1. Money in the Making of Humanity

Ours is an age of money. Half the world worships money and the other half thinks of it as the root of all evil. In either case, money makes the world go round. 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. The problem is that markets use money: some people have lots of it and most people have much less than 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. But, although we generally think of ourselves as a modern people, our institutions still look backwards to the previous phase of agrarian civilisation. The economic forms we live by are themselves archaic. Indeed capitalism could be said to be a sort of feudal economy matched to a machine revolution whose potential we barely understand. The lethal result is a polarised world society which resembles nothing so much as the old regime of 18th century France, with an isolated elite controlling the destiny of powerless human masses to whose fate they are largely indifferent.

Something must be done or life on this planet will soon be ruined. This book’s main premise is that the latest stage of the machine revolution could support a more democratic economic agenda. The convergence of telephones, television and computers in a global communications network which we know as “the internet” is very much a phenomenon of the 1990s. As yet, a minute proportion of humanity participates fully in it, although half the world occasionally watches major sporting events on television. This communications revolution is both the means of improved social connection on a planetary scale and the main source of escalating economic inequality at all levels of world society. The dominant institutions of the 20th century, that alliance of government bureaucracy and big business which I call “state capitalism”, also dominate the internet. Those who are “wired” are still a western, largely American minority. Yet, just as Marx and Engels found in a few Manchester factories in the 1840s both the seeds of a new world economy and its revolutionary antithesis, this book explores how the potential of the internet might serve the interests of economic democracy.

Money is the problem, but it is also the solution. We have to find ways of organising markets as equal exchange and that means detaching the forms of money from the capitalist institutions which currently define them. I believe that, instead of taking money to be something scarce beyond our control, we could begin to make it ourselves as a means of accounting for those exchanges whose outcomes we wish to calculate. Money would then become multiple sources of personal credit, building on the technology which has already given us plastic cards. The key to repersonalisation of the economy is cheap information. Money was previously impersonal because objects exchanged at distance needed to be detached from the parties involved. Now growing amounts of information can be attached to transactions involving people anywhere in the world. This provides the opportunity for us to make circuits of exchange employing money forms which reflect our individuality, so that money may be more meaningful to each of us as a means of participating in the multiple associations we choose to enter. All of this stands in stark contrast to state-made money in the 20th century, where citizens belonged to one national economy whose currency was monopolised by a political class claiming the authority of representation to manage its volume, price and allocation.

This is the context for the book’s title, The Memory Bank. Memory banks are, of course, found in computers; but banks are, for most people, places to store money. Money today takes the principal form of electronic digits travelling at the speed of light over telephone wires. Capitalism itself has gone virtual, being concerned with exchanging money for money in forms increasingly separated from the concerns of real production and trade. The line between the exchange of objects by means of money (markets) and the exchange of meanings through words and signs (language) is becoming blurred. Money is becoming information and information money. This provides us with an opportunity to reassess the positive relationship of money to culture and civilisation. For the memory bank of this title is money itself. I argue that the origins of the institution in Europe drew a firm association between money and collective memory. The formation of a global communications network in our time leads us to recall this semantic connection, just as the developments I envisage would emphasise money’s function as a means of remembering.

My aim throughout this book is to present the case for thinking of the present age of money as a possible prelude to the formation of a world society fit for humanity as a whole, one in which the administration of justice for all could be a realistic goal and money and markets would become the instruments of economic democracy that they are falsely represented to be today. We need to face the machine revolution and harness its potential to the purposes of our common wellbeing, instead of leaving its benefits to be monopolised, as hitherto, by businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians. If we are to take steps in this direction, we must begin to see how the institutions we live by are made by us, the people in general, and can be remade by us. This is my true objective. I wish to articulate a vision of human agency in history which enables my readers rather than disabling them, as much of modern education and culture does. The formation of world society as a single interactive network is a means towards this end; for only when each of us can make a meaningful connection between our individual purposes and the collective predicament of humanity will we have any hope of addressing the problems with which the age of money confronts us.

On money, machines and the market

We experience society these days in two principal forms: states and markets. The former are clearly less inclusive than the latter. The world market expresses our new sense of constituting a single social network and its principles of organisation (or disorganisation) are those of networks. [i] As such, markets subvert the pretension of territorial states to be the exclusive, centralised referent of their citizens’ idea of society. In any case that claim once depended on the dominance of national markets in economic life, a condition which is being rapidly eroded. It follows that our civilisation conceives of itself as an economy rather than as a means of political association. The step I want to take here is to conceive of social order as an economy serving the interests of all humanity, as the human economy. And that economy will operate with money at its heart, since buying and selling are indispensable to complex social life.

The word “economy”, as used by Greek writers such as Xenophon and Aristotle, originally meant household management, budgeting for domestic self-sufficiency. [1] As late as the early 19th century, Jane Austen could use the word “economist” for a woman who knew how to handle the servants. [ii] In the course of the previous century, however, a new science, “political economy”, arose to address the organising principles of a public sphere dominated by markets of infinite scope. [2] Largely through the synthesising efforts of Adam Smith, the new idea took hold that markets were a vehicle for the expression of rational order; and modern economics was born. Later still, in our century, it was recognised that states had the power to organise their national economies (Keynes’s “macro-economics”). And now we face the necessity of constructing economic order at the global level. The force bringing us to this point has been state capitalism, the system of money-making in which nation-states preside over the social hierarchy; but I will argue that its grip is weakening, not least as a consequence of the communications revolution. [3]

