Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Fetishism of Money

The following piece, written by the late Pieter Lawrence, is the eleventh chapter of his 2006 work, 'Practical Socialism - Its Principles and Methods'.

Chapter 11

The Fetishism of Money

In Anthropology the word ‘fetish’ came to mean “an inanimate object worshipped on account of its supposed magical powers.”  This also defines the “fetishism of money.” In some tribal cultures fetish objects took the form of amulets, a practice that still continues.  In our more developed society this is dismissed as superstition.  However, despite our modern, technical culture ‘fetishism’ is a deeply entrenched part of the way we think: we worship the supposed magical powers of money.  Because our main political parties are wholly committed to the administration of the market economy the fetishism of money dominates political thought.

In Marxian theory the ‘fetishism of commodities’ is the illusion that in buying and selling the values being exchanged are part of the physical make up of the commodities themselves.   If this were true it would mean that buying and selling and the economic tyrannies of the profit system could never be removed.   In fact, the values of commodities result from particular economic relationships and in no way are they part of the goods themselves.  Beyond the relationships of wage labour/capital and the market system, in a society based on co-operation, the commodity form of goods together with their exchange values will disappear.  

Similarly, fetishism is a strong element in religion. Gods in all their great variety are products of the human imagination endowed with superior powers. This again diminishes our human powers and was well expressed by Karl Marx in the preface to “The German Ideology.”   “The phantoms of their brains have got out of their hands.   They, the creators, have bowed down before their creations.   Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away.”  

But fetishism does not end with imagined Gods.  In our more secular society we have tended to replace gods with the fetishism of money. This also attributes powers to an alien force that dominates our lives.   The fetishism of money is the illusion that money brings happiness, fulfilment, has its own productive powers and has an existence independent of human beings that is able to get things done.   Particularly in politics money is given the power to solve problems.   This illusion is so strong that it is commonly thought that without money we have no powers of social action. This leaves us alienated from our real human powers, from each other, and is the basis of much social neurosis. The idea that we should be liberated from such self destructive illusions has a very modern ring.

How often do we hear it said, “we do not have the resources” when what is meant by resources is always “money”.  Every day politicians give lack of money as a reason why we cannot provide better health care, or the many other public services that are in urgent need of improvement.   Not just in Whitehall and  Westminster but in Borough, District and Parish Councils throughout the country the same mantra is chanted week in and week out, year after year,  “if only we had more money something could be done”.   This ignores the fact that productive resources are materials, industry, manufacture, transport, energy, communications, in other words, all the things through which goods and services are produced and distributed.  In turn all these resources depend on one single resource which is labour.   These are the real resources on which the lives of communities depend.   The idea that our   “resources” are inadequate is entirely false. In fact we have is an abundance of talents, skills and labour to provide for needs. 

At times throughout the world there may be many millions of unemployed people, factories standing idle, goods and unused materials being stockpiled but politicians still repeat, “we do not have the resources.”   They are unable to see the availability of real resources because their minds remain trapped within the illusion that only money resources count.   They imagine that real resources can only be brought into use by money.   They imagine that human beings can only function as economic automatons which can only be activated by injections of money.   The opposite is the truth.   The powers of the community to solve problems can only be fully released with the relationships of co-operation and the abolition of money relationships.

As part of the dogma of market economics the imagined powers of money run through every social problem.  For example, in the past two general elections the Labour Party made a commitment to reduce child poverty.  For this, they hope to use money.  “The chosen means is also clear:  a new form of child support which starts in 2003.   But it will be costly, as the budget will reveal for the first time”.  (Economist 23 Feb 2003).

“Poor children are defined as those living in households whose income, after housing costs, is below 60% of the median – the income in the exact middle of the income distribution.”  Poverty is of course relative and this degree of poverty in Britain is not as severe as the poverty of children in undeveloped countries where 40,000 children die in poverty every day.   In Britain, child poverty generally means substandard housing, poor conditions in the home, cultural deprivation, exclusion from benefits enjoyed by better off contemporaries, and poor diets (fats, sugar and carbohydrates).

