Against the Universal Agent of Separation: A Review of Anitra Nelson’s “Beyond Money: A Post Capitalist Strategy”

John Clark

Beyond Money is a very welcome work that focuses with unusual care and intensity on the destructive power of money and the ways that monetary values pervade and distort all aspects of society. It shows that the monetary milieu is so all-pervasive that we live within it with little conscious or critical awareness of what it is doing to each of us, to our communities, and to the Earth. It is a valuable book because it takes seriously the devasting effects of the power of money, and it also takes seriously the real possibilities for escape from that power and the urgent need to begin realizing those possibilities in the immediate future.

In our age, the Necrocene, the New Age of Death on Earth, it makes more sense than ever to ponder deeply the famous alternative “Your money or your life!” and to decide which alternative we will choose.  Nelson contends that to choose rightly we need, first, a real understanding of money and the dominant system of monetary values, and secondly, we need a plausible vision of a world freed from the ravages of anti-human and anti-ecological monetary values.

Nelson calls money “capitalism’s sine qua non, its essence.” (1)  This depiction is accurate, and perhaps embarrassingly so, since it points to how intimate is our implication in the system. Yet, it might equally be said that the commodity, or capital, or exchange value, is the “essence” of capitalism, since all are dialectically identical, all implying one another in their particularly capitalist forms.  Nelson sees “the main, primary, function of money as a standard of value, a unit of account.” (18) As such, money dictates a quantitative view of reality, and an economistic rationality that is imposed on everything.  

What results is a “social, cultural and economic dynamics of ‘more’ and ‘less’” (5) that pervades our very sense of being. Everything comes to be ranked on a scale of more or less, which is translated into a scale of better or worse. We might say further that quantitative and qualitative distinctions are coded within the system of economic domination to transform these differences into forms of power-over.  This domineering power has an insidious effect throughout society because of the way that it “compares, contrasts” and ultimately, and most fatefully, “divides.” (5)

A caveat is necessary when we engage in the critique of money. We should make clear the degree to which it is a critique of capitalist money and certain historical forms of money that share “essential” qualities with capitalist money.  David Graeber, in his important work An Anthropological Theory of Value discusses many forms of exchange and value that utilize what some might label a kind of money.  Arguments against capitalist money, as is the case in the book, do not typically apply to these other forms, which exist in a qualitatively and structurally different cultural world.

Whether there can be non-capitalist, non-dominatory forms of money is an open question.  Nelson argues against this possibility and presents powerful arguments weighing on the side of caution. Others, like Alexander Kolokotronis, have presented strong arguments for the view that an anarchist or horizontalist society will need some kind of common measure for accounting proposes, so there must be some kind of “anarchist money.” The fact that alternatives to capitalist money on any significant scale remain almost entirely on the level of theoretical critique and speculation concerning practice points out the acute need for widespread social experimentation, beginning immediately.

This relates to another caveat that I would add.  We are entering the period of most extreme ecological crisis in human recorded time.  We should be careful not to make unwarranted assumptions about the future possibilities for local self-sufficiency in most locales during a period in which mutual aid and cooperation over large distances may be more important than ever. Self-sufficiency may very well become more important in some ways than ever before (in this I would agree with Nelson), but it may at the same time become more difficult in other ways than ever. In short, our assumptions should be grounded in geohistorical understanding while also being fully open to revision in relation to the unfolding course of geohistory.

Basic to Nelson’s vision of the future is the replacement of the world of capitalist exchange value or monetary value by one that is based on “real values.” (20)  A fundamental question, then, is the precise nature of such values. There is a certain ambiguity in the discussion since Nelson doesn’t use typical concepts from ethics and axiology such as “intrinsic value,” “instrumental value,” or perhaps the most ecological concept yet developed, “systemic value.” However, Nelson does describe their nature in a number of passages in the book.  For example, they “refer to actual and potential diverse values of living things, plant, animal and rock in landscapes and the atmosphere relevant to actual and holistic human and ecological needs,’ (20) they relate to “social and humane worth and the ecological qualities of Earth,” (34) they “refer to qualities and quantities of social and environmental values,” and they “are qualities for us and for other beings.” (50)

Nelson wanders a bit from the “real value” position she is developing when she says that these values “are characterized in rounded ways, such as ‘wind hardy’, ‘light sensitive’, ‘long-lasting’, and define properties such as ‘mordant’ (to facilitate dying), ‘absorbent’, or ‘repellent’.”  In fact, these are not values in the ethical or axiological sense, but rather qualities that may be “of value” in relation to ultimate values. I think that this is what she really has in mind. There are important qualities that are disvalued or neglected in the society of mass consumption and monetary value that will be valued much more highly in a free ecological community based on the ultimate “real values.”

