Larry Hirschhorn has an interesting post up right now called “The Folk Psychology of Money”. He posits that people project their anxieties about themselves and the future, as a coping strategy in face of the fact that so much of what determines the course of our lives is arbitrary and beyond our control, onto money.
At the extreme, some people develop a theory of money in which “hidden forces,” who create credit out of nothing, use this power to enslave us, in other words to eliminate contingency and the capacity for creative work. This fantasy paradoxically provides relief because it suggests that someone, some shadowy network, is actually in control. All is not chaos, and if we are smart enough, we can control the controllers. A larger number of people, less likely to be drawn to conspiratorial thinking, persists in thinking of money as a physical object that operates mechanically, as a way of avoiding the uncomfortable idea that the course of our lives, like our birth, is entirely contingent and unpredictable.
This reminded me a great deal of David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5000 Years”, a generous brick of a book that may be more easily digested in audio form. I’ve listened to it three or four times because I generally listen to audiobooks at night and tend to fall asleep sometime during the account of the ritual barter practices of the Gunwinggu, but that is by no means an insult. It’s a very good read for a quasi-academic book. Graeber’s thesis – that debt is the origin of money, predating coinage, rather than the barter economists imagine to be the primordial medium of exchange – fits in rather well with Hirschhorn’s idea that our ideas about money are based more on our psychological needs than any accurate picture of reality.
Graeber is an anthropologist, of course, not a psychologist, so he looks at things on the level of the group rather than the individual. What would it mean to apply Hirschhorn’s idea at the group level?
Could our societal ideas about money say something about our collective anxieties and needs? We believe in a golden age, somewhere between 1945 and 1970, when people didn’t have credit cards or extravagant mortgages and all lived within their means on generous union wages (well, in the global north). We are both heavily indebted – Canadians now owe $1.63 for every $1 they earn – and treat debt as a moral failing. We believe that anyone can live the middle-class dream if they work hard enough, while housing and food costs keep increasing and wages do not keep pace. How much money you have, as well as how you handle it, are indicators not just of your social situation but your moral character and your worth as a human being.
Much like our messed-up cultural relationship with food, where we both obsess over obesity and make stuff like the Cronut burger, our messed-up relationship with money points to an area where perhaps we are not being entirely honest with ourselves. And to be honest with ourselves about our unconscious is, to put it mildly, a challenge. This is a great example of group phantasy, come to think of it (see this post for a definition).
Anyway, go read Hirschhorn’s post – it’s great food for thought.