Historically, one of the most effective ways for a system of authority to tout its virtues is not to speak of them directly, but to create a particularly vivid image of their absolute negation – of what it claims life would be like in the total absence of, say, patriarchal authority, or capitalism, or the state.
Here is our central failing: We have created a political culture that has eliminated in principle the need for the individual to consider and take responsibility for the good of the whole.
I’ve called you to this murky terrain because the multi-trench warfare all around us is going nowhere ever faster at rising cost. It is my firm view that the War of Value has us in its grip, and can thus only be apprehended, perceived and understood from this eerie, alienating place. You must leave the battle lines physically, psychologically and emotionally to see the War for what it is. You may already be shell-shocked; certainly much of the propaganda that propelled you to the trench of your ‘choice’ is still alive in you, but that you have made it here and paused to look around suggests you are beginning to doubt.
Well … long live doubt.
The purpose of the journey we are preparing for in this chapter suggests a simple enough undertaking. We are going to take a good look at what (or how) money means. That shouldn’t be too hard. After all, Everybody Knows™ what money is. Indeed, after having determined that money ought to be subjected to a thorough analysis, I guessed it would take me a year to write this book. That was ten years ago. Money, I’ve discovered in the meantime, is as deceptively simple and complex a phenomenon as there is. It is something of a cultural blind spot, not unlike the value it attempts to tame and control.
Money has become society’s unconsciously externalised symbol for value, and value, my dear, confused soldier, is what this War is all about, has always been about. The War’s terrible beauty lies in the fact that hardly anyone recognises we are at war with ourselves, that we needn’t be, and sadly that almost everyone, regardless of their culture, ethnicity, locality, etc., believes the surface explanations of their side’s justifying myths and stories, exactly as the authors of those myths want it. Unpicking the fabric of deceptions, half-truths, abused truths, ignorance, hubris, and public-relations-induced trance takes considerable effort.
The War of Value is a Punch and Judy show, an endless Kabuki masking how tightly controlled consensus on value really is. To the extent most of us think about this slippery concept, we probably have a schism between measurable and immeasurable value. The former can be thought of as price, the latter as subjective judgements with morality and ethics in there somewhere. Value-as-price wholly dominates institutional decision making: what is approved is that which we can ‘afford’. If it’s financially profitable, it’s good. If not, it’s bad, of low value, charity, unrealistic. One consequence of this profit-based value judgement is that market fundamentalism – price discovery with zero interference – is the better fit for this conceptual environment. Only fools and idealists refuse to bow to The Invisible Hand. Those who dare irreverence are soon swept away by market forces as inevitably as autumn follows summer. What emerges from this conceptual lockdown is the infamous ‘no alternative’ approach to capitalism and its systemic need for perpetual growth. Logically then, to conceive a truly sustainable, steady-state system, we first require a radically different, richer network of cultural and institutional relationships with value. Only by developing this network in earnest can a sufficiently different system be formulated and go on to thrive. Until this process catches hold widely and deeply enough, it will prove impossible to grow a new system from the ground of an unprepared culture. The environment has to be right, soil and seed just so.
Know this right here in these opening paragraphs: if you want to unpick your tapestry, if you want ‘free’ of the shimmering but tangled web, you’ve got to put in the hours. There is no easy recipe for escape other than hard work, open-minded learning, persistence, and courage. And it isn’t really escape. I cannot know in which direction my efforts here will point you, just as I cannot know where they will take me. There is no ending, and there are more answers to the more important questions than there are askers. The best we can hope for is increasingly wise questions. As Niels Bohr put it: “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” Therefore, part of wisdom is accepting that uncertainty is inescapable. Rephrased into a more unsettling expression, we will never be rid of the need for faith. As you begin to engage, maturely, with the development of your own unique, supple and evolving faith – the only one that really matters –, you become less susceptible to blind faith and being seduced or intimidated by other people’s carefully crafted dogmas.
Value, the nexus of the War, lies in the eye of the beholder, just like beauty. This is an obvious though oft undervalued point, out of which much else can be gleaned. First and foremost, the War of Value, like the War on Terror, need know no end. While it is conducted unidentified and unnamed, while it remains a smoke screen for behind-the-scenes dogmatic control, value definitions can have secret owners who benefit from the consensus view of value they foster and nurture; e.g.: the pursuit of happiness is the accumulation of private property, and “by the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat”. In truth, though in direct contrast to the findings offered by the art of obfuscation we call economics, value cannot be measured, and I mean here both exchange and utility value. Neither can it be stored. By extension, nothing can have intrinsic value, just as nothing can have intrinsic beauty. To emerge, both qualities require an observer – an external party ‘separate’ somehow from the beautiful or valuable ‘object’ – for only via subjective observation can an opinion or evaluation of an ‘object’ take place. A nugget of gold existing alone in an infinite void not only can have no value, it can have no meaning whatsoever. It is a flat impossibility. Indeed, ‘objects’ existing in ‘the void’ is itself a conceptualisation born of a particular habit of thought, an intellectual framework we must examine deeply if we are to get our heads around money and all that arises from it, understand how and why money emerged, and what to do about our situation.
