Lecture III: Money and value in the United States
We now turn to the second paradox I introduced in my first lecture, the paradox that shows how money is inimical to human interaction and potentiality. Remember the two prongs of this paradox: on the one hand there is Simmel’s blasé attitude, feelings of greyness about everything. This results from discovering that “honour and conviction, talent and virtue, beauty and salvation of the soul, are exchanged against money,” and, as a consequence, “a mocking and frivolous attitude will develop in relation to these higher values that are for sale for the same kind of value as groceries” (1978: 256). On this same hand there is also money’s propensity to substitute itself in our thinking for relations among people, because it appears to have a life of its own. In Marx’s view this occurs because we think of money as if it were what gives commodities—things produced for sale in the market—their value. In a market economy we do not see the labor that goes into producing commodities, nor do we meet the people who actually produce them. When we go to the grocery store to buy bananas, we do not meet the growers or pickers and so know nothing about the conditions of their lives and labors. To own the bananas, we simply hand over money, and so naturally it seems to us that the money constitutes their value.
The other prong of the paradox is that, instead of producing greyness, confusion, and feelings of moral uncertainty, money can also produce the most intense, clear, and passionately directed feelings toward the accumulation of more of itself, as epitomized by Blaxton’s comparison between the usurer and the pig (see Lecture I). As capitalism develops, the ability of money to produce more of itself appears to be an occult power inherent in money, instead of the result of a particular configuration of social relationships (Marx 1967, I: 154–55). Virginia Woolf described this as “the power of my purse to breed ten-shilling notes automatically” (1929: 37).
I will consider how this paradox plays itself out in our society by looking at how the economic sphere and the moral and ethical sphere interpenetrate. Some would find this task a contradiction in terms, for there are many dire statements that here in the final extreme absurdities of late capitalism, the economic sphere has cut loose from any connection with human, moral, or social concerns. Raymond Williams claims, for example, that “the maintenance of the economic system [is] the main factual purpose of all social activities” (1980: 188). But this is an empirical claim, one to which anthropological data could contribute a lot. I will try to suggest what these data might look like—reaching for only the most modest beginnings of a moral economy of capitalism—by first tracing briefly the history of our current setting, and then looking squarely at aspects of how we use money today.
First a brief summary of what I have tried to suggest so far. My first two lectures on China served to establish a contrast between our own economy and another of a very different sort. My goal there was to elucidate with Chinese data Karl Polanyi’s finding that for the vast majority of human history, “man’s economy [was] submerged in his social relationships. … The economic system [was] run on noneconomic motives. … The individual’s economic interest [was] rarely paramount for the community [kept] all its members from starving” (1944: 46).
Many of Polanyi’s insights came from Malinowski’s ethnography on the Trobriand Islands—Malinowski was the first anthropologist to observe details of life in a non-Western society first hand—and it is worth looking briefly at one incident Malinowski describes because it throws Polanyi’s points into sharp relief, and serves as a transition to societies like our own, where there is a different relation between economy and society. This is the practice some Trobriand communities had of diving for the small mollusk called lapi, which formed an important part of their diet. When, upon opening the shell they found “a large, beautifully rounded off pearl, they would throw it to the children to play with” (Malinowski 1965: 19). When European traders discovered this (they were prohibited by the government from organizing diving expeditions themselves), they began efforts to get the islanders to dive for more and more pearls.
The problem the Europeans had was what to offer the Trobrianders as an incentive. The only foreign article Trobrianders desired was tobacco, and their use for it was not infinite. As Malinowski put it, “a native will not value ten cases of trade tobacco as ten times one” (1965:19). Traders attempted to manufacture native objects of ceremonial wealth—the famous arm shells and necklaces that circulated in kula exchange—but the islanders regarded these poor specimens as “dirt.” Even when traders found ways of producing acceptable ceremonial valuables, however, they found the islanders could not be induced to dive if there were any community-oriented activities that they had before them. If they had gardening to do, or needed to catch fish to exchange for taro and yams they had received from another community, nothing, as the Europeans saw it, would “make the bloody cows do an honest piece of work on the lapi” (1965: 19).
For their part, Trobrianders expressed contempt for the Europeans’ “childish acquisitiveness in pearls. … Obedience to tradition and the sense of tribal honor make [the Trobriander] invariably put his gardens first, his fishing for exchange second and pearling last of all” (1965: 19). Here truly is a clash between worlds. The islander can smoke some of the tobacco and give the rest away, but his needs for it have limits determined by use. The trader, with access to an economy organized on different principles, can exchange the pearls for money, which he can feel the desire to accumulate infinitely.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that Trobrianders never accumulate things. They may do so, but for entirely different reasons than the traders. As Gregory has put it, “The gift-transactor’s motivation is precisely the opposite to the capitalist’s: whereas the [capitalist] maximizes net incomings, the [gift-transactor] maximizes net outgoings. The aim of the capitalist is to accumulate profit while the aim of the ‘big-man’ gift transactor is to acquire a large following of people (gift-debtors) who are obligated to him” (1982: 51). As Firth says of a Polynesian society, chiefs accumulate stocks of certain goods, but they expect to disperse these goods “in a manner which will yield benefit to their people” (1965: 243).
In these kinds of societies, the goods produced have a character that seems strange to us. There is no marked distinction between persons and things (Gregory 1982: 43; Parry 1985). As Leach describes this for the Kachin (Burmese hill people),
Kachins do not look upon movable property as capital for investment, they regard it rather as an adornment to the person. … Wealth objects other than ordinary perishable foodstuffs have value primarily as items of display. The best way to acquire notoriety as the owner (ruler) of an object is publicly to give possession of it to someone else. The recipient, it is true, then has the object, but you retain sovereignty over it since you make yourself the owner (madu) of a debt. In sum, the possessor of wealth objects gains merit and prestige mainly through the publicity he achieves in getting rid of them. (1954: 142–43)
This was what Marcel Mauss tried to capture in his book The gift, and what he illustrated by the Māori’s notion of the “spirit of the thing given.” This spirit, called HAU, is in a sense part of the person of the original owner, which attaches to a gift he gives. The gift can circulate from owner to owner, but its HAU always wants to return to its original owner in the form of a return gift. One who fails to return the HAU might become ill or even die (Mauss 1967: 8–9). Out of a lack of sharp distinctions between persons and things, things come to be thought of as part of persons or as person-like in their own right.
