Monday, October 31, 2016

Money and other stuff - with a big hat tip to Alf Hornborg

Money -- widely used and little understood.

Ecosemiotics represents a theoretical approach to human ecology that can be applied across several disciplines. lts primary justification lies in the ambition to transcend "Cartesian", conceptual dichotomies such as culture/nature. society/nature, mental/material. etc. It argues that ecosystems are constituted no less by flows of signs than by flows of matter and energy.

-Alf Hornborg
Mystery and Dependency

Christians have been struggling with the issue of money and its strange yet immense power since its foundation. In fact, of all the things that Jesus of Nazareth taught, his statements on money are among those that have provoked the most lawyer-like and painfully convoluted attempts to weasel out of his clear meaning.

That's not just because we are broken, greedy, and self-centered, but also because money - once it appears on the scene - has the aforementioned and illusive power over communities, the power to fundamentally reorganize societies.

As Marx once noted about the commodity, "A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties." We can, in turn say, "Money appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."

All of us understand from living in a monetized world, having long practice at it, how money functions in the purchase. A purchase is an exchange in which money is traded for something not-money, like a candy bar or a flat screen television or lipstick or karate lessons. With a little thought, we can also easily ascertain how money - abstractly defined now - is a universal exchange equivalent: something that is culturally given a value against which the diversity of things-for-sale, commodities, can be measured - a price. That candy bar costs one dollar, the flat screen 400 dollars, the lipstick five dollars, and the karate lessons 250 dollars a year. The constant is dollars or other national currencies. Price is the conversion of a commodity into a monetary value.

With little reflection, we can see the advantages of money, in particular velocity. If I have a bushel of potatoes and I need my bicycle frame welded, I don't have to find a welder who wants potatoes. I can exchange the potatoes for money with anyone who wants a bushel of potatoes, then this money, as a store of price-value (or "exchange value," but not use-value), can be exchanged for the welder's services elsewhere.

So we might call money a kind of tool, though not in the sense of tools as mechanical extensions of our bodies for various kinds of work, like a hammer or tweezers or a track-hoe. But while some people may need a hammer or tweezers or a track-hoe for a specific task, not everyone is dependent on one particular tool, which should tip us off that money is not metaphorically reducible to a 'just a tool' with an ethical status that supposedly depends solely on how it is used. That's not even true for all tools.

No reflection is required to understand how we all depend on money for survival nowadays. Hypothetically, this may not be totally and absolutely true, but the practical reality is that every single one of us requires money to live, because we live in a monetized economy, Again, not a big conceptual stretch. The problem is we seldom attend to the implications of this dependency, because we accept this dependency almost as a law of nature.

Backstory - Enclosure

This was not always the case, and in fact for most people throughout most of our tenure as a species, we were not dependent upon money, and the dependency on money for survival is a relatively recent development that has required the active elimination of societies predicated on local gathering or local subsistence through various forms of enclosure - the appropriation of land from subsistence cultures that forces them to become dependent on money (and the kinds of work available to get money). Industrialization was ramped up using enclosure policies to simultaneously take subsistence farms and commons away for larger scale land-based production and to force then landless peasants to move to the city and take work in the 'Satanic mills.' The landed peasants had little need of money, but the landless ones came to require it for survival.

(Remember land. We also depend on land, though land has always and inescapably been the material basis of our existence. And the way we make land work for our survival has been through directed effort, or labor. Land is measured spatially, whereas labor - apart from what it specifically produces in a particular place - is measured temporally. Land and labor equal space and time.)

Even the twentieth century Green Revolution, that is, the industrialization of agriculture, went hand in hand with the industrial 'development' of some peripheries. Small holdings were enclosed into vast swathes of land to produce for export markets (to get American dollars mostly), and the un-landed peasants moved to the city to seek work in the sweatshops. The Catholic social critic Ivan Illich succinctly summarized this process as "a war on subsistence." This criticism has also been leveled by feminist social critic Maria Mies. Industrialization was an appropriation of space (land) and time (labor).

The process of increasing dependency on money is generally embedded in an imperial progress narrative, as a kind of natural evolution in human society, but the history shows this to be an intentional and violent process, conceived and executed by a class of people who accumulated fortunes in money. I believe this places a responsibility upon discerning Christians to understand money, because we ourselves depend on it, our churches depend on it and use it, and money-dependency is the key contributor to all the ways that discerning and caring Christians find themselves complicit in social arrangements of which we fundamentally disapprove.

