Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Do we need money? (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

It sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? Of course we need money: we need it to pay our rent or mortgage, to buy food and clothes, to purchase cinema tickets and DVDs, and so on. There’s no question that, with the world organised the way it is, we do need money, and we couldn’t live without it. Credit cards and cheques make no difference, they are just different ways of paying by money, so that we don’t have to carry huge amounts of notes and coins around with us.

But let’s step back a bit and ask ourselves, why do we need money? It’s because we can’t get hold of the food, clothes, tickets or DVDs, or occupy our house or flat, unless we have the money to pay for them. We can try to take food or whatever without paying, but if we’re caught we will very soon be told that this is theft and it’s against the law, and we’ll be punished for it in some way. Basically, it has been decided (but by who?) that people in general cannot get hold of things (more formally, cannot gain access to them) unless they pay. The payment transfers ownership from the shop or supermarket or manufacturing company to the customer. Once you’ve bought something, you can then do more or less what you like with it.

So the money is just a means of saying ‘This is mine, not yours’. And that’s what the shop is saying too: ‘Unless you pay us, you can’t use this.’ Now, from some points of view, this is a strange way of going about things. In the first place, some areas of our lives aren’t arranged like this at all. Many people do things for other people — lend or give them something, or perform some service — without expecting any payment: they do this out of friendship or for their neighbours or family members. Furthermore, not everything we want to have access to requires payment. Usually we can all go to the local park without having to pay to get in. Many towns have free shuttle buses to transport people around the town centre, or to and from the local railway station. But try to travel on the train without a ticket and you’ll be in trouble.

However, let’s just imagine that the world was run differently, that everything was free (though in that case the concept of ‘free’ presumably wouldn’t mean anything!). Suppose you could go to the supermarket, collect the food you wanted for yourself and your family, and then just leave without having to queue at the checkouts. You’d probably choose the best-quality food without having to worry about its cost. In fact, since nobody would have to buy cheap and nasty food, all the food available would be top quality. There’d be no point in taking more than you needed, because you’d always be able to go back and get more if you ran out, and it’s just wasteful (and, in fact, daft) to take lots of milk and bread, say, if you know you won’t be able to use them.

This probably sounds like quite a good idea, but would this same principle work with clothes rather then food? Wouldn’t people just want masses of clothes, and always from the top designers and brand names? Well, let’s just think a bit about the implications of a world without money along the lines I’ve just begun to describe. Nobody will be able to show off by flaunting an expensive dress or tie, and nobody will want brand names or designer labels since anyone can have them (if they still exist) so a brand name won’t mean anything. Quite probably people will still want to look smart and attractive, but this won’t be by wearing clothes that ‘cost a fortune’. And like food, there would be no point in having lots of clothes lying around in a wardrobe gathering dust: people would just take from the shops or warehouses what they wanted for their personal use, not what would be intended to impress others. Also, since nobody would profit from selling more clothes, there would be no relentless pushing of new fashions each year.

So it’s not difficult to imagine a world without money, a world where what people consumed and enjoyed would not be limited by the size of their wage packet, where everyone could gain access to the best of everything. But again, questions arise. Would there, for instance, be enough to go round? Well, think firstly, about how much effort, and how many people’s work, goes into money and all its paraphernalia. It’s not just the shopworkers whose work is mainly or entirely concerned with money. There’s everyone who works for a bank or insurance company, who deals with accounts and prices, who issues or collects tickets. In a world without money, these people and many others (those who manufacture guns, for instance) would devote their labour to producing goods that people need. The money system doesn’t just prevent people gaining access to what has been produced, it also seriously reduces what is produced.

But then again, would people work in a world where there was no money and they were not getting paid? Yes, they would. The alternative, after all, would be a life of idleness, which may be great for a two-week holiday period every summer but soon becomes very boring. Work, too, would be made as enjoyable as possible, which means it would be safe, satisfying and fun. People would enjoy working with each other, never doing one kind of work for too long but appreciating the variety that can be provided. Producing useful things is pleasant in itself.

