Money: Fighting the Invasion

Dr Conor McCabe speaks at the launch of 'Money' in Connolly Books in November. Credit: Donal Higgins.
Dr Conor McCabe speaks at the launch of 'Money' in Connolly Books in November. Credit: Donal Higgins.

Money is a weapon and the Left needs to understand it to fight back. Michael Taft reviews one of this year’s presents of choice for the activist in your life: Money by Conor McCabe.

To ask what money is might seem a strange question. We possess it every day – in notes, coins, cards. I hand over a certain amount and I receive a product or service. Money introduces itself as a medium of exchange, a neutral process in the shopping mall of life. Of course, I never seem to have enough of it. Therefore, we must work hard, work harder, educate ourselves so that we have the skills to ‘sell’. We must invest wisely; we must save. And if we fall short, that is through our individual failings. A whole culture revolves around money but we never get to interrogate the process of money itself.

What we need is a de-mystification of money, making clear what it is, its history and its role in the economy today. Fortunately, we have Conor McCabe’s new work, appropriately entitled Money, where he does all those things and more.

His starting point is that money is not a thing-in-itself, despite the way it presents itself. Rather, he explains that “money is a social technology, one that underpins a complex system of social relations, and the ownership and control of that technology gives those who hold it enormous social, economic and political power”.

McCabe provides a brief, provocative history of this social technology – from its ancient origin stories (“practical solutions to societal dynamics”) through to the Medieval idea that “money became associated more with the thing that was used as money (coin) rather than with the governing authority that it represented” (the beginning of the first great obfuscation around money?), the emergence of Italian banking and the roots of early capitalism, the establishment of the Bank of England, all the way up to Breton Woods (the rise and fall of managed money), and finally to the emergence of neo-liberalism and the unleashing of finance capital, again, on to the world.

Money is a weapon

But this is not just a history of the ‘technology’ (a provocative way of understanding of money). It is necessarily enmeshed in the emerging organisation of social relations by those who own and control that technology – the organisation of capitalism itself. Quite simply, we cannot understand money without understanding its role as a tool in coordinating and controlling our economy today.

But money is not only a tool; it is a weapon.

In the hands of ruling interests money is an economic warhead. A recent example of this is the ECB’s attack on the Greek people, punishing them for daring to oppose the Memorandum by starving Greek banks. Looking at the Troika, the Irish and Portuguese bail-outs, the European-wide policy of deflation, and the privileging of financial senior creditors at the expense of economies and peoples, McCabe puts it this way:

“The naked threats of the ECB, the use of its money-line as a bludgeon for its own political and economic purposes, is a far cry from the standard definition of money as an asset that simply functions as a store of value, a unit of account, and a medium of exchange. This benign reading of money does not fit too well with the evidence we have of it being used to cajole and bully entire peoples into political and economic decisions that are clearly against their collective interests.”

McCabe writes with the activist in mind, understanding the world in order to change it. The strength of any work is to provide a new way of thinking about things that we already had knowledge of, so that we say to ourselves “Yes, why didn’t I think of it that way?”. That particular moment came to me when he wrote “Capitalism is an invasion of the money system: it is not its creator”.

Invader. Alien. Occupier.

These are powerful concepts in not only devising strategies to problematise the programme of finance capital, but also in helping us to understand related, seemingly inherent, features of capitalism. For instance, the Left ties itself in knots in debating the role of markets – from the social democratic Left which breaks down economic activity between those activities the state should undertake and those where markets are more efficient (the boundary is never held and, in any event, it is a dangerous abstraction) to more radical elements who seek the elimination of markets altogether. If capitalism invades money, it also invades markets which predate capitalism in a similar fashion. These social technologies – money, markets – are there to be transformed.

McCabe’s insight allows us to develop a progressive activism around the social phenomena of money and markets, things which the Left has on too many occasions ceded to the Right. McCabe develops his concept of the commonwealth: “Progress is a commonwealth of energy and ideas”.

“Irish progressives should embrace all of the elements discussed – in terms of politics, gender, and organised labour – in a commonwealth of trade unions, civil society and political representation We need to do this in order to shape our own future. The alternative to the current situation of seeing the interests of Ireland’s moneyed classes made law is quite straightforward: we make the laws ourselves. And in order to do that, we need to organise.”

This represents a call for a non-sectarian progressive politics. It also represents a call for a mature, cooperative Left to deny the Right any free space, any free pass. McCabe writes: “We avoid capitalism’s use of the money system at our peril, for it will not avoid us.”

True, which is why it’s all the more frustrating that we do just that: avoid. For example, where is the spirited and unified campaign against the privatisation of AIB, against the return of this vital financial asset to that class of shareholders and creditors that did such damage to our economy? Public banking has been a staple of broad Left politics but you wouldn’t know it by our lack of actions and priorities.

Ultimately, Money is an activists’ manual, a how-to-guide, a handbook of how to understand and how to act. That makes it one of those rare books that one should read through slowly, sit back and think, and then, in that commonwealth of a new unity, take the battle to the invader and, so, change the world.

Money is published by Cork University Press as part of the Síreacht series.