Lesa

The Pay-Back Society

THE PAY-BACK SOCIETY

Abstract:
Three Stages are identified in the Post-Industrial Society: The Consumer Society, the Credit Society and the Pay Back Society. For the Consumer expenses matter more for the quality of life than income until it culminate in the payback Stage. Unrestricted access to credits for consumers has liberated them from the limitation of their wages but put them into a slavery of depts. Loans become the substitute for income and the most importand thing is the never-ending access to credit. Capitalism gains new platforms in equality through equal access to loans. Payments of loans are enforced payments wich change the social class structure to debtors and creditors. The term of free disposable income becomes therefore the true measurement of the quality of life in the Pay Back Society. Furthermore, the rationality of monetary control uncovers the delusion of real worth as will be shown by the 30 years‘ experience of indexation in Iceland. We live in a Nonsynchronistic Society of money issuance and rationality governed by the central banks on the one hand and a Pay Back Society of credit consumers who are irrational, ethical and democratic on the other hand.



It is payback time for the Post-Industrial Society.1 For the past three decades the West has consumed at a rate beyond earnings. This excess consumption has been financed by the eastern emerging market countries that have had a positive current account during this time.

Three basic changes have occurred in the capitalistic economy since the middle of the 20th century. These changes are fundamental to the society and have influenced the way of life dramatically. The third radical social change has begun, which we can call The Pay Back Society. The question is what kind of society will it be?

The Consumer Society
After the Second World War, the first major change in the 20th century took place. Capitalistic ways of production moved from industrial production to services and in the end to consumption. To measure economic welfare in this Consumer Society, economists developed the Gross National Product (GNP). The expenses of each household, business and the public are measured through GNP and the so-called healthy economic growth is determined through this measurement (Galbraith [1975] 2001: 253). Household expenses are most influential in the growth of GNP and in the circular flow of money in the Consumer Society (Dolan 1986).

The Sociologist Jean Baudrillard describes this social change in his book, The Consumer Society, in 1970. He states that delimited collective production moves to private consumption. That private consumption is a social act because it is forced by unconscious social logic. At this stage, the role of private consumption is not to fulfill actual needs but to separate oneself from others in society.2 Consumption is a production or a demonstration of values and prestige.3 Consumption therefore becomes a lifestyle (Bourdieu 1987) where on one hand we find design and on the other hand we find designed experience.

The beginning of the Consumer Society in 1950s and 1960s was the golden age of marriage and family.4 In the Consumer Society, the family is only actual when consuming, but not when earning money, or going to school. In that time, each person starts to look at himself as something special and finds the need to experience himself through consumption more or less in a narcissistic way (Lasch 1979). To experience that, individuals do not need to marry or start a family or have romance. All one needs is money for expenses.

There are two economic facts that delimit consumption and experience of personal identity. Firstly, working time. Secondly, wages. But the capitalistic system found a way to liberate consumers from these limitations.

The Credit Society
A new era rises in the 1980s – Credit consumption. The Bretton Woods Agreement that restrained monetary control broke down in 1971. Following that, central banks gained control to print theoretically unlimited amounts of money - credit money. Instead of increasing inflation, like the monetary theory assumes, inflation decreased through low-priced imported goods from Asia that were paid for with treasury bonds and negative balance of trade, especially in the USA. The newly printed money substantially increased the price of property, increased bond issuances, equity prices and real estate prices.5 All this credit money and increased asset prices prompted the illusion of personal wealth. The wealth illusion is well known in economics but sociology knows it better from Marx through money fetish that changes reality to illusion. Marx adds that the symbolic power is found in the capital accumulation (Marx/Engels 1968) in the Consumer Society and that power emerges through the relationship of the Debtor and Creditor, where the Creditor holds the economic power of the Debtor in his hands.

Liberation from work
The unrestricted access to money for consumers has liberated them from the limitation of their wages. Loans become the substitute for income. Capitalism gains new platforms in equality through equal access to loans. The flaw is that the credit is used for personal consumption but not for investments as in corporations. The increase in price of real estate is therefore merely an increase on paper but not a real one and the illusion of wealth emerges. The bulk of loans has usually been used for private consumption, (although permanent consumer goods can be factored in) and will in the end limit the future possibilities of taking part in the society. Ralf Dahrendorf would probably call it a limitation of “Lebenschancen” (Dahrendorf 1979). It may seem like a paradox but in the Credit Society expenses matter more for the standard of living than income does.

Household and private expenses are composed of three factors: Firstly, payments of loans, secondly, consumption, and thirdly, savings (Ingólfsson 2005). If we agree with Simmel, who claims that money is the measurement of the possibilities and, simultaneously, the means to acquire anything at all (Simmel [1901] 1989), then if the consumer spends credit money, more money than he earns at the moment, it will limit his cash flow in the future and therefore his quality of life (given that he/she pays all his/her debts). But there is more, payments of loans are enforced payments and, therefore, there is less disposable income left. The term free disposable income, i.e. income after taxes and payments of loans, is the true measurement of the standard of living, but not disposable income alone. That is the means by which one can measure one‘s future. The Credit Society has liberated the consumer from the necessity of work by means of unlimited access to loans. Instead, the consumers are now slaves to their creditors with limited free disposable income because payments of loans are in fact enforced. This changes the social structure of class antagonism from work as opposed to capital to debtors as opposed to creditors. Capital is not any longer the synonym for accumulated wealth in fixed assets, but rather the amount of credit money. In the Credit Society the easy access to credit becomes as important, if not more important, than access to work. It does not matter where the money comes from, the main thing is the never-ending access to money.