That any kind of child poverty exists is a disgrace and would be easily removed in a sane society.  According to the Economist, under the Labour Government’s market system, “Progress has so far been slow.  In 1996/7, the year before Labour took office, the number of children living in poverty was 4.4 million.   By 1999/2000, this had declined only to 4.1 million. A more substantial decline to 3.5 million is expected for 2001/2 as reforms such as the working families tax credit (WFTC), introduced in October 1999, take full effect.  But this will still mean that the Government has failed to meet its earlier pledge to remove more than a million children out of poverty in Labour’s first term.   To cut the number of poor children by around a million would cost as much as £6.1billion. The pledge to remove child poverty is proving to be an expensive one”.

Clearly, the pledge is not just expensive.  Because the money available to Governments in the form of various taxes depends on the state of buying and selling, which is at best unpredictable and incapable of being rationally directed, going by experience, the hope of any Government ending child poverty is to say the least uncertain.  Reforming governments have been making this pledge for over a century and they have all failed.

Over any period, throughout the country both nationally and locally, arguments about the state of our social services are reported in the media.   What we find is that these arguments are almost entirely about money.   For example a selection of local newspaper reports from the Croydon (South London) on health services in the the late 1990’s is typical.

“As well as putting views on meetings residents get two chances to vote:  *On which patients should face cuts in services: a straight Yes or No vote on whether there should be cuts in each of the four areas of care: acute services (at Mayday and similar hospitals), mental illness, mental handicap and community health services.  Savings in the four areas adding up to almost £1 million are needed to meet a shortfall between what must be done and what there is money for.”  Croydon Advertiser 2 Jan 1998.

“The spokesman continued:  “The health authority is saying it needs to save money to balance the books and this was one of the only areas it felt it could make cut backs.   And although it is not saying there won’t be consequences it is the least harmful option.  Cutting community health services is seen as the lesser of several evils.”

“Last month it emerged that Croydon Health Authority was reducing its community health funding by four per cent despite its best efforts to keep the budget cuts at a minimum.   The cash crisis has arisen despite Croydon receiving a one off £1 million payment to help it cope with emergence admissions this winter.”  Croydon Guardian 14 Jan 1998.

“Tears for children in need and jeers for National Health Service managers in receipt of large salaries dominated the agenda when 120 residents crammed into a meeting to hear Croydon health bosses present a £2million NHS cuts package.” Croydon Advertiser 23 Jan 98.

“Outraged parents will descend on Croydon Health Authority’s (CHA) offices on Monday to protest against possible cuts to “vital” children’s health services.”  …  “Health watchdog (which monitors) the Community Health Council has already branded the proposals short sighted and warned of the serious long term consequences of cuts in preventative community services.   At the same time it recognises the CHA’s predicament and described any efforts to meet the £500,000 cash shortfall as a ‘damage limitation exercise’”.   Croydon Guardian 21 Jan 98.

Under the headline, “Five health centres face axe in bid to save £1.4million,”  the Croydon Advertiser (6 Feb 98) reported, “The trust is even looking at selling its own headquarters to reduce its £1.4ml overheads.   Over and above the threat to the five centres, the trust has also been told it must save £300,000 on services because of proposed cut backs in Croydon Heath Authority.”

A sub heading in the Croydon Advertiser  (2 Oct 98) reported, “Immediate cuts mean school nurses must reduce the services they offer to youngsters.”   This was followed a few weeks later by a report (CA 13 Nov 98) “More than half of Croydon’s school nurses have quit in protest about cuts but the health trust insists there is money available to replace them.”

A few months later the Croydon Guardian (17 Mar 99) reported, “After months of consultation and horse trading, Croydon Health Authority has finally settled on its list of haves and have-nots for this year’s funding priorities  - leaving health watch dogs and children’s campaigners ‘bitterly disappointed’.   Of the 39 schemes considered for funding, only 20 have been guaranteed a slice of the £8.5million cake – leaving the have-nots needing a miracle windfall of new money if their services are to be funded this year.”

A year later it appeared that the Government was willing to provide more money.  The Croydon Guardian (6 April 2000) reported, “Good news for patients as Croydon gets $4.4million.”   “Health services are in line for a major shot in the arm after the Government announced that £4.4million would be flowing into the borough”.   “This is absolutely brilliant news – beyond our wildest expectations,” said the chief officer of Croydon’s patient’s watchdog, the Croydon Community Health Council.   “Patients have had to put up with some real shortages in Croydon with some services being cut to the bone. There is now no excuse for not plugging these gaps.”

