In Praise of Cash

  • 2017-05-22
  • Aeon

The cashless society – which more accurately should be called the bank-payments society – is often presented as an inevitability, an outcome of ‘natural progress’. This claim is either naïve or disingenuous. Any future cashless bank-payments society will be the outcome of a deliberate war on cash waged by an alliance of three elite groups with deep interests in seeing it emerge.

The first is the banking industry, which controls the core digital fiat money system that our public system of cash currently competes with. It irritates banks that people do indeed act upon their right to convert their bank deposits into state money. It forces them to keep the ATM network running. The cashless society, in their eyes, is a utopia where money cannot leave – or even exist – outside the banking system, but can only be transferred from bank to bank.

The second is the private payments industry – the likes of Mastercard – that profits from running the infrastructure that services that bank system, streamlining the process via which we transfer digital money between bank accounts. They have self-serving reasons to push for the removal of the cash option. Cash transactions are peer-to-peer, requiring no intermediary, and are thus transactions that Visa cannot skim a cut off.

The third – perhaps ironically – is the state, and quasi-state entities such as central banks. They are united with the financial industry in forcing everyone to buy into this privatised bank-payments society for reasons of monitoring and control. The bank-money system forms a panopticon that enables – in theory – all transactions to be recorded, watched and analysed, good or bad. Furthermore, cash’s ‘offline’ nature means it cannot be remotely altered or frozen. This hampers central banks in implementing ‘innovative’ monetary policies, such as setting negative interest rates that slowly edit away bank deposits in order to coerce people into spending.

Governments don’t really mention that monetary policy agenda. It isn’t catchy enough. Rather, the key weapons used by the alliance are more classic shock-and-awe scare tactics. Cash is used by criminals! People buy drugs with cash! It’s the black economy! It supports tax evasion! The ability to present control as protection relies on constant calls to imagine an external enemy, the terrorist or Mafiosi. These cries of moral panic are set in contrast to the glossy smiling adverts about digital payment. The emerging cashless society looms like a futuristic sunrise, cleansing us of these dangerous filthy notes with rays of hygienic, convenient, digital salvation.