By Alec Israeli
In The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes (Princeton, 2022), Stefan Eich isolates several “moments” of monetary crisis across history, emphasizing their generative influence on the thought of succeeding generations of political theorists. Chapters focusing on Aristotle, Locke, Fichte, Marx, Keynes, and Hayek—plus their various interlocutors, prominent and public or otherwise—consider each monetary generation’s influence (even burden) upon the next. The book works towards a cumulative conclusion that the form and function of money never has been, and never will be, separate from questions of governance, sociability, and production, inclusive of their epistemological and linguistic scaffolding.
Eich—Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University—intends this unavoidably historical work to be a present political intervention. In suggesting money as always-already a site and means of political contestation, Eich seeks to develop a new lexicon through which monetary organization might be (re)democratized.
Alec Israeli: Your book explicitly bends disciplines, presenting as both history and normative political theory— you even say, in an uncommon move, that political theory can provide “historical orientation” (4). Explaining the historical aspect, you identify a geographical method of “stratigraphy,” of peeling away layers—not an extractive method attempting to unearth explicit lessons from the past, but trying to build a language to discuss contemporary issues. Enter, then, the normative theory of democratizing money.
Stefan Eich: That’s right. I was hoping to sketch a multidimensional map of the political theory of money that captures some of the complex layers of past crises in the politics of money, alongside the ways in which these continue to define our choices in the present. That map is not meant to be a guide for extraction, but to orient us.
AI: A few thoughts on methodology: You state a debt to Marx, noting the book project began by “tracing Marx’s notes in Capital to Aristotle and Locke” as well as “monetary cranks and pamphleteers.” At one point, too, you call your process one of self-clarification; this reminds me of Marx’s method in Capital – beginning with basic categories that are continuously redefined to the point of potentially mistaking their first iterations for what they are actually not.
Atop this Marxian element is a language of accumulation and crisis, which to me— though you cite Reinhart Koselleck—sounded very much like Walter Benjamin’s notion of history as accumulation alongside moments of constellation, or moments of opportunity/crisis that offer potentials for concerted change (your notion of sifting through footnotes as “wormholes” of travel between crises implies history’s printed accumulation).
And, through this combined consideration of accumulated (re)definitions, there’s an important linguistic aspect: you emphasize the overlap between language and money (especially in terms of money as a problem of signification); your historical-political aim is to provide a new language for democratizing money.
Can you crystallize your method here, not only as something between history and political theory, but also considering these features as linguistically mediated?
SE: More than just being a question of method, it is about diagnosing our current impasse, taking stock of our imperfect existing vocabulary, and appreciating our blind spots’ historical nature, before articulating conceptions of language, time, imagination—in short, politics— necessary to perceiving the question differently. This alters our relationship to the past, so we can become aware of crises’ accumulated layers, and the ways different traditions of thinking about money emerged from these crises. This is no longer the past as simply catalogued things that have passed, but also, as Koselleck repeatedly showed, the past as a reservoir of divergent expectations and alternative futures. And that comes out most clearly in moments of crisis. Furthermore, while this past can be harder to reconstruct, it arguably continues to linger and shape us in myriad ways.
What this attention to layers of crises helps us to do is regain an awareness of previous thinkers’ disorientation. This has immediate relevance. To engage with such disorientation can paradoxically form the starting point for our attempts to find orientation again. Such an exercise proceeds through history— not to reconstitute the past, but to help us in our own struggle for orientation, which is of course also why many previous thinkers turned to history and philosophy.
And this search for orientation is closely linked to the quest for a better language to pose the underlying question. Grappling with past crises, we become more aware of how these traumas or assumptions are baked into our language—and its blind spots.
In setting up a stratigraphy of the metamorphic rock of monetary politics, whereby later layers affect how we read earlier ones, my hope is to have an indirect effect on our relation to language itself. Again, not in the extractive sense—not simply in recovering concepts to add to our repertoire—but because an excavation of layered crises can point us towards the necessary conversations that we’re currently struggling to have.
AI: So, did you conceptualize this book at all as formal history? Indeed, it often reads as one. It is heavily archival, and has a narrative: monetary crises as punctuations—raising tension, crisis, followed by a rethinking of monetary theory, and then a reverse back into the epistemological and economic conditions which had proceeded that crisis. With Locke you introduce this notion of depoliticizing money in a very deliberate political sense (for Locke, instituting the unalterability of metal money); you end this chapter with Smith un-self-consciously naturalizing what was very self-consciously naturalized for Locke. And then there’s the crisis of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, Britain’s brief fiat experiment (denaturalizing metallism), followed suddenly by a naturalizing return to gold. This explodes in the 1930s; is re-naturalized at Bretton Woods; explodes again in the 1970s; and settles into a presumed depoliticization of money in our era of neoliberal inflation management.