I will now leave this effort to characterize societies in which things relate to people and circulate among them in ways somewhat strange to us, and instead turn to a brief historical sketch of our Western attitudes toward exchange and money, beginning with some antecedents in the medieval period, when debates over the proper uses of money were in full flower. The historian Lester Little has shown how images of money reflected ambivalence when the profit economy began to grow in the eleventh century. By the end of the thirteenth century, the pictorial theme of men or apes defecating coins appeared in the margins of gothic manuscripts; monsters were also depicted vomiting coins (Little 1978: 34). I do not know enough about medieval society to be sure what these images of undigested money might have meant, but it seems possible they were related to the primary view of earlier centuries, St. Thomas Aquinas’ original argument against usury. This was that money was a “consumptible in use.” For Aquinas, the substance of a good was consumed if its essential form was altered, and money’s substance had to be changed in order to use it—that is, it had to be exchanged for something else. Just as wood’s substance was altered when exchanged for its heat, so was money’s when it was exchanged. This meant that money’s use was its substance, its use was its consumption. Usury, then, was not permissible because it entailed selling separately the use of money and the very substance of money. For Aquinas, this was either selling “something that does not exist” (money’s substance apart from its use) or selling the same thing twice (Noonan 1957: 54–56). So perhaps the images of vomiting and defecating coins are simply a representation of money not “consumed” in use (not digested), but passed through the body unchanged or arising out of it again unchanged.
However, alongside Aquinas, the thirteenth century saw the first justification for the taking of interest for loans. The new justification for the taking of interest was based on the concept of damnum emergens “loss occurring.” This meant the lender could justify receiving compensation to return him to the position he would have been in if he had not made the loan (Little 1978: 179). From the middle of the thirteenth century, this became standard practice (1978: 212).
As these ambivalent images suggest, although medieval philosophers were beginning to allow the admissibility of interest, they were far from allowing the uncontrolled taking of interest. Economic interests for them were subordinate to the real business of life, which was salvation. “Economic conduct [was] one aspect of personal conduct, upon which, as on other parts, the rules of morality [were] binding (Tawney 1929: 31). “Economic motives [were] suspect” and so had to be related to a moral end and contained. As St. Antonino put it, “Riches exist for man, not man for riches” (quoted in Tawney 1929: 31).
The emerging concept of interest linked money and time. In spite of this, the dominant view continued to be that “to sell time, which belongs to God, for the advantage of wicked men” was contrary to Scripture and to nature (Tawney 1929: 43). After the commercial revolution of the sixteenth century, further inroads were made on the view that time belonged to God. In Calvinism, credit and the payment of interest were seen as normal and inevitable, and the obligation of seeing that behavior accords with natural justice was thrown on the individual conscience (Tawney 1929: 107; Troeltsch 1956: 643). Nonetheless, early Puritans still held economic behavior within ethical bounds: no interest was to be charged to the needy, buying cheap and selling dear was a vice, and the lender was supposed to share risks with the buyer (Tawney 1929: 215–16; Troeltsch 1956: 644, 648). Some argued that the need of the borrower should determine the interest taken “as his labor, hazard, or poverty doth require” (Tawney 1929: 223). The aim was to subordinate business and enterprise to a “rigorous Christian code of morality that obstructed and confined them” (Samuelsson 1973: 134).
In later Puritanism, where the role of the trader was extolled, social limits to profit were questioned and business enterprise itself became “the discharge of a duty imposed by God.” It left the judgment about right conduct in business matters between the individual and his god (Tawney 1929: 230). In Tawney’s view, the way was open for our legacy: “a dualism which regards the secular and the religious aspects of life, not as successive stages within a larger unity, but as parallel and independent provinces, governed by different laws, judged by different standards, and amenable to different authorities” (1929: 279).
But this struggle was not over so easily. “Exclusively economic goals were not legitimate in eighteenth-century colonial America, and although this gradually altered over the course of the nineteenth century, mid-nineteenth-century merchants still acted out of social, non-economic roles” (Bender 1978: 112). Lewis Henry Morgan himself instantiated these conflicting tendencies: he was critical of capitalists who measured everything by money but was himself an investor in business enterprises and financed all his studies and political activities on his profits (Resek 1960: 22, 58, 106).
Not until after 1870 did the growth of an autonomous market cause behavior to be unambiguously oriented to the market (Bender 1978: 112). In the late ninetenth century, successful capitalists seemed to feel free to simply divorce moral concerns from economic ones. Thus we have the new view of usury in the words of John D. Rockefeller:
In the early days there was often much discussion as to what should be paid for the use of money. Many people protested that the rate of 10 per cent was outrageous, and none but a wicked man would exact such a charge. I was accustomed to argue that money was worth what it would bring—no one would pay 10 per cent, or 5 per cent, or three per cent, unless the borrower believed that at this rate it was profitable to employ it… . All the arguments in the world did not change the rate, and it came down only when the supply of money grew more plentiful. (Quoted in Kirkland 1956: 21–22)
In other words, in his view it is only the market, and nothing about the needs of the borrower, that should determine interest rates.
And again from Rockefeller comes an illustration of how in the late nineteenth century the laws of business were subsumed under the rubrics of natural law and of God’s law:
The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest. … The American beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God. (Quoted in Diggins 1978: 13)
In other words, the law of the market is not subject to the law of God, the law of the market is the law of God. Even in the face of this enthusiasm, however, there were still critics, as Rockefeller implies, and Lincoln Steffans, Thorstein Veblen, as well as ordinary people in all walks of life, counted among their substantial number (Galambos 1975).
