The persuasive power of money

Money talks, it’ll tell you a story
Money talks, says strange things
Money talks very loudly
You’d be surprised the friends you can buy
with small change

J.J. Cale “Money Talks” (song)

In this essay, I try to account for money’s power to influence our minds and social relations. It would be easy, but misleading to argue that money’s ability to persuade is a universal characteristic. The way money persuades is historically relative – very different for Adam Smith than for Maynard Keynes and even more for us who live in the digital revolution and the expansion of virtual society it entails. Moreover, the fetishism that grants money a quasi-independent role in human affairs needs to be exposed for what it is. People make and use money, not the other way round; but sometimes it feels like we are more acted upon than acting. Money conveys meanings at the same time as it negates them; it has – or is thought to have — both structure and agency at once.

As a symbolic medium of communication, money informs our subjectivity and gives concrete expression to our desires, releasing and fixing our imagination in many ways. It is a store of individual and collective memory, the stuff linking persons to their communities. It may be that money’s chief function was once to persuade people to let go of what they already had; but separating us from it has become the chief object of the engines of persuasion mobilized by capitalist economy. And the ideas we have of money were themselves disseminated by “worldly philosophers” (Heilbroner 1961) who devoted a significant part of their effort to persuading people to accept them. It is hard to separate money’s unconscious influence on us through folk discourse from its characteristics as a social force sui generis.

Money talks

Malcolm X’s private archive was rescued from an e-Bay auction in 2002. Apparently one of his children was behind on rental payments for a lock-up garage. The collection was saved for storage in New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, giving rise to the following exchange in an interview:

BBC reporter: Presumably money played a part in appeasing all the parties.

Family lawyer: That’s true. Money always talks. When there’s a gap in communication, you drop a dollar bill in there and all of a sudden everyone speaks the same language.

Reporter: How much?

Lawyer: We can’t go into the details.

In my youth, the expression “money talks” was most often used in the context of horse-racing. The connections of a likely winner would want to conceal its form in order to place bets at the longest odds possible. But the volume of their wagers would soon enough appear as reduced odds in the market. Others would then pile in, taking the evidence of their senses to be stronger than all the forecasts of newspaper tipsters. If the horse won, those who took advantage of the market signs would say knowingly “Money talks”. Or, as Deep Throat famously said at the time of Watergate, “Follow the money”. Proverbial wisdom points to a persistent analogy between money and language. Here are some examples:

The use of language resembles the exchange of coinage. Plutarch (Cribb 2005:435)

The two greatest inventions of the human mind are writing and money – the common language of intelligence and the common language of self-interest. Mirabeau (Innis 1951:8)

Just as my thoughts must take the form of a universally understood language so that I can attain my practical ends in this roundabout way, so must my activities and possessions take the form of money value in order to serve my more remote purposes. Money is the purest form of the tool (…); it is an institution through which the individual concentrates his activity and possessions in order to attain goals that he could not attain directly. Simmel (1978: 210)

I wish to go beyond metaphor and ask how people communicate through money. What does money do and how? Wherein lies its power to persuade?

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1961:26-33) imagined money’s origins in a barter system as the supreme commodity whose usefulness lay in its function as a means of deferred exchange and payment. This theory or, perhaps better, myth has extraordinary tenacity in the modern consciousness. He held that the chief function of money, as a natural simplification of barter, was to persuade owners of commodities to give them up, knowing that what they received could readily be converted later into whatever else they wanted. This was much more convenient than having to argue with them every time:

If we should enquire into the principle in the human mind on which this disposition of trucking is founded, it is clearly the natural inclination every one has to persuade. The offering of a shilling, which to us appears to have so plain a meaning, is in reality offering an argument to persuade one to do so and so as it is for his interest.(…) Every one is practising oratory on others thro the whole of his life. (…) This being the constant employment or trade of every man, in the same manner as the artizans invent simple methods of doing their work, so will each one here endeavour to do his work in the simplest manner. That is bartering, by which they address themselves to the self interest of the person and seldom fail immediately to gain their end. (Lectures on Jurisprudence, 30th March 1763)

Here I wish to explore money’s role in the advanced capitalist economies, where if anything commodities dance to the tune of money. The chief effort of persuasion in market situations today consists in getting people to spend their money; and, as the Malcolm X example shows, to express something in money terms often seems to make it more amenable to social action. Indeed, as Marx argued (1970: 71-83), money is a means of communication so powerful that we often ascribe human or quasi-divine agency to it and what it buys. In some ways, Money is the God of capitalism and most of the inmates are believers. That compounds the difficulty of accounting for money’s persuasive power, since it is hard to distinguish between what we imagine it is and what it really does. As a step between fetishizing money and placing it more precisely in human purposes and actions, I will look at some theories of money that have entered folk wisdom. Keynes knew what he was talking about when he wrote:

…[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. (1936:383)

It turns out that economists are not above employing the arts of persuasion too.

What then is money? It is a universal measure of value, but its specific form is not yet as universal as the method that humanity has devised to measure time all round the world. It is purchasing power, a means of buying and selling in markets. It counts wealth and status. It is a store of memory linking individuals to their various communities, a kind of memory bank (Hart 2000) and thus a source of identity. As a symbolic medium, it conveys information through a system of signs that relies more on numbers than words. A lot more circulates with money than the goods and services it buys.

