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

Michael Cathcart

[Opened the discussion, in which a number of speakers advocated for LETS, and then Michael asked Albert to respond ...]

Albert Langer

Well, I want to build internets and I want to explore space and I can't figure how you'd organise a LETS barter system to trade the non-resources that working people don't have to build these things.

If we want to live in a modern world, we've got to own something. We can't own it individually, and you can't get out of the necessity of living in a modern world, by people who don't own anything trading their time among themselves.

Michael Cathcart

So in your ideal society, how do we get our tomatoes, which is the question really?

Albert Langer

To each according to their need, from each according to their ability. The same way we build software today. The people who want to grow tomatoes can grow them. By the way, that's a long historical transition. Personally, I would find tomato-growing extremely non-satisfying, and I really ought to encourage the Green movement, because I believe this would solve my problem because I'd never get rostered on, but if there aren't enough people who are willing to grow tomatoes for the sheer joy of it, which I can easily imagine, then during that transitional period we're obviously going to find that people who want to do something else are going to have to pay them to, so you're still going to have money. But the difference that you would have from the start of a new society is that you would no longer have money for the purpose of making money. You'd still have survivals of the old bourgeois society, you'd still have a situation in which some people doing some things only if they get paid. But there would be no people who are able to say “I own the land”.

I'm all in favour of pricing of water and so on. It's just the same principle as rent. If you want proper land-use and conservation, you create a system of private property [in the environment] if you've got a capitalist system, because then the owner of that resource will try to conserve it. That's fine.

But if we want a social system, it's got to be collectively owned. We own the water, we own the nature reserves, therefore we decide whether we want a wild life reserve here, or more agricultural production here, or a tourist park here, it's not a matter of bargaining with some existing owners, it's what we're doing with our resources. So we as a society are planning our production.

Now I'm not suggesting that's trivial to organise. It's going to be very difficult to organise, but it's a lot simpler than trying to figure out share market prices and interest rates, which just gets in the way of organising it.

Gabriel Lafitte

I've lived in traditional communities where a barter system actually operates, and has operated for centuries, the Tibetan nomads and the Tibetan farmers for example, have for a thousand years or more operated on a barter basis in which the limited number of technologies and limited number of commodities that are produced all have known exchange values. A yak is equal to ten sheep for example. The amount that you provide as a nomad to a farmer to exchange your meat or hies or dairy products for the farmer's barley or flour again is something established by custom.

Barter systems certainly work. But I also think that John Rundell made a very good point about complexity, and I think the opportunity for a few people to opt out and to create smaller voluntary, intentional communities, based ion some form of barter, is certainly an option that is available to us. But it's very hard to see how it could be the basis for a whole society, or that most of us would want to swap the complexity of present-day life for the simplicity that that would impose on us.

Now I don't agree with Albert that rural life is idiocy, I think Marx was wrong about that and I think that cosmopolitanism has its limits. But at the same time I do think that we can't turn the clock back, we have to go forward.

[Discussion continued, including an attack on Albert Langer, and Michael invited Albert to respond ...]

Albert Langer

Obviously the others may want to respond to other parts, but I was delighted that you made it clear you disagreed with me given your hectoring tone, but Yes, I was very pleased with the rebellious spirit there [at the S11 blockade of the WEF] .. "The times they are a-changing" ... I've been particularly cynical and contemptuous of most of the demonstrations I've seen. I think there's some shift in attitude happening. There is a progressive, positive spirit to what I saw at S11. But that doesn't change the fact that slogans like "Anti-globalisation" and the left opposition to it, the best it can come up with, "Anti-capitalist", there is nothing to distinguish either of those slogans, from reactionary opposition to globalisation and reactionary opposition to capitalism. And the reason people use both those terms - overt reactionaries use the term anti-globalisation, because they actually want a movement for "fair trade not free trade", etc. In opposition to that, people with better ideas, the best they've been able to come up with is "anti-capitalism", but again, there are a lot of reasons for opposing capitalism, and we've heard some here today. People who think that you can oppose capitalism, because you don't like modern society and you want to go back. If you want to oppose capitalism with a perspective of going forward, you can call yourself an anarchist, you can call yourself a communist, and you could even call yourself a Buddhist - Gabriel may be coming around, I don't know - but there's all kinds of positive things that you can say about where you want to go, but there's only one reason for the only word able to describe your position being "anti", and that is because you can't think where you want to go.

[speaker from floor talked about human beings' relationship to the land and proposed that people exchanging the products of their labour was a worthwhile thing, and Michael asked John Rundell to respond ...]