Underlying the translation of the law of the market to the law of God was the fact that both land and labor came to be fully commodities. Workers, lacking access to the means of production, had to sell their labor (part of themselves) as a commodity in return for a wage. Parts of persons were represented as if they were commodities, just as were land, raw materials, whatever. The inextricable connections that we have seen in other societies, between persons and things, humans and land, were broken: things produced, land tilled, could be alienated from the producers and the tillers.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, labor, bodies, time, and space were also increasingly being broken up into segments that could be measured and controlled. The assignment of a monetary worth to a timed segment of a person’s labor and the breaking down of that laboring body into machine-like parts according to the principles of scientific management were aspects of the same process (Braverman 1974; Harvey 1985).
In the next lecture I will talk about some living legacies of late-nineteenth-century capitalism. For the rest of the time today, I want to talk in a more general way about the operation of money and value in present US society. The central question is: has the dominance that the economic sphere began to exercise in the late nineteenth century continued? Are there now any limits left at all to the operation of the market? In Morgan’s words, does the “idea of property” succeed in dominating “as a passion over all other passions”? (1877: 6). One way to see whether the influence of market forces is all-pervasive is to look for spheres into which our ideology teaches us market forces should reach only lightly—families, face-to-face neighborhoods, small towns, religious groups, and communes. Many have looked, and most have found plenty of limits being set on market forces (Stack 1974; Hostetler 1980). My strategy will be to look straight at the sphere of purchase and spending, banking, investment, and capital formation, as carried out by individuals and institutions, to confront directly what Simmel called the “nurseries of cynicism” (1978: 256). Here, I think, a darker, more contradictory struggle for human dignity goes on.
My tactic will be to look at three different but related processes that have been held to occur in capitalist society, each of which involves the increasing dominion of money or models of money making over all else. In each case I will discuss whether there is resistance and struggle against the take-over. I will look first at capital as the “general illumination” of everything in society, second at money as the “frightful leveler” of everything, and third at the “boundless greed” that can accompany the development of capitalism, where money is passionately sought for its own sake as well as for the sake of the things and power it can buy. With one exception this discussion should be heard as a proposal for fieldwork rather than a report on it. I have gathered what I could as a regular participant in our society, rather as Humphrey Jennings selected what he called “images,” moments in the course of the history of industrialization that seemed to him to illustrate and concentrate complex forces and struggles (1985: xviii).
First, let us look at the tendency of capitalism to serve as a “general illumination” of all else. At the end of Ancient society, Morgan reflects on the consequences of the growth of property in civilization. “The outgrowth of property has been so immense, its forms so diversified, its uses so expanding and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become, on the part of the people, an unmanageable power. The human mind stands bewildered in the presence of its own creation” (1877: 552). Continuing this thought, Marx said,
In all forms of society there is a specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus assign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumination which bathes all the other colours and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determines the specific gravity of every being which has materialized with it… . Capital is the all-dominating power of bourgeois society. (1973: 607)
What can be said empirically about the “general illumination” shed by the capitalist market on our lives? I think the problem has two aspects: first, the extension of models of capitalist enterprises onto entities outside them; and, second, the application of market principles to things formerly outside the marketplace.
I will begin by talking about some aspects of the “general illumination” of the market on other areas of life, which I came upon quite by accident. In the course of doing research over the last three years on how women’s bodies are represented in scientific language, I discovered many central metaphors that seemed taken directly from the realm of production and applied to female reproduction. Let us start with views of the body that prevailed somewhat earlier in history. It can be shown that the view of the body as a balanced intake–outgo system shifted during the nineteenth century to the body as a small business trying to spend, save, or balance its accounts. Another shift began in the twentieth century with the development of scientific medicine. One of the early-twentieth-century engineers of our system of scientific medicine, Frederick T. Gates, who advised John D. Rockefeller on how to use his philanthropies to aid societal well-being, employed a series of interrelated metaphors to explain the scientific view of how the body works:
It is interesting to note the striking comparisons between the human body and the safety and hygienic appliances of a great city. Just as in the streets of a great city we have “white angels” posted everywhere to gather up poisonous materials from the streets, so in the great streets and avenues of the body, namely the arteries and the blood vessels, there are brigades of corpuscles, white in color like the “white angels,” whose function it is to gather up into sacks, formed by their own bodies, and disinfect or eliminate all poisonous substances found in the blood. The body has a network of insulated nerves, like telephone wires, which transmit instantaneous alarms at every point of danger. The body is furnished with the most elaborate police system, with hundreds of police stations to which the criminal elements are carried by the police and jailed. I refer to the great numbers of sanitary glands, skillfully placed at points where vicious germs find entrance, especially about the mouth and throat. The body has a most complete and elaborate sewer system. There are wonderful laboratories placed at convenient points for a subtle brewing of skillful medicines. … The fact is that the human body is made up on an infinite number of microscopic cells. Each one of these cells is a small chemical laboratory, into which its own appropriate raw material is constantly being introduced, the processes of chemical separation and combination are constantly taking place automatically, and its own appropriate finished product being necessary for the life and health of the body. Not only is this so, but the great organs of the body like the liver, stomach, pancreas, kidneys, gall bladder, are great local manufacturing centers, formed of groups of cells in infinite numbers, manufacturing the same sorts of products, just as industries of the same kind are often grouped in specific districts. (Quoted in Berliner 1982: 170–71)
Elements of the images that occurred to Gates are still commonplace. In recent years, the “imagery of the cell [has] been that of the factory.” And moving to slightly more complex functions involving money and banking, ATP (a chemical compound produced by cells) is seen as the body’s “energy currency”: “Produced in particular cellular regions, it [is] placed in an ‘energy bank’ in which it [is] maintained in two forms, those of ‘current account’ and ‘deposit account’” (Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin, 1984: 59; see also Guyton 1986: 23–24).
