This is a project to change my relationship with money (hopefully it will change the way that other people think about money too). It hasn’t been easy to get down in writing. If you think it’s interesting, but some of it is unclear, please get in touch and I’ll talk it through with you.
Like I write in the About Me page, I run a small theatre company. I direct, perform in, write and produce shows. You can find information about my projects past and present there. To pay my rent and bills and food, I work as a freelance translator, and I occasionally get funding for theatre projects, mostly through Arts Council England.
My plan is to stop doing translation work, stop writing applications for the Arts Council or fundraising in other ways, and spend all my time working on the theatre / documentary projects I am involved in.
In order to make this happen I am asking people to give me stuff. Or money.
It’s like patronage. Except with the added level that I’m asking people to consider what it is they are doing when they’re giving me stuff or money (especially money), and what how that affects their own relationship with money. So this is a project which works on two levels:
1) It’s making it possible for me to spend my time in an interesting and valuable way (at least, I think it’s interesting and valuable, and I’m hoping other people feel that way too – you decide!)
2) It’s a life-art project which asks all the people taking part to consider their relationship with money and ask how they might change it
In order for the project to work, I need to document my work / my life (same thing?) in detail. More about this point later.
Why would we want to change our relationship with money?
A lot of the ideas that prompted me to embark upon this project come from David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The ideas have been around for a long time, I suppose, but he presents them in a potent way. At any event, he managed to get me thinking, and more than that, I decided I would try to change some fundamental things about my life and the world around me. So well done, David Graeber! What follows is a rough outline of some of the things that he talks about.
Let’s say you go to the supermarket to buy some broccoli. When you purchase it, you are subject to what Graeber calls a logic of exchange. This logic of exchange has two defining features:
1) Transactions are exactly quantifiable. The broccoli costs £1.50; you cannot pay £1.40 for it, and you cannot pay £1.60.
2) Transactions are impersonal. You do not have to have any kind of relationship (of trust, understanding or friendship) with the supermarket for the system to work. You just have to have the right amount of money.
Purchasing some broccoli seems pretty harmless (this is organic, sustainably sourced broccoli), but when we allow the morality of exchange to trump other moralities, bad things start to happen. When the logic of exchange is taken to its conclusion, we end up with situations where creditors do not care what debtors have to do in order to re-pay their debts. Historically (and in various places around the world at the moment), men have sold their children, wives and themselves into slavery in order to pay off debt. Graeber talks about moments in history when entire civilizations have broken down because the peasantry has either had to sell itself into bondage to pay off debts, or has run away to avoid having to do so.
Institutional slavery does not exist in the UK today (although exploitative work practices clearly do), but we are constantly being told that the logic of exchange – that impersonal, exactly quantifiable logic – is one to which everything else must submit. When we look at the world through this lens for too long, we start to see other people as:
a) a quantifiable cost
b) only out for their own material advancement
c) and therefore “against us” rather than “with us” / “one of us”
Any kind of empathy we might have for people who live in destitution, or are trying to escape war zones, or are in some other way in need of our help become a quantity, whereupon we no longer feel a duty to help them, and it becomes “fair” to blame them for their own situation. We are prepared to let people suffer in ways that would normally horrify us because “you have to pay your debts”, because we are all out for ourselves, and that’s just the way the world works, and there is no alternative. We are prepared to let entire populations suffer because their government took out a loan 40 years ago which they are now unable to pay back (even though that loan may have been taken out by a corrupt dictator and ended up in a Swiss bank account).
There are better, kinder, more decent, more human ways to organize an economy.
So you want to get rid of money?
No, not really. It depends what you call “money”. The logic of exchange is not the only way to conduct transactions. There is also what Graeber calls a “communistic” logic. The term is a bit provocative, but it broadly means, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. This happens all the time, every day. Unlike the relationship of exchange, these transactions are not impersonal and are not quantifiable.
My housemate offers to make porridge for me at breakfast (she is already making porridge for herself, and it’s easy enough to make it for two). This is not a quantifiable transaction. Indeed, if I try to calculate the value of the oats and milk, and repay her in cash, I would be completely altering the nature of the transaction. I would be turning down her act of friendship, her generosity. I would be saying “we’re not friends, this is just business”. But I do have a sense of “owing her one”. Not a specific or quantifiable “one”. Just “one”. At some point, I will water her plants, or do the washing up she didn’t have time to finish, or just have a chat. Or maybe another housemate will do these things for her, and I will do something for my other housemate.
In my house, we are all in each other’s debt in this way. The word “debt” might have unpleasant associations, but here we should just think about it as trusting that we will help each other out when we need it, when the time comes.
I want to replace the transactions of “exchange” in my life with “communistic” transactions. My transactions will be personal and not quantifiable.
So, for example, I will go down to my local fruit and veg shop and explain the above to the store manager. I will ask her if she can give me some stuff for free. It’s up to her how much stuff she would like to give (if any). She might want to give me my whole weekly shop, or just a bag of tomatoes. Either way, I have had the conversation with her, and I have changed the nature of our transaction. The arrangement whereby she gives me a bag of tomatoes is personal: it is based on trust, interest in one another, maybe the beginnings of a friendship?
So what’s the store manager getting out of it?
