Money in the making of world society 2

Humanity formed a society for the first time in the last half-century. Universal ideas can now be expressed through universal means of communication. As the first generation for whom world society is a fact, we have the means to study it and are indeed obliged to do so. Anthropology is indispensable to the making of world society: not the current academic discipline as such, but rather in Kant’s cosmopolitan sense of what we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a world fit for everyone.

Money is both the source of our vulnerability in society and the practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful. We must develop more effective public institutions at the level of world society as well as below. Money’s ability to sustain local meaning and universal connection at the same time is an indispensable means to that end.

A lot hinges on where in human evolution we imagine the world is today. I think of us as being like the first digging-stick operators, primitives stumbling into the invention of agriculture, but with no way of imagining its culmination in Chinese civilization. Future generations will be interested in us for the single interactive network linking all humanity that we formed. This has two striking features: it is a highly unequal market of buyers and sellers fuelled by a money circuit that has become progressively detached from production and politics; and it is driven by a digital revolution in communications whose symbol is the internet. 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 rests on three developments of the last two decades: 1. The collapse of the Soviet Union, opening up the world to transnational capitalism and neo-liberal economic policies. 2. The entry of China’s and India’s two billion people, a third of humanity, into the world market as powers in their own right and the globalization of capital accumulation, for the first time loosening the grip of America and Europe on the global economy. 3. The shortening of time and distance brought about by the communications revolution, linked to a restlessly mobile population.

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. As Kant said, conflict is the catalyst for seeking a lawful basis of world society. Certainly humanity has regressed from the hopes for equality released by the Second World War and the anti-colonial revolution that followed it. If society is now caught between nation and world, neo-liberalism has opened up a range of new political possibilities, from transnational association via the internet and regional trading blocs to innovative patterns of enterprise and co-operation at the local and national levels.

This adds up to the possibility of a new human universal. By this I mean making a world where all people can live together, not the imposition of principles that suit some powerful interests at the expense of the rest. The next universal will be unlike its Christian and bourgeois predecessors through which Western powers sought to dominate or replace the cultural particulars that organize people’s lives everywhere. The main precedent for discovering our common humanity is great literature which achieves universality through going deeply into particular personalities, relations and places. The new universal will not just tolerate cultural particulars, but will hold that true human community can only be realized through them.

I point here to parallels between money and religion in modern society. Human beings need to stabilize relations between self and society, between the everyday lives they know so well and the mysteries of belonging together that extend far beyond our ability to grasp them. Religion once did this for most people and still does for many. I study money because it is central to the formation of world society and it shares some of the features of religion, being at once an abstract expression of our most inclusive associations and the concrete means of fulfilling our immediate desires and obligations.

Anthropology is indispensable to the making of world society: not the current academic discipline as such, but rather in Kant’s sense of what we need to know about humanity as a whole if we want to build a world fit for everyone. This use of ‘anthropology’ could also be embraced by students of history, sociology, political economy, philosophy and literature. Ethnography was a revolutionary move a century ago. For the first time, professionals left academic seclusion to join people where they live in order to find out what they do and think. But it will not do for the study of world society I envisage now.


The unity of self and society

There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relationships. Much of modern ideology emphasizes how problematic it is to be both self-interested and mutual. Yet the two sides are often inseparable in practice and some societies, by encouraging private and public interests to coincide, have managed to integrate them more effectively than ours.

Integration is made more difficult when the individual self-interest of the market is opposed to the pure gift of the family and primitive communes. 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. Seen in this light, the pure types of selfish and generous economic action obscure the complex interplay between our individuality and belonging in subtle ways to others. If learning to be two-sided is the means of becoming human, then the lesson is clearly hard to learn.

Durkheim insisted in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life that we are at once collective and individual. What we know empirically is our own everyday life. But we are also subject to forces whose origins we do not know – natural disasters, social revolutions and death. What is ultimately unknown to us is our collective being in society. Religion is the organized attempt to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown, between the world of ordinary experience and an extraordinary world that lies beyond it. So we worship society and call it God. The chaos of everyday life attains order to the extent that it is informed by ideas representing the social facts of a shared existence. We internalize these beliefs through the heightened consciousness fostered by ritual.

