Money as a social relationship

I think one of the problems with examining the City and City culture is that there is a tendency to overlook the obvious (although the obvious is usually only that in hindsight).  Instead, the focus is on the insane hours, the crazy salaries and bonuses, the cut-throat, Darwinian culture.  The very public resignation of Greg Smith appears to confirm all the worst fears that everyone has about the City (and more especially about Goldman Sachs), and suddenly everyone is wise (after the event).   Yes, of course we all know that the City is like this, that it’s all about making money, and if this involves ripping people off (and describing them as ‘muppets’ behind their backs), well, this is just the nature of the game.

Of course, there are some serious questions to be asked in this particular case: not least why it took Smith nearly 12 years to become aware of what everyone else (apparently) already knew.  I don’t think anyone buys his story that when he started it had a much better culture and actually valued its clients much more than (according to Smith) it does now.  However, in many ways I still think this misses the point.  It’s all very well saying that this is what the City (i.e. finance capitalism) is like so what do you expect.  However, at best this is a statement (of opinion), not an explanation.

I think what’s lacking here is an attempt at explanation, an attempt to explain why the City is like this, i.e. obsessed with making money – at, it would seem, any cost.  Of course, this is only part of the story.   The City exists in order to facilitate business and the trading of money.  But in the process it does make money – a great deal of it.  The long hours, the stress, the mental health problems, and, of course, those bonuses, are all a consequence of these core activities.  And, of course, these consequences are by no means limited to the City.  They are endemic in all areas of corporate life – even, and somewhat ironically, in the ‘not-for-profit’ sector.

Which leads me to the main point: capitalism is all about profit.  Or, to be more accurate from a Marxist standpoint, it’s about surplus value, from which profit stems.  But one of Marx’s key discoveries, and, in my view, the real ‘scandal’ of his discoveries – akin to the ‘scandal’ of the Freudian unconscious – is his recognition that money is a social relationship.  Or, to be more precise, in a capitalist social formation, social relations take the form of money relations.   Of course, Marx’s theory of money is derived from his theory of commodities and commodity relations, so it might be even more accurate to argue that under capitalism, social relations take the form of commodity relations, with money being a very special kind of commodity relation.   It’s not that if you ‘strip away’ the (ideological) disguise of commodity relations that you will find the ‘real’ social relations:  in fact, if this was possible you would be taking a step back to feudalism i.e. the master-servant relation.  No, there is no ‘behind’ of the commodity relationship: under capitalism this is the social relationship: this is what it means to talk of the form of the social relation.

What has this got to do with understanding the City?  I think the key point here is to recognise that instead of trying to view the City as some kind of dysfunctional culture, as an example of the worst in human and social relations and, even,the perfect example of corporate psychopathology, it might be better to start by recognising that this is the perfect embodiment of capitalist relations.  The City is the hub (or rather, one of the hubs) of a global network in which social relations do indeed take the form of money relations: there is no ‘real’ social relation standing ‘behind’ this relation – which implies that if only somehow this relation could be brought to the surface it could then be transformed into something far more humane.  Rather, this is the social relation, this is the relation between human beings.  This is what society is under capitalism.