The term “social construction” and its cousin “cultural construction” get casually tossed around a lot these days. Sometimes it’s used negatively, as a pejorative way of referring to those damn relativistic lefties. Sometimes it’s used approvingly, as a potted rejection of someone else’s position by saying, “Oh, that’s just your truth.” Either way, there’s almost always a sloppiness that tends to equate belief in social construction with relativism–especially the dreaded moral relativism. And that’s simply not the case. What follows are cribnotes on why truth is indeed socially constructed, but why relativism does not follow from it.
The real meaning of social construction is linguistic. What it means, in a nutshell, is that we could all agree tomorrow to call the sky red instead of blue, and that would not cause any problem for us. Now, this wouldn’t change in isolation. Lots of other adjustments would have to be made in order to start calling blue things red and red things blue (or some third color, in which case lather rinse repeat). So while this would be a logistical nightmare, it is still potentially possible. Adjust language in the right way by shifting enough terms, and we can go on as we did before without anyone being the wiser. By consensus, we have now changed the truth from “The sky is blue” to “The sky is red.” That is social construction.
But, you may say, the real truth hasn’t changed at all! What real truth? “The sky is still blue!” you say. No, it’s not. The sky was blue yesterday, and today it isn’t. Truths can only be expressed in mutually intelligible terms, and if you want to be left behind still calling the sky blue, you can, but now it’s you who is wrong. Social construction is not about reality, it’s about words. We don’t choose our reality, but we do choose our words–collectively.
The tricky part comes when people don’t agree on the truth. If some people say the sky is blue and some people say the sky is red, now you have to do the work of figuring out why they disagree. Maybe they just have different words for the same color. Maybe one group of people has different cones in their eyes that actually make the sky look like a different color. All of these things can be experimentally tested, because truths have to fit together with one another. If both groups agree that the wavelength of blue/red light is 475nm, then clearly it’s the same color, and there’s just terminological confusion (unless they don’t agree on numbers either, but you get the idea). If one group says the sky is blue and 475nm, and the other group says the sky is red and 730nm, then science has got some work to do in order to decide which of them is totally wrong. Naturally, the two groups have to agree to the rules of science and agree to abide by the results and agree on what abiding by the results means…but at the end of the day, cultural construction is not some free-for-all. It’s just the contract we make in order to be able to agree on anything.
On the other hand, it also means that there’s very little meaning in being right by yourself. If you think the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm (which it is), and everyone else thinks it’s 730nm (which it isn’t), you have two options. You can try to convince people that you’re right, marshaling the evidence and arguments to do so, or you can sit quietly and wait for vindication beyond the grave when someone else figures out how wrong everyone has been. But what if they never do? I’m afraid you’re stuck. You can’t be said to have been right because no one will be around to say it. Truth is linguistic, which means that unless there later comes to be a consensus that you were right, you weren’t. That’s not relativism, that’s just how the game is played.
Contrariwise, even if the entire world believes that the sky’s wavelength is about 475nm, there’s nothing to say that at some point in the distant future we won’t be proven oh so wrong and people will look back on us and say, “What fools they were!” In exchange for the pain of truth requiring some kind of social consensus, you get the pleasure of being able to doubt anything anyone says due to the possibility, however distant, of it being overturned in the future. And so the lumbering human process of truthseeking rolls along.
I began with the most objective and “scientific” examples because things get far muddier when it comes to morality and valuation in general. If there is no scientific fact to discover, as people generally assume when it comes to ethics, does that mean that morality really is relativistic? You don’t really need to answer that question, because it comes out in the wash. Social practices will inevitably spit out moral systems, which will argue with one another and end up settling on some set of values. We don’t know for sure whether a particular moral system is correct–but how is this different from science? Because, you might say, the methodology is totally different! You don’t conduct experiments to test moral hypotheses! (Unless you’re one of those analytic philosophers, that is.) That’s true. But just because there’s a different adjudication process doesn’t mean that it’s somehow more relativistic. Rather, it means that morality is only as morally relativistic as we say it is. If everyone in the world were to agree that morality is absolute, then it might as well be, because who’s going to disagree?
Admittedly, that’s not a very satisfying answer when it comes to morality, but it gives some hint of how empty absolute relativism is. At the bottom, you have to agree on some purported absolutes just to get along in the world. Most of them won’t be moral laws, but there’s no intrinsic prohibition on them being absolutes–at least, not according to social construction. All social construction dictates, rather, is that the limits of what we term the “absolute” stop at what we collectively agree to be true, because how could we possibly get more absolute than that?
Is money a means or an end? If any purpose we may pursue can be quantified by monetary value, what effect does that have on the meaning of that purpose? We use money as an abstract intermediary to achieving a certain, more concrete ends, but those ends in turn lose their absolute, incomparable value by being expressed and paid for in terms of empty cash.
In this final chapter, Simmel pulls back to examine the structural role money possesses in modern cosmopolitan life–and ultimately, the entire cosmos (really). For money is not just grease on the wheels of capitalism, but constitutes the essential link between the disparate pieces of life that have been joined together through the growing and increasingly interdependent world. Without money, the pieces could not join.
(This is, indeed, why socialism and communism could not do without money as an abstract conception. Some content-free form of universal valuation would still be necessary for a socialist or communist system to exist. Perhaps there wouldn’t be currency or private ownership, but money-as-a-measure would persist.)
Simmel’s answer is that money, being means and end simultaneously, breaks down the distinction.
Money is everywhere conceived as purpose, and countless things that are really ends in themselves are thereby degraded to mere means. But since money itself is an omnipresent means, the various elements of our existence are thus placed in an all-embracing teleological nexus in which no element is either the first or the last. Furthermore, since money measures all objects with merciless objectivity, and since its standard of value so measured determines their relationship, a web of objective and personal aspects of life emerges which is similar to the natural cosmos with its continuous cohesion and strict causality. This web is held together by the all-pervasive money value, just as nature is held together by the energy that gives life to everything. Like money, energy appears in innumerable forms, but the uniformity of its very nature and the possibility of transforming any specific form into any other results in a relationship between all of them and makes each of them a condition of any other. Just as every emotional accentuation has disappeared from the interpretation of natural processes and has been replaced by an objective intelligence, so the objects and relationships of our practical world, inasmuch as they form increasingly interconnected series, exclude the interference of emotions. They become merely objects of intelligence and appear only at the teleological terminal points. The growing transformation of all elements of life into means, the mutual connection of sequences that previously terminated in autonomous purposes with a complex of relative elements, is not only the practical counterpart of the growing causal knowledge of nature and the transformation of its absolutes into relativities. Rather, since the whole structure of means is one of a causal connection viewed from the front, the practical world too increasingly becomes a problem for the intelligence. To put it more precisely, the conceivable elements of action become objectively and subjectively calculable rational relationships and in so doing progressively eliminate the emotional reactions and decisions which only attach themselves to the turning points of life, to the final purposes.
In imagery that anticipates Henry Adams’ dynamo, Simmel paints the modern “web” as a world in which monetary valuations and bonds have generated an autonomous chain of forces which individuals cannot overcome. No matter what emotion, force, or purpose humans may bring to the web of life, there is no way to replace money as the central structuring element, nor could there be, since only a neutral, empty form of value such as money could serve the purpose of joining together the varied pieces of the web. In Kantian terms (for this is surely what Simmel is echoing as well), money is a necessary condition for the possibility of modern life, as are its consequences.
Financiers are the avatars of this society. Unlike artists, philosophers, or even politicians, they approach money from the most neutral of positions, and so are most capable of tracking its workings without bias.
Those products of an urban existence whose sole aim is to make money by any means possible therefore need the intellect as a general function all the more because specialized knowledge is out of the question for them. They form a major contingent of that type of insecure personality which can hardly be pinned down and ‘placed’ because their mobility and their versatility saves them from committing themselves, as it were, in any situation.
Money places the actions and relations of men quite outside of men as human subjects, just as intellectual life—in so far as it is purely intellectual—moves from personal subjectivity into the sphere of objectivity which it only reflects. This obviously implies a relationship of superiority. Just as he who has money is superior to he who has the commodity, so the intellectual person as such has a certain power over the more emotional, impulsive person. For however much the latter may be more valuable as a whole person, and however much his powers may ultimately surpass the other, he is more one-sided, more committed and prejudiced than the intellectual person; he does not have the superior view and the unlimited possibilities of the use of all practical means that the purely intellectual person has. It is this factor of superiority, common to both money and intellectuality by virtue of their objectivity towards any particular life contents, that prompted Comte to place bankers at the head of secular government in his utopian state, because bankers formed the class with the most general and abstract functions.
Once again, Albert Hirschman chronicled the early arguments for capitalism which depicted it as a welcomee suppressant of humans’ most impulsive and emotional instincts. But it is not just that they are more rational and dispassionate, but that they are more fundamentally empty, seeing their goal purely as a maximization of monetary value in the absence of any particular form that value may take. This in turn redefines logic and rationality themselves as things which cannot attach themselves to any particular end. Simmel implies that the increasingly technical and hermetic character of modern philosophy is a consequence of money squeezing it out of being able to make a case for any greater telos.
As a result, only self-interested action is considered to be genuinely and simply ‘logical’. All devotion and self-sacrifice seems to flow from the irrational forces of feeling and volition, so that men of pure intellect treat them ironically as a proof of lack of intelligence or denounce them as the disguise of a hidden egoism. This is certainly mistaken since even the egoistic will is just as much a will as the altruistic will and can just as little be squeezed out of merely rationalistic thought.
He compares money with two other formal, universal systems, law and logic, which also remove circumstantial particulars.
Money is completely adaptable to any use without any relationship of its quality to that of the real objects thereby bringing about any specific encouragement or obstruction. Money is therefore similar to the forms of logic which lend themselves equally to any particular content, regardless of that content’s development or combination. It thus grants the same chances to representation and formal correctness to the objectively most nonsensical and detrimental contents as it does to the most valuable. Furthermore, money is also analogous to the schemes of law which often enough lack safety devices for preventing the most serious injustice from being endowed with an unimpeachable formal righteousness.
