This essay was written in August 2008 for a book that subsequently folded. The timing is important, the month of my retirement from the British academy (but not from university life), a month before the financial crash. I discovered it in my folders just recently and find it to be one of the better expressions of my thinking on the human economy. The owl of Minerva indeed.
In the wake of market fundamentalism
We have lived in the last three decades through an explosion of money, markets and communications and are now beginning to experience the consequences. Whatever else this hectic period of ‘globalization’ brings, it represents a rapid extension of society to a more inclusive level than the twentieth-century norm which identified society with the nation-state. In order to live in the world together, we have to devise new ways of doing things for each other that go beyond our attempts to achieve local self-sufficiency. I call this historical process ‘commoditization’ (Hart 1982), the evolution of methods for making work social, so that it can circulate in the form of commodities. This essay is one such commodity. It does not have to be sold, but it was written with the aim of finding some limited circulation in this form. So far in history commoditization has been closely linked to the extension of society by means of markets and money. But there are other means and they may become more important as a result of the digital revolution in communications — and no doubt other factors.
The ubiquity of money and markets in contemporary world society has lent credibility to the idea that exchange is a human universal. I happen to think that it is not, being rather linked to the invention of agriculture and likely to be undermined by the sharing made possible through the internet; but this is not the place to make that argument. In any case, theories of exchange tend to abstract the movement of markets from history by insisting on their ‘natural’ ubiquity in human (and sometimes even animal) societies. In the extreme this becomes a kind of market fundamentalism which has had something of a free run in recent decades, at least in the Anglophone countries. It is the foundation of neoliberal dogma, going back to Margaret Thatcher’s notorious claim that “there is no alternative” (TINA), cousin to “there is no such thing as society”. In contrast, the intellectual sources I cite below – Polanyi, Mauss, Marx and Simmel – all believed that the realization of new human possibilities for association depend on recognizing the plurality of economic options that already exist in our societies.
The last two centuries have seen a strident debate between capitalist and socialist camps insisting that markets are either good or bad for society. The second draws on the pre-industrial apologists for landed rule whose leading exponent was Aristotle. Karl Marx himself considered money to be indispensable to any complex economy and was radically opposed to the state in any form. However, many of his socialist and communist followers, when they did not try to outlaw markets and money altogether, preferred to return them to the marginal position they occupied under agrarian civilization and were less hostile to the state, pre-industrial society’s enduring legacy for our world. Polanyi (1944) falls within this camp in that he acknowledged Aristotle as his master and considered ‘the self-regulating market’ to have been the principal cause of the twentieth-century’s horrors.
A less apocalyptic version of socialism in the tradition of Saint-Simon acknowledges the social damage done by unfettered markets (what Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’), but would not wish to do away with the wealth they produce. Indeed the leading capitalist societies at one stage all signed up for Hegel’s (1821) idea that states should try to contain the inequality and ameliorate the social misery generated by markets. Within this framework, the emphasis has shifted over time between reliance on states and on markets for managing national economy, between social and liberal democracy of various hues. The general economic breakdown of the 1930s turned a large number of American economists away from celebrating the logic of markets towards contemplating their repair. This ‘institutional economics’ persists as the notion that markets need self-conscious social intervention, if they are to serve the public interest. John Maynard Keynes (1936) produced the most impressive synthesis of liberalism and social democracy in the last century.
The market’s apologists likewise divide between some for whom it is a trans-historical machine for economic improvement best left to itself and those who acknowledge a role for enlightened public management of commerce. Classical liberals promoted markets as a means towards greater individual freedom as a corrective to the arbitrary social inequality of the Old Regime. But the industrial revolution brought about a shift to urban commerce that made vast new populations of wage labourers rely on markets for food, housing and all their basic needs. Under these circumstances, in Britain in particular, society itself seemed to retreat from view, being replaced by an ‘economy’ characterized this time by market contracts instead of domestic self-sufficiency. Others hold that society’s remaining defences are simply too weak to hold out against the rising tide of global money: you can’t buck ‘the markets’. Unregulated markets are engines of inequality, so this notion of markets as a natural force beyond social regulation serves also to legitimize wealth and even to make poverty seem deserved.