The Nonsynchronistic Society
It is tempting to assume that with free contracts between creditors and debtors, the Utopia of the free market as a direct democracy is a reality. That is far from being the case. As Marx explained with the concept commodity fetishism, dehumanization of the capitalist way of production (Marx [1890] 1972) and the symbolic power of money (Deutschmann 1999), there is always a coercion taking place on the market (Aldridge 2005). The creditor that accumulates money gains inevitable and even unconscious power over the debtor.6 In addition, there is the human capital of superior financial and legal knowledge linked to money (Stiglitz 1996). This knowledge helps the creditor to remain in the position of power. There were more changes as well. As control of printing money was left to the central banks, a major political change happened in the central banking system. The central banks became independent from the democratically elected politicians. The power and influence over central banks have in effect been removed from common people and the democracy. The argument for this arrangement is that transparency and professionalism have to be guarded in order to effectively manage monetary policy (Bermann 1999). The question remains: Who really controls the central banks?
It seems that two societies have emerged side by side in the sense of a Nonsynchronistic Society or Multiversum, to use a term from Ernst Bloch.7 On one hand a society of monetary control that is rational and professional but undemocratic. On the other hand a Pay Back Society of consumers and taxpayers that is democratic, ethical and irrational (that is assumes responsibility when both societies collapse). For those of us who are trying to make sense of it all, with the social changes happening now, it matters greatly how these two societies evolve together in space and time but “Ungleichzeitig”8 in a different cultural and political context. Which one will become dominant?
Indexation and the delusion of the real worth of money.

Iceland is probably ideal for theoretical and empirical studies like the credit consumption and how the Pay Back Society will evolve. After an incredible growth of the financial system and its collapse, this did not seem to have any other linkage to society but the abstract value of money, shareholder value and an open ethical account. The Icelandic society is also interesting for other reasons, such as the large pension fund system, the established price indexation of loans and what can be called the delusion of the real worth of money.

In the beginning of the 1970s the pension fund system was established. At that time, unions negotiated with employers and the government that laborers would contribute part of their salaries and employers would also contribute a payment to the pension funds monthly. Furthermore, all parties agreed upon an equal control of the pension funds. Appointment of each board member usually goes hand in hand with another office they hold. These feudalistic traditions have in general remained unchanged from the beginning of pension funds.9 The funds are almost the only savings that the public has at the moment (1). At present, the pension funds have more funds than the Icelandic government, which has very restricted access to other currencies. The largest pension funds take part in the resurrection of the economy by investing in companies that are in difficulties but are believed to have a viable future (Landssamtök lífeyrissjóða 2010).

In the beginning, when the pension fund system was being established, pioneers had to find a way to guard the value of the pension funds against high inflation in Iceland. There were two options, to float interest rates (that was decided by the government until 1987) or index monetary properties against inflation (Jónsson 1998). The latter option was chosen and since 1980 pension rights are indexed against inflation (2). With this act, two currencies have been used in Iceland: the indexed krona and the non-indexed krona. The indexed krona is used to calculate mortgages and longer loans, and the non-indexed krona is used to pay the monthly payments (3).

At first after the indexation of loans, wages were also indexed. However, the interaction between loans and wages caused higher inflation and the government chose to break the index link of wages in 1983. This continued to fuel inflation until the unions negotiated for a certain discretionary income instead of a wage increase in the National Reconciliation Agreement in 1990. Following this act, came the longest period of economic stability in the history of Iceland. Though not necessarily the most prosperous for the general public (Ólafsson 2007).

Instead of interaction between the price of goods and wages (inflation) there was a new development. Interaction of price of consumer goods and indexed loans. Debtors limit free disposable income to inflation of the future. The more inflation, in essence less free disposable income. This means permanent limitation of quality of life during pay back. This act of index-linkage and deflation of the non-indexed krona is one of the greatest property transfers in the history of Iceland.

The movement of class interests and wages to creditors and capital diminishes the importance of the unions. This happens because the unions cannot negotiate for loan agreements for their clients. What is also added in Iceland is that the unions have to serve interests that are antagonistic. Firstly, they must guard the value of the pension funds and they must also guard the discretionary income of their clients. They in effect have to guard the value of both the Icelandic currencies – the indexed krona and the non-indexed krona. If they would succeed we would have the interaction of those like in the beginning of the 1980s and the inflation rate would be fuelled again. In order to guard the value of the pension funds, they must let the value of non-indexed krona slide. And that is exactly was has happened. The non-indexed Icelandic krona has e.g. deflated 2.016 percent against the USD and 2.308 percent against the Danish krona from 1980 to 2010 (4).

It can be argued that in the act of the National Reconciliation Agreement 1990 the era of real value doctrine emerges. I have argued that it has been very costly for real estate buyers but there is another side effect. The general public uses money on the basis of cash value. The wealth effect explained by economists argues rightfully that the general public is deceived by the real value in either way it moves. In the mind of the consumer, there is no other real value than the one published or stated at the register, that is the nominal value or cash value (5). That is also how the real value is measured by economists. It is possible to calculate real value and interest calculation uses the Fisher formula that refers in the end to the Fisher effect. By using the Fisher formula nominal interest rate is calculated by given real interest rate and inflation expectations are added (R=r+F). However, the formula is very clever, but the rationale of the Fisher theory has not proven to hold in the Icelandic economy at all. If we calculate the real interest rate back to 1980, when the system of indexation was established, it comes to light that inflation indexed bonds have had higher real interest rate than non-indexed bonds (6). Therefore, investors who did know the Fisher formula and still bought the non-indexed bonds need to rerun their calculations and add premium to the non-indexed bonds in the future. That is, if they still put their faith in Fisher and the real value doctrine.

