A powerful anti-capitalist novel.
Emile Zola’s wonderful 1890 novel ‘L’Argent’ (‘Money’) is set in the world of finance and share-speculation in 1860’s Paris. It is still fresh and relevant and should be on any reading list of anti-capitalist fiction.
‘L’Argent’ comes towards the end of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novel cycle, the 18th in the series of 20 which, taken together, provide a comprehensive fictional panorama of life during the French Second Empire under Napoleon III, who as Louis Napoleon staged a coup d’état in 1851 and consolidated his seizure of power in a plebiscite. It sees the return of Saccard (Aristide Rougon) after the collapse of his property speculation, as recounted in the second novel of the series – ‘La Curée’ (‘The Kill’).
Interviewed in 1890, the year ‘L’Argent’ started its serialization in the newspaper Gil Blas, Zola said:
“It’s very difficult to write a novel about money. It’s cold, icy, lacking in interest…”
Nevertheless, in ‘L’Argent’, Zola succeeds in thawing out and humanizing his theme, depicting capital as dynamic and flowing, with the potential to power growth and change and to be channeled into ambitious projects, such as the novel’s ‘Work Foundation’ for destitute children. Rather than simply polemicising against the excesses of greed and accumulation, Zola wants to communicate a sense of the constructive possibilities of capital and the excitement of controlling it.
The novel shows the power of money to change people’s lives, to liberate and emancipate them and to make superhuman things happen. It also shows the spiral of misery and helplessness which can flow from a lack of money and how greed, corruption and cynicism about both means and ends can take hold.
‘L’Argent’ is set at a time when finance capitalism is taking over from its more land-based ‘aristocratic’ precursor. Capital is increasingly disconnected from land ownership and traditional power structures and flowing towards more dynamic productive capacity and faster returns. Wealth is becoming concentrated in new institutions and can flow rapidly into, and out of, a bewildering range of ventures. The separation of means and ends offers capital’s new masters the ability to speculate and extract colossal value from a range of large-scale initiatives; in property development, transport infrastructure and new forms of colonial exploitation among others.
We are witnessing a transition from concrete inherited assets as the basis for wealth, to the more liquid and transferable intermediary of money itself. This ‘new money’ is less tangible, intangible even, as it passes via scraps of paper through the hands of a new class of bankers, dealers and speculators, each skimming what they regard as their share where the game is played; the Bourse (Stock Exchange) and its side-markets. We also see the associated dispossession and humiliation of some of the decaying landed gentry who symbolise ‘old money’.
Saccard, who is as scheming and amoral as ever, creates a new bank, the Banque Universelle, which Zola based on a number of genuine institutions of the period which swung from boom to bust, such as the scandal-ridden Credit Mobilier. Rather than investing in the concrete projects whose promise inspires many of its investors, the Banque Universelle is revealed as a mechanism for the creation of more ‘paper value’ by any means, legal and illegal. But Saccard himself is not exclusively motivated by the promise of riches. He thrives on the chase, and it is the torrential flow of money rather than its accumulation which keeps him going.
The other principal character, Caroline Hamelin, provides the moral compass. Her relationship with Saccard creates the central tension which powers the story. Caroline admires the vision, energy and creativity which Saccard displays for money’s constructive potential. But Saccard is hopelessly compromised, addicted to the game, refusing to play by the rules. His overreach is what leads to his second collapse. His energy is transient and liquid; flowing rapidly and carelessly through whatever vessel-project happens to be at hand.
In contrast, what enthuses Caroline is the actual promise of the overseas ‘civilizing’ projects which Saccard claims to believe in:
“The vast maps and watercolours which so often made her dream of those far-off lands… a land that science was about to waken from its filth and ignorance. What fine, great things were waiting to be achieved! Gradually she began to visualize new generations and a stronger, happier humanity springing from the ancient soil, once more beneath the plough of progress.”
But she also knows enough about the rules to understand that there are legal requirements to protect investors, and she confronts Saccard with her reasoning:
“I would like it if, instead of these shares … that you’re launching, you only issued bonds… I now know that one cannot speculate in bonds, and that a bondholder is simply a lender who earns a certain percentage on his loan without having any part of the profits.”
