Beauty and the Beast: Re-humanising money

Jennifer Kavanagh argues that money has strayed from its ‘moral roots

book cover.

Small Change, Big Deal

Remember that the Beast was once – and was to become again – a handsome prince. What set him free was love. We are all too familiar with the Beast. We have been living with him for a long time, even if it is only recently that he has emerged from his lair in all his terrifying reality. Living with the Beast, as Belle found, brought her sumptuous riches, exquisite food and servants to wait on her, but no lasting satisfaction. The Beast of our story may not have been a handsome prince, but was at least a reasonable character, working hard to provide a service. It is we, in the guise of the malevolent fairy, who from fear and greed have turned him into what he has become.

Meaning

The origins of money lie deep in the soil and culture of the societies in which they arose. The economist, Glyn Davies, in A history of money from ancient times to the present day, points out that the English words ‘capital’, ‘chattels’ and ‘cattle’ have a common root. Similarly ‘pecuniary’ comes from the Latin word for cattle pecus while in Welsh the word da used as an adjective means ‘good’ but used as a noun means both ‘cattle’ and ‘goods’. He also tells us that the words ‘spend’, ‘expenditure’, and ‘pound’ (as in sterling) all come from the Latin expendere meaning ‘to weigh’. The words indicate something tangible, connected to the land and the goods in question.

There are other connections. The word to ‘pay’, we are told, is derived from the Latin pacare, meaning originally to pacify, appease, or make peace with – through the appropriate unit of value customarily acceptable to both sides.

Relationship

Relationship is at the heart of all our dealings, including the financial; attempting to take the human out of our financial system has contributed to its downfall. Money was created to be a tool: in allowing it to become sufficient unto itself, to feed upon itself like a cancerous cell, we have let loose its destructive qualities. As the economist EF Schumacher wrote in Small is Beautiful nearly forty years ago:

If economic thinking cannot get beyond its vast abstractions the rate of growth, capital/output ratio, input-output analysis, labour mobility, capital accumulation; if it cannot get beyond this and make contact with the human realities of poverty, frustration, alienation, despair, breakdown, crime, escapism, stress, congestion, ugliness and spiritual death, then let us scrap economics and start again.

Now, when events have moved on at a rate unimaginable at that time, this passage is as fresh and relevant as it was when it was written. Recent events have revealed the poverty of the current financial system, how money has been distanced from its source; how it no longer represents any kind of relationship. Beyond human scale, mechanised, money is increasingly for money’s sake.

Disconnection

Over the last few decades, the way our society deals with money has become immensely complicated, operates on a vast scale and is increasingly intangible. Money has become more about money itself than about what it was there to facilitate. Money is now impersonal, and divorced from the goods and land that it once represented.

In the 1970s, the proportion of money that changed hands for work performed was vastly higher than that employed for speculative money. By 2011, the ratio had been dramatically reversed. Bankers now buy and sell not concrete products but expectation. The development of money away from its community base has been a large factor in what has gone wrong. Interestingly, as Brent Dalrymple writes, this is a stance always taken in the Muslim view of money.

By trading money as an asset in and of itself without any underlying identity with a commodity or service Islamic governments consider it as undermining the basic interests of humanity. Value is only gained through a work ethic and not by trading money in a virtual world for its own sake.

In the midst of a financial crisis, there is now, belatedly, some recognition in the West of the need for money to be not froth or ‘bubbles’ but more real, more a reflection of the real wealth of the country, in land and production.

Money has become divorced too from personal relationships. For many, a bank manager that they know is a long-distant memory; from phone calls now the only voice to be heard is that of someone in a call centre in an anonymous, far-off land, and never the same someone twice.

As Edgar S Cahn wrote in No more throwaway people: ‘We start as strangers and commercial transactions leave us as strangers’. The relationship ends up by being not between a lender and a public client but either an incestuous one between one financial institution and another, or a narcissistic one. Money panders to self-regarding greed: money to make money, feeding on itself. Already removed from relationship with the physical sphere of land or produce, it is itself becoming decreasingly physical, increasingly virtual – removed from our daily reality. Not surprising, really, that its use has strayed from its moral roots.

Most damaging of all, perhaps, is the fact that money has become the sole criterion of wealth, as Jonathan Dale wrote in Faith in Action:

In the past the market place was somewhere to be visited occasionally. But in modern ‘Western’ conditions the market place is omnipresent. Its messages are so all-enveloping that they are woven into the very texture of our lives. The capitalist market economy reaches into more and more parts of human life to give them monetary value. It commands everything, including sometimes sexual relations, votes, life itself. Everything – it is said – has its price.

Confronting ‘The Beast’

Money is not Beastly in itself. It is neutral and, as an agent of energy, can be used for good or ill. In seeking a way forward we need to consider a system that deals with the three major attributes of The Beast:

The exclusion of large numbers of the population:
Separation of our financial dealings from human relationships;
and Money as the sole criterion of wealth.

In so doing, we might like to look at what the community finance options that already exists.

Adapted from Small Change, Big Deal: Money as if people mattered by Jennifer Kavanagh, published by John Hunt Publishing in June 2012.

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