(This article includes revised and direct extracts from Anitra Nelson’s book Beyond Money: A Postcapitalist Strategy, Pluto Press, London, January 2022.)
Beyond Money: A Postcapitalist Strategy urges twenty-first century social and environmental movements to seriously consider a non-monetary vision and strategies to achieve socio-political and economic equality and ecological sustainability. The supporting argument is that monetary economies are based on socially divisive dynamics, that monetary economies are the source of dualism between nature and us, and that no tinkering with money can overcome such failings.
In short, post-capitalism must be conceived of, and operate, using non-monetary practices. This might appear like a bolt from the blue, but intellectual and practical thinking of this kind is not new. My initial suspicions about money were confirmed when I read Karl Marx’s early work, the thought of non-market socialist currents, and practical debates in both the Soviet Union and Cuba on the role of money in a transformation to socialism. Throughout the final decades of the twentieth century questions were raised around money by feminists such as Silvia Federici, who threw a light on questions surrounding women and work, and the German ecofeminist Bielefeld School, which developed concepts of subsistence economies. Moreover, occupiers, communalists, radical activists and no-barter (no-trade) communities regularly engage in solidarity economy practices that eschew money.
This article refers to certain concepts examined in Beyond Money. On the one hand, the Janus nature of a ‘universal equivalent’ and ‘equal exchange’ that alienates, divides and regenerates dominance and subservience. On the other hand, ‘real values’ — the real, non-monetary, social and ecological values at the heart of any economy dedicated to fulfilling basic needs and respecting Earth’s limits. I offer the key principles of how a world based on real values might operate. Then, I discuss how characteristics of such a world are embodied in the Zapatista movement and how relevant skills that focus on direct democracy and material justice are emerging in ‘green materialist’ tendencies of contemporary anti-capitalist currents.
The Roman god Janus was believed to embody, and rule, exits and entrances. Janus stood at the point of transition, looking two ways, as if both sides of the one door (in and out). Or, the head and tail of a coin, joined, symbiotic, interdependent. Even like starkly different sides of an act of exchange with a seller and a buyer in opposing roles – an act in which money represents a credit and debt all at the same time. And neither credits nor debts exist without debtors and creditors. Thus the two-sidedness of money, acknowledging something done or given in the past at the same time as promising a good or service in the future. Karl Marx referred to money in all its functions as a ‘universal equivalent’ and ‘the god of commodities’.
Money is central to a capitalist economy. Capital reduces to money making more money. All capitalist practices are formed monetarily. Capitalism cannot be defined without recourse to money. All trade, debts and credits take place using money both as a unit of value and as a measure of value simultaneously and through time. Where different monies exist, typically an exchange rate emerges along with a dominant currency or unit of value. Yet the nature of that value — or how prices are formed — is controversial. And, everywhere, everyday acts of exchange and money breed dualities, between people and between nature and us.
If advocates of trade promote it as a voluntary act, many experiences of trade seem forced and violent. ‘I have to work to live.’ ‘I had to pay the fees otherwise I could not go to hospital and would not be alive.’ ‘I cannot buy the food: I am starving but I have no money.’ Income and expenditure are so imbalanced that most consumers are indebted to some degree or another and must work. How much ‘free will’ is involved in all this?
Private property is not just the result but also the premise of trade; you can’t sell what you don’t own. As trade increases so does private property, encroaching on commons and collectively governed resources on lands and in water. Trading disables practices of commoning and sharing while enabling disruptive and damaging freedom of movement to invest, develop and destroy. As holistic analyses show, the Global South and the poor display this counter-movement, paying for growth in the Global North and for the rich.
Capitalist practices cause us to abstract from nature, human nature and nonhuman nature. Trading embraces people and things in prices formed by influences that are substantially separate from Earth’s and people’s regenerative requirements. The influential ‘market’ is a socially constructed matrix of credits and debts determined by ideal and material practices, including fierce competition, aspiration and desperate need. As trading embraces more and more activities and relationships, the market submerges any real sense of Earth, and the real ecological values actually sustaining it.
Trading and production for trade is often promoted in terms of ‘equal exchange’, as if there is an implicit rationality to market exchanges and production for trade. Capitalism is celebrated for equal exchange and one-vote one-value representative democracy, even though a tiny minority of the world live in ‘full democracies’. Even there those with money have most power and speak loudest while the planet, our host, is dying. Moreover, it is hard to see anything equal about the objects-cum-subjects of any monetary exchange except that money itself projects some false appearance of equality. We know that money as a unit of value waxes and wanes in its worth. What other measure has such contradictory characteristics?
