David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: c. wright mills

Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction

  1. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: An Introduction
  2. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 1. Value and Money
  3. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 2. The Value of Money as a Substance
  4. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 3. Money in the Sequence of Purposes
  5. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 4. Individual Freedom
  6. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 5. The Money Equivalent of Personal Values
  7. Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money: 6. The Style of Life

Sociologist Georg Simmel published his magnum opus, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900 in Germany. Drawing on Kant, Marx, and Weber among many, many others, the book has Simmel’s singular style that separates him from pretty much every other sociologist that has ever lived. The closest analogue I know might be C. Wright Mills in his more poetic moods, but where Mills is fiery and desperate, Simmel is far more reflective. In looking at money as a ground and metaphor for modern human social existence, Simmel often seems awestruck and overwhelmed by the sheer power and meaning of money in our society. Just as often he expresses reserved horror at the injustice and inhumanity that is lubricated by monetary commensurability.

The Philosophy of Money is a hybrid work of philosophy and sociology, perhaps a “philosophical anthropology” similar to that which Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg would later engage in. It is only loosely an economic work, because Simmel never gets to the point where he can generalize over the behavior of economic populations. Rather, he focuses on the psychological and sociological effects of money as a cultural determinant. And it’s very much the idea of money rather than capital or work. He is fascinated by the implications of the introduction of a universally commensurable measure of value that has no intrinsic value of its own. Rather than focusing on how people argue over the allocations of values, he looks at how the prior requirement, the nature of valuation itself, influences those discussions.

The main themes, as I read them, are the following:

  1. Money as a structural metaphor for human existence (almost every aspect of it)
  2. The dual nature of the word “value,” moral and monetary
  3. The physicalization, universalization, and commodification of value (through money or otherwise)
  4. The effects of valuation and commensurability on human relations

The final theme ultimately becomes most important, but Simmel spends time laying the groundwork for it by examining the nature of value and how it is assigned and fixed, before he then moves on to how value is standardized and made portable and universal by money. Simmel’s treatment of “value” is heavily influenced by Kant’s first and third critique, which isn’t too surprising given that Simmel came out of the 19th century neo-Kantian movement which wanted to reclaim Kant’s worth after Hegelianism had petered out. Value, being something not assigned by nature but by creatures, becomes a crucial cognitive category in life, despite being something that each of us has comparatively little control over. (Language is also a category of this sort, though at least in 1900 “value”‘s constructed nature was a bit more clear than that of language.)

Simmel makes clear just how philosophical it is by declaring in the introduction that money has attracted his attention because it is the purest and most ubiquitous manifestation of the perennial problem that has vexed philosophers, the relation between the universal and the particular:

Money is simply a means, a material or an example for the presentation of relations that exist between the most superficial, ‘realistic’ and fortuitous phenomena and the most idealized powers of existence, the most profound currents of individual life and history. The significance and purpose of the whole undertaking is simply to derive from the surface level of economic affairs a guideline that leads to the ultimate values and things of importance in all that is human.

In the tradition of early modern philosophers, Simmel writes with no notes, footnotes, or references, and mentions of other authors are sparing. In a dense, 500-page work, this is quite foreboding, and Simmel seems to have been one of the last to get away with it to this extent. In compensation, though, he adopts what I can only call a sonata-like stye. Unlike James Joyce in the “Sirens” chapter of Ulysses, Simmel isn’t consciously trying to fit a musical form onto his writing. It’s just that because he is writing in a semi-casual yet resolutely abstract manner, he develops a very particular technique for keeping readers (and himself) located in the flow of the work. He repeats his major themes quite often, rephrasing them but leaving the underlying points unmistakable. (In fact, by rephrasing the points over and over, he makes it easier to grasp what is essential among those points.) So where Joyce’s chapter is one of the less successful conceits of Ulysses, because the form and content do not reach enough of a unity (similar to “Oxen of the Sun”) to give the feel of an organic whole, The Philosophy of Money feels very organic, through-composed, and linear. This, as well as Simmel’s comparatively plain German style, are helpful features, because Simmel is doing deep conceptual work rather than case studies or data analysis.

