The contemporary fetish of money

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By FÁBIO LUIZ SAN MARTINS*

The average contemporary man “idolizes” money as a fetish, but paradoxically this idolatry has a strong component of reality and necessity.

“Money is the visible divinity (…) it is the general harlot, the pimp of men and peoples. The inversion and confusion of all human and natural qualities, the twinning of the impossibilities -the divine force- of money lies in its essence as the generic, alienating and self-alienating essence of man. Money is the alienated capacity of mankind” (Karl Marx. Economic-philosophical manuscripts)

“It is nothing more than a certain social relationship between men themselves, which for them here assumes the phantasmagoric form of a relationship between things. Therefore, to find an analogy, we have to travel to the nebulous region of the world of religion. Here, the products of the human brain seem endowed with a life of their own, autonomous figures that maintain relationships with each other and with men. So, in the world of commodities, it happens with the products of the human hand. This I call the fetishism which clings to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from commodity production” (Karl Marx. The capital).

This May marks the 205th anniversary of Marx's birth. One of the pillars of Marx's critical analysis of the functioning of capitalism is his reflection on money and its functions in the capital system. Money, according to him, acts on individuals' decisions and motives to such an extent that they end up attributing almost divine powers to money. Marx calls this relationship that individuals in the capitalist system maintain with money “fetishist”: in modern societies money is, at the same time, worshiped and feared, recalling the cult that certain primitive communities (“polytheists”) had for certain materials (“fetishes”) that, according to general belief, would have the power to cure diseases, eliminate pests from crops or even grant men eternal life.

Kill Bill 2, a 2004 American cinematographic production directed by the celebrated Quentin Tarantino, is not only a sensational action and adventure film: there are also several excerpts and dialogues that encourage thinking about our time, so rich in horizons and possibilities, but paradoxically steeped in in so many brutalities, barbarities and obscurantisms. Among the scenes that make up the film, there is a special one that calls attention for raising a question of human life in a superficially critical way, but which, examined in depth, reveals a resigned and cynical conception of the world.

In broad lines, Kill Bill narrates the story of the “bride”, a dangerous assassin, who after four years in a coma, intends to take revenge on Bill (former boss and lover) and on the group of professional assassins to which she came to belong. At a certain point in the story, the “bride” tries to kill Budd, Bill's brother, and fails, because, in a clever move, Budd captures the “bride” and, shortly afterwards, buries her alive (in one of those innumerable scenes of explicit and gratuitous violence of the film).

Soon after, Budd takes over the powerful and coveted Samurai sword used by the "bride" in her unstoppable thirst for revenge and sells it, for 1 million dollars, to Elle Driver, one of the assassins in Bill's group. After that, an impressive scene follows: Budd opens the suitcase where the extraordinary amount was deposited, stirs the wads of dollars with an uncontainable joy, when, then, a snake nicknamed “death incarnate”, jumps in his face, stinging him deadly.

Examining the scene more closely, one realizes how much Budd idolizes money and its powers, and we see this even in the way he settles in the armchair, demonstrating an attitude of reverence for the suitcase full of papers representing money. He is happy with what he sees, because the idol will give him unimaginable powers over men and things, he who until that moment was an insignificant security agent in a sinister nightclub.

The idol of modern times, however, is also vengeful with his followers, cursing with death those who make light of his powers and spells: the snake "incarnation of death" that escapes from bundles of dollars is, it seems to me, a creative metaphor of the financial “bubbles” that, when bursting, ruin the lives of so many who believed in the security and comfort of an endless “wealth effect”, as in the North American real estate crisis of 2008.

Karl Marx's theory of the “fetish of money” thus gains a cinematographic guise in the scenes involving Budd (representing the average contemporary man) and the suitcase full of dollars accompanied by the “incarnation of death”.

The average contemporary man “idolizes” money as a fetish, but paradoxically this idolatry has a strong component of reality and necessity. One cannot live in the world of capital without money, since virtually all social relations are based on mercantile relations and, therefore, “settlement” of spot and forward purchases and sales; the money also serves as a deposit of value, it can be kept as a guarantee against future eventualities.

Contemporary man “perceives” money as something vital in his life, because with it he not only has access to the world of goods and services, but thanks to it he is socially recognized as a person. It is as if his individuality and personality only gained expression through money and the properties of money: man is man, thinks, relates to others, loves and lives, puts his human potential into action only with and through money.

Money, as vital as it is in social relations, is also perceived by contemporary man as a curse, like the treacherous snake that embodies death. Contemporary man perceives money as something essential, like a key that opens all doors, but at the same time he curses it, like a “thing that has no name”, death itself. In historical terms, it is enough to remember the recent and ancient wars that were fought, with or without disguises, in his name, of the “vile metal” and its monetary signs.

Contemporary man's perception of the divine powers of money is reminiscent of the beginning of the introduction of machinery at the end of the XNUMXth century. Machines came with the promise of freeing man from the weight of monotonous and meaningless work, but throughout at least the first half of the XNUMXth century in pioneering industrialization countries, workers were not only forced to work harder (performing more repetitive tasks than those who exercised when working with hand tools) as they earned less relative wages doing so.

The machine at the beginning of the industrial revolution was for the workers the very “incarnation of death”: they had the divine power to generate immensely greater wealth, employing fewer and fewer men, replacing the old workers with great manual qualification. The workers of the old industrial revolution cursed the divine powers of machinery with the only weapons available to them in the infancy of the labor movement: the destruction of machines and industrial buildings.

It is seen, then, that the average perception that contemporary man has of money, portrayed in Kill Bill 2, is related to the naive struggle of Luddist workers in mid-nineteenth-century England. Like the Luddists, the social relations that make money a social product, the result of historically determined social relations and, therefore, social creatures, are not recognized behind the “monetary veil”. Money, when “fetishized” as an idol, shows how man, the creator, surrendered to his creature: monetary transactions between individuals appear to have almost divine powers, inexplicable by reason, such as “incarnating death” at the same time which makes life possible.

The merit of the film Kill Bill 2 it was to have pointed to the problem, showing to the great mass of spectators the states of misery and thoughtless estrangement in which they live.

As, however, the origin of the fetishistic powers of money is not understood throughout the film, which could allow a truly radical critique of the capital system, the sequence of actions and the conclusion of the scene with the death of the unfortunate character leaves the feeling that humanity as long as it exists will submit to a meaningless life, dominated by things essentially products of its own work that, however, subjugate it as if they were its lords and creators.

Hence the cynical character of Kill Bill 2 (which can be extended without exaggeration to cinematographic production in general): the film seems to shed critical light on reality when it portrays, in images and dialogues, the misery and stupidity of contemporary social life; however, it barely succeeds in disguising, in fact, the mockery in relation to the possibilities of transforming the detested reality, as if humanity, seeing itself in the characters of the film, had no other alternative than to laugh at its own misfortunes and misfortunes. The critique of capitalist reality in the “best” of contemporary cinematographic production is just a covering for a procession of resigned, tedious and mocking characters.

* Fabio Luiz San Martins holds a PhD in economics from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR).


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