Kant held that society may be as much an expression of individual subjectivity as a collective force out there. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into metaphysics. He wrote, ‘Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?’ In order to understand the world, we must begin with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself. The world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to unite the two poles as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity.

Kant’s achievement was soon overthrown by a counter-revolution, launched by Hegel and only truly consummated after the First World War, that identified society with the state. As a result, the personal was separated from the impersonal, the subje
ct from the object, humanism from science. Society was now conceived of as an impersonal mechanism defined by international division of labour, national bureaucracy and scientific laws understood only by experts. Not surprisingly, most people felt ignorant and impotent in the face of such a society. But, even if the rules are impersonal, social organization consists of real people doing things with each other.

The wage labour system led to an attempt to separate the spheres in which paid and unpaid work predominated. One is ideally objective and impersonal, specialized and calculated; the other is subjective and personal, diffuse, based on long-term interdependence. The first is a zone of infinite scope where things, and increasingly human creativity, are bought and sold for money, the market. The second is a protected sphere of domestic life, where intimate personal relations hold sway, home. The market is unbounded and, in a sense, unknowable, whereas the bounds of domestic life are known only too well. The result is a heightened sense of division between an outside world where our humanity feels swamped and a precarious zone of protected personality at home. This duality is the moral and practical foundation of capitalist society.

All the efforts of economists to insist on the autonomy of market logic cannot disguise the fact that market relations have a personal and social component, particularly when human creativity is bought and sold. Human work is not an object separable from the person performing it, so people must be taught to submit to the impersonal disciplines of the workplace. The war to impose these rules has never been completely won. So, just as money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to the workplace; and the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres conceptually separate is huge.

Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control. Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside. This institutional division asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being a means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between them. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society and why its role in society evokes religion. Today money is the source of our vulnerability in society and the practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful.

How else can we repair this rupture between self and society? Gandhi believed that the modern state disabled its citizens, subjecting mind and body to the control of professional experts when a civilization should enhance its members’ sense of self-reliance and community. For him, every human being is both a unique personality and part of humanity as a whole. Between these extremes lie associations of great variety. Gandhi settled on the village as the most appropriate social vehicle for Indian development. How do we bridge the gap between a puny self and a vast, unknowable world? The answer is to scale down the world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a meaningful relationship might be established between the two. Gandhi 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.

Novels and movies span actual and possible worlds. They bring history down in scale to a familiar frame (the paperback, the screen) and audiences enter into that history subjectively on any terms their imagination permits. Men and women once prayed to God with similar results. The sources of our alienation are commonplace. What interests me is resistance to alienation, whatever form it takes, religious or otherwise. How can we feel at home out there, in the restless turbulence of the modern world? The digital revolution in communications is 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 cannot stop until we replicate face-to-face interaction at distance. For the drive to overcome alienation is even more powerful than alienation itself.

The making of world society

The world has seen three periods when ‘globalization’ — increasing awareness of the world as a framework for shared social life — has been palpable. Kant lived through the first, at the end of the eighteenth century, when the American and French revolutions, British industrial capitalism and the international movement to abolish slavery evoked the accelerated integration of world society. The second consisted of the three decades leading up to the First World War, when international migration took place on a scale that has not been seen before or since and the world economy was instituted as a racial order. The third phase is now. Only in this last case are we justified in speaking of world society as a realized fact, although the process of global integration is far from finished.

In Perpetual Peace, Kant held that Cosmopolitan Right, the basic right of all world citizens, should rest on universal hospitality, that is, the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory. We should be free to go wherever we like in the world, since it belongs to us all equally. He goes on:

The peoples of the earth have entered in varying degree into a universal community, and it has developed to the point where a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere.

This confident sense of an emergent world order was the high point of the liberal revolution, before it was overwhelmed by its twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the nation-state. The world is much more socially integrated today than two centuries ago and its economy is palpably unjust. The task of building a global civil society, perhaps a world state, is urgent and anthropological visions can play their part in that.

Humanity formed a society — a single interactive social network — for the first time in the half-century from the Second World War. This was the cosmopolitan society that Kant envisaged earlier, but did not witness. It is massively unequal and riddled with conflict, but now there is a universe of communications to give concrete expression to universal ideas. In future historians will want to study this emerging human society and they will look to us for clues. They will mostly be disappointed by the fragmented narrowness of our anthropological vision.

