risk is managed efficiently or, more likely, we are heading for a
liquidation crisis of unprecedented severity. <#_edn5>
Money marks social relations in capitalist societies. We think it makes
a huge difference if a transaction involves payment or not. But we don't
ask why this should be so, even less where the power of money comes
from. With the exception of a few whistle-blowers like Galbraith,
<#_edn6> the economists prefer to keep us mystified; the media and the
schools do little to enlighten us either. So we are sustained in our
ignorance by vague beliefs and assailed with a mass of trivial facts,
being left to build up our personal defenses against an impersonal
system we regard as inevitable.
What can anthropology offer? <#_edn7>
Most anthropologists don't like money and don't have much of it. It
symbolizes the world they have rejected for something more authentic
elsewhere. This lines them up with the have-nots and against the erosion
of cultural diversity by globalization. Accordingly, they have long had
little of interest to say about money. Modern economic anthropology took
off when Bronislaw Malinowski published his romantic fable, Argonauts of
the Western Pacific: an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in
the Archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea. <#_edn8> Here a ring of
islands, the world economy in microcosm, sustained an elaborate trade
system through exchanging valuables as gifts -- without benefit of
markets, money, states or capitalists and on the basis of an
aristocratic ethos of generosity quite unlike the selfishness of homo
economicus. He contrasted ceremonial giving with lowly barter between
individuals. This publication encouraged Marcel Mauss in his belief that
gift-exchange ('potlatch') was endemic to Melanesia and Oceania as well
as to the American Northwest. His essay on The Gift was the result.
Malinowski was adamant that Trobriand kula valuables were not money in
that they did not function as a medium of exchange and standard of
value. <#_edn10> But, in a long footnote, Mauss held out for a
On this reasoning...there has only been money when precious
things...have been really made into currency namely have been
inscribed and impersonalized, and detached from any relationship with
any legal entity, whether collective or individual, other than the state
that mints them... One only defines in this way a second type of money
-- our own. <#_edn11>
He suggests that primitive valuables are like money in that they 'have
purchasing power and this power has a figure set on it'. He also took
Malinowski to task for reproducing the bourgeois opposition between
commercial self-interest and the free gift, a dichotomy that many
Anglophone anthropologists have subsequently attributed to Mauss
There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be
self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our
identities in a bewildering variety of social relationships.
<#_edn13> Much of modern ideology emphasizes how problematic it is to be
both self-interested and mutual. Yet the two sides are often inseparable
in practice and some societies, by encouraging private and public
interests to coincide, have managed to integrate them more effectively
than ours. Mauss held that the attempt to create a free market for
private contracts is utopian and just as unrealizable as its antithesis,
a collective based solely on altruism. Human institutions everywhere are
founded on the unity of individual and society, freedom and obligation,
self-interest and concern for others. The pure types of selfish and
generous economic action obscure the complex interplay between our
individuality and belonging in subtle ways to others.
Mauss was highly critical of the Bolsheviks' resort to violence and
especially of their destruction of the market economy along with the
confidence and good will that sustained it. <#_edn14> He held that
markets and money are necessary for the extension of human society, but
their contemporary form is unsustainable. Even so capitalist
institutions combine self-interest and the gift; sociologists and
anthropologists should make this more visible. He advocated an 'economic
movement from below', in the form of syndicalism, co-operation and
mutual insurance. <#_edn15> His greatest hopes were for a consumer
democracy driven by the co-operative movement. This was for him a
secular version of the archaic phenomena described in The Gift. They are
'total social facts', in that they bring into play the whole of society
and all its institutions legal, economic, religious and aesthetic.
This was the high point of economic anthropology. Ethnographers were
subsequently content to provide exotic allegories of capitalism and its
alternatives, but refused to engage with modern world history. Thus a
collection of essays, Money and the Morality of Exchange, <#_edn16>
demonstrates that money serves long-term social purposes in
non-capitalist societies and is not a quasi-autonomous, alienated force
there. But the authors have nothing to say about contemporary
capitalism. The age of neo-liberal globalization seems to have changed
this attitude. Now there is a veritable deluge of anthropological
writing about capitalism in both the core and the periphery, much of it
focusing on money and finance. <#_edn17> This work aims to humanize
the anonymous institutions that govern our lives. Some sociologists too
have rejected the impersonal model of money and markets offered by
mainstream economics, among them Viviana Zelizer, <#_edn18> who
shows that even after the reluctant acceptance of a single currency,
American commerce still spawned parallel currencies as a way of dividing
the market through particularistic ties. Moreover, ordinary people
refused 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 come from areas that
remain invisible to the economists' gaze: domestic life, gifts, charities.
