1/24: Money and Enclosure

First, I reminded everyone that they had to contact me with their choice of grading track by Monday. Please look at the Grading Policy page and email me with your choice of track: nicksmaligo@gmail.com

We spent the day trying to get deeper a deeper understanding of the power of money in our lives. The first question I asked is “what does it mean when we say that money has ‘power’?” or “what power does money have, what does it do?”

This turned out to be a pretty difficult question to answer at first. Money “gets you things,” yes, but how does it “get you things”? Does it get you things? There was a particularly fun moment, in which we all were trying to see what was right under our noses.

The answer seemed obvious once it came: money doesn’t “get you things,” people who need or want money get you things. The “power of money” is actually the power to direct human labor (if you have it). It isn’t the money that is “making the world go round,” it is us. We just happen to do a lot of things (though certainly not everything) for money.

For some reason this felt like an important insight at the time: money’s power is only the power to direct the labor of people who want or need it. And this led to the question: well, what sustains that power? Why do people so reliably want or need money, such that money works to direct their labor in most cases?

And pretty quickly we hit upon a theory: if most people in our society don’t do things in exchange for money, they will pretty quickly start to suffer. They won’t be able to pay their rent, won’t be able to purchase things they or their family need or want, they will likely become socially marginalized, and will very likely end up in run-ins with the police. This kind of thing isn’t always the obvious reason for why we do things for money, but it does pretty well explain why it would be so difficult to completely refuse to give it power (because, remember, its “power” is us, it is our activity).

Now if we were to here invoke “the myth of barter,” we might say: yes, sure, money’s power comes from other people needing to scramble to get it, otherwise they will suffer. Maybe that sounds harsh, we would say, but its a huge improvement over “barter”! Back when everybody exchanged things through barter, you would need to scramble to provide for a whole bunch of different people in order to directly exchange the goods they had. Or something to that effect. But. We don’t have the myth of barter to fall back on anymore. So instead I asked, “how did we get to this situation where we have to spend so much of our lives finding ways to use our labor in exchange for money that it seems that money is ‘what makes the world go round’?” Put another way, “how did money come to seem so powerful, if its actually us and our labor that is powerful?”

I suggested that the following quote from philosopher George Caffentzis was a pretty good way to think about this:

Most people can find in their genealogy or in their own lives some point when their ancestors or they themselves were forced from lands and social relations that provided subsistence without having to sell either one’s products or oneself, i.e., they suffered Enclosure. Without these moments of force, money would have remained a marginal aspect of human history. These moments were mostly of brutal violence, sometimes quick (with bombs, canon, musket or whip), sometimes slower (with famine, deepening penury, plague), which led to the terrorized flight from the land, from the burnt-out village, from the street filled with starving or plague-ridden bodies, to slave ships, to reservations, to factories, to plantations. This flight ended with ‘producers becoming more dependent on exchange’ since they had no other way to survive but by either selling their products or selling themselves or being sold. Thus did ‘exchange become more independent of them,’ its transcendental power arising from the unreversed violence that drove ‘everyone’ into the monetary system. (Caffentzis, “The Power of Money: Debt and Enclosure”)

Some clarification. When Caffentzis says this process is how “exchange became more independent of them,” he means that money seemed to take on a power of its own. The “transcendental power” he refers to is this idea that money actually structures social life and human action, rather than the other way around. “Subsistence” means social relations (both among people and with their environment) that provide for their own needs, people who aren’t reliant upon selling their labor or their products in order to sustain their society. “Enclosure” refers to the acts of violence or the threat of violence that separate people from their “means of subsistence,” from the land, water, animals, etc. that allow for people to sustain themselves in subsistence. As we go on in the course, we will focus more on and extend these ideas of subsistence and enclosure.

After reading aloud and explaining this quote, I asked about the phrase “unreversed violence” and what that might mean,  and also if this story I’ve unfolded about the power and spread of money were our “working history,” what would justice look like?

I also noted that this process of enclosure is by no means a thing of the past. Nowadays it is often called “progress,” though in the past it was sometimes called “civilizing the savages.” 

Starting next week, we’ll begin reading The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy. The book raises the question of “what is the good life?,” but beginning from the standpoint of those whose lives and livelihoods are being undermined by corporate globalization.




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