29 September 2008

Nibbling at the Edges of the Power Structure

For reading material on the plane to Sydney on my recent holiday, I printed out Antal Fekete’s series of Monetary Economics lectures. Illuminating. During my holiday, I also got involved in a discussion on the Kitco forum about the silver shortage. On my return, sitting in my study, Antal’s work and the discussion got me thinking about what motivates those in the "gold community".

Scanning my bookcases my eye fell on two books: one I have read - Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce (1993) – and one I have only skimmed but been meaning to read - Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (1970). What these two books share with Antal’s work is a strong moral sense, specifically that there is something wrong with the way society works, and a focus on making it better. The best gold advocates (I prefer this term instead of “goldbugs”, which implies emotional irrationality) I feel have this moral element to their work. It takes the form of a belief that fiat currencies, which lack any limits, are detrimental to society. This concept of limits also appears in Paul’s, Lewis’ and Antal’s work.

For Paul, economics needs to take account of, and operate within, the ecological limits of the planet: “the commercial systems of the future must be more like biological systems – self-sustaining, non-wasteful, self-regenerating.” Population and production cannot continue to grow forever, to do so means they take on the characteristics of something else that has no limits on its growth – cancer.

Lewis’ book deals with the dehumanisation of modern technological society and the aggregation of power. He advocates “a displacement of the mechanical world picture with an organic world picture.” His use of biological/organic systems as a model for a sustainable society is something he shares in common with Paul. What I find interesting about organic systems is that they are self-regulating, self-limiting. This I think is ultimately what Antal’s work on a gold-based monetary system is about – using gold as a monetary control mechanism.

Why is this important? Lewis notes “... the increasing translation of both political and economic power into purely abstract quantitative terms: mainly, terms of money. Physical power, applied to coerce other human beings, reaches natural limits at an early stage: if one applies too much, the victim dies. ... But when human functions are converted into abstract, uniform units, ultimately units of energy or money, there are no limits to the amount of power that can be seized, converted, and stored. The peculiarity of money is that it knows no biological limits or ecological restrictions.”

In this analysis, then, if there is no control over abstract money, then there is no control over power accumulation. Lewis goes on to conclude that the power complex’s “... final goal is quantitative abstraction – money or its etherialized and potentially limitless equivalent, credit. The latter, like the ‘faith’ of the Musical Banks in Erewhon, is at bottom only a pious belief that the system will continue indefinitely to work.”

A key aspect of Antal’s work is the power that physical gold money gives the consumer, the average person, over the monetary system. Without the ability to redeem gold, without the ability to hoard gold, there can be no control on power: “When a currency is redeemable in standard gold coins, any individual disturbed by the behaviour of the government or banks can attempt to protect himself by presenting for redemption such paper currency as he may command. It is this power of individuals that holds, or tends to hold, banks and government in check.”

Lewis also makes another interesting observation about the resemblance between the pleasure centre in the brain and the power complex’s obsession with profit and “indifference to other human needs, norms, and goals”. He cites a study where electrodes were inserted into the pleasure centre in laboratory monkeys and control of the current, which stimulated the pleasure centre, was given to the monkeys. What occurred was that the monkeys would continuously press the current regulator, regardless of any other physiological need, even to the point of starvation. He concludes that “the power complex seems to operate on the same principle. The magical electronic stimulus is money” and that both “recognize no quantitative limits ... the abstraction replaces the concrete reality, and therefore those who seek to increase it never know when they have had enough.”

Antal’s insistence on the use of physical gold in the monetary system removes the abstraction, provides the quantitative limit. If “money has proved the most dangerous of modern man’s hallucinogens” according to Lewis, then Antal is suggesting we need to go cold turkey (or is that gold turkey).

Being a practical person, while reading Antal’s work I kept thinking how to turn the theory into practice. The problem is more than one of mechanics, is it one of politics, of public perception. Also, considering the entrenched position of those who benefit from the existing system, how to effect change that will threaten them. Lewis has something interesting to say on this:

“... there is so little prospect of overcoming the defects of the power system by any attack that employs mass organization and mass efforts at persuasion; for these mass methods support the very system they attack. The changes that have so far been effective, and that give promise of further success, are those that have been initiated by animated individual minds, small groups, and local communities nibbling at the edges of the power structure by breaking routines and defying regulations. Such an attack seeks, not to capture the citadel of power, but to withdraw from it and quietly paralyse it. Once such initiatives become widespread, as they at last show signs of becoming, it will restore power and confident authority to its proper source: the human personality and the small face-to-face community.”

I cannot think of a better description than “animated individual minds ... nibbling at the edges of the power structure” for what gold advocates are all about.


  1. That's why a fiat currency system always ends up in hyperinflation, if it doesn't first die for some other reason.

    There is also another immorality to consider: Someone who has worked and saved going into the marketplace with their money is equal to someone who has merely borrowed some money from a banker who has conjured it out of thin air.

    Then there is economic efficiency: The power to create money out of nothing (without having to work for it), no matter how regulated, will always make the economic system less economically efficient than it should be, if only because it favors speculation over production.

  2. Bron, Excellent critique!!