Money is abstract, but that does not make it less powerful. Hold a dollar bill in your hand. Now imagine setting a match to it. It doesn’t feel like an easy thing to do. Now, continue to hold that dollar bill in one hand and hold a $20 bill in the other. Both are pieces of paper of identical size and construction. One would burn as easily as the other, but they don’t feel the same at all. You can try this with a $100 bill also, but by now you I am sure you have the idea.
Emila Zola’s novel about speculation in the Paris stock exchange in the 1860s is L’Argent, Money. As in his other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, Zola provides a host of characters and subplots, but the center is money and what it means. For some money is power.
Oh! Let us understand each other; he doesn’t love money like a miser, for the sake of having a huge pile of it and hiding it in his cellar. No; if he wishes to make it gush forth on every side, if he draws it from no matter what sources, it is to see it flow around him in torrents; it is for the sake of all the enjoyments he derives from it – luxury, pleasure, power.
The man who makes the money gush forth, Saccard, wins over Lady Caroline, his severest critic. Power and luxury do not impress her, but she longs for what money can be the means to accomplish.
She had cursed money, and now she fell in awe-stricken admiration before it; for was not money the sole force that can level a mountain, fill up an arm of the sea – briefly, render the earth inhabitable by men, who, once relieved of labour, would become but the conductors of machines. From this force, which was the root of all evil, there also sprang everything that was good.
Another voice is heard in the novel. It is heard faintly, but it is there. The idealistic brother of one of the petty speculators is a devout Marxist. He lives for the day when the concentration of capital will bring the demise of capitalism itself. He explains it to Saccard.
I have followed your enterprise with passionate interest; yes, from this quiet out-of-the-way room I have studied its development day by day, and I know it as well as you do, and I say that you are giving us a famous lesson; for the collectivist State will only have to do what you are doing, expropriate you in bulk when you have expropriated the smaller capitalists in detail. And in this wise… to absorb all the capital in the world, to become the one bank, the one general warehouse of public wealth.
Saccard makes the money gush forth both for himself and, temporarily, for others. They love him for it. He loves them too when the money flows, but feels no pity when the crash comes. Madame Caroline is now undeceived and she does have pity.
What frightful silent tragedies were here! – the whole throng of petty capitalists, petty shareholders, who have invested all their saving in the same securities, the retired door-porters, the pale old maids living with their cats, the provincial pensioners who had regulated their lives with maniacal rigidity, the country priests stripped by almsgiving – all those humble beings who budgets consist of a few sous…. And suddenly nothing was left, the threads of life were severed, swept away….
Bernard Madoff and the banksters are not new creations. Zola knew them well in the Paris of Napoleon III. The cautionary nature of the tale is not that there are always scoundrels who will manipulate if they can. It is rather that we ourselves join in the bubble they create because we too want money.