Huon Wardle has this to say about ‘drop pan’, a Jamaican numbers game played daily for money:

Under modern conditions, Simmel (1900) argues, money becomes the most objective gauge of human relationships; and control over money is
the chief marker of the self’s ability to validate its existence in a shared social framework of space and time… To play drop pan is to search for signs which connect the immediate and utterly contingent elements of Creole experience within an ordering of meaning which, nonetheless, is itself gauged against the shifting evaluations of money as a social principle. Lévi-Strauss describes totemism as a concrete vehicle for understanding abstract relational systems. Simmel’s analysis of money reverses this. Money is a (relative) abstraction, which works because it is able to encompass concrete human connections. Drop pan is a game of concrete symbols played against the abstract master index, money. (2005: 88-89)

Money — the main device in capitalist societies for making social relations objective — is at the same time a benchmark for concrete narratives of subjective attachment. Money’s persuasiveness lies in this synthesis of impersonal abstraction and personal meaning, objectification and subjectivity, analytical reason and synthetic narrative. Its seductive power comes from the fluency of its mediation between infinite potential and finite determination.

The dialectics of social abstraction

In order for us to do things for each other in society, the services we perform have to be detached as commodities from what we do for ourselves within the confines of the small groups we live in. This process of social abstraction, “commoditization” (Hart 1982, Carrier 1998), draws us into ever-widening circles of interdependence, the most inclusive of which are calculated in terms of money. The classical political economists, from Smith to Marx, distinguished between a commodity’s concrete value in use (quality) and its higher-order ability to enter into abstract relations of exchange with other commodities through money (quantity). They concentrated on the latter function, but there is a dialectic at work here. The commodity remains something useful and in that use lies its concrete realization. The reality of commoditization is thus not just universal abstraction, but this mutual determination of the abstract and the concrete; and our method must somehow reproduce that relationship. We now rely on the products of abstraction to engage with others in highly concrete ways. It can provoke considerable anxiety, when we don’t understand the machines we depend on or lack the money necessary to take part. Nevertheless, the current wave of market expansion through the internet supports interactions at distance that were unimaginable a short time ago; and any discussion of money today has to address that development (Hart 2000, 2005b).

Both Marx (1867) and Simmel (1900) noted that social abstraction through capitalist markets went along with intellectual abstraction as philosophy and science in notable cases such as Ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, England in the 17th century and, we might say, the USA in the 20th century. This observation points to the use of words and numbers in ways that link language and money as systems of communication. At one level they share what the Greeks called logos, the principle of reasoning, the aspiration to objectivity, the ideal order in all things. This contrasts with the material flux of life in all its concrete complexity, a world of moving particulars of which each of us is the subjective personification. Plato and Aristotle (or Parmenides and Heraclitus before them) came to embody this contrast and we find it subsequently as a pervasive dualism in the history of western thought (Russell 1945). Of late the opposition between quantity and quality seems to have reached critical proportions: the novelist/scientist, C.P. Snow claimed in a 1959 lecture that the breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of modern society – the sciences and the humanities — was a major obstacle to solving the world’s problems. In the process, specialists in words and numbers have come to occupy separate castes presumptively determined at birth. If money is like language, it seems to be strongly affiliated with the quantitative camp, for it relies on numbers to a high degree.

“Numerophobia”, fear and rejection of rational techniques employing numbers (science and math for short), is well advanced in several sections of western societies, including the middle classes and perhaps more among women than men (Gigerenzer 2002). There does appear to be a sort of schismogenesis (Bateson 1958) in the education system that from an early age separates those who are happy to work with numbers from those who avoid them like the plague. Most social or cultural anthropologists fall into the latter category, preferring to deal in qualities rather than quantities. Numbers simplify by reducing to quantity, creating exactness in a world of uncertainties, and this is one reason why science (and money) is both loved and hated. Moral and cultural values are more easily handled by being reduced to what can be counted and this in turn generates varying degrees of polarization at different times and places. The dwindling reputation of scientific experts in America and Europe today is in marked contrast with the situation in India and China, for example. No doubt it reflects a degree of popular estrangement from the system of mathematical relations as abstract functions.

This trend disguises another – the commonplace resort to number as a measure of magnitude in the everyday speech of some segments of Western society. This became clearer to me after I became a semi-detached member of francophone society a decade ago. Reduced to the unaccustomed role of being an observer more than a participant, I was amazed by how often numbers turned up in ordinary conversation. What year was that? How old is she? How much does the baby weigh? How tall is the toddler? How many gigabytes in that laptop? What size shoes do you take? How many litres to fill up the car? How long do you expect to be out? How many days holiday do you get? What’s the temperature outside? Not to mention, of course, how much does he make? How much does it cost? And so on and on. Of all the areas where quantity is ingrained in social life, money and time are the most important.