The original condition of life on this planet was to produce and reproduce alone. The discovery of sex and society vastly increased the scale and complexity of both operations, making interdependence a necessity, especially for ours, the most social of species. The development of humanity thus consists significantly in devising ways of working for and with others. When production and consumption are separated, mechanisms must be found to restore the linkage between them. Exchange in its various forms is the most prominent of these, but it is by no means the only one. Money and markets allow for a widening of the social range of exchange relations, so that people can produce for ultimate consumers with whom they have no personal ties. The world market of our day is just the latest stage of a process which is pulling the whole of humanity into an increasingly integrated economy. This world market is young. Leaving aside the small quantities of booty plundered by Europeans in the centuries after they first discovered the rest of humanity, it began in earnest under a century and a half ago, when a transport revolution (railways, steamships and the telegraph) gave a decisive boost to the integration of global trade. [iii] Since then we have ventured into space to see the earth from the outside. And lately the communications revolution of the 1990s is bringing us even closer together in practical terms.

The means of engaging in complex, long-distance transactions, however, has been impersonal coins and latterly banknotes –detachable means of payment carrying no information about the persons involved — so that the price of economic integration has seemed to be the alienation and objectification of human work. And this has been confirmed by our experience of state capitalism in this century, an alliance of centralised bureaucracy, financial interests and scientific experts, all of them dedicated to the hegemony of impersonal processes in social life. Seen in this light, the communications revolution looks like yet another stage in the progressive abstraction of labour through commodity exchange, with goods and services now being registered as nothing more than numbers on a computer screen. The modern world economy is thus to a growing extent virtual. It would not be surprising if most of us concluded that these developments are more about removing people from the economic picture than about restoring them to an active place in it. Yet the latter is precisely the claim I am making.

It is true that impersonal abstraction is indispensable to economic integration and that our world is becoming more abstract, not less. We depend on the use of quantification to make social calculations of money, time and energy, for example; and few of us would rather be ruled by powerful personalities than by impersonal law justly administered. The idea that the communications revolution contains some potentially redeeming features rests on one overwhelming fact: that large amounts of information concerning the persons involved in economic transactions at any distance can now be processed cheaply, thereby making possible the repersonalisation of complex economic life. I cannot imagine a future civilisation in which calculation of the value of many transactions would not be a central part of everyday life. Rather than be overwhelmed by money as an external object of unknown provenance, however, people may come to express themselves subjectively through it. Money would then be seen as the preserve of neither states nor anonymous markets, but rather as the ongoing invention of people seeking to measure the consequences of some of their interactions.

A secondary, but in some ways more immediately strategic point, is that electronic commerce undermines territorial monopoly — the land — as a basis for coercive economic extraction (tax and rent). This means that the internet may be finally what the democratic revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries was waiting for before it was diverted into the reactionary project of nation-building. The internet offers for the first time a technical means of expressing the possibilities for communication, democracy and humanity which have always been present in markets and money. After a century and a half when machine production favoured centralisation, the trend may now be in the opposite direction, with the widespread diffusion of miniaturised technologies such as mobile phones, digital TV and personal computers. The transfer of cheap information concerning particular individuals is becoming a routine feature of exchange. If overcoming distance was the chief function of impersonal money, people can now participate in markets of infinite complexity and size as carriers of digitalised personal identities. This has already begun with the development of plastic money, electronic payment systems and customised markets. Virtual shopping is in its infancy; but the profiles of individual consumers can be accommodated, even at this early stage, in more sophisticated ways than was ever envisaged in the days when we picked uniform products off a shelf.

If one general aim of humanity is to make society, rather than just having to take it as it comes, part of the failure of 20th century experiments in democracy is that they have often concentrated on political rights while leaving the economic system as unfair as ever. Democratising access to money is indispensable to progress. Although developments involving the internet are as yet in their infancy, some promising tendencies are discernible. I have already mentioned the rapid rise of digitalised personal credit since the introduction of plastic cards a few decades ago. The emergence of new forms of electronic money, interest-free savings and loan schemes, closed circuits of labour exchange and the like point in the same direction. The communications revolution makes customised marketing, personal banking and other manifestations of individual consumer power more feasible. Active participation in capital markets by individuals and groups seeking to protect their own pensions and life insurance is facilitated by the new system. [iv] It seems likely that, before long, we will look on money as one of many instruments invented by people to record some features of their interactions and associations.

“Economy” has as its twin term “ecology”, the science of living at home, the systematic study of habitats. The evolution described briefly above, in bringing humanity to confront the problem of order at its most inclusive level, requires us to take life as a whole on this planet as the ultimate frame of reference for human civilisation. My aim here, however, is to consider the leap involved when the idea of economy, having moved via markets from being at home in the house to being at home in the state, might now move via markets to being at home in the world. There are those, of course, who would consider money and markets themselves to be inimical to human survival. I do not. But I recognise that, in order to be persuasive, I must begin to separate the two faces of money, capitalism and markets, the institutions which express the unequal reality and the potential equality of money. In this way perhaps we will discover some of the principles of social order and disorder underlying human attempts to make money more amenable to their will.

Not long ago I attended a meeting of old Trotskyites. It was principally a celebration of an author who was in his nineties. The atmosphere was warm and mutually supportive. At the end, a man stood up and said “Comrades, tea is now available. Unfortunately, because we live in a capitalist society, we will have to charge you 30 pence a cup.” I almost wept, for the confusion between markets and capitalism is as deeply rooted on the left as it is in right-wing ideology. Markets require money and people with lots of money exercise disproportionate power in them. Capitalism may be said to be that variant of market economy in which the owners of big money control, for example, the right of most people to work for a living. But when a few friends make a service available to those who choose it and seek to recover their costs by charging a price below the public norm, that is not capitalism. The rejection of market civilisation which led to some fairly disastrous experiments in state socialism was based on this confusion.

