Thursday, December 06, 2007

Memory played an important part in Locke’s philosophy of money

Durkheim insisted in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life that we are at once collective and individual. What we know empirically is our own everyday life. But we are also subject to forces whose origins we do not know – natural disasters, social revolutions and death. What is ultimately unknown to us is our collective being in society. Religion is the organized attempt to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown, between the world of ordinary experience and an extraordinary world that lies beyond it. So we worship society and call it God. The chaos of everyday life attains order to the extent that it is informed by ideas representing the social facts of a shared existence. We internalize these beliefs through the heightened consciousness fostered by ritual.
Kant held that society may be as much an expression of individual subjectivity as a collective force out there. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into metaphysics. He wrote, ‘Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?’ In order to understand the world, we must begin with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself. The world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to unite the two poles as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity.
Kant’s achievement was soon overthrown by a counter-revolution, launched by Hegel and only truly consummated after the First World War, that identified society with the state. As a result, the personal was separated from the impersonal, the subject from the object, humanism from science. Society was now conceived of as an impersonal mechanism defined by international division of labour, national bureaucracy and scientific laws understood only by experts. Not surprisingly, most people felt ignorant and impotent in the face of such a society. But, even if the rules are impersonal, social organization consists of real people doing things with each other...
Memory played an important part in Locke’s philosophy of money. For him a person, by performing labour on the things given to us in common by nature, made them his own. But, to sustain a claim on his property through time, that person has to remain the same; and personal identity depends on consciousness. Property must endure in order to be property and that depends on memory. Money thus expands the capacity of individuals to stabilize their own personal identity by holding something durable that embodies the desires and wealth of all the other members of society. Money is a ‘memory bank’, a store allowing individuals to keep track of those exchanges they wish to calculate and, beyond that, a source of economic memory for the community. One of money’s chief functions is remembering.
Money is intimately linked to democracy as a political principle. This is because its impersonality dissolves differences between people. So we vote with our money whenever we buy something. But this system of voting is vastly unequal. As a result, money not only binds individuals together; it separates them from each other and disrupts community. Ever since Keynes, modern economies have been seen to be driven by the ‘purchasing power’ of people in the mass. The extension of personal credit in the digital age may allow for this power to be realized by individuals to an ever greater degree. The world economy is once more being transformed by radical reductions in the cost of producing a basic commodity, the transfer of information. The era of mass production and consumption may be ending as a result. A lot of information about individuals may now be attached to transactions at distance. Personal identity is being restored to what were not long ago impersonal contracts. If modern society has always been individualistic, only now is the individual emerging as a social force to be reckoned with.
Society and the individual, the impersonal and the personal, are equally necessary to human existence; and working out specific ways of combining them is durably problematic. What is going on is less a shift from the impersonal to the personal, more a change affecting the relationship between the two. Economic history is dialectical. Most people are made quite anxious by being economically dependent on impersonal and anonymous institutions. This is an immense force for reversing the historical pattern of alienation on which the modern economy has been built. So any renewed emphasis on human personality and concrete social relations in economic life must go hand in hand with the search for forms of impersonal society appropriate to such a goal.
Any move towards greater humanism in economy entails increased dependence on impersonal governments and corporations, on impersonal abstraction of the sort associated with computing operations and on impersonal standards and social guarantees for contractual exchange. If persons are to make a comeback in the post-modern economy, it will be as bits on a screen who sometimes materialize face-to-face. We could become less weighed down by money as an objective force, more open to the idea that it is a way of keeping track of complex social networks that we each generate. Then money could take many forms compatible with personal agency and human interdependence at every level from the local to the global.
To turn our backs on markets and money in the name of collective as opposed to individual interests is to reproduce by negation the bourgeois separation of self and society. Moreover, it is not enough for sociologists, anthropologists and institutional economists to emphasize the controls that people already impose on money and exchange as part of their personal practice. That is the everyday world as most of us know it. We also need ways of reaching the parts we don’t know, if we are to avert the ruin they could bring down on us all. Money’s potential to sustain universal connection offers one indispensable means to that end.
Because our ephemeral economic transactions depend on using money, it seems to be more stable than the relations it expresses. Money may thus be conceived of as durable ground on which to stand, anchoring identity in a collective memory whose concrete symbol is money; or it may be viewed as the outcome of a more creative process where we each generate the personal credit linking us to society. When the meaning of money is seen to be what each of us makes of it, we may be ready at last to embrace Kant’s Copernican revolution in metaphysics; and money will be dethroned as the archaic God of capitalism it has become. Short version of the essay posted on 1st May 2007, given at a conference held in Oxford, June 2007 on '21st century anthropology: global process and power'.

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