People everywhere personalize money, bending it to their own purposes
through a variety of social instruments. 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, local groups or even
a stockbroker's office. This is made possible by the impersonality of
money and markets; and the economists remain unchallenged there. It will
not do to replace one pole of a dialectical pair with the other. How did
the relationship between self and society come to be ruptured by
capitalism and how might their unity be restored?
Impersonal money and its critics <#_edn19>
The modern wage labour system led to an attempt to separate the spheres
in which paid and unpaid work predominated. <#_edn20> One is ideally
objective and impersonal, specialized and calculated; the other is
subjective and personal, diffuse, based on long-term interdependence.
The first is a zone of infinite scope where things, and increasingly
human creativity, are bought and sold for money, the market. The second
is a protected sphere of domestic life, where intimate personal
relations hold sway, home. The market is unbounded and, in a sense,
unknowable, whereas the bounds of domestic life are known only too well.
The result is a heightened sense of division between an outside world
where our humanity feels swamped and a precarious zone of protected
personality at home. This duality is the moral and practical foundation
of capitalist society. <#_edn21>
The economists' insistence on the autonomy of market logic cannot
disguise the fact that market relations have a personal and social
component, particularly when human creativity is bought and sold. Human
work is not an object separable from the person performing it, so people
must be taught to submit to the impersonal disciplines of the workplace.
The war to impose these rules has never been completely won. So, just as
money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to
the workplace; and the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres
conceptually separate is huge.
Money in capitalist societies consequently stands for alienation,
detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our
control. 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. This institutional division asks too much of us.
People want to make some meaningful connection between themselves as
subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being
a means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main
bridge between them. Today it is the source of our vulnerability in
society and the practical symbol allowing each of us to make an
impersonal world meaningful. That is why money must be central to any
attempt to humanize society.
How else may we repair this rupture between self and society? M. K.
Gandhi believed that the modern state disabled its citizens, subjecting
mind and body to the control of professional experts when a civilization
should enhance its members' sense of self-reliance and community.
<#_edn22> For him, every human being is both a unique personality and
part of humanity as a whole. Between these extremes lie associations of
great variety. He devoted much of his philosophy to building up the
personal resources of individuals. How do we bridge the gap between a
puny self and a vast, unknowable world? The answer is to scale down the
world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a
meaningful relationship might be established between them. Our task is
to bring this project up to date.
So where did impersonal money and markets come from and how impersonal
are they? Money was traditionally impersonal so that it could retain its
value when it moved between people who might not even know each other.
If you drop a coin or banknote on the floor, whoever picks it up can
spend it just as easily as you can. Money in this form is an instrument
detached from the person who uses it. The expansion of trade often
depended on this objectivity of the medium of exchange and economists
have long debated whether money's value derives from its being a scarce
commodity or from the guarantees made by states who issued it.
<#_edn23> Bank credit has always been more directly personal, being
linked to the trustworthiness of individuals and, in the case of paper
instruments like cheques, issued by them. The idea that transactions
involving money are essentially amoral comes from its objective form;
but until recently, even in societies using impersonal money, the bulk
of economic life was carried out by people who knew each other and could
discriminate between individuals on that basis.
Keynes held that modern money was as old as the invention of cities and
the state 5,000 years ago, that is, as old as agrarian civilization.
<#_edn24> Bank money is probably as ancient, but it took on renewed
significance for western economic history in the Renaissance.
<#_edn25> Modern national currencies are the result of a merger of state
and banking systems, leading some authors to stress the importance of
sovereignty in the making of impersonal money. <#_edn26> This theory
is very much in a minority today, when the market model holds undisputed
sway, especially in the English-speaking world. In liberal ideology,
money is a commodity just like any other; its payment in exchange
releases buyer and seller from the need for any ongoing relationship,
allowing both the money and what it buys to be separated from their
owners as private property. The parties to the exchange are conceived of
as individuals devoid of social or cultural ties. The origin of such
markets is said to lie in the 'natural economy' of primitive barter,
with money appearing later to make good its inefficiencies.
