The Monetary Exception: Labour, Distribution and Money in Capitalism

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Samuel Gompers is well known for lots of reasons, but one of them is certainly his famous response to the question, 'What does labour want?'--to which he replied, 'More'. His answer leaves considerable room for interpretation, of course, but certainly one of the messages is, 'We want more of what they have'. Whether Gompers thought it was a zero-sum game or not is unclear (he may very well have thought so), but it makes perfect sense either way: it is more than possible for 'us' to have more without depriving 'them' of anything more than the distance between us. The point was merely that the things capital enjoys--wealth, power, dignity, security, freedom--should also be enjoyed by labour. These 'things' have, ultimately, always been the stakes in the struggle between capital and labour. One of them, however, has usually been a priority, since it is generally considered the means to the others: money. While other 'things', such as the length of the working day, gender parity or shop-floor control, have often been at stake, the division of the surplus is the fundamental site of struggle. In modern capitalism, this boils down to where, and to whom, the money flows, and how it accumulates.

This struggle is premised on a tacit but absolutely essential assumption: that the stakes--income and wealth, and all the things that flow from them--can simply be redistributed without affecting the work they do; that the form wealth takes is not a function of its mode of distribution. It is to assume that the direction of the flow of monetary income and wealth (at present, increasingly toward capital) is itself not part of what makes it work as income and wealth. The idea seems to be that modern money can be governed so as to make anyone rich--worker or boss--and rich in basically the same way.

But this may not in fact be the case. In capitalism, money as it currently works takes particular forms and serves particular functions that make it capital-tropic at its core (Weber 1978: 79; Ingham 2004: 78-81). This paper concerns the implications of this possibility and is focused, necessarily at a rather abstract, institutional scale, on how money works in contemporary financialised neoliberal capitalism. (Below, I try to be as precise as possible with each of these over-used terms.) I argue that much of the critique that animates labour studies--a critique that animates labour politics broadly--has a tendency to imagine that the main problem with capitalism is that the capitalists are in charge. The corollary is that the distributional questions at the centre of a labour-based critique are mostly a question of restructuring the hierarchy via something like 'democratisation'. But significant elements of the modern capitalist political economy, regardless of who is in the driver's seat, are constitutively non- or anti-democratic. It is not a matter of merely remaking them democratically, since if they were democratic, or 'democratisable', they literally would not be what they are. The institution on which I focus, modern capitalist money, is a case in point: it is non-democratic by definition, and it constrains in its very being what redistribution can mean today. Money in capitalism cannot just be redistributed to labour according to an ethical rule of thumb, ceteris paribus. The institutional and political bases of money as a social relation in contemporary capitalism militate against this.

Money-in-capitalism thus cannot be approached as class-, geography-, or history-neutral. That may seem to state the obvious, so it bears emphasising that my point is not aimed at the quantitative maldistribution of purchasing power and monetary wealth across different classes, spaces and times. That is of course a crucial concern, but my argument is more fundamental. It is that there are aspects of money as a modern social relation that operate at a supra-distributional level, and indeed that determine how and to whom it can be distributed, and what it can and cannot be used to do. …