Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Jane Austen, Bank Notes and the Abolition of Money

The highpoint of 21st century feminism, it appears, is to have the novelist Jane Austen depicted on the new £10 note.

Jane Austen, though, is a suitable candidate. A social Tory, Austen’s novels are located around the fictional lives of the bored landed aristocracy who spend most of their time discussing the annual income and future inheritance of rich landowners while pursuing suitable marriages for their daughters from a pool of eligible bachelors drawn from “polite society”.

A really radical and revolutionary proposition would be to debate what is meant by money and why it should be abolished. But then, there would be no meeting with the new Governor of the Bank of England and overblown coverage in the liberal media.

Of course to question the use of money would be considered by many people as absurd. They would say that money has always existed and will always exist no matter what economic system there is.

However, money has not always existed and even the barter system had a social history. Nor is money a benign token. It is a symbol of alienation and class power. And as such, Socialists view money as a form of coercion, rationing and class oppression.

The power and mystery of money under capitalism arises from its function as the material used to express value.

Furthermore money is associated with exchange, a particular characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism needs money for exchange but it is not a natural phenomenon but merely a more efficient system than barter.

Unlike capitalism, a Socialist society would not need exchange and economic calculation and as a consequence would not need money.

The Oppressive Function of Money

To appreciate the oppressive function of money exchange is possible only where the product of labour, the commodity, is privately owned.

Marx showed that in simple commodity production the commodity is sold by the producer to obtain other commodities for his or her immediate use.

However, in Capitalism, what Marx called extended commodity production, the commodity produced by the working class is owned by the capitalist who then sells it to realise a profit. Capitalism, unlike Feudalism, is an exchange economy where the aim of production is to make a profit.

The objective of commodity and exchange for profit is not to obtain commodities for the capitalist’s immediate use but to re-invest; to accumulate more and more capital and to expand value as an anti-social objective in its own right.

To show how exchange in Feudalism differs from Capitalism we only have to consider the warehouses and supermarkets full of commodities for sale in today’s society and compare this with how production and sale took place in feudal towns.

Furthermore capitalism has a sophisticated credit system with extensive marketing and advertising arms to reduce the period of turnover of the commodities it produces. The use of credit, for example, under capitalism facilitated the extension of commodity production and trade on a vast social scale.

Such methods would be utterly inappropriate to Feudal society with its small scale production and limited markets.

If Feudalism presented the domination of one person over another, capitalism presented the domination of the thing; of money, the commodity and capital over the worker. The increased socialisation of production under capitalism was accompanied by increasingly alienated conditions of production where what was being produced appeared as a “thing”; a fetish; a process over which people no longer had any control and where production was dictated by profit not in the meeting of human need.

In the first volume of CAPITAL, Marx quoted the political economist Pierre le Pesant Boisguillebert, who wrote that “money declares war on the whole humanity” (p. 239).


Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges all things, it is the general confounding and compounding of all things – the world upside-down – the confounding and compounding of all natural and human qualities (p.140).

We can now consider Socialism a liberating force freeing the co-operative labour process from the tyranny of money and the deliberate rationing of the wages system.

Unlike capitalism a Socialist society would not be saddled with the private ownership of the means of production and distribution.

In Socialism the means of production and distribution would be held in common under democratic control. There would be no need for exchange because production and distribution by free and voluntary labour would take place directly to meet human need. The productive process would be planned and transparent. If there is no need of exchange then there is no need of money.

Consider the working class in capitalism. They are forced to enter into the labour market because of the private ownership of the means of production and distribution. They are forced to sell their commodity, labour power, to an employer in exchange for a wage and salary and to buy the basket of commodities workers and their family need in order to live and reproduce themselves as a subject class.

Now, consider a classless Socialist society. Men and women would participate in production and distribution to the best of their ability but would then directly take what they and their families need to live worthwhile lives in an open society free from the wages system.

And remember that capitalism is a society of deliberate scarcity and it would be a Socialist society that would free the forces of production including co-operative and social labour in order to reach a state of abundance across a whole range of necessities like housing, food, transport, communication, health and so on.

Once this is understood money can be placed in its historical not natural context. The use of money is limited to exchange societies, particularly capitalism, but will have no role in a Socialist society.

The irrelevance of Money to Socialist Production

Surely money is required to compare different sectors of production?

Again the answer is no. A Socialist society will need to measure productive activities but will not need to do so in terms of prices. Statisticians can use any range of mathematical models and computer programming to assess production and distribution in terms of energy use, labour in-puts, the impact of time delays between one productive system, health and safety issues, environmental considerations and so on to insure efficiency and minimise waste.

Production and distribution in a Socialist society can be accounted for without money, prices or even labour-vouchers still proposed by those who cannot get beyond Marx’s comments on the subject in the CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAMME.

Finally there is the question of the price mechanism which, again, will play no role in a Socialist society.

Capitalism’s economists are obsessed by the price mechanism. They believe that only the price mechanism can allocate goods and services efficiently and rationally through a decentralised free market economy.

It is true that the information in the price mechanism allows capitalists to produce profitably to market demand; that is for those who can buy the commodities but this exclusive social mechanism is socially inefficient. Millions are excluded from markets because they just cannot afford to access to them for food, shelter and medicine.

And this exclusion to what people need by the barrier of the market and the price mechanism continues on to include the entire working class. What wages and salaries can buy and what workers and their families need are two entirely different things.

The Socialist critique of money is not a moral one but one rooted in the material conditions of society where capitalist relations of production act as a “fetter” on the use of production and distribution to meet human need. Capitalism has the potential to meet the needs of the entire planet but class ownership and the profit motive means that capital shapes society not human beings.

No need in Socialism for a Market Mechanism

What money signifies under capitalism is deliberate scarcity. The working class, through the rationing of the wages system, only receive a fraction of what they produce, in both quantity and quality, that befits a subject class who own nothing but their ability to work. Under capitalism, the wage and salary is a mark of slavery.

From a Socialist perspective a capitalist market system producing for profit and only meeting the needs of paying customers is in fact irrational and inefficient. In socialism production would be regulated by people’s needs through free and direct access not by the demands of paying customers.

In other words, the calculation of goods and services in a Socialist society would be a technical not an economic problem. Economics is associated with commodity production and exchange for profit and has no meaning outside the limits of this historical social system.

Again for a Socialist society to assess people’s needs merely requires the use of communication systems to find out this information. And such information and communication systems already exist under capitalism but are used for commercial means not in the way they would be in a Socialist society to assess real need and how such needs could be met.

Socialists do not intend to write detailed specifications and blue-prints for a future Socialist society. Not only would this be utopian (we just don’t have the necessary information) but also undemocratic (a small group of Socialists cannot impose their views on a future Socialist society).

However a tentative sketch of a Socialist society free from the labour market, the buying and selling of labour power and the deliberate rationing framed by the exploitive wages system is useful when placed in the context of a working class understanding and rejecting capitalism and prepared to take conscious and political action to replace the profit system with common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

This is where be the debate about money should be located not who or what should be depicted on a ten pound note.

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