The Tyranny of Money
For much of the Medieval era money was hardly used by most people. Serfs owed their lords service and the products of their hand. They would work for their liege for a set number of days a year, they would give him grain, or animals, or clothes they had spun, or some other product of their labor and the land. In exchange they had the right to work a piece of land and to live on it.
As time went by, nobles would prefer money, and would try to have their tenants and serfs pay them in coin, but this was resisted, and often violently. Allowing people to pay in kind, not coin, was considered generous, and often bought peace.
Given a choice to pay your taxes by working for the government for a few weeks, how many people would take it? What if you could do the same for the utility company: 2 days work a month for electricity and water? Cable?
We think of serfdom as horrible, and in many ways it was: but wouldn’t it be nice to have the right to just pay in labor sometimes, and forget the cash? Certainly in those times when jobs have been scarce, millions would take such a deal.
The point here is that distributing goods and services through paid labor wasn’t the way things were done in many societies. Indeed, though hunter-gatherers certainly had trade, if they wanted to eat they went out and gathered some food, or hunted. If they wanted clothes, they made them themselves.
But money is more than a way of distributing goods, it is a way of ordering our behaviour.
Those people who have more money tell those of us without money how we will spend our days. With modern technology they keep us on a leash even at home, through texts and emails and cellphones. We spend more time working for someone else than any other activity save sleep.
The simplest way to think of money is as permission. Money allows whoever has it to determine how other people spend their time. This can be directly, by hiring them, or it can be indirectly, by buying the proceeds of their labor, which economists call demand. (If you want something, and you don’t have the money to buy it, you are not demand.)
Money lets you do what you want: start a library, start a company manufacturing electric cars, start a think tank; fly by private jet. Money is freedom for those who have it, and servitude for those who need it.
This is the theoretical power of the consumer: moving in large groups, ordinary people can effect large shifts in demand, and thus have power. This can be a great power, but in the modern world it is rarely used effectively because most of what you need you must buy from a small group of firms who offer essentially the same goods or services. There is little difference between health insurers, less difference between telecom companies; there is usually only one newspaper per major city; the supermarkets all offer the same food at about the same prices; credit card companies all offer about the same rates to the same people, and so on.
When the prices are about the same, the product is about the same, and the services are about the same, consumer power fades. You may buy your internet from company A or company B, but public broadband or open Wifi networks aren’t available. You may buy health insurance from company A or B, but in America universal health care isn’t available. And you can elect party A, or party B, but they will both institute neoliberal policies.