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  • The Currency of History:Money and the idea of progress
  • Rebecca L. Spang (bio)

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History, ghosts, money: These are more connected than common sense might initially suggest. All three structure relations between present and past, and they do so with an eye to the future. Following the distinction drawn by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his book Equals, we might think of history as a version of the past that we “pursue,” while ghosts and money are usually a past that “springs on” (or at) us.

A ghost is a specter of history that should disappear but refuses to fade; money, on the other hand, we expect to remain constant. But throughout history, this expectation, has been disrupted by periods of hyperinflation, which can turn money [End Page 39] into something of a zombie—a remnant that is not quite dead but no longer fully productive. Awakened by mention of Weimar Germany or a photograph showing men with wheelbarrows full of large-denomination bills, the fear of inflation can be enough to make leaders shy away from even considering certain policies. Other invocations of a currency’s history may be very different, but they nonetheless depend on the presumption that “real” money is “solid,” unchanging across time. This fantasy is revealed, for instance, in the assertion of one euroskeptic British newspaper that “the pound has endured for a millennium … and united our people”—as if debasement, re-valuations, and changing consumption habits had not affected the value of the pound over the centuries (and as if retail banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland did not issue their own bills).

The idea that money does not have its own complicated past is one of modern thought’s most tenacious intellectual inheritances. This false notion is a phantasm that prevents us from seeing our way to a better future. From John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1689-1690) and William Stanley Jevons’s Money and the Mechanism of Exchange (1875) to economics textbooks today, money has been defined by its resistance to change. Consider, for instance, how Locke described the invention of money. Writing at a time of overseas imperial expansion and the domestic enclosure of the commons, Locke justified private property as the result of individual labor. One’s work was one’s own and so was the product yielded by that work: “as much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the property of, so much is his.” Locke proposed that money was introduced because most products of the land are highly perishable. “The greatest part of things really useful to the life of man,” he wrote, “are generally things of short duration.” So while a man might harvest bushels of “really useful” apples, acorns, or plums, if he did not consume them all before they rotted, he was a thief (he had taken from humanity’s common goods without actually using the items himself). Barter was one way of resolving this issue, but Locke’s hypothetical “first commoner” might then find his decreased store of plums offset with equally perishable peaches. Money, in contrast, was “some lasting thing that might keep without spoiling.” Money transformed the land’s perishable products into a permanent part of the social environment.

Nearly two centuries after Locke, William Stanley Jevons—co-founder of the “Marginal Revolution” in economics, which introduced the idea that each additional unit of a commodity is less valuable to the consumer—told a similar tale, one which contrasted the payment system used in “modern civilization” with that found on islands in the South Pacific:

Some years since, Mademoiselle Zélie, a singer of the Théâtre Lyrique at Paris, made a professional tour round the world, and gave a concert in the Society Islands. In exchange for an air from Norma and a few other songs, she was to receive a third part of the receipts. When counted, her share was found to consist of three pigs, 23 turkeys, 44 chickens, 5,000 cocoa-nuts, besides considerable quantities of bananas, lemons, and oranges. At the Halle in Paris, as the prima donna remarks in her lively...


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pp. 39-44
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