Saturday, October 27, 2012

What Is Money? Again.

(part 1) (part 3)

Money in a modern industrialized economy is what society, that thing Margaret Thatcher asserted did not exist, owes its constituent individuals. Some years later she followed up with this, they never quoted the rest. I went on to say: There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour. My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.“ Ms. Thatcher's Neo-Liberal mythology not withstanding, we do not survive in the world through looking after ourselves first and then looking after our neighbors, we survive by participating in a world of man made institutions that organize our activities in ways that yield material living standards vastly beyond the reach, much less imagining, of families and neighbors not fortunate enough to have been born into vast industrialized societies of multivalent and complex institutions. To the extent that we survive with the aid of money it is this institutional environment from which we are drawing our sustenance.  

This habitat we engage as individuals "looking after ourselves" is one quite remote from the biological environment of our genetic ancestors for whom sustenance did in fact grow on trees, in the fields and on the hoof. The carrying capacity of that ancient habitat could support no more than a quarter at most of the people currently alive. The habitat we live with now, from which we take our sustenance, is in almost no ways one in which opportunities for "looking after oneself" are equally distributed, and to the extent they are it is precisely because institutions of human government have regulated an essential fairness wholly alien to the Darwinian world as we find it outside the sphere of human consciousness. Further, while "a living structure of individuals, families, neighbors and voluntary associations" is a description of some parts of some societies, it in now way encompasses the form or structure of most human societies for most of human history. The particular element of voluntarism she includes is a fairly recent accomplishment, itself the result of sustained political struggle preserved only precariously by the inherited institutions passed down from the protagonists in a centuries old fight to define, codify, institutionalize and sustain what maximum scope of human freedom could be achieved. 

While it was the instrumentalism inherent in the value set money defines that first enslaved people, likewise it is the abstract utility money embodies that has allowed Post Enlightenment civilization to free people to the degree it has. This freedom is the product of centuries of institutional struggles to form and sustain organizations that prevent the concentration of power to levels actively detrimental to the broad necessities and ambitions of society at large. Representative forms of government with checks and balances on the exercise of power have been the most successful political form and have had the greatest effect where combined with market based economic systems that again by preventing the concentration of unchecked power have sustained the distributive efficiencies money facilitates when spent into a fair market place. But the fairness of the marketplace, again despite Neo-Liberal mythology, is no intrinsic property of markets: it is the result of hard fought political and in places real military battles. What fairness exists in markets exists only through the enlightenment and success of certain of our progenitors who understood what they themselves stood to gain from benefits that accrued mostly to people other than themselves.

Markets survive on the principal that a rising tide floats all boats, and the best statesmen and women who did the most to expand the force and wonder of market economics were ones who understood that the greatest gains were those most widely distributed and that in fact it was the broadest possible distribution of gains that fed the demand signals through which markets identified and solved human problems. Money is the essential lubricant of markets and, because it is abstract rather than specific value, it tends to become
the market value, sine qua non. It can stand for anything and so we tend to let it stand for everything while in fact it is nothing but an agreement, no more than the agreement that yes means yes. It is because as a tool it is so bound up in the operations of markets, compounded by our near total dependance now on the function of markets and possession of money for access to them, that we tend so regularly to lose sight of the primacy of life and people, and the contingency of money itself, as an idea, on the cognitive structure of the human brain. We let our creations define us in this way and loose sight of what is truly precious behind what is monetarily valuable.

It is the institutions of progressive civilizations that align the interests of the constituent people who make them up and organize their efforts to make a better man made world for succeeding generations. Our society, by losing sight of the centrality of our shared humanity, subjecting that humanity to the instrumentalist values of money based economic systems we now take as for granted as air and water, has allowed our humanity to become as polluted by the instrumentalism of money value as we have allowed the air and water to become by the "externalities" of monetarily profitable activity. Only when we put humanity back at the center of efforts will we be able to plan those efforts again to make better worlds for our human progeny in the generations following us who will live with the degraded environment and degrading values we continue to expand for them now.

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