A World Without Money
public forum, Melbourne Town Hall, 15 September 2000
Talk by Anitra Nelson

The main organising principle in our society is money. It's an irony that I actually earn some of my income analysing why and how we might do without money altogether. I've researched Third World underdevelopment and debt and Marx's concept of Money, and today I investigate the conflict between ecological and monetary values.

I study all those issues surrounding attempts to artificially price "externalities" or environmental "assets" like oceans and forests, and my thesis is that it is impossible to translate ecological values into monetary ones. There is no correlation between ecological values and market prices. so, given the extent and complexity of the environmental crisis that we face, I believe we need to be thinking about producing and exchanging along non-market principles.

Although for centuries it's been widely acknowledged that capitalism isn't socially just, the real risk to the system seems to be coming from environmental limits to growth. the problem is not just that ecological rationalities and irrationalities aren't expressed in price, but they can't be. prices don't have any correlation to human and ecological values involved with the material conditions of production even though prices do have strong social and environmental impacts.

I want to refer to three points relevant to our discussion:

Firstly, economists refer to a critical distinction between exchange value and use value. The exchange value is a commodity's price. The use values of a commodity are the qualities that make it useful to us. When we talk about a conflict between monetary value and social or ecological values, we're talking about a distinction between exchange value and use values.

For example, Economists argued for centuries about the reasons why water is less valuable than diamonds. The reason is that market values are irrelevant to social or ecological values. We know that water is one of the most precious substances on earth. But the market values diamonds more because the market does not need to embody or reflect social and ecological values. People who talk about giving artificial prices to protect environmental values forget this. the problem is that If we set prices for some things that, in turn, affects many other prices so we're already down the road in a non market direction.

Instead, we can devise political processes for democratic decisions to be made about who produces what and how much. decisions based on principles of social and environmental justice can be made, by focusing on all the qualities and physical quantities of labour and materials we use and the techniques involved. The kind of time necessary for everyone to be involved in economic decisions about allocation and production can be easily found because at present about half our workforce are involved in the financial and distribution sectors that would be unnecessary under a non-monetary system.

The second point I'd like to make is that , like Marx, the social anthropologist Karl Polanyi has pointed out that the great divide between non capitalist societies and capitalism is that, in our society, we buy and sell means of production. whereas in other societies the ownership and use of land and labour is ruled by traditional laws that involve, say, inherited rights and obligations, We trade land, machinery and labour and assess their worth in prices.

I think that it we're looking at non-monetary systems of managing production and exchange, the necessary transitional process and even ultimate vision of a new non-monetary society will involve multi-centric exchange, multi-centric exchange is the norm in all societies except market based ones. money is a uni-centric market tool, reducing all the principles and measures of exchange to private property contracts in a "free market" and prices expressed in one standard. incomparable qualities are continually reduced to a singular quality in market price. multi-centric exchange means different spheres of exchange limited to specific kinds of goods. For instance, you simply couldn't exchange land for beads, just land for land, or whatever. We would own all natural and human made means of production in common and decide politically what to produce.

Thirdly I refer to L.E.TS, Labour Exchange Trading Systems. L.E.T.S. enables people to exchange their services and products in a multilateral way without using legal tender. L.E.T.S. is a network of people who use a system of credit and debt denominated in their own local unit, say points, to offer babysitting, plumbing, massaging, teaching and so on. They get points for the work they do which is credit to give anyone else in the system.

Now L.E.T.S. can be just like the market system but it has possibilities for being different. in the two systems of L.E.T.S. I've belonged to, a L.E.T.S. unit wasn't too different from a dollar and services people offered reflected their market values. However, A minority of members of Dandenong Ranges L.E.T.S. agreed that whatever labour they did for another person it was worth 10 points. the "Ten Points Club" is radically different from the market system where people are used to gaining status and power associated with their different levels of skills and experience.

some years ago I also read about a group of Lesbians in Adelaide who started a L.E.T.S. group and then decided to move on to simply exchange on the basis of mutual solidarity, so they shared and cared for one another without the use of credit and debt at all. This is a non-monetary system of the kind we're all used to in families and co-operatives. We need to devise broad-scale systems that embody sharing and caring principles and enable us to decide collectively who produces what and how much.

I've run out of time. I just want to urge you to imagine, in the John Lennon vein, and to dream of a world without money.

P.S. For Albert:

Albert Langer, Karl Marx anticipated you...in the Grundrisse (Penguin Edn p. 162) he wrote: "The bourgeois viewpoint has never advanced beyond [the] antithesis between itself and [the] romantic viewpoint, and therefore the latter will accompany it as a legitimate antithesis up to its blessed end." Albert, the position that Karl is asking you to take to the romantic or reactionary viewpoint is to put up and shut up. The alternatives are what we should be focussing on.