All three factors—the law, intellectuality and money—are characterized by their complete indifference to individual qualities; all three extract from the concrete totality of the streams of life one abstract, general factor which develops according to its own independent norms and which intervenes in the totality of existential interests and imposes itself upon them. In that all three of them have the power to lay down forms and directions for contents to which they are indifferent, they necessarily inject those contradictions into the totality of life which concern us here. Wherever equality impinges upon the formal foundations of human relationships, it serves to express individual inequalities most pointedly and far-reachingly. By observing the limits imposed by formal equality, egoism need no longer concern itself with internal and external barriers. It possesses, in the general validity of that equality, a weapon which, by serving anyone, may also be used against anyone.
While I think the comparison with formal logic is apt and well-taken, law is a trickier case. The paradox of law is how unable it is to completely remove itself from particulars, and how each application of precedent has some wiggle room in which a new case refines the precedent set before it. In this law is far closer to the messiness of language than it is to the all-leveling empty universalism of money or logic.
Yet Simmel has a point when he writes, anticipating Musil in The Man Without Qualities, that intellectual activity is falling into being technical bean counting rather than the questioning of the precepts of life (those precepts having been ripped away by money).
Just as the objectivity of money permits ‘work’ that is ultimately relatively independent of personal energies and the accumulating returns lead automatically to more accumulation in growing proportions, so the objectification of knowledge, the separation of the results of intelligence from its process, causes these results to accumulate in the form of concentrated abstractions, so that, if only one stands high enough, they may be picked like fruits that have ripened without any effort on our part.
And this in turn is because the subjects of intellectual life, just like the products of work, leave us little with which we can engage. Our relationship to any particular object or activity is by default partial and haphazard, since integral relationships are no longer required in the web. Objects drift in and out of our lives
Just as freedom is not something negative but rather is the positive extension of the self into the objects that yield to it, so, conversely, our freedom is crippled if we deal with objects that our ego cannot assimilate. The sense of being oppressed by the externalities of modern life is not only the consequence but also the cause of the fact that they confront us as autonomous objects. What is distressing is that we are basically indifferent to those numerous objects that swarm around us, and this is for reasons specific to a money economy: their impersonal origin and easy replaceability. The fact that large industrial concerns are the breeding ground for socialist ideas is due not only to the social conditions of their workers, but also to the objective quality of their products. Modern man is so surrounded by nothing but impersonal objects that he becomes more and more conditioned into accepting the idea of an antiindividualistic social order—though, of course, he may also oppose it. Cultural objects increasingly evolve into an interconnected enclosed world that has increasingly fewer points at which the subjective soul can interpose its will and feelings. And this trend is supported by a certain autonomous mobility on the part of the objects.
There seems to be one exception which Simmel does not treat, which is family. Although marital transactions may still exist, the parental relationship remains considerably more immune to commensurability. Any given person is liable to say that the one thing they would never sacrifice, and indeed may even sacrifice themselves for, is their child. Where Laclos said, “There is no happiness outside the family,” and wrote Dangerous Liaisons (in which chastity and sex are thoroughly commodified and rendered meaningless) to try to prove it, Simmel might say, “There is no absolute value outside the family.”
Society has made virtue out of necessity. The wild dynamism caused by money, the short-circuiting of lasting value relationships, becomes a fetish, nowhere more than in the realm of fashion, the ultimate case of running to stand still.
Yet the social changes of the last hundred years have accelerated the pace of changes in fashion, on the one hand through the weakening of class barriers and frequent upward social mobility of individuals and sometimes even of whole groups to a higher stratum, and on the other through the predominance of the third estate. The first factor makes very frequent changes of fashion necessary on the part of leading strata because imitation by the lower strata rapidly robs fashions of their meaning and attraction. The second factor comes into operation because the middle class and the urban population are, in contrast to the conservatism of the highest strata and the peasantry, the groups in which there is great variability. Insecure classes and individuals, pressing for change, find in fashion, in the changing and contrasting forms of life, a pace that mirrors their own psychological movements. If contemporary fashions are much less extravagant and expensive and of much shorter duration than those of earlier centuries, then this is due partly to the fact that it must be made much easier for the lower strata to emulate these fashions and partly because fashion now originates in the wealthy middle class. Consequently, the spreading of fashion, both in breadth as well as speed, appears to be an independent movement, an objective and autonomous force which follows its own course independently of the individual.
Fashion itself is the pursuit of an absolute value which can never be reached, a race without an end in which one’s measure is how far ahead one is of everyone else. It is purely relative and without any intrinsic value. Yet because the flow of fashion is autonomous from its participants, owing again to money, there is no way to slow down the fashion train.
At the same time, the constant parade of fashion robs any individual style of meaning, since we already know that it will be old-hat and obsolete by next year. This applies as much to fashionable ideas as to fashionable clothes. Holding on to any particular idea is a losing battle, and as any academic will tell you, pursuing unfashionable ideas is tremendously risky as a strategy for tenure. I remain amazed at many professors’ and students’ willingness to make claims about the absolute virtues of one or another thinker or idea, only to dispose of the entire structure a few years later when the zeitgeist had shifted. I have seen it happen to historical materialism, deconstruction, and postcolonialism, and I can only infer that critical race and gender studies will be next.
The historicizing preference of our century, its unique ability to reproduce and bring back to life the most remote entities, both in time as well as in space, is only the internal aspect of the general development of its adaptability and its wide-ranging mobility. This is the root of the bewildering plurality of styles that are absorbed, presented and appreciated by our culture. If every style is like a language unto itself, with specific sounds, inflexions and syntax for expressing life, then as long as we know only a single style that forms our environment we are not aware of style as an autonomous factor with an independent life.
Simmel has a diagnosis for “highly individualistic and sensitive” people such as myself who dislike seeing ideas treated like chattel (and people for that matter, but we’re talking about ideas here), and who see the dominance of half-elucidated jargon in the academic and political spheres to be deadly to the pursuit of truth.
Because of modern differentiation, and closely connected with this the mechanical nature of our cultural products, the objective mind lacks this spirituality. This may be the ultimate reason for the present-day animosity of highly individualistic and sensitive people to the ‘progress of culture’. Certainly, the more objective culture, determined by the development of the division of labour, is a part or consequence of the general phenomenon, the more it is true that, in our present epoch, important things are carried out not by individuals but by the masses. The division of labour actually produces a situation in which even the individual object is a product of the mass. The breakdown of individuals into their particular energies which is determined by our organization of the labour process, and the reintegration of what has been differentiated into an objective cultural product, results in the object being deprived of a soul, the more people participate in its manufacture. The splendour and greatness of modern culture possesses some analogy with Plato’s radiant realm of ideas in which the objective spirit of things exists in unblemished perfection, but yet lacks the values of the particular personality that cannot be dissolved into objectivities. This is a deficiency that persists despite any amount of awareness of the fragmentary, irrational and ephemeral character of these values. Indeed, personal spirituality possesses a value as mere form that asserts itself despite all the mediocrity and counter-idealism of its content. It retains its particular significance for our existence and, in contrast to all its objective aspects, even for those instances from which we commenced, where individual subjective culture declines while objective culture progresses.
His prognosis for people such as myself is rather grim, but not hopeless. Money fortunately permits a greater amount of intellectual independence and freedom from the workings of society, allowing an individual far more intellectual privacy than most civilizations of the past ever did. The cost of such privacy is inevitable alienation.
On the one hand, money functions as the system of articulations in this organism, enabling its elements to be shifted, establishing a relationship of mutual dependence of the elements, and transmitting all impulses through the system. On the other hand, money can be compared to the bloodstream whose continuous circulation permeates all the intricacies of the body’s organs and unifies their functions by feeding them all to an equal extent. Thus money, as an intermediate link between man and thing, enables man to have, as it were, an abstract existence, a freedom from direct concern with things and from a direct relationship to them, without which our inner nature would not have the same chances of development. If modern man can, under favourable circumstances, secure an island of subjectivity, a secret, closed-off sphere of privacy—not in the social but in a deeper metaphysical sense—for his most personal existence, which to some extent compensates for the religious style of life of former times, then this is due to the fact that money relieves us to an ever-increasing extent of direct contact with things, while at the same time making it infinitely easier for us to dominate them and select from them what we require.
Hence this blog, for example, serves as an “island of subjectivity” while my higher-profile work elsewhere is subjected by varying degrees to the commodification of ideas in the parade of intellectual fashion.
Yet it is not even that a person such as myself must hold subjectivity more in reserve than most people do, but that all people must play roles to a greater extent than they ever have before, since any given situation is now hopelessly contingent and relativistic. At any point we know that the particulars of our cultural moment may be changed into something else entirely, and our options are to either play along with the current transaction or embrace anomie. We are always holding ourselves in reserve, whether or not we realize it.
For the jostling crowdedness and the motley disorder of metropolitan communication would simply be unbearable without such psychological distance. Since contemporary urban culture, with its commercial, professional and social intercourse, forces us to be physically close to an enormous number of people, sensitive and nervous modern people would sink completely into despair if the objectification of social relationships did not bring with it an inner boundary and reserve. The pecuniary character of relationships, either openly or concealed in a thousand forms, places an invisible functional distance between people that is an inner protection and neutralization against the overcrowded proximity and friction of our cultural life.
By chronically living in such a contingent and potentially dynamic situation, a crisis of meaning becomes the permanent state of affairs, since as with fashion above, any situation is prone to be revoked and changed at a moment’s notice. We may only be conscious of this when it happens on a grand scale, as when September 11 or Trump’s election changed the perception of life for millions over night, but it is a threat we live with constantly (and which I treated in my essay on Thomas Pynchon).
Modern times, particularly the most recent, are permeated by a feeling of tension, expectation and unreleased intense desires—as if in anticipation of what is essential, of the definitive of the specific meaning and central point of life and things. This is obviously connected with the overemphasis that the means often gain over the ends of life in mature cultures. Aside from money, militarism is perhaps the most striking example in this respect. The regular army is a mere preparation, a latent energy, a contingency, whose ultimate goal and purpose not only very rarely materializes but is also avoided at all costs. Indeed, the enormous buildup of military forces is praised as the only means of preventing their explosion. With this teleological web we have reached the very pinnacle of the contradiction that lies in the drowning out of the end by the means: the growing significance of the means goes hand in hand with a corresponding increase in the rejection and negation of the end. And this factor increasingly permeates the social life of the people; it directly interferes with personal, political and economic relationships on a large scale and indirectly gives certain age groups and social circles their distinctive character.
Simmel argues that this sense of uprootedness and confused perspective is not a consequence of a widening of scope from the purely local to the national and international, though this appears to be the case. For Simmel, the fractured world in which ends cannot be extracted from means works on a purely individual level, and no form of life, no matter how rural or localized, is immune from its impact because money’s structuring role is so omnipresent.