<#_edn27> The impersonality of money and of associated transactions is
here derived not from a universal sovereign, but from the anonymity of
homogeneous individuals meeting in the marketplace, with price resolving
their superficial differences. This is less an analysis of money and
markets than an ideological programme for displacing states from their
central position in the economy.
Mainstream economics has always had its critics, among whom Karl Polanyi
developed a line of attack on liberal capitalism and the economists that
is more popular today than ever. <#_edn28> For him, impersonal
markets and money have only recently displaced more humane institutions
from the social organization of economy. These were society's way of
ensuring material provisioning for its members and they subjected
exchange to moral (personal and social) considerations. The
self-regulating market dehumanized exchange. This would be bad enough
when limited to what people make, like hats and shoes; but the market
principle was extended to the conditions of our collective existence and
these are not made by human design. Nature, Society (in the form of
Money) and Humanity were reduced to the 'fictional commodities' of land,
capital and labour. Impersonal markets thus threaten human survival
itself and inevitably provoke a social reaction in the form of people's
attempts to restore a measure of control over their lives.
All agrarian civilizations tried to keep markets and money in check,
since power came from the landed property of an aristocratic military
caste who feared that markets might undermine their control over
society. <#_edn29> This constituted a dialectic of local and global
economy long before we came to perceive the modern world that way.
Socialists (and most anthropologists) draw their ideas implicitly from
the pre-industrial apologists for landed rule whose line was, broadly
speaking, Aristotle's. Polanyi acknowledged the latter as his master
<#_edn30> and considered 'the self-regulating market' to have been the
principal cause of the twentieth-century's horrors. But, if we demonize
money and markets, we will be unable to grasp their potential for making
a better world.
Money and the expansion of community
Oswald Spengler emphasized the part played by number and money in
western history. <#_edn31> He identified a break between classical
antiquity and the modern period. For the Greeks, number was magnitude,
the essence of all things perceptible to the senses. Mathematics for
them was thus concerned with measurement in the here and now. All this
changed with Descartes whose new number-idea was function a world of
relations between points in abstract space. Now a passionate Faustian
tendency towards the infinite took hold, married to abstract
mathematical forms that freed themselves from concrete reality the
better to control it. In economic life, a parallel shift took place from
thinking in terms of goods to money. When a businessman signs a piece of
paper to mobilize remote forces, this gesture stands in an abstract
relationship to the power of labour and machinery, only taking the form
of money numbers in a retrospective accountancy process. Thinking in
money generates money. It turns the world into subjects and objects -- a
few executives and those who follow their orders. Each individual is
either a part of the money force or just a mass.
The classical economists, from Smith to Marx, <#_edn32> focused on
the commodity's higher-order ability to enter into abstract relations of
exchange with other commodities through money (quantity) rather than on
its concrete value in use (quality). But the commodity remains something
useful and in that use lies its concrete realization. The reality of
markets is not just universal abstraction, but this mutual determination
of the abstract and the concrete. 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.
Money is intimately linked to democracy as a political principle because
its impersonality dissolves differences between people. So we vote with
our money whenever we buy something. But this system of voting is vastly
unequal. Ever since Keynes, modern economies have been seen to be driven
by the 'purchasing power' of people in the mass. <#_edn33> The
extension of personal credit in digital forms allows for this power to
be realized by individuals. Governments and corporations still account
for much of the debt in our money system, but increasingly you and I
keep that system expanding through our willingness to contract personal
loans. If modern society has always been individualistic, perhaps only
now is the individual emerging as a social force.
