The September–October 2015 issue of the New Left Review has just been released, and it includes an important essay called "Why the Euro Divides Europe" by distinguished German political economist Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck begins the essay by outlining the history of two influential theories of money. One theory, developed by Adam Smith and still dominant today, suggests that money is a neutral medium of market exchange. The other theory, developed by Max Weber, argues that money is an instrument of power wielded by states and big economic actors to further their own political ends. Streeck endorses the latter view, and suggests that it's the only means of explaining the riven state of Europe today. Check out an excerpt below and the full essay here.
The ‘European idea’—or better: ideology—notwithstanding, the euro has split Europe in two. As the engine of an ever-closer union the currency’s balance sheet has been disastrous. Norway and Switzerland will not be joining the EU any time soon; Britain is actively considering leaving it altogether. Sweden and Denmark were supposed to adopt the euro at some point; that is now off the table. The Eurozone itself is split between surplus and deficit countries, North and South, Germany and the rest. At no point since the end of World War Two have its nation-states confronted each other with so much hostility; the historic achievements of European unification have never been so threatened. No ruler today would dare to call a referendum in France, the Netherlands or Denmark on even the smallest steps towards further integration. Thanks to the single currency, hopes for a European Germany—for integration as a solution to the problems of both German identity and European hegemony—have been superseded by fears of a German Europe, not least in the FRG itself. In consequence, election campaigns in Southern Europe are being fought and won against Germany and its Chancellor; pictures of Merkel and Schäuble wearing swastikas have begun appearing, not just in Greece and Italy but even in France. That Germany finds itself increasingly faced by demands for reparations—not only from Greece but also Italy—shows how far its post-war policy of Europeanizing itself has foundered since its transition to the single currency.
Anyone wishing to understand how an institution such as the single currency can wreak such havoc needs a concept of money that goes beyond that of the liberal economic tradition and the sociological theory informed by it. The conflicts in the Eurozone can only be decoded with the aid of an economic theory that can conceive of money not merely as a system of signs that symbolize claims and contractual obligations, but also, in tune with Weber’s view, as the product of a ruling organization, and hence as a contentious and contested institution with distributive consequences full of potential for conflict.