Alternatively, you can think of The Philosophy of Money as following a tree structure, points and subpoints emerging from a common root and diverging, except where most philosophers simply present their overarching root theses and then cover the tree branch by branch assuming the root theses have been fully assimilated, Simmel repeats some of the root and main branch material every time he finishes one subbranch or leaf and goes to another. This makes the book redundant at times, but also makes it far easier to absorb.

Simmel was aware that he was going against the current of both anthropological and philosophical investigations. His book is closer to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities than it is to Durkheim or even Weber, except Musil manifested his archetypes as “characters” and developed his themes through the stretched conceits of fiction. (Musil attended Simmel’s classes around this time.) Simmel just thinks and thinks and thinks, touching on specifics only as the urge strikes him. He is aware of the dangers of this approach, yet he finds his anchor in the concrete existence of money, the substance which we see and feel and count, something that is right before us and lacks the abstruse invisibility of “cognition” or “being.”

The unity of these investigations does not lie, therefore, in an assertion about a particular content of knowledge and its gradually accumulating proofs but rather in the possibility which must be demonstrated—of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning. The great advantage of art over philosophy is that it sets itself a single, narrowly defined problem every time: a person, a landscape, a mood. Every extension of one of these to the general, every addition of bold touches of feeling for the world is made to appear as an enrichment, a gift, an undeserved benefit. On the other hand, philosophy, whose problem is nothing less than the totality of being, tends to reduce the magnitude of the latter when compared with itself and offers less than it seems obliged to offer. Here, conversely, the attempt is made to regard the problem as restricted and small in order to do justice to it by extending it to the totality and the highest level of generality.

Philosophy has become too windy, he says, and no longer touches down on anything that most people can recognize. Money is something that we all know.

C. Wright Mills on the Tea Party

Actually, Mills is talking about McCarthyism and other manifestations of the 1950s, but just like the last entry, this seems a good deal more urgent than anything by Zizek, Agamben, Hardt/Negri, or most any other academic leftist today.

The noisy conservatives, of course, have no more won political power than administrative liberals have retained it. While those two camps have been engaged in wordy battle, and while the intellectuals have been embraced by the new conservative gentility, the silent conservatives have assumed political power. Accordingly, in their imbroglio with the noisy right, liberal and once- left forces have, in effect, defended these established conservatives, if only because they have lost any initiative of attack, in fact, lost even any point of effective criticism. The silent conservatives of corporation, army and state have benefited politically and economically and militarily by the antics of the petty right, who have become, often unwittingly, their political shocktroops. And they have ridden into power on all those structural trends set into motion and accelerated by the organization of the nation for seemingly permanent war.

So, in this context of material prosperity, with the noisy little men of the petty right successfully determining the tone and level of public sensibility; the silent conservatives achieving established power in a mindless victory; with the liberal rhetoric made official, then banalized by widespread and perhaps illicit use; with liberal hope carefully adjusted to mere rhetoric by thirty years of rhetorical victory; with radicalism deflated and radical hope stoned to death by thirty years of defeat—the political intellectuals have been embraced by the conservative mood. Among them there is no demand and no dissent, and no opposition to the monstrous decisions that are being made without deep or widespread debate, in fact with no debate at all. There is no opposition to the undemocratically impudent manner in which policies of high military and civilian authority are simply turned out as facts accomplished. There is no opposition to public mindlessness in all its forms nor to all those forces and men that would further it. But above all—among men of knowledge, there is little or no opposition to the divorce of knowledge from power, of sensibilities from men of power, no opposition to the divorce of mind from reality.

In America today, men of affairs are not so much dogmatic as they are mindless. For dogma has usually meant some more or less elaborated justification of ideas and values, and thus has had some features (however inflexible and closed) of mind, of intellect, of reason. Nowadays what we are up against is precisely the absence of mind of any sort as a public force; what we are up against is a lack of interest in and a fear of knowledge that might have liberating public relevance. And what this makes possible is the prevalence of the kindergarten chatter, as well as decisions having no rational justification which the intellect could confront and engage in debate.

