Money

Vincenzo Ruggiero is professor of sociology at Middlesex University. His latest book Penal Abolitionism: A Celebration is forthcoming from OUP.

Lending wings to the freaks

Historians and radical economists teach us that the history of entrepreneurs is the history of their persecution. Marginalization and deviance are said to play an important role in producing entrepreneurship and successful economic initiative. According to this view, individuals and groups who are looked down upon tend to create a reassuring atmosphere among themselves in order to overcome or discount the exclusion suffered. Every little achievement will be met with disproportionate commendation and with collective joy, which in turn inculcate an increasing need for further achievements. Exclusion, in brief, may become a source for the development of talents that lead to innovation.

Almost every society displays forms of "social derogation" of some groups, and the responses elaborated by such groups often lead to enterprising attitudes and innovations that are eventually spread to society at large. In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, for example, economic development was the result of the religious beliefs and the marginalized condition of the Huguenots. In Russia, so-called Old Believers, who did not adapt to the revision of the official Church ritual, seceded and were persecuted. They became prominent in the accelerating economic growth that occurred during the second half of the nineteenth century. Similar patterns are found in India, where the marginalized community known as the Parsees provided a number of entrepreneurs out of proportion to its size and social weight. The economic rebirth of Japan and the subsequent Restoration in 1868 were largely due to the entrepreneurial spirit of "outer clans" which had been held in a socially inferior position for two and a half centuries.

What these entrepreneurs seem to share is not so much their condition as "aliens", as their being "eccentric" with respect to the ruling groups. Being both outside and inside the official order encourages them to experiment with new undertakings and economic explorations. They are tantalized by power, to which they have only partial access. Nevertheless, they have a degree of access to resources and, furthermore, have no fear of failure, since their being inured to ostracism protects them from disapproval. They are "insider deviants", to whom a wide range of possibilities and practices are open.

Echoing historians and economists, Georg Simmel remarks that the emancipated Roman slaves were predisposed towards monetary transactions because they lacked any chance of achieving citizen status. Already in Athens, at the very inception of pure monetary transactions in the fourth century, the wealthiest banker, Pasion, had started his career as a slave. In Turkey the Armenians, a despised and persecuted people, were frequently merchants and moneylenders, as, under similar circumstances, were the Moors in Spain. There is no need to emphasize, says Simmel, that the Jews are the best example of the correlation between the central role of money interests and social deprivation. The issue is that, while it is easy to deny despised groups access to status, it is extremely hard to exclude them from the acquisition of money, because so many possible paths constantly lead to it.

There is a difference, however, between entrepreneurs and experts in money transactions: the former acquire material goods such as land, productive tools and machinery, while the latter accumulate an indeterminate, inert, abstract means of exchange. Material goods cannot be easily expropriated, whereas money can. Hence those marginalized groups continued to be despised because the dynamics guiding monetary exchange could always relieve them of their means. The "democratic" aspect of money soon became evident, insofar as this peculiar means of exchange lends itself ideally to robbery. Pecunia non olet: who can tell the origin of monetary wealth? In Roman as well as modern law, money that has been stolen cannot be taken away from a third person who has acquired it in good faith. Business transactions would otherwise be considerably disrupted.

With money exchange finally purified from guilt, sin and crime, human relationships and monetary interests came to coincide. Money is now the absolute means, the unifying point of innumerable sequences of purposes, and possesses some traits that we find in God. The essence of the notion of God is that all diversities and contradictions in the world achieve a unity in Him, because He is the coincidentia oppositorum. The original opposition to monetary matters among old clerics and a range of diverse believers was perhaps due to their appreciation of the similarity between the highest economic and the highest cosmic unity. There was an awareness of the dangerous competition between monetary and religious interest.

The money form, which went relatively undisturbed through the "robbery" stage of economic development, soon moved on to the "bribery" stage. This is when the polarization of wealth started to accelerate, slowly bringing monetary iniquity to the appalling levels seen in the present time. More than any other form of value, money makes possible the secrecy, invisibility and silence of exchange. As Simmel remarks, by compressing money into a piece of paper, by letting it glide into a person's hand, one can make her wealthy. Formless and abstract, one can invest it in remote locations, and thereby remove it from the gaze of neighbours. Anonymous and colourless, money does not reveal its source, it does not require a certificate of birth. Odourless, secretive, unfixed, its moves are swift and silent.

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