Dr. Anitra Nelson talks about Life without Money

Transcript of an interview with Kéllia Ramares-Watson


Many progressives, in the United States and internationally, see the creation of more jobs at middle class wages as the antidote to the growing inequality that favors the world’s 1% while making lives of the 99% more precarious and miserable. There is a small but growing group of economic outliers for whom the road to peace, prosperity, and environmental sustainability lies in demonetization: The end of the money-jobs system, be it capitalist (US, Japan, Germany), state socialist (Scandinavia) or state communist (Russia, China, Cuba). Demonetarists believe that business as usual must be replaced by a gift economy, in which people would work according to their interests, skills and native abilities, to produce what they or other members of the community actually need, not what an impersonal and often corrupt market tells them they must have. In addition to individuals having more free time under this system, a community could have more and different kinds of work as people will be able to stop saying, “I would _________________ but I don’t have the money to do it.”

That may sound impossibly utopian to you, but to the demonetarists, who understand the environmental consequences of production and consumption for corporate profit, utopian thinking on the part of the masses would lead to a more sustainable future than the one predicated on survival of the fittest (or those with the most nuclear weapons).

One person working toward a demonetized future is Dr. Anitra Nelson of the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. She, along with Frans Timmerman of the Australian Labor Party, is co-editor of the book Life without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies. The book is a compilation of essays on the theory and practice of demonetization.

Dr. Nelson and I belong to an international email discussion group called demonetize.it.  She graciously gave me one of her lunch hours at the university for the Skype discussion below:

KRW: How did you get interested in the study of money?

AN: It always seemed to me very strange that our whole system of production, instead of being built on what people needed, or what was the most appropriate thing in terms of the environment, ran by this other system which had different principles. And that seemed to me, not just curious, but downright stupid. For instance, I came from a farming area, and you found out that in drought, farmers not only had to put up with the drought, but then they would have less income, and they had to compete with farmers in other areas, and everything just seemed to not be working for people’s basic needs. So that’s how I became very interested in money.

KRW: Did you do your doctorate in economics?

AN: I’d done my PhD on Karl Marx’s concept of money, picking up on having done work on Mexico’s foreign public debt. And one thing that really interested me about Third World debt was that bankers actually want to lend money to Third World countries. They want them to be indebted. The last thing that they want is for them not to be taking credit. That seems to me really curious. It also seems to me very interesting when we talk about Third World debt that people don’t ask at the same time “what is money?” What is this relationship? And then you have debt moratoriums and things are just written off. It’s such a highly political arrangement.

KRW: It seems to me that they want these countries indebted so that they can collect interest payments. But they have to write off interest payments every now and then because, as Prof. Margrit Kennedy of Germany said, you cannot have interest accumulating forever. She says that a penny invested at the time of the birth of Christ, carrying 5% interest per year, would be worth today five gold balls the size of the earth. So for the system itself to survive, value has to be destroyed from time to time, often through war and then the process starts up again.

AN: Yep, that’s exactly right, yep, that’s right. And David Graeber goes into a lot of that in his book on debt.

KRW: Debt: The first 5000 years. How did you get the idea for the book Life without Money?

AN: I think that the global financial crisis and the period running up to that, was very important to me, as well as carbon emissions, and the fact that I actually think that we are making ourselves extinct the way we’re going. I see people all following one another in a kind of direction that basically could lead to our extinction as a species. Carbon emissions, the kind of environmental damage that is occurring at the moment, I see that as primarily a result of market systems.

So I’d done a lot of reading and basically come from a kind of socialist perspective and about a decade or so ago I came across this body of work on nonmarket socialism. Basically socialists who are against the state, and see the state as part of capitalism. That seems to me profoundly correct. Then I followed a lot of that work, and as I did so I became aware that there were numbers of people today, in academia outside academia, in political parties, who agreed that there was a massive problem with the monetary system and also with the state. I thought it would be really good to be able to get together a body of work drawing on those peoples’ works. I was very interested also in approaching people who were experimenting with other ways of living – moneyless ways of living – because I think that you can talk about something not making sense, but no one’s really prepared to do anything about it unless they can see what they might be able to do about it. I think that that’s just as important as the theory.

KRW: How did you choose the people who were going to participate in this book?

AN: They’re essentially people that I had come across in my reading. They had written work that came at the particular issue of money being a big problem and it being important for us to explore other possibilities in different kinds of ways. So for instance, there’s a woman called Ariel Saleh, and her background marries a feminist perspective with a Third World perspective. Harry Cleaver, he’s been quite involved with Mexico and Zapatistas, but I was more interested in him discussing his concepts of zero work.

There is a missing chapter. Eduardo Galliano had a chapter. But because he’d drawn on other work of his that’s published, in the end his literary agent pulled the plug on the chapter going in because it would have required so many copyright issues and agreements around it.

