Community and money

Towards the end of his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, in a section titled “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society,” Marx writes about the corrupting influence of money on individual moral development. In capitalism money — or it’s lack — becomes the primary arbiter of social existence:

The difference between effective demand based on money and ineffective demand based on my need, my passion, my wish, etc., is the difference between being and thinking, between the imagined which exists merely within me and the imagined as it is for me outside me as a real object.

If you don’t have money, the you-ness of you effectively doesn’t exist. Your human essence remains merely an internal flicker of imagination and therefore, from the standpoint of Marx’s materialism, unrealized, like a seed that rots in the ground. Financial barriers to practical activity warp the proper, natural development of human community and individuality. The delicate and deeply personal kinds of relationship that sustain a robust community life — reciprocity, guidance, affection, commitment — can all too easily be disregarded by the person with money as antiquated encumbrances to his free movement about the social world. He has a power that, in it’s generality and omnipotence, trumps these frail human bonds. This power disrupts the normal functioning of a moral order; it turns “the world upside-down”.

I think of the supposed mantra of the service industry, “the customer is always right”. I’ve never actually heard someone who works in service say this, but its general thrust is borne out in the countless daily interactions that occur between customer and servers. While most customers are decent, amiable people who just want to get their cup of coffee, everyone has encountered the occasional nasty who blows a small mistake or delay entirely out of proportion, maybe verbally abusing the server in response. While perhaps a disgruntled minority, the behavior of these individuals drives home Marx’s point with particular force: because money is the prime mover, the “galvano-chemical power of Society,” and these customers are wielding it, social behavior that in a well-ordered community would be regarded as unacceptable or grounds for conscientious intervention is met with a clearly false smile and mild acquiescence: “I apologize sir, let me remake that latte for you – 2% milk this time.” We go on with our days.

I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet.

In the section’s final paragraph, Marx describes the contrary, more truly human state of affairs wherein there is a more rigorous understanding of ethical integrity that informs human relationships:

Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must become an artistically-cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life.

About Ben

I'm a young person living in Portland, Maine with abiding interests in philosophy, community, and how to lead a good life in the modern world.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Community and money

  1. Mickey Foley says:

    Nice! I still don’t like Marx’s idealization of pre- (and post-) capitalist life, but you do a great job of illustrating his critique of capitalism.


  2. Ben says:

    Thanks Mickey. Yeah, I think his image here of pre/post-capitalist life is a bit romantic, and so potentially misleading, but perhaps not an idealization. I take Marx’s point to be that the relationships created by money are the true idealizations, sustained by an otherworldly ideal of limitless and universal exchangeability. This idealism is what allows relationships based in money to ride roughshod over the very particular, concrete attachments that sustain an authentic community life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s