In addition to locating a phenomenon on a universal scale of measurement, number fixes description and narrative in a way that we often find compelling. Thus, when I speak to someone of my father’s recent death, number helps to make the unfathomable concrete, yet comparable at the same time. (“How old was he?” “92” “Oh, he had a good life then…”) Have you noticed how, when a lecturer says he is about to make a fixed number of points, people reach for their pens? Number gets our attention. I once read an article in Scientific American that said, “If transport technologies had developed at the rate of computers since 1945, we would now be able to fly round the world in 30 minutes for $5 on half a gallon of kerosene”. This analogy is comprehensible and vividly memorable to all inmates of the culture. We certainly seem to “trust in numbers” (Porter 1996), not so much any more in the hands of economists and engineers, but as a crutch to understanding or a point of emphasis in our stories and conversations. If anthropologists could shake off their denial of being numerate, we might pose serious questions about how far this number fetish has penetrated other societies and how legitimate it is to impose the contrived quantities of experts on them. We might ask how the West’s historical turn to abstraction relates to cultural variation in the resort to number as a way of demarcating phenomena perceptible to the senses.

Most of these numbers, and certainly money prices, indicate “value” (Graeber 2001). The use of money to indicate personal worth cannot be underestimated, if we wish to understand its persuasiveness. Even if CEOs often
exercise their power invisibly, they also award themselves huge salary increases as part of a latter-day potlatch competition. They are less interested in their own purchasing power than in assigning magnitude to their rank in the league tables published by business magazines. With few rivals, money is the measure that endows the endless volatility of economic life with objectivity, with the finality of something that has become. This is so independently of its form. For, paradoxically, the dematerialization of money as a result of the rise of virtual economy seems not to have diminished its power to objectify.

Meaning, memory and identity

Conventionally, money and meaning are an oxymoron. Money both is and is not like language. Language has words that have specific meanings, but money itself has no meaning or, let us say, because it is abstract it can become any meaning. Money, unlike words, allows us to turn anything in particular into what is ours, so that personal identity can become anything through money. Money allows us to speak any language of meanings, but the reverse is not the case. Hence, anthropologists have often held that the introduction of western money into indigenous cultures destroys their distinctive local meanings, a claim that I and others have challenged (Hart 2005a, Guyer 2004). Here, I argue for a close historical relationship between money and meaning that links it to language in distinctive ways.

The word money comes from Moneta, a name by which the Roman queen of the gods, Juno, was known. It was in her temple that coins were struck, making it an early example of a mint (from Old English mynet, coin). Most European languages retain the word ‘money’ for coinage, using another word for money in general. Moneta was a translation of the Greek Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and mother of the Muses, each of whom presided over one of the nine arts and sciences. It was derived from the Latin verb monere, whose first meaning is “to remind, put in mind of, bring to one’s recollection” (other meanings include “to advise, warn, instruct or teach”; and later “to tell, inform, point out, announce, predict”). For the Romans at least, money was an instrument of collective memory that needed divine protection, like the arts. As such, it was both a memento of the past and a sign of the future.

Money conveys meanings and the meaning of money itself tells us a lot about the way we make the communities we live in. In Frozen Desire, 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.ix

Money is one of those human creations which make concrete a sensation, in this case a sensation of wanting…Quite early in its history, money….passed from being a mere conveyance of desire to the object of all desire… For money is incarnate desire. Money takes wishes …and broadcasts them to the world…[It] offers a reward that is not in any sense fixed or finite…but that every person is free to imagine in the realm of his own desires. That process of wish and imagination, launched or completed a million times every second, is the engine of our civilization. (1997: 269)

This formulation does not go far enough. Like the economists of our day, Buchan emphasizes the subjective wants of individuals and the way these are made temporarily objective in acts of buying and selling. Money also expresses something social, about the way we belong to each other in communities. 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?

The 18th century Neapolitan philosopher, Giambattista Vico (1984), pointed out that the Latin word memoria once meant not only remembering, but also imagination. Then, with the coming of the empire, a new word, fantasia, was coined by intellectuals and entertainers who claimed to make things up without benefit of the collective memory, thereby breaking the link between the two meanings of memoria. He asks us to recall the vivid memories of childhood. The child relies on remembered images to bring live experiences to mind and reshape them in a process that owes nothing to reasoning. Later we learn to rely on rationalizations and on memory stored in containers outside the mind. The rules we have been taught to abide by supersede the act of remembering for ourselves. We pay entertainers to imagine for us. Money gives expression to the child in each of us, by venting our desires. It is also how we learn as adults to participate in normal society.

This was why memory played such an important part in John Locke’s philosophy of money (Caffentzis 1989). When market transactions take place over time, as through the extension of credit, the abstract models of economics take on greater human and social complexity. Locke’s theory of property rested on the idea of a person who, by performing labour on the things given to us in common by nature, made them his own.

Man, by being master of himself and proprietor of his own person, and the actions and labour of it, has still in himself the great foundation of property.

(Locke 1960: 2, 44)

But, in order to sustain a claim on his property through time, that person has to remain the same; and personal identity depends on consciousness:

Since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes everyone to be what he calls self, …in this alone consists personal identity, i.e., the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then. (Locke An Essay on Human Understanding, cited in Caffentzis 1989:53)

Property must endure in order to be property and that depends on memory. According to Caffentzis,

The great enemy of property is oblivion, since the loss of conscious mastery over time and succession leads inevitably to the breakdown of property. Thus the forces of oblivion are antagonistic to the self and property, while all the techniques of mnemonics are their essential allies. (Caffentzis 1989: 53-54)

What drove society from the state of nature to the social contract and civil government was the invention of money.

