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Selling my promise to y to z: money, the universalizer of universal history

A good part of our intellectual apprenticeship is spent learning truths about the world that completely deny our experience. Sometimes, this is a good thing. The earth moves around the sun, who would have thought it! Sometimes, this is an ideological thing. Every philosophy freshman is duly impressed by the proof that altruism is actually an impossible ideal, since behind the act of a man of a man jumping in the river to save a stranger, one can find the flicker of the ego’s satisfaction with itself. What is rarely done is to turn the play of the cards and inquire if there is, in fact, any egotistic action at all – since, as we all know, our days are most organized by and for others. In this sense, egotism is a mere epiphenomena, and altruism, crushing altruism, is the very base and bread of our days. So why do we dwell, with such delight, on the ironic discoveries of the moralistes, without of course the saving irony? Because interest, self interest, has to be posited in order to make the capitalist machine work. We learn to demystify our motives in order to more thoroughly mystify our system.

Thus, the work of demystification turns out to be a more complex game than one expected. The career of Karl Marx is proof of this. It is rare that one man held so consistently, so desperately to the project of demystification – which is why one instinctively groups him with Nietzsche. Both, like the creature in Kafka’s Burrow, restlessly paced their own structures.

It is in terms of the burrow that I like certain of Marx’s texts above all others. Not just the brilliant political writing, but, as well, the notebooks. The Grundrisse. All commentators are agreed that the Grundrisse shows a Marx who has still not yet subdued the philosophical vocabulary to his plain work. And I must grant it is a little unfair to compare the notes, which perpetually retain the freshness of writing on the verge of one’s great themes, with the finished work, in which that freshness is subordinated to mastery. Marx is preeminently a maitre – Engels, that blessed spirit, understood this right away, irritated as he was, sometimes, by Marx’s tendency to excess.

I have been so entirely wrapped up, lately, in my editing work that I haven’t had the time I wanted to use Faust as my totem for Marx – my way of thinking through the metaphoric of transformations within the money/commodity nexus. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, as I get older, start crowds me more and more – no matter how little sleep I get, I, like poor Faust, fall behind.

So: I wanted to make the connection between the organized and unorganized faces of freedom as Simmel sees them to Marx’s approach to money. The commentators say: there are two traditions concerning Marx’s theory of money. One is that he is, at root, a metallist – that, in order to make money as a commodity coherent with the labor theory of value, Marx is forced to mystify gold and silver as the universal types of money. The other is that the commodity theory leads him to see money primarily as a measure – and thus, puts him both in the camp of the nominalists and leads him to the same problem that the classical and neo-classical economists have – he can’t really distinguish the money economy from the barter economy. Or, as Ingham, the man who presses this critique the hardest, says, Marx missed the meaning of money-in-general because of his attachment to the labor theory of value. In an article in Economy and Society (2001), he sums up his desideratum like this:

“It is extremely important for the general analysis of money that the distinction between credit and credit-money is made clear from the outset. The new forms of money in question were not simple credit in the sense of deferred payment. Nor could they be adequately understood as direct symbolic ‘paper’ representations of precious metal, whether or not this was in coin or bullion form. Rather, these
first forms of credit-money were ‘money’ in the sense that mere ‘promises to pay’ circulated as means of settlement (payment). It was only later that they were backed by gold. I shall also contend that this negotiable (or transferable) debt – that is, ‘depersonalized’ debt that can be used as means of payment to a third party – is a form of money which is specific to capitalism.” (see Ingham 1999).

Later, in the same article, Ingham makes another neat point:

“Actually existing capitalism, as opposed to the ‘village fair’, was constituted by a new form of ‘dematerialized’ credit-money. From the early beginnings in late medieval Italy, state and bank debts – that is, their promises to pay – became accepted means of payment. In other words, debts could be discharged with a higher ‘quality’ form of debt that was trusted and/or enforced. This transformation
in the form of money required the signi. cant social structural change of the depersonalization and transferability of debt. It involved the transformation of a personalized bilateral debt relation (for example, an IOU) into the means of paying a third-party creditor (see Ingham 1999; Rowlinson 1999). A debt could be paid with another debt.20 It is precisely this fact – that money is constituted by a social relation of credit–debt – which mainstream economics, in its unremitting materialist preoccupation with the individual calculation of the utility of commodities, has found difficult to comprehend.”