KRW: Intellectual property this and copyright that, they’re all part of the monetary system, right?

AN: It is! And it’s the craziness of it! When you think how much of our time gets bound up with all of this instead of just going straight to the point, instead of just doing what we want to do. It’s this incredible kind of web of things that are holding people back.

KRW: It’s the business model of exclusivity. The business model seems to be to hold the information close, use paywalls and other forms of payment to restrict access, and then people believe that something that has to be paid for and is restricted, is, by those facts alone, more valuable. So don’t we have a problem of “free” not being valued?

AN: Well, in fact, this is another reason why we ended up going to a publisher with this manuscript and why I used this route, because for quite a few years I had a website and there was interest in the website, but I felt that if we went to a publisher, this would go to a different audience. And again, remarkably, there are people who would buy the book who would not have gone to the website because the website is free information – devalued information. So, in the end I actually took that website down; we do have a website for the book. But that’s so true what you’re saying.

KRW: How did a publisher see profit potential in a book called Life without Money?

AN: (Laughs) Well, I think that they understood the fact that we saw our framework as being, Number One, the global financial crisis. A lot of people had started to question about money itself then. That this was a great shock to Americans, to North Americans, to Europeans and all of the repercussions we’re still living with. So I think it was primarily that, and also married to that, in our approach, was the real concern with the environment. All of our contributors to some extent address those issues: the social issues, the environmental issues. So I think that Pluto Press just felt, especially with the kind of readership that they had, that this was quite interesting, and a book which we challenge people in terms of its ideas.

KRW: Do you get any adverse reaction from people who see a book called Life without Money, and it has a price; it costs money? What do you say to them?

AN: Of course. They do. And what we do is that we have encouraged people to get their local library or some institutional library to order it, so that they can actually access it free. We’ve actually given away some of the books ourselves, and we’ve also been prepared to make exchanges with people in terms of giving them a copy ourselves. But in terms of the actual fact that we took that route, in many ways, I still think it’s legitimate. One of the things that I say to people is it just shows you how tight and cage-like the whole system is, that you can’t actually get your message across without selling it.

KRW: I’m having the same problem. As you may know, I’m writing a book on the subject of demonetization, and people who know me personally were saying either that I was promoting pie-in-the-sky utopianism or I was being hypocritical to ask for monetary help to write this book. I told them that in the here and now, I need money because that’s the way the world I live in runs. What I’m doing is proposing a different vision for the future.

AN: That’s exactly right. And that’s what’s different about the kind of political position that you and I take, compared with some people who approach this by saying, “Well you can live with as little money as possible.” And our actual argument is that you can’t because if you want to be a really active and engaged member of our society, you need to go through all these endless hoops regarding money. The whole system of reward in our society is very, very much within a monetary kind of framework. Status is. Power, very definitely, is.

KRW: What is nonmarket socialism and how is it different from the socialism we see now in places like Scandinavia?

AN: I would say that nonmarket socialism is a money-free, state-free, class-free society where people’s needs are still met. And they’re met by people sharing in decision-making and sharing and doing all of the work of production and exchange. So you just cut out there being the principle of money and monetary flows in exchanges. And you also cut out there being big bureaucracies so that we all have representatives who have representatives, and the kinds of communist experiments in the 20th century of China, Russia and Cuba, which were all highly state-organized communism. Nonmarket socialists see it being highly problematic to have the state. We see the state as being an important part of capitalism. The state as we know it today, it has actually grown along with capitalism. It’s sort of a way of limiting it; it’s a way of actually supporting it; and it’s also a way of ameliorating it. So it has very complex kinds of functions. But we think that in order for people to have their basic needs met, it would make more sense if people themselves were making a lot more decisions about what they needed and how it was produced and doing it themselves.

KRW: If we don’t have states, what would we have instead?

AN: I would see states breaking down into bioregions and I would see that the whole world could be covered, in a sense, or conceived of as a whole series of cells, so that you’ve got bioregions, you’ve got neighborhoods, you’ve got households, and all of them have as much autonomy as they can. But at the same time, making sensible arrangements over producing what is easiest for one neighborhood to produce, or, where people have access to special kinds of resources, them actually making exchange relationships with people. I see it very much as people becoming more connected with their own local environment and what it needs in terms of its nurturing and reproductive activities, at the same time as people being able to sustain themselves from those environments.

KRW: What’s the difference between sharing and exchange, and how does exchange fit into a “life without money”?

AN: I think that if we are providing for our basic needs as much as possible from the local environment, you would automatically have a lot less exchange than you do in a monetary system. A lot of the environmental and social damage that’s occurring is occurring partly because if I go to my local supermarket, there are products, and they’re coming from Canada and they’re coming from Eastern Europe; they’re coming from every part of the world. All of this trade, all of this transport is massively wasteful. There are whole aspects of the exchange system, and we haven’t even gone into the whole financial levels, which, if you didn’t have the whole monetary kind of layer, and the monetary framework for doing these things, you could just dispense with and you would have a much more efficient system. So how I see exchange working is on the basis of ethical principles, where people’s basic needs need to be met. So they make arrangements to, in a kind of multilateral way, exchange things on the basis of need between people.

