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The Social Life of ‘Cash Payment’: Money, Markets, and the Mutualities of Poverty

The Social Life of ‘Cash Payment’: Money, Markets, and the Mutualities of Poverty

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Published by Vanguar Dol

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Published by: Vanguar Dol on Dec 13, 2012
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05/14/2014

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The Social Life of ‘Cash Payment’: Money, Markets, and the Mutualities of Poverty
Recent years have seen the emergence of new kinds of welfare states in the global South,a trend that a recent Newsweek article described as Welfare 2.0 (Newsweek 2010). Advocateshave sung the praises of new programs to directly transfer small amounts of cash to the poor --or, as one provocative recent book title put it: Just Give Money to the Poor (Hanlon, Barrientos,and Hulme 2010). An impressive policy literature has documented the considerableachievements of such programs, the most famous among which are Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program, and (an instance I will discuss at some length here) South Africa’s system of pensionsand grants. While narratives of a triumphant neoliberalism might have led us to expect a retreatfrom programs of social assistance, or even an end to the welfare state, the fact is that newwelfare programs are proliferating and expanding across much of the world, most of them basedon the appealingly simple device of directly providing poor people with monthly cash payments.There is much that is unclear about these programs, but it does seem evident that they areassociated with an important new kind of politics, focused, at least in part, on the distributiveclaims of those excluded from the world of waged labor.It is easy to see why those on the political right, who generally oppose redistribution anddisdain state programs of social assistance, would be hostile to the idea of “just giving money tothe poor”. But proposals to transfer cash into the hands of the poor are often criticized withequal vehemence from the left. Indeed, in making presentations on these issues to a range of audiences in recent years, I have been struck that most objections to cash transfers, in anacademic setting, come from those who position themselves on the left. In an earlier era, suchobjections might perhaps have been traced to the old antipathy of the revolutionary left to all
 
forms of “reformism”. But few on the academic left today are still waiting for the revolution,and my sense is that the real resistance here is based on a more visceral distaste for the very ideaof poor people receiving cash.The concern seems to be that programs of cash transfer ultimately serve the cause of “commoditization”, and thus capitalism, since people who receive cash are at the same time being “drawn into” a world of market exchange. The idea, which has a long pedigree in socialistthought, is that such participation in markets will “break down” social relationships, while the pursuit of money will upend long-established relationships based on meaning and moralobligation in favor of mere egoistic calculations of advantage. Cash, in such a view, isconceived as a kind of universal solvent that dissolves the social glue: “the cash nexus” erodes or displaces all other forms of social and moral relation.The earliest reference to such a “cash nexus” may be Thomas Carlyle’s 1839 essay onChartism, where he painted a rather sentimental picture of the social bonds formerly linking theold aristocracy with the lower classes, and lamented their destruction, insisting that it was now“cash payment” (he italicized the phrase) that had become, thanks to capitalism, “the universalsole nexus of man to man” (1840:58). Marx and Engels would famously extend the argument inthe Communist Manifesto, charging that the bourgeoisie, in replacing feudalism with capitalism,had “pitilessly torn asunder the motley of ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors', and leftremaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest, than callous 'cash payment'” (1998:37). Small wonder, then, if the heirs to this tradition regard with almostinstinctive skepticism any social policy, or any substantive politics, that would be based precisely on the form of the “cash payment”. Cash payments for the poor, in this view, maywell alleviate some misery in the short term. But in a longer perspective, they are just another 
 
channel through which the corrosive force of money and markets creeps into people’s lives, inthe process inevitably destroying a richer and more meaningful world of social connections andobligations. Cash transfers, in this view, may in fact be a kind of Trojan horse. Theunsuspecting poor may be quick enough to welcome such payments, thinking only of cash’sevident capacity to help them meet their most pressing needs, while they are really being seducedinto “the cash nexus”, and thus drawn in to a capitalist system of monetized exchange thatultimately works against their interests.Actual studies of how poor people engage with the cash economy, however, reveal a verydifferent sort of relation between money and social relationship, one in which money, meaning,and mutuality are entangled rather than antagonistic. To make sense of this, we need to rethink the relation between “the cash nexus” and various forms of social connection and mutuality.And this will entail challenging a whole series of conventional oppositions (interest vs.obligation, feeling vs. calculation, altruism vs. selfishness, etc.) that ground the traditional left’s phobic antipathy (as I am increasingly inclined to call it) toward both cash payments and marketexchanges.The southern African poor, as a rule, are both highly social, and highly cash-oriented.Here, I will review a rich literature on this, drawing conclusions about the way that socialrelations rely on both honoring ties of dependence and obligation and pursuing the acquisition of cash and the things it can buy. These empirical observations contradict the common tendency tooppose the “logic” of the market to the “logic” of communal solidarity, along with the relatedview that resources are accumulated (according to one set of rules) in the cash economy, anddistributed in the moral economy (according to another).

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