Orthodox Marxists will tell you that Ingham is missing the fulcrum of capitalist history – abstract labor power – in this account. Myself, I think Ingham has the right intuitions about Marx’s formal model, but underestimates another theme in Marx – that of universal history. Universal history, in Marx’s hands, is not the history of unconvering the universals that really constitute mankind, but the history of the universalizing of mankind through force and the productive forces unleashed by capitalism –whch, remember, is represented in the Communist manifesto not just by free trade, but by World literature.

Marx prefigures Simmel in understanding barter and money in terms not just of their social relations, but in terms of different social circles. If I promise a friend to do x, because my friend has done y, I do not ‘sell’ my promise to my friend z – although one notices that, indeed, married couples, or long time couples, often tend to treat debts incurred by one of them as fungible enough to be ‘paid’ by the other. In my family, for instance, my mother often represented her gifts as coming from my father. She wasn’t being dishonest – this was exactly the way she saw – and he saw – the essence of being married. One flesh is one debt and one repayment.

Here’s Marx, noticing the way in which the social circle and barter are mutually determinative:

“Meanwhile the point we want to approach is the following: gold, in relation to the commodities in as much as it is supposed to be fixed as a coherent measure, is determined through barter, immediate acts of exchange; as the relationship of all other commodities to each other. In barter is, in the meantime, the exchange value of the product only in itself; it is the first phenomenal form of the same; but the is not yet posited as exchange value. Firstly this definition does not extend over the total production, but only its overflow [Uberfluss – surplus] and is thus more or less superfluous (as exchange itself); an accidental expansion of the circle of satisfactions, enjoyments (relations to new objects). It emerges then only in a few points (originally there, where the organic community stops being in contact with the foreign one), is limited to small circles and informs the ephemeralities, the supplements of production; extinguished as accidentally as it arises. The exchange act in which the superfluity of one’s own production is contingently exchanged against that of some stranger is only the first appearance of the product as exchange value in general and is determined through contingent needs, desires, etc. But if it becomes extended, as a continuing act, that contains in itself the means to its continual renewal, by and by there comes, just as externally and contingently, the regulation of mutual exchange through the regulation of mutual production, and the production costs, that are finally all resolved in labor time, will become the measure of exchange. This shows us how exchange becomes and the exchange value of commodities.”


Anonymous said…
LI, this is an amazing post. And I can't comment right now, but it reminded of me of something you linked to recently - an article in the New York Times that you linked to on Zona regarding Haiti.

The title is telling enough, "Near Quake's Epicenter, A City Ready for Business". The article mentions among others Gary Pierre with his shoeshine box.

“I never moved,” he said. “I come here every day, even the day of the earthquake.” But now, it is more often food, not money, that changes hands. “I clean your shoes, and then you give me some food,” he said. “I carry water for you, and then you call me: ‘The food is ready, bring your bowl.’ ”

Just then, Duvery Elivert, a college student, walked up, handed him a coin and propped a dusty black shoe on the box, just as he had always done on Sundays before church.


Roger Gathmann said…
Amie, Haiti is by every link and web such a major part of the trans-Atlantic economies. Their poverty made us - us, inc. - wealthy. This is something I had tried to get at in the thread about the 'small things', the Mordspiel in sugar and rum. Before the earthquake hit, what place had been more battered by the human earthquakes - the amazing cruelty and greed, and the casual acceptance that certain places in the world can just be shit on, over and over again? As many Haitian bloggers have pointed out, France happily let the remnant Duvaliers into the country with a billion in blood money squeezed from the hide of the country. And as Franketienne has pointed out, the peculiar US response of mixing an invasion with a 'resuce' effort had everything to do with making sure that the Haitians didn't escape to America - for they would then have to be drowned at sea, our traditional way of taking care of the refugee problem.

In spite of this ceaseless villainy on the macro level, it is on the micro level that the economy becomes human. On the macro level, the human is replaced by the pure principle of substitution; on the micro level, however, life and death are stubbornly unique.

Which is too obscure sounding. Sorry! I have not finished by a long shot with this thread.
Roger Gathmann said…
Amie, I completely forgot it was valentine's day. Happy V. day to you and Michel!