Suppose there were no such thing as money: a better story for the Left
The Left, it appears, has been dealt a heavy blow by the November election and the prospect of four years of Donald Trump, a Republican Congress and Supreme Court. The good news, though, is that organized resistance is gathering everywhere, from schools, churches, and city and state governments, to movements like Black Lives Matter, the encampment at Standing Rock, and a resurgent Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
But something more ambitious and inspiring than resistance is necessary. We need a movement that aspires to more than just staving off the ugly and terrible things the new administration will try to inflict on us. The economic, political, and moral crisis that led many voters to resort to a wild card demagogue promising to restore the nation to its former (imagined) glory is a crisis of capitalism. The only future left to believe in now is one in which the small minority of wealthy owners of capital no longer controls the conditions of our lives. Only a movement with a vision of a society free of the domination of the dollar can inspire the level of political commitment called for today.
To become a mass movement capable of rebuilding the foundations of society, this movement will need a story about a better future and how to get there that will inspire and galvanize people. It must be a story in which people can imagine themselves acting with hope and confidence, a story that could be lived. What would such a story look like?
Consider the story that inspired the passion of many Trump supporters. It was packed neatly into that slogan “Make America great again!” It was repeated at every rally and in every interview with an authoritarian bluster that steamrollered over every liberal concern about equality and respect for others, concerns Trump supporters scorned as “political correctness”. It evoked a familiar picture of what was great about America that has been at the heart of patriotic American life for over a century: Businesses both large and small produce and sell goods and services to make money, and when they are successful, they hire willing workers at good wages enabling everyone who works at it to get ahead and live a good life. This is the story of economic life that lets us dream the American Dream: If you work hard and follow the rules – i.e. respect authority – your life will get better and better. But Trump’s slogan shouts aloud something many people already knew but that the rest of the political world seemed to ignore: that something has gone terribly wrong, and drastic measures must be taken to reverse course and reinstate the Dream. What has gone wrong, so the story goes, is that government has overtaxed and overregulated business so that it can’t make money and hire workers at good wages. Moreover, government has undermined the hard working American family by giving lazy people handouts and inviting in foreigners who bring down wages and make our world strange with their language and customs. “Make America Great Again” awakened the image of a lost world in which it was clear who belonged where, what the difference was between male and female, boss and worker, black and white, Americans and foreigners. This was the story Trump was telling, and it focused and channeled the passions of enough people in battle ground states to win the election.
This is, of course, a rotten picture based on bad history and the willingness of dissatisfied and angry people to blame those they have learned to see as inferior for what has gone wrong. Trump’s story has no role in it for the people beyond voting for Trump; he will do the rest for us. But this can be comforting for people who feel disempowered by conditions they can’t control. They can feel vicariously empowered through Trump as he demolishes the enemies that have undermined the America that used to be.
Bad as it is, this is a vivid and motivating story. It seems to make concrete sense of what people see, and it points to quite specific and imaginable actions to correct the situation – to make the American Dream come alive again. Build a wall, make businesses stay here, cut regulations on business, and stop taxing us to help people who won’t help themselves.
Now what does the Left offer as a better story, a vision more persuasive and motivating than the one that got Trump elected? The Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton offered a grab bag of liberal programs, from debt-free college education to preserving Social Security and Medicare, LGBT rights and equality, more opportunities for people with disabilities, and so on. These are good things, but they do not transform the world; they do not rivet the imagination of people who feel their lives are going nowhere. Promises like these have been made before only to vanish in the fog of congressional and bureaucratic inaction.
Bernie Sanders and the movement he is now leading, Our Revolution, does point the finger at the wealthy elites rather than at immigrants, the poor, and people who look different from us. But what is the vision and what can make it real? The Our Revolution website tell us:
Our Revolution will reclaim democracy for the working people of our country by harnessing the transformative energy of the “political revolution.” Through supporting a new generation of progressive leaders, empowering millions to fight for progressive change and elevating the political consciousness, Our Revolution will transform American politics to make our political and economic systems once again responsive to the needs of working families.
Worthy goals indeed, but vague. There is no substantive, vibrant picture of a better world, what it would be like to live in it, and what imaginable actions would get us there.
Further to the left, we find the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Their Facebook page says,
We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships.
Here is a genuinely transformative proposition: that the decisions about who works, at what wages, and at what kinds of jobs producing what kinds of things, decisions now made by private individuals or corporations, should instead be made by the people. But we still have no story with the effectiveness of “Make America Great Again”. The only concrete picture of a socialist society that most people have is the Soviet Union and other planned economies dictated by centralized bureaucracies not answerable to the people. And our only story about implementing a socialist vision is the history of violent revolutions carried out by guerrillas or revolutionary armies.
The Left needs a story in which we see ourselves living in a just and peaceful world. But it’s not for us, today, to tell that story. The future must tell it. But perhaps we can at least sketch a story about how that first story could be created, told, believed, and enacted.