KRW: We throw people out of economic production, yet we demand that they “pay their way”. Will demonetization take care of those who are not needed or not wanted in the economy because of technology replacing human labor, or because employers are prejudiced and don’t want blacks or women or homosexuals or Muslims or whoever having jobs? Or you’re too young or too old or physically incapable anymore?

AN: Yes, I think they must be. They must be. That has to be part of the whole process. I find it particularly poignant and really getting absolutely to the point that someone’s identity is so connected to their work. But as you say it’s not just their identity to your material subsistence under capitalism.

KRW: People that are not wanted in the economy, that’s all of us at some point in our lives, isn’t it?

AN: Most definitely. That’s exactly right. And it really just emphasizes the fact that money is security in our system. It’s the way the you have food, the way that you gain power, status. I often think that it’s almost like a religion. It seems to me that money has all of these aspects of the entire cosmology. Everything comes back to money. And I think that people who can’t imagine a world without money, which is actually lots of people, just actually proves that point. We believe in money. We believe in money in that religious kind of way, as if there could not be life without it.

KRW: A woman who commented on an Internet article I wrote against money, said that she liked money because it makes transactions anonymous. She simply paid the seller’s asking price and took the goods home, not having any further obligation to the seller. Would you say that money takes the place of actual relationship in our world?

AN: Yes, but it is strange. As that woman pointed out, there is a connection made, but then the connection completely disappears again. Whereas if you look at all of the literature on gift economies, for instance, and there are a vast variety of gift economies, some that have exploitation in them, and others that are really moving into a new and interesting direction, in gift economies, a service or a good that’s exchanged for someone characteristically still has those associations attached to them: the history of them, where they come from, how they’re being used, who might have given it to you or whatever. It is very interesting that, in a market system, we build up this kind of fiction that we don’t owe anyone anything. Yet, at some other level, we are connected. We are all part of the same species. Surely, we’re a society because we recognize our connection with one another. So this is kind of deep-seated contradiction between the alienation and, as you say, the connection that we find ourselves in, which is just like a web that we can’t get ourselves out of, at the same time.

KRW: Women do most of the world’s unpaid work, especially the reproduction of society: homemaking, child care, elder care, subsistence gardening etc. As you travel the world promoting this book Life without Money, do you find that women are interested in demonetization or do they say “That’s just pie-in-the-sky utopianism, I want to be paid”?

AN: No, I’ll tell you what, I think women are right ahead of the race in this. Because women have done that, and because I think lots of women have actually enjoyed not being within the webs and the calculations and the accountancy of paid work, they can actually see that the kind of power you can get being outside the system is actually much more attractive than working in the system. What I find is that at the very practical level there are more women involved [than men]and when I look back at the numbers of groups that I’ve talked to, I just been amazed at the number of women who can very stridently and right from their hearts say, “I think that this could work and that this would be really good.” The experience that women have had in not being so connected with paid work and not necessarily also having to define their status in the way that men generally have had to through paid work actually enables them to envisage these things a lot easier and to engage in nonmonetary networks more easily. So, for instance, I was involved in a fruit and nut tree network and most of the people involved in that were women. Maybe that’s because it’s food; maybe that’s because it’s gardening, but yeah.

KRW: Environmental concerns are frequently mentioned in the book Life without Money. How is demonetization a boon to the environment?

AN: Well, I have to say that it’s a necessary condition, but it wouldn’t automatically mean that you would have a good environment if you just don’t have money. So you need to have strong environmental ethics. And you can’t, in my opinion, introduce strong environmental ethics while you have a market system. I’ll really just points to all of the developments over the last so many decades where people have been trying to save forests, and trying to save areas and indigenous people from the ravages of mining exploitation and that kind of thing, to actually just see very clearly that the market system and growth under capitalism is continually eroding the natural environment.

Until we can put aside the principle of production for trade, and for money and for profits, then I don’t think that we have a hope of re-instituting the kind of balance that we need with nature. But I would also emphasize that just doing something without money doesn’t, of itself, mean that everything is going to be fine, in just the same way as you wouldn’t necessarily automatically have a fantastic society. I think the really important thing to understand is that, under the market system, you have monetary values and what we need to do is to develop social values and environmental values.

Life without Money is published by Pluto Press. Dr. Nelson’s website for the book, which also contains her demonetization blog, is http://www.lifewithoutmoney.info, which provided the image.

One thought on “Dr. Anitra Nelson talks about Life without Money

  1. Pingback: Building a society based on social and environmental values | Intrepid Report.com

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