Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The Language of Money

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.
This is how George Orwell described the new language that Big Brother was creating in 1984,  a language that would make it impossible for the citizens of Oceania to ever again discuss the old freedoms that they had once enjoyed.

In the world of 'Brexit means Brexit' and 'alternative facts' it certainly seems to be coming true. However in another realm of human existence it already has come true, and most of us never even noticed.


When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister she ushered in a radical new economic doctrine,
monetarism. From now on the only interactions that mattered were financial ones. Profits were more important than people and money was to be set free to invade very part of our lives.

It was new theory, that had been gestating since just after the Second World War, and which had recently been trialed in Chile. That had required tanks and torture chambers, but the revolution in the UK, and in America the next year, was more peaceful.

So why didn't we resist? I think because we were lost for words.

"Money doesn't talk, it swears"*

Think about these words; value, wealth, debt. Do they have clear meanings?

Do you 'value' a friendship in the same way you 'value' your shares? Clearly not, but how do you tell which meaning is which? Do you 'value' your record collection like your friends, or your shares? How about your house, or your lover? Would you sell, or buy, either? Perhaps I'd better not ask.

Then what do we mean by 'wealth'? Is it just the collective monetary value of things, or does it have a broader meaning? When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, he did not the mean the same thing as John Ruskin, when he wrote 'There is no wealth but life'? But that was then, what about now?

Finally there's 'debt'. We have a national debt, prisoners pay their debt to society, and we owe a debt to our parents. The national debt usually means what we owe the banks, not what we owe those who died fighting fascism. However it's not just in Monopoly that you can buy your way out of jail, and you can certainly end up in jail if you don't pay your debts, although we do generally try to pretend this isn't the case. But what about the debt to our parents, assuming they were good parents that is. If they were bad parents we'd be talking about their debt to you. Either way, can this ever be turned into money?

The parents of nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton appeared to think so. On his twentifirst birthday his father presented him with a bill for all the costs incurred in bringing him up, including the fee to the Doctor who delivered him. Seton paid up, and never spoke to his dad again. No birthday cards, Sunday visits or worrying about which care home to put him in, he had paid his debt and that was that.

Seton may well be the exception that proves the rule, but it still appears that, like those citizens of Oceania, we have completely lost the vocabulary to talk about interactions in anything other than monetary terms.


This becomes a major problem when we talk about resources we hold in common, particularly Nature.  

When we value Nature, what do we mean? We may say you can't put a price on a beautiful view, or clean air, but it can certainly increase the value of your house. Both a Thatcherite and an environmentalist would no doubt consider The Lake District to be part of the wealth of the nation, although only one would consider selling it off. 

Our current model of economics considers natural resources a free gift from Nature. The only argument is whether their value should be measured by what it takes to get them out of the ground, or what someone is prepared to pay for them. That's like valuing your lover by how much you spent wooing her, or how much you can pimp her for after dark. 

But then if we lack words that allow us to distinguish the bonds that bind us through love and affection, from those of work and commerce, this debate become difficult, to say the least.

That's why when I write these blogs, I sometimes end up sounding like a mystical old hippy. If I say the land is not just valuable, but sacred, you know quite clearly that I will not exchange it for money. If I say my connection with nature is spiritual, you know it is different to my relationship with my bank balance.

Perhaps we need a new language, one that can't be mistaken for the language of money. Let's recognise this Newspeak for what it is, and talk about Nature in words our ancestors would recognise. 

Let's not speak the language of money, but of the trees.

* Bob Dylan It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) 

Further Reading

David Graeber Debt The First 5000 Years 
J B Foster, B Clark, R York The Ecogical Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth

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