How much money have you got in the bank at the moment? Is it enough? If you’re lucky, you’ll probably have enough to get by. If you’re a little bit luckier, you might even have enough to put by. If you’re really, really lucky, you might have enough to pay into a pension fund to see you through old age, provided you aren’t bankrupted or almost utterly impoverished through illness. If you’re incredibly, obscenely lucky, you can probably afford not to care. Most of us, I would bet - though not much - can just about count ourselves as falling into that first category of luck (I’d say ‘fortune’ but somehow that seems much too ironic a way of putting it).
Those at the top (i.e. those who don’t have to worry about where the next horse-burger is coming from) see money as the great social motivator; without it, they claim, there is no innovation, no progress; and when the great and good are feeling particularly facetious, they love nothing better than to tell the rest of us, hand on heart (where they keep their wallets) and in all sincerity, that money is in fact the ‘tool’ with which a great society is built.
This idea is, of course, rubbish, unless you happen to be a neoliberal and thus only consider the wealthy 1% of the planet’s population to which you belong as counting as society, with everything else nothing more than a disposable resource. If money is to work as a societal tool, as an instrument for the greater good, then it must be one which works for everybody equally. As the current world economic situation stands, this is far from being the case.
In 2012, a study called Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (that’s the OECD) found that the average income of the richest 10% of the population was around nine times that of the poorest 10%. A further study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research at the United Nations University found that in 2000 the richest 1% of adults between them owned 40% of the entire world’s assets.
The ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, between the 1% and the 99%, is the result of the brutal social bludgeoning wrought by three decades of living beneath the yoke of a system of economic fascism that calls itself neoliberalism; an ideology that masquerades as the fount of all freedom (while doing everything it can to abuse the term) but which is, in fact, a pernicious form of state-sanctioned piracy. Strutting about under the banner of a political philosophy, neoliberalism tramples real individual freedoms into the ground as it manipulates democracy to further its beloved goals of economic liberalisation, free trade, open markets, privatisation, the shrinking of the (accountable) public sector and the growth of the (unaccountable) private sector and, most importantly (since it allows all these things to be achieved) deregulation.
Deregulation allows companies to do as they will. This, coupled with the neoliberal onslaught on workers’ rights and collective bargaining, has permitted the 1% to take advantage of the economic system and channel almost all of the planet’s wealth into their own coffers rather than into society as a whole, while at the same time exploiting, polluting and impoverishing the rest of society.
Advocates of neoliberalism and its creed of laissez-faire economics will sometimes cite “the invisible hand” of Adam Smith, who came up with the metaphor in 1759 as a way of describing the self-regulating behaviour of the market. The central idea of this metaphor is that the efforts made by an individual to make more profits, within a free market system, constitute a social good, regardless of the intentions of said individual, be they benevolent or otherwise. Neoliberals use Smith’s invisible hand to justify their theft of the world’s resources. The market, they say, left to its own devices will balance itself out naturally to the benefit of everyone. Of course, it is not like this at all; for all their talk of markets magically channelling self-interest towards the social good, albeit as an accidental by-product, what neoliberals always forget (rather conveniently) to leave out of the equation is that the market cannot be separated from mankind.
Mankind can be greedy and self-serving and it is usually the most self-serving, the greediest and most avaricious examples of that tendency who run the market. Individuals who have grown used to wealth and power manipulate the market – and democracy through deregulation – towards their own ends, with the result that there isn’t even any of that accidental benefit left to go around. Perhaps, we might argue, left to its own devices, the market would achieve balance; perhaps it might even adjust itself to long-term objectives. However, while market control is left in the very visible hands of a very wealthy few, unable to see any further than short-term gain, it will continue to serve as nothing more than the behemoth pirate ship the Friedmanites use to plunder the great ocean of humanity.
Oh yes, money is a tool alright; it’s the big greasy wrench a mugger wields at you to make you empty your pockets.
Okay, I am going somewhere with all of this, which is basically: if money only really works as a tool for the top 1%, why should the rest of us even bother using it? For the 99%, given the cost of living and the imposed austerity of the 1%-caused financial crisis, money has become worthless, quite literally so, to the point that it has, in fact, become meaningless. That being the case, why don’t we simply circumvent that system of currency? If the 1% want it all so badly, let them have it. And much good may it do them when the other 99% of the world’s population refuse its legitimacy.
In a casino, the house always wins. Well, the current economic system is a casino (to the extent that certain branches of the banking industry have of late been described literally as that). Now, if you want to, there is nothing stopping you from buying into the myth of winning a heaving fortune, entering the casino, laying down your chips and being fleeced for everything you’ve got. Or… you could simply refuse to play.
That is exactly what we should do; we should refuse to play the game. The game is clearly weighted against us, so what’s the point? If the scraps we’re left with aren’t enough to get food; if they aren’t enough to stop us from being evicted; to pay the bills; if they’re not enough to live dignified human lives with, then maybe we need to be using something else. So why not come up with an alternative currency?
In Bristol in the UK, there is something called the Bristol Pound. This came into being in September 2012 and was used to encourage the people there to spend their money on local businesses; the people in Bristol can even use them to pay their taxes. Similar alternative currencies were set up in Lewes, Stroud and Totnes. In the online world, there is something else called the Bitcoin, which, at least according to Wikipedia, is a decentralized digital currency and, as of January 2013, the most widely used alternative currency. You can exchange them by computer, obviously, but they can also be exchanged through actual banknotes and coins.
Both of these systems, though very interesting, are a long way from challenging the hegemony of current monetary systems, but they are a start, a step in the right direction. Imagine if you were able to demand to be paid in something other than pounds or dollars or whatever else the 1% use to prop up their undeserved power and social disregard. Imagine if the entire 99% said to the big banks and corporations that labour under the belief that they are the supra-governmental rulers of the globe ‘actually, we don’t use that kind of ‘money’ any more’. Well, then the extremely wealthy wouldn’t be extremely wealthy anymore; they’d just have lots of bits of paper and lots of pieces of metal… or equivalently valueless digits on a screen. They wouldn’t be able to spend them; they couldn’t exchange them for goods or services. In fact, they would know exactly what it is like for us right now; they’d know what it would be like to have a big old pile of nothing. Perhaps they might even start to see the benefits of being part of the 100%.
Oh, the joys of a world in which the following exchange between Donald Trump and an average Joe could take place:
DT: I got 50 billions dollars in my bank account.
AJ: You got what now?
DT: 50 billion dollars.
DT: That’s right.
AJ: What are they, then?
DT: Well, um, I guess… they’re…
AJ: Still… 50 billion of them, eh? That’s a hell of a lot.
DT: Sure is!
AJ: And what can you do with them?
Wow, if only, eh?
Maybe the way around it is to just start doing business with each other, sort of barter-style, at least to begin with. Maybe combine that system with something like the Bitcoin or the Bristol Pound. I talked more at length about how an alternative system might work in a previous piece called The Wealthfare State, which is also available on this site. I know it’s complicated. I know the situation is more difficult that a bit of commentary, but… but really, that money in your account, how much is it actually worth to you right now? How is it helping you? How is it helping the world? For all the work we do, for all the effort we put into our lives, don’t we deserve something better? Don’t we all deserve a tool that we can actually use?