Human society and demography were irreversibly transformed in the last half century. World population doubled between 1960 and 2000. Countries like France, Japan and Italy were still half peasant in 1945, but agriculture now accounts for less than 10% of the workforce in all the leading capitalist countries. Food production was fully mechanized for the first time. The proportion living in cities rose from 2-3% in 1800 to around 50% in 2000, most of the increase after 1945 taking place in the poor countries. The world economy has become more integrated as a circuit of capital, increasingly polarized and in broad terms stagnant. By 2000, half of the hundred largest economic units on the planet were business corporations. If the world has become a single interactive network, it is as a network of markets on which everyone’s livelihood now depends.

The gross economic discrepancy between rich and poor countries has led to a new, more cosmopolitan mixture of peoples. The great symbol of the revolution in transport and communications is the internet; but equally important is the size of global TV audiences, over two billions for
some major sporting events. Space travel allowed us to see the earth from the outside for the first time. Notions of community, largely limited to residence or work before, have been hugely expanded. The rich countries account together for about 15% of the world’s population. The rest must reconcile their relative poverty with an unfinished history of racism. One third of humanity still works in the fields with their hands; many of them have never made a phone call in their life. Africa stands out as the symbol and reality of this contrast. Half of its people now live in cities; but production there is weakly mechanized, all but four African governments are bankrupt and Africa’s share of global purchasing power is only 2%.

Since the 1980s, Western dominance of global capitalism has been challenged by Japan, followed by the Southeast Asian tigers, with China and India lumbering into high gear behind. Asia has long been where the majority of human beings live and now manufacturing production is being relocated there. After only two centuries of the machine revolution, it can no longer be assumed that the world’s future lies with capitalism’s pioneers.

It is possible to claim that globalization is centuries old, nothing new. I do not insist that the formation of world society is now complete or that it lacked antecedents; but consider what the human condition was like before the Second World War and what it is now. Something tremendous has happened in between. We have difficulty imagining the processes involved, not least because of a national consciousness fed by our own country’s media every day. We may not be able to understand these tentative steps towards the unification of world society, but future historians will recognize the significance of our efforts. By then, the fundamental choices affecting the prospects for life on earth may well have already been made.


The age of money

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 and finally to the world as our normal habitat. Although we think of ourselves as a modern people, our institutions still look backwards to the previous phase of agrarian civilization. Indeed capitalism is a sort of feudal economy matched to a machine revolution whose potential we barely understand. The lethal result is a polarized world society that resembles the Old Regime, with an isolated elite controlling the destiny of powerless human masses to whose fate they are largely indifferent.

History may be conceived of as a sequence in which the human past was dominated by nature or the land and the future is imagined as a just and reasonable society expressing the interests of all. The present transitional phase is both a dissolvent of the past and the bridge to a better future. Its main feature is money and the buying and selling that go with it. Whether we call it the market or capitalism, money is taken to be indispensable to the just society or anathema to it. Locke and Marx share this vision of money’s role in human history as an engine of inequality, disrupting old society, while it paves the way for utopia.

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. As a token of society, money must be impersonal to connect each individual with the universe of relations to which they belong. The economists capture this aspect in their abstract models of exchange. But people make everything personal, including their relations with society. Anthropologists and sociologists are sensitive to the meaning of money in people’s everyday lives. This two-sided relationship is universal, but its incidence is highly variable.

The textbook definitions of money — a means of payment; a unit of account; a standard of value; a store of wealth — do not capture its evolution as a means of human interaction in society. From having been an object produced by remote authorities, it is becoming more obviously a subjective expression of our own will; and this development is mirrored in the shift from ‘real’ to ‘virtual’ money. In the last three centuries, the money form has evolved from metallic coins and ledger entries through paper notes to electronic digits. A lot more circulates with money than the goods and services it buys. Money’s significance 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.

In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler emphasized the part played by number and money in the history of Western civilization. He identified a break between classical antiquity and the modern West. For the Greeks, number was magnitude, the essence of all things perceptible to the senses. Mathematics for them was thus concerned with measurement in the here and now, visible and tangible. All this changed with Descartes whose new number-idea was function – a world of relations between points in abstract space. Now a passionate Faustian tendency towards the infinite took hold, married to abstract mathematical forms that increasingly freed themselves from concrete reality in order better to control it.