The Pay Back Society.
For the past year it has been interesting to follow the development of events for the heavily indebted nations. Now those nations are facing the reality of their debt. At present the indebted nations are calculating if they can in fact pay back their debt. Historically, there are several known ways to dodge national debt.10 Inflation can be fuelled, which is common after war times. Another way is decimalization or a change in currency, as Germany did five times in the 20th and 21st centuries; Rentenmark 1923, Reichsmark 1924, D-Mark 1948, DDR/D-Mark 1991 and, finally, Euro 1999/2002. State bankruptcy was common in the late middle ages and has followed us to present (Wittmann 2010). Iceland changed the value of its Krona in 1980 by eliminating two zeros. Inflation is not a viable option for the Icelandic government, not only because a large part of the debt is in foreign currency, but also because 72.9 percent of issued government bonds are inflation linked,11 and, in addition, 79.6 percent of household debts are inflation linked.12

In this context I would like to mention an interesting proposition suggested by the President of The People´s Bank of China, Mr. Zhou Xiaochuan, in a speech delivered on March 23, 2009. The Central Bank President dusted an old proposition from J.M. Keynes about international bank money, Bancor. According to this proposition, the currency Bancor would be adopted by all nations and this would bring stability to currency trade. The Chinese Central Bank President suggested to the President of USA that the USD could be swapped for an international currency, and mentioned the SDR, and the IMF would be transformed into a universal bank.13 This proposition is very interesting in view of the fact that the Chinese own a high stake in the USD. Not to mention, as previously stated, that monetary policy and the institutions all tend to lean towards an non-synchronistic formation of a society outside and above the society common people takes part in. This proposition is therefore the first serious attempt to form a society that governs monetary policy on a world-wide basis totally separated from democratic politics. However, there are democratic changes taking place at the same time. The smallest economic entity, the backbone of the economy, the household, is changing from its closed entity governed by a Patriarch to a democratic entity governed by consumers and their expenses. Antony Giddens would perhaps use the term democratization of private life (Giddens, 1992), It will be very interesting to follow the evolution of the economic backbone, the household, and the Monetary Society. Will the private household agree with the new authority that wants to govern the world‘s monetary policy and therefore, in the end, will govern household expenses in a Pay Back Society.

Notes
 1) In its present meaning the term Post-Industrial Society was used by Daniel Bell in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1975) to define the “axial principles” as fundamental changes in the nature of work, from a goods producing to a service economy where the Society is depending on immaterial and theoretical knowledge.
2) Baudrillard is true to classical sociology in the spirit of Durkheim rather than Marx. This is the conclusion Georg Ritzer states in the introduction to the English version of Baudrillard´s book The Consumer Society (1998). Sociologically, it is interesting to compare Baudrillard´s emphasis on consumption as collective phenomena and “social facts”, that are not a pleasure but a duty, with the definition of love by a different scholar, Niklas Luhmann, who wrote: “... das Medium Liebe [ist] selbst kein Gefühl, sondern ein kommunikationscode” (Luhmann 1982: 23).
3) With his book The Theory of Leisure Class, first published in 1899, Thorsten Veblen has to be viewed as a pioneer of the theory of leisure and lifestyle in the 20th century.
4) The reference here is to the classical romantic family that finds justification in romance on one hand and parental responsibility on the other hand. For further reading, Hahn (1998)
5) The real estate bubble began years earlier than generally conceded. After 1995, real estate prices started to rise and rose constantly faster than inflation, wages and building material costs in the Reykjavík (Capital City) area. In 1999, real estate prices rose substantially and were separated from other prices in Iceland such as food and permanent consumer goods. In the period 1996 to 2005, real estate prices rose 141.1 percent. Wages rose 74.2 percent, building materials rose 48.3 percent and inflation was 26.8 percent (Ingólfsson 2005: 47).
6) Here is an interesting contact point between Baudrillard´s unconscious social logic and Georg Lukács‘ ontological theory of the objective but unconscious class status (Lukács 1975). For sociologists it would be worthwhile to study the context of those different scholars.
7) The utopia of Multiversum by Ernst Bloch is a non-synchronistic conception of history that is helpful in understanding social changes that move in different directions at the same time. This is exactly, as Bloch states, what happened with the barbarism of the Nazi regime in a democratic and enlighted Europe.
8) The concept “Ungleichzeitigkeit” by Bloch, explains both sociological phenomena in time and space (compared to Multiversum) and also as “Ontologie des Noch-Nicht Sein”, quoted in Horster (1978: 19).
9) The newspaper, Viðskiptablaðið, “Icelandic financial news” (2010-06-16: 12-13), states that out of 114 board members, managing 96 percent of the pension funds, 34 have been replaced since 2008. Merely two pension funds have replaced more than 50 percent of their board members. Boards of 67 percent of the pension funds have their boards appointed by the Confederation of Icelandic Employers, Minister of Finance and labor unions and a mere 33 percent are appointed by pension funds members themselves. Viðskiptablaðið (2010). Another interesting point is that the average economic growth (GDP) for the stable decade 1990–2000 was 2.3 percent while it was 3.0 percent on average from 1970–1980, the decade known as the decade of hyperinflation. The required rate of return accepted by the Icelandic pension funds is 3.5 percent regardless of the fact that the economic growth from 1980–2007 was merely 3.1 percent. Therefore, the required rate of return of the Icelandic pension funds is 12.9 percent (3.5/3.1-1 = 12.9 percent) higher than the 30- year average economic growth. Statistics Iceland (2010).
10) Michael Hudson has reached an interesting conclusion in his studies on the usage of money among ancient societies, especially in Mesopotamia. Hudson writes, among other things: “Modern bank money is not a commodity but is a form of debt, while government paper money is nominally a public debt, albeit one that is not expected to be paid”. Cited in Randall Wray (2004: 123). To gain oversight over the history of the banking system and the ideology of money as “Moneything” (Ingham 2004) or media of exchange I refer to the book History of Money (2002) by Glyn Davis.
11) Here we follow the GAMMA Index (the Icelandic government bond index) as it was on 1 February 2010.
12) According to information attained from the Central Bank of Iceland, the breakdown of household debt is: 79.6 percent is inflation indexed, 7 percent non-indexed to inflation, 8.8 percent indexed to foreign currencies and 4.5 percent were property rental agreements.
13) Proceding Mr. Xiaochuan´s speech more influential persons in the financial community have spoken out in the same tone. The former President of the IMF, Michel Comdessus, says in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit (27th. January 2011), that a special drawing right (SDR) should be used as a supranational currency but not just as an internal calculated entity at the IMF. Robert Zoellick, President of The World Bank, also wants to reshuffle the world financial system with a supranational currency. Comdessus and Zoellick both know that the market alone cannot guarantee financial stability. They however, do not agree with each other of how financial stability is secured. Comdessus puts his faith in politicians and calls for a governmental control, while Zoellick calls for a gold standart (Zoellick, 8. November 2010). At first, this difference of opinions may seem as a minor difference, or even a technical difference. However, in my opinion, the chosen way will have a major effect, not only on global economic growth, but also on the Society as a whole in coming decades.

