Simmel is arguing that money is ‘acid’ and has corrosive, simplifying properties that can make everything alienable and commodified. Simmel argues that if money becomes “the common denominator for all values of life”, individuality declines as everything can become reduced to something simply quantifiable. Value becomes numerical and money appears to have value in itself, which fetishises money (Marx). Marx argues that agency is consequentially misplaced on the commodity and not human effort, which is where value really comes from following his ‘labour theory of value’. Money at the end of the day is merely a stamped piece of paper, but a piece of paper nonetheless that has changed the world on a global scale.
I will argue that it is because of this dominance coupled with the institutionalisation of money that makes it so impersonal. I will use Harris, Ho and Appel’s works to reveal this. I will then counter this by reminding ethnography that it cannot assume the impacts money has on society. I will show that money is not always so impersonal and raise the idea of value in light of the types of exchanges that money allows.
In today’s era, money takes on a virtual, credit form that involves the institutionalisation of money. Graeber argues that debt and money are rooted in violence and it is debt that forces everyday people into serving the system (2009). Personal autonomy is removed in our current era where national economies are driven by consumer debt (Ibid). Money taking on value in and of itself, removes the personal value of people in the process of creating and managing money. Money in many Euro-American cultures embodies the product of work, which is attributed positive value in comparison to work itself (Harris, 2007). With a monetary goal and with money as the meter for success in these cultures, people become alienated and something personal about work is removed when value is reassigned from human effort to money. Ho emphasis this in her ethnography on investment bankers on Wall Street by revealing how people are alienated from success and value, as these themes are strongly linked to how much money is being made (Ho 2009). Ho exposes the day-to-day life of these bankers to argue that they “are” the market as they embody market fluctuations in a constant cycle of ‘downsizing’ throwing them into job precarity and uncertainty. Bankers become like commodities as they move around getting ‘bought and sold’ by different companies. This challenges the dominant narrative of finance being about large sums of money and wealth strength. Underneath, bankers have no value as only the shareholder value is worth anything and their personal stories and accomplishments are not regarded in the success of the company. In this process of impersonalisation and alienation, value is only attributed to the product of work, which is money. Work itself, individual lives and human value are all removed in the story of money that takes on a figurative narrative of capitalism. Tsing argues that in the current narratives of capitalism this figurative exists as the ‘white male banker’ (Appel 2014), which has connotations of monetary success and blurs the personal realities of everyday, working people.
It is however crucial to also remember that the impact of money cannot always be assumed. It especially cannot be always assumed as having an acidic, impersonal impact on all societies. This comes to light in Bloch and Parry’s critique on Bohannan’s ethnography regarding the Tiv economy in Africa. Bohannan follows Simmel’s argument on the corrosive impact of money to suggest that the introduction of money on the Tiv economy destroys complex spheres of exchange that once embodied their society (1959). The Tiv economy centers on ‘special purpose currency’, a multi-centric economic system meaning that things can only be paid for within their own sphere. For example, metal rods are a form of ‘special-purpose currency’ in the prestige sphere of exchange that can buy prestige goods such as slaves, cattle and magic. Buying food with metal rods would be buying something with prestige for something in the subsistence sphere and would be morally ambiguous as it cuts two spheres of exchange. Bloch and Parry counter Bohannan by arguing that the Tiv have lived with multiple, overlapping currencies and are therefore good at managing many different types of currencies (1989). Bloch and Parry suggest instead that the Tiv would not be thrown off by a new type of currency and do not suddenly adopt the maximising, profit driven, impersonalised culture that money is often associated with. Money therefore does not necessarily have an impersonalising impact on all societies.
Miller’s ethnography on ‘making love in supermarkets’ also exposes that the impact of money does not always have such an impersonalised, acidic effect. In his ethnography, mothers engage with money and commodity exchange to turn money into an expression of love for their families. Through provisioning, women are using money to transform commodities into values that they bring into their homes; whether it be healthy food to promote values of a healthy lifestyle, or buying certain commodities that help their family constitute themselves as members of certain social groups. Foster also helps bring this to light by arguing that brands and the segmented knowledge of commodity chains allow consumers to reassign value to the commodities they buy with money (2008). Money that once appeared impersonal actually builds something extremely personal by allowing personal and individual freedom as well as fostering extensive types of exchange and promoting the assignment of value onto things people buy.
I have argued that the institutionalisation of money has created a culture in Euro-American societies that values the product of work over work itself. This process alienates people and impersonalises the value of human effort over fetishised money. I countered this to balance this view and not assume the impersonalising impact of money on all societies. The Tiv were still able to maintain complex spheres of exchange despite money, and mothers involved in commodity exchanges also made money personal because of the types of exchange money allows people to participate in.
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Miller, D. 1998. A Theory of Shopping. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. P. 15-72 (‘Making Love in Supermarkets’)
Graeber, D. 2009. Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. Mute 2(12).
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