The other day, while walking down a stretch of Third Avenue that's between Pike and Union streets, I saw a youngish and handsomely dressed white man stop by a middle-aged white woman who was sitting on the sidewalk. In front of the woman was a large brown paper cup. Her head was turned down. Her cup was asking for money. The youngish man took a five-dollar bill out of his wallet, and looked down on the woman. She clearly did not care if he was there or not. She was in her own world, which, by the look of her hair (disheveled), appeared to be very miserable. The young man lowered his body to meet her at her level and said: "I'm giving you money, I want you to look at me."
I stopped walking. It was impossible for me to pass this very interesting bit of street drama. Here was Seattle playing itself marvelously, and I had to see the conclusion. Would the miserable woman tilt her head back and recognize the youngish and dashing man offering her money? Would the beggar pay his Hegelian price? In Hegel's conception of the master and slave dialectic (or struggle), the master demands recognition from the slave, but he does not reciprocate this recognition; the slave goes unseen or is seen only by those who are unseen by their masters. For Hegel, this conception is nothing less than the motor of history, the engine of revolutions that will realize the total mind of history.
If the beggar on the sidewalk did not give the man her eyes, would he still give her the bill? Or would he put it back in his wallet and leave? The players of this sad drama had no idea that only one person was in the audience.
The woman's face rose from beneath her head of hair and gave him open eyes. But they came with no expression, no emotion—nothing on her cracked lips, nothing on the eyebrows, and even nothing in the eyes. She only saw him. Once satisfied with the fullness and length of the recognition (the payment), he put the bill in the cup, rose, and went on his way.
I went on my way as well. But the incident did not leave me. It got me thinking about money, about how it is impersonal, or has the appearance of an indifferent medium of exchange. As critical theorists like Werner Bonefeld insist, money is a cultural thing (meaning, it's socially constituted) that dissolves into the natural world: water, air, vegetation, and all other things we need to live. We can call this the abstract necessity—money is at once an objective abstraction, but has the power to prevent people from eating. But we still want the thing that money hides, that is also its actual basis—social relations—to appear spontaneously in our everyday doings.
This is the great perversion of human sociality in a monetized society. People demand the social satisfaction of recognition from, say, store attendants (what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe as affective labor); in some cases, we want it from beggars, or from a community that is in fact composed of individuals who would not be in this or that neighborhood if they stopped paying their mortgages or rent. The ridiculousness of this social need is it operates in a cultural vacuum created by the very thing, monetary exchanges, that has deprived humans of the fullness of their animal-specific and satisfying sociality. We still want to be richly with-others, but our sociality as an animal has been reduced ("reified") to the impersonality, the naturalness, of what Bonefeld calls "the movement of economic quantities." The beggar was most human, most true to herself as a hyper-social animal, when she did not look up at the master to be thankful for the crumbs falling from his ample and socially provided table.
One other thing I kept thinking about is this: Because the homeless population in Seattle is expanding, it's reasonable to assume that the number of beggars on our streets is also doing the same. This group experiences the city's economy as a great depression. This is the third moment of the economy's movement as a whole. Others experience Seattle in the second moment, as a great or unending recession, and a few as a boom, in the first moment. When the whole movement of an economy is defined as a depression by the press, it does not mean that everyone is on the street. It simply means that the system of surplus production, which comes down to the creation of more money by money, has broken. More money cannot be made. This is the crisis of the rich. It's a pain in the ass for them, but a catastrophe for those whose very survival is depends on selling their bodies to those who have the means to make more money from money.
Seattle is now in a movement that has satisfied those in the first moment, the boom, while the number of those in the bottom moment is rapidly expanding. Those in the second moment (the wage earners) are generating surplus value (more money from money), but are often only one or two paychecks away from disaster (from a recession to a depression).