benjamin franklin as the ghost of capitalism past, present and future

Obverse of the series 2009 $100 Federal Reserve Note

No one’s face could be more appropriate on a banknote than that of Benjamin Franklin – nobody embodies the spirits that drive capitalism, the ghosts that haunt it and the imagination that transcends it as he does.

To begin with, his advice on how to relentlessly convert time into money, and to reinvest that money in order to make more money – to make money for making money’s sake –features prominently in Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as expression of the essence of the capitalist spirit. As a worker he anticipates the disciplined and rationalised approach that was to pervade the factories of centuries to come, while his entrepreneurial spirit and inventing mind set the model for the revolutionising process of creative destruction that Schumpeter saw at the heart of capitalist development. Nurturing his imagination through the avid consumption of novels, this money man can also be seen as an exemplar of the romantic ethic of modern consumerism (Campbell 1987), which is sustained by the structural romanticism of money itself.

While very much a self-made man reliant on the fruit of his own labour which he then sets to work for him (i.e. fully in tune with Locke’s conception of legitimate property owning), he is nonetheless involved in the exploitative and violent expropriation without which capitalism could not have taken off the ground so rapidly – the process which Marx called “original accumulation” and which Rosa Luxemburg has insisted is not just something that happens at the beginning of the capitalist era, but is always operative at the edges of capitalist expansion. Franklin was a slaveholder. Yet chattel slavery, profitable as it may be at least in the early stages of capitalist development, collides fundamentally with the moral grammar implied in capitalist exchange (Haskell 1985) – a grammar that relies on the formal freedom, or at least the appearance thereof, of the producers. Franklin went on to become an abolitionist – thus embodying the bad conscience of the bourgeois who likes to think of himself as owing his privileged position to his own hard work and exchange with free people, while not being able to forget completely the fact of violent exploitation that sustains that position. In this he incorporates in immediacy the anxiety of contemporary ethical consumers who are still haunted by the ghosts of the colonial past in which the base of their current wealth was laid.

And finally, Franklin also stands for the way that a capitalist ethos contains a utopian element. Benjamin Franklin, as one of the signatories of the American Constitution, stood for democracy and liberty. Both these principles may not be necessary results of capitalism, but Marx was probably right in suggesting that the formally egalitarian and libertarian nature of money-mediated commodity exchange undermines aristocratic principles of government and is suggestive of liberal-democratic systems. But the inequality and ensuing domination which are the inevitable outcomes of the capitalist process also limit and negate the formal equality and threaten the freedom which is inscribed in its moral grammar. The man whose guidance on money making was to be used over a century later to show up the essence of the capitalist spirit –like later Marx and Engels – takes inspiration from Urkommunismus in search of a cure for the ills of capitalism. In 1783 he relates the account of one native American thus:

‘You know our Practice. If a white Man in travelling thro’ our Country, enters one of our Cabins, we all treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, and give him Meat & Drink that he may allay his Thirst and Hunger, & we spread soft Furs for him to rest & sleep on: We demand nothing in return. But if I go into a white Man’s House at Albany and ask for Victuals & Drink, they say, where is your Money? And if I have none, they say, get out, you Indian Dog.’ (Franklin 1998: 318)

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Franklin, Benjamin (1998): Autobiography and Other Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Haskell, Thomas (1985): ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility’, in:American Historical Review, Vol.90, No.2, pp.339-61 and No.3, pp.547-66

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