Building a society based on social and environmental values

Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies
Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman, Co-editors
Pluto Press
ISBN 978–0–7453–3165–2

Life Without Money is a compilation of essays on theories and practices of non-monetary economics, which some people, including Anitra Nelson, call non-market socialism. It is a book intended primarily for academics who might want to consider teaching from this book, and those whom Nelson calls “thinking activists,” i.e., people who are primarily activists, but who are also interested in economic theory. Each chapter has many end notes and several gray boxes that mark out special points a teacher might wish to bring out during a lecture.

Frans Timmerman has been a socialist faction leader in the Australian Labor Party and political advisor to members of parliament. Nelson is associate professor in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

I interviewed Nelson about the book and discovered how our monetized mode of living influenced the book’s creation. The current intellectual property regime prevented the editors from getting a significant contribution. Nelson said:

Eduardo Galeano 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.

Galeano of Uruguay is an important left-wing intellectual. It is sad and ironic that Life Without Money lacks his input because he cannot quote himself without copyright problems.

It is also ironic that Life Without Money is for sale. (The editors do make some copies available for free, including my review copy.)

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.

The book’s introduction, by Nelson and Timmerman, is called Use Value and Non-Market Socialism. It tells us that we have to pay more attention to the use value of things, i.e., what practical value they have to the end user, rather than the exchange value, i.e., what price will they command on the market. They also quote Marshall Sahlins, who says:

Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor it is just a relation between means and ends; above all. it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.

This quote brings home the main issue that divides non-market socialists from capitalists and state socialists: Non-market socialists primarily see economics as a system of provisioning, whereas capitalists see money and possessions as an important means of marking who are the betters and who are the inferiors, while state (market) socialists claim to want to equalize the classes, eventually abolishing them, but from what we know of state socialist societies like China and the former Soviet Union, they have party bureaucrats who are themselves a privileged (and wealthy) class.

Nelson also wrote the first essay, Money versus Socialism, in the book’s first half, which is called Critiques of Capitalism and Communism. She is followed by Harry Cleaver (Work Refusal and Self Organization), John O’Neill (Money, Markets and Ecology), Ariel Saleh (The Value of a Synergistic Economy) and Terry Leahy (The Gift Economy).

Nelson said that Saleh, a fellow Australian, marries feminism with a Third World perspective. I spoke to Saleh myself; she told me that feminist economics meant nothing if it did not consider ecology. In her chapter, Saleh says that

Indigenous and peasant societies have found synergistic ways of meeting human needs, that is, simultaneously satisfying a multitude of daily use values, including cultural ones, while protecting the ecosystem as the material bottom line.

Nelson included Harry Cleaver for his perspectives on zero work. He looks at credit and debt as forms of social control. He writes of how work has been perverted by capitalism and calls on people to self-organize against capitalism’s attempt to shape and dominate all aspects of life.

The second half of the book is called Activism and Experiments. This section has Adam Buick (Non-Market Socialism), Mihailo Marković (Self-Management and Efficiency) Kat Katcade with the Twin Oaks Community (Labour Criedit—Twin Oaks Community, and Claudio Cattaneo (The Money–Free Autonomy of Spanish Squatters).

Marković takes on capitalism’s obsession with efficiency. He describes what a humanist praxis that maximizes self-determination would have to have, but he is speaking as a philosopher. I think this particular essay should have been put in the theory section.

I found that the Twin Oaks contribution better described a different currency system than one most others would recognize, than a truly money-free system. Labor credits seem to me to be a halfway measure, using something that is not the coin of the realm, but is still full of accounting and fear that others will “game the system.” We see this in other so-called moneyless projects, such as time banks that measure how much “debt” a participant has accumulated.

Cattaneo’s essay, describing squats and squatters in Spain, stemmed from his doctoral research. He adopted the squatting lifestyle in several locations so that his thesis reflected his actual observed and experienced praxis. He gives readers a firsthand account of both rural and urban squats. He notes at the beginning that

Squatters are characterized by avoiding paid work and the use of money, the market, in favor of autonomous self-organization and collective sufficiency, but my thesis concluded that only the neorural squatters have the material basis to achieve success.

Nelson and Timmerman end the book with a chapter called Contract and Converge. Although they take care not to present their vision as the ultimate answer, their point is to show that non-market socialism can be achieved in the here and now.

Contract and Converge is a strategy derived from the need to deal with climate change. They advocate its expansion to deal with other large societal problems. “We need to re-orient our economic, political and social relationships around local collective sustainability,” the editors write. They cite Transition Towns as an attempt to go in this direction. They also note, “Although we know how to satisfy our needs more sustainably, the ways and principles of more sustainable living clash irreconcilably with capitalism.”

The other problem, however, is that doing away with money alone will not solve all the problems. In our interview, Nelson said,

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 . . . 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 reinstituting 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 can help people think about what those social and environmental values should be. It is not going to be the type of book that one would likely choose for the beach or the commute, but if someone has the time to sit with it, or to study it in a course, it will make them think. And thinking about what we are doing and where we are going, rather than just reacting to the moment, is definitely what we need right now.

You can read Kéllia Ramares-Watson’s entire interview with Dr. Anitra Nelson here. Kéllia can be reached at theendofmoney[at]

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