- Currencies of ControlBlack Mirror, In Time, and the Monetary Policies of Dystopia
All That Is Melted into Air Will Be Stored in the Cloud as Data
"In an era when books, movies, music, and newsprint are transmuting atoms into bits," Silicon Valley journalist David Wolman writes, "money remains irritatingly analog; physical currency is a bulky, germ-smeared, carbon intensive, expensive medium of exchange. Let's dump it" (Wolman 2012, ix). Wolman is hardly alone in his frustration with money's stubborn survival as a material substance far less easy to manage than digital data. In the alarmingly titled Curse of Cash, for example, Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, who has called for an end to physical currency in the United States since the mid-1970s, styles himself as a Zarathustra-like sage sent to "presag[e] the death of paper money" (Rogoff 2016, 15). In addition to prophetic voices, the plan to kill cash has political muscle behind it too. In 2015, a nongovernmental organization [End Page 229] working out of the United Nations called the Better than Cash Alliance was founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with major credit card companies like MasterCard and Visa to assist member states across the developing world to "accelerat[e] the transition from cash to digital payments in order to reduce poverty and drive inclusive growth" (Better than Cash Alliance 2018). On November 8, 2016, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India—the largest nation inside the Better than Cash Alliance—surprised just about everyone in and outside of his country by demonetizing all 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. Overnight, 86 percent of India's currency was made worthless, while Modi's finance ministers and the director of the central bank of India urged citizens to start using debit cards and digital banking apps (Rutledge 2017). Arriving just a week later to deliver an invited lecture on "Transforming India" with the far-right Hindu nationalist leader in attendance, Bill Gates hailed Modi's "bold move" as an "important step away from a shadow economy to an even more transparent economy" (Gates 2017).
The philanthropic technophile's dream of total economic transparency made possible by the policeable infrastructure of electronic money and global banking networks conjured forth by Gates would eliminate crime by preemptively rendering valueless the anonymous and untraceable paper notes that organize its illicit trade practices. Cash is simply hard to control. In the wake of its demise, money launderers, counterfeiters, terrorists, drug dealers, warlords, mobsters, and more would be driven out of business, while tax evasion would become near impossible. A better world, perhaps best defined as one where all wealth belongs to the good guys, becomes possible when existing forms of paper currency are demonetized. If such thinking sounds utopian, it is worth remembering that the original Utopia of Thomas More lacked a currency, its citizens using the malleable stuff of gold simply to fashion their chamber pots. One of More's interpreters has gone so far as to declare that the "ritual debasement of gold is in some ways the quintessential Utopian act," because it enacts the overthrow of exchange value's regime by one of use-value (Halperin 1991, 145). Channeling this tradition, Lenin fantasized in November of 1921 that "When we are victorious on a world scale I think we shall use gold for the purpose of building public lavatories in the streets of some of [End Page 230] the largest cities of the world" (Lenin 1921). Yet in a postgold world, it is paper rather than metal that attracts utopian ire.
Thinking of More and Lenin, as well as Marx and Bakunin, Jean-Joseph Goux emphasizes how "the absence of money as a form of liberation" permeates utopian thought. But he also critiques the political value of such an imagined gesture, as the abolition of cash, which has historically existed to mediate exchange between strangers, ultimately portends the abolition of otherness as such:
Yet herein lies the paradox of utopia; for the abolition of the symbolizing third, of central legislative control, is obtained only by forcing the real...