You offer a corrective attempt at denaturalizing—your last chapter considers how political thought since the 1970s has rarely critically engaged monetary theory. You’re trying to cap your own cyclical narrative.
SE: I want to push hard against the implied neat distinction between history and political theory, and to insist that any historical inquiry runs inevitably into deeply theoretical, conceptual questions of a political nature—in particular when it comes to an institution like money, for which the history itselfmust include a history of previous theorizations and previous conceptual battles. How can you write a political history of money that doesn’t become conceptual, that doesn’t also become a history of political theories of money, and as a result political theory?
Inversely, how can you write a political theory of money that doesn’t grapple with the historical dimension and the continuing burden of past crises’ residue? This takes us back to the stratigraphy, the books’ genealogical ambition. To understand our current political impasse when it comes to money—though this point could easily be extended to other institutions—we need to understand how we got to where we are; if we want to understand why our language is impoverished, we must ask why certain things are so difficult to articulate. That can only be dealt with historically. So, again, on that level history and political theory proceed together.
That’s the first level. Second, the book goes a step further. In the introduction and most explicitly in the epilogue, I shift from describing our impasse—an account of its preceding the genealogical forces—into a forward-looking mode that reckons explicitly with the moment of crisis from which I write. Given my emphasis on moments and historical reflexivity, I owe it to the reader to make my own vantage point explicit. This meant sketching, if not a way out, then, at least a stock-taking of the resources (especially the conceptual, linguistic resources) that seem most promising in addressing our current impasse. That genealogical project is distinct from these reflections, but the latter relies on the former, and making my own vantage point explicit seemed to me even a requirement of consistency. Precisely because the book is not a history from nowhere, but one explicitly written from our current impasse, it seemed prudent to also spell out what one possible path forward could look like—not to settle the matter, but to give a sense of my own impression of where this map that I offer can possibly take us.
AI: In this insistence on a present vantage point in historical-political work, I was reminded of a Hayden White essay called “The Burden of History” that points to a way of saving historical work by encouraging historians to deliberately put their normative cards on the table…
SE: And not just normative cards: first conceptual cards! To acknowledge that historical writing is necessarily theoretical; that each form of narrative—each pretense of continuity— necessarily does conceptual work as well. That is one basic but important point of White’s argument. One could push that further regarding a book about the political theory of money: it’s not just about conceptual and theoretical stakes as such; these stakes have very specific political assumptions and implications.
AI: Right, the upshot of White’s essay—arguably manifest in your method—is that historians must study the past with an eye towards their own agency; that studying history should involve a search neither for ready-made answers to present problems nor for ways that history purportedly and inevitably governs present conditions. Rather, what historians ought to do (I think, what you do) is to seek openings in history that allow for agency in the present by acknowledging the almost aimless agency of people in the past. That is, the historian ought to study the past to show that the present is just as actively moldable and contingent as the events preceding it. That is what I mean when I say “putting one’s normative cards on the table” in doing history. I mean this aspect of action.
SE: Absolutely, and for me that ties back to accounting for one’s own vantage point and engaging in exercises of self-clarification. First individual self-clarification, but then collective: spelling out for ourselves what our commitments to democracy are, and where we want to take them. This is not meant to extract lessons from history about that direction, but it tries to place the multi-dimensional historical map in conversation with the values that we espouse, and points us towards the tension and problems that arise in the process. These problems don’t have to be fatal, but they require a lot more conceptual work and democratic public discourse to become aware of them, let alone resolve them.
AI: To that effect—you locate money as a “foundational institution of democratic self-rule.” You base this in your account of Aristotle’s theory of money in the Nicomachean Ethics—where money becomes a lynchpin of intra-societal reciprocity.
SE: Yes, though this simultaneously points toward a certain ambivalence. Money never aligns straightforwardly with democracy, but encapsulates all of our ambivalences about democracy itself— its fragility, its imperfection, and all the paradoxes of what it means to govern ourselves democratically. So money is foundational not because it allows us to resolve the tensions of democratic life, but because it embodies and replicates them. For Aristotle, money contains always more than a possibility of tragedy.
