comment by Andy Blunden

Couldn’t we live perfectly well without money?

My mother’s uncle, Frank Hyett, was one of the founders of the Victorian Socialist Party in 1908. Along with people like Tom Mann, Frank Anstey, Guido Baracchi, Maurice Blackburn and John Curtin, Frank Hyett delivered inspiring speeches at the VSP Sunday meetings in which a vision of the Socialist future was summoned up in people’s imagination. The same kind of vision is clearly visible in the images painted on the trade union banners of those days - the rising sun radiating enlightenment among symbols of peace, security and solidarity. As founding Secretary of the Australian Union of Railwaymen, Frank Hyett earned the nick-name of “Hellfire”. He died in the 1919 flu epidemic, and as the train carrying mourners to his funeral passed the Hawthorn football ground, the game was stopped and players and crowd together observed a minute’s silence in his honour.

Among Frank’s comrades, some, like Guido Baracchi, Bill Earsman and Tom Mann, joined the Communist Party and some, like John Curtin and Frank Anstey became leaders of the ALP. Either way, the 20th century was to be the century in which those who held this vision of a future from which greed and ignorance had been banished, learnt to make their way through the practical day-to-day struggle of the working people, building alliances, fighting for small improvements, making whatever compromises allowed some small step forward to be taken.

My parents, Betty and Ralph Blunden, were members of the Artists’ Branch of the Communist Party in the 1930s, along with people whose names today make up the Hall of Fame of Australian art. Betty lasted up till the Stalin-Hitler Pact in 1940, Ralph until the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. They never ceased to be Communists and to hold on to that vision which animated them as young intellectuals, but it became more and more difficult for them to live that vision, slipping instead into the relatively comfortable life of a professional couple in the advertising industry.

As a youth, turning 19 just after Bob Menzies introduced conscription in 1964, I knew that I utterly rejected not only conscription, but the entire social system it was meant to defend. I waited only till I could find two more people to join me before we became the first to burn our draft cards. Within a few years, I found myself involved in a life of practical politics, in pursuit of a vision, broadly speaking the same vision which animated Frank Hyett and my parents. I have been the local union representative in almost every job I’ve had since my first proper job in 1973. I’ve not only sold countless copies of left-wing papers, but negotiated dozens of wage or conditions deals, organised strikes and union committees, all trying by this way or that way to take the struggle just another step forward, to tip the balance of power just a millimetre maybe in favour of ordinary working people and against the power of big money.

But at the beginning of a new century, pushing 55 years of age, with nothing even vaguely resembling socialism anywhere in the world, and increasingly fewer and fewer people who even know the concept of socialism, I’m forced to reflect on whether on not somewhere along the line the plot has been lost.

Catch 22

I think that vision which lies at the base of socialist politics has been lost. I suspect that very few people active in the labour movement nowadays have any vision of anything really different from the fragmented, egotistical society of money-worshippers we live in today. But how the hell can you tell the difference between a step forwards and a step backwards, if you have no vision of what you’re fighting for?

For example, the struggle for a shorter working week: it is a struggle for survival by working people who are treated like machines or consumable materials while at work; it is also therefore a struggle for self-determination, for the right of people to control their own lives. But as a thing-in-itself, a shorter working week means only reducing the extent of one’s productive engagement with other people and increasing one’s status as a passive consumer. All those measures which militate against the wage-worker being gobbled up by their work are necessary defensive steps which create the pre-conditions for a productive worker to have their own life.

But unless this space is used to extend the person’s existence as a productive human being, then it is a waste of time. What is the use of a 35 hour week, if the time is simply spent watching television?

The same problem comes up with pay rises. The trade unions have a responsibility to increase the proportion of the social product accruing to wages. But no pay rise transforms the wage slave into anything other than a wage slave. Being healthy, free of hunger, educated and being able to raise their children to better conditions, all these things are pre-conditions for emancipation. But if strong union organisation and good pay only lead only to employees who drive big cars and eat extremely well, then the fact is that they remain slaves.

The highest ethical value is attained in the struggle itself, when workers use the time and energy saved from exploitation for the purpose of solidarity and struggle. But so long as trade unionism is nothing more than sellers of labour power exercising a cartel, then it is nothing more harm minimisation.

Paradise Lost

According to the dominant “postmodern” social theories, today’s society is characterised by a multiplicity of systems of values, identities and languages which co-exist without mutual contact. But the opposite is the case. There is but one religion, one system of beliefs which dominates the lives, the values and motives of everyone more exclusively than any language or any religion in history, in whose light all other faiths pale - and that is money, the Holy Dollar.

The shared activity in which the whole world is now absorbed is reflected in a shared faith. We all give power to money because we share a belief in it. We tolerate differences in religious belief or dress-sense; we are willing to strain ourselves to understand different languages or accept all sorts of differences in personal choice. However, we are absolutely intolerant of any disturbance of the ritual of monetary sanctification. This orthodoxy is all-pervasive and more severe than the Holy Inquisition.

