We all know the feeling: of wanting to live the life, indulge our fantasies, match our culture’s ubiquitous images of health, happiness and distinction; as we get older, add wanting to shore up our futures, and those of our children. It all seems natural. Even as socialists and progressives, in our Australian ‘utopia’ (compare the economic doldrums of so many other countries!), the scope is there for many many people, that is, across classes, social groupings and political identifications, to enjoy the fantasies of wealth and security.
As reported, and in my experience, many also enjoy something of a sense of the concreteness of their money wealth. Homes and investments in property have a definite concreteness, but I’m also thinking about that rather weird preoccupation of the middle and actually-working classes of watching their digital bank accounts and superannuation increments on screen. That money form is hardly concrete, but something of Balzac’s old miser Félix Grandet remains. Old man Grandet gets his pleasure from looking at his pile of gold grow, in the privacy of a bolted room. Even if we can’t touch gold or even banknotes so much anymore, the signs in our enclosed digital banking worlds appear an anchor perhaps, or a lodestone, and the visible increments are somewhat thrilling (could I really be a ‘millionaire’ if I saved for another two/ten/twenty years?)
As with old Félix and his gold, money mesmerises. Ever since the rise of consumption it has been mixed up with those identificatory fantasies mentioned above, which are different for different classes and individuals (overseas trips for some, private education, breast implants or old model cars for others). We typically think of money as a means by which we have the power to satisfy needs and acquire social and cultural distinction, of one kind or another. Today especially in the general population it is felt to be a tool for the fulfilment of some sense of self and individual worth.
But more generally and more inherently, money has per se a certain auratic appeal and immaterial mystery, and arguably a connected capacity to make us today insatiably greedy. The pursuit of material markers of social distinction may certainly be an outlet for greed. Greed may have its signs in ostentation, for example. And money’s capacity to amass—witness your superannuation growing—imparts a sense of potency to its ‘owner’, addictive for many no doubt. (Whereas the old-fashioned miser won’t spend on outward signs of wealth, the importance of accumulation is common to both misers and today’s ostentatious spenders.) But the hunger for more is surely also connected to the money form itself, and to its various developments and guises through history.
I was wondering about all this as I tried to get a bit of a grip on the revelations of the Panama Papers, asking myself not just about the corrupt (relative) few (those ‘bad capitalists’ and ‘collaborator’ politicians), but also about any more general social and cultural characteristics that would encourage such rapacious greed. There’s corruption, as we’ve recently seen, bubbling away in so many locations—kickbacks of one kind or another—and very prevalent right now. But tax evasion and stashing huge amounts of money away beyond reach on a massive scale, and their seeming normalisation through standard financial practices, seem different again, though perhaps connected, ironically, to the kind of abandon associated with the lead-up to the GFC.
So, aspiration, entitlement, vaulting individualism, narcissism: they seem common descriptors for both the David Cameron/Vladimir Putins of the world and the everyday agents of contemporary culture. In this issue of Arena Magazine, Bruce Buchan goes much further than this, suggesting that digital money and global financial relations, which increasingly bypass the powers of the nation-state, go hand in hand with the collapse of concern for the commonwealth, ‘freeing’ many of a social conscience and a sense of responsibility for others. It is the nature of this money—its freely moving, indeed ever-moving, fleeting quality on a global scale (one might say its near-absolute abstraction from place and person), if in the service of certain groups—that undoes the social bonds associated with earlier forms of governance, feeding and shaping widespread corruption and making effective traitors (to nations, to common humanity, to the planet) out of so many. John Hinkson, in this issue of Arena Magazine, also points to the globalisation of finance and the fleeting characteristics of digital money, which has touched down in property investment and development in Australia, as the sources of the present outbreak of corrupt dealings in the Australian Liberal Party.
Money is a paradox, or at least it has two faces. At once ‘concrete’, or in some sense ‘tangible’—in gold, or paper notes, or plastic cards or visible numbers on a screen—money is nevertheless most basically an abstract relationship and has immaterial and arbitrary value. That this is concealed in the common-sense object (notes and coins and visible numbers), as well as the things it buys and the other relationships it helps to animate, is a clue to its uncanny power and auratic appeal to all who have it, or don’t, within a money culture, and especially to those who have a chance to see it ‘grow’. Its grip on us is not utilitarian (a mere means) but, as some famous thinkers have said, rather more mystical in its allure.
