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Money and nominalism

8 May, 2015

The following concepts tend to lead us astray if we deploy them when trying to understand the power of money: reification; fetishism.

I’m not the first to point this out. Zizek and Konings have both written that we aren’t exactly fetishists when it comes to money. Rather we are “good Anglo-Saxon nominalists” (Zizek’s phrase in the first chapter of Sublime Object of Ideology). That is, we think ourselves savvy. No fools we. We pride ourselves in that we don’t confuse the mere token of wealth for real wealth.

But isn’t this exactly how the power of money slips past us? In treating money as a mere token, a mere contrivance, we block ourselves from any consideration of how this contrivance is constructed and sustained. It might never occur to us that the money we transact is created as debt, “lent” into existence by the banking system. In fact, a fundamental change is perspective is called for in order to comprehend this. Or to realise that our money system is thus addicted to housing/mortgage inflation.


The best Marxist theory has shown that alienation isn’t merely a subjective feeling, bur rather an actual social process. Reification isn’t just a mistaken habit of thought (as Buddhists often frame it) but an event —- something we do when we transact or invest or work. In other words, we do it quite unconsciously. (Sohn-Rethel and Zizek are very good on this.)


Perhaps we could undertake a similar treatment of nominalism? What if nominalism is something more than a philosophical doctrine? As a doctrine, it’s often glossed in a negative way: universals/abstractions being considered less than entirely real (mere names or conceptual ‘tools’). Perhaps we ought to try looking into the construction of nomina. What is this realm of nomina? How do we get to a point where universals/abstractions can be seen to reside there, rather than anywhere else?

Courtenay points up the primacy of mental language — the same concept might be referred to by different words in different languages. This concept is not the same as the thing itself. The word refers to the nomen which refers to the thing. The opinium nominalium in medieval grammar stated that the nomen is the same for a verb regardless of the tense of that verb. This allowed them to maintain that the object of belief is the same for followers of the true religion, regardless of whether they lived before or after Christ.

At this point we can say that, while we don’t have much difficulty grasping what a nomen is, it can’t always have been so intuitive. We should give those long-dead philosophers their due for meticulously crafting so much furniture of our thought and language. Yet we can also wonder which social institutions and material habits might have insinuated their patterns into our unconscious ways of thought.

My thesis is that nominalism derives its plausibility, its effectivity, its actual being from the development of a money economy, even as it reinforces that moneysystem and its silent operation, inasmuch as it does come to operate silently.

All economists refer to money-values as ‘nominal’ values. The etymology of nomen indicates ‘name’, yet in actual usage it most often comes up when it is money value that is being discussed.

Let’s pose the question again: How did we get to a point where universals/abstractions can be supposed to reside in nomina, rather than anywhere else?

In day-to-day life, it is money that mediates between the universal and the particular, between the abstract and the concrete. It is money that does this most often, most mundanely, most urgently.

Medieval England: William of Ockham makes his name as the first great defender of nominalism regarding the problem of universals. Medieval England is also peculiar in that its unit-of-account was in alignment with its coin-of-exchange. This alignment is remarkable, despite our general inclination to mistake it for a default state of affairs: indeed, we aren’t used to making any distinction between unit-of-account and coin-of-exchange. We keep accounts in dollars and hold dollars in our pocket. Yet in most of medieval Europe, one kept accounts in a unit that did not exist as coin. Coins had various names, and their value would fluctuate in terms of the ‘imaginary’ unit-of-account. By contrast, medieval England was on a silver standard: the penny coins held a fixed proportion in terms of the pound in which accounts were kept. Thus in England, one could reasonably maintain that individual particular things (coins, wares) have value, and that value-in-general is just a convenient term for designating the valuableness of items. Elsewhere in Europe, value remained a Platonic form that items could merely partake of or approximate. It is the exact alignment of unit-of-account with coin-of-exchange that makes nominalism plausible, feasible, effective.

Marx doesn’t consider the alignment as something that needs to be explained. In his commodity-theory-of-money, such an alignment would be the default state. But in fact, the alignment was only achieved by the concerted efforts of the nascent English State (to ban the export ?and import? of coin). Such efforts were only possible due to England’s relative isolation from Continental europe, owing to its placement on a separate island. (It would be interesting to know about monetary affairs on the portion of England that was then on the other side of the channel in present-day France…)

To visualise and conceptualise things, it is useful to borrow from Prigogine & Stengers the picture of a dynamic border between order and chaos. Order as an island or pocket within chaos. Nominalism requires a definite order in money and cash values. Through political effort, this order may (and has) been imposed over a wider area over time. This will always ‘export’ entropy to the areas still outside the border. The maintenance of numerical order will always require the importation of energy from outside the system. ‘Outside’ here refers geographically (to the exploited and destabilised colonies) but also environmentally (to the natural world everywhere, not counted in the arithmetic of the formal economy — consider the “externalities” spoken of in economics) and also to the processes pointed-up by feminist-Marxism (i.e. to the unwaged work such as housework that feeds and reproduces into the formal economy – see Federici).

Nominalism presupposes this order while at the same time rendering it invisible, as to a fish in water.



Courtenay Ockham and Ockhamism

Federici Caliban and the Witch

Garfield Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika

Knafo The Making of Modern Finance

Konings ‘Money as icon’

Marx Contribution to the Critique – see the notes on ‘Theories of the monetary standard’ where he disagrees with Steuart, who had got it right.

Prigogine & Stengers Order Out of Chaos

Sohn-Rethel Intellectual and Manual Labour

Zizek Sublime Object of Ideology


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