How Dirty is Money? A Thought Experiment

What is dirty money?

I think we might find it’s a harder and more complicated question than appears on the surface.

For instance, what money was “made” – or “accumulated” as we might say on the Marxist left – in a way that made it “dirty”?

Or: Is money, that is currency, intrinsically dirtier than the things for which we use money as a tool of exchange relations? For instance: Does money (let’s call it capital, here) that started out as a result of dirty accumulation become cleaner as it is exchanged for, for instance, a shovel at the hardware or thrift store? How about a semiautomatic rifle? Are exchange relations cleaner in some way than the relations of production that turn money, the currency, from a convenience for rationalizing exchange to a metric for commodified property and the inequality that routinely, predictably ensues? Is it money that is dirty, or the things that it can buy? How much can they really be separated?

Let us look at it another way. Does capital that started out as a result of the faith in the dirty process of accumulation become cleaner when, say, laundered by being exchanged for good works, such as a donation to build a youth center in a poor community? (Rockefeller Foundation board members, call your ethics counsel. You have one, right?)

Consider another side issue: Is capital dirtier when accumulated by an individual or group characterized by patently immoral behavior as opposed to the ‘normal’, ‘ethically neutral’ process of accumulation? What accounts for this difference, in the last instance?

All these questions might arise when we saw the august MIT Media Lab rocked on Aug. 20 by the announced departure of two faculty members because of the disclosure that Jeffrey Epstein, the recently deceased financier and convicted child abuser, had contributed significant amounts to the lab’s work.

The donations were apparently concealed – though it is not clear if there was a cloaked purpose – by coming through foundations “controlled by” Mr. Epstein.

The Media Lab’s boss, the MIT prof Joichi Ito, had previously apologized for knowingly allowing Epstein to make his donations masked by the foundations.

Someone here has a concept of dirty money as coming in grades of dirty, apparently. Other donations to the MIT Media Lab, presumably from people with big money, do not appear to have raised these qualms.

Now, on the left we start out professing, in good faith, that capitalism is “organized crime” – so well organized that it has, throughout history, steadily and serially managed to purchase its own decriminalization even as the practices of capitalism became more clearly based in deception and coercion – that is, cheating.

So by our lights, all capital that is accumulated tends toward dirty. Capital accumulated by an accused trafficker in abuse of children is still capital accumulated, period. Dirtier? Let’s continue the discussion with the late -- and by us, unlamented -- Charles Koch, whose systematic pursuit of political influence and deformation of constitutional principles to shield his planet-wrecking fossil fuel profiteering can certainly be distinguished from, say, the Gates Foundation’s work on eradicating malaria. Koch’s depredations, behind the contrived mask of libertarian academic economics, left our always-ragged democracy still poorer with a well-funded array of interventions from state-level voter suppression to the open door for corruption enabled by the Citizens United decision. Nevertheless, many of the obituaries for Koch contained the word “philanthropist” because of his support of art museums.

But all this capital, Koch’s or Gates’s, was accumulated by organized crime. How do you clean up capital? Can you? Can anyone answer Shakespeare’s clown in Twelfth Night, when he quips that “any thing that’s mended is but patched”; that “sin that amends is but patched with virtue?”

One possible answer is to expend it on a “good” outcome. One of the MIT Media Lab faculty who’s announced his departure, Ethan Zuckerman, said of his work there “the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view.” The capital coming (indirectly) from Epstein creates, for him, an incongruity because it is extra dirty and, we suppose, unable to be cleansed even by the good outcomes his group is seeking.

The individuals his group aims to include by dint of focusing on social justice are, in the eyes of many of us on the left, victims of capitalism’s criminality in general as much as any specific, extra-venal, criminality associated with Mr. Epstein. His involvement is more direct, but still…

The two faculty members departing MIT’s Media Lab are no more or less skilled at navigating the quotidian world of capitalist practices than the rest of us and probably have found compromises to trip over every day – just like the rest of us.

But the Epstein event is a singular phenomenon with extra-wide, discontinuous ripples, just as the Weinstein event was previously. Any reasonable observer would conclude that these singularities – the clear depravity of Epstein’s and Weinstein’s abuse not only of individuals but of the power they used to enable their behavior – created anomalous public response outside the scale of the everyday. They overwhelm our routine compromises, as Jane Mayer outlined in her account of Al Franken’s lamentable departure from the Senate.

But we need to shift our perspective from the effects created by individuals and their behavior to the more consistent effect of capital, dirtied by the process of accumulation, and how it stays dirty or gets less dirty. The medium of exchange can undeniably be used to create good outcomes. Otherwise we wouldn’t lift a finger trying to get its possessors to divert it to our preferred causes.

Prof. Ito, in his apology, vowed to raise the equivalent of the money Epstein donated and give it to organizations that remedy the harms created by Mr. Epstein’s practices, “supporting the survivors of trafficking.” If that money comes, for instance, from the Koch Foundation, will it be more clean, or less dirty, than the money Epstein gave the MIT Media Lab in the first place?

The Media Lab, in fact, has soldiered since the 1980s to stay cutting edge by pursuing contrarian goals by contrarian means, today being “focused on new technologies that seamlessly merge with our bodies to forever change our most basic notion of human capabilities,” from advanced prosthetics to neural circuit management. Not everyone’s priorities, but then [D]ARPA did not start out aiming to create the Internet, either. So how is the dirtiness of any of the donations to the Media Lab reduced – or not – by the outcomes – contingent as they are -- that it enables?

In an advanced capitalist polity, the source of capital is (as suggested above) intrinsically based on smoothly decriminalized criminal practices and that capital is often employed to promote more smooth, excused criminality. Consider the direct influence of Citizens United on campaign finance, especially in the Senate, for example. The fungibility of capital works both ways, but its dirtiness often remains quite visible.

A great deal of psychic heavy lifting is being spent on these visible outcomes. Do we see or avoid a Weinstein or Woody Allen movie? do we accept campaign money from billionaires and if so of what moral calibration?

The unpleasant truth of accumulated capital is it is done on the backs of workers and via the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable -- through sexual abuse, in the unfree workplace, in housing or its absence, in unequal schooling, and a raft of other forms of subordination to capital and its practices. As long as that web of moral depravity continues in place, arguments about the dirtiness of accumulated capital may be frankly fatuous.

We should not ignore the effects of inequality, for sure – we have and will fight every day against them. But we should not confuse them with the inequalities embodied in capital and its practices as they travel from location to location in our lives. It isn’t dirty, or not dirty – it is our enemy, the one we have fashioned ourselves. We are stuck with capital, dirty or not as it may be in any instance, as a principal tool for abolishing capitalism. Deal with it, but recognize we are shoulder to shoulder with the enemy.

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