References
Aldridge, Alan. (2005). The Market. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Baudrillard, Jean. (1970/2004). The Consumer Society. London: SAGE Publications.
Bell, Daniel. (1975). The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecastin.. New York: Basic Books.
Bermann, Sheri and Kathleen R. McNamara. (1999). “Bank on Democracy. Why Central Banks Need Public Oversight.” Foreign Affairs 78 (2): 2-8.
Bloch, Ernst. (1996). Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
 --------------. (1978). „Über Ungleichzeitigkeit, Provinz und Propaganda“. In Tendenz - Latenz – Utopie. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1987). Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Camdessus, Michel. Nicht mehr so naiv. Die Zeit. 2011-01-27: 26
Central Bank of Iceland. (2010). Statistics. Available at: http://www.sedlabanki.is/?PageID=548
Dahrendorf, Ralf. (1979). Lebenschancen. Frankfurt/Main: Shurkamp.
Davis, Glyn. (2002). History of Money. From Ancient Times to the Present Day. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Deutschmann, Christoph. (1999). Die Verheiβung des absoluten Reichtums. Zur religiösen Natur des Kapitalismus. Frankfurt/New York: Campus.
Dolan, Edwin G. (1986) Economics. Japan: CBS Collage Publishing.
Durkheim, Emile. (1964). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. ([1975] 2001). Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went. New York: Replica Books.
Giddens, Anthony. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy, Sexuality, Lowe and Eroticism in Modern Societies. California: Stanford University Press.
GAM Management hf. (2010-02-01). Government Bond Index. Available at: http://www.gamma.is/sjodir/gamma-index/
Hahn, Kornelia, Günter Burkart (ed). (1998). Liebe am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts. Studien zur Soziologie intimer Beziehungen I. Opladen: Leske + Budrich.
Horster, Detlef. (1978). Bloch zur Einführung. Hannover: SOAK-Verlag.
Hudson, Michael (2004). “The Archaeology of Money: Dept versus Barter Theories of Money´s Origins.” Wray, Randal L. (ed). (2004). Credit and State Theories of Money. The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes. UK/USA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Ingham, Geoffrey. (2004). The Nature of Money. UK/USA: Polity Press.
Ingólfsson, Ingólfur H. (2005). Þú átt nóg af peningum. Þú þarft bara að finna þá! Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið.
Jónsson, Bjarni Bragi. (1998). Verðtrygging lánsfjármagns og vaxtastefna á Íslandi. Seðlabanki Íslands.
Landssamtök lífeyrissjóða. (2010). Framtakssjóður Íslands slhf. Skilmálar fyrir fjárfestingarfélag. Available at: http://www.ll.is/files/bcgahddgga/Framtakssjodur_Islands_skilmalar.pdf
Lasch, Christopher. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Dimishing Expectations. New York: W. W. Norton paperback.
Lukács, Georg. (1975). Geschichte und Klassenbewuβtsein. Darmstadt: Luchterhand.
Luhmann, Niklas. (1982). Liebe als Passion. Zur Codierung von Intimität. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.
Marx, Karl. Das Kapital, Erster Band. ([1890] 1972). In Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW 23). Berlin (DDR): Dietz.
Marx, Karl und Friedrich Engels. (1968). Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte. in Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW, Ergenzungsband). Berlin (DDR): Dietz.
Ólafsson, Stefán. Ójöfn kaupmáttaraukning. Morgunblaðið. 2007-02-26.
Simmel, Georg. ([1901] 1989). Philosophie des Geldes, Frankfurt/Main: Shurkamp.
Stiglitz, Joseph E. (1996). Wither Socialism? MIT Press.
Statistics Iceland. (2010). Gross domestic product and Gross national income 1980-2009. National accounts and public finance. Available at: http://www.statice.is/Statistics/National-accounts-and-public-fin/National accounts-overview
Veblen, Thorstein. ([1899] 1973). The Theory of The Leisure Class. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Viðskiptablaðið. (2010). Nær engin breyting í Stjórnum lífeyrissjóða frá bankahruni. 2010-06-16: 12-13.
Wittmann, Walter. (2010). Staatsbankrott. Zürich: Orell Füssli Verlag. Xiaochuan, Zhou. (2009). Reform the International Monetary System. The People´s Bank of China.
Zoellick, Robert. (2010). The G20 must look beyond Bretton Woods. The World Bank.

