The Null Device

The Values of Money

An essay from Quinn Norton (a friend of the late Aaron Swartz, and miscellaneous cyberculture gadfly) about the interplay of money and class:
Money is a sign of poverty. It took a few Scottish sci-fi authors to point this out, but it is the most obvious fact about the concept. Money is a technology for triaging scarcity. It is something you only need when you have to manage a poverty of something else.
When you are poor in America money is chained to shame. You are ashamed that you don't have it, you are ashamed when you do but don't share it with family and friends, you are ashamed when you want it, you are ashamed of what you're willing to do to get it. Like all unchosen masters, you hate it as much as you need it. Money makes you angry, it's what families yell and lie to each other about. Its power is mythologized. One of my most vivid memories of my childhood was my father declaring he didn't have any problems money couldn't solve.
Norton posits the thesis that one of the difference between the poor and the middle-class/affluent is that the former don't get to keep their money: not so much because of there being a premium on buying life's necessities when you don't have the signifiers of affluence marking you as one of the Worthy, but because, being poor necessitates relying on communities for support, and one of the prices of that is the obligation to pass any surplus wealth you might have on to those needier than you:
Poor people survive by being part of a community. It can be a family, a neighborhood, or a subculture of alienated teens. Affiliation can take many shapes, and the poor often have more than one. It is implicit and absolute that poor people must support each other. You must make sure those in dire need get what they need even if it costs your savings. This is the fragile safety net that keeps so many people alive and able to function in America, and much of the world. It takes many names, mutual aid, remittance, resource sharing. But if you are making money, you are expected to contribute to keep other people going. To not share your money is to risk not only losing that path of support yourself, but social isolation and shunning.
You're never going to save your way out of being poor unless you're willing to walk away from family and loved ones and let them suffer and sometimes die. Often, the only way you can keep money when you get it is to spend it at once, before the requests for help come in. Making money causes shame, having money causes shame, spending it is no better, and it rules everything you do.
The Middle Class get to keep their money, but in exchange for a social isolation that horrified me when I first encountered it. The truth is, it still horrifies me. The American Dream of a middle class life that the poor, like myself, are supposed to reach for is a nightmare of alienation and loneliness. It takes its physical form in suburbs, and other living arrangements where you can die and be eaten by the cats over a period of months before anyone bothers to check on you.
In families, everything in the middle class pushes people to abandon each other as soon as they have the money to. Children are pushed to education and stable corporate jobs so that they can be shameless — never needing their families in any way. Parents are pushed towards saving for retirement, in either the hope of financially created independence or expectation that their grown children would never abide their presence.

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