IN CASH WE TRUST (loving simon critchley)

05/09/2009

It is a peculiar fact that the severe economic turmoil of the past year has for the most part not led people to ask the most fundamental question about the root of all this angst: What is money?

Money is, of course, many things: the coins and notes rattling in our pockets, as well as the piles of real and virtual stuff lying in banks, or the smart money that tends towards disappearance and increasing immateriality, being shuffled electronically along the vectors of the financial networks.

That might serve as an initial, empirical description, but what does money really mean? What is the idea of money that we hold in our minds as we accept it, exchange it, squander it or save it? The core of money is trust and promise, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of…” on the British pound; the “In God We Trust” of the U.S. dollar; the BCE-ECB-EZB-EKT-EKP of the European Central Bank that runs like a Franco-Anglo-Germano-Greco-Finnish cipher across the top of every Euro note.

It’s not that we revere the things that money can buy.

Rather, we venerate the money that enables us to buy those things.

In other words, the legitimacy of money is based on a sovereign act, or a sovereign guarantee that the money is good, that it is not counterfeit. Money has a promissory structure, with a strangely circular logic: money promises that the money is good. The acceptance of the promise is the approval of a specific monetary ethos. We all agree that the money is worth — in the best of circumstances — more than the paper on which it is printed. To buy and sell in the U.S. dollar, or any other currency, is to trust that each bill is making a promise that it can keep.

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