Accumulation of Wealth

Almost 2,000 people worldwide, or .0005% of the world population have assets exceeding a billion dollars. A billion dollars can buy 3,225,806,452 pounds of potatoes, 37,679 Ford F150 pickup trucks, 71,429 pounds of cocaine, 5,000 $200K houses, two Central American national telecommunications companies, 1,000 square miles of Wyoming, or 20,000,000 hours (1,538 average lifetimes) of high-quality private tutoring. Michael Bloomberg has 40 times that amount, Warren Buffett 60 times, and Bill Gates times 75.

Prior to the hegemony of general purpose money and the monetization of the economy, these kinds of fortunes were frankly not possible, not even to the most powerful people in the world. Nothing but money can hold this vast store of value. No one can keep 3 billion pounds of potatoes or live in 5,000 houses or drive 37,679 trucks.

The means of accumulation are varied but very finite, the main thing being that this kind of accumulation of wealth in the money-form can only be accomplished by using money to acquire more money. At a certain abstract point in the continuum of accumulation, it is no longer possible to increase wealth in its concrete forms. No reasonable quantity of actual things, like trucks or cocaine or pedicures, can do what money does as a sign - a marker of value - and moreover, as we showed above, no actual thing can be exchanged with the velocity of money. You would not use pickup trucks to buy groceries or Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles.

Signs Signs Everywhere Signs
Semiotics . . . is the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication. This includes the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication.

Saying that money exerts power is true, but deceptive. Money is not conscious, so money does not wield power like a person might, but its existence as a cultural artifact does generate many consequences - intended and not. Money is a sign - something with meaning apart from its material existence; and I have to tip my hat to Alf Hornborg for an explication of this . . . in fact, this post is largely based on Hornborg's work as an anthropologist studying the relation between money and thermodynamics (which we'll get to later).

The meaning of money is price-value which becomes manifest during exchange, even though money exists apart from this meaning. The paper bills in your purse or pocket or billfold have the characteristics of a form of paper and ink, even though this is not where their utility resides. We don't wrap sandwiches in paper money, or use it to start fires, or wipe our behinds with it.

The fact that money is a carrier of meaning, a sign, makes money cultural, not natural like tarragon seed or a cloud. It fails to function as a sign apart from historically, conceptually, and materially structured relations between people - culture. This distinction between culture and nature, however, is a fairly recent conceptual invention, and one that is very problematic. Because in the actual world we experience, nature and culture are categorically never separate. They are only separable in the realm of ideas, or analysis. This contradiction makes the distinction between nature and culture (a distinction that has been highly gendered, by the way, with nature being counted female and culture male) suggests there is deception at the heart of the distinction.

In the Hornborg quote at the beginning of the post, he declares his opposition to the philosophical dualism of René Descartes. Hornborg shows the ways in which we cannot separate culture from nature or the material from the conceptual. He begins with semiotics, which is unfamiliar to most of us, which is why I included the Wikipedia summary above.

Narrative theology is an approach that emphasizes the story as the framework for theology, and also the central importance of stories in our formation as human beings. I am very sympathetic to this idea, but when we attend to a story with its settings and characters and conflicts and themes we are taking this story in through familiar and largely unexamined premises and assumptions. The framework within the framework of the story, then, is signification.


In modern (Cartesian) signification, the underlying premise/assumption is that people are subjects and everything else belongs to the category of  'object.' We will call this 'objectivism' (not to be confused with the jackleg 'philosophy' of Ayn Rand).

The subject has agency, and is represented in the culture-nature dichotomy as culture, while the object is stripped of agency, a thing upon which subjects with agency act - nature. That this maps onto the masculine-feminine, then, becomes clearer, given that males in power were the authors of these ideas. We are all familiar in this day and age with the grievance raised by feminists about males 'objectifying' women - reducing woman to something acted upon (an object) and defining her into nature. While this is a post-Cartesian notion, it developed out of pre-modern patriarchies, in which dualism was Platonic, and understood as a struggle between 'masculine' reason and 'feminine' flesh - both alive, but the masculine placed over and above the feminine as part of a larger matrix of hierarchies (like the 'Great Chain of Being').

Disenchantment and Dissolution

In Carolyn Merchant's book, The Death of Nature, she traces the history of the idea of a subject-object dichotomy, and shows how all cultures prior to Cartesian modernity regarded pretty much everything as subjects. Nature was 'alive,' not yet dead. This premodern animism (not in the sense of a 'religion' but an epistemology) was supplanted by modernity's elevation of science as ultimate truth claim and our 'disenchantment' with nature, now analytically separated from us by the subject-object dichotomy.