Accordingly, I have built the argument around a fundamental distinction between “making money with money”, the sparsest definition of capitalism, and “buying and selling with money”, the timeless formula for the market. The first half of the book (chapters 2-4) examines that conjuncture of money and machines which makes our phase of economic history capitalist. The second half (chapters 5-7) is devoted to an exploration of money and markets from a humanist point of view. The sequence of chapters is as follows: the machine revolution; money in the institutional form first of capitalism (two chapters) and then of the market; the history of money considered as itself; and finally the relationship between all of these in our common future.

Although I have emphasised common human interests at the expense of the usual social divisions, one thread of the book’s argument concerns the political economy of the internet. The increased mobility of people, goods, money and information is having a cumulative impact on landed systems of association, states in other words. The “wired” (or, as the French prefer, the “internauts”) are in the vanguard of a broad movement to escape state control. This movement, which amounts to a tax revolt, already includes the extremely wealthy, criminal mafias and nomads of all kinds. There is, of course, no guarantee that the weakening of state structures will do anything to promote greater economic democracy; indeed evidence to date points at least as strongly in the other direction. Even so, fractions of the middle class have been a powerful force for general social reform in the past; and the new experience of global community afforded by the internet might just be the stimulus needed to launch a campaign in the honourable tradition of international struggles against slavery, colonialism and other institutions of entrenched inequality. But this book is only indirectly a call to use the resources of the internet for collective mobilisation; it is mainly an exploration of the potential for more of us to feel at home in the world economy.

At home in the world

The method of this book [4] is anthropology, but of a rather different kind from what is vaguely known by the term these days. Immanuel Kant coined the expression in its modern sense when he published a set of lectures he had given regularly on anthropology for thirty years. [v] Kant lived in the Baltic port of Koenigsburg (now Kaliningrad) over two centuries ago. At a time when large states were becoming dominant, he speculated on the possibility of a world society whose principle he called “cosmopolitan”. The Portuguese sailors he met in the docks made society in the open seas, on the edges of states and between the laws of states. He wondered what might be the basis for people all over the world to live peacefully together without coercion; and he found the answers in human nature, perhaps in universal practices of early education. But he also drew on the best comparative evidence of his day, accounts of the indigenous social arrangements found in North America and the South Pacific. Kant believed that human co-operation required us to rely on personal judgement moderated by common sense, the latter coming from shared social experience and taste (good food and good talk, good company).

Towards the end of his life, he wrote an essay, “Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose” (1784) [vi] , which included the following propositions:

1. In man (as the only rational creature on earth) those natural faculties which aim at the use of reason shall be fully developed in the species, not in the individual.

2. The means that nature employs to accomplish the development of all faculties is the antagonism of men in society, since this antagonism becomes, in the end, the cause of a lawful order of this society.

3. The latest problem for mankind, the solution of which nature forces us to seek, is the achievement of a civil society which is capable of administering law universally.

4. This problem is both the most difficult and the last to be solved by mankind.

5. A philosophical attempt to write a universal world history according to a plan of nature which aims at perfect civic association of mankind must be considered to be possible and even as capable of furthering nature’s purpose.

The world is much more socially integrated today than two centuries ago and its economy is palpably unjust. We have barely survived three world wars and brutality provokes fear everywhere. Moreover, the natural (we would say “ecological”) consequences of human actions are likely to be severely disruptive, if left unchecked. Histories of the universe we inhabit do seem to be indispensable to the construction of institutions capable of administering justice worldwide. When Roy Rappaport wrote recently that “Humanity…is that part of the world through which the world as a whole can think about itself”, [vii] he was repeating the central idea of Kant’s prescient essay. The task of building a global civil society for the 21st century is an urgent one and anthropological visions must play their part in that.

The last 200 years of mechanisation have brought about a deterioration in the global vision of the western middle-class’s intellectual representatives. The 19th century put the spirit of democratic revolution firmly behind and addressed a world brought into being by imperialism, an imperialism powered by machines. The question Victorians asked was how they were able to conquer the planet with so little resistance. They concluded that their culture was superior, being based on reason rather than superstition, and that this superiority was owed to nature, to the biology of racial difference. The object of Victorian anthropology was thus to explain the origin of the racial hierarchy they found in the world; and its method was evolutionary history. [viii] The assumption of human psychic unity supported the notion that “they” could eventually become like “us”, once they submitted to an appropriate form of government and education by us.

The prevailing ideology of anthropologists since the first world war has been one of cultural relativism, the notion that every place has a right to its own customs, however barbaric. This reflects a dominant worldview which has the whole of humanity pigeonholed as separate tribes, each the owner (or would-be owner) of a hybrid entity, the nation-state. Nationalism was an escape from modern history, from the realities of urban commercial life, into the timeless rural past of the Volk, the people conceived of as a homogeneous peasantry, living in villages near to nature, unspoiled by social division, the very archetype of a community bound together by kinship. Before we began to think of ourselves as nations, western intellectuals compared their societies with the city-states of the ancient world. Now they fabricated myths of their own illiterate ethnic origins in primeval forests. [ix] The Polish adventurer, Malinowski, [5] [x] reinvented romantic nationalism in the form of vivid narratives about the everyday life of South Sea islanders whose autonomous, “primitive” culture mirrored the self-image of contemporary nationalities. If the nation-state is a living contradiction, the anthropology of our century has done its best to convince western readers that society everywhere, even the most “primitive” and microscopic, is constructed along similar lines.