Scarcity, for Locke, is not natural. It was only with the invention of money that wealth stopped being defined and bounded by use. With money a man could own more land and produce more than he needed for his own necessities. While still abiding by the natural law, he could accumulate wealth in a quasi-eternal form which he need not share with others….Money trains its possessor, whether legal or illegal, in abstractness as well as in the potential infinity of satisfaction. The accumulation of money is thus the exercise of our power to suspend our determination, which is for Locke the highest expression of our liberty, before an infinity of choices. (Ibid:65-66)

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” (Hart 2000), a store allowing individuals to keep track of those exchanges they wish to calculate and, beyond that, a source of economic memory for the community. Memory banks are found in computers, of course, but the idea of a “bank” is the relatively stable deposit of fast-moving flows, whether of water, money or information. The modern system of money provides individuals with a vast repertoire of instr
uments to keep track of their exchanges with the world and to calculate the current balance of their worth in the community. In this sense, one of money’s chief functions is remembering.

People come to understand each other as members of communities; and money is an important vehicle for this. Communities communicate common meanings. These words share the Indo-European roots kom (with) and mei, which the American Heritage Dictionary glosses as “to change or move, with derivatives referring to the exchange of goods and services within a society as regulated by custom or law”. The word mean also has the sense of “low or poor,” the common people as seen by an elite looking down. Other senses include “medium” or “average” (to which is linked means, “method of achieving something or property/wealth”) and the verb from which meaning is derived, “to denote, signify, intend, bring about.” Thus the common people share meanings (cultural symbols) as means of achieving their practical purposes together.

So money is a means, but it is also an end; and one of its ends may be to express all meanings and none. Money no longer persuades primarily as a concrete way of inducing people to sell what is theirs, if it ever did. It persuades through its potential control of meaning in general. Money can be held over time and lets us defer commitment to any particular meaning. It works something like a dictionary. It is in this sense a memory bank; but it also allows us to erase memories, by temporarily emptying our mind of particular meanings. Money’s value could be said to lie in its having no immediate value beyond its ability to valorize anything later. As Buchan suggests, this is one reason for money’s centrality in the modern imagination. Advertising plays on our fantasies by offering an escape from the everyday and it is money that allows this. Money supports the retention of memories, but it also lends itself to their destruction, by allowing us to generate new meanings.

All of this feeds into the changing landscape of identity construction. If wealth was always a marker of identity, then the shift to wealth in the immaterial form of money, a process speeded up and expanded by the rise of the internet, contributes to the growing volatility of identity. Once fixed or “real” property was dominant as a marker of identity, but this function has now been split between value realized in consumption (e.g. Bourdieu 1984) and hierarchies of value expressed as abstract quantities. Money is intrinsic to both of these and credit ratings are an increasingly powerful gauge of personal identity.

In this way, money defines each of us by articulating the relationship between individuals and their communities. One of the great unsettled questions of our day is whether the strong association of community with the nation-state is being eroded by current developments or the opposite is the case. The nation-state has enjoyed such tremendous success over the last century or two that we find it difficult to imagine society in any other form. I identify four ideal types of community, all of them exemplified by the synthetic notion of the nation-state (Munro and Hart 2000). The nation-state has been a political community capable of offering its citizens a single vehicle for relating to the world outside, as well as the framework of law regulating their internal affairs. It has been a community of place, resting on territorial principles of association with definite boundaries of land and sea. It has also been an imagined or virtual community, a constructed cultural identity relying on symbolic abstraction of a high order. It has finally been a community of interest, in both the subjective and objective senses, uniting members in trade and war by a shared purpose.

Establishing control over money was always a principal means towards achieving this synthesis. The general principle of states monopolizing the supply of paper or fiat money is quite recent, although it was pioneered by Kublai Khan in the 13th century (Weatherford 1997:125-127). But the nation-state, by centralizing society as a single agency and conflating that with the dominant idea of national community, has led us to lose sight of the potential of money to be plural, linking us to all the forms of association we may wish to join (Hart 2006). The rise of the internet makes it less plausible than before to assume that community is singular and stops at national borders.

The recent introduction of a new currency, the euro, allows us a contemporary glimpse of money’s symbolic role in defining and shaping collective identity, in this case the European Union (Hart 2005a). An editorial under the heading “Rubicon” in the French newspaper, Libération, celebrated the introduction of euro notes and coins on 1st January 2002 as a revival of the spirit of the Roman empire:

Caesar’s march on Rome was the founding act of a Pax Romana that extended the empire for several centuries from one end of Europe to the other, guaranteeing prosperity and civilization to the continent. The Europeans have never completely forgotten that golden age… The euro, a genuine icon of the European Union, is the new reincarnation of an eternal project of unification for an old continent haunted by its long history of bloody conflicts… (p. 3)

Moneta returns to claim her cultural legacy and a left-wing newspaper temporarily abandons its republicanism to invoke the idea of empire. If money is memory, then the euro provokes very long memories indeed, as well as a degree of amnesia. The promise of overcoming the fragmentation of sovereignty inherited from feudalism is the huge symbolic prize conferred by monetary union. The citizens of Berlin, Rome and Paris notice that the banknotes are the same in all these places and derive notions of community and identity from that, just as they may sometimes be seen in bars checking the national origin of coins and expressing wonder that the Irish harp should be freely circulating in Continental Europe. Nothing quite succeeds like money in expressing political community; but that does not mean that the nation-state’s monopoly is eternal.