Here is one possible story: a summary review written near the end of the 21st Century recalling the revolutionary events that had occurred earlier in the century..
Envisioning a moneyless economy is one way to get a measure of what an alternative to capitalism might look like.
-- David Harvey (2014)
Riding a wave of revulsion against the disasters of the Trump years, a new movement began to gather popular support, building on an initial platform with three core proposals.
- The abolition of money. Coins and paper money will be no more than material objects that may serve as bookmarks or jewelry or relics, but will no longer have the power to command labor and the products of labor. They are no longer “legal tender”. The same is true of money in all forms. All institutions that function as repositories, exchanges, and creators of money, including banks, insurance companies, stock brokers and exchanges, and investment companies will cease to function.
- The continuity of necessary work. Everyone now engaged in providing food, housing, clothing, education, child and elder care, medical services, artistic production, transportation, communication systems including the internet, and scientific research, will be expected to continue their work in collaboration with their coworkers and the people they serve. Those who worked in the money business will be invited to find other satisfying and useful work.
- The reduction of state coercion.
- People in law enforcement will remain in place at first to respond to crimes of violence against persons and to enforce traffic laws. As property crime diminishes, there will be less need for police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons, thus freeing many who now work in those fields to find other things to do. People who now work in law enforcement (judges, prosecutors, prison administrators, and guards) will join with psychologists and social workers to transform institutions of punishment into programs aimed at helping those who have harmed others to live better with others.
- All of the hundreds of military bases outside our borders will be closed, and personnel and equipment returned to the US. The military will function only to protect the nation from external attack, a need we expect to diminish as our relations with other nations and peoples are renegotiated on principles independent of money. People no longer needed in the armed services will be free to find other work to do.
It wasn’t long before the movement for this program gathered the numbers and the commitment to put it into effect. Why did its key idea, the abolition of money, catch on so quickly? What went through people’s minds when they pondered in the early morning hours before rising, “What would I do today if there was no such thing as money? How would I get my coffee? What about my mortgage? Would I still go to work? If not, what would I do instead?”
Reflections like these sparked the realization that money was what gave employers, banks, and landlords so much control over our lives: their surplus of money and our lack of it. If all the necessary work of the world could be done without the interference of money, no one would have that power to control us. Moreover, it would enable us to decide what kinds of work really are necessary and desirable, rather than our work being part of capitalists’ strategies for maximizing their profits.
When we began thinking and talking with each other about the work that is worth doing versus the work that is not, we noticed how little we knew about each other and our world. We buy and use things that are made all around the world without any thought about what people went through to make them. What seemed on the face of it like a deal between, for example an auto dealer and a buyer is really a transaction, coordinated by money, between the buyer and thousands of other people, going back to those who mined and smelted the ore for the metal, and so on. If money popped out of existence, as it were, then all of us involved in the buying, selling, and manufacture of the car would be part of a discussion about the human value of cars and their human and environmental cost of production and maintenance. Money screens us from each other; the abolition of money opens up to us a vast panorama of human life.
People became increasingly excited about thinking and working together on the creation of a world without economic coercion. They needed to convince themselves that they could trust each other to do what needs to be done without the threat of poverty and the reward of personal wealth. As time went on, discussions of this question were less and less short circuited by dogmatic claims about the incorrigible greediness of human nature. People began to see the question, not as a theoretical question about a pre-existing fact of nature, but as a practical one: can we agree and commit to maintaining our lives on the basis of voluntary cooperation?
We were all engaged in a thought experiment: Suppose there was no such thing as money. How then would we live? This question liberated the imagination as people began to think in new ways about how they would really like to be spending their lives and to be connected to each other. It dawned on them that the most humanly valuable work is done primarily out of love for the work or from a desire to support and enrich the lives of others, or both. As the discussions went on in homes, schools, churches, coffee shops and taverns, and in the press and social media, the enthusiasm for a cooperative society grew quickly. People began to feel invested in the project of bringing it about.
There were many other questions to be considered and problems to be solved. What about political power, or the role of the state? Needless to say, the removal of the financial coercion built into capitalism was not intended to be replaced with other sorts of coercion. We were aiming at a free society based on an ethic of cooperation. Yet even voluntary cooperation has to be organized. For example, people need information about where their interests and talents are wanted and needed. A network of web designers set to work creating and testing in advance a website for posting and signing up for opportunities to work and to be trained in new skills.
There were, and continue to be, questions about how the US will relate to nations and people outside our borders. In the past, much of the work we did and the goods we produced depended on foreign trade regulated by the monetary value of things traded, a kind of value we no longer recognized. Could we get along without trade-dependent production if production were no longer driven by the profit motive? Would our example lead other nations to similarly give up the cash nexus as the basis for production and distribution? Could the ethic of cooperation and mutual aid become the basis for international relations, leading sooner or later to the abolition of the nation state?