Where monetary exchange is misconceived as somehow intrinsically grounded, just and fair, the notion ‘equal exchange’ remains a keystone. Yet unfair, indeed ‘inequitable’, terms of trade riddle the exchange between a capitalist employer and their workers just as they have contorted histories and current dynamics between certain countries and regions, including the deleterious ecological and social dimensions of production for trade and of trade itself. As such, ‘equal exchange’ will have no utility in a socially and ecologically just postcapitalist society. The universal equivalent offers no promise or potential as a rational form of calculating the benefits and disadvantages of producing for communal sufficiency while observing Earth’s limits. In a real value framing — where actual human and ecological needs are the foci — the notion of equal exchange is unnecessary and even absurd.
Real values: Social and ecological values
If a local community wants to satisfy all their basic needs within Earth’s limits, the easiest and most efficient way to achieve this is by producing for collective sufficiency. This means producing in situ as many needs as possible and obtaining any extra necessities within the shortest distance possible or by some other method, which is as Earth-friendly as possible.
Imagine the world covered by such communities, varying in density according to the bounty of the Earth they inhabit, and engaging in a relatively small amount of non-monetary exchange according to ‘compacts’, arrangements made to ensure basic needs are fulfilled for neighbouring communities in both ecologically and humanely efficient ways. Residents of such eco-habitats or ‘ecotats’ care for Earth in terms of its regenerative needs.
This is production on demand, production determined and conducted communally. Money or marketability evaporates as the sole or dominating ‘measure’ of all things. Decision-making centres on ‘real values’ that are relevant to actual and holistic human and ecological needs, i.e. the actual and potential diverse values of living things, plant, animal and rock in landscapes and the atmosphere. Real values are appreciated quantitatively using different measures according to different qualities. We live within a plethora of such values, appreciating everything directly for its worth for a generic ‘us’, not only a communal us but also an us which includes Earth.
How a world without money might operate
An ecologically sustainable, money-free world fulfilling everyone’s basic needs would be characterised by three principles.
1. Instead of producing for trade, for the market, local communities oriented around collective sufficiency would collectively plan and produce for local demand, real demand, fulfilling their real needs, neither more nor less.
2. Instead of using the logic and language of monetary values (prices), real production would be oriented around real values, i.e. humane and ecological values, with the aim of preserving and enhancing humanity and Earth.
3. Instead of political (mis)representation in powerful states dedicated to reproducing capital, we as global and local individuals and communities would attain and maximise autonomous power over our lives. We would live within substantive direct democracies.
In other words, we would meaningfully and powerfully control our material existence and relationships within, for and by Earth. Currently monetary power and calculations usurp potential participatory democracy whereby we might collectively decide what we produce, where and how we produce it, and for whom. A world beyond money and based on “commoning” allows us to gain collective control over production to satisfy basic needs within Earth’s limits, creating a community mode of production.
Community mode of production
A successful postcapitalist movement following that brief is informed, even driven by, relevant autonomous Indigenous people’s cultures and economies. Beyond Money discusses the Kurdish and Zapatista movements in such a vein, referring to the work of Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano. In particular, Galeano’s statement that ‘It’s out of hope, not nostalgia, that we must recover a community-based mode of production and way of life, founded not on greed but on solidarity, age-old freedoms and identity between human beings and nature.’ This identity is expressed by the Aboriginal peoples of the territory now known as Australia. Ngunnawal Elder Jude Barlow explains ‘Country is everything. It’s family, it’s life, it’s connection.’
The Zapatistas represent a peculiarly twenty-first-century movement with a horizontal organisation (horizontal autonomy, mutual respect and collective practices) influenced by Indigenous, Marxist and anarchist thought and practices. Zapatistas have global impacts and networks, such as with the food sovereignty, Occupy and alter-globalisation movements. Even as they are challenged by, and resist, the Mexican state militarily — through occupation of land that they have redistributed — Zapatistas hold firm to a revolutionary strategy of not taking power, eschewing state forms of hierarchical dominance and control.
As outlined by Dylan Eldredge Fitzwater in Autonomy is in Our Hearts: Zapatista Autonomous Government Through the Lens of the Tsotsil Language (2019), Zapatista visions and practices centre on grassroots substantive democracy through various forms of autonomous governance, educational, health and media services, and continuous resistance to the Mexican state. Seven guiding principles clarify distinctions between their practices and those of mainstream capitalist economies and polities. They stand in stark contrast to the selfish, individualistic and competitive homo economicus. Instead one serves others, genuinely represents rather than stands in place of others, constructs rather than destructs, obeys rather than rules, proposes rather than forces, convinces rather than conquers, and is humble rather than arrogant.