Of course, the peoples who were forcefully incorporated into world society by western imperialism in the previous century have not been outside modern history during this one. They have been making it. If we are looking for continuing evidence of the cosmopolitan tradition in anthropology, we would be better off with the intellectuals of the anti-colonial movement; and none of these was greater than Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s critique of the modern state was devastating. [xi] He believed that it disabled its citizens, subjecting mind and body to the control of professional experts when the purpose of a civilisation should be to enhance its members’ sense of their own self-reliance. He proposed instead an anthropology based on two universal postulates: that every human being is a unique personality and as such participates with the rest of humanity in an encompassing whole (the individual and the species of Kant’s essay). Between these extremes lie proliferating associations of great variety. As an Indian who had absorbed much that the West has to teach, Gandhi settled on the village and therefore on agricultural society as the most appropriate social vehicle for human development.

This backward-looking solution to the problem of the modern world makes Gandhi a typical 20th century figure. But the problem he confronted has been largely ignored by social theorists. It is this. If the world of society and nature is devoid of meaning, being governed by remote impersonal forces known only to specially trained experts, that leaves each of us feeling small, isolated and vulnerable. Yet modern cultures tell us that we are personalities with significance. How do we bridge the gap between a vast, unknowable world, which we experience as an external object, and a puny self endowed with the subjective capacity to act alone or with others? 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 the two. Gandhi chose the village as the site of India’s renaissance because it was where most Indians lived, but more importantly because it had a social scale appropriate to self-respecting members of an agrarian civilisation. Moreover, he devoted a large part of his philosophy to building up the personal resources of individuals. Our task is to bring this project up to date.

We now have virtual means of constructing subject-object relations on more favourable terms. The popularity of novels and movies is based on this relationship between actual and possible worlds: they bring history down in scale to a familiar frame and they allow their audiences to enter into that history subjectively on any inflated terms that their imagination permits. Once men and women prayed to God with a similar effect. What human beings need is to feel at home in the world. The sources of our alienation are too commonplace to be repeated here, even if they will have to come under closer scrutiny later. What interests me is resistance to alienation, whether this takes the form of religion, spectator sports, outdoor recreation, craft production or domesticity. Home has been described as “haven in a heartless world”, [xii] where the self is stabilised by an environment we have chosen and reshaped. But what does it take for us to feel at home out there, in the restless turbulence of the modern world?

The communications revolution may be understood in part as a response to this universal human problem. We feel at home in intimate, face-to-face relations; but we must engage in remote, often impersonal exchanges at distance. Improvements in telecommunications have this evolutionary imperative, that they cannot stop until we replicate at distance the experience of face-to-face interaction. For the drive to overcome alienation is even more powerful than alienation itself. We will not settle for being objects manipulated by remote control. Humanity is a quality, a collective noun and a historical project. We have just reached the point when we have established universal communications; now we must make world society in our own best self-image, the image of our humanity. It is hard to grasp how far we have come and how quickly. [6]

Anthropology, Kant’s brainchild, represents the aspiration to place knowledge of humanity as a whole on a rigorous footing. As such it is part of the effort to co-ordinate human intelligence at a species level for common ends. It occupies the space vacated by religion after the latter was driven from the governance of society by science. [xiii] Perhaps it prepares the ground for another religion; but it is not itself religion. This book is a contribution to anthropology. In it I seek to make a bridge between a realistic awareness of the world we live in and our hope for a better future. That is why I have entitled this chapter “Money in the making of humanity”.

Reading The Memory Bank

A “bank” is a place where things of value, usually money, are stored for safekeeping, to be withdrawn for use when needed. [7] [xiv] A memory bank is a store from which past experiences may be recalled. In computing this refers to files containing stored information such as operational software and more transient data. For present purposes, “the memory bank” is money, but it is also this book itself, which was written from memory and is intended to function as a memory bank for readers. Money provides a useful starting point and central focus for gaining some perspective on our moment in history. C.L.R. James once wrote “Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place…before I discovered that it is not the quality of goods and utility that matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.” [xv] This idea of life as a trajectory, at once individual and collective, would be impossible without memory; and its sources lie equally in shared traditions and our own unique experiences. Even as we swim in the river of life, we need to draw on the more stable sources of memory accumulating slowly at its edges. There are good reasons for approaching money as a memory bank in this sense.

To begin with, the word “money” itself comes from the Roman mint at the temple of Juno Moneta. Moneta is the Latin equivalent of Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, custodians of the principal arts and sciences. The verb moneo means to remind and, like Muse (as in museum, music etc.), is derived from the root men-, mind. [xvi] Thus, for the Romans and implicitly for all those European cultures which take their word for coinage from them, money was at first a store of collective memory linked to the reproduction of the arts as living tradition. The religious origin of banking is attested by the fact that people once put their wealth in temples for safekeeping.

The idea of money as a source of social memory was also crucial for John Locke who figures prominently in our story as the philosopher who inaugurated the modern age of democratic revolutions. Locke was obsessed with money’s role both in establishing a progressive social order and in subverting it as its criminal antithesis. Indeed he believed that money launched humanity from the state of nature onto the road to civil government. As long as men’s possessions were limited to perishable products, the scope for property was restricted. Money, by offering a durable store of value convertible against all useful things, unleashed the potential for property accumulation and for the intergenerational transmission of inequality. For Locke then, money was indispensable to that development of cultural memory on which civilisation depends.