This is the separation that gave the green light to modernity's ecocide. We were no longer 'related' to non-human 'nature,' and neither were relations between various aspects of nature any longer worthy of respect. An object has no meaning. Our 'knowledge' of the object becomes a form of power, of conquest. Postmodernism's skepticism about our knowledge of the object, however, did not return us to a pre-modern sensibility of interconnection, but cast us adrift in what was the next inevitable step after modernity demonstrated an inability to 'practice what it preached.' Where modernism begins with the object in the subject-object split, postmodernism takes the subject as the point of departure in the self-same subject-object split. The point of departure changes, but the same dualism prevails, and prevails in such a way that it strips the person of agency with which to respond to phenomena like ecocide.

Hornborg says, speaking of machines though this is applicable to the whole built environment, that these things are "culturally constructed" but that they are also "symbolically mediated." Our 'common sense' representations - our signs - are actually instruments of power, 'power' defined as "the asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks." Language is a complex system of signs, combining indices, symbols, meanings, gestures, vocalizations, text, and so forth, historically and culturally constituted.

Money, as a sign that can increase the velocity of exchange, combines with our objectification of nature (disenchantment), and facilitates the dissolution of natural systems. Money facilitates both natural and cultural systems being dissolved - literally breaking them up into their parts. So money is a semiotic phenomenon with profound ecological consequences - what Hornborg calls an "eco-semiotic phenomenon."

Energy Slaves

The advocates of an energy crisis believe in and continue to propagate a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command. This belief is common to the conflicting economic ideologies now in vogue. It is threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.

-Ivan Illich, 1973

Archaic references to "man" meaning humanity aside, Illich points to another fact that is so integral to our present-day existence that we hardly notice it until we suffer power outages or gas shortages. Money facilitates a velocity of exchange that dissolves natural and cultural systems, but the material reality is that industrialization - what Hornborg calls "the power of the machine" - is the substitution of mechanical work for muscular work, which requires energy stores. Given that the overwhelming majority of our energy originates from the sun and is converted into use-value by photosynthesis (then animals eat plants, or other animals, transferring that energy to us), this means the appropriation of land. The fossil hydrocarbons that power most of today's industrial infrastructure are the appropriation of land from long ago - energy converted by photosynthesis then stored in the ground as coal, gas, and oil. These stores are our energy slaves.

In addition to money, the eco-semiotic phenomenon that dissolves nature and culture to make them available for appropriation in industrial development, the process inevitably requires these energy slaves. With the loss of either general-purpose money or fossil energy (a sign and a material substrate), the entire industrial infrastructure of the current world system would collapse. There is a reason that the imperial cores go to war or foment coups to gain access to fossil hydrocarbons and to 'open' local markets.

The Morality of Technology

So we have machines, or technology, which run on energy appropriated from land that produced millions of years ago . . . and we are using it up at an ever increasing pace. The 'sweetest' oil is diminishing, the old gas pockets giving out, the coal appearing in ever smaller seams where mountaintops have to be removed to get at it and still make a profit. We are smashing up the subterranean geology with hydraulic fracturing to squeeze out a little more gas and oil (the average frack-well peaks in around a year and a half then goes into terminal decline).

D. A. Clarke once summarized the Second Law of Thermodynamics for me: "You can't win. You can't break even. You can't get out of the game." Our technology cannot run without power, and the power is finite. And all power is not alike. You cannot run an airplane with solar panels or a windmill. We are heading for a cliff, but we are ourselves laced into the fabric of society in such a way that we not only lack to power to check our inertia, our utter dependence on money ensures that we will remain complicit . . . that we will contribute through our own actions to that suicidal socio-politico-economic inertia.

Our social imaginary tells us that new technology may hold the answers, or that perhaps a more just distribution of the technologies that exist. But this, too, is an illusion, an ideological construct. Ideology simultaneously conceals and reproduces power. Most economic theories, for example, are not science but ideology.

In the case of machines, as Hornborg demonstrates, the illusion is that technology just sits there waiting for us to direct it in an ethical or unethical direction.

As it is, so we generally believe, the machine is morally neutral, representing nothing until we employ it. In Harriet Arnow's novel, The Dollmaker, there is a pocket knife that is used to save the life of a sick child in the beginning, then commit a murder near the end. A good action and a bad action with the same instrument. This is not what we mean when we say that the machine embodies something social and therefore pregnant with moral implications.