Development of the new molecular biology brought additional metaphors based on information science, management, and control. In this model, flow of information between DNA and RNA leads to the production of protein. Molecular biologists conceive of the cell as “an assembly line factory in which the DNA blueprints are interpreted and raw materials fabricated” (Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin 1984: 59). The cell is still seen as a factory, but, compared to Gates, there is enormous elaboration of the flow of information from one “department” of the body to another, and of the exertion of control from the center, the brain.
The view of the body as a hierarchically organized bureaucratic system of control has profound implications for how a basic change in the system is perceived. For women, this occurs most dramatically at menopause, and it is no accident that in medical terms menopause is seen as a failure or breakdown of central control: ovaries become “unresponsive”; the hypothalamus begins to give “inappropriate orders.” For lack of time I will not pursue this further here.
Instead, let us return to metaphors we have seen dominate the smallest units of the body, cells, namely the factory producing various substances. At the cellular level, DNA communicates with RNA, all for the purpose of the cell’s production of proteins. It would be no surprise, therefore, if the system of communication involving female reproduction were also thought to be geared toward production of various things. It is clear that the system is thought to produce many good things: the ovaries produce estrogen, the pituitary produces FSH and LH, and so on. Beyond all this the system is seen as organized for a single preeminent purpose: “transport” of the egg along its journey from the ovary to the uterus (Vander, Sherman, and Luciano 1980: 503) and preparation of an appropriate place for the egg to grow if it is fertilized.
Yet I would like to suggest that assuming this view of the purpose of the process slants our description and understanding of the female cycle in a particular direction. Let us look at how menstruation is described. First of all, the action of progesterone and estrogen on the lining of the uterus is seen as “ideally suited to provide a hospitable environment for implantation of a fertilized ovum” (Vander, Sherman, and Luciano 1980: 501).
Given this teleological interpretation of what the increased amount of uterine lining is for, it should be no surprise that when a fertilized egg does not implant, the next thing that happens is described in very negative terms. The fall in blood progesterone and estrogen “deprives” the “highly developed endometrial lining of its hormonal support,” “constriction” of blood vessels leads to a “diminished” supply of oxygen and nutrients, and finally “disintegration starts, the entire lining begins to slough, and the menstrual flow begins” (Vander, Sherman, and Luciano 1980: 501). Blood vessels in the endometrium “hemorrhage” and the menstrual flow “consists of this blood mixed with endometrial debris” (1980: 501), while the “loss” of hormonal stimulation causes “necrosis” (Guyton 1986: 976).
The construction of these events in terms of a purpose that has failed is beautifully captured in a standard text for medical students—a text otherwise noteworthy for its extremely objective, factua1 descriptions—in which a discussion of the events covered in the last paragraph (sloughing, hemorrhaging) ends with the statement, “When fertilization fails to occur, the endometrium is shed, and a new cycle starts. This is why it used to be taught that ‘menstruation is the uterus crying for lack of a baby’” (Ganog 1983: 356).
I am arguing that just as seeing menopause as a kind of failure of the authority structure in the body contributes to our negative view of it, so does seeing menstruation as failed production contribute to our negative view of it. Sontag (1979) stresses our horror of production out of control. But another kind of horror for us is lack of production: the disused factory, failed business, idle machine. Winner terms the stopping and breakdown of technological systems in modern society “apraxia” (1977: 185), and describes it as “the ultimate horror, a condition to be avoided at all costs” (1977: 187).
Menstruation not only carries with it an overlay of a productive system that has failed to be productive, it also carries the idea of production gone awry, making products of no use, not to specification, unsalable, wasted, scrap. However disgusting it may be, menstrual blood will come out. Production gone awry is also an image that fills us with dismay and horror. Amidst the glorification of machinery common in the nineteenth century were also fears of what machines could do if they went out of control. Consider, for example, the steam-operated shaving machine that “sliced the noses off too many customers” (Fisher 1967: 153), Melville’s character, an allegory of America, who was killed by his mechanical slave (Fisher 1966; 1967: 153), as well as Mumford’s image of modern machinery as a sorcerer’s apprentice (Mumford 1967: 282).
It may be that an element in the negativity attached to imaging menstruation as failure to produce is precisely the view that women are in some terrible sense out of control when they menstruate instead of getting pregnant. They are not reproducing, not continuing the species, not preparing to stay at home with the baby, not providing a safe, warm womb to nurture a man’s sperm. Whether or not this suggestion can be supported, I think it is plain that the negative power behind the image of failure to produce can be considerable when applied metaphorically to women’s bodies. In a description of menstruation in one standard text, one is confronted in rapid succession with “degenerate,” “decline,” “withdrawn,” “spasms,” “lack,” “weakened,” “leak,” “deteriorate,” “discharge,” and, after all that, “repair” (Mason 1983: 525).
In another standard text, we are presented with imagery of catastrophic disintegration: “ceasing,” “dying,” “losing,” “denuding”, and “expelling,” and the accompanying illustration captures the explosive decomposition exactly (Guyton 1984). You may be thinking, as I did at first, that for all the negative connotations of these images, surely they simply represent what menstruation actually, scientifically is. To see that it is not menstruation’s scientific destiny to be described this way, however, consider how medical texts describe men’s production of sperm. One example: “The mechanisms which guide the remarkable cellular transformation from spermatid to mature sperm remain uncertain… . Perhaps the most amazing characteristic of spermatogenesis is its sheer magnitude: the normal human male may manufacture several hundred million sperm per day” (Vander, Sherman, and Luciano 1980: 483–84, emphases added). It is, in terms of my argument, certainly no accident that this “remarkable” process involves precisely what menstruation does not in the medical view—production of something deemed valuable. Although the texts see this massive sperm production as unabashedly positive, in fact, only about one out of every 100 billion sperm ever makes it to fertilize an egg: from the very same point of view that sees menstruation as a waste product, surely here is something really worth crying about!
