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


I was invited to contribute to this forum because of my experience of living in communities in the contemporary world who have little use for money. The Pitjantjatjara of Mimili, the Tibetan nomads of Amdo, or the Bougainvillean villagers on the volcanic jungle slopes of a giant multinational copper mine, have all shown me the absurdity and irrelevance of money in societies where other currencies carry the weight of everyday exchange of goods and of higher needs as well. I could talk at some length about these experiences over a quarter century.

But of greater relevance is my recent experience with a group of professional, university educated Tibetans who are trying to plan an entire economy and development path for a nation of six million people in today’s world, with minimal need for money.

However, it might just be a romantic refusal of modernity to suppose that these examples translate directly to what is possible in today’s already globalised, highly interdependent world. The complexity of modernity does not readily lend itself to an unravelling in which autarkic societies could re-emerge. As I watched my Tibetan colleagues wrestle with the urgent questions of restoring food security to millions of poor people, I often wondered whether their determination to experiment with a nonviolent, noncompetitive, long term sustainable subsistence economy, in an area as big as western Europe, is feasible.

Maybe we should start at home, before going further afield.

We all know the symptoms of our contemporary malaise, and we are fairly sure money is the cause. We see all around us the hold economic language and concepts have on our discourse. All aspects of life seem to have been invaded by economics. Even the provision of welfare services by churches and community groups are put out to competitive tendering, pitting one group of voluntary carers against another in the race to the bottom of the pile: the minimal acceptable service for the lowest dollar. In vain we struggle against the monetization of human relations, often adopting the protective colouring of the econocrats in self defence. In order to speak up for old fashioned virtues such as care, trust, service, compassion, altruism, connection, neighbourliness, etc, we defensively repackage them as social capital. At a time when absolutely everything is reduced to a factor of production, we can make our unpaid networks of community supportiveness visible only by repackaging, reinventing, repurposing, rebranding them as a form of capital. Only when the blood bank, the community health centre, the tennis club and yoga class are reconceptualised as maintaining or adding to a form of capital can they enter the equation, and compete with other forms of capital that dominate all discourse these days.

So pervasive is the monetization of the imagination, it’s little wonder people laugh in amazement at the calculated naivete of the topic of this forum. Whenever I hand a friend a poster announcing: Couldn’t we live perfectly well without money, there is a snort of amusement at the utopian impracticality of it all.

That is what I want to explore. I don’t want to endlessly rehearse the symptoms of the economic capture of our thoughts and imagination, because we can –and do- bemoan those symptoms endlessly. The topic of this forum dares to go to the heart of the matter, and pose a serious question worth a serious attempt at answering.

Like everyone else, I too quail at the enormity of coming up with an alternative to the immanence of money as measure and judge of the worth of all human activity. So I will begin by unravelling the history of money’s colonization of the imagination, to see where and how and perhaps why it occurred, in the hope of finding a few clues as to roads less traveled which might offer alternatives.

What has made economic language so powerful is that it proclaims itself, like scientific language, to be the language of truth, of universal laws which are not specific to place or time. Economic language is also evolutionary, embodying the assumptions of transition, progress towards ultimate perfection. Classical social theorists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx were in many ways less ambitious, more situated in specifics of time and place, less inclined to make universal truth claims. Hence they spoke of classes and capital and wage labour; of profit-making and pecuniary interest and capital accumulation.

It was in the twentieth century that these processes were redefined functionally, in bland terms robbed of contestation. Capitalist was replaced by executive or manager. Capital and wage labour became factors of production. Class became function or role. Status differences resulting from wealth or poverty became role assignment and role definition. Class war became interest group competition. Class consciousness became values and belief systems, essentially private matters, like religion, which should not intrude on the claims of the state to represent universalism as against particularism. Relations of power and domination fade into structure and function.

This is why the topic of this forum seems at first to be so embarrassingly anachronistic, a question no-one would any longer dare ask. The language of instrumentality, of rational competition and efficiency has so totally crowded out other discourses that it seems crude, emotive, irrational, luddite, utopian to even ask the question. To put this in a stubbornly old-fashioned way, deliberately using the categories Marx used, the dominant property owning class has proclaimed the sphere of production and market relations as paramount over all other spheres; and this dominant class has made economic and instrumental modes of consciousness hegemonic. Not only are we all consumers, but we can no longer imagine being anything else.

