The criticism of an economy which is now composed of primarily virtual movements of capital is naive and betrays a lack of understanding of the real nature of money. It is not entirely unheard of for those imparting folksy wisdom to seek to smugly ‘remind’ us that most of the money we use is now merely a set of digits within a computer database and is not ‘real’ money at all. In this case the urge to retort petulantly in order to wipe the knowing smile off our would-be mentor’s face is entirely justified. Far from being a clever observation on changing times, this amounts to no more than an embarrassing sign that one has failed to understand what money is. Or, more commonly, that one has fallen into a state of fetishism.
Even those of us who have never given it much thought would be quick to conclude that money is simply a symbolic representation of value and not a magical object in itself. Much early economic analysis is concerned with precisely this demystification of money. Karl Marx’s great inversion was to recognise that while money appeared to be this simple object, on the level of ideology we are nevertheless apt to treat it as though it was in itself a desirable object. We disavow this belief and rationally accept that it is simply a method of exchanging value and yet our actions betray an unconscious commitment to money as an end in itself, rather than a mere means.
Rightly or wrongly, a suspicion towards the digitalisation of financial transactions is a suspicion towards the structure of the monetary system of exchange itself. Our elderly strawman has accidentally hit upon an entirely different insight, not into the slow destruction of ‘real’ money, but into the fundamental lack of such a Thing in the first place. To a pre-coinage society, the introduction of currency must appear arbitrary, abstracting the real value of goods (providing food, shelter, protection, pleasure, etc) into some sort of mutually agreed token. Opposition to such a system would nevertheless crumble under the weight of expediency. Likewise the transition from a gold or silver based economy to one founded on government fiat must also appear to remove to ‘real’ value on which money seems to be based, leaving it as a mere signifier without a signified. The more recent transition to card-based consumerism disturbs the very fetish itself, the material object imbued with excess value although, again, no real change has actually taken place.
There is a whole library’s-worth of books which could be written on the role of money within personal and social psychic reality. Indeed, there are a few authors who seem to be attempting to fill such a library on their own with their unstoppable torrent of words. Philosophers rarely worry about adding to the deafening din of second-rate ideas, but this little piece of muddy thinking gave me an itch and I do apologise for scratching it so publicly.