It is quite erroneous to believe that the significance and intellectual potential of modern life has been transferred from the form of the individual to that of the masses. Rather, it has been transferred to the form of the objects: it lives in the immense abundance, the marvellous expediency and the complicated precision of machines, products and the supra-individual organizations of contemporary culture. Correspondingly, the ‘revolt of the slaves’ that threatens to dethrone the autocracy and the normative independence of strong individuals is not the revolt of the masses, but the revolt of objects. Just as, on the one hand, we have become slaves of the production process, so, on the other, we have become the slaves of the products. That is, what nature offers us by means of technology is now a mastery over the self-reliance and the spiritual centre of life through endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs. Thus, the domination of the means has taken possession not only of specific ends but of the very centre of ends, of the point at which all purposes converge and from which they originate as final purposes. Man has thereby become estranged from himself; an insuperable barrier of media, technical inventions, abilities and enjoyments has been erected between him and his most distinctive and essential being.
I do wonder about this. This passage is Simmel at his most “conservative,” arguing that some sort of distinctive and essential characteristic of humanity has been lost through the loss of a clear sense of ends, but the bleakness of pre-capitalist forms of life, as he discussed earlier, would suggest that those earlier ends might not have been exactly what we took them to be. In other words, the “himself” from which man has become estranged may be far more of a construct than Simmel portrays it as. It was simply a more convincing and more stable construct.
Nevertheless, Simmel is on solid ground in saying that today it is the instability of our values that defines our existence, and this instability is abetted by the monetary construction of our world. We are restless creatures less in the sense of being ambitious or being bored, but in the inability to affirm any particular form of life as being intrinsically valuable.
I believe that this secret restlessness, this helpless urgency that lies below the threshold of consciousness, that drives modern man from socialism to Nietzsche, from Böcklin to impressionism, from Hegel to Schopenhauer and back again, not only originates in the bustle and excitement of modern life, but that, conversely, this phenomenon is frequently the expression, symptom and eruption of this innermost condition. The lack of something definite at the centre of the soul impels us to search for momentary satisfaction in ever-new stimulations, sensations and external activities. Thus it is that we become entangled in the instability and helplessness that manifests itself as the tumult of the metropolis, as the mania for travelling, as the wild pursuit of competition and as the typically modern disloyalty with regard to taste, style, opinions and personal relationships. The significance of money for this kind of life follows quite logically from the premises that all the discussions in this book have identified. It is only necessary to mention here the dual role of money. Money stands in a series with all the means and tools of culture, which slide in front of the inner and final ends and ultimately cover them up and displace them. Money is most important in illustrating the senselessness and the consequences of the teleological dislocation, partly because of the passion with which it is craved for, and partly because of its own emptiness and merely transitional character. However, in this sense, money is only the highest point on the scale of all these phenomena. It carries out the function of imposing a distance between ourselves and our purposes in the same manner as other technical mediating elements, but does it more purely and completely. Here, too, money shows itself to be not an isolated instance but rather the most perfect expression of tendencies that are also discernible in a series of lower phenomena. Yet in another respect, money stands outside this whole series by frequently being the agent that brings about the transformations in the sequence of purposes. Money interweaves this sequence as the means of means, as the most general technique of practical life without which the specific techniques of our culture could not have developed. Indeed, even in this respect, money exhibits the duality of its functions through whose unification it repeats the form of the greatest and the deepest potentialities of life: on the one hand, it is an equal member or even a first among equals in the series of human existence, and, on the other, it stands above them as an integrating force that supports and permeates every single element. In the same way, religion is a force in life, one interest among others and often opposed to them. It is one of those factors that are the constituents of life and yet, on the other hand, it expresses the unity and the basis of our whole existence—on the one hand it is a link in life’s organism, and on the other it stands opposed to that organism by expressing life through the self- sufficiency of its summit and inwardness.
My question, however, persists: is “the lack of something definite at the centre of the soul” something that is a result of money and the confusion of means and ends, or is it something revealed by money? While Simmel has been very careful about the naturalistic fallacy up until this point, he turns once again to a certain nostalgic vision of a more solid life, perhaps out of necessity. One could argue, as Henry Adams did, that the recipe for our current world is a recipe for doom, and so any greater stability of culture and value would be welcome, but that does not mean that it is necessarily a more accurate engagement with reality and with ourselves.
Strangely, it is as though Simmel recognizes this problem, for he immediately moves on to an even more abstract consideration of the individual’s relationship to the whole, seeming to leave money behind. I cannot explain this shift coherently, because it does seem to contradict his appeal to “something definite.” Money now takes on the role of truth-teller rather than corruptor.
Life is not controlled by ideas whose application always leads to systematization and strict rhythms; rather, it is formed out of individual elements regardless of the symmetry of the whole, which is experienced only as a constraint rather than as an attraction. The essence of symmetry lies in the fact that every element of a whole derives its position, its justification and its significance only in relation to other elements and to a common centre. Conversely, if every element follows its own impulse and evolves autonomously and only for its own sake, the whole becomes necessarily asymmetrical and fortuitous. This conflict, in view of its aesthetic reflex, is the basic motif of all processes that are played out between a social whole—of a political, religious, familial, economic, social or any other kind—and its individual members. The individual strives to be an organic totality, a unity with its own centre from whence all the elements of his being and his action derive a coherent and consistent meaning. But if the supra-individual whole is supposed to be independently coherent and to realize its own objective notion of itself with self-sufficient significance, then it cannot possibly tolerate any independence on the part of its members. Hence it is impossible to expect a tree growing out of different trees, but only out of cells, or a painting out of other paintings, but only out of strokes of the brush not one of which on its own possesses any completeness, independent life or aesthetic significance. The totality of the whole—although it gains practical reality only in certain actions of the individual and perhaps even only within the individual—stands in eternal conflict with the totality of the individual. The aesthetic expression of this struggle is particularly impressive because the charm of beauty is always embedded in a whole, no matter whether it has immediate distinctiveness or a distinctiveness that is supplemented by fantasy as in the case of a fragment. The essential meaning of art lies in its being able to form an autonomous totality, a self-sufficient microcosm out of a fortuitous fragment of reality that is tied with a thousand threads to this reality. The typical conflict between the individual and supra-individual existence can be interpreted as the irreconcilable striving of both elements to attain an aesthetically satisfying expression.
I find little to object to in this passage, other than to say that money has disappeared. Now money becomes a symptom rather than a catalyst. The problem arises not just from the increasing scope of an individual’s relationship to society and multiple value systems made commensurate by money, but from the very relationship of an individual to a larger value system itself. Yet in a smaller world the individual and art could work triumphs over this tortured relationship, whereas the dominance of money and contingency now gives the individual no chance whatsoever.
Money is the symbol in the empirical world of the inconceivable unity of being, out of which the world, in all its breadth, diversity, energy and reality, flows. The indiscernible structure of things has to be subjectively interpreted by metaphysics in such a manner that the contents of the world form a merely spiritual context, that they exist in a mere ideality and that only then—of course not in a temporal process—does existence emerge above them. It has been expressed in this manner: that the ‘what’ gains its ‘thatness’. No one is able to say what this being actually is, which qualitatively determines the difference between the real object and the merely logically valid objective content.
In other words, money serves as the constant reminder of the inadequacy of our world-conception. We’re just confronted with that inadequacy far more often in today’s web than we were in the more localized and particular societies of the past. Money reveals the essential character of the world not to be stability, but dynamic flux:
Thus, for example, the rainbow persists despite the constantly changing position of the water particles; the organic form persists despite the constant exchange of material of which it is composed. Indeed, in every inorganic object only the relationship and the interaction of the smallest parts persist, whereas the parts themselves, hidden to our eyes, are in constant molecular flux. Thus, reality itself is in a restless flux, and though we are unable to observe this because, as it were, we lack the sharpness of sight, the forms and constellations of movements solidify in the appearance of the enduring object.
As he reaches the end of the book, Simmel’s treatment of money becomes more metaphysical than sociological, and very nearly a metaphor. After all, since he has been treating money as the epitome of Kantian form without content, it would then serve perfectly as an illustration of the processes not just of society, but of the world. It is a virtuoso performance but it is also somewhat contrived, since Simmel has cleverly swapped out his premises, going from Adam Smith to Heraclitus.
Just as constancy may extend over any extent of time, no matter how long, until any relationship to a specific moment of time is simply dissolved by the eternal validity of the law of nature or the mathematical formula, so too change and motion may be conceived of as absolutes, as if a specific measurement of time for them did not exist. If all motion proceeds between a ‘here’ and a ‘there’, then through this absolute motion—the species aeternitatis in reverse—the ‘here’ completely disappears. Whereas timeless objects are valid in the form of permanency, their opposites are valid in the form of transition, of non- permanency. I am in no doubt that this pair of opposites is comprehensive enough to develop a view of the world out of them. If, on the one hand, one knew all the laws that control reality, then reality would actually be reduced to its absolute contents, to its eternal timeless significance. This would be true even though reality could not yet be constructed on this basis since the law as such, according to its ideal content, is completely indifferent towards any individual instance of its realization. But it is precisely because the content of reality is completely absorbed in these laws, which constantly produce effects out of causes and simultaneously allow these effects to operate as causes, that it is possible, on the other hand, to perceive reality, the concrete, historical, experiential appearance of the world in that absolute flux that is indicated by Heraclitus’ symbolic formulation. If one reduces the view of the world to this opposition, then everything of duration, everything that points beyond the immediate moment, is extracted from reality and assembled in the ideal realm of mere laws. In reality itself things do not last for any length of time; through the restlessness with which they offer themselves at any moment to the application of a law, every form becomes immediately dissolved in the very moment when it emerges; it lives, as it were, only by being destroyed; every consolidation of form to lasting objects—no matter how short they last—is an incomplete interpretation that is unable to follow the motion of reality at its own pace. The unity of the whole of being is completely comprehended in the unity of what simply persists and what simply does not persist.
Note, again, that he has moved from money as it is used in the world to money-as-an-ideal-concept. It is now standing in for a wholly metaphysical concept of holistic process dynamics.
