Couldn't We Live Perfectly Well Without Money?
Melbourne Town Hall, 15 September 2000
Discussion from Forum

Michael Cathcart

Anitra, it occurs to me that what Albert has been saying might make you feel a bit uncomfortable, with references to the “idiocy of rural life” or to turning your back on industrial modernity. Isn't that what you're most sympathetic with?

Anitra Nelson

I'm not interested in going backwards, and I am interested in going forwards and I don't think that Albert spoke enough about the possibilities of the internet for democratising power, and ways in which the internet could democratise decision-making about production and exchange. I wondered if he could talk about that a bit?

Albert Langer

I don't think it'll be done by the Internet. It'll be done by the Revolution!

Michael Cathcart

But Albert, do you want to talk some more about the Internet though, because you're a great advocate of the internet, and I know, for example, that you believe the fact that we can get music free off the internet is something that we should celebrate, rather than be worried about.

Albert Langer

I can't imagine anyone here would be worried about it. People you talk to at the ABC might be, but it's not something that needs talking about here. Likewise, the internet might have needed talking about a few years ago, but it's a reality that's here now. It is the development of a global society in which ordinary working people are exchanging ideas. The ideas they are exchanging at the moment are pretty pathetic, but when it turns out that the magic stuff with mirrors, the 300 to one price to earnings ratios, purchase of businesses for "good will" at ten times their actual capital value, turns out to be a speculative bubble in capitalism which is going to result in a world-wide depression, rather than a disappearance of a social system, people like Comrade Gates, who have been making sure that there's a desk-top PC on every office desk, will have contributed towards a world-wide movement which is able to unite with one voice, organise itself, and take over. You'll have little people writing "I'm in if you're in" and you'll get it back from ten colleagues who get it back from a hundred colleagues, "I'm in if you're in", until eventually they move and take over the world. And that's a pretty significant development we haven't had before.

Michael Cathcart

Gabriel, do you share that confidence?

Gabriel Lafitte

I very much like Albert's forward-looking rather than romantic reaction. But I don't share his faith in Revolution as a single moment, a single spasm in which the whole of the human race unites, are united on-line and instantly overthrow the established order of thing.

For instance, we have witnessed at the World Economic Forum, the police, in a liberal democracy acting to preserve the power of a capitalist elite, including the very same person who Albert called ironically "Comrade Gates".

One thing which I think unites all four speakers is an emphasis on the primacy of power, and the way in which the contemporary language of money has sanitised the naked exercise of power by substituting old-fashioned words like “capital” with purely instrumental and utilitarian and functional and structural terms. But the reality is that everything depends on the exercise of power. And I cannot for the life of me see that even if 99% of the globe's population decide that they're sick of this, that they've had enough, that they are going to rise up in a coherent, united and sufficiently capable way to overthrow the one per cent.

That's where I part company, and I would suggest that Albert is also opting for a rather classical form of magical thinking.

Albert Langer

I must agree. If I was implying that it'll happen overnight or in one day, that would be magical thinking. The reality is that movements are long and complex, we go backwards and forwards, and they break out in different places at a time.

All I would say about the internet in that context is that they'll come together one hell of a lot faster than they ever did before.

Gabriel Lafitte

But unless everyone arises on the same day, they can always squash it. In any country, the mechanisms of social control are sufficient to squash and deal with, and as we've seen with the actions of the Victorian police, even win the support of at least a very hefty proportion of the population for what is fundamentally the brutal exercise of power.

Albert Langer

Anyone can win a baton charge against people who've been undergoing months of non-violence training. But even with machine guns, it's a bit tougher taking on a large section of the population who have been undergoing training in how to fight back!

Gabriel Lafitte

I just can't see the revolution happening and sweeping away everything and magically transforming everything.

Albert Langer

No, I agree with you on that.

Gabriel Lafitte

I think that, in religious terms, you're an old-fashioned Jew waiting for the Messiah!

