Money Talks, but What Is It Saying? Semiotics of Money and Social Control

Article excerpt

Money is one of the most enigmatic institutions of any economic system, from Lydia in ancient Greece to modern cashless monetary societies. In proportion to money's centrality in capitalism, theorists have studied its nature, roles, and functions. This ongoing project has brought us closer to an understanding of money's economic roles, despite a seeming aversion to the study of money among microeconomists. [1] That is, we have gained ground toward the goal of performativity--finding the most efficient input/output equations for money's economic functions. However, despite these gains in our understanding of money's economic functions, there is a growing realization among non-doctrinaire economists that we have yet to comprehend certain salient features of money and money use, namely, its cultural, political, and social context and content.

Money does not exist in a vacuum but is part of an elaborate web of dynamic social structural conditions within which people act and interact. As such, money is a social relation in the sense that it mediates the interaction between people. [2] This social relation not only differs in its characteristics depending on the ownership and exchange mechanisms that reflexively structure and condition its existence--money also means different things to different people in accordance with the objectives and ideals that govern their actions. Clearly, individuals in modern societies are coordinated by the parameters set by the functions of money, but the meaning that money communicates between people is much more difficult to decipher. What is the information communicated by money and how do people interpret this discourse? An examination of the social meaning of money may reveal information that contributes to our understanding of monetary relations and provides insights into the dynamics of monetary disruptions and c rises. In addition, a more rigorous understanding of money's meaning may allow us to see how third party intervention may distort, edit, or clarify the connotation of the monetary discourse.

Certain non-mainstream economists, for example, institutionalists and Austrians, have drawn attention to the lack of analysis of money's communicative role in modern societies. Attempts have been made to expand the analysis of money by utilizing the practice of semiotics--the study of meaning in symbolic systems--borrowed from the discipline of linguistics. This paper seeks to enhance our understanding of the meaning and experience communicated by money and money use, by a further application of the semiotic method. The first section contains a short overview of semiotics. The second section clarifies in what way semiotics may be of relevance to the study of money. Thereafter follow two sections treating previous deployments of semiotics in the field of money analysis--one Austrian and one institutionalist perspective. [3] The fifth section contains an analysis in which a Marxian interpretation of money is used to further our understanding of the symbolic meaning of money. In particular, the focus is on money as a discourse of power.


Broadly speaking, semiotics refers to a tradition of scholarship in which the meaning, experience, and knowledge communicated through signs and symbols are studied. This undertaking is important, semioticians argue, because it generates a greater understanding of human societies, which they conceive of as being constructed systems of shared symbols and meanings. Humans communicate meaning and create shared experiences by using signs and symbols in many different realms of existence, for example, through art, music, architecture, gestures, clothing, space arrangements, and material possession. In fact, we are capable of attributing meaning to any event, action, or object which can evoke thoughts, ideas, and emotions (Applebaum 1987, 477). It is the use of symbols as a significant form of discourse permeating all human societies that has led to semiotics becoming an important sphere of inquiry within the social sciences. …