But it appears that the sense of relief was short lived. Soon after the news of more money the Health Authority was again criticised for lack of investment.  The same spokesperson was reported as saying, “There was tremendous good news in the March budget of huge extra funding for Croydon.  But there is growing frustration that in spite of this, no decisions have yet been made about addressing even the most glaring of Croydon’s gaps and shortfalls.   In terms of what really matters – the services which local people get from their National Health Service – it is a mixed story of good overall progress marred by significant shortfalls.”  Services that needed urgent improvement were the Accident and Emergency Department of Croydon’s main hospital, outpatient services, diagnostic testing and neurology, children’s health services and health care provision for old people.  It was also pointed out that some 2,000 adults suffered when a physiotherapy service was suspended.

According to “Croydon’s Health Improvement Programme 2000/3” for the year 2000/1, its Health Authority planned to spend £211million on its health services.  It said that Croydon  “… expects to continue to be able to maintain financial balance, with small levels of growth available from the Comprehensive Spending Review.   However, the position will remain tight and hard choices will need to be made.   A number of priority areas are being considered for the use of Health Authority development funds.  These are: *Improving mental health.   *Modernising community nursing services for children.   *Urgent hospital and community health care.   *Tackling health inequalities.   *Improving services for people with cancer.   *Improving services for people with diabetes.  *Drugs and youth offending.   *Coronary heart disease.”

The choices that doctors and local Health Authorities must sometimes make are about priorities of care based on available money. This means having to decide that one patient may benefit from a particular treatment but, depending on costs, another patient may be denied a treatment. This is when doctors and surgeons see themselves as “acting as god.”

Whilst there is no gain in repeating examples we should note that whilst the Croydon Health Authority was battling with its tight money constraints the same battle was taking place in education.   The front page headline of the Croydon Advertiser for 23 May 2003 was, “CASH CRISIS: NOW PUPILS SUFFER”.     “Sad day; Edenham High School’s headteacher tells the media on Wednesday how a desperate shortage of money forced him to send children home.”    “More than 700 pupils were sent home from school as Croydon’s funding crisis reached new heights – and more closures are set to follow.”   “Edenham’s £500,000 funding gap is one of the biggest faced by a Croydon school.”   

In calling for the resignation of the Government Minister (a futile gesture), the editorial said, “Resign now, minister.  Enough is enough.   The Government can no longer pass the buck over the cash shortage that is throttling the life out of the borough’s schools.   The news that 720 Edenham High School pupils had to be sent home on Wednesday because there was no one available to teach them comes as a sickening confirmation of all our worst fears.  Edenham may be the first forced to take such action.   But it is unlikely to be the last.” 

Given that these reports are typical nationwide, they show how the debate that is ongoing in every locality on health, education and other services is focussed almost entirely on the provision of money.   From this, it is perhaps understandable that we are seduced into thinking that it is money that actually provides our vital services.  This illusion then becomes fixed in our minds as the only way to address our problems. One result is that we are separated from the real powers we have to provide for our needs. In reality it is people that provide health care, education and our important services, not money.

The magical powers of money to solve problems dominates the thinking of not just the world of reformist politics, it also rules the thinking of the many charities that constantly appeal for money.   A recent example is an appeal run by Oxfam on TV:  “What do we dream for our children?  Health, happiness, success?  A safe place to sleep at night? A drink of water that won’t kill them?  Never to be hungry again?  We all want the best for our children.  For some people that starts with such simple things.  All they want is a better world for them to grow up in.  It’s not much to ask and all we are asking of you is £2 a month.”

“In over 70 countries Oxfam is helping people to work themselves out of poverty.   They never give up and neither do we.  Will you stand alongside us too?  With your £2 a month we can help them with seeds, tools – help them build wells with clean, safe water, give children an education so that they can have a chance of having a real future free from hunger and pain. All people want is a better life for their children.  Please do something remarkable today and help make a dream a reality.  Telephone Oxfam today and give £2 a month”.