Money is intimately linked to democracy as a political principle. This is because its impersonality dissolves differences between people: anyone can use it for their own purposes in the same way. It is not false to claim that we vote with our money whenever we buy a cinema ticket or a loaf of bread. But of course this system of voting is wildly unequal, since some have so much more of it. Money thus not only binds individuals together; it also separates them from each other. As an engine of class inequality, it has often been held to disrupt community. Seen from the perspective of its embodiment in capitalism as a specific social form, money breeds and enhances social differentiation; and that is why utopian communities of all sorts have sought to ban it. The Cold War was fought over this issue. The Americanization of the planet is at one level the universal projection of their way of money, with its extreme individualization, competitiveness and inequality, to the point of undermining national forms of state and culture elsewhere. Many feel that money’s social dominance is now guaranteed as a result; but another global economic crisis would soon undermine abstract money’s invincibility.

Spengler revisited

These attempts to explain money’s persuasive power have led me to an author whose work is hardly respectable these days. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler (1962 [1918]) emphasized the part played by money and number in the history of Western European civilization and its North American offshoot. The first idea I draw from him is t
hat money is just one of several abstract universals of which number, time and space may be more relevant than language. The second is that, for all their apparent universality, these should be approached as cultural particulars with their own historical patterns of growth and decline. Third, world history in our period has been dominated by the West owing to its adoption of a specific form of economic life, based on money and machines, that normally goes by the name of “capitalism.” Fourth, rather than adopt a timeless form of words for what interests us today, we should embrace the dialectic of “becoming and become,” in order to understand both the immanent direction of our present circumstances (history) and their finitude as the residue of what has already happened, the past (nature). So, finally, the question of money’s persuasive power is historically and geographically relative: we need to attend to the relationship between measurement of money as something perceptible to the senses (magnitude) and money as a category of thought expressed intangibly as abstract relations (function).

According to Spengler, the West had exhausted the historical impulse given by its modern version of economic life (featuring money and machines) and a new phase, based on politics, national religion and war, was about to take over. This was not a bad prediction, but Spengler’s interest for us lies in how he conceived of the relationship between money and other universals. I refer here to the beginning and end of the abridged English translation, “The meaning of numbers” (Ibid: 41-69) and “The form-world of economic life: money and the machine” (Ibid: 398-415).

Following Goethe, Spengler made a contrast between history (becoming) and nature (what has become). The counterpart of longing, of the desire to move forward that is becoming, is the dread of having become, of finality or death; and this pair together drive cultural creativity.

Life, perpetually fulfilling itself as an element of becoming, is what we call ‘the present’, and it possesses that mysterious property of ‘direction’, which men have tried to rationalize by means of the enigmatic word ‘time’. (Ibid: 41)

On the one hand, there is measurement of time as duration; but the idea of history as becoming, as irreversible direction, is particular to the West. Number belongs to nature as the chief sign of completed demarcation, of all things that have become themselves.

Mathematical number contains in its very essence the notion of a mechanical demarcation, number being in that respect akin to word, which…fences off world-impressions. (Ibid: 43, original italics)

Spengler identifies a break between classical antiquity and the modern West. For the Greeks, number is 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. “Numbers are symbols of the mortal”. (Ibid: 52) All this changed with Descartes whose new number-idea was function – a world of relations between points in abstract space. Whereas the Greeks sought perfection within the concrete limits of nature and society as they experienced them, 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 that reality. The new mathematics was thus immaterial, resting on abstract analysis, dissociated from magnitude and transferred to a transcendental relational world, a process culminating in “victory over the popular and sensuous number-feeling in us all”. (Ibid: 56)

The nexus of magnitudes is proportion, that of relations is function…All proportion assumes the constancy, all transformation the variability of the constituents…Every construction affirms, and every operation denies appearances, in that one works out what is optically given and the other dissolves it….The classical mathematic of small things deals with the concrete individual instance and produces a once-for-all construction, while the mathematic of the infinite handles whole classes of formal possibilities, groups of functions, operations, equations, curves…[T]here has been growing up the idea of a general morphology of mathematical operations. (Ibid: 63-64, original italics)

Western mathematics is “the copy and the purest expression of the idea of the Faustian soul”. (Ibid: 68). This leap from a geometry of the concretely real to a world of pure relations was mediated by the algebra of the “Magian” Arabs (and, we may add, by the Indian discovery of the number zero).

Spengler returns to this theme when considering “the form-world of economic life”. Economics is British, materialistic and has no room in it for a notion of the national soul. There has been a shift, parallel to that in mathematics, from thinking in terms of goods to thinking in terms of money.

