The metropolis, money, and abstraction

What follows is an extract, some preliminary research, from an essay I’m working on with Sammy Medina. It’s in very rough form, and over-footnoted. Much of it will have to be cut. But I still felt like I had to go through everything step by step to make sure that each stage of the argument holds up. Once that’s done I’m hoping I’ll find shortcuts for how to say it with greater brevity.

The modern metropolis, both in its historical origins and present-day existence, is the site of capitalist accumulation par excellence. As the German sociologist Georg Simmel put it in his celebrated 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” “[t]he metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy.”1 Money played a vital role, after all, in shifting the political center of gravity away from the countryside toward the city. Despite the numerous titles and privileges enjoyed by clergymen and noblemen, the townsmen had one mighty weapon in their struggle against feudalism: money.2 By removing the primacy of land tenure (i.e., the manorial system of fiefs and hereditary estates), it eroded the basis of traditional bonds of dependence. “Long before the ramparts of the old baronial castles were breached by the new artillery, they had already been undermined by money,” wrote Friedrich Engels in 1884. “In fact, gunpowder could be described as an executor of the judgment rendered by money.”3

With the increased availability of minted coins in Europe — starting in the twelfth century with the discovery of silver deposits in Thuringia,4 but especially following the influx of precious metals from the New World after 14935 — commodity circulation took place on an expanded scale.6 For merchants and moneylenders living in the cities, the pervasiveness of pecuniary transactions allowed them to leverage their position at the crucible of exchange against the landed aristocracy in the surrounding territories.7 The feudal lords relied on the towns both for their finished wares as well as the occasional loan, and thus fell prey to price gouging and crippling debt. Hard currency thereby helped bring about the decline of feudalism alongside the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie.

Cities today invariably reflect this influence. Not simply owing to their past function as the breeding-ground of modern capitalism, but because of their ongoing inundation by the money form of capital as well. Practically every facet of urban life is organized according to synchronized rhythms of exchange.8 Here money acts as a sort of perpetuum mobile, facilitating the circulation of commodities throughout the city and its environs.9 At the same time, however, it accelerates the tempo of daily interactions, since “a change in monetary circumstances brings about a change in the pace of life,” as Simmel observed.10 Whether a town was from the outset a center of trade or a seedbed of industry,11 money eventually permeates its entire infrastructure. Replacing medieval relations rooted in so-called “natural economy,”12 it soon becomes integral to the comings and goings of the whole populace.13

The move away from economies based on barter and the gift, where precise equivalence of exchange is either impossible or besides the point, toward economies based on money and credit acquires an almost world-historical significance in this light.14 Indeed, it is difficult to exaggerate the unique character of a money economy. Even its most perceptive critics seem not to have fully grasped its “peculiarity.”15 Money presupposes a crucial condition, which it more or less takes for granted: namely, the quantitative commensurability of qualitatively incommensurable items.16 Unlike articles, which perform separate tasks and share no physical properties of note, must nevertheless possess some common underlying substance so that they might be compared. Following Marx’s analysis of the subject in Capital, this “common substance” can only be human labor considered in the abstract.17

How does money figure into this equation? At this point, money enters in as “value for-itself.”18 One commodity is set aside to serve as the universal equivalent of all the others.19 Its purpose is to determine the price that ordinary commodities fetch on the market, while also measuring value as the social incarnation of human labor.20 To put it even more starkly, in the mediation of exchange “money is in effect measure as such.”21 Whenever someone sells something with the intent of buying another (C–M–C),22 money acts as the go-between between two commodities. Predictably, this role is reversed for the opposite procedure, buying in order to sell (M–C–M)23 — though with the added twist that accumulation (M–C–M′) is now possible.24 So violent was the transition from natural economy to money economy during the seventeenth century that the mercantilists mistook money itself for the source of all wealth.25 Credit economies do not differ fundamentally from money economies, as credit is merely a further extrapolation of the principle of calculability assumed by money.26

Because of its centrality to the alchemical interchange of sale and purchase — the metamorphosis of commodity into money and back again — the metropolis may be said to represent the locus classicus of monetary abstraction.27 “The money economy dominates the metropolis; it has displaced the last survivals of domestic production and the direct barter of goods.”28 Every discrete object becomes reducible to the same question, “How much?”29 Meanwhile, money remains a stable pole throughout the flux of these manifold transformations.30 Only its magnitude fluctuates, and this in exact proportion to the degree to which it is augmented through valorization. According to the Marxist critic Henri Lefebvre, this abstract quality of money engenders a kind of correspondent “abstract space,” which typically concentrates in urban zones, around nodes of production, consumption, and transportation. Lefebvre thus dubbed cities “the cradle of accumulation.”31


