Finance and its derivatives like financialization, are like many political economy categories: they’re a widely used term but lack an agreed-upon definition. One often encounters formulations like “financialization means the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions.” That isn’t very helpful! Let me offer a simple definition of finance, which I think corresponds to its sense both for Marx and in everyday business settings. Finance is the treatment of a payment itself as a commodity, independent of the transaction or relationship that initially gave rise to it. The most straightforward and, I think, oldest, form of finance in this sense is the invoice. Very few commercial transactions are in cash; much more common is an
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Finance and its derivatives like financialization, are like many political economy categories: they’re a widely used term but lack an agreed-upon definition. One often encounters formulations like “financialization means the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions.” That isn’t very helpful!
Let me offer a simple definition of finance, which I think corresponds to its sense both for Marx and in everyday business settings. Finance is the treatment of a payment itself as a commodity, independent of the transaction or relationship that initially gave rise to it.
The most straightforward and, I think, oldest, form of finance in this sense is the invoice. Very few commercial transactions are in cash; much more common is an invoice payable in 30 or 60 or 90 days. This is financing; the payment obligation now appears as a distinct asset, recorded on the books of the seller as accounts receivable, and on the books of the buyer as accounts payable.
The distinct accounting existence of the payment itself, apart from the sale it was one side of, is a fundamental feature, it seems to me, of both day-to-day accounting and capitalism in a larger sense. In any case, it develops naturally into a distinct existence of payments, apart from the underlying transaction, in a substantive economic sense. Accounts payable can be sold to a third party, or (perhaps more often) borrowed against, or otherwise treated just like any other asset.
So far we’re talking about dealer finance; the next step is a third party who manages payments. Rather than A receiving a commodity from C in return for a promise of payment in 30 or 60 or 90 days, A receives the commodity and makes that promise to B, who makes immediate payment to C. Until the point of settlement, A has a debt to B, which is recorded on a balance sheet and therefore is an asset (for B) and a liability (for A.) During thins time the payment has a concrete reality as an asset that not only has a notional existence on a balance sheet, but can be traded, has a market price, etc.
If the same intermediary stands between the two sides of enough transactions, another step happens. The liabilities of the third party, B, can become generally accepted as payment by others. As Minsky famously put it, the fundamental function of a bank is acceptance — accepting the promises of various payors to the various payees. Yes, the B stands for Bank.
Arriving at banks by this route has two advantages. First, it puts credit ahead of money. The initial situation is a disparate set of promises, which come to take the form of a uniform asset only insofar as some trusted counterparts comes to stand between the various parties. Second, it puts payments ahead of intermediation in thinking about banks
But now we must pause for a moment, and signal a turn in the argument. What we’ve described so far implicitly leans on a reality outside money world.
As money payments, A —> C and A —> B —> C are exactly equivalent. The outcomes, described in money, are the same. The only reason the second one exists, is because they are not in reality equivalent. They are not in reality only money payments. There is always the question of, why should you pay? Why do you expect a promise to be fulfilled? There are norms, there are expectations, there are authorities who stand outside of the system of money payments and therefore are capable of enforcing them. There is an organization of concrete human activity that money payments may alter or constrain or structure, but that always remain distinct from them. When I show up to clean your house, it’s on one level because you are paying me to do it; but it’s also because I as a human person have made a promise to you as another person.
This, it seems to me, is the rational core of chartalism. The world, we’re told, is not the totality of things, but of facts. The economic world similarly is not the totality of things, but of payments and balance sheets. The economic world however is not the world. Something has to exist outside of and prior to the network of money payments.
This could, ok, be the state, as we imagine it today. This is arguably the situation in a colonial setting. The problem is that chartalism thinks the state, specifically in the form of its tax authority, is uniquely able to play this role of validating money commitments. Whereas from my point of view there are many kind of social relationships that have an existence independent of the network of money payments and might potentially be able to validate them.
Within the perspective of law, everything is law; just as within the perspective of finance, everything is finance. If you start from the law, then how can money be anything but a creature of the state? But if we start instead from concrete historical reality, we find that tax authority is just one of various kinds of social relations that have underwritten the promises of finance.
Stefano Ugolino’s Evolution of Central Banking describes a fascinating variety of routes by which generalized payments systems evolved in Western Europe. The overwhelming impression one takes away from the book is that there is no general rule for what kinds of social relationships give rise to a centralized system of payments. Any commitment that can be commuted to cash can, in principle, backstop a currency.
In the medieval Kingdom of Naples payments were ultimately based on the transfer of claims tokens at the network pawnbrokers operated by the Catholic Church. The Kingdom of Naples, writes Ugolino, “is the only country with a central bank that was founded by a saint.”
A somewhat parallel example is found in Knibbe and Borghaerts’ “Capital market without banks.” There they describe an early modern setting in the Low Countries where the central entity that monetizes private debt contracts is not the tax-collecting state, but the local pastor.
The general point is made with characteristic eloquence by Perry Mehrling in “Modern Money:Credit of Fiat”:
For monetary theory, so it seems to me, the significant point about the modern state is not its coercive power but the fact that it is the one entity with which every one of us does ongoing business.We all buy from it a variety of services, and the price we pay for those services is our taxes. … It is the universality of our dealings with the government that gives government credit its currency. The point is that the public “pay community” … is larger than most any private pay community, not that the state s more powerful than any other private entity.