[A] form of limit-defining is abstracted from the visible objects of economics just as mathematical thought abstracts something from the mechanistically conceived environment. Abstract money corresponds exactly to abstract number. Both are entirely inorganic. The economic picture is reduced exclusively to quantities, whereas the important point about ‘goods’ has been their quality. (Ibid: 404)

He points to the widespread confusion between pieces of money, the value-token, and money as a category of thought. In fact, tangible property has been replaced by fortune, a purely numerical quantum of money that is mobile and undefined. The middle-man elevates mediation between producer and consumer to the level of monopoly and ultimately primacy. “He who commands this mode of thinking is the master of money”. The result, citing G. B. Shaw, is that money and life “…are inseparable: money is the counter that enables life to be distributed socially: it is life”. “Every idea, to be actualized, has to be put into terms of money”. (Ibid: 406-7).

The Apollonian idea of money as magnitude (which is classical) and the Faustian conception of money as function are opposites. “Classical man saw the world surrounding him as a sum of bodies; money is also a body” (talents, coins). (Ibid: 407) With the rise of double-entry book-keeping, economic function became not even the ledger entry, but the act of writing it. When a businessman signs a piece of paper to mobilize remote forces, this gesture stands in an abstract relationship to the power of labor, machinery etc. which only takes the form of money numbers in a retrospective accountancy process. In this way, western economic life was progressively emancipated from the notion of magnitude. Modern money is the result of creative thinking, mentally devised as an instrument of Faustian life. Thinking in money generates money. It turns the world into subjects and objects, consisting of a few executives and the many who follow them. Each individual is either a part of the money force or just a mass.

And so they created the idea of the machine as a small cosmos obeying the will of man alone. (Ibid: 411)

Spengler concludes with a prophecy that the world of money and machine-industry will be overthrown by “blood” as the dominant life-principle; and at this point we leave him. But his framework contains much of value for an analysis of the conscious and unconscious influence of money on our actions today.

Spengler points to the important relationship of money to time, specifically as a promise to pay in future. This obligation, as is well-known, is of uncertain value (Pritchard 1940). It therefore requires belief for the promise to work;
and this may take the form of faith, trust or confidence (Hart 1988). The degree of our emotional attachment to a belief is inversely related to the empirical evidence for holding it, strong in the case of “blind faith”, weak for “open-eyed confidence”, with “trust” somewhere in between. Money therefore always exists in time as something apparently certain, yet deeply uncertain. It appears in society temporally both as “work”, a tangible principle of scarcity (magnitude) and as a principle of virtual increase, “interest” (function). The payment of money, like words and numbers, fixes the transience of life and lends it a certain finality. But, in the historical form of modern capitalism, money also makes a break with the object-world and becomes the aspiration to infinite growth. The power of money to mobilize resources at distance is commanded by only a few — once the “captains of industry”, now in the age of finance “masters of the universe” — while the masses experience money mainly as the immediate consequences of an anonymous force organizing their lives. Spengler’s argument that magnitude was replaced by function in Western history would serve our purposes better if conceived of as an ongoing dialectical relationship. In this context, we must also acknowledge the machine revolution of the last two centuries, the latest stage of which involves perhaps the most dramatic transformation of money to date, its digital separation from material existence (from atoms to bits) as a virtual artifact of the internet.

While this development, linked to widespread acceptance of “neo-liberal” economic policies by ruling elites, has generated unheard of disparities of wealth within and between communities, it may also contain the seeds of a democratization of money, in the sense that powers, hitherto exercised only by a wealthy few, may become diffused by degrees into the population at large. For some time now, since Keynes (1936) in fact, it has been acknowledged that modern economies are driven by consumer demand or the “purchasing power” of ordinary people in the mass. As a result of extension of instruments of personal credit in the digital age, this power may be realized by individuals to an ever greater degree (Hart 2000). Perhaps this helps to explain why persuasion is now largely directed at separating consumers from their money rather than from the goods they produce.

Money and persuasion

Money is the primary vehicle of social abstraction, lending objectivity to our ideas, actions and status. Only idealists think that retreating to some higher realm of abstract value is the goal itself. Money is a means to many ends, but in capitalist societies it often seems that money is the end, not just a means. It is easy to lose sight of the common human purposes it was designed to realize and of the myriad particular actions it makes possible. To paraphrase Marx on the method of political economy in the introduction to Grundrisse (1973), we start from the concrete circumstances we live in, develop some abstractions after it and then insert them back into the concrete, which is the main point of it all. In this respect, we need to learn from and improve on structural linguistics. Grammar is at the heart of language; it is both universal and highly variable, operating for the most part at an unconscious level. Can we talk even vaguely about the grammar of money and, if so, what would it look like? It may be profitable to explore money’s rules and how they are understood, consciously or unconsciously. But the structuralist movement elevated the generation of universal grammars to a position of precedence over concrete communication; and it should be the other way round. The grammar of structural codes must be complemented by a grammar of usage in which the potentiality of meanings is temporarily fixed in speech events, as in money transactions. The reflexivity of money and language as signifying practices is formalized by a grammar of usage. The danger then is to lose sight of structure in a morass of detail. It is easy to get stuck at one pole or the other of the dialectic.