Economic history is dialectical. Most people become quite anxious when
they depend on impersonal and anonymous institutions. This is an immense
force for reversing the historical pattern of alienation on which the
modern economy has been built. How we combine the personal and
impersonal aspects of money has much in common with religion. Religion
binds something inside us to an external force, lending stability to
meaningful interaction with the world and providing an anchor for our
volatility. What we know intimately is our own everyday life, our
personal routines; but this life is subject to larger forces whose
origins we do not know natural disasters, social revolutions and
death. We recognize these unknown causes of our fate to be at once
individual and collective. Religion is the organized attempt to bridge
the gap between the world of ordinary experience and an extraordinary
world that lies beyond it. Emile Durkheim held that what is ultimately
unknown to us is our collective being in society. <#_edn34> The
chaos of everyday life thus attains a measure of order to the extent
that it is informed by ideas representing the social facts of a shared
existence. Humanity's task today is to assume responsibility for life as
a whole on this planet and religion is indispensable to that end.
Because our ephemeral economic transactions depend on using money, it
seems to be more stable than the relations it expresses. Money may thus
be conceived of as durable ground on which to stand, anchoring identity
in a collective memory whose concrete symbol is money; or as the outcome
of a more creative process where we each generate the personal credit
linking us to society. <#_edn36> When money is seen to be what each
of us makes of it, we may be ready at last to dethrone the archaic God
of capitalism it has become.
Making world society today
The world has seen three periods of 'globalization' -- increasing
awareness of the world as a framework for shared social life. Around
1800, the American and French revolutions, British industrial capitalism
and the international movement to abolish slavery evoked the accelerated
integration of world society. Unprecedented international migration took
place in the decades before the First World War and the world economy
was instituted then as a racial order. <#_edn37> Our interdependence
in a global economy made by markets and money has lately been increased
by the digital revolution in communications. Only now can we speak of
world society as a realized fact, although the process of global
integration is far from finished. We need to understand this virtual
world of abstraction in order to make meaningful connection with it from
the perspective of our everyday lives. Over the last three centuries,
the money form has evolved rapidly from metallic coins and ledger
entries through paper notes to electronic digits. From having been an
object produced by remote authorities, money is becoming more obviously
a subjective expression of our own will; and this development is
mirrored in the shift from 'real' to 'virtual' money.
It is now possible to attach a lot of information about individuals to
transactions at distance. The trend is thus to restore personal identity
to impersonal contracts, not least in the market for credit. Of course,
powerful organizations have access to huge processors with which to
manipulate an often unknowing public; and rich individuals always
experienced markets and money as personalities in their own right. But
for many people these developments have introduced new conditions of
engagement with the impersonal economy. The idea is slowly taking root
that society is less an oppressive structure out there and more a
subjective capacity that allows each of us to learn how to manage our
relations with others. Money symbolizes this shift. It once took the
form of objects outside ourselves of which we had a greater need than
the available supply; but now it is increasingly manifested as
digitalized transfers mediated by plastic cards and telephone wires,
thereby altering the notions of economic agency that we bring to
participation in markets. Cheap information makes possible the
repersonalization of complex economic life, undermining the assumptions
that supported mass production and consumption for a century.
If plastic credit could be seen as a step towards greater humanism in
economy, this also entails increased dependence on the impersonal
organization of governments and corporations, on impersonal abstraction
of the sort associated with computing operations and on the need for
impersonal standards and social guarantees for contractual exchange. We
may nevertheless become less weighed down by money as an objective
force, more open to the idea that it is simply a way of keeping track of
complex social networks that we each generate as active individual
subjects. Money could once again take a wide variety of forms compatible
with both personal agency and collective forms of association at every
level from the local to the global.
Mauss was far-sighted when he traced the foundations of the modern
economy to its origin in the archaic gift, rather than primitive barter
as the liberal myth holds. The idea of money as personal credit, linked
less to the history of state coinage than to the acknowledgement of
private debts, is consistent both with Mauss's emphasis and my argument
here. As the principal instrument of collective memory in its many
forms, money helps us keep track of connections with others.
<#_edn38> We can now enter closed circuits of exchange using self-made
currencies of the sort pioneered in LETS schemes, where acknowledgment
of personal debt is the transparent source of money. <#_edn39> But
retreat into the local will not help us make world society. Individuals
also need to participate in global markets of infinite scope, using
international moneys-of-account, such as the dollar and euro, electronic
payment systems of various kinds or even direct barter via the internet.
We must develop more effective impersonal institutions ('the state') at
the level of world society as well as below. <#_edn40> Money's
ability to sustain local meaning and universal connection at the same
time is an indispensable means to that end.**
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 <#_ednref35> R. Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of
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