We’re excited to publish two books by George Caffentzis – Clipped Coins, Abused Words, and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money a classic book, which has long been out of print, and Civilizing Money: Hume, his Monetary Project, and the Scottish Enlightenment, a new book concluding his trilogy about Locke, Berkeley and Hume.
Caffentzis is an autonomous Marxist who founded the Midnight Notes Collective, a coming together of various radical strands of US left politics in the 1970s. His mark on Marxist politics was profound and endures to this day.
For a limited time, you can buy one book, and get the other for free. Click here for more details.
In celebration of the reissues, we have republished Harry Cleaver’s preface to the new edition of Clipped Coins below, which highlights the important of reading Caffentzis today.
The recent preoccupation with ‘financialization’, of economists, government regulators and their critics, makes the republication of George Caffentzis’ study of John Locke’s philosophy of money especially timely. Never has the importance of money among the weapons that capitalists use to maintain their regime of domination, exploitation and alienation been greater. This has been especially clear since the financial crisis of 2007-2008 revealed how contradictions in the deployment of that weapon could have sudden, unexpected and disastrous consequences for millions of workers who, losing jobs, housing and prospects, were suddenly thrown into poverty and homelessness – while those directly responsible for the crisis through their fraud and reckless speculation (bankers and other money capitalists) were bailed out and none wound up in jail. Since then, over a decade of ‘recovery’, slowed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, has done little to reverse those consequences. Even the disbursements of the Biden administration’s American Recovery Act of 2021 have proved weak palliatives. City streets and highway overpasses are still filled with makeshift campgrounds of the homeless, unemployment remains high and suffering is widespread. Largely uncurbed by effective regulations, speculation and fraud are once more on the rise.
Within this context, Caffentzis’ study of Locke’s philosophy of money stands out as an illumination of long past practices that throws light on current problems. While Locke was certainly a philosopher, one of those providing early rationales for the structures of capitalism, and Caffentzis took his degree in Philosophy from Princeton University and taught in Departments of Philosophy for many years, neither man can be pigeonholed as only a philosopher. As Caffentzis’ study highlights, Locke was actively involved in the capitalist management of money to support the capitalism of his day, both at home in Britain and abroad in the Empire’s colonies and expanding world of trade. He brings this aspect of Locke back to the foreground as one moment of his own activism in struggles against the capitalist use of its money weapons in recent decades, both at home during the New York City financial crisis of the mid-1970s and then abroad in struggles against the use of money to impose austerity on workers in Nigeria and elsewhere through the International Monetary Fund’s programs of ‘structural adjustment’, rampant in the 1980s and 1990s. Not surprisingly, therefore, Caffentzis reads and amplifies both Locke’s philosophy and his favored monetary policies through political perspectives gained in contemporary struggles. One result, this book is not just an addition to library shelves holding books on philosophy or to the much narrower field of Locke Studies by academics – analyzed by Paul Rickert in his Introduction to this new edition. Another result, unlike many an academic tome whose specialized jargon impedes understanding by the uninitiated, Clipped Coins is written in a way that makes its contemporary relevance to anti-capitalist militants quite clear.
I make this claim because when I first decided to read this book – upon its original publication in 1989 – I did so with a certain trepidation. My own study of Locke’s writings had only included his justification for a ‘labor’ theory of value/property, his theory of the effects on price of variations in the quantity of money and his thoughts on kinds of education appropriate to different classes. Of his ‘general theory of semantics and language’ – essential to George’s argument – I had no clue. Although I had known George since our undergraduate years and conspired with him in the political activities of the Zerowork collective in the mid-1970s, I had never dared to dive deeply into his previous writing on philosophy, such as his 1978 PhD dissertation ‘Does Quantum Mechanics Necessitate a Theoretical Revolution in Logic?’. Philosophy was his field of study; mine was economics and its critique.
I should have known better, not only from our collaboration on Zerowork, but because I had long been familiar with drafts of George’s critical dissection of Paul Samuelson’s Economics textbook, carried out with his classmates at Princeton Mark Linder and Julius Sensat and later published as Anti-Samuelson (1977) in two volumes. However obscure his dissertation may be (I still haven’t gotten beyond his Preface), his studies of economics and his political activism against capitalist strategies and tactics during crises should have given me confidence that those things would inform and shape his more recent studies of philosophers, especially of their writings on money. Indeed, brief moments of such influence was already apparent in his 1980 essay on the ‘Work/Energy Crisis and the Apocolyse’ in which he analyzed the connections between the evolution of scientific thought on energy and thermodynamics and the evolving character of the class struggles of capitalism. And sure enough, once taken up, I found Clipped Coins not only revelatory about Locke’s thinking and practices but in ways that sharpened my own thinking about the capitalist use of money against workers in the class war of our times and about the theories they use to both organize and justify their actions. For while providing a new analysis that shows the interconnections among diverse aspects of Locke’s thoughts and actions, George does so in a way that provides a methodology applicable to other thinkers and other times, including those we are having to deal with today. While John Locke and his times – the late 17th Century – may be unfamiliar to some readers, even uninteresting to them, they will be happy to discover how George links his ideas to phenomena with which we are still coping, including the never-ending enclosures of what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ and the neoliberalism of capitalist policies that have besieged us for the past forty years. Those linkages should prove inspirational, pushing the hitherto uninterested to recognize the importance of this seemingly distant past and its thinkers to contemporary struggles. Given the appalling degree to which the American educational system produces historical ignorance among those it processes for the work force, any work, like this one, that demonstrates the truth of Nietzsche’s argument that studying history is useful because it can help us improve our lives today should be welcome.
Therefore, I want to recommend this book (along with the other two of George’s trilogy) to anti-capitalist activists. Those struggling to understand the class politics of money, to figure out how to best oppose the capitalist use of money and to find ways beyond both capitalism and money, should find it well worth their time and energy.
That last objective – escaping money – has only recently returned to the agenda of revolutionaries. After a brief period of consideration by communists after the revolution in Russia, and in the wake of the debates over planning vs markets of the 1930s, it largely disappeared. In the ‘East’, the experience of planning in Soviet-style economies revealed both the limits of central planning and the existence of a ‘black economy’ of widespread markets for both commodities and money. In the ‘West’, where various mixes of planning and markets reigned, social democratic parties and their theorists came to embrace the markets and money – to be tweaked, of course, in the direction of fairer, ‘socialist’ forms. But a combination of factors, including the recent central role of money in the class struggle, the development of modern computers and their capacity for handling the information necessary for allocating resources where they are needed and the ever multiplying examples of what economists euphemistically call the ‘negative externalities’ associated with markets – from the persistence of poverty to the mass extinctions threatened by the money-hungry, market-driven rape of the planet – have made growing numbers of those looking beyond capitalism conclude that the decommodification of life and escape from money are essential to the conceptualization and building of new, non-capitalist worlds.
This perspective is a far cry from either the ‘sanctification’ of metallic money by Locke and his contemporaries that Caffentzis analyzes or the continued imposition and acceptance of the much less sanctified money prices on anything and everything that we live with every day. It is not a call for all of us to ‘drop out of the club of money users’ into some isolated, demonetized commune, it is one to free society from a money (or even labor) measure of the value of all things and to celebrate the diversity and richness both of ‘needs/desires’ and of our abilities to satisfy them – creating a multiplicity of values in place of an imposed and impoverished singular one.
Harry Cleaver is Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Reading Capital Politically and 33 Lessons on Capital.
George Caffentzis is a co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and coordinator of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa (CAFA). Caffentzis was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine for over thirty years before retirement. He is the author of Clipped Coins, Abused Words, and Civil Government and Civilizing Money.