“In order to overcome environmental and social crises, we must move beyond money ” – Anitra Nelson

I think that underlying Nelson’s discussion of values is a truly ecological ethics in which the good concerns the flourishing of all living beings, including the living Earth, and the right concerns care directed at nurturing and participating cooperatively this flourishing at all levels.  The ultimate or intrinsic good would thus be the flourishing of various forms of life or forms of animate being that are capable of such flourishing, whether these be organisms, species, ecosystems, biomes, or the whole biosphere (Gaia, the Earth). We could also conceive of the good of communities, seeing both human and more than human ones as capable of having a good, that is, as being capable of flourishing. The right is then conceived of as all forms of care that promote, nurture, foster flourishing in all these contexts.

While an ethics of flourishing is implicit in all of Nelson’s discussions, her espousal of a complementary ethics of care is much more explicit.  In perhaps the most extended discussion of what an ethics and politics (or social ethics) of care means, Nelson refers to “a logic of care [that] can be the basis of an economy, especially if framed in terms of a convivial subsistence economy with collective provisioning, craftwork and farming at the fore.” (99) Even more to the point, she cites Joan Tronto, who defines care as “everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible,” and which “includes our bodies, ourselves and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.”  (99) This is what the good life will mean in a world beyond the distorting power of money, which has left the world in such a state of neglect, deterioration, and disrepair.

In one of the most significant sections of the book, Nelson presents a picture of what a future liberated ecological community, which she calls “Yenoman,” might look like. It is important because it depicts in an integral way what we might hope for, combining general ideas of institutional and structural change with more detailed portrayal of how these ideas might be embodied in a way of life or ethos. Nelson describes such a community as “a plausible and feasible nonmonetary postcapitalist local–global commons.” (47) What she presents here is, in effect, a vision of a functioning community of flourishing and care.

According to this vision, the basic units of communal organization will be “cell-like ecotats.” These are “environs capable of meeting a community’s needs,” and “are as collectively sufficient and as politically autonomous as possible.” (48) Nelson acknowledges that self-sufficiency cannot be absolute. There will be a need for “temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent exchange arrangements with other communities and their ecotats.” These formal arrangements, Nelson stipulates, will address needs but not wants. There will be “arrangements” for wants also but these will “neither have the status nor name of a compact” since wants are “secondary.” (49) Though production will be strongly localized, some products will have to be imported from distant places. However, there will be “work exchanges” between communities that specialize in producing different products, so that each ecotat can develop skills that will help it move toward greater self-sufficiency. (51)

Decision-making will be through various local and regional assemblies and working groups, along with more informal processes. The community will have access to its “ecotat land and waters” based on “semi-permanent (conditional) use rights.” (52) Landforms and waterways transcend locality, so there will be working groups to decide policies for (in Nelson’s examples) rivers, eco-corridors, forests and ridges. (53)  Food demands will be determined through “distinct working groups” each of which “assesses the feasibility of total ‘asking’ demand in their area,” which are then assessed by general assemblies which “hear from each group and certain individuals about the challenges and solutions to the demand side of creation-on-demand.” (54) The assemblies then authorize production of what will be distributed within each community or to other communities according to inter-communal agreements.

The discussion addresses other basic and possibly contentious issues regarding production and distribution. One is the question of the surplus, which was for good reason labeled “la part maudite,” “the accursed share” by Bataille. Nelson says that in the proposed system “we find out about surpluses” and then debate in the assemblies and working groups ways ofusing them productively.” (55) Another issue is the delicate one of voluntary versus obligatory labor and the famous question of the length of the working day.  Nelson says that community members will devote on the average (with some variation based on ability) an “obligatory 35 hours per week to collective production.” (56) Thus, pure voluntarism will not be practiced, though there will be many strategies to humanize work and make it more satisfying.  