In our own day, we have seen money transformed from metallic objects to paper notes and now to electronic digits. These “bits” travel at the speed of light via satellite and cable, to be captured in the memory banks of computers whose operations know no territorial frontiers. In the recent movie Entrapment, Sean Connery plays an ageing master burglar who claims not to enjoy robbing banks any more. The money “stuff” has all gone, he says: there used to be gold and deposit boxes full of jewellery to steal, now there are only computers and digitalised information. [8] [xvii] Money in this form is little more than traces of memory and the banks which keep it are mechanised minds.

If, for some centuries now, society has been dominated by the owners of money, “capitalists”, today the form of that domination has moved on to what I call virtual capitalism. This is a phase of “making money with money” in which the money circuit is increasingly detached from real production and even from trade in anything but itself. The principal markets are for information services rather than objects; and long-distance exchange is mainly of money for money in a bewildering variety of derivative forms. Although this phase of capitalism has been building for over twenty years, the emergence of the internet as a vehicle for commerce makes it very much a phenomenon of the 1990s. The rapid convergence of financial markets and the communications revolution provides the most compelling reason for locating money in the memory banks of computers at this time.

In the later chapters of this book, I suggest that money will eventually take as many forms as the plurality of associations we enter. I take this to be a likely consequence of the reduced power of states to control the economic activities of their citizens (not least as a result of internet commerce). To an increasing degree we will be able to make money for our personal and shared purposes. In the context of more democratic access to money, it will become clearer that its main function is to help us keep track of those exchanges with others that we choose to calculate. We will make money in many different ways as a means of remembering.

Seen in this light, money and language are the chief cultural infrastructures which allow us to communicate. And rediscovery of this ancient truth comes precisely when humanity has formed world society as a single interactive network for the first time. The memory bank to whose formation this book points, through its discourse on money, machines and the market, is thus the human conversation which might inform the construction of a better global society. This conversation is already many millennia old and has sources everywhere that people have been. Each of us lives off that accumulation and contributes to it in our own way. I have written the book self-consciously with that relationship in mind; and I end this introductory chapter with some reflections on how I imagine readers might enter into the spirit as well as the content of my arguments. For The Memory Bank of the title refers also to the exchange of meanings (communication) made possible by writing and reading the book.

The first version of this book was a textbook, Anthropology and the Modern Economy. [9] Its scope was limited to what student readers could follow up in readily accessible publications. Many of these texts were classic and would have appeared in any similar book; but others were more idiosyncratic. Their selection was based on their place in my memory. Every chapter was written initially from memory, as if it were an improvised lecture (my preferred style of teaching). Only later did I return to the texts to check whether I had got them right. In the process of checking, I added new items which seemed apt even though they were not initially part of my stock repertoire. This too is how memory works, a continuous process of loss and addition built around the elements that last. [xviii]

I decided not to publish the textbook, mainly because I felt myself to be excluded by its impersonality. It failed to express those parts of my knowledge which are not to be found in books, since I could hardly represent my own informal experience as the common tradition. Yet I relied on personal anecdotes to enliven my lectures and make them accessible to audiences at various levels. In these, by improvising a line of general argument mixed with stories taken from life, I hoped to bring together analytical reason and narrative through the continuous rhythms of oral performance. Apart from demonstrating to audiences that ideas and life need not be opposed, I discovered that improvisation gave me access to previously unconscious patterns of memory. I often learned something new from spontaneous connections made while telling a story already familiar to me in outline. The textbook form blocked off most of that possibility; and I turned to other ways of bringing my experience as a teacher to the task of writing a book. For a time I worked on a fictional dialogue with an African woman student; but then I found this form too contrived, as well as being limited to an academic setting.

About two years ago I hit upon the idea of writing a general book about money, drawing on all my experience, both professional and otherwise. There were numerous precedents for choosing such a theme. When I was offered the chance to give a public lecture to my peers in British social anthropology, I had chosen the topic of money. [10] [xix] My own life-long interest in money had taken many forms inside and outside the academy, such as gambling, business enterprise, ethnographic research and a general obsession with prices and quantification. Money provided a common thread linking me to the Manchester of my roots, to its history as the first industrial economy and beyond. This time the book took shape from my memory as a whole. I was anxious to show the intellectual sources of my thinking, since they occupy so much of my adult life; but I devised a method of writing which crossed the boundaries of scholarship into the personal experiences which have shaped my own responses to that tradition. The result documents an unfinished journey which I hope my readers will be able to share in their own way.

As modern people, we tend to live from day to day in a world of private busy-ness, preoccupied with our own immediate concerns: getting out of bed, having a cup of coffee, cleaning our teeth, catching a bus to work, making some phone calls, meeting a friend for lunch, getting in a report to deadline, withdrawing cash from the bank, shopping at the supermarket, trying to relax with a drink, watching the TV news, going to bed again. We rarely take time to ask what makes this daily routine possible. If we do, the images we sustain of society are usually quite restricted, formed by ideas about what we are not, as much as by what we share with others. In this century, we have taken refuge in the myopic notion that the world is divided into tribes each owning or aspiring to own a nation-state, a source of security to its inmates and a means of excluding all the rest. Within these states, society is often conceived of in terms of class divisions based on wealth, occupation, race or gender. The intellectuals have tended to mirror such a worldview, offering visions of society which are themselves stuck in the rut of what is familiar.

