- Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City by Allison Truitt
Money has always occupied a problematic position in disciplines investigating its nature, origins and conditions of existence. Fundamentally different answers to the question of the ontology of money have persisted with exegetical debates and continue to be inconclusive. In their most elementary forms, these points of disagreement on the origins, development and nature of money fall into two schools of thought. In the first school, money is said to have emerged in the course of market exchange. Identified with its commodity form, it emerges as a “medium of exchange” to act as a “universal equivalent”, against which all other commodities can be valued and exchanged. Such exchanges need not — and routinely do not — produce a single price in this manner, but the methodology of disciplines operating under orthodox economics that have subscribed to this approach has been unable to explain this outcome. The other school sees money as an “abstract claim” of credit in which money is “the value of things without the things themselves” (Simmel  1978, p. 121). Here, money requires its own social and political conditions of existence grounded in credit-debt relations which are relatively independent of the kind of market exchange advocated by neoclassical economics. In other words, money (as opposed to tradable commodities) cannot exist without the creation of debt.
Such approaches to money become fundamental questions of sociological and economic theory but, paradoxically, it is anthropology and ethnography — often considered at the margins of “traditional” money disciplines — that have provided [End Page 186] more satisfactory accounts. From Bronisław Malinowski’s (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific to Caitlin Zaloom’s (2006) Out of the Pits, detailed and localized ethnographies not only hold out for a broader conception and analysis of the kind of money that intellectuals are familiar with in their disciplinary confines, but are also attempts at reframing modern capitalism and, in particular, how it plays out at the margins amidst upheavals in world money since the 1970s. It is along this vein that Truitt’s Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City can be positioned as a rereading (or decentring) of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations — long read as a love song to capitalism and the West. It examines how money has not only affected the geopolitical dynamics of the country’s reintegration into the world economy after the war and Doi Moi, but also the ways it has influenced everyday life in Vietnam.
Indeed, the argument advanced in the book’s introductory chapter — that people’s experience with money in Vietnam is concurrently an inquiry into modernity and nationhood (pp. 3 and 5) — clearly places Truitt squarely in the camp sympathetic to the Simmelian approach to money. She argues that “the properties of money are not universal but historically constituted, socially mediated, and politically regulated” (p. 12) and provides a fascinating overview of how the Vietnamese dong evolved through the economics and politics of competing currencies, and multiple regimes of value during the revolutionary and civil war periods from 1945 to 1975. She also provides an outline of the currency overhauls (đổi ) following the post-1975 reunification of north and south Vietnam, which created dual economies that pitted the state-allocation system against the black market for U.S. dollars. The subsequent rapid currency devaluation and inflation contributed to the holding and transacting of multiple currencies — the dong, U.S. dollars, and gold — by Ho Chi Minh’s residents. Truitt goes on to illustrate in Chapter 2 how the renovation reforms in the 1980s contributed to money’s widening role in the state’s endeavour to transform households into key economic nodes to revamp the country’s economy.
Chapter 3 and 4 explore the ontological notion that money constitutes a credit-debt social relationship, rather than a mere engagement of exchange by commodity owners. In particular, these chapters illustrates how the accumulation and circulation of dollars as a more secure store of value reflect their multiple attributes and meanings...