You can see that a world without money wouldn’t just be like today except that there would be no price tags on anything. Rather, it implies a completely different way of organising things. For a start, production would be carried on for use and not for profit. This means goods would be produced because they satisfied people’s wants and needs, rather than because they produced a profit. In such circumstances, dangerous, unhealthy and shoddy goods would never see the light of day, as there would be no reason to produce them. In addition, the factories, offices and land would not be the exclusive property of a small number of millionaires, which is what happens now. Instead, they would be owned by everyone (which is equivalent to saying they would be owned by no one). And they would therefore be controlled by everyone, not by a small bunch of owners.

But it doesn’t stop there. There would be no need for governments either, because governments exist to run the system on behalf of the small number of people who own the lion’s share of the wealth. It’s the government, for instance, that runs the police and court systems that will teach anyone who takes without paying a lesson about who owns what. Along with governments, there’d be no countries either, because the division of the world into countries simply suits the interests of the owners in particular parts of the world. Nor would armies be needed, as they fight for the owners against the armies of the owners from other countries, in disputes over access to raw materials like oil.

A world without money also means a world without poverty, because that’s the flipside of money controlling access to things. ‘No money, no chance’ is the current motto, but one that results in the obscenity of destitution and starvation in a world that could easily provide plenty for all.

So doing away with money would also mean doing away with governments, countries and armies, as well as the division into rich and poor. We, the human inhabitants of the planet, don’t need money — it gets in the way and stops us from enjoying this world and what we could make of it. One word for the world without money is socialism, but it’s not the name that matters, it’s the idea. If the idea sounds attractive to you, then you should find out more about the Socialist Party and our views.
Paul Bennett

Cooking the Books: Against ‘Redistributionism’ (2014)

The Cooking the Books column from the February 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 5 December there was an interesting meeting in New York organised by the Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) and Internationalist Perspective (IP). It’s on YouTube at http://tinyurl.ms/yvwx Like us, the four speakers all argued that the populist policy advocated by trade unions and leftwing demagogues of redistributing income from the rich to the working class was not a way out of the crisis.

Anne Jaclard (MHI) pointed out that this was a typical example of trying to reform capitalism to make it work in the interest of the working class, but this could not be done. Pursuing it was not just futile but a diversion from acting to get rid of capitalism. Redistributive politics, or ‘redistributionism’, was a view that needed to be combatted. This was not to say that workers should not try to get more under capitalism; that was part of the class struggle.

Sander (IP) said that the mistake of the ‘redistributionists’ was the common one of assuming that the aim of production today was consumption whereas it was the production of goods not as such but as value with the aim of accumulating more and more of it. Diverting value which otherwise would be invested by capitalist firms in production would lead to inflation as the goods on which to spend it would not get produced.

Andrew Kliman (MHI) presented the classic case against ‘underconsumptionist’ theories of capitalism, pointing out that what the workers could not buy could be bought by capitalists whether to consume or to invest in production. That workers could not buy back all they produced could not be the explanation of capitalist crises as this was the case also in boom times; in fact, if this was the case capitalism ought to be in a permanent slump and should have collapsed long ago. The mistake was to see ‘consumption’ as just what the workers and capitalists bought to consume, whereas ‘effective demand’ also included what the capitalists invested in production. It was changes in this, as the rate of profit went up or down, that determined capitalism’s boom/slump cycle. He denied that there had been a shift of income from workers to capitalists in the period leading up to the outbreak of the slump in 2008 and that this was its cause. He claimed that working class living standards had not fallen during this period. The only way out of a slump, he said, was a devaluation of existing capital that would restore the rate of profit.

McIntosh (IP) disagreed that working class living standards hadn’t fallen in the decades up to 2008 but agreed that the only way out of a slump was a devaluation of capital. It was not the redistributive policies of the New Deal that had ended the slump of the 1930s. According to him, it was the Second World War and the massive devaluation of capital through its destruction that did this. The way-out for the working class was not an attempted redistribution of income in their favour (as now being proposed by the new Mayor of New York De Blasio as well as unions and the Left), but an end to production as value. He was in favour of workers struggling for higher wages but whether wages were high or low, they still involved exploitation. What was needed was production directly to meet human needs and so the end of value, money and wage-labour altogether.