Introduction: Money, Money, Money
Issue #42, March 1999
Money is possibly the most ubiquitous symbol of the late twentieth century. An abundance of currency means wealth, power, seductiveness, fluidity, social status, professionalism, even erudition; its absence means degradation, poverty, starvation, ignorance, disaster, terror and homelessness. We measure human worth in money, just as we measure the value of cars and cattle and stocks.
Although money is symbolic, it has devastatingly real effects. It is, in the words of Louis Althusser, "ideology made material"--essentially, an idea which is so omnipresent that it has come to shape our shared reality. Money has created its own institutions: banks, Wall St., business clubs, and corporations. And it's also the social glue which holds people together in categories known as classes. People in the lower classes work for people in the upper classes.
The kind of work that people in the lower classes are forced to do is the topic of Sheen Brenkuss's article. Sheen takes us on a harrowing tour of the low end of the modern American job world. It is not a world reflected in the headlines that trumpet America's long-wave of growth or in the speeches of America's political and economic leaders. If it were, we would have to face up to the fact that our prosperity is built upon abusive, exploitative employment relations which rob the workers of their self-worth and dignity.
It isn't just at the bottom end of the employment ladder where Americans face degrading employment conditions and abusive employers. In her article, Maia Beth Goodell explores sex and class discrimination in one of America's most hallowed institutions: the US Navy. She demonstrates that although the Navy has made attempts to address sexual harassment in the wake of the Tailhook scandal, structures of inequality and discrimination remain a force keeping women from advancing through the ranks. Emily Lloyd, in her essay about "ex-gays," explores another kind of sexual harrassment: the way media images of ex-gays are used to discredit homosexual desire in communities where being gay is still considered immoral. Arguing that sexual desire is always chosen, Lloyd finds no reason to squelch the ex-gay movement, but at the same time considers its publicity campaign deeply suspicious.
Harrassment isn't just a sexual issue, however--it's an economic problem. Even in a period of low unemployment, jobs don't just fall out of the sky. People undergo grueling, even harrassing, rituals in order to apply for them, score interviews, and earn that first paycheck. Academics, priviliged in many respects, must run the guantlet of job applications and interviews like everyone else. And a guantlet it is. In her article, Annalee Newitz provides us with a personal and political view of her experiences interviewing for a job at the Modern Language Association conference, one of America's biggest academic job markets.
The drive to collect bigger and bigger piles of money doesn't just influence the world of work--it also pervades politics where it more often than not greases the wheels of the political machine. For that reason, money is used as a point of resistence for political movements. Mike Mosher highlights one such political movement that rebelled against the power of money in everyday life: the White Panther Party. Mosher walks us through the "White Panther State/meant." For Mosher the statement's uncompromising firebrand rhetoric against "money, the Man, and other motherfuckers" still has power and nags us today to envision a better society where access to the good life isn't determined wholly by the size of your credit limit.
Credit limits are on John Marr's mind in his article about the online auction house eBay. Exploring the seductive power of commodity capitalism, Marr satirically chronicles his descent into consumer madness as he tries to outbid other eBay users who collect old magazines and retro alarm clocks. Charlie Bertsch looks at another place money goes in his article on the privatization of California's highway system.
Money isn't just useful for buying things; people also use it to communicate. John Brady investigates money's status as the supposedly universal language in the late twentieth century. Taking his cue from American slang and Karl Marx, Brady argues that even though money talks, we shouldn't always listen to what it is saying.
Ultimately, all the essays in this issue tell us--in one way or another--that money is a social symbol that divides people from each other although it seems to unify them. It sets up barriers rather than allowing open communication. And finally, it is the ultimate object of desire, one so intimately bound up with our sense of self-preservation and survival that we are willing to endure almost any kind of indignity on the job in order to keep making more money.
What would we be without money? That we cannot come up with an answer quickly or easily is itself a lesson about how we have constructed our global culture to reflect class divisions rather than social commonalities.