In economic life, there has been a parallel shift from thinking in terms of goods to thinking in terms of money. When a businessman signs a piece of paper to mobilize remote forces, this gesture stands in an abstract relationship to the power of labour and machinery, only taking the form of money numbers in a retrospective accountancy process. Thinking in money generates money. It turns the world into subjects and objects, consisting of a few executives and those who follow their orders. Each individual is either a part of the money force or just a mass.

In order to do things for each other in society, services have to be detached as commodities from what we do for ourselves. This process of social abstraction, ‘commoditization’, draws us into ever-widening circles of interdependence, the most inclusive of which are calculated in terms of money. The classical economists focused on the commodity’s higher-order ability to enter into abstract relations of exchange with other commodities through money (quantity) rather than on its concrete value in use (quality); but the commodity remains something useful and in that use lies its concrete realization. The reality of markets then is not just universal abstraction, but this mutual determination of the abstract and the concrete.

Money conveys meanings and money itself tells us a lot about how we make the communities we live in. James Buchan suggests that money is principally a vehicle for the expression of human wishes. In order to realize our limitless desires, they are trapped for a moment, frozen in money transactions that allow us to meet others in society who are capable of satisfying them. But money also expresses something social. We need to understand better how we build the infrastructures of collective existence, money among them. How do meanings come to be shared and memory to transcend the minutiae of personal experience?

Memory played an important part in Locke&rsqu
o;s philosophy of money. For him a person, by performing labour on the things given to us in common by nature, made them his own. But, to sustain a claim on his property through time, that person has to remain the same; and personal identity depends on consciousness. Property must endure in order to be property and that depends on memory. Money thus expands the capacity of individuals to stabilize their own personal identity by holding something durable that embodies the desires and wealth of all the other members of society. Money is a ‘memory bank’, 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. One of money’s chief functions is remembering.

Money is intimately linked to democracy as a political principle. This is because its impersonality dissolves differences between people. So we vote with our money whenever we buy something. But this system of voting is vastly unequal. As a result, money not only binds individuals together; it separates them from each other and disrupts community. Ever since Keynes, modern economies have been seen to be driven by the ‘purchasing power’ of people in the mass. The extension of personal credit in the digital age may allow for this power to be realized by individuals to an ever greater degree. The world economy is once more being transformed by radical reductions in the cost of producing a basic commodity, the transfer of information. The era of mass production and consumption may be ending as a result. A lot of information about individuals may now be attached to transactions at distance. Personal identity is being restored to what were not long ago impersonal contracts. If modern society has always been individualistic, only now is the individual emerging as a social force to be reckoned with.

Society and the individual, the impersonal and the personal, are equally necessary to human existence; and working out specific ways of combining them is durably problematic. What is going on is less a shift from the impersonal to the personal, more a change affecting the relationship between the two. Economic history is dialectical. Most people are made quite anxious by being economically dependent on impersonal and anonymous institutions. This is an immense force for reversing the historical pattern of alienation on which the modern economy has been built. So any renewed emphasis on human personality and concrete social relations in economic life must go hand in hand with the search for forms of impersonal society appropriate to such a goal.

Any move towards greater humanism in economy 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 as bits on a screen who sometimes materialize face-to-face. We could 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 many forms compatible with personal agency and human interdependence at every level from the local to the global.

To turn our backs on markets and money in the name of collective as opposed to individual interests is to reproduce by negation the bourgeois separation of self and society. Moreover, it is not enough for sociologists, anthropologists and institutional economists 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 we don’t know, if we are to avert the ruin they could bring down on us all. Money’s potential to sustain universal connection offers one indispensable means to that end.

Because our ephemeral economic transactions depend on using money, it seems to be more stable than the relations it expresses. Money may thus be conceived of as durable ground on which to stand, anchoring identity in a collective memory whose concrete symbol is money; or it may be viewed as the outcome of a more creative process where we each generate the personal credit linking us to society. When the meaning of money is seen to be what each of us makes of it, we may be ready at last to embrace Kant’s Copernican revolution in metaphysics; and money will be dethroned as the archaic God of capitalism it has become.


Short version of the essay posted on 1st May 2007, given at a conference held in Oxford, June 2007 on '21st century anthropology: global process and power'.

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