This brief summary hardly captures the scope of Nelson’s depiction of Yenoman, but it suggests the comprehensiveness of the vision. Nelson’s depiction of the free ecological community raises a number of issues for those who share its basic aspirations to consider.  Many of these issues concern production and distribution. For example, the basis for the distinction between needs and wants will be crucial in decision-making that is based on needs, so the grounds for it must be explored carefully. Minimally, “needs” could be identified with survival needs, since anything beyond this is subject to some degree of choice; but this could not be what Nelson has in mind. So, what criteria for distinguishing between the two should we adopt?  The concept of surplus is also important in decision making about distribution, but how is surplus to be defined? This is crucial to all questions concerning needs. And as dialectical analysis of production since Marx has revealed, production itself creates needs.  To mention another issue regarding production, the idea of training for productive skills through work exchanges and apprenticing with other communities is certainly a good idea.  But is the idea of communities federating to create more formal training and establishment of educational institutions a bad one? The experience of the Mondragon cooperative federation in the Basque region is relevant here. 

To mention another important concern, how will global communication and coordination work in relation to production and distribution issues? There will be many millions of Yenoman-scale communities and numerous regions made up of these communities. The needs of everyone, everywhere will presumably count equally, even if production for local use also remains a strong priority. This would seem to be a big question for the transition between today’s world and the future world of decentralized federated communities. During a transition from today’s highly urbanized world (which includes megalopolises of tens of millions) to a better world consisting of bioregionally situated small communities, there would have to be plans for transitional forms of community.

Other questions arise concerning the details of the decision-making processes.  How should the system of communal property or use rights operate? How “sovereign” will the ecotat be?  If the rights are conditional, who is it that issues them or retracts them, and on what grounds? How is the scale of areas over which deliberative groups have responsibility or stewardship to be determined? What is the structure of governance and how do its various levels interrelate?

Finally, I suppose my big question about the community is what the people in it would be like. How would it feel to live there? What is the ethos of a community based on the liberation of each person’s creative powers, based on care for all persons and for all living beings?   What is it that will draw billions of people to the path of flourishing and care, love and joy, and away from the path of insatiable, all-consuming desires, the path of extinction?

The most effective force in moving people to create the good community is the force of examples that show that their aspirations can be achieved in real-world practice. The best examples are living examples, but the next are historical ones and Nelson presents both types. She points to the self-managed collectives in the Spanish Revolution, the Zapatista liberated municipalities in Chiapas, the Democratic Autonomy Movement in Rojava, and the Twin Oaks intentional community. All are excellent case studies that can offer us invaluable guidance. Her smallest-scale example, Twin Oaks, offers strong evidence that we can immediately begin undertaking the project of communal creation largely beyond the power of money and capitalism immediately.

Twin Oaks is one of the best-known and longest-lasting intentional communities. It is an egalitarian community that is based on cooperative and commoning principles, and practices consensus decision-making through assemblies and working groups. Planning and management roles are rotated and full transparency and strict responsibility to the members is practiced. Twin Oaks has adopted true community technology, meaning that it is “appropriate, small scale and generally simple and convivial.” (158) Nelson describes Twin Oaks as “a living, embryonic version” of what she calls “commoning cells” that could be the basis of for “interlinking semi-autonomous networks all over the globe.” (158) She contends, very wisely, I think, that these cells could initially consist not only of intentional communities like Twin Oaks, but other liberatory forms, such as “deliberative neighborhoods with a non-monetary, real value consciousness that co-govern for a transition to genuinely locally sustainable lifestyles.” (158)

At the other end of the spectrum of scale, Nelson cites the institution of distribution according to need among millions of people in revolutionary Spain (1936-39).  As she shows, the Spanish collectives offer good grounds to believe that what is achieved on the small local scale can also be realized regionally and globally, As she notes, the collectives practiced “direct provision in kind of daily needs such as housing, education, medicinal services and goods, roads, nurseries and water supplies.” (145)

The extent to which the invaluable experience of the collectives in the Spanish Revolution is so consistently ignored by the contemporary Left is both striking and disconcerting. Even those who do cite it usually invoke it (quite validly) on behalf of the viability of worker self-management, but they ignore the more important and more radical lessons of the collectivized or communalized villages.  Nelson rightly argues that the establishment of communities here and now that put into practice the kind of free distribution according to need, (or “libertarian communism”) that was the goal of the Spanish Revolution, would be a major step toward the destruction of the money and commodity-dominated economy. We might add, this would be such  a momentous step, provided that it is part of a growing global movement that ties all such communities together in solidarity.