The individual amount of money is, in fact, by its very nature in constant motion. But this is only because its value relates to the individual objects of value, just as the general law relates to the concrete conditions in which it realizes itself. If the law, which itself stands above all motions, none the less represents the form and basis of all motions, then the abstract value of wealth that is not subdivided into individual values and that is represented by money is, as it were, the soul and purpose of economic activities. As a tangible item money is the most ephemeral thing in the external-practical world; yet in its content it is the most stable, since it stands as the point of indifference and balance between all other phenomena in the world. The ideal purpose of money, as well as of the law, is to be a measure of things without being measured itself, a purpose that can be realized fully only by an endless development.
Money, finally, is the structural link between the particular and the universal, the individual and society, the mind and the cosmos. It fixes these links momentarily while remaining endlessly mutable.
The observation that this one institution participates equally in the two basic forms of reality may explain the relationship of these two forms. Their significance is actually a relative one; that is, each finds its logical and psychological possibility for interpreting the world in the other. Only because reality is in constant motion is there any sense in asserting its opposite: the ideal system of eternally valid lawfulness. Conversely, it is only because such lawfulness exists that we are able to comprehend and grasp that stream of existence that would otherwise disintegrate into total chaos. The general relativity of the world, at first glance familiar to only one side of this opposition, in reality also engulfs the other side and proves to be its mistress where it only appeared to be a party. In the same way, money transcends its significance as a single economic value in order to represent abstract economic value in general and to entwine both functions in an indissoluble correlation in which neither is the first. Money, as an institution of the historical world, symbolizes the behaviour of objects and establishes a special relationship between itself and them. The more the life of society becomes dominated by monetary relationships, the more the relativistic character of existence finds its expression in conscious life, since money is nothing other than a special form of the embodied relativity of economic goods that signifies their value. Just as the absolutist view of the world represents a definite stage of intellectual development in correlation with the corresponding practical, economic and emotional conditions of human affairs, so the relativistic view of the world seems to express the momentary relationship of adjustment on the part of our intellect. More accurate, it is confirmed by the opposing images of social and subjective life, in which money has found its real effective embodiment and the reflected symbol of its forms and movements.
We may think we have nailed something down. We may think we have rooted ourselves in one place or another. But money will always be there as a reminder that it will all be torn down soon enough. Perhaps the Cynics were right; money is pure angst.
Simmel ends on a portrait of the cosmos as pure flux, in which physical and social systems are forever oscillating and evolving into unfamiliar forms. Human civilization, as he portrays it, has been a gradual process of reconciliation to that truth. From primitive societies, which were so small and regimented to not be subject to the uncertainties and dynamism of larger systems, came the creation of seemingly absolute values. As civilization grew, the false certainty in these values collapsed, but as civilization could not exist without a notion of value, some notion of currency for values was needed. Money became the catalytic mechanism for humans engaging with the eternal dynamism of the world and the arbitrariness of value. Its tug toward abstraction, even as we pull back toward specificity, is the fundamental tension of modernity. We function inasmuch as we embrace a lack of meaning. We find value inasmuch as we reject the objective, valueless transactions of our society.
Simmel’s theme has now been firmly established: the “unconditional interchangeability” of money, and how in making incompatible value sets commensurable, it calls into question all positions of absolute value. Anything that has a price holds relative value to everything else with a price, by definition. And the ultimate unit of value, that of money itself, has no intrinsic value whatsoever. And as our labor and lives are quantified by monetary value, humans are also becoming like money, indistinguishable in number; independent and flexible at the cost of the loss of a fixed and specific identity. This is not a consequence of capitalism, but of modernity. A controlled socialist economy would require equal if not greater efforts to measure and compare the values of resources. For Simmel, socialism will ultimately pose a greater threat to incommmensurable values than even capitalism, purely because of the greater degree of top-down control. This doesn’t make Simmel any sort of libertarian, because his arguments have no roots in notions of rights or property. Rather, he sees capitalism’s disorganization as relaxing some of the stranglehold that money’s value has on life itself, at least compared to socialism.
Having established how life now appears to the person embedded in a national or global monetary economy, Simmel pushes further into the mind of the modern, asking what effect such a transition has on an individual’s notion of value, moral or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, he finds them being commodified as well, but the question is: what does it mean for personal values to be commodified?
Simmel points out a paradox here, which is that even as money has become a universal form of value, society has moved away from placing a monetary value on one particular thing: a human life. Feudalism and slavery treat humans as chattel, almost in place of money. (This, indeed, formed the basis of Eugene Genovese’s uncomfortable and dubious arguments for a sort of Southern socialism, in which capitalism is replaced with a kind of paternalistic feudalism.) Simmel does not touch directly on the United States or slavery, but his invocations of feudalism make the comparison inevitable.
The medieval prohibitions upon taking interest rest on the assumption that money is not a commodity. On the contrary, money was considered to be inflexible or unproductive and therefore it was deemed a sin to demand a price for its use as one would for the use of a commodity. During the very same period, however, it was considered not in the least sinful to treat a person as a commodity. If one compares this standpoint with the practical and theoretical notions of modern times, then it becomes clear how the concepts of money and of man move continuously in exactly opposite directions; the oppositeness of the directions remains the same, however, whether the concepts, with reference to a specific problem, develop towards or away from each other.
Simmel’s arguments are elliptical and difficult here, one of the reasons it has taken me so long to parse this chapter. They are not as central to his main thesis, but these arguments are some of the most visceral and painful, because he has moved beyond examining the modern world into an examination of how society has historically valued people, and the answers are extremely ugly. No more so than when, after considering feudalism, he moves on to how value has been placed on women, for women have had monetary prices placed on them in multiple societies throughout history.
There is no doubt that this businesslike attitude completely suppresses the individuality of the persons and their relationships. And yet the organization of marriage affairs as found in marriage by purchase signifies considerable progress when compared with the more brutal conditions of marriage by robbery or of completely primitive sexual relationships which, although not completely promiscuous, were none the less probably carried out without that stabilizing norm that was supplied in the socially regulated purchase of a wife. Time and time again, the development of mankind reaches stages at which the suppression of individuality is the unavoidable transitional point for its subsequent free development, at which the mere externality of the determinations of life favours spiritual growth, at which oppressive formation results in a reservoir of forces that later emerge as personal quality. Viewed from the ideal of fully developed individuality, such periods certainly appear to be brutal and undignified. However, they not only plant the positive germs of later higher development, but are in themselves manifestations of the spirit in its organizing control of the material of fluctuating impulses, activities of specifically human expediency that creates for itself, no matter how brutal, extraneous, or even stupid, the norms of life instead of merely receiving them from natural forces. Nowadays there are extreme individualists who are none the less in practice adherents of socialism because they consider socialism to be the indispensable preparation and even the severe training for a purified and just individualism. Thus the relatively stable order and external standardization of marriage by purchase was a first, very violent and eminently non-individual, attempt to give a certain mould to the marriage relationship which was just as appropriate for primitive stages as the more individualistic marital form is for more highly developed stages.
What I take Simmel to be saying here is that the by putting a price on a bride, society assigns a certain agreed-upon value to the female gender. The price may vary from woman to woman, but it’s significant that there is a value. A man who says that a woman is worth nothing is, as such, opting out of a society. rooted in family. For the reasons given in the previous four chapters, this de-individualizes and dehumanizes the woman, by virtue of making her easily comparable in worth to other women and to other commodities. However, Simmel points out that this is a deficit only if the incommensurate value of being a woman was already substantive. And here he finds evidence that often enough, it wasn’t. Ironically, placing a (high) purchase price on a woman may result in better treatment than if she is seen “merely” as a female human. Now, a man may say, she is not just a female–she’s worth 30 sheep! Simmel concludes, “the degradation and humiliation of human value decreases if the purchase prices are very high.” There are similar situations in the case of slavery: the higher the price of a slave (or the more difficult to replace), the more likely a slave is to receive non-lethal treatment at the hands of their master. Congress’ banning of the importation of slaves in 1808 resulted in a significant decline in the death rates of slaves, who to that point were seen as cheap and easily replaceable.
This is astonishingly grim, but Simmel does not follow all the threads he teases out here. Rather, he concludes by saying that while assigning monetary value to human life may result in more humane treatment compared to feudal situations, it nonetheless finds itself in contention with any essential notion of human value. And here Simmel returns to modernity, and specifically to prostitution:
Since in prostitution the relationship between the sexes is quite specifically confined to the sexual act, it is reduced to its purely generic content. It consists of what any member of the species can perform and experience. It is a relationship in which the most contrasting personalities are equal and individual differences are eliminated. Thus, the economic counterpart of this kind of relationship is money, which also, transcending all individual distinctions, stands for the species-type of economic values, the representation of which is common to all individual values. Conversely, we experience in the nature of money itself something of the essence of prostitution. The indifference as to its use, the lack of attachment to any individual because it is unrelated to any of them, the objectivity inherent in money as a mere means which excludes any emotional relationship—all this produces an ominous analogy between money and prostitution. Kant’s moral imperative never to use human beings as a mere means but to accept and treat them always, at the same time, as ends in themselves is blatantly disregarded by both parties in the case of prostitution. Of all human relationships, prostitution is perhaps the most striking instance of mutual degradation to a mere means, and this may be the strongest and most fundamental factor that places prostitution in such a close historical relationship to the money economy, the economy of means, in the strictest sense.
Prostitution is more central to Simmel’s case, because the stigma placed on sex work makes it apparent that what is being valued is not just the time and service of the prostitute but in addition the sacrifice of her reputation and “virtue.” I think it is a mistake to think of Simmel as disapproving of sex work qua sex work. Rather, he is stressing that within a culture in which prostitutes are dehumanized and stigmatized, then the work of prostitution reduces one to chattel in a way that, for example, the work of manual labor does not. In becoming a prostitute, one flips from being an invaluable human to a specifically-valued object, and Simmel seems to find the intimate nature of that transition to be particularly disturbing, and he loudly denounces the blatant double standard that a woman can dehumanize herself through sex but a man cannot:
One is never inclined to imagine that the practice or presentation of what is indistinguishably common to all men would express or exhaust his innermost, essential and comprehensive nature. Yet such an anomaly does exist with regard to the sexual surrender of women.
The significance and the consequences that society attaches to the sexual relations between man and woman are correspondingly based on the presupposition that the woman gives her total self, with all its worth, whereas the man gives only a part of his personality in the exchange. Society therefore denies to a girl who has once gone astray her whole ‘reputation’; society condemns the adultery of the wife much more harshly than that of the husband, of whom it is supposed that an occasional sexual extravagancy is still reconcilable with loyalty to his wife in all its inner and essential elements; society irredeemably renders the prostitute déclassé, while the worst rake can, as it were, still save himself from the morass by other facets of his personality and can rise to any social position.