Caroline would prefer capital to be tamed, but Saccard replies with his version of ‘greed is good’:
“Bonds, bonds! Never! At the devil do you want with bonds, I ask you? That’s just dead stuff… What you have to understand is the speculation, playing the market, is the central motor, the very heart of an affair such as ours. Yes! It brings new blood into the system, it takes small streams of it from all over the place then collects it together and sends it out in rivers, in all directions, creating an enormous circulation of money which is the very lifeblood of great enterprises. Without it major movements of capital, and the great civilizing works that result, are fundamentally impossible…”
Saccard regards his insatiable appetite for high returns as the justification for every kind of abuse of the system: illegal insider dealing and buying your own stock without paying for it. He portrays all this as necessary corner-cutting, borne from an impatience with the rules of ‘normal’ investment which only serve to slow down wealth creation.
‘L’Argent’ also takes us deep into the Paris slums, providing an insight into the living conditions of the poorest which ‘La Curée’ did not. We get a glimpse of the sordid Cité de Naples district with its open sewers and overcrowded hovels. Zola does not spare us any graphic detail of destitution and degradation; the flip side of the luxury and wealth of a minority. It is here that we discover the result of Saccard’s sexual assault of Rosaline Chavaille, providing further evidence of his moral turpitude. And his son Victor seems to have inherited all of Saccard’s least attractive traits.
We get a foretaste of Zola’s celebrated championing of the Alfred Dreyfus case; the miscarriage of justice which took place a few years after the publication of ‘L’Argent’ and exposed systemic antisemitism in French society. ‘L’Argent’ doesn’t shy away from representing this antisemitism which was often linked to criticism of Jewish bankers. Once again, it is Caroline who provides the moral counterbalance to Saccard, cutting through his poisonous prejudice with her simple statement:
“For me, the Jews are just men like any others.”
Another contrast in the novel is the ideological one, between Saccard and Sigismund Busch, the visionary Socialist and former journalist colleague of Marx who now lives as an invalid with his money-lender brother, an associate of Saccard. Sigismund is producing schemes for a world without money or private ownership, reminding us a little of Florent in ‘Le Ventre de Paris’ (‘The Belly of Paris’) and other Zola ‘idealists’.
Sigismund makes a cogent case:
“…the transformation of private capital… into social capital created by the work of all… Imagine a society in which the instruments of production are the property of all, in which everyone works according to their intelligence and strength and the products of this social co-operation are distributed to each and all…No more competition, no more private capital, no markets, no stock exchange…”
Saccard is appalled by the prospect, but doesn’t entirely dismiss it:
“What if this dreamer was right after all? What if he had correctly divined the future? He explained things in a way that seemed very clear and sensible.”
Sigismund goes on to outline how the concentration of capital could makes its future socialization easier:
“You’re working for us without realizing it… There you are, a few usurpers, dispossessing the masses, and once you are gorged, we, in turn, will only have to dispossess you… Every kind of monopolizing, every centralization, leads to collectivism… moving towards the new social order… We are waiting for it all to break down, waiting for the current mode of production to end in the intolerable disorder of its final consequences.”
In his recent novel of post-capitalism, ‘Another Now’ (2020), Yanis Varoufakis has one of his characters reflect on the dominance of speculation over investment:
“…it bewildered him that people truly believed capitalism to be about making things or providing services at a profit. He found it extraordinary how most people disliked speculators but thought of them as peripheral, as harmless bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise… (but) the very opposite is true… that enterprise long ago became a bubble on a whirlpool of speculation… in reality, workers, inventors and managers resemble driftwood buffeted hither and thither on a manic torrent of runaway finance.”
130 years after ‘L’Argent’, turbo-charged exploitation and profiteering persist, and gross inequalities continue to scar our society. We still live in a world where speculation, asset stripping, debt restructuring and the whole array of financial ‘instruments’ can syphon off value to benefit the few, while trying to distance itself from real-world consequences.
‘L’Argent’ is Zola at his best; powerful story telling which carries us along while also speaking to many of our contemporary concerns.
All the quotations from ‘L’Argent’ are from Valerie Minogue’s brilliant 2014 translation for Oxford World’s Classics and I have also drawn on her Introduction to this edition.
Zola’s ‘La Curée’ and the corruption of desire RM#2 (April 2021)