Comments on Money in Contemporary Capitalism: Autonomization of ‘Truly Social’ Forms…by L.M. Paulani Excerpt and Link

Below is an excerpt from L.M. Paulani’s excellent article which expands upon the question of ‘autonomization of capital’ in this case the money form of capital, which is also explored in the related article Valueless Knowledge-Commodities and Financialization: (Teixiera and Rotta 2012) also published electronically on the Rawlinsview Blog.

The excerpt consists of a lengthy quote from Marx framed by Paulani’s commentary.

Autonomization in political economy describes the process by which financial activity and value in mature capitalist society grow farther and farther apart from, and become over time actually opposed to, the real production of useful things.  In this case the author develops the progress of the autonomization of money from gold and other exchangeable precious metals, to paper currencies, credit and forms of “fictitious capital

The title below is linked to a Word file of the complete article a complete version in Portuguese is referenced below.

The Autonomization of Truly Social Forms in Marx’s Theory: Comments on money in contemporary capitalism* +

Leda Maria Paulani
Department of Economics
University of São Paulo – Brazil


Before we investigate the relationship between the first and the second determinations of money (measure of value and medium of circulation), it is worth noting that the necessary appearance of money  –  which is the general equivalent (and, therefore, measure of value) – as standard of prices functions exactly as a kind of transition between these two determinations. In other words, the functioning of money as medium of circulation, whose effectiveness presupposes its capacity to express in a simple common way the values of all commodities, imposes its position as a pattern of prices.

This observation is important because, as we will see, the main element that characterizes money as medium of circulation, i.e., as currency, is precisely the possibility it provides of being replaced by a representative of itself. Although long, it is worth reproducing a series of Marx’s considerations on this matter, all of them in the second section of the third chapter of Capital:

 Money takes the shape of coin because of its function as the circulating medium. The weight of gold represented in the imagination by the prices or money-names of the commodities has to confront those commodities, within circulation, as coins or pieces of gold of the same denomination. (…) In the course of circulation, coins wear down, some to a greater extent, some to a lesser. The denomination of the gold and its substance, the nominal content and the real content, begin to move apart.  Coins of the same denomination become different in value, because they are different in weight. The weight of gold fixed upon as the standard of prices diverges from the weight which serves as the circulating medium, and the latter thereby ceases to be a real equivalent of the commodities whose prices it realizes. (…) The fact that the circulation of money itself splits the nominal content of coins away from their real content, dividing their metallic existence from their functional existence, this fact implies the latent possibility of replacing metallic money with tokens made of some other material, i. e. symbols which would perform the function of coins. (…) The metallic content of silver and copper tokens is arbitrarily determined by law. In the course of circulation they wear down even more rapidly than gold coins. Their function as coins is therefore in practice entirely independent of their weight, i.e., it is independent of all value. In its form of existence as coin, gold becomes completely divorced from the substance of its value. Relatively valueless objects, therefore, such as paper notes, can serve as coins in place of gold. This purely symbolic character of the currency is still somewhat disguised in the case of metal tokens. In paper money it stands out plainly. But we can see: everything depends on the first step (ibid, pp. 221-224, author’s emphasis).[1]

The quotation makes it clear that, for Marx, for money to assume its role as currency, it doesn’t have to be a commodity, not even a metal token; it can be a mere paper-note. In this determination, therefore, money completely breaks free from the material barriers that (given the internal tension it contains), contradict its inclination towards abstraction and generality. As Marx states, its monetary function becomes “independent of value”. The final line of the quotation indicates, in turn, that this logical development is inevitable (see note 10 below). Therefore, we can say that money functioning as medium of circulation leads to the abstract that money represents becoming autonomous from the concrete that the measure of value requires.


[1] It is worth noting that, in the original, Marx wrote in French the last phrase of this quotation. There we read: “Man sieht, ce n’est pas que le premier pas que côute”.  The phrase in French means more than “everything depends on the first step”. It means that it is only the first step that costs, because once it has been given, everything else comes automatically. This is important for the argument we are defending here concerning the process of autonomization of the truly social forms. That is why I’m calling attention to this. [authors footnote]

* This essay is part of a broader research project funded by a CNPq productivity in research grant, and was developed as part of the activities of CAFIN, “Institutions of Financial Capitalism Research Group”, registered in the same institution.

+ The English translation of this article lacks a translation credit or publication date. The following article by the same author in Portuguese is referenced as follows

Paulani, L. M. 2009. The autonomization of the truly social forms in Marx`s theory: Comments on money in contemporaneous capitalism. Proceeding of ANPEC Congress – 2009. Available in Portuguese at: http://www.anpec.org.br/encontro2009/inscricao.on/arquivos/000-ef1d67621df728d0eca892bed24cdd23.doc

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