It would be all too easy to turn this into a giant conspiracy theory, with ourselves –the mass of people in mass society- the passive victims of the Darwinist language of the market. But we shirk responsibility for our willing complicity if we take the poverty stricken mentality of taking up the role of victim. The truth is we have grown to enjoy instrumentality, in which the monetary transaction absolves us of any need to acknowledge human connection. We may bemoan the death of the corner shop but we persist in shopping at the supermarket, where one of the attractions is anonymity, impersonality, the opportunity to select what we want, pay for it and leave with barely a word spoken. It is a ritual in which we are absorbed in a self dialogue as to what our wants, needs and desires are, a juggling of expectations, a calculation of comfort zones, a private ritual which seldom includes a real conversation with the person staffing the checkout. In the shopping mall and the big department store, this ritual becomes a reverie, as higher needs are negotiated, and paid for.

The standard argument of the economists is that comparative advantage, the global specialization of production and trade have made us all better off, that even ordinary folk can now afford to buy stuff which in the past was within reach of only the rich. We all want to catch that rising tide, and it is now impossible to jump ship as the tide rises, because there is nowhere else to go. The death of the communist bureaucratic state mans that a dead end of history has been closed off. As the World Bank puts it, for 70 years one third of the human race seceded from the market economy, only, inevitably, to return.

So is the desire to live without money just a romantic nostalgia for a mythic golden age when everything was not reduced to the crassness of money as arbiter of all value? Is there any alternative?

The triumph of capitalism seems total. Never has it been so accepted as natural, inevitable, normal and desirable, the only possible way ahead. Never have the prophets of the death of capitalism seemed so wrong. The inherent contradictions of capitalism, the inevitable shrinking of profits, the exhaustion of resources, the unsustainability of energy intensive consumption, global warming, the destructive tendencies of monopoly capital have failed to halt the exponential growth of wealth creation. Nor has the deepening inequality of Thatcher’s Britain, Reagan’s America or Hawke’s Australia caused riots in the streets, let alone rebellion or revolution.

We call the capitalist class the conservatives and fancy ourselves as radicals, but it’s the other way round. What has kept capitalism going is its dynamism, its revolutionary restlessness, its expansionary embrace of all human desires and capacities, its willingness to decisively let go of the past and reinvent itself. In that sense it is capitalism which is the most revolutionary of all systems, and it is we who yearn for the good old days of community who are the reactionaries.

It is useful identify the roots of capitalism’s success. It’s not just social engineering and false consciousness that has enslaved us. The deepest root of capitalism is its capacity to invent new human needs, to take fantasies and make them desires, turn desires into wants and wants into needs, to be met by a new product. This is the true genius of capitalism, the seduction of offering us yet another new toy as the answer to the quest for human happiness.

This is what Schumpeter called creative destruction, as if it were the dance of an Indian deity conjuring and dissolving the cosmos. Sixty years ago Schumpeter put his finger on it: "Capitalism, then, is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary…. The fundamental impulse that sets the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates…. The same process of industrial mutation –if I may use that biological term- that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live with."

Schumpeter’s words seem particularly apt today, when it has become commonplace to talk of an entirely new economy coming into being, alongside the old economy of stuff, of physical products live in, drive in, hold in your hand. The new economy, we are daily told, exists in cyberspace, in which a new realm of human needs has been invented. This is not just the creation of a few new products, it is a whole new frontier of imaginary space to be colonized and made ours, a new category of online existence in which we are happy to sit and look at a glass screen for hours at a time, during which a whole range of needs are met.

Clearly this is already a reality for many of us, myself included. What is not yet clear is whether it adds up to a new economy, in which we will pay – online of course- for the imagery and sounds on the screen. The dot com revolution may turn out to be hype, but if broadband technologies do eventually enable delivery to your screen of an endless variety of excitement, the new economy may well become reality. Then we will all be able to live in a private online world of constant arousal, bombarded by sights and sounds which play with all our emotions, desires and drives, in a self-enclosed world of perpetual entertainment and endless variety.

This is capitalist genius with a vengeance, everything Schumpeter wrote of and much more. And in a curious way, if the new economy takes off, it may just hold the key to the possibility of finding alternatives to money. It just may be that our best opportunity to live well, without money as the denominator of all human transactions, is on the horizon.

The fundamental reason why this could be a possibility is that the new economy is not moored in stuff, in the physical, in digging up rocks to refine into metals to fabricate into sheets to be stamped into door panels or telephone handsets or table legs. Of course there is stuff in the new economy: optical fibre cables, WAP phones, desktop and laptop computers. And the mega corporations which own the physical stuff of the new economy are making greater profits than ever by persuading us that all our needs, mundane and metaphysical, from ordering a pizza to consulting a doctor to making a lifestyle statement are all done best online.