There are different kinds of recipients of money payments and the social consequences they can call on if the payments aren’t made vary widely both in severity and in kind. The logic of the system in which payments are automatically made is the same in any case. But all the interesting parts of the system are the places where it doesn’t work like that.
Let me end with a little parable that I wrote many years ago and stuck in a drawer, but which now seems somehow relevant in this new age of NFTs.
Once upon a time there was a game called cow clicker. In this game, you click on a cow. Then you can’t click it again for a certain period of time. That’s it. That is the game.
How much is a cow click? Asked in isolation, the question is meaningless. You can’t compare it to anything. It is just an action in a game that has no other significance or effect. How much is a soccer goal, in terms of baseball runs?
On one level, you cannot answer the question. They exist in different games. You could add up the average score per game as a conversion factor … but then should you also take into account the number of games in a season… ? But you can’t even do that with cow clicker, there is no outcome in the game that corresponds to winning or losing. There is no point to it at all — the game was created as a joke, and that is the point of the joke.
Nonetheless, and to the surprise of the guy who created it, people did play cow clicker. They liked clicking cows. They wanted more cows. They wanted to know if there was any way to shorten the timeline before they could click their cow again.
Now suppose it was possible to get extra cow clicks by getting other people to also click a cow. These people, who wanted to click their cows more, now could persuade their friends to click cows for them. Any relationship now is a potential source of cow clicks.
For example, if you exercise any kind of coercive power over someone — a subordinate, a student, a child — you might use it to compel them to click cows for you. Or if you have anything of value, you might offer it in return for clicking cows. Clicking cows is still inherently valueless. And your relationship with your friends, kids, spouse, are valuable but not quantifiable in themselves. But now they can be expressed in terms of cow clicks.
Imagine this went further. If enough cow-clicker obsessives are willing to make real-life sacrifices — or use real-life authority — to get other people to click cows, then a capacity to click cows (some token in the game) becomes worth having for its own sake. Since you can offer it to the obsessives in return for something they have that you want. Even people who think the game is pointless and stupid now have an interest in figuring out exactly how many cows they can click in a day, and if there is any way to click more.
As more and more of social life became organized around enticing or coercing people into clicking cows, more and more relationships would take on a quantitative character, and be expressible in as a certain number of cow-clicks. These quantities would be real — they would arise impersonally, unintentionally, based on the number of clicks people were making. For instance, if a husband or wife can be convinced to click 10 times a day, while a work friend can only be convinced to click once a day on average, then a spouse really is worth 10 co-workers. No one participating in the system set the value, it is an objective fact from the point of view of participants. And, in this case, it doe express a qualitative relationship that exists outside of the game — marriage involves a stronger social bond than the workplace. But the specific quantitative ratio did not exist until now, it does not point to anything outside the game.
In this world, the original contentless motivation of the obsessives becomes less and less important. The answer to “why are you clicking cows” becomes less anything to do with the cows, and more because someone asked me to. Or someone will reward me if I do, or someone will punish me if I don’t. And — once cow-clicks are transferable — this motivation applies just as much to the askers, rewarders and publishers. The original reason for clicking was trivially feeble but now it can even disappear entirely. Once a click can reliably be traded for real social activity, that is sufficient reason for trading one’s own social existence for clicks.
EDIT: The idea of finance as intermediation as an object in itself comes, like everything interesting in economics, from Marx. Here’s one of my favorite passages from the Grundrisse:
Bourgeois wealth, is always expressed to the highest power as exchange value, where it is posited as mediator, as the mediation of the extremes of exchange value and use value themselves. This intermediary situation always appears as the economic relation in its completeness…
Thus, in the religious sphere, Christ, the mediator between God and humanity – a mere instrument of circulation between the two – becomes their unity, God-man, and, as such, becomes more important than God; the saints more important than Christ; the popes more important than the saints.
Where it is posited as middle link, exchange value is always the total economic expression… Within capital itself, one form of it in turn takes up the position of use value against the other as exchange value. Thus e.g. does industrial capital appear as producer as against the merchant, who appears as circulation. … At the same time, mercantile capital is itself in turn the mediator between production (industrial capital) and circulation (the consuming public) or between exchange value and use value… Similarly within commerce itself: the wholesaler as mediator between manufacturer and retailer, or between manufacturer and agriculturalist…
Then the banker as against the industrialists and merchants; the joint-stock company as against simple production; the financier as mediator between the state and bourgeois society, on the highest level. Wealth as such presents itself more distinctly and broadly the further it is removed from direct production and is itself mediated between poles, each of which, considered for itself, is already posited as economic form. Money becomes an end rather than a means; and the higher form of mediation, as capital, everywhere posits the lower as itself, in turn, labour, as merely a source of surplus value. For example, the bill-broker, banker etc. as against the manufacturers and farmers, which are posited in relation to him in the role of labour (of use value); while he posits himself toward them as capital, extraction of surplus value; the wildest form of this, the financier.
You read this stuff and you think — how can you not? — that Marx was a smart guy,