For all the above reasons, the style of what follows will probably seem odd or even presumptuous to many readers. I believe that humanity stands on the threshold of a new era in which there will be a pressing need to develop, conceptually and in practice, an awareness of the common problems facing world society as a whole. In a sense, to be explored below, such a society already exists; but we have scarcely begun to contemplate how to establish and maintain the social, technological and cultural infrastructures we will need to survive the 21st century. Obviously, the divisions of kind and interest which now constitute our world present many obstacles to such a project. No one book could claim to overcome them. But it is still possible to make a start. I have, therefore, chosen to write as if the world were already one and humanity an inclusive “we”. I offer a vision of world history, an anthropology, in which readers may or may not be able to place their own personal trajectories. Above all, I have put myself inside the processes of which I write, not outside them; and I offer readers anecdotal evidence of the person who chooses to write in this way, rather than hide behind a mask of objectivity.

This strategy inevitably may seem to cloak my particular experience with the pretension of universality. The habit of doing this is more common than we may think, but not usually in a book written by a modern intellectual. I have been reinforced in my ambition from two sources. One is the philosophers of the democratic revolution (especially Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Marx and Gandhi) who sought to express themselves in language addressing humanity as a whole and largely succeeded. The other is my mentor, C.L.R. James, a West Indian revolutionary and writer, who managed to make his audiences feel that they lived inside the movement of history he described in his speeches and who had the courage to write about “the world we live in”. [11] [xx] There is something magical about the way human beings reach agreement, especially since, in my view, we all carry around in our heads a private language based on experiences which are unique to us as individuals. [12] Communication depends on our suspending incomprehension and disbelief long enough to sustain the illusion that we know what someone else means when they say something. But, of course, we can never know the full context of historical associations (i.e. memory) which lie behind each person’s use of specific words.

The 20th century’s greatest economist, Maynard Keynes, was unusually open to the artistic and subjective dimensions of economics (he married a Russian ballerina). He said, more than once, that a writer depends heavily on the sympathy of his readers, on their willingness to collaborate in the act of communication involved. Reading (or listening) is as creative a process as writing (or speaking). All communication is two-sided, an exchange of meanings in which the “we” formed by the interaction is constructed out of the irreducible separateness of “you” and “me”. If I seem to presume too much, it is because my rhetoric is designed to overcome a very pessimistic view of what human beings can actually share at this time. We really are primitives, locked in our private worlds, dipping our toes gingerly in the ocean of human possibility. The most we can hope for is to co-operate as equals in this limited context. Given that I have written the book with this in mind, I do not expect readers to follow my line of thought slavishly (the textbook model). For reading is also a spontaneous outcome of the interplay between the objective contents of the text and the subjective interests and experience of the reader. My aim is to stimulate further enquiry and I expect readers to react differently and selectively both to my text and to those I have referred to. Do not be surprised if my interpretations are not yours; and cherish the moments when we appear to agree.

Marcel Mauss is acknowledged to be the most brilliant writer in the field of economic anthropology (almost entirely for his celebrated essay on The Gift). [xxi] He used to lecture in Paris’s Institute of Ethnology during the 1930s to audiences drawn from that city’s intellectuals in general. The lectures were well-received, but people could not agree on what they were about. Three members of the surrealist movement, among them Georges Bataille, decided to conduct an experiment by separately writing down their versions of his lectures. Sure enough, they turned out to be entirely different. When consulted on the matter, the great man said that it was no part of his intention to impose his own thoughts on the audience, but rather to allow each listener to discover their own. Abstract ideas must be made personally relevant in order to live. Our education system discourages awareness of this fact, with its hose-and-bucket approach to the acquisition of knowledge. Any single act of reading or listening takes its meaning from the accumulated memory of the recipient. The experience of revelation, whenever it occurs, is invariably a process of self-discovery, when a passage of a book or lecture triggers off conscious recognition of something we half-understood already. We are conditioned to attribute this process to the author or lecturer; but the relationship of this sense of enlightenment to the immediate experience is often at best contingent. The intellectuals, of course, would like us to believe that ideas govern life and that the rest of humanity consequently should take our lead from them; but it is the other way round, on both counts.

Like any other book, this one has a linear organisation. There is a definite logic to the order in which I have chosen to place each section and chapter. This sense of forward movement is intrinsic to the writing of each chapter and it favours a conventional reading style (from the beginning to the end). I do not recommend, however, that the book be approached initially in this way. Have a look at the table of contents, the index, the concluding paragraphs of a section. Dip into the argument at random, allowing your eye to rest where it finds fertile ground (and to move on if it does not). Later you will return to particular bits of the argument for more prolonged reflection. If you find yourself sticking on a specific page, pass on and return to it later or give it a miss altogether. This too is how the mind works when you are sitting through a lecture or watching television, fastening on items here and there, trying to keep up with the thread or not, as the mood takes you. And the great advantage of a book it that you don’t have to sit through a unique performance while it happens. Being in control yourself was not invented with the VCR. Books got there first.

Finally, we come to the really difficult bit. Who are you, my readers? I have assumed that the frame of reference here is universal, taking in a global comparative perspective. Yet both my biography and my subject have their roots in the history of the English-speaking peoples; and my profession, anthropology, has been dominated in the 20th century by the three major western imperial powers — America, Britain and France. While I have tried to reflect the diversity of my own global experience in what I have written, there is no denying where I have come from nor that most of humanity will be excluded from reading the book, for reasons of education, class, language or whatever. This tension between universal generalisation and particular cultural background is intrinsic to the anthropological project. It is self-evident to me that the western capitalism of our day is not the endpoint of human evolution that its apologists sometimes claim; [13] [xxii] and that the voices of the non-western masses must still be heard on their own terms. But equally, the most general processes always start out somewhere in particular and the leaders in the machine age which is transforming humanity’s relationship to the planet have been Britain, America and a few other western societies.