But in the new economy the hardware –the cables and monitors and hand helds- are only a small part of it. For the first time in history, capitalism has broken free of the moorings of stuff. It is the software that meets the new needs so assiduously contrived by the entrepreneurs of the new economy. The new heroes of our times are not the engineers rolling out cable beneath our feet but the code cutters, the programmers, the content providers whose product is colour and movement on a glass teat. This is clearly understood by all who preach the gospel of convergence, in which the phone, computer, tv, typewriter, fax all melt into one. Capitalism understands with great clarity that this race will go to those who can best bundle the content providers into packages of compelling excitement, offering us the illusion of endless choice and unending stimulation, a constant rush. It is the software that plugs directly into the newly created human needs, and the hardware –such as a mobile phone- is often thrown in as a $1 give away by marketers who know that where the money is to be made is not in selling hardware but in the aftermarket, of software.

In what way does this new economy offer us a possible alternative to the tyranny of monetization? It seems like just the opposite, a new enslavement. Yet money has always dominated because of its claim to be the sole mode of exchange which ultimately refers back to stuff. Even when money lost all pretence of being a substitute for actual physical gold, and most of us made our living providing services rather than making stuff, there was a lingering sense that money is simply an infinitely mutable, fungible form of stuff.

But in the new economy, what is it that is being traded? What are the commodities? To a limited extent it will continue to be bread and butter, an online order for a pizza delivered to the door. But as the champions of capitalism always remind us, we spend a smaller and smaller proportion of our incomes on food, more and more on ascending the hierarchy of human needs. We will spend in a weekend the annual grocery bill on a self-development workshop, a seminar on positive thinking and self-assertion, or a new dress.

The new economy is less about stuff and more about desire. In the richer countries, many people have as much stuff as it takes to discover that having more stuff is no longer a promise of happiness. Many of us have reached the point of groaning at having more stuff to manage, and the need to get ever more stuff to manage and discipline the overflowing stuff we already have.

The new economy ascends Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, beyond gratification of basic survival needs for food, shelter and physical security. Sex notably drives the new economy, with more e-commerce dollars paid for online sexual arousal than any other commodity. But Maslow’s hierarchy goes well beyond these needs, all the way up to the peak experience, of self-actualization.

As a buddhist, that interests me. Self-actualization - Maslow’s term - or the discovery of authenticity, awakening to the truth of the human condition, transcending habits and self-defeating delusions, discovering more spacious and grounded ways of being, are natural possibilities. Although we habitually lead lives governed by hope and fear, by past and future, by editing reality to fit our preconceptions, it is nonetheless possible to wake up, and discover bare reality as it is, and find it, in its suchness, to be more workable than we have fearfully supposed. That’s a buddhist take on where we are at.

What has this to do with the new economy? One alarming possibility is that the new economy, as it ascends the pyramid of human needs, gets closer to appropriating these sublime transpersonal needs, having already thoroughly achieved its mimetic appropriation of the basic needs for survival, security and sexuality. We can instantly think of dozens of products which tell us that by consuming them we become lovable, glamorous, exciting, aroused, loved. Any number of energetically marketed products tell us we will have friends, attractive, playful, laughing friends if we buy that brand name.

Brands apply these days to university degrees as much as to bottles of flavoured water. Melbourne university expects to make huge sums by licensing its brand to online providers of courses which offer, on completion, a degree associated with the university’s brand. Although the university will be involved neither in the course design nor its delivery, it will add its seal of approval, for a fee. As a result, a bright kid in a Chinese village will soon be the first in his village to have a prestigious university degree.

Brand has become everything, the value added which makes all the difference between identical products A and B, one of which has all the mystique, zeitgeist, rush, buzz, elan, flair, cool, prestige, of a brand, while the other languishes on the shelves, being nothing other than what it is. It used to be that the brand builder sold us the sizzle, not the steak. Now it matters less and less whether there is a steak or not, the sizzle is all that matters.

If the restless genius of capitalism is capable of mimetically re-presenting itself as the embodiment of all the basic needs, and the intermediate needs, why not the higher needs too? One could argue that this is already familiar to us. A weekend seminar on self-development, an overseas trip, a yoga class, an exclusive singles club are all commodities which implicitly or explicitly point towards the transpersonal, even the transcendent. A movie, a CD of your favourite musician may be marketed for their ability to speak to the highest of human needs. They all sizzle for us, because sizzle is all about expectation, and market research shows that it is the delicious expectation of consumption that is the most enjoyable phase of the entire consumer experience. The actual process of consumption is usually something of a disappointment, to be assuaged by the next addictive purchase.

From a buddhist point of view, this could all seem horrifying. Especially when images of meditation are increasingly directly appropriated by marketers wanting to associate their products with a sense of restfulness or equanimity. It would be all too easy to say that the new economy, in its secular materialist rush to cannibalize and appropriate anything and everything that adds value, commands premium price, builds brand and generates sales, is well on the way to commodifying mystical experience.

