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Money Fetishism and the Paper Economy

Money fetishism is a particular case of what Alfred North Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness," which consists in reasoning at one level of abstraction but applying the conclusions of that reasoning to a different level of abstraction. It argues that, since abstract exchange value flows in a circle, so do the physical commodities constituting real GNP. Or, since money in the bank can grow forever at compound interest, so can real wealth, and so can welfare. Whatever is true for the abstract symbol of wealth is assumed to hold for concrete wealth itself.

Money fetishism is alive and well in a world in which banks in wealthy countries make loans to poor countries and then, when the debtor countries cannot make the repayment, simply make new loans to enable the payment of interest on old loans, thereby avoiding taking a loss on a bad debt. Using new loans to pay interest on old loans is worse than a Ponzi scheme, but the exponential snowballing of debt is expected to be offset by a snowballing of real growth in debtor countries. The international debt impasse is a clear symptom of the basic disease of growthmania. Too many accumulations of money are seeking ways to grow exponentially in a world in which the physical scale of the economy is already so large relative to the ecosystem that there is not much room left for growth of anything that has a physical dimension.

Marx, and Aristotle before him, pointed out that the danger of money fetishism arises as a society progressively shifts its focus from use value to exchange value, under the pressure of increasingly complex division of labor and exchange. The sequence is sketched below in four steps, using Marx's shorthand notation for labels.

I. C-C. One commodity (C) is directly traded for a different commodity (C).The exchange values of the two commodities are by definition equal, but each trader gains an increased use value. This is simple barter. No money exists, so there can be no money fetishism.

2. C-M-C. Simple commodity circulation begins and ends with a use value embodied in a commodity. Money (M) is merely a convenient medium of exchange. The object of exchange remains the acquisition of an increased use value. (C) represents a greater use value to the trader, but (C) is still a use value, limited by its specific use or purpose. One has, say, a greater need for a hammer than a knife but has no need for two hammers, much less for fifty. The incentive to accumulate use values is very limited.

3- M-C-M'. As simple commodity circulation gave way to capitalist circulation, the sequence shifted. It now begins with money capital and ends with money capital. The commodity or use value is now an intermediary step in bringing about the expansion of exchange value by some amount of profit, change in M = M' - M. Exchange value has no specific use or physical dimension to impose concrete limits. One dollar of exchange value is not as good as two, and fifty dollars is better yet, and a million is much better, etc. Unlike concrete use values, which spoil or deteriorate when hoarded, abstract exchange value can accumulate indefinitely without spoilage or storage costs. In fact, exchange value can grow by itself at compound interest. But as Frederick Soddy (Daly 1980) pointed out, "You cannot permanently pit an absurd human convention [compound interest] against a law of nature [entropic decay]."1. "Permanently," however, is not the same as "in the meantime," during which we have, at the micro level, bypassed the absurdity of accumulating use values by accumulating exchange value and holding it as a lien against future use values. But unless future use value, or real wealth, has grown as fast as accumulations of exchange value have grown, then at the end of some time period there will be a devaluation of exchange value by inflation or some other form of debt repudiation. At the macro level limits will reassert themselves, even when ignored at the micro level, where the quest for exchange value accumulation has become the driving force.

4. M-M'. We can extend Marx's stages one more step to the paper economy, in which, for many transactions, concrete commodities "disappear" even as an intermediary step in the expansion of exchange value. Manipulations of symbols according to arbitrary and changing tax rules, accounting conventions, depreciation, mergers, public relations imagery, advertising, litigation, and so on, all result in a positive change in M for some, but no increase in social wealth, and hence an equal negative change in M for others. Such "paper entrepreneurialism" and "rent-seeking" activities seem to be absorbing more and more business talent. Echoes of Frederick Soddy are in the statement of Robert Reich (1983, P. 153) that "the set of symbols developed to represent real assets has lost the link with any actual productive activity. Finance has progressively evolved into a sector all its own, only loosely connected to industry." Unlike Soddy, however, Reich does not appreciate the role played by biophysical limits in redirecting efforts from manipulating resistant matter and energy toward manipulating pliant symbols. He thinks that, as more flexible and information-intensive production processes replace traditional mass production, somehow financial symbols and physical realities will again become congruent. But it may be that as physical resources become harder to acquire, as evidenced by falling energy rates of return on investment (Cleveland et at. 1984), the incentive to bypass the physical world by moving from M-C-M' to M-M' becomes ever greater. We may then keep growing on paper, but not in reality. This illusion is fostered by our national accounting conventions. It could be that we are moving toward a nongrowing economy a bit faster than we think. If the cost of toxic waste dumps were subtracted from the value product of the chemical industry, we might discover that we have already attained zero growth in value from that sector of the economy.

Herman E. Daly, "Beyond Growth", p. 38, 1996.