This is something of a minefield and I urge readers to defer judgement concerning my own relationship to the contradictions involved until they have read more of the book. I hope to diffuse the charge of ethnocentric bias, first by admitting it and second by asking readers to approach the text as individuals before leaping to grand classifications as an explanation for our personal differences. This too is a reason for including myself in this story: we can reach out for the universal together, but each of us comes from somewhere in particular and we must never lose sight of that. My hope for human society is that this principle will come to be more widely accepted than at present.

Finally, I do not claim that this book is a work of scholarship. Its scope is too broad for that. But I have tried to enable readers to trace my most specific citations and, where relevant, the direct sources for some of my more general remarks. These references to published texts are contained in numbered notes at the end of each chapter. I have added in the same place a short guide to further reading in essay form. The Authors’ Index at the end of the text may also be used to follow up literary sources. A few footnotes offer points of interest which I felt would clutter up the flow of the main text. In general, however, I have tried to capture the style of my lectures, improvisations which draw on my working memory. Many of the statements I make can no longer be traced to an objective source. They are just stuck in my memory and I can only hope that they are not wrong. I could have spent an extra year or so establishing the veracity of my account in minute detail and leaving behind a compendious system of notes. But that would be to make the book more like a late 20th century academic text than I would like. I have relied, more than anything, on the classical canon of modern social thought and it occurred to me that most authors whose books have lasting value were not so concerned with extensive annotation of their arguments. That may not be an adequate defence, but it calms my anxieties a little.

Guide to further reading

I am a classicist. I like to read the writers whose books made a big difference. I have picked up a personal intellectual genealogy over the years, but not in the order of their historical occurrence nor with any fixed ranking of their importance to me. When I started out as an anthropologist, I was attracted to the French founders of the modern discipline, Emile Durkheim (note 13) and Marcel Mauss (21). Then, as a research student, I leaned heavily on Max Weber, whose General Economic History is the single most accessible text. [xxiii] Soon afterwards, I underwent a Marxist conversion and for many years I depended most on Karl Marx (17) and his followers; but it took me many years to get a handle on Capital. [xxiv] Then I discovered how much Marx, Weber and Durkheim all owed to Hegel and particularly to his The Philosophy of Right (1821). [xxv] With the help of C.L.R. James’s Notes on Dialectics (1948) and Shlomo Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, [xxvi] I began to see how dialectic might be applied to an understanding of modern history and Hegel’s central place in that history better recognised.

My next revelation was the cosmopolitan political philosophy of the late Kant and especially his anthropology (5,6). I also began to grasp his way of knowing. At the same time, I drew inspiration from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s amazing output in the mid-18th century, especially his Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754), which I take to be, with Kant’s lectures, the source of modern anthropology, and Emile: or on education (1762) which is simply the most subversive book ever written. [14] [xxvii] By now it became clear that I was heading for Locke and, true enough, I found him in the course of writing this book, particularly the Two Treatises of Government; but with the immense assistance of George Caffentzis’s Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money. [xxviii]

Apart from Locke and Marx, who between them set the intellectual agenda for a constructive debate on the principles of modern economy, I have drawn extensively on the example of two more recent writers on money, Georg Simmel and Maynard Keynes. [xxix] The latter, in particular, has been a constant source of inspiration. Otherwise, I get my economics mainly from the 18th Scottish political economists, with a slight preference for the Jacobite, Sir James Steuart, over the better-known Adam Smith. [xxx] Roy Rappaport’s great Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, published posthumously in 1999 (7), showed me that anthropologists can transcend our 20th century limitations. If all of this is taken exclusively from the western tradition, I have been much influenced also by several writers from the 20th century colonial world, notably Mohandas K. Gandhi [xxxi] and C.L.R. James. [xxxii] This then is my all-time greats batting line-up. There is no telling which of these might be a trigger to your own greater self-knowledge, as they all have been to mine.

The book shows its origins in academic life. Readers would not guess from the references that I do actually read and learn from works of literature. To some extent, this is because I have written the text from memory and my functioning memory has been formed by thirty years in the classroom. I never learned to quote poetry or literary aphorisms. Which is a pity. But if The Memory Bank persuades a few people that the classical heritage of social theory may be accessible to them, I will be content with that.

