Tuesday, 14 March 2017

What is money? - Updated

 Classified as : reflections, theory

Updating - When I wrote this two weeks ago, it was really off the cuff. I look at it and can see that it might look a weak argument because I couldn't be bothered explaining the reasoning behind "because patriarchy" below - so I have added a bit in to try to explain it a bit. 

These aren't fully worked through arguments, they're ideas-in-progress, but - if anyone reads them of course -  there can be some problems with that.


I don't think people really understand money, or a lot of them don't. They think it is both a true measure of value and that it has some intrinsic worth (both things can't be true, which is the first problem. A measure of value isn't value in itself).

(updating - of course there was historically a long overlap between the time when money was seen to have some intrinsic value, as gold and silver, as mentioned below, and the time when it was formally recognised as primarily a medium of exchange, first when countries went off the 'gold standard' in the early-mid-20th C and then when they 'floated' their currencies in the late 20thC. Not being an economist I don't have all the detail on that, but I would say those events marked the theoretical recognition that money is a medium of exchange. However a) as stated I think many people still 'feel' that money has some value in itself, and b) even if it is formally recognised as a medium of exchange, that still doesn't necessarily make it a 'true' measure of value)

But the more important thing is that money is a medium of exchange. It is not a true measure of value, and it does not have intrinsic value (it used to have intrinsic value when it was gold and silver, which are - no matter how rational or irrational the reasons - prized in their own right. But it isn't gold and silver any more).

So let's imagine you and I are farmers. We both grow enough fruit and vegetables to live on (we're vegetarian farmers! Yay!) and we grow other plants for fuel, clothes, medicine, etc - plus we have mud, rocks and stones for building and so on. But gradually, my apples flourish, while your potatoes have bumper crops. So we start trading, four apples for five potatoes (seems fair - apples are yummy, but potatoes need cooking)

But one day, I have to be away when you come to trade. So I write you a note, saying I'll give you the apples when I get back, so please just leave the potatoes and come over later so I can give you the apples.

So it goes on for a while, but gradually it gets more complicated - people start trading promises. So they decide they don't actually want apples right now, but they know the farmer across the hill does, and she actually has carrots, which they want. So rather than swapping the potatoes for the apples, and then going over the hill to swap the apples for carrots, they start using the notes instead. That's money. (Of course that's not the whole story because I left out all the gold and silver stuff, but it's the short version)

But all this time, they've still been eating most of the stuff they grew, and using the other stuff, and so on. It wasn't any less valuable just because they didn't pay money for it. So how did we end up in the situation where people believe that money is the 'true' measure of value and also has intrinsic value (I'm not sure that second part about the intrinsic value is relevant here, it's money as the true measure of value that's the key problem)?

Well, long story, but - women tended to stay closer to home and do the local subsistence (and some small trading stuff), men tended to go out and do the big trading stuff. Also slaves stayed home, similarly. So we ended up believing that only the big trading stuff mattered, because patriarchy.  

So expanding on "becausepatriarchy" a bit, from my reading eg Judith Bennett on women as brewers, it appears that women have been involved in trading for a long time (Bennett's history of women as brewers goes back to c. 14thC). So there was not a complete separation where men went out and did all the trading, while women stayed home or close to home and did only subsistence work. However Bennett does argue that women's production and trading as brewers tended to be local, and when it did become larger scale, men tended to take over as organisers/owners while women became more like paid workers, and in general women received lower payment for what they did, and were more involved on the local scale. 

A contemporary example is provided in Nalini Nayak 'Development for some is violence for others: India's fisherfolk" (pp 109-120 in Ariel Salleh ed, Eco-sufficiency & global justice 2009). Nayek writes that in coastal communities, the fishing villages were patriarchal but women had certain rights. They participated in pre-harvest activities (eg making nets) and were largely in control of post-harvest activities (eg taking fish to market, drying and later selling fish that were not sold at the time).  Thus they had considerable control of money, and they also had rights of inheritance in fishing equipment. There was little of the dowry economy. Modernisation changed this particularly through "larger [boats and fishing gear] ... [more use of] engines ... [and] oil ... landings got larger [and] more centralised ... fishing operation became more capital intensive". Governments lent money to men, so ownership became more concentrated in the hands of men. As distances grew larger, women's ability to be involved in distribution and marketing of fish reduced, exacerbated in some cases by direct export of the catch. Women increasingly needed to move into low wage work or prostitution, also dowries became more prevalent as women's economic power decreased, resulting in an increased imbalance of male/female births. The state could have acted to support women eg by providing cold storage in villages, but most measures taken by state increased the power of men.

So there are two broad trends here:
- women were likely to operate small scale trading closer to home because this could be more easily combined with unpaid work, care of children in particular, but also with their subsistence work for the household family and community
- but in addition, patriarchal societies or the modern 'patriarchal state', codified and exacerbated this by treating what men did as more important and ignoring or minimising the value of women's work, both their unpaid subsistence work and their paid, trading work.

This more nuanced understanding is important rather than a broad and over-simplified dichotomy in which women stayed home and did unpaid household work while men went out and did paid trading work.


I'll publish this and then look at it again later and see if it still makes sense. It was inspired immediately by comments on the Guardian article today by Greg Jericho on 'stay at home' mothers and the OECD, and longer term by the ideas I've been working on in my thesis.

No comments: