Money and the Commons
It would make a world of difference if we stopped treating land and labor as commodities and began to recognize them as providers of wealth. It might make an even greater difference if we discarded our childhood view of money as something to put in a piggy bank and took a more adult view of money as something we share in common.As I demonstrated in Civilizing the Economy, treating money as property ignores its role in social relations, as well as its vital function in a civic economy. The notion of the Commons might help to advance this argument.
There are several notions of the commons, but for now let’s say that the commons are the sources of things that we turn into resources for providing for our families and communities. Most individuals acquire water, for example, through complex water delivery systems to towns and cities, which we can call a system of provision. This system of provision channels a common source (water) through various allocation structures and technologies, which then becomes available to the individual city dweller.
The commons, because it is a commons, is not for sale. It is not property that can be owned. Land is the classic example here. Land belongs to the living system of the planet. To think you can own a forest, for example, is to see the forest as separated from the biosphere. Destroy the forest’s natural environment, and the forest dies. This does not mean that we cannot manage forests for lumber. It does mean that forests belong to the commons. Now the trick is to both protect the commons and to facilitate the use of common sources to meet human needs—in this case to build houses. This is part of a process that transforms natural provisions into provisions for our families and communities.
Now there is a significant difference between forests and money. You can use forests to build houses, but you cannot use money to build anything. It does not provide us with anything we have reason to value, such as education, health, or security. This confuses some people because they forget that money is not a property—the piggy bank mentality. In fact, money has a very particular function in any system of provision.
Most of us most of the time acquire resources by participating in systems of provision—such as the food system or the educational system—that draw on natural, scientific, technological, and cultural sources—sources that represent a wealth of the commons—a real commonwealth. This common-wealth is continually used and recycled through distribution systems of gifts, exchanges, and entitlements.
Money has a rather unique role in this economic transformation of common sources into useable resources. It is not a source like land, but neither is it a resource that we can eat, heat, or enjoy. It is not a product or a service. In contemporary systems of provision, however, it is, shall we say, “what makes the world go round.”
Money is the means for sharing the commons with all. As credit for businesses, as a means of exchange, and as a promise to pay, money is one of the languages of commerce. When it functions as it should, it is a common language, owned by no one, loaned to many, and used by all.
The function of banks in these systems of provision is not to turn loans into commodities (That was a major reason for the 2008 financial crisis) but to make credit available for providers of goods and services, and to keep the promises to pay implicit in saving and pension plans. Governments, on the other hand, have a duty to protect the integrity of money as they have a duty to protect all that we share in common.
There is more to say about money and the commons, and more to learn. Still, whatever we say will depend on our selected worldview. If we think within the framework of a civic economics of provision, we will have to give up our piggy bank attitude toward money. That’s a start.