Although the image of menstruation as failed production surely exists and, I think, exacts a toll in the medical treatment of women, it is not swallowed uncomplainingly by all women. Interestingly enough, my study showed that working-class women refuse to talk about menstruation in these terms, rejecting the notion that menstruation centrally represents a failure. Instead, their descriptions reflect its phenomenology: how it looks and feels; what it is like to be a woman experiencing the event and what its significance is in her life. In sum, the elements of the operation of capitalism that “bathe” the colors and particularities of men’s and women’s bodies are the emphasis on relentless production of substances seen as valuable (sperm) and denigration of substances that represent unused “machinery” or failed “production.”
A second aspect of the “general illumination” of capitalism is the extension of what we are willing to consider can be bought and sold on the market. Marx saw this process as inevitable but regrettable. He spoke of things that “are in themselves no commodities, such as conscience, honour, &c., being offered for sale by their holders, and of thus acquiring, through their price, the form of commodities. Hence, an object may have a price without value. The price in that case is imaginary, like certain quantities in mathematics” (1967, I: 102). He used the term “imaginary price” to capture the sense he had that these are not the sort of things a price can be put on. Similarly, Winner uses the term “perverse” for this process: “instances in which things have become senselessly or inappropriately efficient, speedy, rationalized, measured, or technically refined… . It is not that such norms are perverse in themselves but rather that they have escaped their accustomed sphere” (1977: 230).
Michael Walzer’s work comes in here, as he lists all the kinds of “blocked exchanges” he could see in the early 1980s, ways we set limits on the domination of wealth. The things he thought we still today do not believe should be bought and sold include: human beings, political power and influence, criminal justice, freedom of speech, marriage and procreative rights, exemption from military service, political office, prizes and honors, divine grace, and love and friendship (1983: 97–103). Even though individuals may attempt to buy or sell these things, they try to hide what they are doing, and are punished in various ways if they are caught.
The example I will look at a little more closely is the buying and selling of body parts for transplant and the buying and selling of the materials of reproduction. First body parts. In the last few years various direct efforts have been made to profit from the buying and selling of kidneys and other organs. A Virginia doctor set up a business to broker human kidneys. A person who needed the money would sell a kidney to a person who needed it, and the doctor would take a fee for his services (Goodman 1983). Another scheme provided for people to sell or buy organs in an international market (Washington Post, September 19, 1983: A9). These developments were met with vigorous opposition by Senator Albert Gore, who attached a provision prohibiting the buying and selling of body parts to a bill—since passed—designed to assist non-profit organ procurement organizations. His reasons are forcefully stated. In his testimony before the subcommittee on health and the environment, he argued that these activities must be prevented “to protect that which is uniquely human.” In the press he is quoted as saying, “Our system of values isn’t supposed to allow the auctioning off of life to the highest bidder … it erodes the distinction between things and people” (Goodman 1983). Instead of the extension of personhood to things that we saw earlier among the Kachin, Māori, and Chinese, here the worry is that thinghood will be extended to persons.
Turning to other parts of the body, it is now acceptable to sell sperm, perhaps because they are a renewable resource, and one that can fairly easily be quality controlled. Many a Hopkins medical student has enjoyed the extra cash from the bonus price he gets from his desirable sperm. But the buying and selling of human eggs (they are already being “harvested”) has not yet occurred, despite the commonplace of women selling—“renting?”—their wombs for surrogate motherhood. In the United States this has produced concerned publications from feminists, but no organized federal effort to control it. In England, things stand on a more advanced footing. The Warnock Report, a report of a committee charged to “examine recent, and potential developments in the field of human assisted reproduction,” was published in 1984. It found it “inconsistent with human dignity that a woman should use her uterus for profit” (Rivière 1985: 5); and degrading to the child so born, since it will have been bought for money (1985: 5).
We have seen examples of the state stepping in to stop market forces (Senator Gore), and of communities of concerned citizens raising a public outcry (the Warnock Report). At other times the law is a constraining force. There is a fascinating story I have no time to tell of how, beginning in the late nineteenth century, the function of American law changed to encourage and protect market processes (Hurst 1956, 1982). Despite this change, the law continues to hold out some protections against the market exceeding its limits, and this is made plain in recent events concerning a debacle in Baltimore’s savings and loan industry. The press and official reports describe a “virtually unregulated industry tainted by the greed and cunning of some savings and loan executives” (LoLordo 1986). Owing to “pervasive self-dealing,” these savings and loans were “a burden on the community which [they] supposedly serve[d]” (Report 1986: 150). “It was a way of life … a way of life that had built up contrary to law” (Su1lam 1986).
Chief among the villains in the case was Jeffrey Levitt, the president of a local savings and loan association. Charged with buying what was not legally his to buy, selling what was not legally his to sell, and spending over $14.6 million of depositors’ funds, he was indicted on twenty-five counts of theft and misappropriation of funds. To understand the cultural sense in which Levitt is understood to have transgressed, we must look at some metaphors of food and eating applied to corporations, appropriate enough since corporations are in fact regarded in the law as persons and might as well have at least metaphorical bodies. These metaphors are particularly common in talk of mergers when we say one company is being gobbled up or swallowed by another. Sometimes this corporate ingestion is neutral and sometimes it is aggressive, as in an ad that showed money owed being gleefully gobbled up by a gremlin-like monster while the debtor goes down the tubes. But the metaphors go far beyond this: real estate deals that buy up unfinished properties at bargain rates are called “vulture funds,” and those that fail “end up getting their eyes picked out” (Lipman 1986). A recent device that companies use to avoid being consumed in a take-over bid is called a “poison pill” (Hertzberg 1986). Then there are defense contractors who can “stay fat on the leftovers” or reduced budgets (Business week, January 13, 1986: 63). And for those companies that have eaten too many leftovers, corporate America is “dieting its way to increased efficiency, in part by spinning off money-losing subsidiaries and divisions” (Money, January 1986: 83). Some of the food corporations eat is, as one might expect, not healthy. “Junk” bonds, risky, high-yielding IOUs that aid mergers, are spoken of as “the juice that made the party go.” But, like a wise parent, the Federal Reserve “is watering down the punch” (Time, January 20, 1986).
