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When Money Talks, People Listen

The Euro helps to conceal this basic fact about European society: comparison shopping does not a just political community make.
John Brady

Issue #42, March 1999

[The introduction of the Euro] has seriously altered the political debate; indeed, governments in Germany, France and Italy have fallen in large part because of the spending cutbacks required to create the Euro. Business strategy has been transformed, and more residents and visitors are thinking of Europe as a single place instead of a jigsaw of nationalities and a hodge-podge of currencies and laws.
New York Times, 30 December 1998.

This January, eleven of the European Community's member nations took the first step toward introducing a common European currency, the Euro. While normal Europeans will have to wait until 2002 to begin using the Euro for everyday transactions, European stock and bond traders now trade in Euros and European bankers denominate all of their inter-bank transactions in the new currency. If they so choose, some bank customers can write checks in Euros and some credit card customers can have their accounts calculated in the European currency.

The motivation for introducing the Euro was primarily economic. European policy makers and business owners hope that by taking the first step toward abandoning separate national currencies they will strenghten their economies and make their companies more competitive. In this way, they hope to be better able to stick it to the Americans and Japanese in the global grudge match that is contemporary capitalism.

Even though the economic rationale is certainly the most important one behind the Euro's introduction, it is by no means the only reason Europeans give for abandoning their separate national currencies. European politicians, pundits and even the European in the street see the Euro as not only grease for the region's economic wheels, but also as a force for the political integration of the region. In the realm of symbolic politics, these groups consider the single currency to be a powerful sign of how much progress Europeans have made in transcending their national differences and creating a new political community.

I have found this aspect of the Euro's introduction to be the most interesting. Up to this point in the history of postwar Western Europe, it has not been easy for the Europeans to construct a feeling of political community in the region. Indeed, the Europeans seem to be much better at creating one European market than one European political society. But now, with the introduction of the Euro, they seem to have found a mechanism, ironically an economic one, that can serve as a catalyst for bringing the Community's member states closer together.

How should we evaluate this aspect of Euro politics? How should we evaluate the idea that money could aid, even express, the political integration of a region and especially a region like Europe? (Europe's nation-states don't exactly have a sterling history of non-conflictual relations to look back on in support of their regional integration efforts.) To answer these questions I want to take a slight detour. I want to begin with, of all things, American slang. Then I would like to turn briefly to Karl Marx, who had a few things to say about money.

It wasn't very crowded, but they gave me a lousy table anyway — way in the back. I should've waved a buck under the head-waiter's nose. In New York, boy, money really talks — I'm not kidding.
— Holden Caufield, The Catcher in the Rye

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first use of the expression 'money talks' was in the Saturday Evening Post in 1903. Since then, according to the Dictionary of American Slang, whenever people use that expression what they are really saying is that wealth is power and that money buys everything.

Money talks is both a vivid and efficient expression. In two words it expresses a basic fact about the importance of money in social and political life. And if that weren't enough, the expression gives rise to some entertaining flights of fancy. Money talks. The notion of talking money calls forth the image of dollar bills animated by some foreign spirit, say that of JP Morgan, whispering into the ear of the likes of Bill Gates about the best way to turn a profit or avoid an anti-trust lawsuit. Money talks. The expression's anthropomorphic dimension calls to mind the image of a currency cocktail party. At the party, bills of various denominations and currencies talk over martinis and manhattans about their travels in the streams of global finance.

These are certainly rather far-fetched deviations from the standard definition of the expression's meaning. Or perhaps not. Because in some sense money really does talk insofar as people use it not just as an object of political power, but as a means of communication.

There are any number of examples of how people use money to communicate messages and meanings in everyday life and they range from the prosaic to the politically weighty. Owners of small stores, for example, often tack dollar bills to the wall behind their counters. Those dollar bills communicate quite a bit. They mark the beginning of the store as a commercial endeavor and are one of the symbols of the store's commercial identity. What is more, they also express the owners' hopes that more bills will flow into the store. Tacking the dollar bill on the wall is a small sacrifice to the capitalist fates, one intended to guarantee future profits and prosperity. As an example of how money is used to communicate meaning in the weighty world of politics, we have the instance of the Euro and its purported power in expressing the growing unity to be found among the Europeans.

In other words, when money talks, it talks about more than just the power of wealth to buy everything. But realizing this doesn't solve the problem, it only raises questions. How adequate is money as a language, as a communicative medium? What exactly does money communicate? Does it always say the right things or is there more that it could say? Should we always listen to money?