The machine itself embodies a social relation, one in which space and time, land and labor, are appropriated by one group from another through the mechanism of unequal exchange - a reality denied by the majority of economists. I am composing this post on a computer. Computers have become irreplaceable in the current U.S. and world economy. Computers are made from several essential and imported materials – cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, iron from Brazil, palladium from Botswana, gold from Costa Rica, copper from Chile, selenium from the Philippines, zinc from Peru, silver and antimony from Mexico, chromium, manganese, and platinum from South Africa, and aluminum, arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead, and mercury from China. These are also the essential materials in every core-nation’s governance and management systems, in maintaining our energy and transportation grids, in education, and in high-technology weapons systems.

Arable land world wide totals about 4.5 acres per person. The ecological footprint of an American is about 24 acres. The average Mexican is six acres. The average for a Chinese person is four acres. None of these averages, however, account for the wide disparities intra-nationally. A Donald Trump might be using 10,000 acres, while a West Virginia miner or an African American smallholding farmer may be getting by on ten. Another factor that disappears in the statistics is the baseline 'cost of reproduction,' that is, in France or England or the US, people are not even allowed to build a dwelling without electricity and late-technology sanitation systems; in many places, especially the US, it is almost impossible to get a job without an automobile; whereas in El Salvador or Bangladesh or Botswana, many people live in shanties without electricity or running water or plumbing. This is why an employer can pay a Salvadoran 72 cents an hour, whereas a low-wage American job comes in at seven dollars an hour. This is also why an American ex-pat in El Salvador can 'stretch' his or her retirement money and 'live like a king.' And it is why a 'free trade' agreement like CAFTA has been pushed through by the American Chamber of Commerce, ensuring low-to-no taxes and unlimited access to Salvadoran properties on which to build sweatshops. A pair of shoes that retail at $75 in the US and wholesale at $50, representing 20 total minutes of labor, nets the producing corporation - minus $5 overhead - $45, less the cost of the labor. $2.34 lost to labor in the US, but 24 cents lost in El Salvador. At 1,000 pairs of shoes, that means $2,100 in additional profit, not counting the savings in overhead through nonexistent environmental regulation and no labor regulations.

All Americans get a dividend in this case, because the environmental load of the production process is displaced from the US to El Salvador. Still, Americans will look at El Salvador's denuded, degraded terrain, then at the wide green spaces in the US, and decide that being more 'developed' somehow corresponds to greater protection for the environment. In reality, the US is displacing the environmental load, which materially contributes to the better 'standard of living' in the US than in El Salvador. This computer, your automobile, a flat screen television, even solar panels and wind turbines and LEDs, all - without exception - actually displace their environmental loads to places out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind for most Americans.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is an outcome and reproducer of unequal exchange, of the appropriation of time and space, and a perfect example of environmental load displacement.

Every building in every city - let's take it up in altitude here, instead of technology, let's think in terms of the ratio between technomass and biomass (thanks again, Alf Hornborg) - whether it is used as a prison or a children's charity - is drawing in material and energy from elsewhere, displacing an environmental load, converting concentrated, usable energy into entropic dissipation, gobbling up labor (time) and space (land) from other places, to continue its operation, maintenance, and repair.

It is through this process that the standard of living in the economic cores is maintained, not in contrast to places with lower standards of living, but parasitically upon those degraded outer spaces. Affluence cannot exist without poverty. The imperial core cannot survive without the exploitable periphery. And with 4.5 acres of land - not counting what might be needed for other species - for each person on the planet, there is simply no possibility of 'developing' the rest of the world in the manner of a core nation that consumes 24 acres per person.

General purpose money, again, is the cultural sign that allows this dynamic to continue; and our utter and complete dependency on money to survive in the environment built as it is guarantees that we not only have no means to 'fix' the system, it ensures our complicity every day and every hour and every moment of our own existence.

No Conclusion

Rather than conclude or suggest, at this point, I am going to leave the issue hanging. Readers can digest this, reflect on its implications and ramifications, and - in particular for Christians and our church(es) - begin thinking about the ways that money, as social solvent, and money as our heroin, affects our social relations in the church (does money influence congregations?), our charisms (do we throw money at something in lieu of making friends?), our organization, and our priorities.

For the un-churched who may be reading this, especially if you are active in politics, there are similar questions regarding political organizations, ideas about policies, and notions about social improvement, 'alternative' energy, and so forth.

Peace, y'all.

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