It should not be supposed that the new arrangements were implemented merely as the result of an election. No normal political procedure under the old Constitution would permit the abolition of money, and thereby the end of the rule of capital. The Revolution arose from the emergence of the people’s resolve that they could and would live and work cooperatively, without economic or state coercion. As a result, no significant block of people stood in the way of implementing the new order. And so it was. The police and military forces that had served to protect the private ownership of capital dissolved as soldiers and police were happy to give up the job of forcing people to respect the old authorities of money and the state.
In the old world, most of us were faced throughout our lives with the problem of how to earn our living, and the way we solved, or failed to solve, that problem usually determined the overall quality of our lives. Making a living was a problem that faced us primarily as individuals, and sometimes as families, but never, as communities or as a society. With the abolition of money, we are confronted together with the problem of how we shall live, working cooperatively to maintain ourselves and to expand our capacities and enjoyment. We have replaced the individual and competitive pursuit of money with the collective and cooperative pursuit of a flourishing community life in which each of us can realize our fullest possible development.
That’s the end of our historical sketch from the future. It leaves many questions unanswered, even unasked. They must be dealt with in the midst of having to answer them in the process of living through the transformations as they occur. Some answers will be worked out, at least tentatively, by the movement before the Revolution. Others will be need to be found in the process of adjusting to the political and social upheavals initiated by the abolition of money.
This story about the creation of a story is just one contribution to what should be a growing project of expanding the power of the Left, and indeed all of us, to imagine concretely and vividly a path to a world in which we no longer have to build our lives around what financial necessity requires of us, but around what we love.
Appendix -- Life without Money: Some Sources
The abolition of money had been a dream of the Left at least since Marx wrote that one day a communist society would “inscribe on its banner: From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!” This would occur “with the all-round development of the individual, and [when] all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly.” He foresaw a time when we would work together for the sake of each other, not for the money we are to be paid for our work. “Hired labor,” he said, like slave labor and serf labor, “is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart.” William Morris’s 1890 utopian novel News from Nowhere envisions such a society, albeit a very low-tech one in which work is mostly agrarian and artisanal. In her novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), Ursula LeGuinn describes a moneyless society in which people work voluntarily where their skills and interests are needed. In 2014, David Harvey wrote that “the evolution of an alternative to capital would require…the ultimate dissolution of the power of money, not only over social life but … over our mental and moral conceptions of the world.”
This was the Left’s dream, but it had been a dream deferred. Most socialist intellectuals, including Marx himself, did not believe society could go from capitalism and wage labor directly to a fully realized communism. Marx thought that a first stage of socialism was necessary to prepare for a society that could function without the incentive of money. Socialists would use the power of the state to take control of productive property and to manage production and labor in the interests of all. Wages would be paid according to the hours one worked, and with those wages one could purchase goods that required the same number of hours to produce. This was supposedly the principle on which “socialist” societies founded in the 20th Century operated, promising that eventually, when everyone had become accustomed to working for the good of society, the state would wither away and the banner of communism could finally be unfurled. However, these states did not wither; they either collapsed allowing rapacious capitalists to rush in to fill the vacuum (as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), or they turned much of their economies over to capitalism while retaining authoritarian political control over the population (as in China, Viet Nam, and possibly Cuba).
Many socialists in the US and Europe proposed other ways of reducing the power of capital over workers. For example, the worker owned and worker managed co-op was a model often suggested, either through state sanctioned coops competing with each other for consumers in the market (“market socialism”) or through the spread of the co-op model within existing capitalist society, eventually displacing capitalist enterprises. Another popular idea (even among some establishment thinkers as an answer to unemployment caused by increasing automation and off-shoring of jobs), was the universal basic income (UBI) which would give workers much greater leverage in choosing among employers and in negotiating with them for better wages or working conditions.
None of these proposals was getting any traction at the end of the Trump era and those in the burgeoning Left movement came to believe that an immediate and complete replacement of capitalism was not only necessary, but possible. The collectively produced online journal “Endnotes” had recently rejected halfway measures, writing
If, after a revolution, the bourgeoisie is expropriated but workers remain workers, producing in separate enterprises, dependent on their relation to that workplace for their subsistence, and exchanging with other enterprises, then whether that exchange is self-organized by the workers or given central direction by a “workers’ state” means very little: the capitalist content remains, and sooner or later the distinct role or function of the capitalist will reassert itself. By contrast, the revolution as a communizing movement would destroy — by ceasing to constitute and reproduce them — all capitalist categories: exchange, money, commodities, the existence of separate enterprises, the state and — most fundamentally — wage labor and the working class itself.
This was the vision and determination that spread rapidly throughout the growing Left movement: that we were done temporizing with compromises. It was time to build the society we really wanted.
Thanks to Jan Haaken and Joe Clement for comments on earlier drafts of this piece.