With all of these questions, it's time to turn to Onkel Karl.

easy money

Marx wrote quite a bit about money and his writings are scattered across a number of works. Here in this essay, I want to focus on what he said about the topic in two works: the Grundrisse (the rough draft of Capital) and Capital itself.

If the expression money talks is vivid, so too, is Marx's writing in these works. Metaphors and language games abound as Marx comes to grips with capitialism's inner workings. He uses theatrical metaphors and images to discuss how economic relationships in a capitalist society are not always what they seem. The capitalist stage is populated by any number of shape-shifters, including commodities which regularly transmogrify as they pass from the hands of buyers and sellers and back again. In addition to these images, Marx also employs linguistic and semiotic metaphors to capture what money communicates about value and human relationships in a capitalist society.

Yet, interestingly enough, Marx explicitly rejects a direct analogy between money and language. "Language," he argues in the Grundrisse, "does not transform ideas, so that the peculiarity of ideas is dissolved and their social character runs alongside them as a separate entity, like prices alongside commodities." According to Marx, money fails to communicate several key facts about economic life and for this reason he advocates comparing money to a foreign language into which commodities are translated so they can be sold. It isn't as if money doesn't talk, in Marx's opinion, it's just that when it does, we can't understand what it is saying. To understand why Marx thought this way, we need to take a step back and look at how we exchange goods in a capitalist economy.

Working through Marx's analysis of money and exchange can be rough going and an adequate summary would take up more space than I have in this short essay. For that reason, I want to focus on one small part of the overall part of the story. To simplify things a bit, in our capitalist economies we buy and sell goods, including our labor, on the market. This seems obvious enough, but the exchange of commodities creates a unique need; the buyers and sellers of commodities need a means to communicate to one another the value of their commodities. Before commodities get sold, Marx notes, it is necessary to express their value and so the seller, "must lend them his tongue, or hang a ticket on them, before their prices can be communicated to the outside world." Money fulfills this need. As the general medium of exchange and measure of value money provides the universal equivalent of value. It is with money that sellers give tongues to the products they sell.

A commodity needs a tongue, but the money tongue is a false one. Translating a commodity's value into a form (money) which allows it to be compared to all other commodities entails a specific loss. Translating commodities into the universal equivalent of money demands that people abstract away from their particular usefulness and, what is more, that people also abstract away from the particular kinds of labor that went into making the commodity. Money, in other words, doesn't tell us everything. It may tell buyers and sellers about the exchange value of a commodity, but only at the cost of effacing the particular conditions under which a commodity was produced and the reasons why it was produced. Marx expresses this point in this way: "It is, however, just this ultimate money-form of the world of commodities that actually conceals instead of disclosing, the social character of private labor, and the social relations between the individual producers."

And there's the rub. When money conceals the 'social character of private labor' and how producers relate to one another it conceals from view one of the most important realms of society: the realm of production. It isn't necessary or possible to explore Marx's precise analysis of this realm. It is enough to note that the relationships in this realm profoundly shape the rest of social life. Concealing aspects of this realm, how it functions, the nature of the relationships in it, means ultimately that society conceals a fundamental part of itself, closing it off from view and consequently from the possibility of progressive, humane change.

So money does indeed talk, but it doesn't say nearly enough. Recognizing this fact should help us evaluate the hopes the Europeans are placing in their new currency. The introduction of the Euro is an important, pathbreaking event in postwar European politics. In certain respects, the Euro's introduction does indeed represent a step toward regional integration. The member states signing on with the Euro, have, for example, ceded the power to set interest rates and monetary policy to the European Central Bank. What is more, their economic fates are now bound more closely together than ever. And when the Euro becomes the currency of everyday exchange in 2002 it will make Europe a markedly different place. Europeans will be able to compare products and prices not only across the space of their 'national homelands' but also across the entire European Community.

Yet, to paraphrase Marx from the Grundrisse, comparison shopping does not a just political community make. Europe, like any other capitalist region, is and will continue to be marked by class based inequality, exploitation and alientation. And as Marx's analysis of money suggests, the Euro helps to conceal this basic fact about European society. Now and in the future, it will be a matter of working against the silences of the Euro and giving voice to the suffering and injustice that remains at the heart of Europe.

John Brady is a doctoral student in the department of Political Science. When not working on his dissertation, he broadcasts into the ether every Sunday from 3:00 to 5:30 pm under the nom de guerre Hugo Ball on UC Berkeley's radio station KALX 90.7 FM. Call in and mention Bad Subjects and get a free request.

Copyright © 1999 by John Brady. All rights reserved.