The central role of persuasion or rhetoric in economy was understood by those who have most influenced our economic ideas and behaviour. Thus Adam Smith (1762) spent fifteen years lecturing on rhetoric and left instructions in his will for these lectures to be destroyed, presumably so that his Wealth of Nations (1776), the founding text of economic science, would not be seen as the self-conscious literary artifact that it is. Gudeman (1986) argues that David Ricardo (1817) was able to establish the hegemony of his own approach to economics because his ‘derivational’ model was a self-conscious cultural construction more than a realistic depiction of economic life in his time. This model depended for its effectiveness on reproducing established western logical forms and, at least initially, on collapsing the difference between the physical and social dimensions of an economy poised between agriculture and manufacturing. Maynard Keynes likewise devoted a dozen years to his Essays in Persuasion (1931), trying to get across one simple message — that economic recovery would only come when the Victorian recipe of saving for capital accumulation was abandoned. His mantra was “Spend, don’t save. Spend, don’t save.” More than any sophisticated academic treatise, such as the General Theory (1936), this rhetorical project accounts for the eventually favorable reception of his ideas. Now that we have all absorbed his message, the time is probably ripe for another one.

Even so, it is Smith’s project that should most engage us here. Endres (1991) provides a detailed account of how the compositional rules laid down in Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric were applied in the writing of The Wealth of Nations. But Bazerman (1991) goes further towards explaining how he was able to influence modern thinking so thoroughly; and he makes an explicit connection between Smith’s general approach and the persuasive power of money.

If philosophy is near the pinnacle of the division of labour, for Smith persuasion is at its basis, for persuasion is what makes barter possible. (1991:188) Money becomes a symbolic repository of material value with the added suasive effect of interchangeability, fairness of measure and consistency of value…. (Ibid:189) In Smith’s system…words and other symbolic systems are subordinated to the primary symbolic system of finance, because as a least common denominator, money forms the surest grounds for shared social meanings…Words serve to help persuade people of deals…and provide ideology and instructions for the economic order. But money provides the grounding of value…. [M]athematicizing of economics only takes this reduction one step further. Money – countable and therefore open to complex mathematical representations and manipulations – becomes the primary mediational tool of social relations. (Ibid:194) People loved money before Smith, but now they had an ideology, rationale and calculus for it. (Ibid:195)

The problem of persuasion lies at the core of any attempt to change the forms of money today. I have explored the potential of community currencies in today’s world (Hart 2006). Given the cultural longevity of conventional money and the powers of indoctrination held by ruling institutions, it is not surprising that most people are initially reluctant to embrace community currencies; but the situation is psychologically complex. On the one hand, conventional money flatters our sense of self-determination: with some money, we can exert power over the world at will, moving from infinite potentiality to finite determination, back and forth. On the other hand, there is another kind of comfort in the notion that money, as presently constituted, is no
t in our control at all. The fact that it embodies an exogenous force of necessity serves, in a manner analogous to number, to generate clarity of judgment and action where otherwise things might be frighteningly wide open. Similarly, with community currencies people would not only be freer, but would have greater responsibilities also.

There is a strong parallel with slavery. People feel that the monopoly claimed by national money must be inevitable, since no-one would freely choose it. To be told there is an alternative that they could choose makes nonsense of a lifetime’s enslavement to an unrewarding system. So they cling to what they know as the only possibility. We often talk about wanting to be free, but we choose the illusion of freedom without its real responsibility. This is perhaps why we prefer money not to be of our own making. We spend it, but we never have enough of it because “they” keep it scarce. This is perhaps the underlying reason why eminently sensible schemes for do-it-yourself money get such a poor reception. It is not enough to develop a superb design for exchange circuits employing community currencies. People have to be sold the idea; and this involves engaging with their most cherished beliefs.

For all the temporary success of nation-states in persuading their captive populations to ignore what goes on elsewhere, it is the case that people’s experience of money today is as much global as local. In this respect, there is clearly an “elective affinity” (Goethe again) between capitalism and the English language. This could merely be a consequence of the recent domination of the world economy by Britain and the United States; or the cultural association could have been established earlier.xxv In succession and together, they have made English the world language, a role that is becoming more deeply entrenched as a result of the internet. If the word “economy” was invented by the Greeks, it is the English-speakers who made it central to our understanding of modern society (Hann and Hart forthcoming). Economics is an English discourse (as Spengler noted): the vast majority of Nobel prize-winners in economics are English-speakers, indeed American. Certainly English is the international language of business. All of this is historically relative: world production and capital accumulation now seem to be moving inexorably towards countries like China, India, Russia and Brazil. Even so, despite the palpable evidence of economic decline there, the United States — and its West Coast in particular — is still the place where exploitation of the money-making implications of the digital revolution in communications is advancing fastest and furthest.

