Foucault on Fetishism and Money

Finally getting around to reading Foucault’s comments on money in the recently translated lectures The Will To Know. They initially piqued my interest because I caught reference to the fact that Foucault makes the claim that forms of thought, such as measurement, developed in tandem with money in Ancient Greece. I was curious to read and compare Foucault’s account with that of Sohn-Rethel. What I did not expect was passages like the following which echo, and indeed provide further evidence, that Foucault had a quite sophisticated reading of Marx:

‘Let’s say, very schematically:
a—The symbol of power in archaic Greece was the scepter, the staff
of command, 21 which circulated in the Assembly when anyone had to
speak, put forward his views, take part in a decision, or swear an oath
and expose himself to the risk of punishment as a perjurer.
Now this power, manifested in this way (power both divided up and
circulating between group chiefs), was the power conferred on them
by their lands, their goods, the extent of their crops, the size of their
household, and the accumulation of tripods and rich fabrics at the heart
of their home. The scepter demonstrated power symbolically in a society
in which politics and economics were interdependent.

b—In a market society like that studied by the classical economists,
money is the sign for an absent commodity; and the visible circulation
of money, while showing commercial circuits and market equivalences,
hides the true political relations. Through the monetary sign, wealth
looks like it circulates, is distributed, and shared according to both
nature and skill, necessity and chance; but in fact power is held on to.
The economic and the political are linked, but out of synch with each
other; their dependence is hidden and the monetary sign is the instrument
of, at the same time, their dependence, their dislocation, and the
occultation of this dislocated dependence.

In seventh and sixth century Greek society money is no longer
entirely a magical-political symbol like the scepter, but it is far from
being already the occulting representation of classical economics. It is the
instrument of a power which is being shifted (while preserving itself),
and which, through an interplay of new regulations, ensures the preservation of class domination.

At this point, money is no longer a symbol which effectuates and is
not yet a representative sign. It should be understood as a fixed series of
superimposed substitutions [ … * ]:
—it effectuates a religious substitution: it makes possible a levy
and a redistribution;
—it effectuates an economic substitution: fortune, investment;
—it effectuates a political substitution: from one social group to
another;
—it effectuates another substitution: it substitutes a slight shift of
power for the social upheaval sought after.

From the myth recounted to the political operation, there is a whole
series of substitutions. These substitutions are superimposed on and
replace each other. This is the simulacrum: real operations, indefinite
series—creating fixation (not representation).

Whereas the sign “represents,” the simulacrum replaces one substitution
for another. It is its reality as simulacrum that has enabled money
to remain for a long time not only an economic instrument but a thing
issuing from and returning to power, by a sort of inner intensity or
force: a religiously protected object it would be impious, sacrilegious to
adulterate.

The functioning of money is not accounted for by a theory of the signifier,
but rather by analysis of the simulacrum. Money was simulacrum
before becoming sign. And maybe we can go further. It is as simulacrum that it is sign: getting it to function as sign in a market economy is an avatar of its real history as simulacrum. Simulacrum of a nature of things, of a value exclusive to it, of a real equivalence. What Marx called “fetishism.” To summarize all this, let’s say that money is linked to power as simulacrum.’ Foucualt, The Will To Know, pp. 141-42.

 

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About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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