It is in this context that much has been made in the press of how much Levitt and his wife eat at restaurants: rich meals, many elaborate desserts, some consumed on the spot and others boxed to take home. The Attorney General described Levitt as using “Old Court Savings and Loan as his private trough, at which he fed, a trough which was continually replenished with other people’s money” (Frece 1986). A local columnist summed it up: “the massive food-intake is a metaphor for all of the charges against them. While others cannot get to their money, the Levitts have eaten cake” (Olesker 1986). Here we see a corporate “body” embodied in a real-life glutton, stopped in his tracks because he crossed clear limits in the law about what property he owned and therefore what he could buy and sell. Instead of Chinese pigs who transform waste into wealth and capture resources for local communities against the state, we have here something more akin to Blaxton’s swinish usurer who spoils good crops and who gives no profit to the community while he lives among it. Pigs are sweet and innocent emblems of accumulation (Sidney W. Mintz 1964: 272) for us as long as they do not become, as Levitt did, wild hogs, in Blaxton’s words, “running thorough, and tearing of hedges: eating and devouring up good Corne, Beanes and Peason” (see Lecture I). We have gone from monkeys defecating money to pigs growing fat on it as images of money’s harmfulness.
In Timon of Athens, Shakespeare says of gold:
Yellow glittering, precious gold? …
thus much of this will make black, white; foul, fair;
Wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant,
… Why this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides;
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads;
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religion; bless th’accurst;
Make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench.
(Act 4, Scene 3)
This leads us to our second main theme, the moral confusion and uncertainty that surround us in a late capitalist country. Simmel puts it like this:
The essence of the blasé attitude consists in the blunting of discrimination. This does not mean that the objects are not perceived, but rather that the meaning and differing value of things, and thereby the things themselves, are experienced as insubstantial. They appear to the blasé person in an evenly flat and gray tone; no one object deserves preference over any other… . By being the equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes the most frightful leveler. … All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money. (1950: 414)
I will now look briefly at two cases that illustrate how people struggle with the “frightful leveler.” Around the Christmas of 1983, as many of you who are parents of young children will remember, there was an extreme scarcity of a commodity many children desperately wanted: Cabbage Patch dolls. (Since then they have become too plentiful.) A minor scandal was created in the Baltimore area as lucky parents who had bought a doll early, or happened upon a rare shipment being unloaded, decided to forgo the pleasure the doll would give their children for the high price it could bring in the classified ads. (Dolls bought for around $30 were being advertised and sold for several hundred dollars.) One parent explained, in a phrase that tells it all, “money became thicker than blood!” (Henderson 1983). A spokesperson from Coleco, the company that was responsible both for the massive advertising that hurled the dolls into such demand and for the shortage, chastised those who chose to sell: “It’s just too bad people out there are willing to take advantage of parents’ emotions. Coleco is recommending that parents control their emotions, she said” (Henderson 1983). However, the struggle was not over control, but over measuring disparate things in the same coin. One woman said, “This is all crazy.” She had to decide whether to sell the dolls she had bought to please her children or forgo an expensive operation her dog needed: “My husband said shoot the dog or sell the dolls” (Henderson 1983). Money has become so inexorably the means of showing love, even to a dog, that we are forced to set these incommensurable things alongside each other and choose. It is ironic that this doll, itself a commoditization of parenthood, should lead to further exchanges of blood for money. Cabbage Patch dolls come with a birth certificate identifying each unique individual doll by its footprints, and the child is encouraged to send for its adoption papers.
We have looked at money as the “general illuminator” and the “frightful leveler.” Let us now look at the tendency of money in capitalism to be associated with infinite accumulation. As Marx explains it,
This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation. (1967, I: 153)
There are two kinds of reasons for this relentless accumulating and spending. The first is that it is in the nature of a competitive free market that enterprises must win or lose, compete successfully or fail. It is no figment of the advertising companies’ imagination that companies must grow, undersell, out-produce, create new products, find new markets, or go out of business. With respect to companies trying to market the same thing, when you come in second, you really do lose the race.
The language of business magazines captures the baleful aspects of these struggles in vivid ways. One series of connected metaphors starts out innocently enough. (We have made the acquaintance of a series of gustatory metaphors, now we see barnyard ones.) We all know about nest eggs, but what happens when they hatch? New enterprises are seen as hatched eggs (Forbes, December 2, 1985), and twenty-nine states now have “business incubators” that offer advice, space, and secretarial services to “fledgling” entrepreneurs (Money, January 1986: 27). When these fledglings try to fly, the imagery abruptly changes, or rather the avian imagery is extended to match the experience of birds in real life: for businesses as for birds, there is no protected adolescence. We hear of a “bloodbath” (Business week, January 13, 1986: 35), a business being “at death’s door” (1986: 35), or, somewhat better, “off its deathbed but just limping along” (1986: 72), or “needing only outpatient treatment” (1986: 72). Then there is “suicidal price cutting” (1986: 35), and finally “falling into the abyss” (1986: 79).
In an atmosphere like this, it is easy to see how companies might act in ways that hurt other people or the environment out of a desire to survive. But what is the “inner logic of the practice” in capitalism that sometimes leads to behavior that hurts other people? Marx was clear that just as precapitalist economic behavior is not produced because people are especially altruistic in character, so capitalist economic behavior is not produced because we have especially many villains among us. How then does it happen that General Motors marketed and aggressively sold the Corvair to young adults (many of them children of GM executives) when it was known the car had serious design faults? How did it happen that A. H. Robins continued to sell the Dalkon shield after it was known to cause infection, death, and sterility, and how could it happen that Robins sold the shield in the third world after they were stopped from selling it in the United States (Dowie 1979; Morton Mintz 1985)?