This is where documenting my work in a rigorous, creative, and playful way becomes important. The best means of doing this, and giving as many people as possible access to it, that I have come up with is through an online platform, such as this blog. It may be that my store manager thinks that what I am doing is a waste of time, in which case, all we’ve lost is ten minutes of one another’s time when I explained the project to her (and we haven’t even really lost this, because it was an interesting conversation, plus I make clear that if I’m being boring or she wants me to stop or go away at any time, I will). However, I hope it will be the case that when the store manager hears about what I do, and sees all the documentation online, she will be glad. Even if she doesn’t follow my work regularly (and I will do my best to make sure all the work I make is open and accessible to her), or visit my blog regularly, she sees that what I am doing is good for other people, and those other people will do something good for other people in turn (just like in my house, where housemate A gives me porridge, housemate B brings in housemate A’s washing, and I give housemate B a book I think she’ll enjoy). Through having this conversation with her, and through giving her access to my work, documented in this rigorous way, and through her giving me some tomatoes, we have changed the nature of the transactions between us.
By asking people to give you money (or tomatoes, which are worth money), aren’t you just monetizing your work?
It might seem like this is what’s going on, until we have the above conversation. Once we’ve had the conversation, it seems absurd to try to apply a logic of exchange to you giving me £3 / month. How could there possibly be a relationship of equivalence or exchange between you giving me some money and me collecting interviews with people displaced by regeneration projects, or having a chat with the store manager at my local shop, or writing a blog post? We have a conversation, you give me some money, I commit to working as hard and creatively and rigorously as I can on my artistic / life projects and documenting them as fully as possible online. We both owe each other one (we both owe the rest of society one, and society owes us one too). We’re not monetizing my work, we’re de-monetizing your money.
Why don’t you just go and live in a squat / co-operative / hippy commune?
Perhaps this could change my relationship with money. However, I am happy where I am now, I like my housemates (who make me porridge and bring in my laundry), I like the area where I live, I feel like I’m onto a good thing with the way I’m living at the moment. Making a big change in where I live and the people I live among would disrupt that. However, as part of changing my relationship to money, I will be thinking a good deal about the things I actually need in order to live well. Also, this project requires me to connect with people whose regular transactions follow a logic of exchange, who are less likely to be living in a squat or co-operative or hippy commune…
You’re a privileged, well-off, middle-class, white male. You’ve had a university education, you’ve had and have lots of opportunities. Don’t you feel bad about asking people to give you money when there are homeless people on the streets / children starving in Africa / people who are much worse off than you and who don’t have the means to improve their situation?
I think it’s terrible that people live in deprivation. I also believe that the way we think about money, the way that we privilege the logic of exchange, and the way that this informs our behaviour causes deprivation. So yes, these are all things that are upsetting and that I would like to do something about them.
When I first started thinking about this project, this was one of the first objections that came into my mind. At first I was almost completely put off by it, but then I started to wonder why this argument had presented itself to me. I think it’s part of the problem: in the (crude) was I have phrased the argument above, I am implying that the people mentioned are first and foremost a cost, and only secondarily people (if at all). We have been persuaded that by giving £2 a month, we can “solve” starving children, or homelessness or other social ills (they are no longer individuals, but generic members of these groups). I’m absolutely not having a go at charities or charitable work, but the way many charities are marketed is deeply problematic. People living in misery shouldn’t be reduced to an “argument” or a “point”.
For your system to work, doesn’t it require everyone to join in? What’s the point in everyone just supporting you?
Ultimately, yes, everyone will join in. For the moment, I don’t know what form this will take – maybe some kind of network of credit co-operatives, maybe some kind of techno-utopia? Who knows, these are just ideas, outlines. It’s impossible to tell at this stage, and it’s not something that can be imposed by me, or anyone else. This experiment is a starting point. I’m trying to prod the boundaries of what money is, and how we behave about money. It may not happen in our lifetime. For now we are sowing the seeds. That is what you are helping me to do.
Getting people to give you stuff seems like a lot of work. Wouldn’t it just be easier to get a normal job?
What is ‘normal’?
If you’re successful at getting people to give you lots of money, doesn’t that make you a salesman – isn’t that what you’re trying to get away from?
I am not trying to sell something. If I have this conversation with you, and we genuinely listen to each other, that will have achieved what I was setting out to do. You may not give me anything apart from your attention for a few minutes, but something of value will still have occurred. If lots of people do give me things and money, I guess it just means that the idea resonates with people enough for them to give me things and money…
What will you do if you get more money than you require to live off? Who decides how much is enough?
I will be honest about the way that Iive (again, this is where the documenting part becomes important). If you do not want to give me money to live in that way, you won’t. If I start to be given more money than covers my costs, we can decide together what to do with it (how to demonetize it). We could enable people who work with me to devote themselves fully to the work we’re doing together (by paying for their rent and food). We could decide to use it on another project, which we would come up with together. I could give it back to you to gift to someone else, but in a way that is not quantifiable and personal. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Whatever happens, you’ll be involved.
Aren’t you just doing the same thing that lots of people do (crowdfunding / asking for patronage) but pretending that it’s something different?
Yup, pretty much. But the “pretending that it’s something different” part is all-important. Money is a collective act of faith. A five pound note is only worth five pounds because we all believe it is. Money is in our imaginations. We only need to start thinking about it in a different way for it to be different.
If you’d like to give me stuff or money, or just find out more just send an email to benjaminpaulhadleyatgmail.com and I’ll send you details of how to contribute (I may set up an online donations button, but I need to work out what the best way to do it is).