Money: From Feminist Economics to Feminist Utopia

Source: Advanced CCA

Karin Schönpflug on why it is necessary to fundamentally modify the current financial model, and what feminist economics and feminist utopia have in common in their approaches to dismantling existing power relations in our economic system.

Money is more than colourful paper or plastic cash used to exchange goods. It has been largely absent from feminist critique, but there is much to be said about it from a feminist perspective: Money has been used as a tool for governmentality and state control; it has been a tool for installing heterosexism and the male breadwinner model; it can be used as a way to decide about production technologies and environmental collapse or the installation of a feminist utopia.

Historically dubious narrative of money as a ‘medium of exchange’

The organisation of monetary policy can be considered as a highly political project from its inaugural moment. The world’s first national bank was founded in 1694 in London with the means of better financing the war between England and France. fiat currency, or unbacked paper money, gains value in exchange mostly because of a sovereign’s power to levy taxes on economic activity as payable in the currency it has issued. Mary Mellor, a British ecofeminist researcher adds that money is highly classed as “money was expenditure by rulers and elites, much of it spent on conflict, prestige projects or funding ruling households.”[1] “The modern phenomena of fiat currency appears both structural and personal, both instrumental to economic institutions and a daily tool for citizens to communicate value to one another. The potential for social control to be enacted through this kind of money by a state” is what Desan calls the “’constitutional role’ assigned to currencies in modern societies”. With the formation of modern nation states, this ability of money to be a conveyer of an influential language of value takes on a capacity of national cohesion, a history suppressed by the dominant narrative of money as a ‘medium of exchange’”[2]. Historically dubious, “this narrative also has a political efficacy: it presents the role of the state as a mere clearing house, reflecting the neutral arbitration role of liberal thought […] By paying citizens in [tax] debt, state institutions [expand] their capacity to govern”[3].

The “invention of the unproductive housewife”

The unit of account function is the most widely critiqued angle in the feminist economics discussion of money, since social reproduction, care work in the home, and the provisions of nature are conventionally not counted as (monetary) values in standard economic theory. Where Marx concludes that “value is the representation of objectified labor” this analogy cannot hold for the analysis of the value of (unpaid) reproduction. The engagement of feminist economics with the remuneration of ‘reproductive labor’ that is conveniently compensated by the “useless currency of ‘love’” [4] is based on the notion of fiat money being unsuitable as a measurement tool for the “complexities of affect or the unknown value of social relations”[5] – also because caring activities cannot easily be captured by the simplifications of clock-time of Fordist production systems.

In 2009 Lisa Adkins declared a “feminism after measure” stating that “the crisis of measure” is not only related to the “difficulties attached to attempts to quantify and value the heterogeneous labouring activities associated with socially reproductive labour and more specifically to the case of women’s relationship to that labour,” but pointing to a greater complexity as “such forms of value confound classic measures of productivity [… and] immaterial forms of labour and value confound attempts at measure because their live, qualitative and heterogenous qualities will always escape […] calculation”[6]. While Adkins is concerned with the shift from material or physical to immaterial or intangible forms of value which are constituted specifically in networks of vital relations, the question of wages for housework[7], or the “invention of the unproductive housewife,” which resulted in an eradication of the value of household activities from national accounting[8], as well as international GDP accounting conventions which has been addressed by feminist economists for some decades.

Keynesian breadwinner model and “new monetary order” shore up the unequal distribution of money

Regarding monetary politics, in a historical analysis Lisa Adkins connects the establishment of money as a gendered unit of account for the labor performed in separate spheres. In Money: a Feminist Issue she discusses gendered implications of macroeconomic policies concerning wage and consumer debt. After WWII the establishment of wages in the form of family wages as an institutional agreement and the male breadwinner model “anchored the normative heterosexual family and the household”. Keynesian wage politics ensured that the majority of women were financially dependent on men and would not be able to survive independently. That wage tie was linked to practices in consumer banking that denied home-mortgages to financial dependents and non-breadwinners, as consumer borrowing was indexed to the (mostly unionised) wage rates and working lives of white male workers. “Both the wages and consumer banking policies of Keynesianism, therefore, served as key pillars of both the sexual and racial underpinnings of the Keynesian social contract, shoring up unequal distributions of money and access to consumer credit along gender and racial lines.” On top of this, welfare payment systems were also “inscribing financial dependency, domesticity and motherhood for women as standards and norms.” In this way the Keynesian growth model “amounted to a powerful set of institutional mechanisms that calibrated and administered national populations in raced, classed and gendered terms,” punishing all kinds of deviants from that system[9].