It is not the barbarous irrationality of uncouth, dour Senators that is the American danger; it is the respected judgments of Secretaries of State, the earnest platitudes of Presidents, the fearful self-righteousness of sincere young American politicians from sunny California, that is the main danger. For these men have replaced mind by the platitude, and the dogmas by which they are legitimated are so widely accepted that no counter-balance of mind prevails against them. Such men as these are crackpot realists, who, in the name of realism have constructed a paranoid reality all their own and in the name of practicality have projected a utopian image of capitalism. They have replaced the responsible interpretation of events by the disguise of meaning in a maze of public relations, respect for public debate by unshrewd notions of psychological warfare, intellectual ability by the agility of the sound and mediocre judgment, and the capacity to elaborate alternatives and to gauge their consequences by the executive stance.

C. Wright Mills, “On Knowledge and Power” (1954)

Steady-state or snowball? I think I know which.

C. Wright Mills on Thorstein Veblen: Outside the Whale

I picked up the recent Oxford anthology of Mills, The Politics of Truth, for cheap. While there’s plenty of problems with Mills’s sociology, he still represents, along with Thorstein Veblen and Erving Goffman, a sort of triumvirate of  American sociologists who managed to find the right balance between theory and empiricism. They were also all amazing writers, and Mills was probably the best of the three. His writing is so damn compelling that I find it very easy to overlook gaps in his logic or structure because his visceral precision in describing behavior and emotions connects so well. I am suspicious of this ability! But because I sympathize with so many of his positions, I still find him gripping. Here he is paraphrasing and then quoting Veblen:

Thorstein Veblen realized that the world he lived in was dominated by what one might call “crackpot realism.” That was, and one must use the word, Veblen’s metaphysic–his bone-deep view of the nature of everyday American reality. He believed that the very Men of Affairs whom everyone supposed to embody sober, hard-headed practicality were in fact utopian capitalists and monomaniacs; that the Men of Decision who led soldiers in war and who organized civilians’ daily livelihoods in peace were in fact crackpots of the highest pecuniary order. They had “sold” a believing world on themselves; and they had–hence the irony–to play the chief fanatics in their delusional world.

No mere joke, however, but a basic element of his perspective caused Veblen to write in 1922 what might with equal truth be written today: “The current situation in America is by way of being something of a psychiatrical clinic. In order to come to an understanding of this situation there is doubtless much else to be taken into account, but the case of America is after all not fairly to be understood without making due allowance for a certain prevalent unbalance and derangement of mentality, presumably transient but sufficiently grave for the time being. Perhaps the commonest and plainest evidence of this unbalanced mentality is  to be seen in a certain fearsome and feverish credulity with which a large proportion of the Americans are affected.”

The realization of this false consciousness all around him, along with the sturdiness of mind and character to stand up against it, is the clue to Veblen’s world outlook. How different his was from the pervailing view is suggested by his utter inability to be “the salesman.”

Veblen opens up our minds, he gets us “outside the whale,’ he makes us see through the official sham. Above all, he teaches us to be aware of the crackpot basis of the realism of those practical Men of Affairs who would lead us to honorific destruction.

C. Wright Mills, “Thorstein Veblen” (1953)

This phenomenon is still very much with us, and yet these descriptions from 1953 and 1922 are better than any contemporary commentary I’ve seen.

Thoughts on Work

Marjorie Williams wrote that Christina Stead was one of the few authors to write accurately and thoroughly of money:

One other (random) thing I want to note is how wonderfully Stead writes about money. It is strange how little fiction there is that reflects the resonance money really has in life. (Middlemarch comes to mind, but how many titles spring after it?) The family’s economic decline, the scenes in which the Pollit children come to see that they are really poor, and the climactic one in which poor young Ernie–who defends himself through the careful accretion and management of money–discovers that his mother has stolen his last little savings, have a magnificent realism.