[1] Oikos meant “house” and the root nem- referred to imposing order. [2] The term “political economy” was introduced from the French by the Jacobite exile, Sir James Steuart. His mercantilist Principles of Political Oeconomy (1767) was soon superceded by Adam Smith’s work, The Wealth of Nations being published in 1776; but it is in many ways more relevant for us today. [3] This has two sides: the technology of information-processing and transfer and the social relations people enter by this means. It is because I wish to address both sides that I prefer the term “communications revolution” to “information revolution”. [4] The word method comes from the Greek meta-hodos meaning before or after the road; preparation for a journey, the end of a journey. [5] Bronislaw Malinowski, founder of the modern school of British social anthropology and author of prototypical ethnographies, especially Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). [6] In 1998 getting on for half of the world’s population watched a football match on television, the same number of people as existed on earth in 1960 (three billions). Think about it. I could say more about the potential of games to overcome the contradiction between self and society; but the point has been made sufficiently at this stage.
[7] The American Heritage Dictionary lists three separate words under “bank”: 1. A piled up mass, as of snow or clouds, a collection of things lying one on top of the other; also the slope of land at the edge of water 2. A business establishment in which money is kept 3. A set of similar things arranged in a row, such as keys on a keyboard and oarsmen in a galley. It lists the first as Middle English of Scandinavian origin, the second as coming from Late Latin banca, a bench, in particular a moneychanger’s table, the third from a Germanic variant of the same. Between them these meanings suggest a slow natural accumulation and an imposed cultural order, both sources of security like a memory bank, a place to stand on the edge of the river of time. But the place we stand on is itself moving.
[8] As Marx once put it, in order to demonstrate the priority of production over distribution, “A stock-jobbing nation cannot be pillaged in the same manner as a nation of cow-herds.” [9] Commissioned by Polity Press, for whose confidence in the project I am grateful. Unfortunately I lost confidence in the project. [10] My 1986 Malinowski lecture at the London School of Economics was “Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin”. [11] The phrase is taken from C.L.R. James Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: Herman Melville and the World We Live In (1953). I was fortunate to work with James for a couple of years before he died in 1989. See C.L.R. James American Civilization, edited by A. Grimshaw and K. Hart (1993). [12] I share this opinion with John Locke who, along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, held that language developed in human evolution before society proper. Almost all subsequent modern thinkers have held the opposite view, namely that language is inseparable from our experience of society. It is as a necessary corrective to this that I entertain the notion of each of us as the bearer of a unique set of meanings in our heads (our personal memory) drawn from a bewildering variety of sources which can never be assumed to be shared with others. Communication under these circumstances is an act of faith which we should cherish precisely for its fragility. [13] Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man is the most notorious example of this. [14] No wonder that the Archbishop of Paris issued a fatwah against its author which unleashed the hit squads all over Europe nor that Rousseau was burnt in effigy in Amsterdam, Geneva and Paris for writing Emile (note, not The Social Contract, but a work on education which attacked the very premises of the Church’s ascendancy). Receipt of Emile in the mail made Kant miss his famous midday walk – people set their clocks by him. He later wrote what may qualify as the most extravagant blurb ever (I paraphrase): “Two events stand out in the history of the struggle for human freedom: the French revolution and the publication of J.-J. Rousseau’s Emile.”

[i] M. Castells The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (three volumes), especially Volume 1 The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell, Oxford 1996

[ii] J. Austen Mansfield Park, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975 (1819)

[iii] W. A. Lewis The Evolution of the International Economic Order, Princeton U.P., Princeton, 1978

[iv] R. Blackburn “Grey capitalism”, New Left Review (forthcoming)

[v] I. Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Southern Illinois Press, Carbondale, 1978

[vi] I. Kant “Idea for a universal history with cosmopolitan intent” in Carl Friedrich ed The Philosophy of Kant, The Modern Library, New York, 1993 (1784)

[vii] R. Rappaport Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p.461

[viii] G. Stocking Victorian Anthropology, Free Press, New York, 1987

[ix] M. Thom Republics, Nations and Tribes, Verso, London, 1995

[x] B. Malinowski Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagos of Melanesian New Guinea, Dutton, New York, 1961 (1922)

[xi] B. Parekh Ghandi’s Political Philosophy: a critical examination, University of Notre Dame Press, Ind., 1989

[xii] C. Lasch Haven in a Heartless World: the family besieged, Norton, New York, 1995

[xiii] E. Durkheim The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Free Press, Glencoe, 1965 (1912); K. Hart “Foreword” to R. Rappaport Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (see note 7)

[xiv] American Heritage Dictionary (3rd edition), 1993

[xv] C.L.R.James Beyond a Boundary, Serpents Tail, London, 1994 (1963), p.

[xvi] C.Lewis and C. Short A Latin Dictionary, Oxford U.P., London, 1933

[xvii] K. Marx Grundrisse, Vintage Books, New York, 1973 (1857-58), p.98

[xviii] S. Rushdie Imaginary Homelands: essays and criticism, 1981-1991, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1992

[xix] K. Hart “Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin”, Man, December 1986

[xx] C.L.R. James Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: the story of Herman Melville and the world we live in, Allison & Busby, London, 1984 (1953); American Civilisation, A. Grimshaw & K. Hart eds, Blackwell, Oxford, 1993

[xxi] M. Mauss The Gift: the form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, Routledge, London, 1990 (Essai sur le Don, 1925)

[xxii] F. Fukuyama The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1992

[xxiii] M. Weber General Economic History, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, NJ, 1981 (1922)

[xxiv] K.Marx Capital: a critique of political economy, 3 vols, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1970 (1867)

[xxv] G.W.F. Hegel The Philosophy of Right, Oxford University Press, 1967 (1821)

[xxvi] C.L.R. James Notes on Dialectics: Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Allison & Busby, London, 1980, (1948); S. Avineri Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1972

[xxvii] J.J. Rousseau A Discourse on Inequality (Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984 (1754); Emile: or on education, Basic Books, New York, 1979 (1762)

[xxviii] John Locke Two Treatises of Government, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1960 (1690); G. Caffentzis Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s philosophy of money, Autonomedia, New York, 1989

[xxix] Georg Simmel The Philosophy of Money, Routledge, London,1978 (1900); J.M. Keynes A Treatise on Money (2 vols), Macmillan, London, 1930

[xxx] Sir James Steuart Principles of Political Oeconomy, 2 vols, Miller and Cadell, London, 1767; Adam Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Methuen, London, 1961 (1776)

[xxxi] See note 11; M.K. Gandhi An Autobiography: or my experiments with truth, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1982 (1927)

[xxxii] A. Grimshaw ed The C.L.R. James Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992; C.L.R. James The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Secker & Warburg, London, 1938; see also notes 20, 26

Leave a Reply