Nowadays, money is an intangible that exists mostly in cyberspace; but we observe it through a strange array of rituals sometimes involving swiping plastic cards over electronic altars and using sacred texts in the form of rows of numbers, little icons and images on paper which we pass back and forward in our social intercourse, messages and incantations recited at important moments.

Like a weegee board which moves around under the combined pressure of multiple hands, apparently motivated by a ghostly force of its own, money moves around according to the force put into it by many human wills, but gives the appearance of moving according to a power unto itself, governing the lives of all mere mortals like the most interventionist of Gods.

In fact, we could live perfectly well without money, just as well as we could live without God or the Devil or Father Christmas. None of us believe it when Hanse Cronje tells us that it was the Devil, not him, who took bribes. Why should we believe it when someone tells us some slug has power over us, because of money. We don’t need permission of the Holy Dollar to do what we do. People can choose to cooperate with us or not according to their own will, without the permission of money.

What If ...

Imagine what might happen if one morning we all woke up to discover that money had disappeared and all the banks’ computers had had their memory wiped. Imagine if the governments of the world begged their citizens to carry on as usual while they worked out what to do about the problem.

Now if everyone went off to work just the same, waved their hands over the cash register as they left the supermarket, even bank clerks and insurance workers turned up and scribbled numbers on bits of paper, just the same as they had the week before, life would go on just the same. It wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference to our lives that money had actually disappeared.

But let’s suppose that after a little while people started to question whether they really needed to go on doing just the same things as they always used to do. What then, if people were to start changing the way they lived, if advertising workers turned to making experimental movies instead, for example and factory workers just decided to work shorter hours - would we be any worse off? Probably 90% of what we spend our time doing is a total waste of time anyway. So if 90% of people just decided to sit at home doing nothing, we’d probably be no worse off. Better off even, from the point of view of the environment especially. But I think that once people doing socially useless work had been idle for a few weeks, once they had given themselves a long overdue break, people, being human beings, would want to go back to doing something useful. Think of all those things - like health, education, aged-care for example - that society “can’t afford” nowadays, which would attract the efforts of people no longer interested in useless activity in advertising, banking, check-out counters and so on. All of sudden door-to-door salespeople and ticket inspectors would be history, and we’d be swamped in budding musicians, poets, golfers and sculptors. Couldn’t be too bad.

But maybe the sewerage workers would start to lose interest in their work as well? Then we’d have to find a more environmentally rational way of dealing with waste, wouldn’t we? And people would have to put in to solve the problem, or we’d all be in deep trouble. But does not all history teach us that nothing brings out the best in people, their spirit of self-sacrifice and their ingenuity better than a national crisis. Overcoming the difficulty posed by those jobs that no-one wants to do would pose the first great challenge.

How could we plan the social division of labour and international trade without the aid of that fantastic accounting measure and ultimate lever of power and planning - money? How would we prevent enormous imbalances of productive effort without the aid of the market? Well, I don’t know, but we could hardly do worse than we do at the moment, could we? In one part of the world, the main ills are obesity and boredom, while the majority of the world fear starvation; a few wealthy families command more wealth than the entire population of the poorest countries of the world, people slave in sweat shops in Thailand or beg on the streets of Calcutta, while the supermarkets overflow with candy and pet food in the West.

A world in which people endeavoured to meet the needs of other people, even given the misunderstandings, miscalculations and general anarchy with which they might go about it, could not be any worse than the world we live in at the moment where planning the distribution of the world’s benefits has been given over to a malevolent deity called the global economy.

Hell on Earth

“Now all this talk of a world without money”, you might say, “is just so much nonsense. It’s a Utopia”. But the point is that it is conceivable, isn’t it? Certainly, we’d have to be a different kind of people than we are today, if we were to live in such a world. But what sort of people is it that produces poisonous chemicals, guns, nonsensical advertising, just to “earn a living”?

What sort of people are we, who divide their lives in two: in one half we work as part of the general social division of labour, and do as little as possible, so that in the other half, we can blob in front of the tele or walk round in circles “for exercise”, or do anything just so long as it isn’t a useful contribution to society? And it’s second half, our “own lives” which we value, while we regard our working lives as a necessary evil to be got out of as soon as possible.

What sort of a world is it where, if we make the mistake of thinking we should work beyond our normal 36 hours per week or take less than our share of money - we only help ensure that the most greedy, selfish and anti-social amongst us, get a larger share of the pie at the expense of everyone else!

It is in the very nature of the market, that new human needs are developed just as rapidly as are new means of satisfying them, that no matter how much wealth is generated, some will be poor while others are rich; poverty is inherent in bourgeois society, and the only solutions available within the market system are charity, making the poor dependent on hand-outs, or systematically eradicating the poor by use of labour camps, the penal system, “ethnic cleansing” and so on.

