The Hope and Reality of Money

Death of a Salesman seems to underscore the inhumanity of money–the relentless calculus of debt, disregard for human life and worth, enslavement to branded machines, the impersonality of ‘business’. But Arthur Miller was also concerned in this play with the other side of money–the magic and alchemy of Goethe’s Faust, Benjamin’s idea of capitalism as a dream, the mysterious art of persuasion that is selling, the central role of human personality and luck.

The Lomans—father and sons–fail not just because they were crushed by the market economy, but because they cannot find a viable path between the hope and reality of the money system. The family’s tragedy comes from their cultivated lack of moral responsibility, as well as their inability to make realistic judgments concerning their own chances. Willie Loman is a hysteric, in Freud’s terms, “someone plagued by reminiscences”. The past keeps irrupting into the dreamscape of his daily life, in the form of turning points that might be reversed or as imagined portents of success that were never realized.

The greatness of Miller’s drama lies in this universal disjunction between self and society, between the personal and impersonal aspects of social life, played out in the context of an American capitalism gearing up for a transformation that soon took over the world as well as Brooklyn. Recall the time it was written, 1948. The world had been suffering from depression and war for two decades. If, as Joseph Schumpeter predicted, all that destruction meant a huge opportunity for capitalist creativity, there was no sign of a recovery yet. Many intellectuals, especially in New York, thought that Stalin’s Russia was in better shape. Jean-Paul Sartre was an international megastar. It was not hard to portray the American dream as a bust then.

So what was Arthur Miller’s positive vision? He was what Stephen Toulmin calls a ‘radical conservative’–someone who is disgusted by contemporary society and would reform it in the name of a value located in the past. And, as it turns out, so am I. Toulmin had the poets Donne and Yeats in mind. We catch glimpses of the life the Lomans want and can’t have–a garden that gets enough sunlight for plants to grow, people who deliver on their promises, recognition of human worth, spontaneous laughter, freedom from the prison that is the money system. The authentic life, in other words. This is rather commonplace, but Tony Kushner has made something grand out of it in his eulogy of Miller.

Arthur Miller, he says, “was a great believer in democracy and self-reliance and in anything conducive to and supportive of individual human dignity and integrity. His drama was the drama of individual integrity, individual wholeness or completeness or repleteness versus unaccountable power–or perhaps one could say of the individual versus history.” He was “a loyalist only to the human race, he manifested that loyalty by being true to himself.” He aimed ultimately for “the kind of judgment that pulls a person beyond his expected reach toward something more than any single human animal ought to be capable of–toward something shared, communal, maybe even toward something universal, maybe even toward God.”

This is not just the creed of someone who has chosen the life of a playwright as his vehicle for exploring the human condition. It is the doctrine of classical liberalism from Locke to Smith and Jefferson, as expressed by poets such as Milton and Blake (according to whom, “General Forms have their vitality in Particulars, and every Particular is a Man”). Immanuel Kant’s late work–especially Perpetual Peace: a philosophical sketch–constitutes the high point of this liberal vision for humanity. He held that Cosmopolitan Right, the basic right of all world citizens, should rest on the principle of universal hospitality. We should be free to go wherever we like in the world, since it belongs to all of us equally. The contrast with our routine experience of international travel today could not be more marked.

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. The idea of a cosmopolitan right is not fantastic and overstrained; it is a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right of humanity.

This confident sense of an emergent world order, written over 200 years ago, was soon overwhelmed by the liberal revolution’s twin offspring, industrial capitalism and the nation-state. Kant believed that human co-operation in society required us to rely on personal judgment moderated by “common sense”, in the double meaning of shared intelligence and taste. This common sense, the title of his contemporary Tom Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, was generated in everyday life, in shared social experience (good food, good talk, good company).

By the time Arthur Miller wrote Death of a salesman, at the turning point of the twentieth century’s experiment in impersonal society, this liberal vision of human individuals joined together in a common democratic project had long ago been abandoned as unrealistic. Social democracy emerged as a strategy for using the state to mend the class inequality generated by capitalism. This has often entailed hostility to money and markets as such, but classical liberalism held that money can be a bridge to personal fulfillment and democracy, as well as to their opposite. This is the eighteenth century value to which I would return as a radical conservative.