It is not intended here to criticise those who wish to help others in desperate need. Such willingness to help is admirable and provides hope for the future.  At the same time, the brutal facts have to be faced that during the past 25 years, during which time Oxfam and similar organisations have been appealing for money to solve problems, the numbers of seriously under nourished people has, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) almost doubled from 435 million in 1974/5 to over 800 million in 2000.   In view of this it is right to point out that when Oxfam claim to be in over 70 countries “helping people to work themselves out of poverty,” so far as the general problem is concerned the statement is misleading.   If the members of Oxfam and its supporters were to also work for a system in which we all cooperate to provide directly for the needs of people this would be a significant step forward.  Surely this is what they claim to want.

Following the volcanic eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in Congo the Disasters Emergency Committee broadcast its Goma Crisis Appeal (25 January 2002).  This included what given amounts of money could do.  For example, “£30 will treat 18 people for severe malaria - £100 will provide clean water to 4,000 people for a week.

We may not go as far as Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.”  But it does remain true that appeals for money to alleviate suffering tend to perpetuate the system that causes the suffering.  Moreover, the idea that such suffering results from natural causes is not always the case. The main reason why communities suffer from extreme natural events is economic. For example, cheaply constructed buildings that cannot withstand earthquakes. Most dangers are known and a sane society would not need to leave communities exposed to them. This would avoid many disasters.  Where they do happen contingency plans using instant response team could exist throughout the regions and at a world level for the relief of any catastrophe.  Emergency supplies such as food, clean water and medical supplies would be maintained at strategic points whilst machinery, equipment and helpers could move quickly to any area of crisis. Appeals for money are a sad and wholly inadequate substitute for the availability of real resources and the freedom of communities to make free use of them.

Nationally, the archpriest who presides over this all pervasive fetishism of money is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who does so from his Temple of Money, HM Treasury. It is in the budget that “money” is equated with “powers of action” which are set out in money terms. In the 2003 budget the Government expected to spend a total of £456billion.   Regardless of our real human resources, this amount of money set the limits on what we could do as a country. What we could do for housing and the environment was set at £20billion; what we could do for education was set at £59billion; what we could do for transport was set at £15billion; what we could do for national health care was set at £72billion; what we could do for personal and social services was set at $17billion, and so on.

This parliamentary ritual called “the budget” has its own liturgy expressed as incantations of faith that the market economy with well managed public finances can solve our problems and deliver the promised land.  This is the endless pursuit of a holy grail, the perfect capitalist system. The language of the budget is illusory.  Under the heading, “Building a fairer society” the Government’s 2003 budget leaflet said, “A flexible and dynamic economy must go hand in hand with a fairer society so that everyone has chance to fulfil their potential. The Government is committed to eradicating child poverty and tackling pensioner poverty, providing support for families with children and ensuring security for all in old age.   It is also creating a modern and fair tax system which raises sufficient revenue for public services and ensures that everyone pays their fair share of tax.”  

Perhaps we should trust that chancellors are sincere people, in which case such lessons are delivered whilst sublimely unaware that the work they do is opposite to their moral intentions.   When a chancellor administers a tax system and distributes money to public services this is nothing less than the imposition of an economic straightjacket on all our abilities to provide for each other’s needs.  It happens in a system that is founded on putting money and profit before the welfare of the whole community. 

The fetishism of money is part of the ideology of the market system which claims uncountable victims across the world.  In the pre Colombian societies of South America, in homage to their gods, human sacrifice was widely practised.  For example, this was a cruel and gruesome ritual amongst the Aztec people in what is now Mexico. “In the heart of Tenochtitlan the pyramid rose as an architectural fetish, charged with the powers of all the offerings, and the blood from thousands of sacrificed human beings.   The structure was the terrifying centre of the Aztec world.”  (‘The Aztecs’, Richard Townsend).

Many of the sacrificial victims were children and we think of this as barbaric.  Perhaps for this reason we now prefer to keep out of our minds that because of the constraints of the market system, on a world scale we sacrifice many more children’s lives than the Aztecs could ever manage.  We sacrifice them to the god of money, on the altar of the capitalist system.
Pieter Lawrence







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