Yet buddhists have more than one response to modernity. Many buddhists are horrified by modernity, and hope to find in buddhist practice a romantic refusal of modernity, a noble transcendence of the merely material. But if they persist in their practice they soon come to realise that buddhism lands you right back in the world, rather than magically transport you to some purer realm. The point of meditation practice is to land you back in the world you’d hoped to leave behind, in all the dross and grossness of capitalism and the tyranny of money. The big difference is that, having awakened to how things are, one discovers the energies of the world to be workable, malleable, labile, mercurial.

To awaken is to go beyond good and evil, to recognise that the compulsion to label all phenomena good or bad is a fundamental driver of human dissatisfaction. Good and evil coexist, are codependent, each requiring the other. To strive for good, and for the elimination of evil is a fantasy of human perfection which fails to be present.

The greed and desires, fears and fixations which drive the new economy bubble up in human minds, seemingly out of nowhere. These primal energies are the engine of capitalism’s creative destruction, a phrase in active use during the Melbourne World Economic Forum by champions of capital’s triumph.

Buddhism has much to say about where these energies come from, and what their nature is, and how workable they are. Rather than see such energies as inherently problematic, as we usually do, there are alternatives.

Those alternatives arise when we look at the way capitalism has drifted free of its moorings in stuff, not only with the advent of the new economy but also in the older idea of brand equity. And rather than looking at Tibet or the Aboriginal communities of the desert, we might look instead towards China, precisely because China holds up to us a mirror, in which we can recognise the future of the planet.

China, the great market of tomorrow, is leaping into the new economy without feeling much need for laboriously replicating all the stages of the old economy. In China, a mirror is held up to us, the desires are more manifest, the determination to catch up and surpass the west is so powerful and naked. China is now embracing brand building with all the fervour of a new convert, and has already been rewarded by Australia’s own Telstra pumping $5 billion into a Chinese company, Pacific Century Cyber Works, with few assets other than its brand, and a lot of hype about where it intends going. Telstra told the Melbourne World Economic Forum that China adds over 2 million mobile phone subscribers a month, more than Australia does at home in a year. To become China’s carrier has become Telstra’s fixation. To achieve this requires privileged access to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which PCCW has in spades. And it requires a savvy brand building strategy so that the consumer thinks not of the expense of making a call, but of the human warmth (or in today’s jargon, the social capital created) to be had on the phone.

Capitalism in China is sponsored, financed, leveraged and orchestrated by the state, which has selected a catalogue of 33 brands it wants to promote globally. The biggest brand in China is the party-state itself, which has hitched its future on positioning itself in the legitimacy market as the embodiment of all that is modern, progressive and scientific. This is the "three representatives" theory all cadres must learn and lecture the masses on, in the current mass campaign.

Building the China brand is being pursued as assiduously as any entrepreneur seeking to add value by becoming an upmarket brand. Individual corporate brands in China are routinely ranked by the Beijing Brand Equity Evaluation Institute, which generates numbers certifying corporate successes. The party-state has a similarly scientistic, quantifiable, seemingly objective index of its climb up the international brand equity race.

China’s objective is to achieve Comprehensive National Power, a concept defined and measured regularly. The valuations of the Brand equity Valuation Institute affect share market price of the corporation, which in turn defines its capitalization, and hence its ability to leverage its market valuation into political power, and to take over much bigger or older corporations whose market value derives from what they actually make. There is a marvellously self-congratulatory, self-fuelling spiral here, and it is worth a lot. Just to take one example, when the cigarette company Phillip Morris decided to hedge its bets and diversify out of tobacco, it bought Kraft Foods, paying $1.3 billion for Kraft’s factories, workforce, production lines, truck fleet etc., and $11.6 billion for good will, for the brand name and customer loyalty that goes with it.

Now China is determined to become a top brand in the world, and it has elaborate formulas for measuring how it is doing. The Academy of Military Science and the Academy of Social Sciences calculate numerical values for China’s Comprehensive National Power, and these valuations bring Murdoch and Telstra and the Australian universities running. It’s rather like the art market: a commercial gallery sells a painting to a public institution, then a little later the same private gallery, having status in the art industry as scientifically objective valuers, revalue the work, and suddenly it is worth more, the institution’s equity has grown and can be used to either sell at a profit, or buy other works by leveraging the enhanced equity. And so it goes round and round.

It’s little wonder Karl Marx was absolutely captivated by capitalism, by its smoke and mirrors, its effrontery in conjuring much out of little.

Of course china is not alone in assiduously building the state as a brand. Holding the Olympics in Sydney is primarily an investment in building the Australian brand, well worth the $37 million each medal is costing us (if we win the projected medal tally)