The challenge we face today, as the limits of market fundamentalism are revealed daily by some manifestation or other of economic collapse, is to discover what is valuable in the extension of society by means of markets and money, while devising new institutional means of regulating their abuse. This is the context for the following reflections of commoditization, reflections emphasizing the sources of intellectual history that have proved valuable to me in my own research.
Our moment in world history
According to writers as varied as John Locke and Karl Marx, ours is an age of money, a transitional phase in the history of humanity. Seen in this light, capitalism’s historical mission is to bring cheap commodities to the masses and break down the insularity of traditional communities before being replaced by a more just society. It matters where we are in this process, but the answers given differ widely. When a third of humanity works in the fields with their hands and multitudes never made a phone call in their lives, I would say that capitalism still has quite a way to go. The focus of my research is on the evolution of markets and money at a time when world society is being formed rapidly, at considerable risk to us all. I prefer to call this ‘the new human universal’ rather than the normal term, ‘globalization’.
Magellan’s crew completed the first circumnavigation of the planet some thirty years after Columbus crossed the Atlantic. At much the same time, Bartolomé de las Casas opposed the racial inequality of Spain’s American empire in the name of human unity. We are living through another ‘Magellan moment’. In the second half of the twentieth century, humanity formed a world society – a single interactive social network – for the first time. This was symbolized by several moments, such as when the 60s space race allowed us to see the earth from the outside or when the internet went public in the 90s, announcing the convergence of telephones, television and computers in a digital revolution of communications. Our world too is massively unequal and the voices for human unity are often drowned. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. The task of building a global civil society for the twenty-first century, perhaps even a federal world government, is an urgent one. Money, instead of being denigrated for its exploitive power, should be recognized for its redemptive qualities, particularly as a mediator between persons and society. Money — and the markets it sustains – is itself a human universal, with the potential to be emancipated from the social engines of inequality that it currently serves (Hart 2000).
A lot hinges on where in the long process of human evolution we imagine the world is today. The Victorians believed that they stood at the pinnacle of civilization. I think of us as being like the first digging-stick operators, primitives stumbling into the invention of agriculture. In the late 90s, I asked what it is about us that future generations will be interested in and settled on the rapid advances then being made in forming a single interactive network linking all humanity. This has two striking features: first, the network is a highly unequal market of buyers and sellers fuelled by a money circuit that has become progressively detached from production and politics; and second, it is driven by a digital revolution whose symbol is the internet, the network of networks. So my research over the last decade has been concerned with how the forms of money and exchange are changing in the context of this communications revolution.
My case for a recent speed-up of global integration rests on three developments of the last two decades: 1. the collapse of the Soviet Union, opening up the world to transnational capitalism and neoliberal 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 3. the abbreviation of time and distance brought about by the communications revolution and the population’s restless mobility. The corollary of this revolution is a counter-revolution — the reassertion of state power since September 11th and the imperialist war for oil in the Middle East. Certainly we have regressed significantly from the hopes for equality released by the Second World War and the anti-colonial revolution that followed it. On the other hand, growing awareness of the risks for the future of life on this planet entailed in current levels and forms of economic activity might encourage more people to take globalization seriously. The ecological (‘green’) paradigm — manifested as concern for global warming and for total food, water and energy supplies – is powerful enough to replace market fundamentalism as the natural religion of this emergent world society.
Social and cultural theorists talk of little else these days than ‘financialization’ (Epstein 2005), the idea that financial services have become the dominant arm of capitalism; and the media are obsessed, as I write, with ‘the credit crunch’, the first sign that this period of dominance is coming to an end. Money has acquired its apparent pre-eminence because the economy was being extended rapidly from a national to a global level without any of the social regulation that existed before or will likely follow eventually. Naturally, the specialists in money used their newfound freedom from the Keynesian consensus of the 1940s to 70s to loot the world in scandalous and damaging ways that we will have to repair, if we can. But, in addition to drawing people en masse into unsustainable credit schemes, they also began to put in place some of the institutional mechanisms that will be necessary if we wish to make the market work for all of us and not just for them. A lot of the wealth piled up in recent decades came from exploiting discrepancies (‘arbitrage’) in a world market that was rationalized and made more unitary in the process. Capitalism clearly is instrumental in making world society. It is unlikely to be the basis for its stable functioning, but it does get us some of the way there. That is what future generations will say of us; but they will be most interested in the new social and cultural forms we are making, probably not in the money as such.