The Pay-Back Society

Abstract: 

Three Stages are identified in the Post-Industrial Society: The Consumer Society, the Credit Society and the Pay Back Society. For the Consumer expenses matter more for the quality of life than income until it culminate in the payback Stage. Unrestricted access to credits for consumers has liberated them from the limitation of their wages but put them into a slavery of depts. Loans become the substitute for income and the most importand thing is the never-ending access to credit. Capitalism gains new platforms in equality through equal access to loans. Payments of loans are enforced payments wich change the social class structure to debtors and creditors. The term of free disposable income becomes therefore the true measurement of the quality of life in the Pay Back Society. Furthermore, the rationality of monetary control uncovers the delusion of real worth as will be shown by the 30 years‘ experience of indexation in Iceland. We live in a Nonsynchronistic Society of money issuance and rationality governed by the central banks on the one hand and a Pay Back Society of credit consumers who are irrational, ethical and democratic on the other hand.


It is payback time for the Post-Industrial Society.1 For the past three decades the West has consumed at a rate beyond earnings. This excess consumption has been financed by the eastern emerging market countries that have had a positive current account during this time.

 

Three basic changes have occurred in the capitalistic economy since the middle of the 20th century. These changes are fundamental to the society and have influenced the way of life dramatically. The third radical social change has begun, which we can call The Pay Back Society. The question is what kind of society will it be?

 

The Consumer Society

After the Second World War, the first major change in the 20th century took place. Capitalistic ways of production moved from industrial production to services and in the end to consumption. To measure economic welfare in this Consumer Society, economists developed the Gross National Product (GNP). The expenses of each household, business and the public are measured through GNP and the so-called healthy economic growth is determined through this measurement (Galbraith [1975] 2001: 253). Household expenses are most influential in the growth of GNP and in the circular flow of money in the Consumer Society (Dolan 1986).  

 

The Sociologist Jean Baudrillard describes this social change in his book, The Consumer Society, in 1970. He states that delimited collective production moves to private consumption. That private consumption is a social act because it is forced by unconscious social logic. At this stage, the role of private consumption is not to fulfill actual needs but to separate oneself from others in society.2 Consumption is a production or a demonstration of values and prestige.3   Consumption therefore becomes a lifestyle (Bourdieu 1987) where on one hand we find design and on the other hand we find designed experience.

 

The beginning of the Consumer Society in 1950s and 1960s was the golden age of marriage and family.4 In the Consumer Society, the family is only actual when consuming, but not when earning money, or going to school. In that time, each person starts to look at himself as something special and finds the need to experience himself through consumption more or less in a narcissistic way (Lasch 1979). To experience that, individuals do not need to marry or start a family or have romance. All one needs is money for expenses.

 

There are two economic facts that delimit consumption and experience of personal identity. Firstly, working time. Secondly, wages. But the capitalistic system found a way to liberate consumers from these limitations.

 

The Credit Society

A new era rises in the 1980s – Credit consumption. The Bretton Woods Agreement that restrained monetary control broke down in 1971. Following that, central banks gained control to print theoretically unlimited amounts of money - credit money. Instead of increasing inflation, like the monetary theory assumes, inflation decreased through low-priced imported goods from Asia that were paid for with treasury bonds and negative balance of trade, especially in the USA. The newly printed money substantially increased the price of property, increased bond issuances, equity prices and real estate prices.5 All this credit money and increased asset prices prompted the illusion of personal wealth. The wealth illusion is well known in economics but sociology knows it better from Marx through money fetish that changes reality to illusion. Marx adds that the symbolic power is found in the capital accumulation (Marx/Engels 1968) in the Consumer Society and that power emerges through the relationship of the Debtor and Creditor, where the Creditor holds the economic power of the Debtor in his hands.

 

Liberation from work

The unrestricted access to money for consumers has liberated them from the limitation of their wages. Loans become the substitute for income. Capitalism gains new platforms in equality through equal access to loans. The flaw is that the credit is used for personal consumption but not for investments as in corporations. The increase in price of real estate is therefore merely an increase on paper but not a real one and the illusion of wealth emerges. The bulk of loans has usually been used for private consumption, (although permanent consumer goods can be factored in) and will in the end limit the future possibilities of taking part in the society. Ralf Dahrendorf would probably call it a limitation of “Lebenschancen” (Dahrendorf 1979). It may seem like a paradox but in the Credit Society expenses matter more for the standard of living than income does.

 

Household and private expenses are composed of three factors: Firstly, payments of loans, secondly, consumption, and thirdly, savings (Ingólfsson 2005). If we agree with Simmel, who claims that money is the measurement of the possibilities and, simultaneously, the means to acquire anything at all (Simmel [1901] 1989), then if the consumer spends credit money, more money than he earns at the moment, it will limit his cash flow in the future and therefore his quality of life (given that he/she pays all his/her debts). But there is more, payments of loans are enforced payments and, therefore, there is less disposable income left. The term free disposable income, i.e. income after taxes and payments of loans, is the true measurement of the standard of living, but not disposable income alone. That is the means by which one can measure one‘s future.  The Credit Society has liberated the consumer from the necessity of work by means of unlimited access to loans. Instead, the consumers are now slaves to their creditors with limited free disposable income because payments of loans are in fact enforced. This changes the social structure of class antagonism from work as opposed to capital to debtors as opposed to creditors. Capital is not any longer the synonym for accumulated wealth in fixed assets, but rather the amount of credit money. In the Credit Society the easy access to credit becomes as important, if not more important, than access to work. It does not matter where the money comes from, the main thing is the never-ending access to money.