In contrast, the married man is from the outset customarily granted much greater freedom of movement while in addition withholding the essential part of his personality that is taken up by his professional interests. In accordance with the relationship that exists between the sexes in our culture, the man who marries for money does not give away as much as the woman who marries for the same reasons. Since she belongs to her husband more than he belongs to her, it is more fatal for her to enter into a marriage relationship without love. I am inclined to believe—and empirical material must be replaced by psychological interpretation here—that marriage for money has more tragic consequences, particularly where sensitive natures are concerned, if it is the woman who is bought.
A man can sell himself and still be seen as a man, not a commodity. A woman cannot.
From here, Simmel moves on, somewhat jarringly, to more abstract matters. He alights on another paradox of money, which is that it is simultaneously democratizing and dehumanizing. By putting a price on everything, it helps to make notions like aristocracy and refinement more obsolete. As far as money is concerned, nouveau riche and vieux riche are equally riche, and it is this sort of democratizing effect that allows someone as offensive to the aristocracy as Donald Trump even to be able to run for president in the first place. The United States had a head start in becoming a center of capitalism by lacking as firm a notion of class to begin with:
The poorest apprentice could hope for a prosperous future if this future lay only in money ownership, whereas a completely rigid line separated landed aristocracy from the yeomanry. The existence of the infinite, quantitative grading of money ownership permits the levels to merge into one another and removes the distinctive formations of aristocratic classes which cannot exist without secure boundaries.
Simultaneously, by establishing a single method of comparison, unique attributes become impossible to value. Asking questions like what is a Beethoven or a Goethe worth compared to an average human doesn’t make sense, because there is too much scarcity. If you only have one of something, a transaction isn’t repeatable and any price will be, at best, arbitrary, not prescriptive. In practice artists and their works can be valued relative to one another (and are), but we keep up the pretense that this is still somewhat independent of quality, and that one Van Gogh isn’t better than another simply because it sold for more.
For it is precisely the highest attainments of different people that are usually differentiated according to very diverse aspects, and they meet only on a much lower general level, beyond which the individually significant potentialities often diverge to such an extent that any communication at all becomes impossible. What is common to people—in the biological aspect; the oldest and therefore the most secure inheritance— is, in general, the cruder, undifferentiated and unintellectual element of their nature.
Among the masses, though, very little effort is placed into identifying any sort of uniqueness. 99.9 percent of society’s members will be valued, broadly, by how they compare with others against standardized and fixed metrics, and this applies as much to executives as it does to workers. And the language of these comparisons is money. We may say teachers are important, but their salaries reveal that we really don’t think they are. We may think software engineers are uncouth slobs and elitists, but someone is paying them an awful lot to be the way they are. And if dignity is measured in money (which it is), the dignity of labor is a lot less dignified than it used to be.
In addition to democratizing value and human worth, money also democratizes freedom. Returning to what Simmel said early about women and serfs: by being valued in terms of pure form and potential (i.e., money), they gain a certain amount of “freedom” in the purely technical sense, since they are now exchangeable. When it comes to more genuinely autonomous human beings, their ability to participate in any form of life as long as they have the money to do so makes them more free to take on various roles in life. IN other words, it makes them more generic. But this “freedom” comes about purely as a result of a loss of specificity–by downplaying any distinguishing unique features they may possess (except insofar as they can be valued by money).
Wherever the purely negative sense of freedom operates, freedom is considered to be incomplete and degrading. Giordano Bruno, in his enthusiasm for the unified regular life of the cosmos, considered free will to be a defect that characterized man in his imperfection since God alone was subject to necessity.
The positive factor in the liberation from the constraints of an object has been reduced to its marginal value. Money solves the task of realizing human freedom in a purely negative sense.
Think of it this way: just as a serf was not free to be anything but a serf, Beethoven was not free not to be Beethoven. The serf will welcome that freedom, while Beethoven will not, but in neither case does the freedom provide any specific new possibilities. It simply renders all possibilities equal and resists your attempts to prize one possibility above another. The personal freedom generated by a money economy is the sort of freedom that intrinsically brings about an existential crisis, because it emphasizes your interchangeability and superfluidity.
In fact, since under very rapid money transactions possessions are no longer classified according to the category of a specific life-content, that inner bond, amalgamation and devotion in no way develops which, though it restricts the personality, none the less gives support and content to it. This explains why our age, which, on the whole, certainly possesses more freedom than any previous one, is unable to enjoy it properly. Money makes it possible for us to buy ourselves not only out of bonds with others but also out of those that stem from our own possessions. It frees us both when we give it away and when we take it. Thus the continuous processes of liberation occupy an extraordinarily broad section of modern life. At this point, too, the deeper connection of the money economy with the tendencies of liberation is revealed, exhibiting one of the reasons why the freedom of liberalism has brought about so much instability, disorder and dissatisfaction.
Detached from bonds, we find it that much more difficult to affirm any specific meaning. The general meaning, as Simmel has repeatedly argued, is empty, since it is nothing more than absolute money. We retain a definite sense of self only insofar as we cordon it off from notions of monetary value (a luxury only afforded to men much of the time). Your personal essence, in other words, is defined primarily by what you wouldn’t do for money (or, perhaps, what you don’t do for money).
(Simmel does allow one exception: for sufficiently unique things, Simmel argues that they can be shown to be invaluable and incommensurable if they are given monetary costs that are so ludicrous as to be unaffordable by all but the mega-rich. If you have “million dollar legs,” that is tantamount to them being invaluable. Even here, recent actions of the plutocrats have shown a certain arms race among billionaires competing to see who can build their own islands in the best shapes. Money still democratizes.)
From here Simmel moves to his critique of socialism. Socialism, for Simmel, desires to put into practice the labor theory of value, valuing goods not by what people get out of them but by the amount of work people put into them. His critique is that this exacerbates the problem of money, because at least in capitalism, labor is excluded from the sort of transactional micromanagement required to assign values to the output of labor. But socialism requires that all labor itself become commensurable with all other forms of labor, so that value can be assigned to manual labor, programming, and painting alike.
For in the economic sphere one can at least conceive of an equality of individuals as being possible; in all other spheres—the intellectual, emotional, character, aesthetic, ethical, etc.—the quality of the ‘means of labour’ is, from the very outset, hopeless. If, none the less, one wishes to undertake this task, then there is no other possibility than to somehow reduce these interests and qualities to that which alone permits an approximate uniformity of distribution. I am well aware that present-day scientific socialism rejects mechanical-communist egalitarianism and merely wishes to establish an equality of conditions of work out of which the diversity of talent, strength and effort would also lead to a diversity of position and satisfaction. Despite the present situation in which hereditary descent, class distinction, the accumulation of capital and all the possible chances of economic opportunities produce much greater corresponding distances than do individual differences in activities, this would, in fact, mean not only a basic equalization in every respect but also the equalization of the elements of ownership and satisfaction which seem to me today still to be the genuine effective means of agitation for the masses. If historical materialism is made the scientific demonstration of the socialist doctrine, then what is of concern here, as so often, is the systematic construction of the path that is the reverse of that of the creative movement of thought. Therefore socialist theory has not been logically derived from the independently established historical materialism; rather, the practically established socialistic-communistic tendency must furthermore first produce the only base that is possible for it: it must declare economic interests to be the source and common denominator of all others. Once this has taken place, however, the same tendency in the economic sphere must itself then be pursued, and the diversity of its contents reduced to a unity which, over and above all individual achievements, asserts the possibility of an equalization and an externally verifiable equitableness.
It is not that Simmel is defending capitalism here, but that he sees socialism as exacerbating capitalism’s crisis of meaning to the point where any sense of human purpose is extinguished altogether. Here I think the best evidence in support of Simmel’s thesis is a quick read of social realist novels like Gladkov’s Cement, in which meaning is extracted from the particulars of the human and placed into archetypal forms of laborers and working. Most “liberationist” literature falls into similar holes, painting individuals as wholly subordinate to the glorious new system which has come about, under which all have been liberated–which is to say, all have been made alike.
Ultimately, though, Simmel simply finds it impracticable. He doesn’t think a genuine universal valuation of labor could ever be accomplished because humans simply aren’t as interchangeable as money would have them be.
The assertion that all labour is simply labour and nothing else means, as the basis for the equal valuation of such labour, something so inconceivable, so abstractly empty, as the theory that each person is merely a person and therefore all are of equal value and qualify for the same rights and obligations. Thus, if the concept of labour—which in its hitherto accepted generality has given a vague feeling rather than a definite content to its meaning—is to acquire such a definite meaning, then it requires that a greater precision be given to the real process which one understands as labour.
Yet if the impossible itself were to occur—namely that personal talents were permitted to be exactly produced and an ideal adaptation, measured exactly according to this establishment of the means of subsistence, were to be made the index of the extent of achievements—then this undertaking would always find its limits in the lack of equivalence in the conditions of existence which themselves exist between persons qualified for the same performances. Herein lies one of the major limitations upon social justice. Just as it is certain that, in general, the higher intellectual achievement also requires better living conditions, so human talents in the very claims that the development of their highest energies make are themselves extremely unequal. Of two natures that are capable of an objectively similar achievement, the one must necessarily, according to its level, have a completely different milieu, completely different material pre-conditions, completely different stimuli for the realization of this possibility compared with the other. This fact, which establishes an irreconcilable disharmony between the ideals of quality and justice and the maximization of tasks, is still by no means sufficiently taken into account… The people who possess only muscle power for a specific work activity will require for its realization roughly the same nourishment and general standard of life. However, where leading, intellectual abstract activities are in question, the diversity between all those who ultimately could achieve the same comes to the fore as being important.
This demonstrates the fundamental connection between the labour theory of value and socialism, for socialism in fact strives for a constitution of society in which the utility value of objects, in relation to the labour time applied to them forms a constant.