Polanyi vs Smith
When Adam Smith first told the barter origin myth of money he claimed that the ‘wealth of nations’ resulted from the slow working out of a deep-seated propensity in human nature, ‘to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another’. He went on:
It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts … Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that (1961:17).
Smith acknowledged a degree of social complexity in the transactions: the idea of contract, private property (mine and yours) and equivalence (fairness), none of which could plausibly be traced to the non-human world. His latter-day successors have not shown similar modesty, routinely claiming that the markets of Wall Street today are animated by impulses that are not just eternally human, but shared with the animals too, or at least the primates. Traders are unusual people. They own things they neither made nor will use, but still claim the right to the value of their sale. They are willing to give up their goods in return for payment; and their customers then have the right to do what they like with them. This is so commonplace in our world that we think of it as eternal. It is in fact quite rare within the range of known human societies. What gives buyer and seller confidence that they each have exclusive rights to dispose of the commodity? The power of state law reinforces their contract and usually supports the money involved. They may operate as isolated individuals only because of the huge social apparatus backing their exchange.
Karl Polanyi’s stock is currently running high (Hann and Hart 2009). In his jeremiad for an earlier episode of market fundamentalism, The Great Transformation (1944), he inverts the liberal myth of money’s origin in barter:
The logic of the case is, indeed, almost the opposite of that underlying the classical doctrine. The orthodox teaching started from the individual’s propensity to barter; deduced from it the necessity of local markets, as well as of division of labour; and inferred, finally, the necessity of trade, eventually of foreign trade, including even long-distance trade. In the light of our present knowledge [Thurnwald, Malinowski, Mauss etc], we should almost reverse the sequence of the argument: the true starting point is long-distance trade, a result of the geographical location of goods and of the “division of labour” given by location. Long-distance trade often engenders markets, an institution which involves acts of barter, and, if money is used, of buying and selling, thus, eventually, but by no means necessarily, offering to some individuals an occasion to indulge in their alleged propensity for bargaining and haggling (1944: 58).
Money and markets thus have their origin in the effort to extend society beyond its local core. Polanyi believed that money, like the sovereign states to which it was closely related, was often introduced from outside; and this was what made the institutional attempt to separate economy from politics and naturalise the market as something internal to society so subversive.
Polanyi distinguished between ‘token’ and ‘commodity’ forms of money. ‘Token money’ was designed to facilitate domestic trade, ‘commodity money’ foreign trade; but the two systems often came into conflict. Thus the gold standard sometimes exerted downward pressure on domestic prices, causing deflation that could only be alleviated by central banks expanding the money supply in various ways. The tension between the internal and external dimensions of economy often led to serious disorganization of business (Polanyi 1944: 193-4). Another way of putting this contradiction is to oppose the liberal definition of money as just a ‘medium of exchange’ to one as a ‘means of payment’. Money was thus
…not a commodity, it was purchasing power; far from having utility itself, it was merely a counter embodying a quantified claim to things that could be purchased. Clearly, a society in which distribution depended on possession of such tokens of purchasing power was a construction entirely different from market economy (Ibid: 196).
Polanyi concluded in his notes to The Great Transformation that
money is not a decisive invention; its presence or absence need not make an essential difference to the type of economy…Money, like markets, is in the main an external phenomenon, the significance of which to the community is determined largely by trade relations. (Ibid: 276-7).
When he returned to the subject, as an American academic after the war (Polanyi 1977), much of his polemical intensity had been replaced by a more dispassionate concern to launch the comparative study of pre-industrial economies by anthropologists and historians. In “Money objects and money uses” (Ibid: 97-121), Polanyi approaches money as a semantic system, like language and writing. His main point is that only modern money combines the functions of payment, standard, store and exchange and this gives it the capacity to sustain the set of functions through a limited number of ‘all-purpose’ symbols. Primitive and archaic forms attach the separate functions to different symbolic objects which should therefore be considered to be ‘special-purpose’ monies. Here too Polanyi is arguing against the primacy of money as a medium of exchange and for a multi-stranded model of its evolution.