And I think this is partly true. Surely the most acutely realistic writers like George Gissing (in New Grub Street) have captured the relevance of money to the impoverished, but often, as with Dickens or Frank Norris’s McTeague, money simply becomes an item delineated by its desirability or its absence. The notion of finance, household particularly, is considerably rarer. Much of the “realistic” fiction of the last fifty years presents middle class people in financially comfortable situations, as long as they keep working.

But what of work? It has been on my mind lately because it’s been taking up larger-than-usual chunks of my time. But when I think about work as I know it, there are few literary correlates. Proust, I’m sure, would have had brilliant things to say, but he was lucky enough not to have to work. Social realist novels like Gladkov’s Cement or those of Dos Passos say less about the act of working than they do about the sociological politics underlying it. Leopold Bloom doesn’t spend much of his day, page-wise, in the office, and certainly seems preoccupied with other matters even while he’s there.

The two authors who I do think of are Kafka (particularly Amerika and The Castle, both about characters looking for work) and the Beckett of Watt. I don’t mean this in an existential, fatalistic, or hopeless way; it’s more that they capture the non-narrative nature of work, the idea that in spite of whatever is accomplished, you will be back the next day because it’s your job, and unlike school, there is no natural ending point (short of a mass layoff). The sheer unendingness of one’s occupation, and the ability for that infinite plane to envelop one’s life and weave its tendrils through your mannerisms and speech patterns, are better captured by the actions of Watt in serving Mr. Knott’s capricious needs than they are by tales of occupational woe and oppression. Watt’s preoccupation with the endless variations that he is put through, and the way that they define his words and actions, stand in contrast to the limitations of the setting of his work; this is what work is.

But even these stories are abstract and hardly particular enough to capture the particular flavor of corporate life in the first world today. And I fear that in the absence of a compelling literary story of work, sociologists and social theorists have taken over the job of defining work. They have done so primarily in Marxist terms, though not always. The effect has been to objectify these occupations and give short shrift to their mythologizers: at least to those who would see a mythos as crude as Confucianism. Even the Confucian hierarchy would be preferable to the individualist aesthetic that no longer seems germane to most modern occupations, whose managers stress interdependence as much as they do individual competition and achievement. Many theorists (I don’t have to name them) have overlaid a narrative of exploitation and alienation on corporate work, one that is in many ways quite accurate even as it misses the point. Consider C. Wright Mills, the most dramatic and emotional of the American narrators:

The old middle-class work ethic–the gospel of work–has been replaced in the society of employees by a leisure ethic, and this replacement has involved a sharp, almost absolute split between work and leisure. Now work itself is judged in terms of leisure values. The sphere of leisure provides the standards by which work is judged; it lends to work such meanings as work has.

Alienation in work means that the most alert hours of one’s life are sacrificed to the making of money with which to ‘live.’ Alienation means boredom and the frustration of potentially creative effort, of the productive sides of personality.

C. Wright Mills, White Collar (p. 236), 1951

A vivid portrayal of a nightmare. What I would argue, however, is that however great a straitjacket corporate work puts on its employees, it cannot be innately alienating. Alienation, pace Hagel, requires that one be alienated from an aspect of the world. Mills (among others) would say that the alienation is from the product of one’s work, but in corporate work the product of one’s work is not perceived as the end goal, not as much as (a) the process by which the product is achieved, and (b) one’s own self-advancement, and the relation between the two. The product looks very different from the inside than from the outside. In other words, there is a world of non-alienation at work, often a hostile and paranoid one, but one in which people live as an end in itself. And since this world is something that takes up over a third of the lives of the vast majority of people in this country, it deserves better than the slick generalizations of a Franzen.

But it seems that few writers has picked up the slack, leaving the academic left and the Straussian right to promulgate archetypal portrayals of the western employee to their various audiences. The topic of work is too significant to be left to theorists; Studs Terkel’s Working is a better map of these territories than Marx. The area should belong to literature, which can provide more personal and emotional narratives for it. But literature has yet to stake a serious claim.

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