One of the challenges in my research was raised in a recent email conversation with a fellow researcher, Noel Longhurst.
He asked me the following, "I agree with you about the politics of money and definitely think that it is an area that is rich for further exploration. However, there is another angle to this and that is that fact that elements of the monetary reform movement engage in a different kind of politics. I am thinking here of conspiracy theories / New World Order / anti-Semitism. Such politics form part of the real and everyday lived politics of monetary reform and can do great damage to the wider cause of politicizing money. I wonder whether you have considered how such politics fit into your work? Or how they might be relevant?"
This is a very important and legitimate question and the danger of this kind of politicization of money is apparent. Though, my effort is not to politicize money but rather to show its historical politicization. Money is, has been, and always will be, a political question. What is true is that some of the most vocal critiques of our current monetary system center around a view that there is a massive conspiracy underway that enables this elite group of bankers to control the global monetary system. The most popular or widely disseminated interpretation is found in the pseudo documentary Zeitgeist. And, similar critiques are bantered around on the Facebook and the web more generally.
As with all conspiracy theories there is an element of truth. Yes, a group of bankers along with government leaders have come together several times over at least the past 100 years to cobble together monetary systems that guaranteed the continued existence of the type of banking and political system that they dominate. This is no surprise and in my book certainly doesn't qualify as a conspiracy.
However, what is never asked is the context of these moments. My research is an attempt to contextualize these moments. Giving attention to the political-economic ideas that were available, and the particular issues that they were attempting to solve.
Often people have a view of history and the history of political ideas more specifically as bounded, without continuity and without history. Often viewing these ideas as static – that when we say democracy that this idea of democracy has not evolved and that the use of the word today is the same as the use of the word 300 years ago. This is far from the truth and a quick, but close study of the concept of democracy as it was presented within the context of the creation of the USA will show how vastly different it is from ideas of Greek democracy – the originators of the idea.
My point here is that these conspiracy theories (or other far-flung ideas of Semitic control of money, etc.) tell us nothing about the how or the complicated why; if they engage with the question of why it is simply a perversion of power and control by a hidden elite.
But, as a political-economist this gives me no tools, or ability to understand how we may enable and create change; how we can take political ideas and rework them, and to apply them to the historically specific context that we find ourselves in, filled with very real challenges and limits.
All of the changes that have occurred to our financial system – the creation of the Federal Reserve in the USA, the gold-standard, Bretton Woods and the more recent floating exchange system - all came about in some way to address the very real problems of those historical moments. They were not sudden flowerings of conspiratorial powers, but rather people with power attempting to solve problems within the context of the historical moment they found themselves in. This is not to deny that they wanted to retain their own power and were looking for solutions that would guarantee this – again there is nothing surprising about this.
In all of these instances both the bankers and the politicians had an invested interest in solving the problems, but they were constrained in very real ways by at least two broad elements; 1) the ideas and knowledge available to them in that particular moment was limited and historically as well as geographically specific, 2) the need to continue the existence of the dominate political-economy.
Let me deal with the second point first. It seems obvious, at least to me, that they would want to preserve the political-economy. Failure to do so, especially if there was no viable alternative, had the potential to result in what can only be thought of as catastrophic collapse of the functioning political-economy. And, it is hard to deny, especially when looking at history, that this could result in the complete breakdown of society and the very real possibility of a range of horrors emerging, that are often linked with these sort of sudden collapses. Think of Fascism as the most recent powerful example.
Then, turning to my first point, a question of knowledge which needs to be further qualified as that knowledge which is both known (available to us in those historical moments) and is viewed as acceptable by those implementing or driving the changes. As an example, and this is one I use in my research, we can look at the idea of democracy. In the USA during the writing of the constitution the idea of democracy that was being used by the "people" was one that was a direct descendent of Greek ideas of direct democracy. Yet, this idea of direct democracy seriously threatened the continued existence of both private property and debtor/creditor relations – two of the most critical elements in capitalist economics. The writers of the constitution had a dilemma. They needed to find a way to get the American people to agree to the constitution but they couldn't, because of their own political-economic interests and desires to preserve the commercial powers that dominated, accept a notion of democracy that threatened the very existence of their political-economy. Yet, on the other hand people would not accept a system that was not democratic – or at least presented as democratic. The writers at this time had to reconceptualize democracy into something that we now call representative democracy, and increasingly just democracy. This was only possible due to the brilliance of the Federalist arguments – the knowledge at the time that was also compatible with the dominant political-economic powers.
My point is that if they had not been able to think of a different version of democracy, if they did not have the "knowledge" then we may have landed up with a very different America. Perhaps a non-capitalist America? Perhaps a non-democratic America? The solution was a historical solution in a specific moment limited by concrete realities and conceptual knowledge.
My belief is that the political elite (including the bankers) were in this sort of constraint during the moments that I listed earlier. They needed to preserve the dominant political-economy so as to preserve their power but they were faced with a very real crises that could result in the total collapse of the political-economy. Hence, they need a solution but they only had the knowledge that they had at that time. They solved the problem within the specific historical moment with what they knew with the aim of preserving the very system that allowed them to dominate. Again is this any surprise?
Is this a conspiracy? When does it play out any differently? In a revolution? And, in the new revolutionary state do people behave any differently?
In the 21st century we are facing another crises. Again our monetary system is appearing precarious and threatening the entire political-economy. What solutions will we present? What is the context of today? Those with political-economic power will attempt to solve this problem again within the limits of this historical moment. They will attempt to preserve the political-economy so as to preserve their power and wealth. They will do so with the ideas and knowledge available to them.
The question becomes fundamental on two fronts; 1) do we want to continue to preserve this political-economy (is that even a possibility?) and to complicate this a bit, it is not an either/or question. There may be elements of this political-economy that we want to keep and elements we want to discard – which is exactly how history works and especially history of political ideas. 2) How do we (those that sit outside of direct political-economic power) impress our ideas into the debate in a meaningful and helpful way?
Conspiracy theories in this way are actually disempowering. They make people sound like fear mongers, racists, bigots and politically unstable. And, what is truly disempowering, is that it can banish some really good ideas, leaving us with no tools or data on how to politically pursue alternative projects.
Monetary innovation could be extremely powerful, it has the potential to rework the entire political-economy in a way that has never been imagined, or realized by the masses.
Yet, this is the irony, history has shown us that monetary innovations have been very good at enabling the current political-economy to continue to dominate, it is what has saved capitalism time and again.
What would happen if other forms of money were introduced? And, how do we do this in a politically viable way? How can we gain control of this debate in a meaningful way? What does the democratization of money mean? And, who gets to define its meaning?
The truth is Noel is right; these forms of conspiratorial politicization of money can be really dangerous. They are simplistic understandings of the politics of money that fail to understand history. I hope to contribute to moving the debate into a far more meaningful and profound place. A place that can truly contribute to advancing our political-economy in ways that will fundamentally benefit all of humanity.