The aim of the liberal philosophers was to build up the personal resources and autonomy of individuals. Great writers of plays, novels and movies also perform this function. It is unconventional to argue that money, as a system of meaning and communication, can mediate the disjunction between self and society. Even so, I look forward to a future of money that springs from our moment in history, a moment far in spirit from the democratic impulse unleashed by the defeat of fascism, but sustained nevertheless by a hopeful development of technology–the digital revolution in communications.

A fundamental fact of our times is the cheapening of information transfers. Money was previously impersonal because trade could only expand if people who did not know each other trusted the real asset value of what was paid for their commodities. Now growing amounts of information can be attached to transactions involving people anywhere in the world. We now have the opportunity to make circuits of exchange employing money forms that reflect our individuality, so that money may become more meaningful to each of us. This stands in stark contrast to state-made money in the twentieth century, when citizens belonged to one national economy whose currency was monopolized by a political class claiming the authority to manage its volume, price and allocation.

Although economic power has never been more highly concentrated, the middle classes, especially in the richer countries, have begun to experience greater personal influence over their financial affairs. The development of plastic credit cards is the most obvious manifestation of this trend. But customized treatment of clients by firms is becoming more sophisticated all the time. And, within the constraints imposed by a largely unreformed banking system, the number of money instruments at people’s disposal is multiplying, with inevitable results for the flexible management of their own economic affairs. We are still so firmly in the grip of national consciousness that we often forget the tradition of issuing money as personal credit, what Keynes called “bank money”. To an increasing degree, the value of money is secured by the promises of individuals and corporations, not states. And beyond this lies the real prospect of “people’s money”.Community currencies are issued by people themselves with no mediation of central authorities. Any group or network may constitute itself as a circuit of exchange with its own unit of account. I envisage a world of countless communities addressing a variety of purposes, but always promoting the common good of their members. One of the most successful variants is called LETS—Local Exchange Trading Systems. Any network may constitute itself as a LETS community by nominating a currency and recording all transactions through a central register. The totality of transactions at any time sums to zero, since the circuit is closed. Anyone can get an account, then buy and sell, giving rise to a negative or positive balance at different times. When I buy, I make a commitment to the network that I am good for the money I have just issued. The loss of individual members with negative balances does not directly affect the ability of the others to trade, as it does when the supply from a single issuer dries up.

The currency itself is simply a virtual measure. It has no commodity value, therefore no price (interest), no reason to become scarce or to be hoarded. Recent developments in information technology have made community currencies a fast, cheap and effective means of carrying out normal commerce. Smart cards registering transactions in up to fifteen currencies, linking businesses and non-profit organizations as well as individuals, allow these circuits to become partially integrated into the market economy.

Community currencies add to purchasing power at little or no cost. The value generated in exchange stays in the circuit and abstract notions of community are grounded in everyday economic transactions. Participation teaches people a more responsible attitude to economic life. Learning to manage credit and debt in a new way shows members that the money system they know is not the only one possible. The rules of each circuit are customized by its members to suit themselves. Community currencies are thus practical exercises in direct democracy and a great source of political as well as economic education. They belong to a family of popular democratic forms that may eventually come together in a multi-stranded drive for a more equal world.

The recent explosion of “barter clubs” in Argentina when the peso collapsed is one unstable example of the phenomenon I am talking about. But a community currency in Switzerland has persisted since the 1930s. These are very early days for an information revolution that has the potential to transform human societies with long-run effects comparable to the invention of agriculture. Money today, following a trend to become more intangible over the last two centuries, already takes the principal form of electronic bits traveling at the speed of light over telephone wires. This makes it easier to see what money has always done, even when it took the form of real substances: money conveys meaning. As long as it took the principal form of things, made of metal or paper, this function could be obscured. But today money is the way we keep track of a potentially bewildering number of contractual agreements linking us to a great variety of associations. It is inconceivable that we could dispense with this highly personal register of transactions.

This is why I draw on the image of a memory bank. Memory banks are, of course, found in computers, but banks are, for most people, places to store money. From its beginnings in Europe, money was linked to the Goddess of Memory, the mother of the civilized arts and sciences. Communities were people who shared the means of communication and exchange; and these significantly involved the meanings conveyed through money. Today money is the most universal means of communication we have. We should be seeking ways of buying and selling that conform to the standards of a truer economic democracy. This involves learning to combine the two sides of money in new ways–the hope and the reality of it, the personal as well as the impersonal–at least more effectively than Willie Loman.

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Category: Money