1 Simmel, Georg. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Translated by Kurt H. Wolf. Sociological Writings. (The Free Press. Glencoe, IL: 1950). Pg. 411.
2 “[T]he burghers of the towns had a mighty weapon with which to oppose feudalism: money.” Engels, Friedrich. “The Decline of Feudalism and the Rise of the National States.” Translated by John Dickinson. Collected Works, Volume 26: 1882-1889. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1990). Pg. 557.
3 Ibid., pg. 558.
4 Around 1160, roughly. Spufford, Peter. Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: 1989). Pg. 143.
5 See the quantity of gold and silver imported into Spain from the Americas between 1503-1650, or exports of silver to Asia by the Dutch, 1602-1795. Cipolla, Carlo M. Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700. Translated by Marcella and Alide Kooy. (Routledge. London, England: 1993). Pgs. 165-171.
6 “The money capital formed by means of usury and commerce was prevented from turning into industrial capital by the feudal organization of the countryside and the guild organization of the towns. These fetters vanished with the dissolution of the feudal bands of retainers…The discovery of gold and silver in America [marked] the dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1976). Pg. 915.
7 “Money was the burghers’ greatest political leveler.” Engels, “The Decline of Feudalism and the Rise of the National States.” Pg. 559.
8 “Money would even go as far as modifying the general rhythm of the life that it would precipitate, by reason of the extreme mobility that life owes to the bare material constitution with which it is formed.” Durkheim, Émile. “Review of Georg Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money.” Translated by John French. Contributions to L’Année Sociologique. (The Free Press. New York, NY: 1980). Pg. 97.
Durkheim felt that the economic basis of Simmel’s argument was flawed due to his confusion of metallic currency with paper currency, but nevertheless credited him with “a number of ingenious ideas.”
9 “The function of money…is to remain in circulation as its vehicle, to resume its circular course always anew like a perpetuum mobile.” Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1993). Pg. 202.
10 Simmel, Georg. The Philosophy of Money. Translated by Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2004). Pg. 504.
11 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. Translated by Clemens Dutt. Collected Works, Volume 5: April 1845-April 1847. (Progress Publishers. Moscow, USSR: 1975). Pgs. 69-74.
12 “German economists have invented the term Naturalwirtschaft, natural economy, to describe the period prior to the invention of money…The writers who describe [the medieval] period as one of natural economy obviously do not intend the term to be understood in any absolute sense…well aware that ever since its invention, money has been in continuous use among all the civilized people of the West.” Pirenne, Henri. Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe. Translated by I.E. Clegg. (Routledge. New York, NY: 2005). Pgs. 103-104.
13 “A money economy goes hand in hand with [bourgeois] production. Progressively as cities have developed… the pecuniary nexus…has displaced personal relations as the basis of association.” Wirth, Louis. “Urbanism as a Way of Life.” The American Journal of Sociology. (Vol. 44, № 1: July 1938). Pg. 17.
14 Both barter and gift economies are considered “natural” for the purposes of this paper, despite Mauss’ contention that “[the] economy of gift-exchange fails to conform to the principles of…natural economy or utilitarianism.” Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by Ian Cunnison. (Cohen & West, Ltd. London, England: 1966). Pg. 69.
15 “[N]either [Marx nor Hegel] understood just how ‘peculiar’ a money economy is.” Arthur, Christopher. The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital. (Brill Publishers. Boston, MA: 2004). Pg. 9. See also pgs. 10, 95-101, 182.
16 Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 141.
17 Ibid., pg. 151.
18 Marx, Grundrisse. Pg. 459.
19 “The specific kind of commodity with whose natural form the equivalent form is socially interwoven becomes the money commodity, or serves as money. It becomes its specific social function…to play the part of universal equivalent within the world of commodities.” Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 162.
20 Ibid., pg. 192.
21 Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital. Pg. 100.
22 Marx, Capital, Volume I. Pg. 200.
23 Ibid., pgs. 248-250.
24 Ibid., pg. 251.
25 “[E]xchange value, in the perceptions of the mercantilists, lay not in the products themselves, but in money. Since not all products of labour constitute exchange values, i.e. commodities transformable into money, exchange value became naturally confused with the physical form of that product which functions as money, i.e., gold and silver. Though such a confusion was theoretically naïve, this furious chase after precious metals so characteristic of the early mercantilists was itself a reflection of the painful transition from a natural to a commodity-money economy.” Rubin, Isaak. A History of Economic Thought. Translated by Don Filtzer. (Ink Links, Ltd. London, England: 1979). Pg. 54.
26 “Natural economy, money economy, and credit economy have been counterposed as the three characteristic economic forms of motion of social production…[But the] so-called credit economy is itself only a form of the money economy, insofar as both terms express functions or modes of commerce between the producers themselves…Thus money economy and credit economy merely correspond to different stages of development of capitalist production; they are in no way different independent forms of commerce as opposed to natural economy.” Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 2. Translated by David Fernbach. (Penguin Books. New York, NY: 1992). Pg. 195.
27 “Everything becomes salable and purchasable. Circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as the money crystal. Nothing is immune from this alchemy; the bones of the saints cannot withstand it, let alone more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum. Just as in money every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished, so too for its part, as a radical leveler, it extinguishes all distinctions.” Marx, Capital, Volume 1. Pg. 228.
28 Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Pg. 412.
29 “[B]eing the equivalent to all the manifold things in one and the same way, money becomes the most frightful leveler. For money expresses all qualitative differences of things in terms of ‘how much?’ Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominator of all values; irreparably it hollows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, and their incomparability. All things float with equal specific gravity in the constantly moving stream of money.” Ibid., pg. 414.
30 “Money, as the stable pole, contrasts with the eternal movements, fluctuations, and equations of the objects.” Simmel, The Philosophy of Money. Pg. 119.
31 “Capitalism…[has] produced an abstract space that is a reflection of…the power of money…This abstract space depends on vast networks of banks, businesses, and great centers of production. There also is the spatial intervention of highways, airports, and information networks.” Lefebvre, Henri. “Space: Social Product and Use Value.” Translated by Gerald Moore, Neil Brenner, and Stuart Elden. State, Space, World: Selected Essays. (University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN: 2009). Pg. 187.

