Claiming money is a process

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Detlev Krige. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.027


Claiming money is a process

Detlev KRIGE, University of Pretoria

Comment on Dodd, Nigel. 2014. The social life of money. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

This important book offers scholars in the social sciences and humanities a treasure trove of ideas and insights that will inspire and shape academic debate. The book’s limited reference to empirical case studies is forgivable given the reach of the ideas presented in it, and for the depth of the overviews and ideas it offers. The fact that no unifying or overarching theoretical line is argued for by the author— although the “social life of money” comes close to being an approach if not a line— is understandable as the aim is to survey and bring into clearer focus a burgeoning yet scattered literature on money. The social life of money, then, effectively reorganizes the fields of the sociology and anthropology of money. It is comprehensive in reach and demands a lot from the reader. It asks the reader to revisit classical texts with the aim of prying open new spaces and questions. As such, the approach that is favored by Nigel Dodd is not dogmatic and linear but heterodox and eclectic. He finds something of value in all the classics, yet seeks to disturb and unsettle received interpretations of these texts.

While Dodd unsatisfactorily settles for a soft notion of society and leaves important questions about social structure unanswered, perhaps his central interest for anthropologists will emanate from his claim that “culture is important not only in grasping what money does but also what it might become” (2014: 311; italics in original). Claims such as these allow him, throughout the book, to continually return to the Simmel’s description of money as a claim upon society. To answer this, he turns to several inspirational scholars. For example, from Viviana Zelizer, Dodd takes that “money is not as [sic] a thing that is simply mapped onto social and cultural spaces but rather a process through which various kinds of human association are actively created and valued” (294; italics in original). Arguing against Marx, [418]Nietzsche, and Simmel who broadly held that “money is a force of cultural destruction” in that it “transforms quality into quantity” (295; italics in original), Dodd argues that “money’s quantitative functions, and above all the creative practices behind them, are not culturally neutral but are shaped by both culture and context” (297). And, a growing body of literature in the social studies of finance allows him to see “the analytical power of prizing open what appear to be objective and invariant (and noncultural) features of money, namely its properties as a system of valuation and calculation” (295; italics in original).

He also draws from Simmel something about the method of the book: In Simmel’s work he reads tensions within money, which Simmel does not seek to reconcile but rather to hold in suspension (Dodd 2014: 317). Likewise, in Dodd’s book, there are numerous tensions that are not ironed out but left hanging, mostly productively so. An illuminating example of this methodological impulse arrives in his chapter entirely dedicated to the question of utopia and money, in which he covers alternative monies and new ways of organizing money and credit: what money should be? As such, the chapter walks us through many topics that have proven to be of great interest to anthropologists who have studied money, so I would like to dwell upon them more carefully here, before closing my review with a discussion of how Dodd’s work could impact researchers studying South Africa in particular.

In addition to excavating Simmel in this chapter on the utopian imaginary, he engages with Fromm’s distinction between being and having as the difference between a society centered on persons and one centered on things (Dodd 2014: 332). Fromm favored substance over form, and conflated having with ownership and property. Freedom is seen as the propertyless life (Dodd 2014: 333), while money expresses the having orientation (334): “What Marx calls unalienated existence resembles what Fromm sees as the ’being’ mode of existence” (334). For Fromm, being is found in “less alienated” societies (e.g., medieval society, Zuni Indians, African tribal societies); indeed, it was a characteristic way of life long before capitalism. Within the being modality, happiness consists in loving, sharing, and giving—the ability to transcend the isolated ego” (Dodd 2014: 332). This is one of the few places in the book where Dodd is making an effort to think across societies— away from “Western industrial capitalism” (332)—and he ends up in a position that may make for a fruitful exchange with David Graeber’s notion of human economies and the production of human life (2011). It is in Dodd’s appropriation of Fromm’s ideas that anthropologists may also contribute to the debate. Anthropologists have argued that contemporary Western common sense has a strong tendency to oppose “words” and “things” (Appadurai 1986: 4) and “objects” and “humans” (Mauss [1925] 2002), and that the “conceptual polarity of individualized persons and commoditized things is recent and, culturally speaking, exceptional” (Kopytoff 1986: 64). So whereas Dodd claims Fromm’s is not a theological argument, the strong opposition he posits between people and things—and being and having—certainly is the product of a particular philosophical and cultural history. In this context, it is perhaps disappointing that Dodd does not have a chapter on the relationship between money and commoditization, which would have included a discussion of earlier work by Arjun Appadurai and Keith Hart. In the rest of his chapter on “utopia,” Dodd discusses labor money (John Rushkin), LETS (Nishibe), the paradox of [419]thrift (2014: 347), Gesell’s writings on “free money” (348), Clifford Hugh Douglas and just prices and social credit (357), the Grameen Bank, and Edwin Riegel’s proposals for a “non-political” monetary system (359). As interesting as Dodd finds Bitcoin, he finds it to have been designed “to ensure that money has anything but a social life. It is a techno-utopia that rests, quite literally, on a technology of mistrust” (362; italics in original); Bitcoin is ultimately not progressive, precisely because it treats money as a thing, not a process (372).

