Friday, March 12, 2010
Money just seems to make the world go around
There is a drop of blood on the ground
And it seems to me that it's not my kind
but I can't be sure if its yours or mine
Substitution. Replacement. Fungibility. I have so far been hammering home a point about one of the great, novel features of capitalism, but it is a point that is, inherently, difficult to express. When money is paid for an object, in one sense it operates as a substitute for the object – and in one sense it doesn’t. For the object does not operate as a substitute for money. If I pay 2 dollars for a bag of sugar, as we all know, this does not mean that I can then go into a store and trade my bag of sugar for 2 dollars worth of oranges. In this way, money is a commodity unlike any other in the body of commerce. “It is a matter of complete indifference to money into what kind of commodities it is transformed. It is the universal equivalence form of all commodities, which already show in their prices, that ideally they represent a specific amount of money, awaiting their transformation into money, and only through changing places with money maintain the form in which they are convertible into use values for their possessor.” [Capital II, 36 – my translation] The principle of substitution, the universal equivalence seemingly embodied in cash, not only supplants the system of in-kind payments which, theoretically, held together the feudal world – it becomes a sort of multiplier of other substitutions. Or, to put it another way, it reveals the variables that structure the new world of capitalist production, most notably in the convergence of the specialization and fungibility of the worker.
But is money really, then, impervious to all social boundaries? On one level – for instance, in buying a bag of sugar – money holds its place as a great converter. But though the capitalist would like to think that the worker is merely a screw, a stopgap, Marx clearly does not believe that the human – the social - is so easily liquidated. Rather, we must operate one of those inversions of the terms in place to help us see what is happening here:
“If M-L appears as a function of money capital, or money here as the existence form of capital, thus in no simply because the money steps out here as a means of payment for human activity, which has a useful effect, that is, for a service; thus absolutely not through the function of money as a means of payment. Money can only be disbursed in this form, because the labor power finds itself in the circumstance of being divided from its means of production (including the means of subsistence [Lebensmittel as the means of the production of labor power itself); and because this division can only be abolished through the fact that the labor power is sold to the possessor of the means of production. Thus, even the mobilization of labor power, whose limits are not synonymous with the limits of the necessary quantity of labor involved in the production of its own price, belongs to the buyer. The capital relationship emerges during the production process because it exists in the act of circulation, in the different basic economic conditions by which the buyer and seller confront each other, in their class relationship. It is not in the nature of money that the relationship is given; it is rather the existence of this relationship that makes it possible to transform a simple monetary function into a capital one.” [Capital bk. 2, 36 – my translation. Compare with the David Fernbach Penguin translation, p. 115]
As a character says in Moulin Rouge, “a girl has got to eat/or she’ll end up on the street.” Money’s power as a universal equivalent, in the capitalist era, gives to the capitalist a weapon. That weapon derives from the division of labor. The weapon does not fall from heaven. Rather, all must agree on the weapon, as in a game in which the opponents moves against each other reference agreed upon rules. Why would the worker agree to these rules? Because of the division of labor that separates the worker from the means of production. In this game, one side created the rules – we will call them, as Marx did, the bourgeoisie. I hasten to say that this is not a whole truth – Marx sometimes considers that the rulemakers, the state, are only tools of the capitalist class, and sometimes complicates the base/superstructure model. In fact, he would have no interest in democracy at all if a strong version of the base/superstructure model held – whereas he is always politically throwing his weight on the side of democracy, suffrage, all the gains of the French revolution. However, leaving this aside for the moment - it is in the interest of the (variously changing members) of those who own the means of production that the weapon will be agreed upon in as much as the can valorize their ownership of the means of production. Notice, you tastemongers of dialectics, that this means only that the form of money is agreed upon – the substance – including its practical loss or gain of value, inflation or deflation – is not under the control of the ownership class. Seeds here for future drama.