Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Keith Hart on money, memory and democratising the economy

Keith Hart begins his thought-provoking book The Memory Bank: Money in an Unequal World (Profile Books, London, 2000) with the statement: “Ours is an age of money. Half the world worships money and the other half thinks of it as the root of all evil. In either case, money makes the world go round. If human society has any unity at this time it is as a ‘world market’. There is nothing wrong with people exchanging goods and services as equals. The problem is that markets use money: some people have lots of it and most people have much less than enough. The unequal face of the age of money is ‘capitalism'; and the principal source of that inequality has been a machine revolution whose uneven development is only two centuries old … capitalism could be said to be a sort of feudal economy matched to a machine revolution whose potential we barely understand. The lethal result is a polarised world society which resembles nothing so much as the old regime of 18th century France, with an isolated elite controlling the destiny of powerless human masses to whose fate they are largely indifferent.”

Lower down on the same page (p2), he continues: “Money is the problem, but it is also the solution. We have to find ways of organising markets as equal exchange and that means detaching the forms of money from the capitalist institutions which currently define them.” Hart envisages nothing less than a situation where, because of the communications revolution, money can be “made” to become “multiple sources of personal credit”, instead of being controlled monopolistically by a political and economic elite. In short, by using the technical means available to us today, there is no reason why money cannot become the means of inaugurating what would count as true economic democracy, provided people are willing to take control of money back from those who control it today, precipitating unnecessary scarcity and hardship.

The key to this, if I understand Hart correctly, is the concept of a world community mediated by the world market, which he distinguishes fundamentally from capitalism – something that not even Marxists always do, as they should. Hart explains (p6): “ … the confusion between markets and capitalism is as deeply rooted on the left as it is in right-wing ideology. Markets require money and people with lots of money exercise disproportionate power in them. Capitalism may be said to be that variant of market economy in which the owners of big money control, for example, the right of most people to work for a living … the rejection of market civilization which led to some fairly disastrous experiments in state socialism was based on this confusion.”

In other words, Hart has given us the key to work towards democratising the market, in contrast to the present state of affairs. His argument in the book is based on the “ … fundamental distinction between ‘making money with money’, the sparsest definition of capitalism, and ‘buying and selling with money’, the timeless formula for the market” (p6).

A corollary of his argument is that the basic political building blocks of the present world, nation states, are out of step with the “political economy of the internet”, which has brought about a greater mobility, not only of information, but also of money, real-economy products and people. The point is that, no matter how hard “states” try to retain control over all these things, the internet has initiated a movement that increasingly enables one to escape such control, and in this way adumbrates the shape of a possible future world democracy, constructed more on economic than on political grounds – in fact, as he conceives of it, built on the “repersonalization of the economy” through inexpensive information.

Hart formulates his objective as follows (p3): “My aim throughout this book is to present the case for thinking of the present age of money as a possible prelude to the formation of a world society fit for humanity as a whole, one in which the administration of justice for all could be a realistic goal and money and markets would become the instruments of economic democracy that they are falsely represented to be today. We need to face the machine revolution and harness its potential to the purposes of our common wellbeing, instead of leaving its benefits to be monopolised, as hitherto, by businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians.”

The trajectory followed in this rich text takes the reader from thoughts about money as a “memory bank” (given the original association of money with collective memory) through the implications of the “machine revolution”, the connection between capitalism, development and global inequality, and the prospects of a humanist conception of the market taking us beyond what he calls “wage slavery”, to the historical mutation of money from its origin to its form in the internet-age, and eventually to the point where one can legitimately speak of “people’s money”.

It may come as a surprise to readers that Hart is an anthropologist, especially when reading a statement like this (p5): “ … part of the failure of 20th-century experiments in democracy is that they have often concentrated on political rights while leaving the economic system as unfair as ever. Democratising access to money is indispensable to progress.” But if one recalls that, as he makes explicit (p7), the concept of “anthropology” comes from the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote an essay titled “Idea for a universal history with a cosmopolitan purpose”, in which he posits the problem of the actualisation of a civil society that can apply law universally (the most difficult problem for humankind to solve), then one can see in Hart’s book a continuation of Kant’s work.

Except that, today, in the midst of a machine revolution that has given (and is giving) people the means to communicate and act individually AND in concert like never before, it may just be within our reach, provided we learn to “repersonalise” economic life. He refers to credit cards as the beginning of such a process, and continues (p226-227):

“ … humanism … also recognises our increased dependence on impersonal abstraction of the sort associated with the operations of digital computers, as well as the need for impersonal standards and guarantees for contractual exchange. If persons are to make a comeback in the postmodern economy, it will not be on a face-to-face basis, but as bits on a screen who sometimes materialise as living people in the present. In the process we may become less weighed down by the concept of money as an objective force, more open to the idea that it is simply a way of keeping track of complex social networks which we each generate as active individual subjects. There is every reason why money should take a wide variety of forms compatible with both personal agency and human interdependence at every level from the local to the global.”