It is when Dodd discusses Proudhon’s proposed scheme for a Bank of Exchange and a Bank of the People that he fine-tunes his central concern with Simmel’s definition of money by asking what exactly does “society” mean when we want to conceive of money as a “claim on society.” It is also here where ideas that crystallized within and around the Northern Occupy and Indignado movements seem to have shaped Dodd’s thinking. Our conception of society, he argues, needs to be flexible, fluid, and varied (2014: 351). In his reading, Marx and Simmel used the word Gesellschaft when describing the relationship between the individual who holds money and the broader social group whose members accept it. Whereas for Marx this seems to have meant exchange value, Simmel used it with his concept of sociation and his notion of the “perfect society.” Other formulations include “community” (Hart), “multitude” (Hardt and Negri), and “circuit” (Zelizer) (Dodd 2014: 351). They all avoid, Dodd claims, conceiving of society in hierarchical terms—that is, placing core institutions such as banks or the state at the top of a hierarchy responsible for issuing and regulating money. Anthropologists may find Dodd’s use of the term “society” rather slippery and perhaps drawn from the political and economic institutions that have shaped postindustrial societies. It also begs greater engagement with Keith Hart’s notion of “world society” (Hart 2010). They may also wonder, pace Jane Guyer and Louis Dumont, about the place of hierarchies, rank, and core institutions in “less alienated societies.” Nevertheless, Dodd’s efforts to examine social processes and relationships through both vertical and horizontal axes and processes offer us a vocabulary to debate this. Likewise, Dodd’s sympathetic treatment of Proudhon’s proposal for a system of mutualism that is based on two principles of (1) production without capital and (2) exchange without profit demonstrates his position on hierarchy and intermediaries, and how this enfolds his arguments about the social life of money: “In such a system, credit it is taken out of the hands of unproductive intermediaries and placed directly into the hands of producers. In this way, credit is restored to its proper social function: it is no longer a tool of speculation whereby borrowers are forced to give up part of their product to the capitalist, but would be managed by the community of producers” (2014: 354).

Dodd uses the example of Proudhon’s bank to emphasize that the value of money is derived “from the trust and endeavor of those who live and work within the social space in which it circulates. Money’s value ... comes from its social life” (2014: 361; italics in original). Dodd ends his book by steering a middle course between the fear of monetary shortage and economic sclerosis on the one hand and the fear of monetary abundance and inflation on the other. By looking at money as a process rather than as a thing, we will understand that trust—or the noncontractual element in the contract (Hart 2007a)—is crucial both as money’s precondition and as something money can nurture: “For Simmel, then, socialism and liberalism would [420]ideally co-exist as countervailing tendencies, each keeping the other in check. As monetary reform in general is concerned, Simmel was probably right. The future of money is best viewed in terms of a rich field of variation: a repertoire of possibilities, not a single formula. In utopia, money would be genuinely multiple” (382).

What may Dodd’s book mean for scholarship on South Africa? For one, scholars have neglected the role that money has played in the creation of new social networks, residential communities, and solidarity economies in urban areas, in part a result of their uncritical attitude toward money. Residents who were evicted from Sophiatown in the early years of apartheid and forcibly removed to the new townships of Soweto, for example, created new social networks and bonds not only through engaging in civil action and political mobilization but by forming popular neighborhood-based friendly societies and mutual aid organizations (Krige 2015; 2011b). Scholars have explored in depth how church societies, street committees, sport, and participation in neighborhood and civics movements have assisted urban South Africans in turning “the stranger” into friend and comrade. Despite a new emphasis on studying the everyday and the quotidian, scholars have as a rule neglected to explore the role money played in these processes (but see Breckenridge 1995). Elsewhere I have argued that money practices in the popular economy provided Sowetans with the opportunity to turn neighbors into friends and to learn—even through everyday gambling and entrustments of money—what trust in a hostile political economy could look like (Krige 2011a).

