Pieter Lawrence

The Fetishism of Money

Source: Socialist Standard, April 2002.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Darren O'Neil
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “fetish” came to be used by anthropologists to mean “an inanimate object worshipped by savages on account of its supposed magical powers.” Often such objects took the form of amulets and in some cultures this practice still continues. In our more developed society this is dismissed as superstition. But whilst the wearing of amulets may not be that common, despite our technical culture “fetishism” is a deeply entrenched part of political thought.

In Marxian theory the “fetishism of commodities” is the illusion that in buying and selling the values being exchanged are part of the physical make-up of the commodities themselves. If this were true it would mean that buying and selling, and the tyrannies of the profit system, could never be removed. But in fact, the values of commodities result from wage labour as part of the economic relationships of the capitalist system. In socialism, with people co-operating to produce directly for needs, the commodity form of goods will disappear leaving the community with free access to simple articles of use.

In religion, gods are products of the human imagination given powers to dominate the lives of those who create them. The destructive effects of religion are evident in the many conflicts that divide people throughout the world but this does not end with subservience to imagined gods. There is also the fetishism of money. This also attributes powers to an alien force that dominates our social affairs. Part of the fetishism of money is the illusion that money has its own productive powers. Particularly in politics, money is fetishised as having the power to solve problems because without it nothing can be done.

How often do we hear it said, “we do not have the resources”? What is meant by resources is always money. Every day politicians give lack of money as a reason why we cannot provide better health care or safe reliable trains or the many other public services that are in urgent need of improvement. Not just in Whitehall and Westminster but in Borough, District and Parish Councils throughout the country the same mantra is chanted week in and week out, year after year, “if only we had more money, something could be done”. This ignores the fact that productive resources are materials, means of production, transport, energy, communications and networks of infrastructure through which goods and services are produced. And all these depend on one single resource which is labour. These are the real resources on which the lives of communities depend and there is an abundance of labour to provide for needs.

At times there may be millions of unemployed people, factories standing idle and unused materials being stockpiled but capitalist politicians still repeat, “We do not have the resources.” They are unable to see the availability of real resources because their minds are pre-occupied by the illusion that only money resources count. They imagine that real resources can only be brought into use by money, whereas the opposite is the truth. The powers of the community to solve problems can on be fully released with socialism and the abolition of money.

Reliance on the imagined powers of money runs through every social problem. For example, in the last two elections Labour made a commitment to reduce child poverty. For this, they hope to use money. “The chosen means is also clear: a new form of child support which starts in 2003. But it will be costly, as the budget will reveal for the first time.” (Economist, 23 February)

“Poor children are defined as those living in households whose income, after housing costs, is below 60 percent of the median — the income in the exact middle of the income distribution.” Poverty is of course relative and this degree of poverty in Britain is not as severe as the poverty of children in undeveloped countries where 40,000 children under five die in poverty every day. In Britain, child poverty generally means substandard housing, poor conditions in the home, exclusion from benefits enjoyed by better off contemporaries, and poor diets (fats, sugar and carbohydrates).

Any kind of child poverty is a total disgrace and would be easily removed in socialism within a very short time. Under the Labour governments there has been a marginal improvement. According to the Economist,

“Progress has so far been slow. In 1996/7, the year before Labour took office, the number of children living in poverty was 4.4 million. By 1999/2000, this had declined only to 4.1 million. A more substantial decline to 3.5 million is expected for 2001/02 as reforms such as the working families’ tax credit (WFTC), introduced in October 1999, take full effect. But this will still mean that the government has failed to meet its earlier pledge to remove more than a million children out of poverty in Labour’s first term. To cut the number of poor children by around a million would cost as much as ?6.1billion. The pledge to reduce child poverty is proving to be an expensive one.”

Socialists would say not just expensive. Because it relies on the uncertainties of the market system and the use of money, the hope of any Labour government ending child poverty is impossible. Labour and Tory governments having been making the same promise for many years and they have all failed.

Appeals for money

But the magical powers of money to solve problems dominates not just the world of reformist politics, it also dominates the many charities that constantly ask for money. A recent example is an appeal run by Oxfam on TV:

“What do we dream for our children? Health, happiness, success? A safe place to sleep at night? A drink of water that won’t kill them? Never to be hungry again? We all want the best for our children. For some people that starts with such simple things. All they want is a better world for them to grow up in. It’s not much to ask and all we are asking of you is £2 a month.

In over 70 countries Oxfam is helping people work themselves out of poverty. They never give up and neither do we. Will you stand alongside us too? With your £2 a month we can help them with seeds, tools — help them build wells with clean, safe water give children an education so that they can have a chance of a real future free from hunger and pain. All people want is a better life for their children. Please do something remarkable today and help make a dream a reality. Telephone Oxfam today and give £2 a month.”

It is not the purpose here to criticise those who want to do something to help others in desperate need. In a way, their willingness to help provides a hope for the future. But the brutal facts have to be faced, that during the past 25 years during which time OXFAM and similar organisations have been appealing for money to solve problems, the number of seriously undernourished people has, according to the FAO, almost doubled from 435 million in 1974/5 to over 800 million in 2000. In view of this we are bound to point out that when OXFAM claim to be in over 70 countries “helping people to work themselves out of poverty,” so far as the general problem is concerned this statement is misleading. If OXFAM and its supporters were to also join the work of organising for socialism, that would be a significant step forward. What could be their objections to a world organised solely for the needs of people? Surely this is what they claim to want. By working for socialism they could see an end to the need to make appeals for money.

Following the volcanic eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo in Congo the Disasters Emergency Committee broadcast its Goma Crisis Appeal (25 January). This included what given amounts of money could do. For example, “?30 will treat 18 people for severe malaria — ?100 will provide clean water to 4,000 people for a week.”

We may not go as far as Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property.” But it does remain true that appeals for money to alleviate suffering tend to perpetuate the system that causes the suffering. Moreover, the idea that such suffering results from natural causes is not always the case. Most natural dangers known and socialism would not need to leave communities exposed to them. This would avoid many disasters. Also, contingency plans would exist throughout the regions and at a world level for the relief of any catastrophe. Emergency supplies of food, clean water, medical supplies would be maintained at strategic points whilst machinery, equipment and helpers would be moved quickly to the area of crisis. The present appeals for money are a pathetic substitute for the availability of real resources and the freedom that communities in socialism would have to immediately use them

The fetishism of money is part of the ideology of the profit system that claims uncountable victims across the world. In the Pre-Colombian societies of South America, in homage to their gods, human sacrifice was widely practised. For example, this was a gruesome ritual amongst the Aztec people in what is now Mexico. “In the heart of Tenochtitlan the pyramid rose as an architectural fetish, charged with the powers of all the offerings, and the blood from thousands of sacrificed human beings. The structure was the terrifying centre of the Aztec world” (The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend).

Many of the sacrificial victims were children and we think of this as barbaric. Perhaps for this reason we now prefer to keep out of our minds the fact that every day we sacrifice many more children’s lives than the Aztecs could ever manage. We sacrifice them in homage to the god of money, on the altar of the capitalist system.