Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of 'Making Money' by Ole Bjerg

Here is my first book review in a long time. Soooo busy last year with shenanigans (good shenanigans, obvs). Still, it's nice to get back into reading, especially with a book like this. Anyway if my review symbolizes your desire in a way that allows your imagination to create a reality out of clicking 'like' on Amazon, do please pop over there commence your actualization within this timespace materiality. Ta, muchly. x

4 stars - A Zizekian analysis of money and the financial system.

This book sat on my bookshelf for a year before I got round to reading it. I was a little worried after an initial skim through, that its focus would be too much on the financial system and not enough on money, itself. I found my fears to be both founded and unfounded.

Bjerg's analysis builds upon Zizek and so money is conceptualized accordingly as a fundamental 'lack'. Bjerg shares Graeber's view that money is 'nothing really'. This being so, Bjerg's engagement with the financial system is necessary for him to begin to explain how we 'make money' (in the sense of how the phenomenon of money arises, emerges or is constructed) as a way of probing money's ontology (or lack of it). Unlike Graeber, who was satisfied with subsuming money to debt, Bjerg doesn't shy away from a philosophical engagement with the idea of 'nothingness' and how it can become constitutive of money. And this is very much to his credit.

By invoking Zizek, Bjerg becomes indebted to Lacan (and this is acknowledged). This means that Bjerg's analysis relies heavily on a notion of 'desire'. And although Bjerg goes some way to philosophically engaging with 'desire', in the way that he does with 'nothingness' and money, his exposition of 'desire' is not as effective.

On one level this is because of a failure to explore the metaphysical commitment to the unconscious that underscores psychoanalysis, itself. Specifically, Bjerg fails to elucidate the proposition of a unconscious life as essentially a metaphysical commitment that can never be proved. This has epistemological implications (that the unconscious cannot be 'proven' makes all knowledge less certain). In Bjerg's defense, although his lack of consideration of the unconscious makes it difficult to work out what he thinks 'desire' really is, he does go much further than most in respect of 'money'. Here he doesn't tackle the unconscious directly, but he does talk in philosophical terms about 'known unknowns' (which is a decent characterization of the unconscious) and he introduces Heidegger's notion of Seinsvergessenheit very early on in the book (this describes 'the forgetfulness of Being' - that our thinking takes place within a distinct landscape which is invisible to us). All this is to be commended.

However on a second level exists an even more fundamental problem which is about Value. I'll take a slightly circuitous route to explain why this problem is so fundamental and how not recognizing it impacts on Bjerg's work.

A book I was surprised to find un-referenced in Making Money was John-Joseph Goux's Symbolic Economies. I was surprised because Goux's work draws directly on Lacan, and so uses the same theoretical framework of the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real. The critique of Goux's work by Mark C. Taylor is telling and can be applied to Bjerg too. Both Goux and Bjerg seem to rely on a conception of Value that is fundamentally Neitzschean: this says that nature is valueless, and that it is we who bestow Value upon nature. Taylor, conversely, is a theologian. My reading of his critique is that such a conception of Value is necessarily ideological. For the theologian the ultimate Value is extant within God; Value comes from above, not below. Of course, there is no way to know which is true. What is important is to recognize that both opposing notions of Value are ideological. If you choose to make a commitment to one or the other, you should do so explicitly so as to give exposition to your commitment's impact on your conceptualizations and arguments. Bjerg fails to do this.

Ultimately this leads us to a final chapter that seems to assume the author and the reader share a unity of moral outlook. But we arrive there but without any explanation of how this unity - this conception of 'the good' or of some ultimate Value - has arisen. If Value is created a-fresh in each moment by our desires flowing from the imaginary through the symbolic to the real and back again, how does any enduring and universal morality arise? Bjerg provides no answer. If it's not God, then what draws us to this shared sense of morality. What makes morality self-evident?

Bjerg's unwillingness to explore these questions of moral philosophy actually shows up quite well in what is otherwise a brilliant and elucidating thought experiment. He creates a story of an imaginary counterfeiter whose loans of fake currency nevertheless create real prosperity within his town. Bjerg uses this as a means to explore relations within the creation of credit money. What he doesn't do is explore the moral questions. This is frustrating because a brief encounter with Derrida's work on Baudelaire (which is about the morality of the counterfeit) may have opened up a vista for exploration which would have given Bjerg a moral or ethical subtext making the statements of his final chapter (about our revolutionary potential) even more powerful.

Moving on from this lack of clear exposition around Value and his avoidance of moral philosophy, I find Bjerg could also - like most other writers on money - have better developed a distinction between money and currency. He does distinguish between various forms of money according to how they are created within the financial system. But the most basic and common of distinctions 'money & currency' isn't mentioned. He instead adopts Zelizer's approach of talking about 'monies' and so misses the opportunity to float money off into the Mind and allow currency to sink down into the material world. Making such a distinction might have enabled a more productive engagement with psychoanalytical ideas, and helped create a watershed between reason and desire.

This brings me onto a point about 'circulation'; I felt that the idea of money flowing around the financial system wasn't really examined sufficiently. Money, as I'm sure Bjerg is aware, does not flow, it is emitted. This has psychoanalytical and temporal implications which were not drawn out, and so we fall back into the same economic metaphor (of money flowing around a system like blood through a body, or water in a Moniac machine.)

As I'm sure you can tell, my criticism of this work focuses on what Making Money could have been, rather than what it was. This is a little unfair of me, although perhaps it shows that Bjerg's book inspired me to think about what he was saying. I would like though to redress the balance a little and end this review by making a few more explicitly positive statements. Bjerg is brilliant at analogies, metaphors and thought experiments. My favorite concerns the earth and moon orbiting around the 'barycentre' and financialization being akin to an increase in the moon's gravitational pull. I should also say that, despite my earlier criticism, I very much enjoyed his final chapter. As always with academics I was pleased that he took the risk of speaking his mind, and showing us a little of how he feels as well as thinks. Making Money is a book that works very well within its own terms. It is clearly written and keeps up a good pace, even when it's talking about the financial system, which is the point where I often glaze over in my reading on money. It's fantastic that scholars such as Ole Bjerg (and Noam Yuran whose 'What Money Wants' is similarly Zizekian and desire-based) are writing books that directly challenge mainstream functionalist accounts of the nature of money. And I have no hesitation in recommending Bjerg's book.

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