AI: The question that left me asking is: if we think about money as one potential window into these problems, especially in its role as a mediator of reciprocity, how do we avoid falling into a classical liberal defense of the market as a place of non-violent reciprocity and mutual recognition, à la Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments? There’s all kinds of literature—I’m thinking, for example, of Thomas Haskell—on this fundamental shift that purportedly happens in market society, in which people begin conceiving each other abstractly as equals. This market apologetic narrative brings us to Enlightenment notions of doux commerce and so on, per Albert Hirschman in The Passions and the Interests…
SE: This is really fascinating. I think there are two ways to respond. First, in the context of the book, it’s important to be clear what the Aristotle chapter is doing. The chapter is not meant point toward the reciprocal quality of modern money for us—that would be the extractive reading—but instead to become aware that at some level in our muddled concepts of money, there is this yearning for monetary reciprocity that has long been disappointed. Becoming aware of that original hope isn’t meant to offer it as a solution, but rather to measure our disappointment since what was once hoped obviously failed. This is the beautiful upshot of Hirschman’s account. A classical liberal defense of the market as a site of reciprocities fails to historicize the way in which that promise once speculatively existed but was then disappointed.
The second answer is to resist this idea that money and markets are straightforwardly part of the same commercial process. The exciting recent scholarship on money—from Christine Desan’s Making Money onwards— shows the ways in which money precedes markets. This has powerful conceptual implications, both because it alters how we understand the past, but also because it creates an opening for thinking more creatively through ways in which money could be decommodified. This is one of the seemingly most puzzling claims in Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation—the idea that one of the “fictitious” commodities is money and that capitalism commodified money. The implication seems to be that money was at some point not commodified. I think that’s exactly right. So our task is to think through what decommodified, de-marketized money looks like, or what it means to democratize money.
AI: In terms of decoupling money from markets, after reading the book I was attempting to formulate a way to summarize what money is in the book. What I came to was money as an objective mediator of social relations which can take multiple forms, considering money in a capacious and creative sense.
From this rough characterization comes an epistemological or ontological concern of historical origin. I’m in part thinking of David Graeber’s account of how concepts like interest or rationality are only potentialized by an explicit division, emergent in the classical era, between pecuniary and non-pecuniary concerns; I’m also thinking of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s account of how the concept of abstraction was tied to the development of coinage in ancient Greece, that is, to valuation divorced from the object’s immediate physical qualities.
Related considerations in your book are most apparent in the chapter on Fichte. On the one hand, many contemporary concerns over authenticity—over Kantian appearance and being—revolved around non-metal-backed money (qua land-backed French revolutionary assignats backed, or Britain’s fiat experiment); on the other, for Fichte, accepting money as a pure signifier was a point of liberation, allowing a refiguration of the relation between commerce and state. Fiat currency’s arbitrariness could be a centerpiece of a value-endowing social contract. These opposed poles are unsurprising; as you said, you are pointing to an ambivalence. So, removing the conceit of money as either deceptive or transparent, and instead seeing potentials beyond this binary, what does that mean in terms of action now? What do we do politically with money’s oddly generative metaphysics as this objective, yet necessarily abstracted, mediator?
SE: Through the book’s different moments, we can productively see how changing technologies of credit relate to different assessments of social roles, hopes, and anxieties related to those technologies. That’s a powerful corrective to histories lacking this social materialist dimension, all the more so because the changing materiality is simultaneously tied to different expectations about the future.
But the structure of the moments also helps immunize us against the seductions of origin stories—I worry that there is a tinge of that in the examples you gave from Graeber and Sohn-Rethel. We should resist this temptation to associate large movements with a specific origin. I don’t turn to the Athenians to offer an origin story, but to historicize the urge to write origin stories. Looking at that interrelationship helps reveal the ways in which assessments often diverged, even where they begin from the same premise of money as a social bond. You can either read this premise as a source of fragility that has to be anxiously guarded against the multitude, or you can begin to appreciate the ways in which democratizing that bond actually has vast empowering ramifications throughout the rest of society. But crucially these differences often don’t stem from divergent accounts of the nature of money—it’s the politics that differ.
AI: In these moments of monetary thinking I find the repeated presence of trust to be fascinating, on an epistemological/ontological level. A degree of abstraction from a given form money takes is necessary for that form to mediate trust between people; abstraction is necessary for trust. Yet too much abstraction from a given form makes people lose trust.
SE: For me the way into the trust question was opened by André Orléan and Michel Aglietta, who have described money as suspended between trust and violence in a series of seminal books. I’ve found this a hugely productive formulation that we can spell out in numerous directions. To begin with, as you rightly flag, it brings trust into the whole debate. So studying money becomes no longer a narrow economic topic; instead one has to grapple with the precarious quality of trust, the societal importance of making promises, and the ways in which institutions are ultimately—money being a prime example—dependent on language.