Many criticisms are thrown at the heartlessness and cruelty of capitalism. Many of them are well-deserved, but just as capitalism was initially prescribed as an antidote for the arbitrary excesses of the passions, as Albert Hirschman acutely chronicled, so too is socialism prescribed as an antidote for captialism without realizing its flaws. In particular, those who bemoan a lack of meaning and human value–a lack of specificity and specialness to their lives under a capitalist system–will find themselves bitterly disappointed when socialism rolls out. Perhaps this is why socialism too often mitigates its chilly utilitarianism by a chauvinistic, nationalistic jingoism. If the individual cannot find meaning in him- or herself, perhaps they can find it as one of the crowd–and not just any crowd, but the best crowd.
Having discussed money’s central role in (a) reconciling incompatible value systems and (b) putting quantifiable and comparable numbers on every element of those systems, Simmel finishes the first “analytic” half of The Philosophy of Money and moves on to the “synthetic part.” Having exhausted his exploration of the very concept of money, he now expands outward into larger ideas of economy, sociality, and modernity. Many of his ideas in the second half were hinted at in the first half, but are brought to much more panoramic fruition now.
The title “Individual Freedom” recalls a paradox Simmel mentioned much earlier: even as the monetary economy binds us more tightly to each other by allowing universal exchange and specialization, the individual faces a greater freedom of self-definition because their lifestyle is no longer necessarily tied to their trade. (In practice, as Simmel points out, this freedom is often quite limited for most people. What matters is the lack of a preordained fate.) Or as Simmel puts it–
Money is really that form of property that most effectively liberates the individual from the unifying bonds that extend from other objects of possession.
This is to say that in a money economy, the individual-in-society undergoes a transformation analogous to what occurred to value systems when they were reconciled through money. Humans are becoming like money, indistinguishable in number; independent and flexible at the cost of the loss of a fixed and specific identity. Just as the values lost their individual quality and character to be abstracted into the pure, quantified form of money, individuals find themselves removed from the particularizing bonds of their specific work and lifestyle as the value of those things is expressed in neutral cash. To be clear, this is not an effect of capitalism per se, but an effect of trade economy. In this chapter in particular, Simmel portrays socialism not as an opposition to capitalism but as the perfection of some of the abstracting tendencies introduced by capitalism’s fluid focus on money.As Simmel pointed out in the previous chapter, a centrally planned socialist economy would demand just as much if not more quantification of values in order to ensure fair distribution of goods and services. Socialism might in fact be the pinnacle of money’s abstraction from content to form:
The delivery man, the money-lender, the worker, upon whom we are dependent, do not operate as personalities because they enter into a relationship only by virtue of a single activity such as the delivery of goods, the lending of money, and because their other qualities, which alone would give them a personality, are missing. This, of course, only signifies the ultimate stage of an on-going development which, in many ways, is not yet completed—for the dependency of human beings upon each other has not yet become wholly objectified, and personal elements have not yet been completely excluded. The general tendency, however, undoubtedly moves in the direction of making the individual more and more dependent upon the achievements of people, but less and less dependent upon the personalities that lie behind them. Both phenomena have the same root and form the opposing sides of one and the same process: the modern division of labour permits the number of dependencies to increase just as it causes personalities to disappear behind their functions, because only one side of them operates, at the expense of all those others whose composition would make up a personality. The form of social life that would evolve were this tendency to be completely realized would exhibit a profound affinity to socialism, at least to an extreme state socialism. For socialism is concerned primarily with transforming to an extreme degree every action of social importance into an objective function, Just as today the official takes up a ‘position’ that is objectively pre-formed and that only absorbs quite specific individual aspects or energies of his personality, so a fully fledged state socialism would erect, above the world of personalities, a world of objective forms of social action which would restrict and limit the impulses of individual personalities to very precisely and objectively determined expressions. The relationship of this world to the former is similar to that of the relationship of geometric figures to empirical bodies.
Some of the issues SImmel discusses are particular to capitalist economies, but the underlying issues are far broader.
The effect of this shift toward form is the birth of the “individual” as an idealized, more discrete, yet more dependent entity, and that tension forms a back-and-forth neurosis. As we’ve seen, Simmel is very interested in dynamism, seeing it as the underlying metaphysical principle of existence:
The development of each human fate can be represented as an uninterrupted alternation between bondage and release, obligation and freedom. This initial appraisal, however, presents us with a distinction whose abruptness is tempered by closer investigation. For what we regard as freedom is often in fact only a change of obligations; as a new obligation replaces one that we have borne hitherto, we sense above all that the old burden has been removed. Because we are free from it, we seem at first to be completely free—until the new duty, which initially we bear, as it were, with hitherto untaxed and therefore particularly strong sets of muscles, makes its weight felt as these muscles, too, gradually tire.
Money accelerates this dynamic yo-yo, since we have much more ability to conceive of ourselves as free from any particular tie, even if in practice we may have difficulty freeing ourselves. Whereas in earlier societies people inhabited their economic roles in a particularized and personalized manner, the formalization of “occupation” and “job” now means that work is no longer a necessarily indelible part of anyone’s identity. Our functional roles start to appear extraordinarily contingent, leading to a vertiginous sense of being freed from the shackles of fate:
While at an earlier stage man paid for the smaller number of his dependencies with the narrowness of personal relations, often with their personal irreplaceability, we are compensated for the great quantity of our dependencies by the indifference towards the respective persons and by our liberty to change them at will. And even though we are much more dependent on the whole of society through the complexity of our needs on the one hand, and the specialization of our abilities on the other, than are primitive people who could make their way through life with their very narrow isolated group, we are remarkably independent of every specific member of this society, because his significance for us has been transferred to the one-sided objectivity of his contribution, which can be just as easily produced by any number of other people with different personalities with whom we are connected only by an interest that can be completely expressed in money terms.
This is the most favourable situation for bringing about inner independence, the feeling of individual self-sufficiency.
Simmel describes this freedom in remarkably ambivalent terms. It is very much a “freedom-from,” rather than a “freedom-to,” because it disconnects us from some of the fatalistic notions of birth and parentage of earlier societies (notably, the very fatalistic classical Greeks). Oedipus no longer has to be the king, since king-value is now expressible in monetary terms and easily can be changed into something else. This makes a much more radical notion of equality possible, since drastic imbalances are now quantifiable and, at least in theory, correctable. Class aspirations become conceivable and meaningful.
The structure of money is particularly well suited to operating as a relatively satisfactory substitute for an absent ideal major success because, by virtue of its tangibility and its quantitative determination, it provides a certain support and psychological release from the oscillations and fluctuations of qualitative life-values, particularly where these are still in a state of being conquered. Finally, the complete inner estrangement of money from ideal values prevents an entanglement of the sense of values which would be extremely disquieting to sensitive people.
Money’s remarkable achievement is to make possible the most adequate realization and effectiveness of every individual complication through the equalization of the greatest diversity—as if all specific forms must first be returned to the common primary element in order to secure complete freedom for individual reorganization.
Likewise, money creates a world for us in which everything is in theory obtainable if we had enough cash. Where formerly, certain possibilities seemed metaphysically forestalled to a person–becoming a lord, moving to a new city, escaping serfdom or slavery–such things are now conceivable as possibilities in terms of a neutral quantity. The path from here to there becomes easy to imagine when it’s just a number.
Should we be lucky enough to have money, it becomes pure potential to us, defining us not in terms of a particular role or occupation but as the very freedom-to do anything up to the sum total quantity of money we possess.
Money means more to us than any other object of possession because it obeys us without reservation—and it means less to us because it lacks any content that might be appropriated beyond the mere form of possession. We possess it more than anything else but we have less of it than all other objects.
In the light of this, the extension of the self that the possession of money signifies is a very distinctive one. In one sense it is the most complete extension that can be derived from an object; in another sense it is a very limited one because money’s flexibility is only that of an extremely liquid body which takes on any form, and does not shape itself but receives any form it may possess only from the surrounding body.
So this is something of the Hegelian limit of the absolute freedom of money: it’s the freedom to do anything without giving you any idea of what you should do. Simmel points out that the socialist ideal would ironically exacerbate this condition by creating conditions in which the ability to differentiate yourself from anyone else would be even more difficult. Equality per se is no more full as an ideal than such freedom is.
If the development of working conditions continues to proceed in this direction—one made possible by money—then the elimination of certain abuses may perhaps be achieved, abuses for which the modern money economy has largely been blamed. The hostile rejection of relations of superordination and subordination is the motive for anarchism, and although socialism replaces this formal motive by a more material one it is nevertheless one of socialism’s basic tenets to remove the differences in human conditions that entitle one person to command and force the other to obey. To a mode of thought that takes the degree of freedom to be the measure of everything socially necessary, the abolition of superordination and subordination is a self-evident demand; but a social order based on superordination and subordination would in itself be no worse than one based on a constitution of complete equality if sentiments of oppression, suffering and degradation were not connected with the former. If socialist theories possessed more psychological clarity with regard to themselves, then they would reflect an awareness of the fact that the equality of individuals is not at all the absolute ideal or the categorical imperative, but only the means for removing certain feelings of affliction for promoting certain feelings of well-being. The only exceptions are those abstract idealists to whom equality is a formal, absolute value demanded at the price of all kinds of possibly practical disadvantages, even at the price of pereat mundus [let the world perish].
The very conception of such equality only becomes possible through money. Equality’s meaningful value lies in its ability to reduce suffering, not in bringing monetary values of people in line with one another just for the sake of doing so.
Outside of occupations, recreational and cultural activities also lose their essential character of defining an individual:
Here we have one of the most effective cultural formations, namely the possibility of the individual participating in associations, the objective purpose of which he wants to promote and enjoy, without that connection implying any commitment on his part. Money has made it possible for people to join a group without having to give up any personal freedom and reserve. This is the fundamental, extremely important divergence from the medieval form of unification which did not distinguish between man as such and man as a member of an association. It enclosed within its sphere the general economic, religious, political and familial interests alike.
Money has provided us with the sole possibility for uniting people while excluding everything personal and specific.
Simmel then returns to socialism as the perfection of this tendency. While capitalist economy gave us a conceptually autonomous individual heavily dependent on the cruel caprice of the invisible hand of the market, socialism liberates the individual from impersonal capitalist bondage and obligation while making differentiation that much harder to achieve. A member of a socialist society is that much more interchangeable than a member of a capitalist society. Both capitalist and socialist organization seek to “liberate” the individual from particular bonds, yet both end up unmooring the individual from the ability to subscribe wholeheartedly to a particular form of social value. This is a consequence of large-scale, urban modernity.
