Any rational economics would be about how economic activity plays a part in the wider social system. Modern economics is doubly divorced from that. Firstly, it treats economics as an abstraction from social life, as though it could be judged solely on its own terms. And within that, economic activity is presented as revolving around money, rather than money being kept in its proper place as a means to our real social (or even economic) ends. Even if we accept the former abstraction, within economics itself one would expect the making, distribution, exchange and consumption of goods and services to predominate – that is after all how people actually live – but we have succeeded in making all that secondary to the circulation and augmentation of money itself.
This peculiar displacement and inversion that places money first and last – the perspective of the miser, that most wretched of human beings, who is, as someone-or-other once said, as much in need of what he has as of what he has not – is not the fault of economists, of course. Or at least they are no more than ghost-writers to the real culprit. This is after all a perfectly valid description of an advanced capitalist society, in which finance capital (and its unacknowledged bastard-and-then-master, fictional capital) has deposed real goods and services from the pinnacle of profitability to such as extent that the classic model of capitalist economic activity in which money is augmented through the creation and sale of goods and services – summarised by that nice Dr Marx as M-C-M1 – has started to run an increasingly poor second to the more direct creation of money through speculation, the creation of fictional capital and all the rest – M-M1.
It’s a distasteful state of affairs and creates the impression that economics has fallen into a sort of fantastic black hole, from which the introversion into which it has fallen ensures that it cannot escape. But even from the most radical point of view we can’t just switch economics off. The economy is after all where we create all the means to our various ends, our economy is a capitalist economy, and so we must at least try to understand capitalism’s view of itself. On the other hand, surely we are capable of constructing an economics that starts and ends with people, and so with goods and services. (Even this ignores the deeper significance of economic activity, of course – the way the very process of participating in economic activity shapes the way we experience existence, and the way we define what is real and what is not, what is normal and natural, what is right, wrong and indifferent. But at least it would wrench us away from this hypnotic fantasy that money must rule.)
An example of what I mean. In economic theory money is rightly assigned many functions. It is a store of value: people can use it to hold their savings. It is a medium of exchange, enabling us to buy and sell without having to wait for someone possessing exactly what we want and wanting exactly what we have. As an instrument for expressing the value (or at least the price) of goods and services, it’s a unit of account. Finally (as the list usually goes), money provides a standard of deferred payment (which is one important reason why we are always so concerned about inflation).
So far so ordinary. But since the creation of money by means of speculation, manipulation and downright fraud has come more to the fore (and nothing in recent economic policy has reversed this), this has made another, perhaps previously too obvious function of money more visible. For money is also a claim on goods and services. In a market that responds only to money, anyone with money has a right (or at least an access that will only be challenged in exceptional circumstances) to the goods and services created by society as a whole. As a result, those who specialise in creating money can corner a correspondingly volume goods and services (i.e., get rich) even though they create none themselves. Of course, financial activity does have its value – not only managing the supply and circulation of money and directing investment (though still conceived of in narrowly financial rather than social terms) but also rationalising and smoothing various aspects of markets themselves. But once financialisation gets out of hand and the generation of money through bubbles, absurd risk and outright crime starts to predominate over real economic activity – the creation of goods and services -then the financial sector starts to achieve stupid levels of wealth (i.e., a huge proportion of the money in circulation) even though it is adding very little of social value. On the other hand, as I have argued elsewhere, once finance capital starts to predominate, bubbles, speculation, crashes and monopolisation are inevitable – yet ‘investment’ banks, hedge funds and the rest are left in greater control over the real economy than ever.
Hence the significance of money’s function as a claim to goods and service. It allows an otherwise parasitical class of financial specialists to distort and undermine the socially valuable part of the economy, not only making them richer and richer even though they produce very little of value themselves, but by this very process strengthening their position in the economy – and so society and politics – as a whole.