At the same time, it’s a process that is at once extremely fragile and, perhaps as a result, closely associated with coercion. Violence is often used to backup trust. Puzzling through what it might mean to speak of money as suspended between trust and violence is thus a powerful way to capture what’s usually missing in various competing accounts of money, including the commodity theory of money, but also purely voluntaristic accounts of money where the fragility of the trust part can easily get lost.
As for trust and abstraction, I would interject with Marx that the question isn’t about too much or not enough abstraction, but about what kind of abstraction? Is this abstraction actually still tied to the purpose that money was originally meant to fulfill as a social and political institution, or is it abstraction in the service of accumulation? Both are extremely abstract. In order to govern a complex society, even fully decommodified money would have to be highly abstract, and yet it would be a very different kind of abstraction than one that’s based on accumulation.
AI: So the concern that something about money in contemporary capitalism is “too abstract” is actually a confusion of kind and degree? This is common in popular discourse—as in, financial capitalism is too abstract, but there was an earlier “good” capitalism that was less abstract. I hear that a lot too with cryptocurrency— that there’s not really a thing there, and that is the problem with it. But really, in terms of the abstraction necessary to money, there has never been a thing there!
SE: Yes, or rather “we” are the thing. By all means, we must criticize financial capitalism and the false promises of cryptocurrencies. But these critiques cannot come from suspicion that what is lacking is “real value”. This search “for something real” is a trap.
Instead, we should appreciate the way in which money’s dual role as both capital and a malleable social institution of our imagination leaves it radically undetermined. That might sound daunting, but grappling with money’s self-reflexive quality also has enormous potential for democratizing economic institutions.
This ties back into the question of where this anxiety over the lack of “real” value comes from. Tracing the source of this anxiety historically can help us to face the underlying questions with greater self-confidence in our role as collective agents. Failing to appreciate the self-reflexive quality of money—always looking for the “real thing” behind it—has led us into this self-imposed state of immaturity.
AI: Bringing us back to your historical method—and my bringing in White—the central question here regarding abstraction is one of agency, right? Because when you talk about abstraction, it’s not about the fact of abstraction, but about the action—abstraction for what?
SE: It’s less about calling on agency to emerge but—and that’s what the book’s epilogue seeks to illustrate—about pointing to the agency that already exists in our monetary system. Some are already acting; we just don’t realize most of the time what is happening, who is acting and in whose interest. The first task must thus be to make that agency explicit, before we can then start to talk about how to render that agency more democratic.
And this gets back to language—about actually demythologizing money in the sense of making that monetary power visible. And by making monetary power visible, you make visible the agency that exists and who is exercising it right now.
AI: Thus the methodological debt to Marx (in terms of fetishism or reification)—holding the superficial in all its significance, in order to also go behind it, to demystify the effects of its appearance. You have the line, “Money is a metaphor that demands to be taken literally” (19). Money here is a site of pure representation, but there’s so much behind it. You need to deal with this phenomenal reality somehow.
Indeed, further dwelling upon this method of demystification, we might add to the wealth of value theory which has so well-elucidated Marx’s critique of political economy. Here, value is emphasized as the representation of labor in capitalism; you insist upon a further layer: money as the representation of value as the representation of labor.
SE: I’m not sure how original that is, but it was for me a helpful way to understand what Marx is up to. It gets you to a point that allows you to appreciate the role that money as capital plays and the limits that come with that for monetary policy. And yet you can see why Marx was so obsessed with following monetary and credit developments. He worked his way toward capital by studying the intricacies of contemporary money markets as well as by developing trenchant critiques of socialist proposals for monetary reform.
To your first point though—demystification is different than spelling out solutions. But once that kind of power has been rendered visible, you can actually begin to have a conversation in which a map might be useful, if only to formulate disagreement. The money question is so fascinating in this regard, because money is a great example for how appearance is not epiphenomenal but an essential part of reality.
Alec Israeli is a recent alumnus of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he earned an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research considers overlaps of intellectual history and labor history in the 19th-century Atlantic world, focusing on theorizations of free versus unfree labor in both political-economic and metaphysical terms. He is additionally interested in the philosophy of history (and the history of the philosophy of history). Alec received a BA in History from Princeton University. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog.
Edited by Tom Furse
Featured Image: A collection of ancient Greek coins. Source: Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Arkaio Nomisma.