The more the unifying bond of social life takes on the character of an association for specific purposes, the more soulless it becomes. The complete heartlessness of money is reflected in our social culture, which is itself determined by money. Perhaps the power of the socialist ideal is partly a reaction to this. For by declaring war upon this monetary system, socialism seeks to abolish the individual’s isolation in relation to the group as embodied in the form of the purposive association, and at the same time it appeals to all the innermost and enthusiastic sympathies for the group that may lie dormant in the individual. Undoubtedly, socialism is directed towards a rationalization of life, towards control of life’s chance and unique elements by the law-like regularities and calculations of reason. At the same time, socialism has affinities with the hollow communistic instincts that, as the residue of times long since past, still lie in the remote corners of the soul. Socialism’s dual motivations have diametrically opposed psychic roots. On the one hand, socialism is the final developmental product of the rationalistic money economy, and on the other it is the embodiment of the most basic instincts and emotions. The distinguishing feature of its power of attraction lies in rationalism as well as a reaction to rationalism. Socialism has found its inspiring ideal in the ancient clanhood with its communistic equality, while the monetary system leads the individual retrospectively to concentrate upon himself and to leave as objects of personal and emotional devotion on the one hand only the closest individual relations, such as family and friends, and on the other the most remote spheres such as the mother country or mankind. Both social formations are completely estranged—even though for different reasons—from the objective association for specific purposes. One of the most comprehensive and fundamental sociological norms is in operation here. One of the few rules that may be established with some degree of generality concerning the form of social development is this: that the enlargement of the group goes hand in hand with the individualization and independence of its individual members. The evolution of societies usually commences from relatively small groups which hold their elements in strict and equal bonds and then proceeds to a relative larger group which affords freedom, independence and mutual differentiation. The history of family formations such as that of religious communities, the development of economic co-operatives and political parties all illustrate this type. The importance of money for the development of individuality is thus very closely related to the importance that it possesses for the enlargement of social groups.
In essence, socialism’s ideals are at odds with one another: it wants tight, familial bonds while erasing any particularities that could make relationships between individuals meaningful. The only relationship it can mandate is person-person. The contradiction of this ideal is a result of the pressure put upon the very notion of “value” by money, and it is not necessarily a soluble one. Money has shattered the “unity” of pre-modern life by bringing to it a greater and fragmented sense of possibility and contingency:
Both aspects may ultimately be traced back to one and the same effect of money, namely to grant separation and mutual independence to those elements that originally existed as a living unity. On the one hand, this disintegration concerns individual personalities and thereby makes possible the convergence of similar interests—however divergent and irreconcilable —in a collective form. On the other hand, this disintegration also affects the communities and makes internal and external communalization difficult for the now sharply differentiated individuals.
To review: in the first two chapters, Simmel established money’s capacities to (a) make incommensurable systems of values commensurable, and (b) dissolve meaning through a process of universalizing abstraction. He reviews the Kantian analysis of the second chapter:
What one might term the tragedy of human concept formation lies in the fact that the higher concept, which through its breadth embraces a growing number of details, must count upon increasing loss of content. Money is the perfect practical counterpart of such a higher category, namely a form of being whose qualities are generality and lack of content; a form of being that endows these qualities with real power and whose relation to all the contrary qualities of the objects transacted and to their psychological constellations can be equally interpreted as service and as domination.
“Money in the Sequence of Purposes” concludes the first half and first part of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money, the “analytic part.” Simmel now turns to the teleological paradox of money. This paradox, in short, is this: by privileging a universal quantity over individual qualities, money becomes its own end. This is a paradox because money’s meaning lies sheerly in its lack of any particular end: it’s not good for anything in itself. Yet because the sum of money’s potential ends are always far greater than what may be gained from any one of them, it takes on a universal potentiality greater than any actual good, and becomes more valued in itself. It is a universal tool.
Love, which according to Plato is an intermediate stage between possessing and not-possessing, is in the inner subjective life what means are in the objective external world. For man, who is always striving, never satisfied, always becoming, love is the true human condition. Means, on the other hand, and their enhanced form, the tool, symbolize the human genus. The tool illustrates or incorporates the grandeur of the human will, and at the same time its limitations. The practical necessity to introduce a series of intermediate steps between ourselves and our ends has perhaps given rise to the concept of the past, and so has endowed man with his specific sense of life, of its extent and its limits, as a watershed between past and future. Money is the purest reification of means, a concrete instrument which is absolutely identical with its abstract concept; it is a pure instrument. The tremendous importance of money for understanding the basic motives of life lies in the fact that money embodies and sublimates the practical relation of man to the objects of his will, his power and his impotence; one might say, paradoxically, that man is an indirect being.
For those of you who’ve been waiting to see Uncle Scrooge show up, you can see a bit of this paradox in Carl Barks’ inconsistent treatment of how Scrooge feels about his money: sometimes he loves it for the pleasure its physical presence brings him, other times he loves it for the history behind the acquisition of the particular coins, while other times it is a mark of his superiority of having been “tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties”; regardless, however, Scrooge never really talks about what he can do with it (nor does he ever actually do that much about it besides swim in it and worry about it).
Simmel suggests that the rich attract our interest and worship as much for their vast potential of actions (“What would I do with that money?”) as for their particular lavish lifestyles:
This usurious interest upon wealth, these advantages that its possessor gains without being obliged to give anything in return, are bound up with the money form of value. For those phenomena obviously express or reflect that unlimited freedom of use which distinguishes money from all other values. This it is that creates the state of affairs in which a rich man has an influence not only by what he does but also by what he could do; a great fortune is encircled by innumerable possibilities of use, as though by an astral body, which extend far beyond the employment of the income from it on the benefits which the income brings to other people. The German language indicates this by the use of the word Vermögen, which means ‘to be able to do something’, for a great fortune.
Now, finally, Simmel brings Marx into the equation. The alienation of the worker from labor, Simmel argues, precisely parallels the divorce of money from concrete meaning and particular ends. This is not a consequence of capitalist exploitation per se, but a consequence of modern urban society itself. The result is tragic:
With increasing competition and increasing division of labour, the purposes of life become harder to attain; that is, they require an ever-increasing infrastructure of means. A larger proportion of civilized man remains forever enslaved, in every sense of the word, in the interest in technics. The conditions on which the realization of the ultimate object depends claim their attention, and they concentrate their strength on them, so that every real purpose completely disappears from consciousness. Indeed, they are often denied.
By removing Hegel from Marx, Simmel turns Marx’s vision of capitalist economy bleaker. There is no dialectical process at work here, just a dynamic, organic growth that increasingly distances individuals from a grasp of meaning, replacing particular linkages with the generic, abstract links of money. Consequently, an individual sees instead of concrete relations, a confusing mass of inadequate potential. In one of his most poetic moments, Simmel describes the sheer strain this puts on the individual consciousness and our efforts to live simultaneously in the moment and for the future:
We are supposed to treat life as if each of its moments were a final purpose; every moment is supposed to be taken to be so important as if life existed for its sake. At the same time, we are supposed to live as if none of its moments were final, as if our sense of value did not stop with any moment and each should be a transitional point and a means to higher and higher stages. This apparently contradictory double demand upon every moment of life, to be at the same time both final and yet not final, evolves from our innermost being in which the soul determines our relation to life—and finds, oddly enough, an almost ironical fulfilment in money, the entity most external to it, since it stands above all qualities and intensities of existing forms of the mind.
The result is at once to feel inextricably a part of a unified dynamo, yet without the perspective or the agency to grasp one’s particular place in it or establish it. For contrast, the Greeks’ (i.e., Athenians) sense of finite placement and the strict division of rights based on land-ownership gave them the bearing to reify a substance-centric philosophy.
Landed property, the relatively safe possession protected by law, was the only possession that could guarantee for the Greeks the continuity and unity of their awareness for life. In this respect, the Greeks were still Orientals, in that they conceived the continuity of life only if the fleetingness of time was supplemented by a solid and constant content. It is thus the adherence to the concept of substance that characterizes the whole of Greek philosophy. This does not at all characterize the reality of Greek life, but rather its failures, its longing and its salvation. It reflects the tremendous scope of the Greek mind in that it not only sought its ideals in the extension and completion of the given, as happened with lesser-spirited people, but further reflected this scope in their attempt to complete their passionately endangered reality—always disrupted by party strife—in another realm, in the secure bounds and quiet forms of their thoughts and creations. The modern view, in total contrast, views the unity and coherence of life in the interplay of forces and the law-like sequence of moments that vary their content to the utmost. The whole diversity and motion of our life does not dispose of the feeling of unity—at least not usually, and then only in cases where we ourselves perceive deviations or deficiencies; on the contrary, life is sustained by it and brought to fullest consciousness by it. This dynamic unity was foreign to the Greeks. The same basic trait that allowed their aesthetic ideals to culminate in their forms of architecture and plastic arts and that led their view of life to be one of a limited and finite cosmos and the rejection of infinity—this trait allowed them to recognize the continuity of existence only as something substantial, as resting upon, and realized in, landed property, whereas the modern view of life rests upon money whose nature is fluctuating and which presents the identity of essence in the greatest and most changing variety of equivalents.
Well, maybe–this probably says more about Simmel than the Greeks. The point is clear, though: we are comparatively unmoored even as we are more integrated. And as we work for money rather than particular goods, our goals become more unmoored because we conceive of our goals in aggregate, in terms of a particular income or particular buying power, before we conceive of ends in particular forms, because the achievement of those forms is presented in terms of monetary cost. When we do settle on a particular end, money reminds us that that end is hardly final, because we have selected it among all the other uses to which our money could have been put. Money reveals to us that the chain of “ends” never ends.
That the means become ends is justified by the fact that, in the last analysis, ends are only means. Out of the endless series of possible volitions, self-developing actions and satisfactions, we almost arbitrarily designate one moment as the ultimate end, for which everything preceding it is only a means; whereas an objective observer or later even we ourselves have to posit for the future the genuinely effective and valid purposes without their being secured against a similar fate. At this point of extreme tension between the relativity of our endeavours and the absoluteness of the idea of a final purpose, money again becomes significant and a previous suggestion is developed further. As the expression and equivalent of the value of things, and at the same time as a pure means and an indifferent transitional stage, money symbolizes the established fact that the values for which we strive and which we experience are ultimately revealed to be means and temporary entities.
Once again: money is pure teleological form without content. By being the ultimate in mere means it embodies the most general (and most empty) of ends. What this confusing relationship entails is, more or less, the collapse of the means/ends distinction by reducing everything to means.