Adkins sees that with the establishment of neoliberalism and financialisation the distribution of wealth and income generating assets became of furthermore increased importance, which she describes as a “new monetary order” of an “assetisation of life” (either in debt accumulation or in the accumulation of financial assets). Monetary interventions have since then increased inequality, with payments from households of all income brackets serving as a key anchor of the financial system with new implications for family structures and family values.

Just and sustainable economic-ecological monetary policy instead of relying on the "invisible hand of the market”

Finally, regarding the store of value function, money becomes a bridge from today to tomorrow. A sustainable future is also a feminist concern, and the social costs of carbon and the size of the social discount rate are most relevant for future-oriented economic and ecological monetary policies; “discounting is perhaps the most important issue facing current climate policy”[10] – and it is currently highly disputed. Carbon discount rates are the rate of return used to discount future cash flows back to their current value. They determine the present value of possible future wealth, which is setting discount rates in a direct relationship to economic growth given the expected climate change due to carbon emissions. Ethically motivated policies would place equal weight on current and future generations, which would be reflected in a social discount rate of zero – which implies bearing all avoidance costs now, also considering that avoidance is still cheaper today than tomorrow. Descriptive decision making with a focus on the well-being of present populations will opt for a higher discount rate, which is a (conscious) decision to free-ride on the foreseeable hardships and higher costs of avoidance for future generations. Neoclassical economists mostly favor high descriptive discount rates arguably based on market data, faith in the ‘invisible hand’ and differences in views on the efficiency and equity implications of climate action[11].

Care work, not bank-created monetary wealth, is the foundation of our economic system

Finally, a feminist utopian society created by a transformed institution of money is when money is constructed with a completely different anchor: care. While bank-created money stresses the need to invest to make more money, a care-base of money might revolutionise financial markets and the real economy as “rather than profit in the market, public money could enable ecologically sustainable sufficiency provisioning. Debt free public money could be created and used to fund caring activities on a not-for-profit basis”. She designs a focus on that she terms wellth rather than wealth:

“An important contrast is between wealth expressed in terms of the pursuit of money and assets and wellth as well-being expressed as paid and unpaid activities aimed at social and individual flourishing. If the aim of society was the pursuit of wellth, the security of social, environmental and ecological conditions would not just be internalised within money-enabled provisioning systems but be at their heart. […] In modern    economies, wealth is valued as both the creation and result of economic activity. The assumption is that wealth will directly or indirectly create employment and prosperity. […] Both the private and the ruling/public sector can be a source of monetary energy. In contemporary societies, there is no reason why the provision of care should not be the energy of the economy through the creation and circulation of money as wellth rather than wealth.”[1]

Mellor is not discussing the practical installation of the transformative care-based money system, whether it may come about top down by political decision for institutional change and/or by a collective movement of people willing to communicate value on a care-base – it seems to be one of the best starting points I can think of for realising a feminist economics and an ecologically sustainable future.

[1] Mellor, Mary (2019) Care as wellth: Internalising care by democratising money. In: Bauhardt, Christine; Harcourt, Wendy: Feminist political ecology and the economics of care. 116-130.
[2] Desan, Christine (2015) The Constitutional Approach to Money: Monetary Design and the Production of the Modern World (Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 16-05.), Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
[3] Desan, Christine and Orian Peer, N. (2020) The Constitution and the Fed after the COVID-19 Crisis, University of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20–38, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 20–12.
[4] Folbre, Nancy (1995) "Holding hands at midnight": The paradox of caring labor. Feminist Economics 1(1), 73-92.
[5] Green, Kai (2022) Constitutional vulnerability: challenges for feminist monetary re-design in postCOVID-19 political economies, Global Political Economy, 1(2): 218–237.
[6] Adkins, Lisa (2009) Feminism after measure, Feminist Theory, 10(3): 323–39
[7] Federici, Silvia (1975) Wages Against Housework. Power of Women Collective and the Falling Wall Press.
[8] Folbre, Nancy (1991) The unproductive housewife: her evolution in nineteenth-century economic thought. Journal of women in culture and society, 16(3). Center of Research on Women, Stanford, 463-84.
[9] Adkins, Lisa (2019) Money: a feminist issue, Australian Feminist Studies, 33(96): 167–71
[10] Nordhaus, William (2018) Climate change: The Ultimate Challenge for Economics. Nobel Prize Lecture.
[11] Storm, Servaas (2017) How the Invisible Hand is Supposed to Adjust the Natural Thermostat: A Guide for the Perplexed Sci Eng Ethics. 23:1307–1331.