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Money: in terms of social change, it’s both ‘beauty and the beast’

Is money a curse or a cure in relation to injustice and inequality? Welcome to a provocative new series on the role of money in the transformation of society. 

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Philip Larkin’s poetry entered my consciousness during Britain’s “winter of discontent” in 1978, a grim time for those who remember it. Strikes by refuse collectors, nurses and workers in electricity plants brought the country to a halt. Things were so bad that even the gravediggers went on strike.

Revising for my English “O-level” exams by candlelight in a home surrounded by piles of rotting garbage, I was drawn, like all my classmates, to Larkin’s judgment on our parents: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” At least there was something useful to be learned from our syllabus.

Now, after 30 years of working with funding agencies like Oxfam and Save the Children, the World Bank and the Ford Foundation, I realize that Larkin got it wrong. It’s not your parents who fuck you up, it’s money.

Money separates ‘donors’ from ‘recipients’ and turns activists into beggars. Money eats away at the body politic like a cancer, corrupting the voluntary spirit of civic action and community. For 99 per cent of us money is a source of psychic angst because we never have enough, while the other one per cent suffer their own inner torments because they have too much. Money turns mere mortals into superhuman philanthropists, who aim to save the world but end up destroying public goods like education. Hoarded and adored, money is a worthless measure of true value, turning everything it touches into products to be sold, including solidarity and love.

But money isn’t always a barrier to social transformation, just as your parents don’t always fuck you up. Mine didn’t, as things turned out. They took their cue from Friedrich von Hugel’s letters to his niece: “the golden rule,” he wrote, “is to help those we love to escape from us.” And with their encouragement, that’s what I did. It’s the opposite sensibility to the greedy, grasping, control-oriented attitudes that permeate the worlds of foreign aid and philanthropy, and which turn helping others into another form of domination.

It’s the same, I think, with money, which can be a powerful resource for social change when liberated from these attitudes. After all, if it weren’t for philanthropy, you wouldn’t be reading this or any of the articles on the openDemocracy website, which is funded by donations from foundations and individuals. (If that doesn’t include you yet, please give something here).

If it weren’t for money, you and I wouldn’t be able to trade useful stuff with one another, or build a socially productive economy that still relies on a system of exchange. After all, money is just a currency – it’s what gets attached to money that’s the problem: things like influence and value, status and position, and most importantly, power and control.

It may be true that “the revolution will not be funded,” as the old social movement saying puts it, but someone still has to pay for it somehow, at least for those elements of social change that create a cost too great for people to carry by themselves. That means everything from a decent health care system to an international organization that protects human rights. So money is both ‘beauty and the beast.’ The question is not how to replace it, but how to make it a more positive force in the transformation of society.

Over the next few weeks, a range of activists, writers, and philanthropists will explore this question on Transformation. What new forms of currency exist, and why might they be more useful in pursuit of social justice? What’s the link between race, wealth, inequality and power? Can philanthropic foundations play a useful role, or are they simply symptoms of a bankrupt economic system? Are there more democratic methods of building, holding and using wealth so that more people can share its benefits and responsibilities?

Running through these questions is a common theme: in order to turn money into a support system for social transformation, our relationships to money must also be transformed at both the personal level and the political. This is the only way to free money as a currency from the control and domination that manipulate its use. The problem is that this task is becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish, for two main reasons.

The first reason is rising inequality, which accentuates all the negative aspects of money. Inequality reinforces the wealth, power and influence of those who have the most, and further disempowers those who have the least. As a result, the money problem gets even worse.

Between 1947 and 1979, the bottom 95 per cent of families in the United States received 79 per cent of the growth in incomes that occurred during that period of broadly-shared prosperity and high levels of civic and political participation. That link was no coincidence. By contrast, between 2009 and 2011, the top one per cent of American families captured 100 per cent of the growth in incomes that took place in those three years. This pattern is mirrored right across the world.

Finding ways to ‘level the playing field’ of politics and social change under conditions of rising economic inequality is absolutely vital, which is why innovations like democratic governance in NGOs and foundations, and the self-financing of  social activism, are so important. Other articles in this series will examine these innovations in greater detail.

Secondly, as more and more aspects of life are commercialized, the role of money grows ever more important. When I was revising for my ‘O-levels’ I didn’t face a lifetime of student debt after graduating from college. In fact my education at university was free, thanks to Britain’s welfare state. Nor did I fear the prospect of private health insurance, which is now my preoccupation since I live in the United States. My wife recently underwent a minor shoulder operation which lasted for an hour and a half. The bill? $85,420, thank you very much, which was graciously knocked down to a mere $45,000 when it was paid by our health insurance company.

The more things are monetized in this way – like health, education, elder care, and access to knowledge – the more money we need to get by, even if it’s only to pay our health insurance premiums, and the more mental and physical energy we have to expend in earning and fretting about the stuff. Becoming ‘less attached’ to money under these conditions is well-nigh impossible. So a big part of solving the money problem is to take more of life’s essentials out of the marketplace, and put them back into the public and community sectors.

Taken together, these two tends - commercialization and inequality – reinforce the power of money as a barrier to positive social change. That’s why reversing this situation requires bold thinking and radical experiments, rather than tinkering around the edges of the problem through social enterprise or new forms of philanthropy. Philanthropic foundations have become the legitimizing device du jour for any socially-conscious billionaire, though in truth the situation wasn’t much different in the last “Gilded Age” of the Rockefellers and the Fords. Philanthropy has always been, in part, a smile on the face of inequality.

The continued existence of these foundations – great globs of private wealth with lots of tax relief but no public accountability for how they spend it – seems like an anachronism in democratic societies. So it’s fitting that the next article in this series comes from two foundation leaders who believe that philanthropy has a much more positive role to play - Jennifer and Peter Buffet.

Can the wealth that’s created by an unjust economic system be used to make that system just? Is it possible to cleanse ourselves of the psychic pollution that money often causes, so that we can use it in ways that liberate rather than enslave?

Let’s find out.

About the author

Michael Edwards is a writer and activist based in upstate New York, and the editor of Transformation. His website is www.futurepositive.org and his twitter account is @edwarmi.