Marcel Mauss’s position on markets and money is to my mind an even more persuasive basis for an ‘institutionalist political economy’ than Polanyi’s (Hart 2007a). The Gift (1925) is an extended commentary on Durkheim’s (1893) argument that an advanced division of labour is sustained by ‘the non-contractual element in the contract’, a largely invisible body of state-made law, custom and belief that could not be reduced to abstract market principles. 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 (1997) was highly critical of the Bolsheviks’ destruction of confidence in the expanded sense of sociability that sustained the market economy. In his view, markets and money were human universals whose principal function was the extension of society beyond the local sphere, even if they did not always take the impersonal form we are familiar with. This was why he disputed Malinowski’s (1921) assertion that kula valuables could not be considered to be money (Mauss 1990: 102n). Mauss advocated an ‘economic movement from below’, in the form of syndicalism, co-operation and mutual insurance (Fournier 2006). His greatest hopes were for a consumer democracy driven by the co-operative movement. The true significance for him of finding elements of the archaic gift in contemporary capitalism was to refute the revolutionary eschatology of both right and left. Most of the possibilities for a human economy already co-exist in our world; so the task is to build new combinations with a different emphasis, not to repudiate a caricature of the market in the name of a radical alternative. Here Mauss follows Hegel — rather than Aristotle and Marx — in seeking the integration of institutional possibilities that have been variously dominant in history rather than representing them as mutually exclusive historical stages.
Lygia Sigaud (2002) has provided a trenchant account of The Gift’s subsequent trajectory in twentieth-century anthropology. She argues that the essay became famous only in the second half of the last century and then in a distorted version that privileged economic exchange to the detriment of Mauss’ other concerns. The chief culprit is Lévi-Strauss (1950), whose introduction to the collected essays was designed to harness Mauss’ reputation to his own theory of reciprocity as previously published in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). But The Gift really took off as a staple of Anglophone anthropological discourse following Sahlins (1974) article, “The Spirit of the Gift,” which entrenched Lévi-Strauss’ claim that Mauss’ essay hinged on a faulty understanding of the Maori concept of hau. She notes that the opposition between ‘commodity economy’ (the West) and ‘gift economy’ (the Rest) began to take root after 1980. We could add that this is the period of neo-liberalism.
Sigaud makes no connection between Mauss’ essay and his political commitments. The trajectory she describes is a purely academic one. As a result, when trying to account for the remarkable discontinuity between what Mauss wrote and what he is now thought to have written, she relies for explanation on the cult of personality and the power of gossip in small-scale oral communities such as academic anthropology. In fact, Chris Gregory launched the modern trend with his book, Gifts and Commodities (1982), even though, as he states in Savage Money,
I have never used the distinction between gifts and commodities to classify societies nor have I ever suggested that ‘we’ are to commodities as ‘they’ are to gifts. Such an approach is anathema to me. My problem in Gifts and Commodities was to explain the paradox, brought about by colonization, of the efflorescence of gift exchange in a world dominated by commodity production and exchange. I characterized Papua New Guinea as an ‘ambiguous’ economy where things are now gifts, now commodities, depending on the social context (1982: 117). Thus I developed the logical opposition between gifts and commodities in order to try to understand the ambiguity of the historically specific situation of colonial Papua New Guinea (…) Ethnographic classification is quite distinct from conceptual division by the logical principle of dichotomy (1997: 47–49).
But it did no good. The ‘fictions’ employed ingeniously by Marilyn Strathern (1988) in The Gender of the Gift—that ‘we’ (the West or ‘Euroamerica’) are opposed to ‘them’ (the Rest or ‘Melanesia’), and that the gift is the conceptual opposite of the commodity in some linked way—are now routinely reproduced in introductory anthropology courses everywhere. Mauss’ text is adduced in support of this notion, even though it is the very ideology his essay was intended to refute.
Mauss was interested in how we make society where it didn’t exist before. hence we offer gifts on first dates or on diplomatic missions to foreign powers. How do we push th elimits of society outwards? For him money and markets were intrinsic to this process. Hence giving personalized valuables could be considered to be an exchange of money objects if we operate with a broader definition than one based on impersonal currencies and focus rather on th efunction of their transfer, th eextension of society beyond the local level. This helps to explain his claim that “the great economic revolutions are monetary in nature” (Fournier 2006: 212), meaning that they push us into unknown reaches of society and require new money forms and practices to fill the gap. The combination of neoliberal globalization and the digital revolution has led to a rapid expansion of money, markets and telecommunications, all reinforcing each other in a process that has extended society beyond its national form, making it much more unequal and unstable in the process.