11 thoughts on “The metropolis, money, and abstraction

  1. “America, when will I be able to go into the supermarket and get what I need with my good looks?” ~Allen Ginsberg

    The question, restated, becomes, how do we value human beings (and how will an economy be structured) when their labor becomes worthless (meaning, unnecessary)?

    In a preindustrial and industrial economy, labor, material and an energy source was essential for production and the determination of value. In a post industrial economy, value is determined by the cost of energy and agreement.

    I look forward to your finished piece, as well as the publication of your book.

  2. Very good piece. One thing to note, though, is that this was not the first case of a coeval emergence of money and cities. In Archaic-Classical Greece very much the same thing can be seen, but in a very different way (actually politically progressive, as in the monetisation of Athens). Richard Seaford has done some good recent work on the emergence of the Greek polis/city-state and coined money. It’s especially good about abstraction. See for example:

    Seaford, R. (2004). Money and the early Greek mind. Homer, philosophy, tragedy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

    Seaford, R. (2012). “Monetisation and the genesis of the Western subject.” Historical Materialism 20(1): 78-102.

    The key question is, of course, why and how this was different from the transition of feudalism to capitalism in the Early Modern period. My guess is that the key to answering this question lies both in the expansion to the Americas and the development of machine-based production, as outlined in chapter 15 of Capital vol. 1. Only thanks to the material basis of machine-based production could M-C-M become a real possibility. Braudel also stresses the material aspect, with capitalism acting as a kind of leecher, thus debunking the myth that we owe our prosperity to the deus ex machina of the capitalist.

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  4. There seems to be a strong sense here of a monetised, commercial urbanity overcoming the natural, rural, feudal hinterland. This was certainly how the bourgeoisie saw itself. Sweezy rehashed a version of it in his famous debate with Dobb on the transition. Only with Robert Brenner and the historians influenced by him, however, does it become clear how quintessentially rural the English transition to capitalism was. The English landlords in the early modern period were able to rent out land enclosed from the evicted peasantry to a nascent class of agrarian tenant farmers. These farmers, under competitive pressures, unleashed processes of agricultural “improvement” culminating in a virtuous spiral of capitalist accumulation based on a division (and transfer) of labour between agriculture and light industry. Ellen Meiksens-Wood, one of the thinkers influenced by Brenner’s historical researches, is very good on this.

    As Marcus above notes, phenomena such as money, urbanity, commerce, all existed in the Ancient World and in many other societies where the mode of surplus extracting labour was unfree. Only with the commodification of labour power does commodity production take on a capitalist character.

    The question of monetary abstraction is an interesting one.

  5. Reblogged this on Xenotopia and commented:
    A very interesting work-in-progress from the Charnel House, arguing for the metropolis as the ‘locus classicus’ of monetary abstraction. Hard to argue with that, but for me it begs further questions about money and location. Whilst the capitalist city and capitalist money were certainly coeval, money in a variety of forms long predates the city. As Lefebvre notes (cited in the piece) protomodern European market towns were built in advance of the development of the money economy, but in its image. Is a particular form of money, therefore, the ‘locus classicus’ for the city? And what has happened to the spatiality of money more recently? Whilst the is still, obviously, a very strong connection between money and urban space (the City is still the City, after all), the location of money now that it seems to have become almost wholly abstracted (electronic bits circulating at near light speed) is a moot point. I totally buy the history of monetary abstraction and the metropolis, but it am not sure that in the longer run money actually needs the city. If it’s protean nature created the city, then the same feature of money can just as easily dispense with it.

    Either way, a fascinating and thought-provoking essay and I look forward to seeing the finished version.

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