Different structures of autonomous governance are subservient to the thousands of communities that instruct municipal governance, the caracoles and independent good government councils. All these types of institutions are necessarily fluid because they are determined autonomously in distinctive forms. Yet all rotate on the seven principles and
Zapatista rights, including women’s equality, eschewing the state and the right to defence. The assembly is the beating collective heart of autonomous governance, a forum for proposals, their acceptance or rejection, and evaluation for implementation via monitoring. Agreements in the form of working documents substitute for an ironclad constitution. Injustice is addressed via resolution not punishment, so there is no police force. Equally, the distributed use of force has the effect of decentralising and demilitarising power, disappearing the state as we well know it.
This is the style of polity in a community mode of production.
Many anti-capitalists within twenty-first century movements avoid traditional left union and party organising with their statist and workerist orientations. Anti-capitalist movements highlight human agency, as such corresponding to Marx’s ‘new materialism’ in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845). Marx’s ‘new materialism’ referred to those who perceived the world independent of capitalist or religious ideologies, humbly responsible for their collective being, forever adjusting their thinking to changing political, economic and ecological realities. As elsewhere, in Beyond Money I argue that the ‘green materialism’ of contemporary anti-capitalist currents offers the bases for replacing the organising principle of our society, money, by direct democracy.[i] Substantive democracy based on material production for collective sufficiency, using real values and the principles of social justice and ecological sustainability.
Akin to Marx’s new materialists, young anti-capitalists are green materialists who recognise a world out there that we only partly understand, that we constantly try to understand better in order to improve it. Could replacing money by direct democracy in collectively provisioning locales become the unifying process anti-capitalists need in order to create the integrated future to which all on the left aspire? Clearly, in order to achieve social justice, we need to assert the eminence of real values and manage all Earth’s resources as commons. This can only occur if we obliterate monetary values and create socio-political structures for direct democracy and management via real social and ecological values. A tree is a tree, full of qualities and potential; a field is a space for umpteen futures. We, the people, need to embody these understandings and co-govern our futures. Earth and sun as well as human energy determine the number of fruits we have to share between us. Why use money and markets when we can co-decide transparently, directly using real values and direct action? After all such models, some discussed in Beyond Money, exist.
In Anti-Capitalism, Argentinian Ezequiel Adamovsky distinguishes current anti-capitalists by their focus on operating in ways that are anti-power or counter-power, are autonomous, have immediacy and presence, use horizontalist structures, are de-centred, integrate a multitude of
people and causes, strategically respond to specifics, learn through listening rather than laying down a general program, act in glocal rather than national or state-focused struggles against capitalism, use nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, and develop constructive, creative, rather than ‘them–us’, cultures. These descriptors show a characteristic unity of purpose and organisation within anti-capitalist movements. They reflect an ecologist’s holistic framing of the way nature is interlocking, antagonistic yet balancing, self-sufficient and dynamic. They are remarkably close to Marx’s radical view of what it really means to be a social human aware that Earth is our very source of being.
Meanwhile, the culmination of successive appropriations over hundreds of years and all continents has left capitalists in control of Earth and their way of operating is both anti-social and anti-nature. As such, the contemporary social crisis requires us to fulfil everyone’s basic needs — no less, no more — rather than continue living in an unequal world of hunger and overconsumption. And ecological crises demand that we take account of the regenerative limits and needs of Earth. Rejecting money, at the hub of the capitalist steering wheel, non-monetary ways forward allow social and environmental values their natural and significant place in an ecologically sustainable and socially just future. Many activists, such as squatters and occupiers, learn through the experience of applying principles of degrowth and justice to reduce their reliance on monetary ways of operating. Degrowth households and community-based food activities, and degrowth community-supported agricultural models are examples where agents often intentionally withdraw from the market.
Diving off from Adamovsky’s characterisation of young anti-capitalists, 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. In short, the defining characteristics of anti-capitalist currents offer the democratic and materialist bases for replacing money as the organising principle of society. The agenda is in front of us. This is what needs to be built on. This is what needs to be done.
Activist scholar Anitra Nelson is Honorary Principal Fellow at Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne (Australia), co-author of Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide (2020), co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011) and author of Small is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet (2018) and Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (1999/2014, Routledge). Site: https://anitranelson.info/beyond-money/
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[i] Beyond Money, pp. 161–3; Anitra Nelson, ‘New and green materialism’, Progress in Political Economy, 29 July 2015; Anitra Nelson, ‘New materialism is green materialism’, Historical Materialism Australasia 2015: Reading Capital, Class & Gender Today conference, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia, 17–18 July; worked up with reference to a chapter Anitra Nelson, ‘Changing ourselves: Marx on work’, in Joe Collins (ed.), Applying Marx’s Capital to the 21st Century, London: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.
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