A part of the answer is that the cut-throat nature of competition focuses attention on the need to increase production and sales to survive. (Even now legislation is pending before Congress to “legalize the export of drugs not yet approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to 15 industrialized countries provided they license the drugs first” [Business week, January 13, 1986: 92]. The rationale is because it would increase drug exports by $500 million annually.) Another part of the answer goes back to the notion of money taking on a life of its own. Marx argued that the process of money taking on its own life so that it appears to be the value in commodities blinds us to the true value they have (the labor that created them), and blinds us to the conditions of life of those who produced them. I would like to add that when money seems to come alive, it can also blind us to the social effects of throwing commodities into the market in return for money. The money in unsold inventories has a way of rising up and demanding to be reclaimed, at any cost. Just as the conditions of production are concealed within the money form, so are the conditions of selling.
A particularly vivid example of how money seems to be caught like a frozen being inside commodities, from whence it cries out to be released, came in a radio ad for the classified ads in the Baltimore Sun. Here is the text of one of the spots:
FORGOTTEN MONEY: Hello. You don’t know me. But you sure could use me. I’m your forgotten money: all the cash you put into new things that you just don’t use anymore. But you can get me back fast.Just list your unused car … piano … boat or whatever in the Baltimore Sun … Do it tomorrow and in just a day or two, I’ll be filling your wallet once again.
The vast quantities of Dalkon shields that were sold in the third world had already been manufactured when their harmful effects were discovered. If forgotten money in an old piano cries out plaintively, think what a clamor the money in these huge inventories must have made in the ears of Robins corporate executives.
This is far from the whole story, of course. Every case of corporate action I know of that hurts the public includes tales of individuals in the corporation who object, resist, and even quit. GM employees who knew about the Corvair’s design faults tried in many ways to stop it and were threatened with the loss of their jobs (Wright 1979: 66–69). Hugh Davis, the inventor of the Dalkon shield, claims he objected to its continued sale after its problems became known, and in any case, he quit his affiliation with the company. (But see Morton Mintz 1985 for a sorrier version.)
We are looking at aspects of the “boundless greed after riches,” where, even in the available material (unfortunately not yet based on fieldwork), there are hints that these events contain struggles over moral issues. I will now turn to a case involving small-scale enterprises to see in more detail some ingredients of these struggles. The case I would like to consider briefly is the relation between farmers and bankers in the Midwest. On December 9, 1986, Dale Burr, a farmer in Iowa, about to lose his land, his machinery, his stored grains, and his beloved quarter horses, is alleged to have killed his wife, his bank president, a neighbor with whom he had quarreled over land, and finally himself. “At 11:22 AM he walked in the back door of the shiny modern bank on Main Street where his checking account was overdrawn. He pulled the long, pump action gun from his overalls and fired one blast at Mr. Hughes’s head as the 46 year old bank president looked up from his office chair” (Malcolm 1985a).
Short of murder and suicide, tension between bankers and farmers is widespread: a survey of 155 bankers in Iowa found 45 percent characterized relations with farmers as tense. “Half the bankers said they had been verbally abused, 13% had been physically threatened and 4% were actually attacked” (Malcolm 1985a). Farmers and bankers alike see this “fear and frustration, this stress and sense of powerlessness [coming] from decisions made so far away: interest rates, crop prices, grain embargoes and even foreclosures by government agencies or by the main office of a local bank recently consumed by a merger” (Malcolm 1985b). It is not hard to see how a farmer faced with failure to carry on his family’s legacy might take his own life and even those of others he felt were part of his life, or responsible for his failure. In the words of a farmer whose fields lie in the county south of Dale Burr’s, on the day after the murder–suicide:
It’s a terrible experience when a farm goes under. You take a farmer who has lived on the farm his whole life—a farm that’s been passed on for maybe generations—and suddenly someone is just taking it away, or they’re telling him how he has to do his work. It’s hard. There’s a lot of pressure… . If it was a farmer who shot John Hughes and the others, it was probably that he just couldn’t handle the pressure any more. It just got to him. (Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 10, 1985: A1)
A Georgia woman said of her father, who committed suicide moments before his property was to be auctioned for unpaid debts, “He just couldn’t stand to see his whole life go on the steps ‘of the courthouse’” (Rehert 1986).
Apart from the sense of failure, another ingredient in these violent events is clearly the breakdown of the hallowed American links among labor, productivity, and reward. In the weeks before the Burr suicide and murder, a local Iowa art teacher created the character Farmbo, a combination of Rambo, the violent Vietnam vet, and Brant Wood’s stoic American Gothic Farmer. His purpose was to create a positive comment on fighting back against hard times, the fighting to be done by hard work. The caption reads, “the most productive man in the world—will be back.” The trouble is that farmers’ experience says loudly that hard work is no longer leading to success and rewards. As one Maryland farmer put it, “It all seems so futile. The harder I work the less I have to show for it”; and another echoes the same words: “It all seems so futile. No matter how hard you work or what record yields you get, you wind up beaten in the end. In 1979 we were getting $6.90 for a bushel of soybeans. Today we’re getting $4.70” (Rehert 1986).
Behind this dismay over declining profits is the fear that the land itself will be lost. No matter how much labor and sweat these workers invest in it, as an alienable commodity it can be sold out from under them. Nonetheless, farmers and local political organizations continue to resist this definition of family farm land as a commodity, urging: a moratorium on foreclosures, allowing farmers to ‘homestead’ on a small portion of the bankrupt farm, giving the farmer the right to repurchase his farm, or to pass this right on to his children (Iowa Farm Unity Coalition 1986; Iowa Farm Unity News, January 1986).
The press and psychological counselors often worry that “depression” will result from loss of the land or the threat of it. But the word “depression” refers both to an internal state of despair and to an economic state of widespread unemployment and poverty. Infarm depression in the 1930s, unlike today, the land itself failed. What farmers face now, by contrast, is a more puzzling lack of connection between effort and reward, where productivity is high, but the money that products can bring in is very little. It is also significant that our contemporary psychological understanding of depression traces its cause to repressed anger. It may come as no surprise that the twin consequences of this particular depression in farmers can be suicide and murder. The pitchfork in Farmbo’s hands could, after all, serve the same purpose as the machine gun in Rambo’s.