Commoditization and the dialectics of social abstraction
The third major influence on my inquiries into markets and money, and probably the deepest, has been Marx’s analysis of the historical relationship between people, machines and money in Capital. People ought to control machines and through them money, to be distributed in the general interest; but it is the other way round — money controls the machines and the people, with unequal and often socially disastrous results. Our political task is to reverse this situation. His book was a means to that end and he began it with the famous chapter on ‘commodities’ which deserves our close attention, especially the opening section, “The two factors of a commodity: use-value and value (the substance of value and the magnitude of value)” (Marx 1970: 35-41).
Marx defines the commodity as a useful product of labour which, by means of social abstraction, is endowed with value in exchange. In an earlier article (Hart 1982), I sought to improve on this definition, first by making the historical dialectic more explicit and then by taking up developments since Marx’s time. I recast the commodity as a process, “commoditization”, defined as “the progressive abstraction of social labour”. When we do things for each other in society, these services have to be detached from what we do for ourselves. This process of abstraction draws us into ever-widening circles of interdependence, the most inclusive of which are exchanges using money.
The commodity is progressively (but not necessarily in a historical sequence):
- Some useful thing external to the producer;
- Made social by becoming available to outsiders;
- Specialisation extends exchange to an inter-community level;
- Sometimes persons circulate, not things (e.g. marriage exchange);
- Products of socially divided labour are circulated by means of gift-exchange, barter or payment of rent;
- This may be elaborated as markets, exchange at negotiated rates, not the gift;
- Then special- and general-purpose monies enter into the circuit of exchange;
- Money is the commodity crystallized as pure exchange value (Marx);
- Now money can take the form of capital to make profit;
- Eventually “industrial capital” employs human labour, as opposed to finance and merchant capital;
- Passing beyond Marx’s time, services come to outweigh goods in the world market (things are replaced by what people do for each other);
- Now commodities are often ideas and work for society is recognized as wholly abstract ciphers; money is information flying around cyberspace as bits;
- The world market for money is dominated by derivatives – secondary contracts that gamble on the future prices of commodities actually bought and sold;
- But people still do many things for themselves; make gifts; use old-fashioned cash; join computerized barter networks etc.
This is, of course, a bourgeois just-so story; but it is based on Marx’s and it does illuminate a basic trend that he predicted, the apotheosis of capital as money exchanged for money in a pure form detached from what people do. It is consistent with Mauss’s argument that gift-exchange and market contracts rest on a shared logic of reciprocity; but not with the opposition between “gift economies” and “commodity economies” that we have seen animates so much anthropological discussion today.
In his introduction to Grundrisse (1973:100-108), Marx states that we must start from the concrete conditions of our moment in history and then draw some analytical abstractions from them. Some are content just to achieve abstract ideas; but for Marx the point is to insert these simplified abstractions back into their concrete starting-point. Yet he opens Capital with this abstract discourse on “commodities” and the three volumes never get to where he was aiming for in Grundrisse, “the world market and its crises”.
Both Marx (1970) and Simmel (1978: chapter 6) noticed that social abstraction through capitalist markets seemed to go along with intellectual abstraction as philosophy and science in ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, England in the seventeenth century and, we might say, the USA in the twentieth. But we should not lose sight of the dialectics involved. The commodity remains something useful and in that use lies its concrete realization. The reality is the mutual determination of the abstract and the concrete and our method has somehow to reproduce that.
We rely on the products of abstraction to engage with others in highly concrete ways; and information-based trade in commodities and money allows us to interact with increasing specificity at great distances. Thus I once had a service contract for my website with a firm in Bangalore, India. I could talk to the webmaster there by internet telephone, while he showed me various design possibilities through our browsers-- all in real time and at no cost. This is getting close to what we could do to if we were in the same room together. Working with a PC will be a lot less lonely in future. The digital revolution in communications is as radical as any in human history, comparable to the invention of agriculture (Hart 2000, 2005).
Money in the human economy
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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