And not one part of what I have written thus far is new. And perhaps its opposite is also true. Like I said; this is eerie terrain, an unreliable moonscape of shifting shadows and cultural litter.
If you delve a little deeper and dare the literature on the philosophy of value, you will quickly find yourself in a stormy sea of subjectivity flipping back and forth with objectivity in a confusing blur, from which you can take two important points. One: value is a big deal to us humans, and two: value is a blind spot, rather like the taste of your own tastebuds, and thus difficult to discuss. It’s certainly there, but grasping it, defining it, demonstrating it to others objectively … that is not easy. Further, issues of power are never far away from the process of establishing consensus on value. In the long story of our journey on earth up to this hour and minute, we have been variously involved with the hard-earned wisdoms and errors generated by value, pleasure, work, progress, productivity, justice and everything else these interrelated phenomena entail. Over the last few thousand years of moving from the “fierce egalitarianism” of hunter-gatherers to slowly building nation states, international corporations and the institutions that perpetuate them, we have seen the emergence of social structures of increasing complexity, and been required to ‘work hard’ to create more and more ‘product’ of ‘value’ in the form of ‘property’ that must be protected by any means necessary.
Yes, this is heady stuff, but it is pivotal to how society self-organises, how it makes decisions, rewards the ‘successful’ and punishes the ‘criminal’. Consequently, ownership of the control machinery that governs society’s definitions of and relationship with value – with which the systems that distribute societal value (e.g. money, property, prestige) are indefinitely sustained – is a key battleground. If you own the control machinery, you control society. In theory, at least.
Let me rephrase that last observation: controlling value definitions is a key battleground, a hotly contested fomenter of endless strife. In its deepest functioning, money controls our perception of value, shepherds it, corrals it whither it will. And yet despite this, money is not wealth, no matter how much we might want to believe otherwise. Imagine yourself on the moon, naked and alone but for all our world’s money and precious metals, countless trillions of dollars. How ‘wealthy’ would you be? Exactly. Money is in fact a conjured nothing functioning as a symbol whose primary power lies in governing how we perceive value, in guiding us via powerful dog-whistle whispers in how we conceptualise wealth. Expressed crudely: the higher the price, the higher the value; the higher your wages, the more highly society values you, and so on. Ergo, if you control money definition, creation and flow, you control value and value perceptions. In theory, at least.
In theory: control can never be total, nor can consensus. The money-value nexus I am developing here is one particular emergent property of hierarchical social organisation. Speaking very generally and in contradistinction to egalitarianism, hierarchical modes of social organisation are characterised by processes of continuing control of their product primarily in the interests of an ‘elite’, one that hierarchical social systems necessarily generate, by definition. Due to the size and complexity of hierarchical societies, they invariably require various sophisticated control mechanisms to remain cohesive and functional (‘alive’). In hierarchies, ownership of these mechanisms lies in the hands of so-called elites. In egalitarian social systems, by way of contrast, there is no institutionalised elite, therefore control of this mode’s product (mostly food and tools, though also myth, song, art) is organised for the general and equal benefit of all members, organically, by all members, and ruthlessly so; if you refuse to conform to the group’s way, you will be ejected or killed, where the former tends to result in death anyway.
Is one form better or worse than the other? I leave that up to you. My interest is in how circumstances favour one or the other mode, or some hybrid of the two. My contention is that historical pressures are tending humanity away from hierarchy. As you read on, you will decide for yourself how sound my judgment is.
Sadly, we tend not to notice such features of social organisation. They are not difficult to understand, just concealed. Typically, we are not encouraged to extricate our thinking from the dictates of the system we grow up in, to look dispassionately at the nation we were born into, or even at nation states generally, either as living systems or as constructed processes. Our education proceeds from certain core assumptions about ‘king and country’ we are discouraged from questioning too deeply. One way or another we are, as young children, asked to swear allegiance to ‘The Flag’ before we know what doing so even means. On the whole, this is probably a good thing. Where we are now is the result of large-scale historical processes beyond the control even of the best elites, not the finely controlled realisation of a Master Plan. Hence, conservatism has an important role to play: random change for its own sake is hardly a recipe for longevity, or for cultures capable of producing Bach, Lao Tzu, Dostoyevsky, Bakhtin, The Beatles, Rabindranath Tagore, etc. In large part, my efforts here aim to reach a far higher altitude of observation, and a deeper one. I seek a bird’s eye view via lines of enquiry such as: what are states, what do they do, and why did they emerge? The same basic questions are asked of markets, state education, money, economics, etc., with money itself as the overarching phenomenon guiding the entire endeavour. To my mind, money as currently constituted is the symbol, par excellence, of top-down hierarchical control of societal product. It is not, as orthodoxy has it, primarily an enabler of ‘economic’ activity (whatever that is).