Money is not content with being just another final purpose of life alongside wisdom and art, personal significance and strength, beauty and love; but in so far as money does adopt this position it gains the power to reduce the other purposes to the level of means.
The abstract character of money, its remoteness from any specific enjoyment in and for itself, supports an objective delight in money, in the awareness of a value that extends far beyond all individual and personal enjoyment of its benefits. If money is no longer a purpose, in the sense in which any other tool has a purpose in terms of its useful application, but is rather a final purpose to those greedy for money, then it is furthermore not even a final purpose in the sense of an enjoyment. Instead, for the miser, money is kept outside of this personal sphere which is taboo to him. To him, money is an object of timid respect. The miser loves money as one loves a highly admired person who makes us happy simply by his existence and by our knowing him and being with him, without our relation to him as an individual taking the form of concrete enjoyment. In so far as, from the outset, the miser consciously forgoes the use of money as a means towards any specific enjoyment, he places money at an unbridgeable distance from his subjectivity, a distance that he nevertheless constantly attempts to overcome through the awareness of his ownership.
All objects that we want to possess are expected to achieve something for us once we own them. The often tragic, often humorous incommensurability between wish and fulfilment is due to the inadequate anticipation of this achievement of which I have just spoken. But money is not expected to achieve anything for the greedy person over and above its mere ownership. We know more about money than about any other object because there is nothing to be known about money and so it cannot hide anything from us.It is a thing absolutely lacking in qualities and therefore cannot, as can even the most pitiful object, conceal within itself any surprises or disappointments. Whoever really and definitely only wants money is absolutely safe from such experiences. The general human weakness to rate what is longed for differently compared with what is attained reaches its apogee in greed for money because such greed only fulfils consciousness of purpose in an illusory and untenable fashion; on the other hand, this weakness is completely removed as soon as the will is really completely satisfied by the ownership of money. If we desire to arrange human destiny according to the scheme of relationship between the wish and its object, then we must concede that, in terms of the final point in the sequence of purposes, money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.
This passage is a fairly blatant echo of Hegel’s very famous lordship/bondage dialectic, except the bondsman is absent. Again, Simmel abandons Hegel for Kant. The problem is not one of intersubjectivity, but that of an individual consciousness, the miser, accumulating an object that is devoid of content, being satisfied with the thought that money cannot disappoint the miser’s expectations because money has no expectations to disappoint. All you can do is own it.
Revising Hegel further, Simmel then replaces the skeptic and the stoic with his own two opposed attitudes: the cynical and the blase. (Unlike Hegel, these are available to the miser as well as the missing bondsman.) The cynic devalues everything save for money in itself, while the blase individual simply becomes indifferent, paralleling the skeptic and the stoic respectively.
The nurseries of cynicism are therefore those places with huge turnovers, exemplified in stock exchange dealings, where money is available in huge quantities and changes owners easily. The more money becomes the sole centre of interest, the more one discovers that honour and conviction, talent and virtue, beauty and salvation of the soul, are exchanged against money and so the more a mocking and frivolous attitude will develop in relation to these higher values that are for sale for the same kind of value as groceries, and that also command a ‘market price’. The concept of a market price for values which, according to their nature, reject any evaluation except in terms of their own categories and ideals is the perfect objectification of what cynicism presents in the form of a subjective reflex.
Whereas the cynic is still moved to a reaction by the sphere of value, even if in the perverse sense that he considers the downward movement of values part of the attraction of life, the blasé person—although the concept of such a person is rarely fully realized—has completely lost the feeling for value differences. He experiences all things as being of an equally dull and grey hue, as not worth getting excited about, particularly where the will is concerned. The decisive moment here— and one that is denied to the blasé—is not the devaluation of things as such, but indifference to their specific qualities from which the whole liveliness of feeling and volition originates. Whoever has become possessed by the fact that the same amount of money can procure all the possibilities that life has to offer must also become blasé.
Simmel now turns to the subject of money’s quantification. The very notion of quantity implies that there can be more than one of something, and so money is treated not by individual units (which would be meaningless) but in the aggregate, and its power is purely determined through the comparison of aggregates rather than any outside measure. This sort of quantified object is totally without form:
As a purely arithmetical addition of value units, money can be characterized as absolutely formless. Formlessness and a purely quantitative character are one and the same. To the extent that things are considered only in terms of their quantity, their form is disregarded. This is most evident if they are weighed. Therefore, money as such is the most terrible destroyer of form.
If the object makes room for value elements other than form, then the number of times the object is created becomes important. This is also the basis of the deepest connection between Nietzsche’s ethical value theory and his aesthetic frame of mind. According to Nietzsche, the quality of a society is determined by the height of the values achieved in it no matter how isolated they may be; the quality of a society does not depend on the extent to which laudable qualities have spread. In the same way, the quality of an artistic period is not the result of the height and quantity of good average achievements but only of the height of the very best achievement. Thus the utilitarian, who is interested solely in the tangible results of action, is inclined towards socialism with its emphasis on the masses and on spreading desirable living conditions, whereas the idealistic moralist, to whom the more or less aesthetically expressible form of action is crucial, is usually an individualist, or at least, like Kant, someone who emphasizes the autonomy of the individual above all else. The same is true in the realm of subjective happiness. We often feel that the highest culmination of joie de vivre, which signifies for the individual his perfect self-realization in the material of existence, need not be repeated. To have experienced this once gives a value to life that would not, as a rule, be enhanced by its repetition. Such moments in which life has been brought to a point of unique self-fulfilment, and has completely subjected the resistance of matter—in the broadest sense—to our feelings and our will, spread an atmosphere that one might call a counterpart to timelessness, to species aeternitatis—a transcendence of number and of time.
Now, Simmel already made the case earlier for money’s formlessness based on its ability to assimilate and reconcile disparate value systems. Here he seems to be saying that commensurability and quantification are two sides of the same coin. The reconciliation of those value systems requires that some regularity of exchange be possible between them, and the only system for setting such rates is one that lacks any particular form–that is, numerical quantity. Contrariwise, the quantification of goods across multiple people, as a utilitarian would have it, obviously requires commensurability, which has often proven to be the utilitarian’s albatross. Simmel’s implication is that whether or not the utilitarian admits it, utilitarian philosophy effectively monetizes the good. There is no way to calculate maximum good or determine its distribution without emptying it of content.
This is all seeming very grim, but Simmel admits to some positive effects. The individual gains greater freedom to select which value systems to inhabit and exchange into. If you can determine a meaningful purpose for yourself, however arbitrarily, modernity gives you greater flexibility in pursuing it. Hence the paradox of the increase of individualism even as the individual is bound more tightly into a larger social system.
The contents of life—as they become more and more expressible in money which is absolutely continuous, rhythmical and indifferent to any distinctive form—are, at it were, split up into so many small parts; their rounded totalities are so shattered that any arbitrary synthesis and formation of them is possible. It is this process that provides the material for modern individualism and the abundance of its products. The personality clearly creates new unities of life with this basically unformed material and obviously operates with greater independence and variability compared with what was formerly done in close solidarity with material unities.
While the utilitarian or the socialist may empty things of aesthetic and moral content, such quantification nonetheless allows for more equality, since equality can now be calculated. Equality is not a notion that shows up all too often in the global history of thought, and when it does it’s usually restricted to conveniently ineffable things like souls. Money is what makes equality possible, by allowing for any particular imbalance to be compensated for. Likewise, we see the potential leveling of social inequality and elitism, since no one set of values necessarily has a lock on ultimate meaning, but all are subject to the empty arbiter of monetary value. Particular values are taken apart and reconstituted in the most general and distributed way possible, which in turn supports a democratic sentiment.
The same viewpoint can be observed in the historical sciences: language, the arts, institutions and cultural products of any kind are interpreted as the result of innumerable minimal contributions; the miracle of their origin is traced not to the quality of heroic individual personalities but to the quantity of the converging and condensed activities of a whole historical group. The small daily events of the intellectual, cultural and political life, whose sum total determines the overall picture of the historical scene, rather than the specific individual acts of the leaders, have now become the object of historical research. Where any prominence and qualitative incomparability of an individual still prevails, this is interpreted as an unusually lucky inheritance, that is as an event that includes and expresses a large quantity of accumulated energies and achievements of the human species. Indeed, even within a wholly individualistic ethic this democratic tendency is powerful and is elevated to a world view, while at the same time the inner nature of the soul is deprecated. This corresponds to the belief that the highest values are embedded in everyday existence and in each of its moments, but not in a heroic attitude or in catastrophes or outstanding deeds and experiences, which always have something arbitrary and superficial about them. We may all experience great passions and unheard-of flights of fancy, yet their final value depends on what they mean for those quiet, nameless and equable hours when alone the real and total self lives. Finally, despite all appearances to the contrary and all justified criticism, modern times as a whole are characterized throughout by a trend towards empiricism and hence display their innermost relationship to modern democracy in terms of form and sentiment. Empiricism replaces the single visionary or rational idea with the highest possible number of observations; it substitutes their qualitative character by the quantity of assembled individual cases. Psychological sensualism, which considers the most sublime and abstract forms and faculties of our reasons to be the mere accumulation and intensification of the most ordinary sensual elements, corresponds to this methodological intention.
Again: this is not just capitalism, this is modernity. The socialist or communist who promises a return to integrated meaning once exploitation and/or money is abolished is simply wrong unless they are also preaching a Luddite return to primitive society. The very thing that fuels modern society is the same thing that strips it of all particularized teleological meaning, and sets us toward seeing the world in an increasingly instrumental, quantified fashion.
Only metaphysics can construct entities completely lacking in quality, which perform the play of the world according to purely arithmetical relations. In the empirical world, however, only money is free from any quality and exclusively determined by quantity. Since we are unable to grasp pure being as pure energy in order to trace the particularity of the phenomena from the quantitative modifications of being or energy, and since we always have some kind of relationship—even though not always exactly the same one—with all specific things, their elements and origins, money is completely cut off from the corresponding relationships that concern it. Pure economic value has been embodied in a substance whose quantitative conditions bring about all kinds of peculiar formations without being able to bring into being anything other than its quantity. Thus, one of the major tendencies of life— the reduction of quality to quantity—achieves its highest and uniquely perfect representation in money.
“Money is the most inadequate but also the most adequate object of our endeavours.”