Couldn't We Live Perfectly Well Without Money?
public forum, Melbourne Town Hall, 15 September 2000

Talk by John Rundell


Andrew Cathcart

The next speaker is Dr. John Rundell, who is Director of the Ashworth Centre for Social Theory at the University of Melbourne and an editor of a new journal, Critical Horizons, his publications include Origins of Modernity, a study of social theory from Kant through Hegel to Marx.

So, does John Rundell, with his focus on the deep complexity of the post-modern world, believe that we can imagine a world without money?

John Rundell

When I was coming here this evening, I wasn't sure whether to welcome everyone to the twenty-first century or the nineteenth. The reason I say that is that, in a sense, we're partly caught between two histories, but I also want to analyse this and push it forward by arguing, or suggesting that: “No, I don't think we can live in a world that's actually without money.” And I want to say this for a number of different reasons.

One is to do with how we think about money, and I certainly agree with Anitra and Gabriel in saying that, of course, money, at least capitalism itself, has an imaginary dimension, is magical, has a particular logic which is irrational — it places forms of exchange before use-values, values within a society before human values — it reduces everything to a particular sign which is the monetary form.

But I also want raise, the other side of what money might be, as an extended form of social relationship as well, which also makes the thinking and imagining that we're going to explore tonight somewhat more complex than perhaps it might otherwise be. It is the issue of complexity that I want to raise.

Let's think about what our contemporary modern world is like: we lead many, many different forms of existence, we go shopping, we're married, have jobs, and all these types of things, and we also exchange forms of life in very, very many complex ways. In that sense money, to take it from another vantage point, actually helps to simplify some of these relationships. In other words, money solves a particular sort of burden, which is the burden of deeply personalised forms of dependence, slavery, and so on. Certainly, if we look at this from an historical point of view.

In other words, money gives us a sense of empty freedom. It is part of the contingency we see every day on the street; money is part of this empty relationship which allows a certain sense of expression as well. In many ways, this is what Marx was getting at when he glorified the nature of capitalism in the Communist Manifesto, he glorified capitalism as dissolving everything that went before it, and leaving a world which was permanently creative and permanently dynamic. It's in this sense that we can talk about money as well.

Commodification is of course the other side of this.

We also see ourselves not only in terms of contingent freedom, in terms of an empty freedom, but also in terms of the status we have, in terms of how much money or whatever we have, what type of car we might drive, of our stock market position, if we have one, and so on so forth.

But this also raises the question of whether or not we can actually live without this stuff, without this type of highly complex, but in some ways extremely simple type of relationship. In some ways it doesn't really matter who you are, or what you do, when you walk into a shop, you can do your exchange and walk away again; you need not know the person who is serving you, they need not know you. In many ways this is a great liberation. You don't need to have, as one might say, a deep relation to things as you walk around commodity stores. You don't need to know the person next to you.

Now this raises particular questions of, not only capitalism, but also modernity itself and how we might respond to this. We can respond to this in many, many different ways. Gabriel has mentioned one of these, which is the development of a particular type of ethical relationship to the world which allows us, in a sense to part from this commodity world, in a different way. Anitra has suggested a different set of relationships based on some type of personalisation of credit systems and so on and so forth.

I might suggest another one, which is in fact to do with the reason that I am saying “No” to this set of issues, which is to do with the inherent complexity, with the clash of values around which modern societies are actually formed. And it's to do with the clash of values, not only between what I would term democratic versus redemptive and romantic forms of responses, which may or may not take us in and out of these societies, but also what I would term cosmopolitan versus global — global in a sense of the glorification of capital, glorification of the brand name, globalism means very many different things — but cosmopolitan versus global forms of relations that occur in the context of a metaphor of globalisation itself, and it's a metaphor in many, many different ways, a metaphor for the old capitalism under a new guise, which is what I was referring to when I said “Welcome to the nineteenth century!”. In many ways, historically, we should ask ourselves what is actually new about the World Economic Forum? I scratch my head, to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure exactly what is new.

What is new, is that it's a metaphor for particular types of social conflict after the end of the dominant forms of class conflict from the nineteenth century. What we now see is the pluralisation of social conflict and the pluralisation of a multitude of forms of life, of experiences, of ways of conducting existence, which is a celebration in a sense of, not only modernity, but also a celebration of the range of possibilities which it provides us with. And to think of a world without ways of mediating this complexity, for me at least, is a way of trading off something which has historically become extremely precious, extremely dynamic, and extremely forceful.

Thank you very much.