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What is Money?

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Rosalie Allain, studioSTRIKE’s Researcher in Residence attends a discussion on….Money! Whitechapel Gallery recently held a series of discussions on capitalist cultures, the last of which explored the role of money. Peter Osborne, professor of Modern European Philosophy at London’s Kingston University, led the discussion and briefly explored the ways money affects people and what money is today, by revisiting the works of Karl Marx, the 19th century revolutionary and political economist.


Marx described the predicament of people under capitalism as subject to the “violence of things” – how our whole lives, the way we experience life under capitalism, consumption, debt, wage labour – all bear down on us, are outside our control, dominate us and obscure their own workings.


Marx refers to a process of “reification” which emerges under capitalism, where society and its objects and processes are experienced as existing independently of human beings, appearing as ready-made, existing before and without human intervention, and dominating over us. In this logic, economic processes and things are seen as having human qualities, as having a life of their own. This is true of money. But, as Peter Osborne reminds us, money is a social form: produced by humans, in cultural and historically determined ways. Money as we know it is the measure and form of values in capitalist relations, through which commodities are exchanged.


Peter Osborne discussed how our relationship to money has changed with the increasing dominance of finance capital. Our relation to capital or money used to be primarily through the wage form, through our wages and salaries – but we now relate to money mainly through credit. As Osborne said “people’s condition of life can be more fundamentally affected by a change in interest rates than a pay rise”. Sociologists such as David Harvey have argued that this is because real wages have been driven down since the 1970s, creating a credit economy where people increasingly rely on loans and credit to get by. The explosion of ‘payday loans’ in the UK since the Tories came into power, with interest rates nearing 4000%, is one of the more obviously nasty manifestations of our credit-dominated relation to money.


These new forms of money, such as the mythical derivatives and other obscure objects circulating within financial markets, are effectively new ways of monetarising social relations. Osborne explored the idea of money as a “cultural form” and, just as culture produces people into particular kinds of social subjects, the forms of money we use has an impact upon our subjectivities, who we are and how we act and understand the world.



Osborne pointed out that these new forms of money are accompanied by an increasing “financialisation” of all aspects of our life. This is an “anticipatory privatisation”, which is currently establishing the conditions for privatisation in the British welfare state: we need only think of recent coalition policies on the NHS and higher education funding. The most striking, and yet little-discussed, symptom of this increased financialisation is how the term ‘citizen’ has been systematically replaced by ‘tax payer’ in all government and media discourse, fundamentally changing our relationship to the state in a shocking way, from one of rights and responsibilities, to one of money, money, money.