[Translated from Wolfgang Möhl and Theo Wentzke, Das Geld: Von den vielgepriesenen Leistungen des schnöden Mammons, Munich: GegenStandpunkt Verlag, 2007]
Inner and higher values are very popular. You are supposed to be keen on them instead of ordinary pleasures. Belletristic anti-materialism has always been the same: One poet declares that “mankind does not live by bread alone!” while another philosopher immediately interrupts that “money does not bring happiness!”
Neither is right. The first one is wrong because no one ever said that mankind doesn’t need anything apart from a bit of dry bread. The other one is wrong because he thinks of happiness as soon as he is faced with poverty. Both popular know-it-alls see eye-to-eye on their deeper conviction that life is worth living for its spiritual yields, and that “mere” wealth looks pretty shabby in comparison.
This radical criticism of material pleasures and of those busy fulfilling their basic material needs betrays something about life in capitalism. The only reason that these friendly purveyors of life-advice recommend the more high-octane values is because they notice that a good number of their fellow citizens can’t even get enough of the low-grade goods, and so they vent their discontent. This is most displeasing to the self-help experts, because it gives rise to irksome notions, such as that something must be wrong in the well-stocked market with all its useful wealth if scarcity constantly results. Those keen on instilling Western culture with higher meaning find such ideas rather strenuous. That’s why they refer the public to the market of higher values, which don’t cost a thing.
Since everybody in the market economy knows that the cheapest stuff is no good, we kindly refuse to accept this generous offer. We bear in mind that nobody achieves happiness on bread alone, but don’t forget that many cannot live off the money they have to get by on. This cannot possibly be because they have neglected the practical value of higher values. Rather, it has something to do with the value of money, which nobody needs to believe in because everybody has to obey it.
The measure of value
Everybody knows that apart from those priceless things that “cannot be bought,” everything has its price. In the case of goods up for sale, their price tag tells you how much money they cost. But even things that no one thinks of selling are constantly measured in money. The properties of a house that make it useful for its inhabitants, the services of a machine for its user, the merits of a stereo system – all of this becomes a matter of indifference when it comes to what these things contribute to a person’s wealth. The particular usefulness of all these things becomes a mere condition that needs to be fulfilled in order for them to be worth a certain sum of money. From this perspective, these different things can be easily added to the money that a person also happens to have. The whole thing amounts to a person’s fortune, which decides upon his destiny in a market economy. It determines the degree of freedom that one can allow oneself in the world of the market.
On the one hand, a peculiar idealism seems to be at work when all things, each of which is useful in a different way, are given a money-name. Material wealth is thus equated with a quantity of money; the different useful goods act as “representatives” of the stuff that constitutes “real” wealth, separate from their respective use-values. In order for abstract wealth to act as the measure of all things, which is familiar to anyone who happens to live in a free market economy, it doesn’t even need to be at hand. As long as one only wants to know what a thing is worth, an imagined sum of money will do the trick. But as soon as it is a matter of getting something, of gaining access to the use-value of a thing, one needs the money the thing costs.
On the other hand, therefore, there is no idealism in play when everything is evaluated in money. Instead, this means that everyone, whether rich or poor, is confronted with the materialism of private property. Regardless of what it is you want to enjoy or have at your disposal, you have to pay for it with money, because it belongs to somebody else. And even though most of the newest banknotes no longer contain the following notice – “Whoever imitates or falsifies banknotes or puts imitated or falsified banknotes into circulation shall be punished by at least two years imprisonment” – nobody would think he was permitted to glue together these colorful slips of paper according to his needs. If there is one thing that any child knows about his home country, where state power guarantees the validity of money so that it can properly perform its job as the measure of value, then he knows that of all the useful and pleasant things that he gets a glimpse of and would like to use, he can only get a hold of those things that he makes his private property. Money treats one private person as equal with all others – and subjects them all to a coercive societal bond. This abstract wealth is the key to getting hold of all sorts of concrete wealth, all the myriad things produced in a division of labor in all the corners of the free market economy for the purpose of sale. The necessity to exchange makes itself felt as the “need” for money. Even though money itself is unfit for human consumption, everybody desires it, because this measure of value with its immediate and universal exchangeability makes its owner the master over all commodities – provided he has enough of it.