It is a futile task to do justice to this book in a short blog-post, but I would encourage people interested in making life better for everyone on the planet, instead of for the few who control money and markets at present, to read it. Apart from being as erudite as they come, Hart – who describes himself as having been everything from a gambler to a desktop publisher and a gangster (he also lectured at a leading British university) – enlivens his text with charming personal anecdotes to clarify his argument. I have learned a lot from his book, and still do every time I pick it up again.

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    • Richard

      I think the fundamental issue is one that is only mentioned in passing, and that is, “we may become less weighed down by the concept of money as an objective force… the idea that it is simply a way of keeping track of complex social networks which we each generate as active individual subjects.” The irony is that that is precisely what money does, but in a manner that reflects hierarchy as well as exchange of goods. Apart from a means to procure the necessities of living, what is an exchange of goods and services? If I purchase a Fabergé Egg, what does that mean? Let us say I have a particular penchant for decorated, guilloche enamel jewellery that is egg-shaped. Why, if I have sufficient reticule, would I pay so many tens of millions of dollars to acquire a real Fabergé Egg? Why not an exact replica of a Fabergé Egg? Well, the reason is that by owning the real thing, I am imbuing myself with power. A reproduction has no power, because it is not the aesthetic that matters, it is the cost of the thing. And the greater the cost, the more power it will possess, and its owner can bask in its reflected light. Money is like that too. It is not simply the potential items it can purchase (a large accumulation dispels the fear of scarcity) that makes it valuable, it is the power it confers. But why should this be?

    • Richard

      If we think about the rise of the merchant class in Europe, why was it that they became increasingly powerful? Surely they would have been content to earn profits buy supplying goods, and not have had expectation of any sort of political power? Surely the same with bankers? And it is not enough simply to say that money became a commodity in its own right, as true as that might be. It has to do with the human predilection for interpreting and conferring power in every conceivable interaction, be it admiration for a mobile phone (the trendiest will make their owners more powerful) or a pair of shoes, or a motor-car, or even a hair-cut. This is even reflected in seemingly innocuous ways in language (the suit maketh the man, etc.).

      The Occam’s Razor in this scenario to me is the difference between homogenous and heterogenous societies. In the former, meaning and hierarchy is intuitively understood; in the latter, it is more difficult to establish and then perceive hierarchy. In, say, Britain, up to the last two decades, power (not necessarily “real” power, but societally-perceived power) was invested in the existing structures of the state and consequent social networks. That is because it was a very largely homogenous society. With mass immigration, especially from people from very different societies (African and Asian, particularly), that understanding has been eroded, and much more overt and obvious ways of establishing power relationships are necessary.

    • Richard

      That is why the USA has always been very capitalist, because in a sea of difference, money becomes the vehicle for social differentiation and its imposition of power-relationships. The American Revolution achieved nothing but the spectacular exchange of an intuitive and perhaps more tribal power structure with one that demanded evidence at each part of its journey. The trade-off for political autonomy was ruthlessness in efficiency of the power structures (no more taking-for-granted, in other words). That power was clear: money, and who had it (as even Dickens noted in his visit there). That became the only shared requirement. That is how very diverse states can survive, and that process is accelerating with increased global movement. All that the internet has achieved, in my estimation, is opening up these avenues of accumulating power to others, who then swiftly join those already stratified as holders of power. In other words, it allows increasing diversity to the channels, but does not abolish them. Until such time as people get up to go to work for the love of what they do, the possibility of accumulating enough money to let them stop getting up to go to work will outweigh the pain suffered by actually getting up. In other words, the triumph of hope over reality is what makes capitalism so very powerful. You will probably find people living on state hand-outs would prefer to have enough money not to need them.

    • Bert

      Richard, thanks for these constructive remarks, which I believe Keith would also find valuable. What you are saying, in sum (if I understand you correctly), is that the connection between money and power has, and always will, stand in the way of ‘democratising’ it fully.

    • Richard

      Yes. There is conflation between power expressed politically and economically, which is driven by various human motives. I think Lacan had some insights into this, but cannot recall whether he specifically referred to money. I think he was referring more to theorising about authoritarianism in a post-War context, but it is equally apposite to this line of thinking.

    • Business budgeting

      Will have to get a copy of Hart’s book. I think he’s spot-on in communicating this tension about money we currently have as a culture – this worship on one extreme, and disgust on another. It’s time to understand money in its proper place. Thanks for sharing thoughts on it, Bert.