The Nonsynchronistic Society

It is tempting to assume that with free contracts between creditors and debtors, the Utopia of the free market as a direct democracy is a reality. That is far from being the case. As Marx explained with the concept commodity fetishism, dehumanization of the capitalist way of production (Marx [1890] 1972) and the symbolic power of money (Deutschmann 1999), there is always a coercion taking place on the market (Aldridge 2005).  The creditor that accumulates money gains inevitable and even unconscious power over the debtor.6 In addition, there is the human capital of superior financial and legal knowledge linked to money (Stiglitz 1996). This knowledge helps the creditor to remain in the position of power. There were more changes as well. As control of printing money was left to the central banks, a major political change happened in the central banking system. The central banks became independent from the democratically elected politicians. The power and influence over central banks have in effect been removed from common people and the democracy. The argument for this arrangement is that transparency and professionalism have to be guarded in order to effectively manage monetary policy (Bermann 1999). The question remains: Who really controls the central banks?

 

It seems that two societies have emerged side by side in the sense of a Nonsynchronistic Society or Multiversum, to use a term from Ernst Bloch.7 On one hand a society of monetary control that is rational and professional but undemocratic. On the other hand a Pay Back Society of consumers and taxpayers that is democratic, ethical and irrational (that is assumes responsibility when both societies collapse). For those of us who are trying to make sense of  it all, with the social changes happening now, it matters greatly how these two societies evolve together in space and time but “Ungleichzeitig8 in a different cultural and political context. Which one will become dominant?

 

Indexation and the delusion of the real worth of money.

Iceland is probably ideal for theoretical and empirical studies like the credit consumption and how the Pay Back Society will evolve. After an incredible growth of the financial system and its collapse, this did not seem to have any other linkage to society but the abstract value of money, shareholder value and an open ethical account. The Icelandic society is also interesting for other reasons, such as the large pension fund system, the established price indexation of loans and what can be called the delusion of the real worth of money.

 

In the beginning of the 1970s the pension fund system was established. At that time, unions negotiated with employers and the government that laborers would contribute part of their salaries and employers would also contribute a payment to the pension funds monthly. Furthermore, all parties agreed upon an equal control of the pension funds. Appointment of each board member usually goes hand in hand with another office they hold. These feudalistic traditions have in general remained unchanged from the beginning of pension funds.9 The funds are almost the only savings that the public has at the moment (1). At present, the pension funds have more funds than the Icelandic government, which has very restricted access to other currencies. The largest pension funds take part in the resurrection of the economy by investing in companies that are in difficulties but are believed to have a viable future (Landssamtök lífeyrissjóða 2010).

 

In the beginning, when the pension fund system was being established, pioneers had to find a way to guard the value of the pension funds against high inflation in Iceland. There were two options, to float interest rates (that was decided by the government until 1987) or index monetary properties against inflation (Jónsson 1998). The latter option was chosen and since 1980 pension rights are indexed against inflation (2). With this act, two currencies have been used in Iceland: the indexed krona and the non-indexed krona. The indexed krona is used to calculate mortgages and longer loans, and the non-indexed krona is used to pay the monthly payments (3).

 

At first after the indexation of loans, wages were also indexed. However, the interaction between loans and wages caused higher inflation and the government chose to break the index link of wages in 1983. This continued to fuel inflation until the unions negotiated for a certain discretionary income instead of a wage increase in the National Reconciliation Agreement in 1990. Following this act, came the longest period of economic stability in the history of Iceland. Though not necessarily the most prosperous for the general public (Ólafsson 2007).

 

Instead of interaction between the price of goods and wages (inflation) there was a new development. Interaction of price of consumer goods and indexed loans. Debtors limit free disposable income to inflation of the future. The more inflation, in essence less free disposable income. This means permanent limitation of quality of life during pay back. This act of index-linkage and deflation of the non-indexed krona is one of the greatest property transfers in the history of Iceland.

 

The movement of class interests and wages to creditors and capital diminishes the importance of the unions. This happens because the unions cannot negotiate for loan agreements for their clients. What is also added in Iceland is that the unions have to serve interests that are antagonistic. Firstly, they must guard the value of the pension funds and they must also guard the discretionary income of their clients. They in effect have to guard the value of   both the Icelandic currencies – the indexed krona and the non-indexed krona. If they would succeed we would have the interaction of those like in the beginning of the 1980s and the inflation rate would be fuelled again. In order to guard the value of the pension funds, they must let the value of non-indexed krona slide. And that is exactly was has happened. The non-indexed Icelandic krona has e.g. deflated 2.016 percent against the USD and 2.308 percent against the Danish krona from 1980 to 2010 (4).

 

It can be argued that in the act of the National Reconciliation Agreement 1990 the era of real value doctrine emerges. I have argued that it has been very costly for real estate buyers but there is another side effect. The general public uses money on the basis of cash value. The wealth effect explained by economists argues rightfully that the general public is deceived by the real value in either way it moves. In the mind of the consumer, there is no other real value than the one published or stated at the register, that is the nominal value or cash value (5). That is also how the real value is measured by economists. It is possible to calculate real value and interest calculation uses the Fisher formula that refers in the end to the Fisher effect. By using the Fisher formula nominal interest rate is calculated by given real interest rate and inflation expectations are added (R=r+F). However, the formula is very clever, but the rationale of the Fisher theory has not proven to hold in the Icelandic economy at all. If we calculate the real interest rate back to 1980, when the system of indexation was established, it comes to light that inflation indexed bonds have had higher real interest rate than non-indexed bonds (6). Therefore, investors who did know the Fisher formula and still bought the non-indexed bonds need to rerun their calculations and add premium to the non-indexed bonds in the future. That is, if they still put their faith in Fisher and the real value doctrine.

