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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


So Long Econoclasm has now moved.

12 April, 2012

So long, farewell, aufwiedersehen, goodbye.

You can now find the new site at

Draconian anti-piracy doesn’t work

1 April, 2012

So it’s true. Draconian anti-piracy schemes don’t really work. Ars Tecnica reports that a recent report by the Hadopi scheme in France finds:

For all the fanfare in Hadopi’s 14-page report celebrating the crackdown on music and video piracy, the music and video industries in France did not see increased profit in 2011 compared to the year before. The overall recorded music industry saw a 3.9 percent loss, and France’s video market dropped 2.7 percent

This suggests that the studios insistence that piracy implies lost sales is a load of bollocks. Given that they did not see increases in revenue it suggests in fact that individuals who pirated are those unlikely to purchase anyway.

So in short censorship schemes are crap. And have little to no effect. Furthermore, you have shit for brains if you think that this will somehow save dying business models.

31 March, 2012

Before economics can progress it must abandon its suicidal formalism. —Robert Heilbroner

How did I not find this site until now?!

Adbusters invites economics students around the world – especially PhD students – to join the fight to revamp Econ 101 curriculums and challenge the endemic myopia of their tenured neoclassical profs. Read some of the introductory articles, check out the latest dispatches on our blog, then download the Kick it Over Manifesto (and other posters) and keep pinning them up in the corridors of your department. Get a small group together and start jamming! Put your university at the forefront of the monumental mindshift now underway in the “science” of economics.

“moments in which when we’re not clear whose mind is whose”

28 March, 2012

BF: Can you recall a particularly ecstatic moment you’ve experienced during your activism?

DG: One of the great things about activism is that it’s full of ecstatic moments. That’s why you do it, aside from actually caring about the state of the world. One of the high points of my life was definitely pulling down a wall in Quebec City during a 2001 protest against the Summit of the Americas. Everybody, from steel workers to Mohawk warriors, were all dressed in similar black clothing and pulling down this wall with grappling hooks. Though we had been planning it for months, we didn’t entirely think it was going to happen. Then suddenly, here we all were, destroying these fortifications. When you set out to do something and you’re not sure if you can, and you do it in solidarity with others, that sense of combined accomplishment is what makes it most exciting.

One of the problems with intellectual life is that this sense of solidarity and combined accomplishment is not something one gets to experience very often, if at all. Collective thinking does happen, but the current organization of intellectual life is inherently egotistical. Some of my favorite moments intellectually have come from batting ideas around with friends late at night, when we suddenly realize that we’ve made some breakthrough together. It wasn’t something any one person came up with, but the dynamic between us. There are so many ideas that I don’t know who came up with, me or one of my friends, because they resulted from these intense conversations, and are kind of a collective product.

I actually came to the conclusion that thinking is not something done by a single person. We have a false model of what thinking is. Because you can’t really think by yourself, can you? You have to create someone else in your mind to explain things to, and to have an imaginary conversation with. This idea was inspired in part by the philosopher of cybernetics, Andy Clark, who proposed something he calls the extended mind hypothesis. Basically, the argument goes like this: Say you’re doing long division on a piece of paper instead of doing it in your head. Clark asks why the piece of paper is not just as much a part of your mind while you’re doing that calculation as the part of your brain that’s doing the math. He says there’s no reason at all.There are a million similar examples that philosophers like to trundle out—you have a bad memory so you write everything down. Is that piece of paper then part of your mind?

“Mind” isn’t “brain”— the brain is just an organ; your mind is the dynamic interaction of various moving elements that culminates in thought. Philosophers like Clark are willing to take that argument this far, but the question that never seems to occur to them is this: when you’re having a conversation with someone else, is their mind part of your mind? Nowadays, many philosophers of consciousness like to note just how razor-thin this thing we call “consciousness”, that self-aware part of our mental operations, really is. The average person can rarely hold a thought for more than three or four seconds, eight at the most, before the mind wanders. It’s very unusual to be fully conscious for more than a tiny window of time. That is, unless you’re having a conversation with someone else, in which case you can often do it for long periods of time, especially if the conversation is with someone you find particularly interesting. In other words, most of the time we’re conscious is when we’re talking to someone else, or otherwise interacting intensely; during moments in which when we’re not clear whose mind is whose. So consciousness is interactive, it’s dyadic or triadic. It’s a fallacy to imagine that thinking is something you largely do alone. On some level, of course, we already know that. But I don’t think we’ve even begun to explore the full implications.

Thoughts on the Graeber seignorage/tribute controversy

28 March, 2012

There’s a controversy brewing about some claims make by David Graeber in the concluding chapter of his recent book Debt: The First 5000 Years. It’s been a long time coming. Since the entertaining bout with the Austrian-school gremlins at shortly after the book’s publication, it’s been a smooth ride, epitomised by a glowing full-page review in the Financial Times which, incredibly, conceded Graeber’s claim that modern Americans working 2 jobs to service mortage/credit card/student debts really aren’t so different from slaves.

The new controversy centres on Graeber’s claim that the seignorage afforded by the $US role as global reserve currency represents a form of tribute. Here’s someone who disagrees. Here’s someone else who disagrees.

Just noting down some thoughts on this: My impression is that Graeber’s thesis in the final chapter is a bit underdeveloped, leaving it open to being caricatured, roughly as follows: “countries hold US T-bonds because they’re terrified that they’ll be bombed to smithereens if not”. I think Graeber is trying to get at something more subtle, but that he hasn’t properly specified yet. [edit: This isn’t really fair. Having now re-read the final chapter of Debt, I feel that what I wrote above concedes far too much to Graeber’s critics. It is they who are misrepresenting Graeber’s argument, whereas what he actually wrote is pretty clear — that is, if you’re not desperately seeking ways to knock down his argument.] It’s that elites in various countries are happy to hold T-bills (even if they aren’t great investments in purely pecuniary terms) because they’re investing in an international police force that protects their interests. It’s crucial to take into account the domestic and regional interests of these elites. They are not the targets of US military threat, but their rivals, at home or next door, emphatically are.

Tribute or… protection money? Potato, potahto.

Note that this discussion concerns the likes of Japan, South Korea, the oil states, West Germany, and afaik all major holders of T-bonds before, you guessed it, China. China, as all participants to the debate acknowledge, is a big exception, since its rulers have no obvious interest in bankrolling US militarism.

Most likely, China is doing it for the reasons we already know about: to prevent the yuan from appreciating against the dollar and thus maintain export competitiveness (Hudson) and because $US financial markets are unparalleled in their liquidity (Konings). Still, this leaves unanswered the question of what will happen now that the main holder of T-bills is no longer wedded to that posture from a military and geostrategic viewpoint.

Germany can’t practice what it preaches

13 March, 2012

So it turns out the German government isn’t as credible as it tries to make out itself to be from Alphaville:

There’s an interesting article in Der Spiegel on Tuesday about how Germany has failed to reach its own austerity goals in 2011.

Naturally, this news comes across as a tad hypocritical given Angela Merkel’s own track-record lecturing to the periphery about the importance of austerity.