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Marx, Money and Our Future

by Anitra Nelson on December 22, 2016

The ‘Marx’s Critique of Political Economy and the Global Crisis Today‘ conference will be held on 6–7 April 2017 — organised by members of the Economics and Sociology departments of Hofstra University, New York — one of many events in 2017 to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Capital I.

Key speakers will include popular US Marxists: urbanist David Harvey, feminist Silvia Federici and autonomist Harry Cleaver. In what is planned to be a lively discussion on Marx, money and our uncertain future, I will talk with Harry Cleaver, whose forthcoming book Rupturing the Dialectic: The Struggle Against Work develops further on themes in earlier work, including his classic Reading Capital Politically (1979, new edition by AK Press/Anti-Thesis 2000) but addresses key issues facing us today.

Cleaver writes to and for the contemporary citizen-activist, be they in the Global South or Global North, a woman or man, a student or academic, migrant or disaffected national, precarious worker or unemployed, anti-capitalist and/or environmentalist. The structural frame of capitalism and discipline of money is the context of their common identity however bizarrely their everyday lives and dissident styles might conflict and coincide with one another.

At the ‘Marx’s Critique of Political Economy and the Global Crisis Today’ conference, we will take some summary arguments in a substantial article in Capitalism Nature Socialism 27 (4): pp. 40–60 — ‘“Your Money or Your Life”: Money and Socialist Transformation’, as our diving off point. This article is a non-market socialist position paper on money and much of the text in the rest of this blog post is drawn directly from it.

Non-market socialists argue that moving beyond money is a fundamental, first and final step of socialist transformation. Even so, it is acknowledged that this no-money position is simply a necessary, not sufficient, condition to construct both sustainable and just social relationships and — the main challenge of the current conjuncture — collective sufficiency within Earth’s limits.

In capitalism, ‘money’ functions as a universal equivalent, simultaneously a means of exchange and standard of price, which, therefore, can appear as a store of value and be loaned for a percentage charge, over time (interest). Money is not a tool but a code of conduct that structures social relationships and that reproduces inequity, competition, distrust and alienation.

Indeed, the existence of capitalists and capitalism is inconceivable and impossible in practice without money. Noting the neglect of this topic in the Left broadly, the article urges greater clarity on any role money might have in the transition to socialism and a wide-ranging discourse on moving beyond money sooner rather than later.

The critique starts by arguing that growth is not simply a characteristic tendency of capitalism but an essential aspect of capitalist operations, from the individual capitalist through to capital in general. Furthermore, prices do not and cannot be made to reflect environmental or social values. The market is the process of capital accumulation and maintenance. Money refusal — zero work in Cleaver’s writings — and the development and defence of non-monetary forms of livelihood have the great potential to amount to a continuous critique of capital and demonstration of alternative (or at least ‘hybrid’) socialist forms.

In its ecosocialist form, the non-market socialist route de-emphasises, marginalises and, ultimately, dissolves the state — as well as money — to vest control, instead, in neighbourhoods as locally centred economic and political units. These cells, as it were, exercise a degree of autonomy nonetheless limited by respect to universal socialist principles and details of external compacts made with neighbouring and other collective working groups managing broad commonly held and managed resources, and sharing cultural, creative and intellectual activities across the globe.

In contrast, many anti-capitalist movements already trying to move in the direction of commoning in production and sharing in exchange seem to have little sense of money as a barrier, emphasising community control of it rather than avoidance.

This, then, is the political context within which we, at the forthcoming conference,  will discuss matters such as: the philosophical and political advantages of dispensing with money; the critical risks of failing to recognise prices, not just profits, as barriers to both a socialist transformation and the successful return of humanity to environmentally sustainable practices; money and capital as chicken and egg in the work of Marx; and misrepresentations of Marx when it comes to his tracts on money and ‘utopian socialism’.

Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson is an activist-scholar and Associate Professor at RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, author of Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (1999), co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011), and her Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet was published by Pluto Press (London) in January 2018.

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