What is money? What in the name of Jesus is it?
No matter how many times I ask people, nobody has an answer. They’ll tell you what it does, and what you can do with it. They’ll tell you it’s a means of exchange and a store of wealth. They’ll tell you it’s a standard of deferred payment. They’ll tell you it’s a unit of account.
In other words, they’ll try to define it in terms of what they think it does, not what it is.
Now, to my ill-educated, lumpen, non-financial mind, none of these definitions are good enough to explain what we’re seeing these days.
Take the store of wealth definition, for example. What’s wealth? It used to be an accumulation of resources — the produce of the land; whatever people’s honest labour generated. But not any more. Not in this looking-glass world where everything from an insurance policy to a holiday in Ibiza is called a product. Two nights in some backwoods hotel is a product. A bad comedian’s stand-up patter is a product. Entire countries are products.
It drives me mad to hear people with no useful skill, such as bankers, travel agents and insurance salesmen, talking about their products, as if they had the slightest idea what it is to labour and bring forth something tangible, of value and perhaps of beauty.
Never. Not in the new karaoke world we inhabit.
This is the hubris of the shallow, modern-day non-worker. The so-called professional. The legions of people for whom a real skill is of no value, and whose soft, manicured hands never produced a single useful item. These are the people who feel entitled to refer to their schemes, offers, trades, deals and scams as products, debasing the language and rendering the concept of wealth meaningless.
So there you have it. No point defining money as a store of wealth when we no longer know what wealth is. And anyway, a store is something we expect to be safe, isn’t it? We don’t expect to drive our herd of cattle into someone’s barn and come back tomorrow to discover that half of them are missing. That wouldn’t be much of a store, now would it? But that’s money today.
Money might be a means of exchange, but that just describes one of its uses, and it still doesn’t tell me what this thing we call money really is. After all, there can be many means of exchange, including a very old-fashioned concept: giving your word and keeping it. Yet, that may well give me a hint as to what money could be. Giving your word implies having faith and trust in your fellow man, and I’ll come back to this in a minute.
A standard of deferred payment means nothing. Why? Because we don’t know what payment means unless we can say what money is, and apart from that, it certainly isn’t a standard. No standard I’ve ever heard of keeps changing from one second to the next. For instance, if a metre tomorrow is a little bit longer than a metre today, we’d be in real trouble trying to build a house.
The door won’t fit, Mikey.
What the fuck? I measured it yesterday.
Well, see, there’s your problem. The metre got devalued overnight.
Imagine if the 220 volts in your AC supply was ten times as savage as mine. I lend you my kettle and it fuckin explodes.
What did you do to my fucking kettle?
Sorry. There was a lot of trading in Volts. They’re gone way up on the SI units market. Amperes are down though. Too much resistance.
This is just horseshit.
Back to the definitions. A unit of account.
The word unit has no meaning when it keeps changing its size, and the word account has lately become a blackly funny and deeply derisory term in a universe of credit default swaps, or in a land such as ours, where a banker can be in debt to his own bank to the tune of €87 million without anybody knowing about it.
You see, the only people who have been accountable in this little world of ours are people like you and me. The small guys. The followers. The acolytes.
And the High Priests of the financial universe, who have been pleased to dispense the Truth to us for generations, were, just like the Pope, believed by the followers to be infallible in matters of doctrine.
And there I finally begin to stumble on the kernel of the truth about money. You see, I’m inclined to think that money is nothing but a belief, and I think that when people stop believing in it, money simply disappears. Without a collective act of belief by all of us, the power of the Priesthood is exposed for the empty mumbo-jumbo it always was, and I think that what we’re witnessing across the world now is a gigantic shift. Money, I’m inclined to think, might be nothing more than a measure of the privileges available to us.
When I was a child, at a time when our local Catholic witch-doctors held great influence, we were constantly warned about Losing the Faith, and the dire consequences that would follow. And when our local Catholic clergy were exposed for the lying, child-abusing bastards they are, they left a vacuum, having hijacked and arrogated to themselves our public ethics for so long. The result was an increase in selfishness and viciousness and a loss of respect for our neighbour.
I think that today, worldwide, we’re witnessing all people, everywhere, Losing the Faith, and as always happens when any great belief system collapses, we’re left with a moral void.
Who knows what will fill it?
Previously on Bock