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A Liberal Defence of Money

by William Davies

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Neo-liberalism was founded on a commitment to the abstraction of the ‘price mechanism’, as the constitutional basis for a free society. Its enemy was the bureaucratic planner. By contrast, a contemporary liberal defence of money presents it as a cultural basis for resistance against the encroaching forces of 21st Century marketing and digital profiling. In this regard, two things in particular are worth praising about money, both of which need preserving in the face of ‘free’.

The first concerns money’s unique influence over the character of modern public space. It is the money economy that facilitates many of the modern city’s defining traits. Interaction with strangers, the hustle and bustle of a high street, the possibility for negotiation without any shared language or culture – each of these is a symptom of the price system.

It is money that, in the language of economic sociologists, enables us to become ‘disembedded’ from our social context, with contradictory effects. Because a £10 note is the same regardless of who holds it, money can be viewed as a dreadful force for anonymity and dissolution of community. But because a £10 note is the same regardless of who holds it, money can also be viewed as the best basis for anonymity and cultural equality. It permits an absence of judgement.

As we move from public space based on bank notes, to one based on credit cards, to one based on ‘free’, this disembedding effect is gradually reversed. Anonymity is replaced by new digitally constituted bonds, as consumers are locked into more enduring relationships with producers. Yet these are not the bonds of some halcyon pre-market community, but something new, with new forms of judgement about which customers are to be included or excluded.

In recent years, live music has become a marketing battleground for companies seeking to affiliate with ‘authentic’ youth voices. The latest step has seen mobile phone and alcohol companies put on free (as in beer) gigs, for which all tickets are distributed via a competition organised by the company. To what end? It is certainly not born of an ethical desire to broaden access. Rather, the cosmopolitan experience of standing in a crowd of ticket-buying punters is replaced by something eerily different, in which one is simply privileged to be there by virtue of luck and a corporate patron.

Secondly, we might gradually come to appreciate money’s function in preserving the integrity of cultural artefacts. This too might sound ironic, at a time when millionaire artists like Damien Hirst are accused of collapsing the distinction between artistic quality and price. But the rise of free artistic and media products involves what might be called a form of ‘cultural pollution’.

When a customer pays money for a newspaper or a DVD, they are tacitly aware that at least some of the cost has been captured in the price. When a customer gets a newspaper or a film for free, all of the costs are external to this price, seeing as it is zero. The film may be funded by product placement that the customer is unconscious of. The newspaper’s editorial policy may allow a blurring of the distinction between news and advertising. There is now a field of marketing known as ‘sponsored conversations’, in which brands strategically support ‘free’ (as in speech and beer) online spheres of debate, such as blogs. It is no longer clear what is being paid for or how.

In the age of free media, money may need to acquire a more explicit role in upholding individual freedom, rather as Hayek and Friedman imagined. Surveys conducted by the BBC show that parents particularly appreciate the organisation’s somewhat clunky funding model (an annual TV license fee) as it permits a rare advertising-free space for children’s entertainment. Payment for a newspaper or magazine may become increasingly anachronistic, but worth preserving if it can stave off the pollution of sponsored content. Just as the industrialisation of agriculture is met with the retort of the organic food movement, so the drift towards ‘free’ cultural content must be met with an appropriate form of conservationism.

What is currently emerging is a third wave in the culture of consumer capitalism, each of which corresponds to a different critical mindset. The spread of paper money in late nineteenth century Europe coincided with the emergence of the department stores and shopping arcades that bewitched modernists such as Simmel and Walter Benjamin. The pace and impersonality of monetary exchange was a spectacle in its own right, with fashion changing the opportunities for consumption from one year to the next.

Following the upheavals that struck Western capitalism in the 1970s, this was supplemented by a new consumer culture with marketing at its heart. Surrealist branding strategies harnessed the full power of television to sell intangible values and emotions, with the actual product as a mere vehicle. During the 1980s it was this more fanciful, colourful capitalism that led a number of critics to declare the dawning of postmodernism. And yet there was still a distinction between product and advertisement.

This is now being supplemented once more. Embodied by Google and celebrated by Anderson, the emerging economic culture goes a stage further. The product and the advertisement are one and the same. We are simply given something for free, then repay our debt over time with cultural and psychological currency. Loyalty and gratitude are the bank notes of the 21st Century consumer, in what has been dubbed an ‘attention economy’.

Money cannot disappear, but it will be increasingly maligned by Californian ideologues. It is time to stand up for money, not on economic or political grounds but on cultural grounds. As the old adage has it, “nothing is as expensive as free”.

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William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at

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