Freedom and money

And everywhere we go people be like damn where you from, where you from
I'm from moneyland
So give me some money, man

In the last post in this series, I wrote about Caillois’s sense of the morphology of the game. Whether it is the triangle of baseball, the rectangle of the football field, or the strew of different bits of plastic models under the Christmas tree, play ultimately forms a circle about itself, much like God – that archetype of the circle in which the center is nowhere and everywhere.

As I also pointed out, one of the grounds of play, in Caillois’ schema – the freedom of choosing to play – seems to have a deep connection to one of the grounds of modern capitalism in Marx’s view – free labor. The player’s choice to obey certain rules – whether scripted or spontaneous – and the laborer’s choice to sell a certain product for money – one’s ‘time – both give us moments of relative freedom, the bounds of which are determined in the system in operation.

Georg Simmel was also attracted to social ‘morphology’ – to hubs and linkages, to circles and the social meaning of encirclement. One catches a glimpse of the idea of the ‘encircling’ institution in the Philosophy of Money. There, Simmel presses on the parallelism of three social factors in modernity: law, money, and education, the latter of which bears the guises of science, culture, and ‘intelligence’. The parallelism begins with the ‘leveling’ logic to which they are all subject. Thagt is, they operate on the principal of equalization. The law ideally views all those subject to it as equal; all commodities are equally buyable by money, even if by different amounts; and the content of intelligence is defined as such by being equally true for all who gain access to it. In modernity, then, the legitimation of hierarchy is derived from quantity rather than quality, to put it in vulgar Hegelian terms.

But this quantitative aspect is deceptive – behind the piles of money or the IQ test, there lurk social mechanisms that are certainly qualitative, disciplinary, and positional in more than quantitative terms. I have been pondering this equality in terms of the idea of the encircling institution. In the premodern landscape, the police, schools, and money were, of course, present, but they were not omnipresent. They did not have an enclosing nature. All three, however, developed in tandem with each other within the modern state, especially after the French Revolution. By this I mean that they ‘touched’ everyone. Where before – as one can see by reading, for instance, Mazzoni’s The Betrothed – great patches of Italy had literally no law enforcement at all, which was as true for England, Scotland, Massachussetts and Russia, etc. In addition, these kingdoms, city states and colonies were mainly rural, with economies that could be and was run with little reference to money as such. And, finally, there was no school system set up did not service the population as a whole of the European states (except for Holland) until the early nineteenth century. Then, in the U.S., in Prussia, and later than that in France and England, literacy, the greatest of all impositions on the Little Tradition by the Great Tradition, became theoretically mandatory. And even then, it is surprising, when one looks at the statistics, how few people were processed through higher education. A scientist in France in 1888 could well have met all the specialists in his field, or at least all those with diplomas: there was relatively few.

What is important to remember is that all three encircling institutions were put in place on a national scale by the end of the nineteenth century. One of the morphological mistakes of orthodox Marxism is to consider this a matter not of circles, but of a vertical constructs – hence, the famed structure/superstructure idea. Marx himself used this image not as a permanent heuristic but as a heuristic at hand to get to the notion of class. It is, however, certainly not indispensable, and a firmer sense of the circulation of commodities erodes that image.

I began this post with a reference to freedom. Heine, as I pointed out weeks and weeks ago, usefully analyzes freedom in terms of privacy, equality, and utopia (and here I am simplifying his simplification). Simmel takes a materialist approach to freedom that helps us understand the coupling of freedom and encirclement. Like everything Simmel writes in The Philosophy of Money, the insight tends to get buried in a very confusing style of topical presentation – a style that yearns to be aphoristic and that takes on its systematic duties as almost a punishment, which is then meted out to the reader. Myself, I understand how one can beat one’s wings against the cage of the dullest prose: but in life there is rhapsody, and there is taking out the garbage, and one should try, when possible, not to confuse the two.

In my next post, I think, or the next at least in this series, we will discuss freedom and money