Money was integral to the racial capitalism that propped up the migrant labor system and the resultant institutionalized exploitation; yet money also allowed for the creation of new forms of relationships and solidarities (Krige 2011b). Scholars have written about these solidarity organizations (Bähre 2007; Krige 2015) and money transfers but have yet to consider that they were formed around money. And in the context of an internally segregated and internationally isolated apartheid South Africa, money emerged for many as a symbol and vehicle through which ordinary people could link their everyday life to a world that lay beyond the township, in much the way that Durkheim conceived of religion as “the organized attempt to bridge the gap between the world of ordinary experience and an extraordinary world that lies beyond it” (Hart 2007b:15). In postapartheid South Africa, a few charismatic ponzi-entrepreneurs have arguably had a comparable impact on urban communities and their utopias of freedom in relation to anticapitalist and postsocialist social movements (Krige 2012). Such movements have yet to explore (1) the role of money in its internal organization, (2) its own agnostic if not antagonistic relationship toward money, and (3) the emancipatory potential of new forms of money.

While we have seen growing activism in the field of money and finance—from calls for greater regulation of banks, the creation of a state-owned bank to the creation of new forms of money—fears concerning the commoditization of culture and politics remain widespread. One such debate has centered on young urban black youths engaging in acts of “wasteful” destruction of household commodities, including the public burning of notes of money in spectacular fashion. Further moral panic has emerged with the development of a mobile phone application that will assist people in calculating the “price” they have to pay for a bride (or in anthropological terms, the intergenerational transfer of wealth that has to happen [421]between two kin groups that accompanies a socially legitimate change in the marital status of a couple). And lastly, a recent academic article by a former member of social movement blames “money” and “academic funding” for the decline of said social movement. The unreflexive attitude of progressive researchers and activists toward money, an orientation that feeds off living in and writing about one of the most unequal societies in the world, has resulted in a general conflation of money with capitalist markets and in organizational splits within the Johannesburg Occupy movement—between money abolitionists and those wanting to reimagine money. And herein lies the wonder of Nigel Dodd’s The social life of money: given the extraordinary everydayness of money, how come we don’t reflect upon it more often?


Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. “Introduction: Commodities and the politics of value.” In The social life of things, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 3–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bähre, Erik. 2007. Money and violence: Financial self-help groups in a South African township. Boston: Brill.

Breckenridge, Keith. 1995. “’Money with dignity’: Migrants, minelords and the cultural politics of the South African Gold Standard Crisis, 1920–33.” The Journal of African History 36 (2): 271–304.

Dodd, Nigel. 2014. The social life of money. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Graeber, David. 2011. Debt: The first 5000 years. New York: Melville House.

Hart, Keith. 2007a. “Marcel Mauss: In pursuit of the whole. A review essay.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 49 (2): 1–13.

———. 2007b. “Money is always personal and impersonal.” Anthropology Today 23 (5): 12–16.

———. 2010. “Studying world society as a vocation.” http://thememorybank.co.uk/2010/01/11/studying-world-society-as-a-vocation/.

Kopytoff, Igor. 1986. “The cultural biography of things: Commoditization as process.” In The social life of things, edited by Arjun Appadurai, 64–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Krige, Detlev. 2011a. “’We are running for a living’: Work, leisure and speculative accumulation in an underground numbers lottery in Johannesburg.” African Studies 70 (1): 3–24.

———. 2011b. “Power, identity and agency at work in the popular economies of Soweto and Black Johannesburg.” DPhil diss., University of the Witwatersrand, http://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/handle/10539/10143.

———. 2012. “Fields of dreams, fields of schemes: Ponzi finance and multilevel marketing in South Africa.” Africa 82 (9): 69–92.[422]

———. 2015. “Letting money work for us: Self-organization and financialisation from below in an all-male savings club in Soweto.” In People, money and power in the economic crisis (The Human Economy Series), edited by Keith Hart and John Sharp. New York, 61–81: Berghahn Books.

Mauss, Marcel. (1925) 2002. The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Abingdon: Routledge.


Detlev Krige
Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
Faculty of Humanities
University of Pretoria
Pretoria, South Africa