If the money relation sits at the heart of capitalism, making all things solid melt into air—an observation made in the late nineteenth century—how much more does its present, twenty-first-century form, digitised and ultra-globalised, break asunder the assumptions and ethics of a given world and proffer in their stead a highly arbitrary, or fleeting, association of people to others, to place, and to the object-world generally? Greed is something that we all know personally; it has a certain ‘animal’ or bodily reference point, and even today we can readily enough ‘get’ Félix Grandet’s obsession. In one vein, glittering gold and accumulating figure-amounts on a screen have the same reference point. And yet there is a vast difference between solid gold and digital wealth, and their respective transformative powers—of people, of economies and ethical frameworks. Mark Furlong in his ‘Common Touch’ column in this issue of Arena Magazine raises this very question in relation to our cultural rejection of guilt as not useful to the (neoliberal) individual.
But I must raise the further possibility that Australians’ obsession with money and watching it grow contains another element. Hunger and fear are often common bedfellows. We can lust for more, obsess over our identity needs that money can buy, and be drawn to that mystical power of money just as we fear our lifeline will be cut off. So is all this cultural obsession with accumulation, even tax evasion and stashing it away, leavened or at least accompanied by an undercurrent of potential loss? Is there a peripheral vision operating here, through which today’s extreme ‘precarity’, if not a future of full-blown austerity, is glimpsed, haunting our cultural dreams and undermining the sense of any really certain future?
A much more sombre, perhaps nihilistic ‘sense’ of the imaginary nature of social life may be catching up with us, even as we cling to the forms of our supposed security. Perhaps this will bring us up short finally to see the forces in play in the destruction of our social, ethical and physical worlds—the real sources of contemporary insecurity.
At a recent meeting at the Arena Project Space on the contemporary university, the head of Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University, Philip Morrissey, suggested that ‘We are all Aborigines now’. By this he meant that even academics and university administration staff are among the dispossessed, by virtue of the processes of university reform, especially casualisation and other brutal business practices, where the specific purposes of the university and education drop away and institutions of higher learning become mere businesses. Aboriginal people, he said, have something to teach white Australia about loss—about finding one’s assumed life-world pulled from underneath you. In the same week or so the very material trials of Clive Palmer’s now dispossessed workers from Queensland Nickel and Arrium’s steelworkers and communities were experiencing the endpoint of the same precarity.
Fleeting capital, loyal to no person and no place, abstract and immaterial at its core, will spit you out of the system, and the institutions of government and care within a larger commonwealth can no longer be counted upon to give you succour, for they are subject to the same logic. On the one hand they operate on the principles of individual responsibility and compliance—a blunt and brutal ‘ethics’ related to the individualisation of services and transactions that sits at the core of neoliberal governance. As one example, Turnbull’s innovation revolution is gearing up to further digitise ‘high-volume bureaucratic transactions’ around services, payments and information (The Australian, 15 April), presumably targeting the digital interface between individuals and systems. There will be a money saving to ‘customers’, we are told, while ‘increased productivity’ will save government money. A further loss of white-collar jobs is not mentioned. On the other hand, in a context where austerity measures generally to shrink the state are set in motion—and tax bases are shrunk anyway, tax evasion being one element of this worldwide phenomenon—benefits and services simply won’t be assured. Should Turnbull’s government win a double-dissolution election in both houses, John Hinkson suggests that austerity will be just around the corner, a fate presently concealed by Turnbull’s small-‘l’ facade and urbane persona.
Precarity of sorts has always been a feature of capitalism, but today a new form of ‘social redundancy’, or the 80/20 society, is a real prospect. The abstraction of digital money, a novel fusion of intellectual culture and capital, sits at the base of that possibility, appearing to offer some individuals glittering prospects, yet representing possible social annihilation for many. It is easy to be lured by the promise of today’s money culture, but its effects in terms of envy, greed and titillation create a fragile culture with weak ethical constraints. Perhaps, again, if today we come to see better the imaginary nature of our cultural commitments and the contradictory constructs that are our social forms, new kinds of cooperation—forms of non-money association, or forms of life removed from the money circuit, and lived in deeper connection with more concrete ways of being—may take their place.