The answer to each and every objection to the proposition that we could live perfectly well without money leads back to a question about the nature of us human beings, about whether the human nature fashioned by the money relation could ever be other than it is, whether human beings could ever attain genuine humanity. I don’t believe any lasting solution to the ills of the world as it is today can be found by fiddling around the edges of the market system, imposing regulations or boundaries on the market relation. It is in the very nature of the market relation that continuously smashes through all such barriers and absorbs all relations which attempt to stand apart from it.

I don’t know what the way out may be, but it seems that a first step has to be for everyone to be able to conceive and hold in their minds an image of what it would be to live without money, and to try to find in their own lives how we might be. And I do wonder what it would mean for someone to begin right now to live according to that ethic. I mean, it’s impossible, because we live in a world where Money is God. But in the history of the world, it has been known for a God to Fall.

Money could not be abolished without plunging the world into a Pol Pot-style nightmare-world in which the power taken away from money is given to a man. But if people could raise themselves to the kind of humanity which would be needed for us to live without money, then maybe it wouldn’t even matter whether money existed or didn’t. I mean, how could you tell anyway? All money is, is the way people behave, an materialised expression of the existing ethic.

Disappearing into CyberSpace

Money has developed during this century particularly in response to the need to constantly expand the amount of exchange taking place in the world. Speculative expansion in the 1920s ended in a collapse of trade, ultimately resolved by governments printing money and the substitution of the US dollar for gold as the medium of international exchange. This mechanism ground to a halt with inflation in the early 1970s, and all connection between the US dollar and gold was broken and further expansion has been encompassed by means of expansion of private credit. But the limitation of this expansion of credit is continuously tested, as governments turn the credit flow off and on by tweaking the interest rates.

In order to allow people to work productively, value has to be continuously injected into the market, but this is only possible by taking the suspension of disbelief a step further and creating fictitious values. Credit is trust; and trust has its limits.

But what’s the problem with letting debt expand to infinity anyway? Why do governments periodically crash the economy? Recently, I saw a headline something like: “Unemployment falls to 6.4%. Interest rate rise expected”. (That figure of 6.4% is a huge fiction of course, but that’s another story!) How sick is this society, that if there are not enough unemployed people, we have to increase the profit rate of the banks to throw a few more people out of work!

Isn’t this situation today just the same as the situation which existed during the Great Depression? when fruit was ploughed back into the ground, because it could not be sold, because everyone was unemployed because no-one was producing anything, because ... etc., etc., etc., and the only way to break out of the vicious circle was to start a war and generate a lot of government spending. But still, after the War, the Bretton Woods arrangements.

Why not just stop all these credit squeezes, why not get rid of interest rates and let people borrow to their heart’s content? Wouldn’t this “stimulate the economy” and keep everyone working? Why do we have to pull the plug on it? To save the banks? But why? So long as everyone’s working, isn’t that what it’s all for?

Credit makes the Man

There is a big problem with credit however. If everyone got it, that’s fine. But that’s not the nature of credit; the only person who gets credit is the person who doesn’t really need it. To get credit, one must be the very image of money in the first place. Does the out-worker in a Free Trade Zone in China who works her butt off day and night, qualify for a million-dollar loan? No. Does the aging professor of Greek? Probably yes. Does the futures trader who’s never produced anything and is never likely to in the future: certainly.

Thus there is a contradiction, that the expansion of credit which is actually making money more and more ephemeral, has the actual effect of exaggerating the money relation. The rich get unlimited credit and spend like “money is no object” and “grows on trees”, behaving in the very image of the person who has learnt that everything is free of charge, but continues to behave in the worst of the ways of the Holy Dollar, cleaning out the supermarket shelves and hoarding as much for themselves as possible. The poor, on the other hand, are absolutely stuck, with “unskilled” human labour becoming the cheapest of all commodities. So, for the poor, nothing can be bought, as if money has been abolished, and only those that had any on the day the music stopped have the right to anything at all.

Human Nature

Having hit upon the realisation that we could live perfectly well without money, we are left with the problem that this realisation provides us with no political praxis for the achievement of this other human nature. Anyone who does not see that money has value is indeed mad, because our ideas are nothing but the mental form of our social activity. Persuading millions of people that money is a social construct that need not be, does not of itself take a step towards the realisation of such a state of affairs.

To transcend the idea of value, we have to learn to live without the exchange of commodities. But in order for billions of people to live cooperatively (rather than the world degenerating into mutually isolated villages) we must create a material form for that universality and give universality to that thing.

15th September

On the 15th September, in the immediate aftermath of the World Economic Forum, there will be a Public Forum in Melbourne Town Hall, where the proposition that we could live perfectly well without money will be defended by Anitra Nelson, John Rundell, Moss Cass, Albert Langer and Gabriel Lafitte. The audience will be invited to challenge the speakers and explore this idea in depth. There is no charge for participating and the Forum begins at 6pm.

Andy Blunden