 

The Pay Back Society

For the past year it has been interesting to follow the development of events for the heavily indebted nations. Now those nations are facing the reality of their debt. At present the indebted nations are calculating if they can in fact pay back their debt. Historically, there are several known ways to dodge national debt.10 Inflation can be fuelled, which is common after war times. Another way is decimalization or a change in currency, as Germany did five times in the 20th and 21st centuries; Rentenmark 1923, Reichsmark 1924, D-Mark 1948, DDR/D-Mark 1991 and, finally, Euro 1999/2002. State bankruptcy was common in the late middle ages and has followed us to present (Wittmann 2010). Iceland changed the value of its Krona in 1980 by eliminating two zeros. Inflation is not a viable option for the Icelandic government, not only because a large part of the debt is in foreign currency, but also because 72.9 percent of issued government bonds are inflation linked,11 and, in addition, 79.6 percent of  household debts are inflation linked.12

 

In this context I would like to mention an  interesting proposition suggested by the President of The People´s Bank of China, Mr. Zhou Xiaochuan, in a speech delivered on March 23, 2009. The Central Bank President dusted an old proposition from J.M. Keynes about international bank money, Bancor. According to this proposition, the currency Bancor would be adopted by all nations and this would bring stability to currency trade. The Chinese Central Bank President suggested to the President of USA that the USD could be swapped for an international currency, and mentioned the SDR, and the IMF would be transformed into a universal bank.13 This proposition is very interesting in view of the fact that the Chinese own a high stake in the USD. Not to mention, as previously stated, that monetary policy and the institutions all tend to lean towards an non-synchronistic formation of a society outside and above the society common people takes part in. This proposition is therefore the first serious attempt to form a society that governs monetary policy on a world-wide basis totally separated from democratic politics. However, there are democratic changes taking place at the same time. The smallest economic entity, the backbone of the economy, the household, is changing from its closed entity governed by a Patriarch to a democratic entity governed by consumers and their expenses. Antony Giddens would perhaps use the term democratization of private life (Giddens, 1992), It will be very interesting to follow the evolution of the economic backbone, the household, and the Monetary Society. Will the private household agree with the new authority that wants to govern the world‘s monetary policy and therefore, in the end, will govern household expenses in a Pay Back Society.

 

 

Notes

1) In its present meaning the term Post-Industrial Society was used by Daniel Bell in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1975) to define the “axial principles” as fundamental changes in the nature of work, from a goods producing to a service economy where the Society is depending on immaterial and theoretical knowledge.    

2) Baudrillard is true to classical sociology in the spirit of Durkheim rather than Marx. This is the conclusion Georg Ritzer states in the introduction to the English version of Baudrillard´s book The Consumer Society (1998). Sociologically, it is interesting to compare Baudrillard´s emphasis on consumption as collective phenomena and “social facts”, that are not a pleasure but a duty, with the definition of love by a different scholar, Niklas Luhmann, who wrote: “... das Medium Liebe [ist] selbst kein Gefühl, sondern ein kommunikationscode” (Luhmann 1982: 23).

3) With his book The Theory of Leisure Class, first published in 1899, Thorsten Veblen has to be viewed as a pioneer of the theory of leisure and lifestyle in the 20th century.

4) The reference here is to the classical romantic family that finds justification in romance on one hand and parental responsibility on the other hand. For further reading, Hahn (1998)

5) The real estate bubble began years earlier than generally conceded. After 1995, real estate prices started to rise and rose constantly faster than inflation, wages and building material costs in the Reykjavík (Capital City) area. In 1999, real estate prices rose substantially and were separated from other prices in Iceland such as food and permanent consumer goods. In the period 1996 to 2005, real estate prices rose 141.1 percent. Wages rose 74.2 percent, building materials rose 48.3 percent and inflation was 26.8 percent (Ingólfsson 2005: 47).

6) Here is an interesting contact point between Baudrillard´s unconscious social logic and Georg Lukács‘ ontological theory of the objective but unconscious class status (Lukács 1975).  For sociologists it would be worthwhile to study the context of those different scholars.

7) The utopia of Multiversum by Ernst Bloch is a non-synchronistic conception of history that is helpful in understanding social changes that move in different directions at the same time. This is exactly, as Bloch states, what happened with the barbarism of the Nazi regime in a democratic and enlighted Europe.

8) The concept “Ungleichzeitigkeit” by Bloch, explains both sociological phenomena in time and space (compared to Multiversum) and also as “Ontologie des Noch-Nicht Sein”, quoted in Horster (1978: 19).

9) The newspaper, Viðskiptablaðið,  “Icelandic financial news” (2010-06-16: 12-13), states that out of 114 board members, managing 96 percent of the pension funds, 34 have been replaced since 2008. Merely two pension funds have replaced more than 50 percent of their board members. Boards of 67 percent  of the pension funds have their boards appointed  by the Confederation of Icelandic Employers, Minister of Finance and labor unions and a mere 33 percent are appointed by pension funds members themselves. Viðskiptablaðið (2010). Another interesting point is that the average economic growth (GDP) for the stable decade 1990–2000 was 2.3 percent while it was 3.0 percent on average from 1970–1980, the decade known as the decade of hyperinflation. The required rate of return accepted by the Icelandic pension funds is 3.5 percent regardless of the fact that the economic growth from 1980–2007 was merely 3.1 percent. Therefore, the required rate of return of the Icelandic pension funds is 12.9 percent (3.5/3.1-1 = 12.9 percent) higher than the 30- year average economic growth. Statistics Iceland (2010).

10) Michael Hudson has reached an interesting conclusion in his studies on the usage of money among ancient societies, especially in Mesopotamia. Hudson writes, among other things: “Modern bank money is not a commodity but is a form of debt, while government paper money is nominally a public debt, albeit one that is not expected to be paid”. Cited in Randall Wray (2004: 123). To gain oversight over the history of the banking system and the ideology of money as “Moneything” (Ingham 2004) or media of exchange I refer to the book History of Money (2002) by Glyn Davis.

11) Here we follow the GAMMA Index (the Icelandic government bond index) as it was on 1 February 2010. 