John Rundell

I think it's a question of different orders of experience, if you could call it that. The basic argument that I was putting forward was what happens once we go outside the autarchic communities, what happens when we begin to experience ourselves across a whole different range of experiences.

Now in many ways money simplifies these sets of complex exchanges, and I wanted to ram home one particular point.

However, it doesn't necessarily mean, because we are extremely complex human beings, that we bypass the complex range of human experiences that go into these sets of interactions, but what I'm separating out is a series of interactions from a series of exchanges. I'm more than happy to talk about the interactions as human interactions, distinct from a set of exchanges which in many ways are symbolic. That's what I'm trying to get at.

[a speaker pointed out that even in a world without money, relations of power would still exert themselves by other means. Michael asked Anitra to respond ...]

Anitra Nelson

The point is that power is involved whatever sort of exchange we use. And I think that it's only a hidden form of power that is in money and that makes John's argument sound plausible, that money is in a sense a kind of neutral means of power.

As in fact I think that whatever we're doing in terms of exchange involved power and it involves social relation, but I think that they ought to be made transparent. So if you take away the monetary veil, they become transparent.

Albert Langer

Whereas the whole advantage of what the earlier questioner was talking about - deep connections with the land - is that it can veil that power which is visible in pre-monetary societies. “Oh No, I'm not being exploited because I'm a wage-worker for cash”, but: “I'm just deeply connected with the land and every month I deliver his share of the produce to the Lord of the Manor” - it's natural, it's just part of Nature!

I can't even visualise why anyone would want to go back to pre-money relations, which have always had a much more brutal, but far more religiously sanctified and deeply “spiritual” connection between exploiters and exploited.

I mean, you've got ten yaks to one sheep, but you've also got to contribute something so they'll rotate the prayer-wheel twenty times and the Lama will be nice to you. These pre-money societies are invariably more vicious and brutal. What people find more brutal and vicious about a money-based society, is that it's more naked. And I prefer social relations to be out in the open.

It's incomprehensible to me that people would find modern society worse than the previous society. What they're really finding is that it's more noticeably unacceptable.

You could go for a thousand years in medieval society and be a happy contented serf, whereas you can't last more than a couple of years in the modern workforce without becoming a discontented worker.

Gabriel Lafitte

I think there's more than a sniff of the Enlightenment project in some of those values there!

But ... money be more naked and transparent and more obvious, but it also has its own mystique, and I think that money functions in our society, in the sort of economy we have today, in a way that no longer has very much to do with producing the basic necessities of life and fulfilling basic human needs. Most of the accumulation of wealth and capital that we witness in our present-day society is all to do with the higher needs. We can all think of any number of commodities which we see constantly advertised and presented to us on Television as fulfilling our desire to be lovable, to be loved, to be attractive, to be playful, to be desirable. We are gradually finding more and more that the value accorded to corporations and to what they produce and how they represent themselves is all to do with appearances.

That's what makes it a Hall of Mirrors and that's what makes it more malleable and that's what gives us real alternatives to the only two alternatives that I hear keep coming up in comment after comment, that alternative is “Let’s drop out and set up our own small alternatives society”, which is as I said before is an option, but an option only for a few.

And the other option I hear presented again and again: “Let’s fight!”. But the reality is, liberal democracies will not allow a successful fight, and, history shows that if we did all collectively grab the means of production, history shows that you would just create a fresh tyranny. Because that's what revolutions in the past have always ended up being.

So I don't hold out too much hope for either of those two solutions for our dilemma.

The third alternative, the middle way, is to awaken and to acknowledge personal responsibility for the ways in which that whole global system feeds on our own individual desires because the currency of modern society is not stuff, it's not physical things, it's not bread and butter, it's desire. And that is within our personal scope to recognise and acknowledge and understand the dynamics of, and therefore to decide whether we're part of it or whether we actually want to take a different direction.

We can awaken to the dynamic of capitalism, because the creative destruction which is the essence of capitalism, feeds in directly to our desire for the new.

Anitra Nelson

This is more in the way of a quick comment. I do think though that we have to be really careful about getting away from the real issue of sustainability by just talking about the “idiocy of rural life”. The point is that there's no natural romantic paradise to return to now anyway.

[A questioner asked whether the meeting had made facilities for the disabled and another questioner asked if when we had a world without money, would it still be a patriarchal system?]

Albert Langer

I'm sure we can find some people with wheel chairs in this society who would come to a meeting about money and would sit there passively and would need a lot of people to come up to them and ask “Do you need help?”. The fact is that people on wheelchairs today are putting their wheelchairs in front of trams to make sure that they can't move. I saw them there, the same day as S11, they know what to do, and women today know what to do.

And I am just so sick of this wimpy shit.

Closing Remarks