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Keep Politics Out of Money

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books and culture

Keep Politics Out of Money

A new book offers philosophical insights about money while making an unpersuasive case for its “democratization.” September 26, 2022
Economy, finance, and budgets
Politics and law

The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes, by Stefan Eich (Princeton University Press, 344 pp., $35)

Political neutrality has come under attack in recent years. For neutrality’s critics, rules that allegedly exist to protect speech, property, or civil rights actually serve to advance the interests of nefarious groups and should be sites of political conflict. In The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes, political theorist Stefan Eich brings this approach to our wallets, seeking to establish money as a “central problem of political theory” and to expose the contradictions of any attempt to “depoliticize” it.

A political theory of money sounds incongruous: What could high-minded philosophers have to say about something as mundane as dollars and cents? But one of Eich’s goals is to reveal why money and philosophy only seem unrelated—he argues that they shouldn’t be. He wants to show that currency has always been a philosophically and politically rich subject, and that attempts to depoliticize it are either insincere or foolish. Money, he might say, is always and everywhere a political phenomenon.

Dissatisfied with our economy and convinced that developed-world monetary policy needs fresh thinking, Eich recommends that we rediscover the views of philosophy’s heavy hitters on currency questions. Most of the book consists of a careful, useful discussion of the monetary writings of Aristotle, John Locke, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes, along with considerations of the political and economic developments that shaped their thinking.

Economists maintain that money is neutral. They view it as a medium of exchange, facilitating comparisons of unlike goods and services by reducing them to the same unit. As Locke noted, money is therefore like language, allowing people to understand one another through a shared schema. For Eich, this is an intellectual error that stands in the way of a more democratic currency. Any supposed neutrality is merely a cover for a political vision; money bears on questions of legitimacy, sovereignty, and power. Call his perspective “critical monetary theory.”

Eich begins with Aristotle, admiring his account of money as an egalitarian mechanism for justice among citizens, before moving to the modern world. Locke, the villain of his story, depoliticized money by treating it as a tool emerging from a pre-political community. Money, Locke believed, was originally protected by social trust but eventually needed the government’s defense in the form of the establishment of fiat currency. Like property, money thus had a paradoxical political character: it deserved the protection of the state but was also “shielded against discretionary political interference.” In Eich’s telling, this history was a disingenuous element of Locke’s broader liberal project, which sought to remove certain domains from political contestation and thereby obscure the “idea that money could itself be a political tool for justice.”

Eich then considers Fichte, Marx, and Keynes, each of whom saw through the false promise of depoliticized money amid the turbulence of nineteenth-century Germany and post–World War I Britain. As Eich makes clear in these chapters, philosophy does not occur in a vacuum. Wanting to understand the world around them, these figures could not help but influence, and be influenced by, economic debates—whether the subject was the legitimacy of fiat currency, for Fichte; the relationship between money and capital, for Marx; or the gold standard, for Keynes. These illuminating chapters weave together economics and political theory, fields whose specialists often struggle to communicate across interdisciplinary divides.

Eich praises these figures not only for their penetrating philosophical insights but also for their engagement with contemporary economic questions. And he follows their lead in his conclusion, which considers the role of money today. Such events as the 2008 bank bailouts and the Federal Reserve’s 2020 pandemic interventions expose the neoliberal fiction that money can be separated from politics, he argues. If money functions like language, then Eich seems to see our central bankers and economists as something like France’s Académie Française: a coterie of aloof elites, correcting the errors of the masses and ensuring that the rich and well-spoken stay on top.

Writing that “money is too important to be left solely to economists and central bankers,” Eich calls for “democratizing money” by transforming central banks into “laboratories of ‘open democracy’ and worldmaking” and establishing a “new global monetary constitution and a monetary system that is more democratic in its governance.” Heavy on invocations of democracy but light on policy details, Eich seems to have in mind an Occupy Wall Street–era social-democratic agenda in which ordinary citizens replace central bankers and financial oligarchs lose their ability to manipulate the system.

The clarion call is disappointing, especially after such lucid philosophical exegeses. Eich fails to explain how his practical goals follow from his political observations. If he is so skeptical of corrupt, unaccountable bigwigs making deals in smoke-filled rooms, why shouldn’t he advocate, say, the dismantling of the Federal Reserve? If the problem is elite political control of money, after all, why not conclude that the government can’t be trusted to print it? Eich criticizes Locke for claiming that money was apolitical while also supporting a government-backed currency, but one might use the same observation to argue that Locke didn’t go far enough in his project of depoliticization and that fiat currency itself is the problem. The closest Eich gets to considering this option is denouncing cryptocurrency—which some fiat-currency critics regard as a solution to the problem of political money—as a “dangerous delusion that disguises a power grab,” based on the spurious “idea of money beyond either trust or politics.” He may be right, but he offers little principled basis for this dismissal.

In any case, a more serious problem looms. Even if Eich did provide substantive arguments for his policy agenda, they would vindicate his thesis only if he showed that his political positions followed from his analysis of currency. Eich wants us to think of money as a political problem. It’s not simply that “monetary policy has distributive implications and is therefore contested.” His more ambitious concern is to explore how “money can help to create and maintain the preconditions of politics, especially democratic politics.” But nothing in his discussion of philosophy or history indicates that thinking seriously about money enjoins us to any particular political ideal. Eich simply takes it as a given that democracy—whatever he means by it—ought to be our highest political aspiration.

This unestablished assumption makes the philosophical connection between money and politics ultimately tenuous. Consider Eich’s own formulation of his thesis: “Money is never beyond politics. Instead, the real question is what kind of politics ought to shape it.” This gives the game away. If all he means is that money is affected by our preexisting political commitments, then we are back where we started, with an apolitical medium that can be used for whatever “kind of politics” we already have. But this understanding is precisely what Eich wants to reject, just as Marshall McLuhan rejected the claim that whether a technology is good or bad depends on how it is used. For Eich, the medium of exchange is the message.

If money is necessarily affected by politics, then one could easily direct a theory of money toward other political ends. As in other domains, the rejection of neutrality cuts both ways, raising the stakes for the person who rejects it. Oddly enough, Eich seems aware of this problem, warning astutely that “calls to ‘politicize’ money are from this perspective empty—and even potentially reckless—where they fail to articulate what kind of politics is meant to be injected.” Perhaps a more developed project to “repoliticize” money could be worth the risk. But before we storm the Federal Reserve and defenestrate the central bankers, we’ll need a clearer sense of what will replace them.

Photo: JakeOlimb/iStock