Nelson also makes many good points about the weaknesses of many approaches that are popular with greens and radical ecologies.  What I think is very important about her analysis is that it rejects the superficially appealing approach of “do something good” and then “hopefully” this will lead to solving the problem. Such speculation is often supported with reference to snowballs, a hundred monkeys, etc. Nelson judges correctly that such approaches have a very bad track record and that the only realistic way to solve the problem is to get to the core of that problem.

Nelson argues that cooperatives and community banks typically work within the context of the capitalist monetary system and therefore “offer few benefits beyond being managed by community-oriented and environmentally friendly people and principles.” (148) Similarly, universal basic income programs utilize the existing monetary system and “tend to support profit-making business, not only their recipients.” (148-149) She judges alternative currencies to be inadequate because they “inevitably refer to the mainstream market and prices in legal tender” and “the market–money nexus remains a contextual source of alienation.” (155)  Against all of these options she counterposes models that are more directly abolitionist in relation to money and capital. An example of this is “an ‘unconditional autonomy allowance’, which can be delivered wholly in-kind, say through universal basic services….” (149)

Indeed, it seems difficult to argue that we ought to choose alternatives that partially break with capitalist rationality, while at the same time reinforcing it significantly, when we can institute models that are a more radical break with the system. There is, however, the question of “ought implies can.” The more radical break ought to be chosen if it is, indeed, a practical possibility, while other alternatives must be accepted as real advances to the degree that they are the best of all really possible alternatives. Such alternatives (for example, worker cooperatives) can be very important as transitional forms, if they are part of a movement with more far-reaching goals, just as anything else (even if more radical in form) without such a movement is severely limited in what it can achieve. 

It seems important to add that there are certain important questions concerning distributive justice that face models of decentralized, relatively self-sufficient community. Nelson states that “We have a direct responsibility for local community sufficiency,” while “the sufficiency of neighboring and regional communities is an indirect concern.” (58) This leads to some further concerns. What about extreme needs outside the locale? What about specialized needs? What about the geographical maldistribution of basic natural goods (“resources”)? Nelson contends that “real value exchange” consists of “direct supply on demand, resulting from participatory decision making regarding the basic needs of identified people. Any surplus is stored, used in a newly decided way, or directed according to need to others outside the producing community.” (101)  This seems to imply that members of the small community must in effect judge what the legitimate needs of those outside the community are.

If one believes in distribution according to real needs, it seems that such a judgment, on some level of decision-making, will be inevitable. If so, the implications of this fact must be faced consciously. For example, what if Peter Singer’s famous famine argument is valid, and we are obligated to fulfill only our basic needs and then devote anything beyond that to saving lives that are immediately at risk?  Or what if other less demanding and more plausible, but still far-reaching principles of distributive justice are valid? Today’s communities can dismiss such idealistic concerns and get back to the serious business of destroying themselves and the biosphere. But for communities that want to be, as Nelson says, “glocal” (realizing universal particularity), the challenge of creating the good life in place and also carrying out global responsibilities will be a daunting one.

There are many questions such as these that all who share Nelson’s basic vision need to ponder and discuss. The great merit of this book is that it delineates very well that underlying vision and helps us develop the parameters of our project of communal creation. I find Nelson’s summary of that vision, near the end of the book, to be very inspiring. She challenges us to:

imagine a global network of collectively sufficient, cell-like communities, each responsible for the sustainability of the environments that sustain them. Imagine each diverse community empowered, relatively autonomous, present, organised horizontally internally, networked in seamless ways locally and globally, caring for the Earth.  Imagine us collectively satisfying everyone’s basic needs. In these ways, we would be fulfilling our real human potential as creative active beings. (163)

Not only is this vision very inspiring, its realization, or the realization of something much like it, is also very necessary at this fateful point in Earth history.   And as Gustav Landauer says of what is needed to arouse the revolutionary spirit of freedom and community that will transform the world: “only example can do it.”

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John Clark is a communitarian anarchist educator, writer and activist in New Orleans, where his family has lived for the past 300 years. He is Director of La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, and Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, where he was formerly Curtin Distinguished Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and a member of the Environment Program. His most recent book is Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community. A new revised edition of his book The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism is forthcoming, and he is at work on a book on Dialectical Social Ecology. He is a member of the Education and Research Workers’ Union of the Industrial Workers of the World.

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Discount for RED readers: Pluto Press is offering a discount till the end of April using coupon code ‘NELSON30’, which gives purchasers 30% off the paperback and/or the ebook.

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