What about the bankers? They are caught in a powerful bind. As capitalist enterprises, their banks must make a profit or go out of business. Marx and Polyani were at pains to point out that the ceaseless seeking of profit is required of capitalists: they must participate in it or their companies will be done in. One banker explained, “Last year, it was a wash, our losses offset earnings. But you can’t survive if you just break even. We hope to make a profit this year” (Nordlinger 1985). But how to do this when the financial crisis in agriculture makes most loan applicants seem a poor risk? The result is the banker is prevented from “constantly throwing [his money] afresh into circulation”: “We’ve got cash coming out of my ears … I’d like to lend but I’ve got to be careful” (Nordlinger 1985). On top of this, those the banker must deny money to “are like my brothers and sisters… . It’s real easy to say yes and real tough to say no, but I have to do it more and more and more. I want to smile and help them, but I know I can’t. It’s as crushing as anything” (Nordlinger 1985).
This can help us see how the pressure on those denying the loans can be great too: some capitalists may be heartless, but others may experience as heartrending the abrogation of social responsibility the system sometimes makes necessary. So it was for Mr. Litchfield, county supervisor for the Farm Home Administration, the farmer’s lender of last resort. He had complained to his associates about
restrictions on his ability—to help solve problems … a new and tougher agency policy on collections, announced Dec. 31, that followed a long period of forbearance resulting from a Federal court order. Under the new policy, borrowers with payments of more than $100 in arrears were being told they must bring their accounts up to date or face foreclosure proceedings. (Robbins 1986)
Leaving a note, “The job got pressure on my mind, left side, can’t,” on January 9, 1986, he is said to have shot his wife, two children, and the family dog in their sleep, then gone to his office and killed himself. In the midst of these events, the assessment of many people is summed up in this statment : “The general feeling of everybody I’ve talked to today is that his job killed him” (New York times, January 10, 1986).
If nothing else, one thing is clear: these events do not represent economic actions carried on imperviously in their own sphere. Farmers and bankers alike struggle to come to terms with money and blood, life and death. A local newspaper summed it up: “the farm crisis is not numbers and deficits and bushels of corn. It is people and pride and tears and blood” (Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 10, 1985: A1). Or rather it is when numbers and deficits and bushels of corn are literally to be embodied in pride and tears and blood that tragic events occur. We saw earlier how the metaphors of production have “escaped their accustomed sphere” and found themselves in the domain of female reproduction and birth. Perhaps here is an even more sinister escape of a metaphor from one sphere to another. For we have not only corporate banks and farms—persons in the law—but also bankers and farmers—persons in flesh and blood—fighting to the death, lying on their death beds, making suicidal moves, and falling into the abyss.
Real as these struggles are for those who enact them, they can unfortunately serve as a kind of lightning rod, diverting public outrage away from the structural causes of the farm crisis and toward the need—legitimate enough—for psychological counseling. These causes (among them tax subsidies for big farm corporations and a weak balance of trade in agricultural commodities) are also being attacked directly. In one incident in Iowa a coalition of United Automobile Workers (builders of farm equipment) and family farmers, members of the Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, succeeded in stopping the auction of one farmer’s machinery. His temporary reprieve in hand, the farmer asserted, “We’re still on our land. I’ve known farmers to commit suicide in times like these, but I’m sure not gonna do that. The answer isn’t in giving up. It’s in uniting millions of workers and farmers” (Iowa Farm Unity News, December 1985).
Returning to John D. Rockefeller, he seemed certain the logic of the market was God’s logic. In the small moments of life, for farmers and other citizens, this seems far from clear.
I ended my first lecture by mentioning three negative images that seem to attach to money processes in English and American literature. There was Shakespeare’s consumption even to the point of eating the flesh of another person; Poe’s connection between money and the horror of death; and Dickens’ between wealth and fecal filth: in sum, cannibalism, death, and filth. In the meantime we saw how some of these themes worked out in China: pigs, money, and gold constituted ways women, young men, and local communities could achieve a modicum of autonomy against kinship structures or the state; resistances to the full flowering of capitalism were located in notions of usury and reprimands from Heaven, magical hedgehogs, and houses that lose their geomancy—and most of all in the domestication of money for social ends as its dual nature was bound within the same institutions. Death by suicide became another way of setting limits on the operation of money as the usurer was haunted by his debtor’s ghost and as the “rotten fruit” of one who failed his or her obligations to a rotating credit society was driven to death or exile. Death by natural causes became, in the bone pots, another repository of value, and in the underworld, a further realm in which money and commodities (those “circulators”) crossed between kin.
As for the United States, I have quoted several writers who agree with Tawney that our legacy is “a dualism which regards the secular and the religious aspects of life, not as successive stages within a larger unity, but as parallel and independent provinces, governed by different laws.” In the cases we have looked at so far it seems to me people strive to bring the realm of morality, of meaning in life, together with the realm of the economy. In so doing, they often use images from the dark side of money (cannibalism, death, or filth), bringing them into arenas where economic forces and social concerns struggle:
- we have met a community struggling with Levitt, a Shylockian pig who literally consumes the flesh—the life savings—of other people;
- we have met farmers and bankers struggling with economic and psychological depression and enacting (embodying?) horrible deaths as their life careers seem to die or kill them;
- we have met women struggling to live with (and find other ways of describing) what science tells them is a monthly discharge of filthy menstrual waste, residue of unused materials, failed production.
I think it is less that our moral and economic provinces are separate and independent than that they clash in our lives most terribly. In my last lecture we will meet people who have tried to overcome the dissonance of this clash by literally giving the details of how money makes money the status of religious tenets and using them as moral principles by which to conduct their lives.