La Grenouille dans le Fauteuil

My thoughts, explorations and opinions about Music, Philosophy, Science, Family life; whatever happens. Shorter items than on my web site. The name of the blog? My two favorite French words. I just love those modulating vowels.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Money - part 1

   Money is fictional arithmetic. It has the precision and ruthlessness of arithmetic, which makes it both useful and unforgiving, but is every bit as remote from reality as any other form of fiction. We expect a relationship between money and reality, but the fact that that relationship constantly needs to be stated and specified, (price labels, wage contracts) shows that no such relationship is self-evident. It’s easy, on stepping outside, to tell if it's raining or not. But if the internet is down, there’s no way to know if I have money in my bank account. On coming inside again, it's easy to determine whether or not I have any rice in my larder, but when it comes to establishing the monetary value of that rice, truth is not manifest.

Money would seem to indicate the values of things, but the relationship between money and whatever it is that it signifies is cloudy. Once upon a time, it was honest and transparent, in the days when money was nothing more than a simple count of units of gold, silver, cattle, or whatever. The fictional or arbitrary relationship then lay between the (practically speaking, useless) gold metal and the goods it could buy. But nowadays it is different. There is no ‘dollar’ you can physically touch; there is no intrinsic value in the pieces of paper, the currency. These are merely symbols, easily replaced if burned, so long as it is the right person who does the replacing!

But we don’t even need paper now. Certainly there is no intrinsic value in the ephemeral ghosts of numbers flickering on a computer screen; mere representations of the results of arithmetic. We must not allow ourselves to be deluded, by the constant iteration of a name, into thinking that it refers to something. The “dollar” is no more real than “the will of the American People” or Grover Norquist’s absurd “signed pledge to the people of Oklahoma,” about which people in Oklahoma knew nothing.  To say a car is worth $54,000 sounds as if it means something objective. But the “$” is nothing more than an equalizer, an assertion of parity between any and all financial calculations that invoke that sign, whilst similarly disengaging from calculations that use the “£” sign. The car has a price of 54,000 “somethings” - a pure number, connected, purely as a matter of convention, to all other numbers that use the same financial talisman. Some years ago an equivalent car would have cost 13,000 units. Some day in the future it will be 180,000 things. The ‘dollar’ part is merely a normalizing invocation. The enlisting of an invariant, and an indication of acceptance of the yoke of the past.

The reason why this pure, abstract, and Platonic process of arithmetic has such power over us, is that we all, consciously or otherwise, agree that it shall have that power. We submit. Without our consent it could not work. The emperor really has no clothes, but exchanges that use money are so important to us that we cooperate out of practical necessity, or casual indifference, or perhaps out of enjoyment of the advantages it gives us. We knuckle under, or dive right in, while these simple arithmetical calculations lead people to suicide, to starvation, to ruin, to the enjoyment of tyrannical, crushing and unwarranted power, to effective slavery, to idleness, to death for want of simple medicine, to all manner of injustice, as well as to normal innocuous exchanges, purchases, deals, agreements, and the achievement of genuine freedom.

In early human history money no doubt evolved as a technique for facilitating cooperation between members of a community. By trading one thing for another, or one service for another, or a thing for a service, or vice versa, human communities were able to enhance their capability for survival. Money reified cooperation. Money oiled the wheels of mutual benefit. But like any invention, it had unintended, unforeseen consequences. It is troubling that the objectivity of money becomes self-justifying. The arithmetical purity of the calculations gives them a semblance of truth, inevitability, and reality that they do not warrant. Money becomes unarguable, and thus more important, more accepted as real, than life itself and the preservation of life. This human invention, which arose to aid us all in living together, is also used to crush and to dominate, to legitimize illegitimate inequality, and to facilitate power. When the self-justifying machinations of money are used to declare that we cannot take care of our infirm, and that human society is dependent upon the exponential growth of the wealth of the already rich, then clearly our monetary system is malfunctioning. In such a circumstance we should seek to alter the mechanism, rather than throw vast segments of humankind into poverty, deprivation, and despair. More than any previous generation, we have the ability, the wherewithal, the techniques, the skills and the knowledge, whereby we can protect the infirm, enable the talented, and promote the general welfare of the people. If we choose not do so, and claim that it is because “the nation is broke,” we demonstrate a shameful willingness to protect avarice behind lies and delusions.

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