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Friday, November 26, 2010

Simmel on money and the devil

In early modern Europe, money was the determining factor in creating the literary and moral character types of the spendthrift and the miser. Characters are not vocations, but vocations can accord with or be in discord with characters – and evidently the miser was the character type drawn to middleman professions, ones in which the circulation of commodities, or money itself, is privileged at the expense of production. Misers are also associated with age – whereas the spendthrift was associated with, on the one hand, disdain for a profession – a sort of aristocratic pretence – and youth. Simmel’s essay on the avaricious, the spendthrift and the poor takes its bearings from the social meaning of money as a medium of exchange – as a means – which is why he also includes the poor, a group “in its purest and most specific appearance” defined by “the measurements of the money economy.”

Simmel comes at the problem from the perspective of philosophical anthropology: man is a purposive – a purpose setting – animal. But in as much as purposes give birth to intermediate stages – in as much as the mechanism that leads to a purpose can, in fact, create a middle ground of steps that have to be taken until the purpose is achieved – man is also an ‘indirect being’, the one who is always struggling with the means to ends, as Laocoon and his sons struggled with the snakes. The snakes, in the story, won – they strangled the prophet. Means, in Simmel’s story, also tend to win, as our social lives become so entangled in them, accommodate the distancing of ends and purposes so much, that ends and purposes become faint, distant, and irrelevant.

I think of Simmel’s essay (Über Geiz, Verschwendung und Armut, which is here), evidently hived off the great mass of Philosophy of Money, as being one kind of interpretation of a phenomenon – the role of the cash nexus as the great modernizing element in the world - that, from another side, was interpreted by Weber as inner worldly asceticism. Of course, in Marx, the penetration of all spheres of private life by exchange value receives another interpretation, for Marx sees the role of the cash nexus as a thing, in modernity, that can’t be understood without bringing it into relation to class differentiation, the division of labor, and the freeing of labor from feudal constraints.

Simmel recognizes that unlike the barter economy (or what he romantically calls the ‘natural’ economy), the money economy is not characterized by simply making money another kind of commodity. Rather, it is a commodity that loses all the sensual and, as it were, hedonistic features of a commodity in order to embody, as it were, substitution itself. He makes an interesting remark about that feature of money in relation to ascetic religions – a remark that foreshadows (and conflicts with) Weber’s thesis. Simmel is explaining the irreplaceability of money for living in a society that is fully monetized even though the gaining of money is only the gaining of a means to the things that make for living:

“It is because of this fact, where in principle only indifference reigns against all external things, that it is easy to slip into hatred against money.
Thus, secondly, the tempting character of money works all the more decisively. Because it is ready in every second to be applied, it is the most terrible trap of the weak hours, and since it seems to serve to create everything, it represents to the soul the most seductive of things; and all of this is such an uncanny danger as money, so long as it simply remains as money in our hands, is the most innocent and indifferent thing in the world.

Thus, for the ascetic sensibility, it becomes the appropriate symbol of the devil, who seduces us in her mask of harmlessness and impartiality; so that against the devil, like money, the only security lies in absolute distance, in the renunciation of any kind of relation, so harmless as it may seem.”
To be continued.

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