Albert Langer

I've got this rootless cosmopolitan element from being a Jew, and it goes with the anarcho-stalinism and so on, I do believe though that's it's not a matter of waiting for a Messiah, I believe in socialism-in-one-country, if you've got a chance! If you've got the opportunity to fight a revolution anywhere, you don't just leave it to the bourgeoisie to evolve for another couple of hundred years, till society's developed enough, you Go for it! So there can be all sorts of outbreaks anywhere, but I don't believe we're headed for quiet times. We're living in a period that's been exceptionally boring for the last few decades, as far as political theory and political content goes. If you look around at the Left journals, I've never seen anything more unbelievably boring. But to me, it means a period of quiet before an unbelievably intense storm, I think we're headed for a very exciting period.

Michael Cathcart

John Rundell, it occurs to me that Gabriel Lafitte is getting closer to your position, than it sounded when he was standing here at the microphone.

John Rundell

I think that's true. I think we have two Marxes circulating around the panel, in some ways. One is the Marx of the Communist Manifesto, which Albert and I both mentioned, although from quite dramatically different perspectives, the Marx, which I very much like, which Albert showed when he read out from the Communist Manifesto. But the other Marx is from the Eighteenth Brumaire, in which humankind makes its own history, and are doomed to repeat the dramas and comedies of the past if they're not particularly careful.

Now I take that view as well, that is that the problems of the revolutionary paradigm have been laid out quite dramatically for the last, at least, two hundred years, and part of the problem is to do with the redemptive component, which is buried deep within the fantasy of revolution. This makes me extremely sceptical about the capacities of these images of revolutionary transformation.

I think it's an extremely interesting range of events that have emerged in the last thirty years, with the pluralisation of conflicts. I think part of the problem is that in the context of this pluralisation of conflicts, and in the context of the pluralisation of social movements, there is a crisis of “Where to Next?”, of what forms of conceptual thinkings can these types of conflicts be placed in.

If there is going to be another mass catastrophe, it's not necessarily going to be the mass catastrophe of capitalism. My speculative thinking on this matter, if I'm going to engage in speculative thinking, would simply be “there'll be war”, and I mean this in the sense of conflicts not for and against globalisation, but the conflicts and the continuing conflicts between nation-states, which, curiously, globalisation can settle down, in which notions of cosmopolitanism could possibly mediate, both in terms of cultural as well as political cosmopolitanisms. In this sense, I will then tend to view, not even notion of the radical transformations, but notions of the pluralisation of these conflicts, embedded within modern societies across the board and also within the clash between modern societies and civilisational patterns as one of the most interesting and far-reaching transformations that can occur.

They are extremely "spotty", they are contingent, they may or may not finish, but this means that we also have to give up a certain mythology of Marxism, and for me this is the mythology of the philosophy of history in which has located itself within the critique of capitalism. And it was to that philosophy of history that my own remarks were basically addressed.

Michael Cathcart

Well, let's pull the conversation back to the question: can we live without money? and Anitra, I want to ask you this: there's a lot of optimism among many Green groups and ecological groups, about using monetary measures to manage water. There are a lot of ecologists and greenies who find to their surprise that they're quite optimistic about the idea that if you say this much water in say the Murray-Darling system is worth this much money, and if users have certain rights which can be sold and traded, then that might actually lead to a way of managing the river that is economically responsible.

Now, do you have a response to that?

Anitra Nelson

Yes, I don't agree that it's possible. I think that a lot of the destruction that's occurred in terms of the environment to date is a result of those sorts of capitalist forces, and therefore you're actually just making it more complex and you're actually in fact just driving that force further on, back into the market relationships.

Michael Cathcart

The argument is though, that this stops people taking the water for granted and understand that it actually is worth something and that they are saving money if they save water. That seems, within the logic of the present time, quite a productive state of mind to get people to lock into.

Anitra Nelson

Yes, but at the end of the day we know that using the monetary structure cannot resolve the underlying problem. Its actually just a way of rationing, but it's been a very inequitable form of rationing right across the board, and everyone's acknowledged that. I think that is precisely what happens. It looks as if, in the beginning, that it's going to be good, but in the end it doesn't work out that way. You just have capitalists in charge of water as well. It's not just the food that we can get, it's the water as well.

Michael Cathcart

Let's throw it open for questions now.

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