It is too soon to make out how money, markets and digital information are interacting through the medium of the internet. The latter enhances the dematerialization and cheapening of monetary transactions. In the short run, this seems to have increased money’s persuasive power in world society, but the long-run effect may be to dilute money’s significance. Thus, it is an observable consequence of experiments with community currencies that, once money loses its scarcity, the real purposes of exchange in communities take precedence over the idea of getting more for less (Hart 2006, North 2006). Moreover, the dissemination of massive amounts of information at little or no cost makes it easier to keep track of the transaction histories of specific individuals, a contradictory process that I have referred to as “repersonalization” (Hart 2000). Taken much further than at present, these trends might lead to the uncoupling of money from the numerical values assigned to it by the state. People would be freed to make up their own world-algebra employing constraints appropriate to themselves, whether as individuals or in communities of their own design. We might then be able to talk about the emergence of “people’s money,” a true democracy rather than the apology for inequality we are stuck with now.

Digital information is itself also both a means and an end, in the sense that people get in return the same thing that they give. The difference between conventional money and digital information is that the latter is reproducible by anyone at virtually no cost and without removing the original. This underlies the extraordinary effort now being made by the West’s media corporations to promote the idea that copying digital products is theft, even “piracy” (Hart 2005b). The result is an ongoing war between rival systems of exchange – corporate private property (with its origins in the 17th century) and the “free and open source software” movement (FOSS) that has grown up only in the last two decades. It would be surprising if this contradiction did not lead to new combinations of money and exchange; and indeed experiments with alternative forms of money point in that direction. In the meantime, a massive propaganda campaign is aimed at persuading us that cloning or remixing a text, song or movie is like “stealing my cow”.


In Money and the Morality of Exchange (Parry and Bloch 1989), an excellent collection of anthropological essays, a convincing case is made that, for many of the world’s peoples, money lacks the apparent autonomy it enjoys in the West and is usually subordinated to the long-term social purposes of groups. I have drawn on Spengler here to highlight the cultural sources of such a contrast. In capitalist societies, money has come to define an infinite field of possibilities and, within that field, it acts to create groups of relationships between abstract entities, as well as to increase practical control over innumerable social activities. Modern money only connects with concrete magnitudes after it has created this relational network. The realistic image of money as concrete number is a somewhat illusory formulation of its social significance, an instance perhaps, in Whitehead’s (1925) phrase, of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Those anthropologists who reject the higher-order abstraction that quantification makes possible in order to embrace particular cultural meanings as indicators of quality are giving voice to a deep-seated mistrust of the idea that money is somehow isomorphic with its own concrete properties. Nevertheless, I have tried to show here why this one-sided rejection of money’s dialectical unity is anachronistic.

It is relatively easy to debunk religion, but to understand its social force, one has to enter the minds of believers. Searching for the source of money’s power to persuade is like asking how God gets us to believe in Him. Of course we made Him up, just as we made and make Money up. Since all we can ever know is the past, why would anyone accept a claim to guarantee the unknowable future? But we do, because we have to – and faith is the glue sticking past and future together in the present. Simmel (1900) made a good case, I think, for why money is able to make this spurious claim. Since all our ephemeral transactions are made in terms of it, it seems to be more stable than the rest, even though we know it isn’t really. The river bank seems to be solid and yet it is in reality just slower-moving deposits thrown up by the fast-moving water. But, if we are drowning, we settle for its presumptive stability. The physicist may have worked out what is going on at an abstract level, but for practical purposes we don’t need to know what he knows about the movement of particles.

In this essay, I have for the most part taken at face value an idealist premise that money has a mind of its own, since it seems to me that most members of capitalist societies are caught in it. The very rich do not have to accept this premise, but they are happy for the rest of us to believe in the
story of our own captivity. I want us all eventually to have what the rich have, the creative ability to manipulate money. Hence I have tried here to discover something of what they know about money and what stops the masses from catching on. This has also meant excavating my own socialization as a dupe of the existing money system who has spent his life trying to escape from it. It is easier to embrace a rationalist or materialist alternative than to give credit to this murky stuff, learnt at my mother’s knee in the age of austerity. Spengler helped me to begin to understand some of my own irrational attitudes towards money. Why do I find it so hard to fill in tax returns or travel claim forms? Because being fixated on money as magnitude is a way of killing off the drive to grasp its infinite potential.

Money is the ocean we swim in these days. Despite or because of this, its role in human affairs continues to be demonized and the attempt to return it to the marginal role it was confined to in agrarian civilizations always finds a ready audience (Polanyi 1944). The question of where money’s persuasive power comes from is probably unanswerable as such. Money surely generates value and significance in human interactions as much as it erodes it. It is a symbol of our relationship as an individual person to society (hitherto more often singular than plural). This relationship may be conceived of as a 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 in which we each generate the personal credit linking us to society. The potential for shifting meanings, identities and memories lies in the reflexivity of money and language. This latter outlook, however, requires us to abandon the notion that society rests on abstract grounds that are more solid than the transient exchanges we participate in. Few people at present are prepared to take that step, preferring to receive the money they live by, rather than make it. When the meaning of money is seen to be what each of us makes of it, we may be less inclined to think of Money as the somewhat archaic God of capitalism that it has become. Maybe, in the long run of human evolution, it will turn out that money is just a tool, as Simmel said; but for now it often seems that the tool does the talking.


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