The means of circulation
As soon as private property has been established and everybody is after money in order to get somewhere on the market, not only do commodities circulate, but also commonplaces of the stupidest kind. “Money makes exchange possible” can be read in economic text books and encyclopedias. And in order to make a good impression and preserve a scientific air, which always requires some proof of necessity, scholars refer to the distribution of labor that supposedly brings about the distribution of all the goods scattered here and there in a most fortunate manner via money, the “means of exchange.”
We must make a small correction to these tidbits of wisdom that joyfully announce that money facilitates “access” to and the “distribution of goods”: money, the measure of wealth, also puts access to useful products and their distribution into question. It also makes impossible what it “makes possible.” After all, private property, which is established by force, first of all separates all needs from the objects that satisfy them. It makes the satisfaction of these needs contingent on whether one pays the price demanded by the good’s owner. When a state decrees that money is the means for satisfying needs, it certainly does not make needs the purpose of economic life. Rather, it subjects their satisfaction to the ability to pay of those with needs. A person’s activities in the world of pleasures depend on the quantity of the state-monitored stuff that he owns. Goods find their way to their lovers only under the condition that the latter pay the price. Goods fill the market in the form of commodities, they are business items, and their owners are most unwilling to put them at the disposal of others unless they can be turned into money.
There is no denying the fact that money carries out a distribution of goods. The question, however, is whether money is a fortunate invention for consensually solving a problem created by a “division of labor”: getting goods from one place, where they are not needed, to a place where someone wants to have them. Every advertisement about “reasonably priced products” refutes that notion. Evidently, producers are competing over limited purchasing power and endeavor to get consumers to buy their product instead of that of another. This plainly refutes the notion that money is, if not a solution to the distribution problem, at least a makeshift solution in face of the “scarcity of goods” – which is also an interpretation alluding to the obvious antagonisms of the market upon which goods and money change hands.
In other words: first of all money really does mediate the exchange of goods of any origin. Money eliminates barriers of production caused by time and place, which, together with the incidental character of human needs (“One person has/doesn’t have what his trading partner needs/doesn’t need”), are always portrayed as a deficit of barter arrangements. Yet whether this problem has ever existed outside a money economy is debatable. At any rate, this certainly doesn’t make money an “arithmetic unit” or an “instrument of regulation” that guarantees that goods find their users. After all, money asserts itself as the condition that has to be fulfilled if commodities are to be set into motion and find their way from the original owner to the final consumer. Before the widely appreciated result emerges, the exchange of commodities here against commodities elsewhere, every commodity still has to prove that it is saleable. And this means that it not only has to prove itself useful for this or that need, but also stand the test as far as the purchasing power of the prospective customers is concerned. Therefore, money performs its highly praised service as an instrument of distribution only very conditionally. Unfulfilled needs and unsold goods both testify to the fact that the separation of purchase and sale – the “technique” that allows the exchange of all commodities of whatever kind – creates a concrete antagonism. Money obviously matters so much that commodities are often not exchanged at all.
There is cold comfort in the complaint raised in the face of market disturbances that money has obviously been quantitatively mishandled. These experts entertain the ideal that money in a market economy – in which the exclusive disposal of private owners over money and commodities matters alone – can be added up to a total sum which, if correctly calculated, “clears the market” and satisfies any desire. Yet none of them would go so far as to suggest that more money should be put into circulation for the good purpose of distributing goods and supplying mankind, so that buying and selling can get going again. This certainly wouldn’t work, because the additional purchasing power would only lead to higher prices and the worthlessness of money… So the amount of the money units obviously matters – not with regard to the service as means of circulation, but because the unit matters whose content no market-economic head cares to consider. The friends of the “quantity theory of money” and its interpretation of inflation (the secret of which lies in credit and not in mountains of goods and volumes of money) thereby concede that the market has to vouch for the use of money and not the other way around.