Living systems do things, another key point in this work. They ‘perform’ some set of behaviours, and these behaviours represent, taken together, a kind of ‘forward momentum’ that, for all intents and purposes, can be thought of as a ‘desire’ to “keep on keepin’ on”, a survival instinct if you will, a patterning. The ‘elite’ of any nation state or multinational corporation is therefore ‘controller’ of its value-output in the circular sense that such systems’ very constitution and functioning requires an elite to stay ‘alive’ (to not break apart). Hierarchical social systems produce and distribute their product in multiple ways, but the elite get the lion’s share, since they are closest to the distribution mechanisms, and are, by definition, a hierarchy’s most important, or ‘valuable’, echelon. The non-elite do the grunt work (of varying degrees of sophistication) and carry the load, only managing deliberate and purposeful control of the system’s distribution mechanisms in exceptional circumstances. In somewhat Marxian style, this dynamic sets elite against non-elite, though the layers and interdependencies are far more complex and subtle than this brief, introductory rendition could possibly do justice to. Furthermore, there is far more to value than economics can currently imagine. As I said, money is neither wealth nor value; it is both manipulator and an expression of our cultural perceptions thereof. And like all myths, it tells us a lot about our deeper selves.
Also, what I mean here by ‘elite’ is not particular individuals who are ‘The Enemy’ or ‘The Wise Ones’ or however else we might want to characterise them. Rather, ‘elite’ refers to that emergent property of the systemic processes of social hierarchies that produce, necessarily, upper strata whose role or function it is to perpetuate the system as is. If they fail to do so, they cease to exist. They go down with their ship, as it were. It is therefore in the elite’s interest to defend and perpetuate the system that generates their lofty roles. Hence ‘class-based’ conflict around issues of value. See the system as a living thing. See The Elite as that subsystem of the hierarchy ‘enjoying’ most of the system’s product, or value. See money as an excellent control mechanism. It is a simple perspective, but it takes effort to properly appreciate it.
It is important to point out at this stage that I am not presenting a moral perspective, I’m merely bringing into focus a functional property of hierarchical social systems, particularly of states and corporations, painting background scenery to give sense to the expressions “War of Value” and “money as unconsciously externalised symbol for value.” Nevertheless, one key question with obvious moral overtones I will ask is this: How sustainable are such social hierarchies in that they select for growth? After all, infinite growth (a.k.a consumerism) is impossible on a finite planet.
To conclude, humanity’s struggle over value is not linear. Neither are its many moral sensibilities simple or clear cut. The historical dynamics giving rise to complex social hierarchies are unpredictable, complex, varied, cyclical, spiralling, purblind, but have invariably derived their locomotive power from the generation and allotment of value. Value is not indicated by money alone, nor is it only produced by economic activity. Religion deals with value too, as does ideology, as do all endeavours undertaken by humans in groups that have some common goal and therefore need to stay cohesive to achieve it. Those members of the group most effective in reaching the group’s goal are thus most valuable to the group, and will – unless we are talking about hunter-gatherer societies who are fiercely egalitarian – receive relatively more of that bounty the group’s efforts produce. Whether this is ‘fair’ is not as important as its long-term effects and consequences, nor as relevant as the bio-social pressures constantly generated by constant change.
My assertion is that money is the best manipulator of value perceptions there is. It has whipped war’s butt, religion’s too (though is happy to recruit both), and has bewitched politics into dollar-eyed submission. Money has evolved into a global might, and seeks to grow further still, just as social organisations like the corporation and nation state have grown and seek to grow still further. But ‘growth’ as economics understands it is one part of the value gravy train we can no longer afford. Money, as we have it today, demands growth by nature of its design and functioning, as a by-product of its uniform, for-profit creation. Put succinctly, money forces perpetual growth. Its ongoing existence, in its current form, has consequences that reach into every corner of our lives.
That is enough for Chapter 0. What follows on its heels is an attempt to pick out the most important strands of the myth of money, the consequences of this myth, the thought patterns and stories that help in escaping it, and some possible alternatives to it. Such an undertaking must, sadly, go almost everywhere, down to the core of reality and up into the furthest reaches of intellectual imagining. Although about money at base, this journey we are about to take is in fact about everything. Keeping it on an even keel will be no easy task. Indeed, I may very well fail. But that’s as it should be, since working our way up out of the money myth will take all of us working ‘separately-together’. I can’t do it without you.