12) According to information attained from the Central Bank of Iceland, the breakdown of household debt is: 79.6 percent is inflation indexed, 7 percent non-indexed to inflation, 8.8 percent indexed to foreign currencies and 4.5 percent were property rental agreements.

13) Proceding Mr. Xiaochuan´s speech more influential persons in the financial community have spoken out in the same tone. The former President of the IMF, Michel Comdessus, says in an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit (27th. January 2011), that a special drawing right (SDR) should be used as a supranational currency but not just as an internal calculated entity at the IMF. Robert Zoellick, President of The World Bank, also wants to reshuffle the world financial system with a supranational currency. Comdessus and Zoellick both know that the market alone cannot guarantee financial stability. They however, do not agree with each other of how financial stability is secured. Comdessus puts his faith in politicians and calls for a governmental control, while Zoellick calls for a gold standart (Zoellick, 8. November 2010). At first, this difference of opinions may seem as a minor difference, or even a technical difference. However, in my opinion, the chosen way will have a major effect, not only on global economic growth, but also on the Society as a whole in coming decades.

 

 

 

 

References

 

Aldridge, Alan. (2005). The Market. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Baudrillard, Jean. (1970/2004). The Consumer Society. London: SAGE Publications.

Bell, Daniel. (1975). The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecastin.. New York: Basic Books.

Bermann, Sheri and Kathleen R. McNamara. (1999). “Bank on Democracy. Why Central Banks Need Public Oversight.” Foreign Affairs 78 (2): 2-8.

Bloch, Ernst. (1996). Tübinger Einleitung in die Philosophie. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

--------------. (1978). „Über Ungleichzeitigkeit, Provinz und Propaganda“. In Tendenz - Latenz – Utopie. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1987). Die feinen Unterschiede. Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Camdessus, Michel. Nicht mehr so naiv. Die Zeit. 2011-01-27: 26

Central Bank of Iceland. (2010). Statistics. Available at: http://www.sedlabanki.is/?PageID=548

Dahrendorf, Ralf. (1979). Lebenschancen. Frankfurt/Main: Shurkamp.

Davis, Glyn. (2002). History of Money. From Ancient Times to the Present Day. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Deutschmann, Christoph. (1999). Die Verheiβung des absoluten Reichtums. Zur religiösen Natur des Kapitalismus. Frankfurt/New York: Campus.

Dolan, Edwin G. (1986) Economics. Japan: CBS Collage Publishing.

Durkheim, Emile. (1964). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press. 

Galbraith, John Kenneth. ([1975] 2001). Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went. New York: Replica Books.

Giddens, Anthony. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy, Sexuality, Lowe and Eroticism in Modern Societies. California: Stanford University Press.

GAM Management hf. (2010-02-01). Government Bond Index. Available at: http://www.gamma.is/sjodir/gamma-index/

Hahn, Kornelia, Günter Burkart (ed). (1998). Liebe am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts. Studien zur Soziologie intimer Beziehungen I. Opladen: Leske + Budrich.

Horster, Detlef. (1978). Bloch zur Einführung. Hannover: SOAK-Verlag. 

Hudson, Michael (2004). “The Archaeology of Money: Dept versus Barter Theories of Money´s Origins.” Wray, Randal L. (ed). (2004). Credit and State Theories of Money. The Contributions of A. Mitchell Innes. UK/USA: Edward Elgar Publishing. Ingham, Geoffrey. (2004). The Nature of Money. UK/USA: Polity Press.

Ingólfsson, Ingólfur H. (2005). Þú átt nóg af peningum. Þú þarft bara að finna þá!  Reykjavík: Almenna bókafélagið.

Jónsson, Bjarni Bragi. (1998). Verðtrygging lánsfjármagns og vaxtastefna á Íslandi. Seðlabanki Íslands.

Landssamtök lífeyrissjóða. (2010). Framtakssjóður Íslands slhf. Skilmálar fyrir fjárfestingarfélag. Available at:  http://www.ll.is/files/bcgahddgga/Framtakssjodur_Islands_skilmalar.pdf

Lasch, Christopher. (1979). The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Dimishing Expectations. New York: W. W. Norton paperback.

Lukács, Georg. (1975). Geschichte und Klassenbewuβtsein. Darmstadt: Luchterhand.

Luhmann, Niklas. (1982). Liebe als Passion. Zur Codierung von Intimität. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Marx, Karl. Das Kapital, Erster Band. ([1890] 1972). In Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW 23). Berlin (DDR): Dietz.

Marx, Karl und Friedrich Engels. (1968). Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte. in Marx-Engels-Werke (MEW, Ergenzungsband). Berlin (DDR): Dietz.

Ólafsson, Stefán. Ójöfn kaupmáttaraukning. Morgunblaðið. 2007-02-26.

Simmel, Georg. ([1901] 1989). Philosophie des Geldes,Frankfurt/Main: Shurkamp.

Stiglitz, Joseph E. (1996). Wither Socialism? MIT Press.

Statistics Iceland. (2010). Gross domestic product and Gross national income 1980-2009. National accounts and public finance. Available at: http://www.statice.is/Statistics/National-accounts-and-public-fin/National-accounts-overvive/  
Veblen Thorstein(
[1899] 1973). The Theory of The Leisure Class. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Viðskiptablaðið. (2010). Nær engin breyting í Stjórnum lífeyrissjóða frá bankahruni2010-06-16: 12-13.

Wittmann, Walter. (2010). Staatsbankrott. Zürich: Orell Füssli Verlag.

Xiaochuan, Zhou. (2009). Reform the International Monetary System. The People´s Bank of China.

Zoellick, Robert. (2010). The G20 must look beyond Bretton Woods. The World Bank.

 

 


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