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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Money Annihilates Distinctions

"The love of money is the root of all evil" said St Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10, but I prefer a slight variant:

The concept of money is the root of all evil

Still hyperbole, I know, but I'm trying to express the essence of a profound problem.

I happened upon the following gem by accident today when searching for the origin of another quote. Here's a small excerpt from Roy Rappaport's Adaptive Structure and its Disorders (1977):

High-energy technology is, of course, not alone in impelling maladaptive trends. All-purpose money has also played a part. In addition to its obvious contribution to the concentration of real wealth and regulatory prerogative, it flows through virtually all barriers, increasing the coherence of the world system enormously. Its ability to penetrate whatever barriers may have protected previously autonomous systems against outside disruption rests upon its most peculiar and interesting property: it annihilates distinctions. It tends to dissolve the differences between all things by providing a simple metric against which virtually all things can be assessed, and in terms of which decisions concerning them can be made. But the world upon which this metric is imposed is not as simple as this metric. Living systems - plants, animals, societies, ecosystems - are very diverse and each requires a great variety of particular materials to remain healthy. Monetization, however, forces the great ranges of unique and distinct materials and processes that together sustain or even constitute life into an arbitrary and specious equivalence and decisions informed by these terms are likely to simplify, that is, to degredate and to disrupt, the ecological systems in which they are effective. Needless to say the application of large amounts of mindless energy under the guidance of the simplified or even simple-minded and often selfish considerations that all-purpose money makes virtually omnipotent and, when united with a capitalist ideology, even sacred, is in its nature stupid, brutal, and almost bound to be destructive.
With increases in the amounts of energy harnessed, with increases in the internal differentiation of social systems, with the monetization of even larger portions of life, the contradiction between the direction of cultural evolution on the one hand and the maintenance of living processes, both meaningful and material, has become increasingly profound. We are led to ask whether civilization, the elaborate stage of culture with which are associated money and banking, high-energy technology, and social stratification and specialization, is not maladaptive. It is, after all, in civilized societies that we can observe most clearly oversegregation, overcentralization, oversanctification, hypercoherence, the domination of higher- by lower-order systems, and the destruction of ecosystems. Civilization has emerged only recently - in the past six thousand or so years - and it may yet prove to be an unsuccessful experiment.
What are taken to be evolutionary advances institutionalize new contradictions and set new problems as they solve or resolve older problems or overcome earlier limitations, and social systems may eventually become paralyzed by accumulating structural anomalies at the same time that they are increasingly perturbed by mounting substantive difficulties. It may be recalled that both Bateson and Slobodkin have argued that it is good evolutionary strategy for evolving systems to change no more than persistence requires, but increasing systemic deformity may require radical correction. Revolution has historically been an ultimate corrective response of systems so affected by maladaptation as to be unable to respond homeostatically to events continually perturbing them. Flannery has argued that the radical correction of structural anomaly has been an important factor in the evolution of civilization (1972), and inquiry into the dynamic relationship among structural anomaly, substantive problem, and profound corrective processes is, in other terms, central to the thought of Marx.
Bateson (1972), however, has located the problem at a level that may be beyond the reach of revolutionary correction - in the characteristics of human intelligence. He argues that purposefulness is the dominant characteristic of human reason, a plausible suggestion, for purposefulness, encompassing both foresight and concentration, must have been strongly selected for during man's two or three million years on earth (and even earlier among man's prehuman forebears and other animals). But, located in the conscious minds of individuals and serving in the first instance their separate survivals, purposefulness must incline toward self-interest or even selfishness. (Indeed the philosopher Bergson in in recognizing this problem took religion to be society's defense against the "dissolving power" of the human mind.) That some human purposes are selfish cannot be gainsaid. But Bateson suggests that the problem of purposefulness is more profound. Purposefulness, he argues, has a linear structure. A man at point A with goal D takes actions B and C, and with the achievement of D considers the process to be completed. Thus, the structure of purposeful action is linear: A - B - C -, D. But the world is not constructed in linear fashion. We have already discussed the circular structure of cybernetic, that is, self-correcting, systems, and it is well known that ecosystems are roughly circular in plan, with materials being cycled and recycled through the soil, the air, and organisms of many species. Moreover, the circularity of both cybernetic and ecosystemic structure blurs the distinction between cause and effect, or rather suggests to us that simple linear notions of causality, which lead us to think of actors, objects upon which they act, and the transformation of such objects, are inadequate, for purposeful behavior seldom affects only a single object, here designated D, but usually many other objects as well, often in complex and ramifying ways. Among those being affected in unforseen and possibly unpleasant ways may be the actor himself.
It may be suggested, however, that linear, purposeful thought is adequate to the needs of simple hunters and gatherers, and not very destructive to the ecological systems in which they live, because both the scope and power of their activities are limited. It is when linear thought comes to guide the operations of an increasingly powerful technology over domains of ever increasing scope that disruption may become inevitable.

The process of annihilation of distinctions is also a process of alienation from nature, or what Keith Farnish calls "disconnection". And, as Charles Eisenstein notes in Sacred Economics, it depersonalises its users:

Just as money homogenizes the things it touches, so also does it homogenize and depersonalize its users: “It facilitates the kind of commercial exchange that is disembedded from all other relations.” In other words, people become mere parties to a transaction. In contrast to the diverse motivations that characterize the giving and receiving of gifts, in a pure financial transaction we are all identical: we all want to get the best deal. This homogeneity among human beings that is an effect of money is assumed by economics to be a cause. The whole story of money’s evolution from barter assumes that it is fundamental human nature to want to maximize self-interest. In this, human beings are assumed to be identical. When there is no standard of value, different humans want different things. When money is exchangeable for any thing, then all people want the same thing: money.

So, money leads to alienation, and alienation leads to... evil, of course (Colossians 1:21).

Damn that Cameron bloke for putting me in a biblical frame of mind.

Happy 400th birthday to the King James Bible.

Postscript, March 10th, 2012

Gary Alexander's Report on the Planet Earth from the Intergalactic Study Group on Worlds in Transition is a rather good rant on the dysfunctional nature of the whole concept of money.

Postscript, Sept 5th, 2012

Over at the A Prosperous Way Down site, Mary Logan asks What is Money?

Postscript, Sept 22nd, 2014

Interesting comment in an article about "Flood Wall Street", A climate of disobedience: the coming destituent flood:

"Through its univocal conception of value, capital serves to shape our actions and how we imagine our relationships with one another and the ecosystems that support us. It also mediates how we cooperate together to reproduce our world. This reconfiguration of personal and social life in strictly economic terms obliterates a whole ecosystem of values which are foundational to the continued maintenance of life on this planet."

The article has a link to The Financial Crisis as a Crisis of Imagination (.pdf), which is an interesting dissertation on the "imaginary" nature of money.

"Our endless fascination with the worthlessness of money is in some ways a catharsis for our conscription within a society where we are compelled to elevate money above all other values"

Posted by Phil at 5:25 PM
Edited on: Thursday, January 01, 2015 8:53 PM
Categories: Comment, Environment