There are easier ways of noticing that the purpose of the market consists in getting hold of money, private power over a society’s wealth in its “form which is always ready to be used,”  than by criticizing false theories, which are disgraced by the bias of those that advocate them. Marxists certainly weren’t the first to realize this.
It’s All About Money
The miser that populates the world of fiction and poetry has long known that you don’t have any say in a market economy if you spend the few coins you have managed to earn on consumption. The hoarder of money prefers the form of saving that consists in selling goods and keeping the money. What makes him odd is that he abstains from the pleasures offered by the world of commodities in order to secure the power over all needs. Of course, nobody laughs at the idea of accumulating money. Because of his abstinence, his desire for the universal means of purchase becomes sheer greed, the poor wealthy man becomes a ridiculous figure.
The penchant for money looks more reasonable when it is lent. When commodities are to be turned into money, they are often delivered without the purchaser being able to pay for them. Temporary insolvency must not be an obstacle for purchase and sale! And, unless poor people satisfy a current need by paying for it with future sacrifice, everybody knows that credit is a serious and indispensable business technique. The latter is based on the surpluses that “the market” produces, for whoever agrees to postpone payment admits that he has enough money available for continuing his business on the market. The state, the enforcer of all contracts, ensures that the debt is paid off within the agreed upon term. When debts become the rule and claims for money are treated and function as money, the accumulation of abstract wealth has already made considerable progress. Somehow, exchange has led to the accumulation of money….
The same is true for the state, which keeps books on the exchange between its locally limited market, or rather its businessmen, with foreign countries via its banking system. It appreciates assets in money just as much as a treasure in gold. States always regard the world market as a means for enhancing their balances of payment, and the “hunger problem” refutes any suspicions that international trade is about supplying mankind with goods. The market is a means for gaining economic might, and the latter is denominated in money, the form of universal wealth…
Capital – the art of accumulating money
Money is not the slave of goods and certainly not an aid for distributing them on time. With money, one makes good use of the market if one knows how to spend it in such a way that one keeps it and gets more and more of it. The old techniques of buying and selling as a profession or lending money, for a price of course, have proven to be real trailblazers. These early inventions, which are still current, are based on the principle that others also bear the costs for maintaining and increasing one’s own fortune. And in combination with all sorts of state obligations, this avant-garde cleared the view for the destitution that defines the existence of the ordinary pawns on the market. These people constantly have to get hold of money in order to get what they need on the market. Since they are prepared to produce something saleable, but cannot finance the means for doing so, financially powerful investors came up with the idea of giving them the opportunity to work. A win-win situation arises, a humane breeze wafts through the cold world of calculating trade and the supply of goods for the market is guaranteed.
In other words, the only sensible way of handling money is to create jobs. Or: money dictates an entire mode of production. All those who have so few means at their disposal that they simply spend their money on basic necessities and need to get hold of money again are given the possibility to come to terms with the perils of the means of circulation: “gainful employment.” They get an income they can budget with, provided that their labor is profitable for the private property that supplies the costly work-places and markets the products at good value. The state that effects and supervises the separation of work from property helps the workers with its “social” services. Compulsory saving for emergencies is necessary for the simple reason that the living of those dependent on wages often isn’t profitable because of the calculation with workplaces. And along with the customary poverty of all those who are allowed to be a means for accumulating the property of others and are confronted with permanent changes in working conditions and pay, “deep” poverty is also part of the game. Crucial in all these questions is growth – whose growth is no question – without which everybody immediately is done for, because everything and everybody depend on it.
Hence, money – of which no one can say who really invented it – is a very progressive thing. In a way, it forms the unifying bond between those who have it and use it as their means, and those who serve it by working with others’ means of production. Both sides earn money by work. Some earn as much money as they make others work profitably. The others can – provided they succeed in finding a job on the labor market – freely and equally keep the small circulation going: sell labor power, hand over work, throw earnings on the market. Their treatment as a cost factor – another law of money – guarantees that they don’t become too big for their boots – and unemployed every once in a while for good measure.
 Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, page 229 (Penguin Classics, 1976)