For a Few Dollars More

Frank Kermode

  • Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money by James Buchan
    Picador, 320 pp, £17.99, September 1997, ISBN 0 330 35527 9

‘I have no life except in poetry,’ runs an aphorism of Wallace Stevens; but in another he says ‘Money is a kind of poetry,’ so the fact that he spent his working life as vice-president of a large insurance company did not invalidate the claim. It is plausible enough that money, with all its promises of pleasure, the anxieties it brings by being elsewhere when needed, the care one is expected to take to prevent it from disappearing unexpectedly, and, I suppose, the delight to be had in simply making it, has a certain relationship with poetry. And in so far as it is believed, whether sensibly or not, that money is somehow real and credit merely imaginary, we, who largely live on credit (mortgages, credit cards etc), could claim with Wallace Stevens that our whole life, whether we are reading or writing poetry or applying for life insurance, is an affair of the imagination. As a certain Richard Price explained in 1778, paper money must be thought of as the sign of a sign. If coin signified real value, paper, ‘owing its currency to opinion’, had ‘only a local and imaginary value’.[*] We have no choice but to re-imagine it daily.

I looked forward to this book because my attempts to understand its subject, interesting as I find it, have hitherto always failed. If it had an affinity to poetry, which I can sometimes handle reasonably well, I was missing it. In particular it was puzzling that it was precisely when one needed money that it was always hard to find; I remember I was once suddenly switched from monthly to quarterly pay, and filling the gap was a huge problem, greater in those days (when the bank manager wrote sternly if you overdrew by four or five pounds) than it would be now, when banks implore one to borrow as if there were no tomorrow. Much later, if you’re lucky, you find yourself not particularly needing anything though within reason able, if you choose, to have it. Money may be Frozen Desire, but when it thaws out Desire may emerge less lively than one had hoped.

James Buchan would agree that it isn’t much use talking to economists about these money mysteries, for they will all tell you different things, with little in common except their unintelligibility. He himself clearly does know a lot about all these matters and is pleasantly and even passionately involved in them, though admitting that they are ‘diabolically hard to write about’. Apart from a few excited passages in which he has failed to gauge the ignorance of such a reader as myself, he is willing to explain the mysteries in reasonably ordinary language.

There are moments when he becomes poetic about money, calling it an invention at least as great as language, and agreeing with Stevens that you can produce poetry from both. And, just as we are willing or even eager to admire some wicked poets, he has a certain regard for certain operators who have learned how to manage money on what might properly be called an epic scale. On the whole, though, he decides that money is bad for us, that it can be blamed for much, even most, if not all, our woe. It is the forbidden tree, and that is itself an epic theme. Moreover he dares to hope that in some fortunate future we’ll regain paradise and find the tree gone.

In fact it is one of the more enriching aspects of the book that, although the author has a horrified apprehension of the mischief money causes, he cannot help admiring people who have a practical understanding of how it works and a vision of the extraordinary things that can be done with it. This is not just a matter of knowing that to have money is always to be on the point of having more money, because of unstoppable interest, for that is something every small person understands. You have to be great enough to see that once you get the hang of money, not mere comfort, security and luxury but the entire world can be yours. People who have mastered that skill can defrost all their desires, and, for a while at any rate, do anything they like, though often this turns out, disappointingly, to be just a desire to have even more money.

Buchan offers a fascinated sketch of John Law, who for five hundred days or so ‘ruled France more completely than its absolute monarchs’. During this period, in the early 18th century, he controlled the country’s foreign trade and its national debt, as well as about half of what is now the United States. In his personal possession were a third of the Place Vendôme, most of the Faubourg St Honoré, the land on which the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bourse now stand, to say nothing of the American territories, millions in cash and 15 country estates. In principle there seems to have been nothing to prevent his owning everything he took a fancy to. He was a gambler, a duellist and, according to Marx, a ‘pleasant character mixture of swindler and prophet’. Buchan shares Marx’s admiration. Law thought he could manipulate credit to create a just and prosperous society, and ‘he damn near pulled it off.’ He had a System, which, to put it much too simply, involved transferring the vast accumulated debts of France from the past to the future. For a time the state, like Law himself, had absolutely no credit limit. The System collapsed in 1720, the year, as it happened, of the British South Sea Bubble, which, though its bursting was a major disaster, was no more than a faint echo of the French experience.

Law was taken up again at the time of the Revolution, when the System resulted in the mother of all inflations, but the principal long-term effect of his dealings was to ruin the monarchy, and pass the wealth of the nation into the hands of the bourgeoisie, thereby making possible, among many other things, the Paris of Balzac and Baudelaire. He had a vogue also in America, where Franklin, for one, understood an important element of his system, and could therefore explain how the Americans sustained a four-year revolutionary war without having any secured money – by printing it, and waiting for the inevitable depreciation, which meant that everybody redeemed its value in the long run. However, Article I of the US Constitution is not in the spirit of Law, for it insists on gold and silver coin as legal tender for the payment of debts. Buchan thinks that this Article had far-reaching and on the whole harmful effects on future American civilisation. Since the French dependence on paper also proved disastrous, it seems that whether you believed Law or didn’t, money in whatever form did you little good. No doubt the careers of Trollope’s Melmotte and Dickens’s Merdle, based as they were on gigantic Victorian speculators, pointed much the same moral.

J.M. Keynes had apparently never heard of Law, here described as ‘the greatest of all Scots’, so there is some excuse for me. On the other hand most of us have heard of Michael Miliken, of whose Law-like career Buchan offers a vivid sketch. He could ‘create money with a single sentence’, his salary in 1986 was $550 million, which, on the Buchan-approved capitalisation model of Sir William Petty (20 times one’s annual income), made his personal worth about $11,000 million. Just as we are deciding that this is an achievement to wonder at, Buchan adds with some severity that ‘fortunes made in finance ... require little intelligence and energy to administer.’ Nevertheless, they provide those who bother to have them with ‘an ineradicable sense of election’. Miliken, for instance, imagined he could without too much difficulty refinance the debts of the Latin American states, and ‘become sole creditor to a hemisphere’. For money enables you to ‘wish the world’. But Miliken was hounded out of the markets and sent to prison. Buchan calls him not a tragic hero but an idiot savant. Yet there seems to have been no substantial difference between the way he ran his affairs and the way nations fund their debts and wars. If credit is imaginary you might as well imagine a great deal of it.

The accumulation of money for its own sake, beyond any conceivable need, strikes Buchan as a pathology we all now share: money has displaced ‘all other psychological goals’, including ‘duty, religion, public service, liberty, equality, justice or aristocracy’. Only money is now to be trusted. It is no longer an instrument but an absolute end, ‘the God of our Times’. He seems to date this transformation from 1974 and the inflation caused by the quadrupling of the oil price, though many moralists would date it a lot earlier. I admit I was not clear why the debasement of money that occurred in 1974 should make us trust it even more than we did before that date, but, as Buchan agrees, about some of these matters it is not easy to be clear.

Along the way he offers some very weird examples of what money can be and do: for instance, the currency instituted by Jews, apparently with Nazi connivance, at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943, which is now a collector’s item (Buchan has some). Then there is the fact that money can be anything (it is only a sign) from axes, skins, iron, tobacco or gin, to gold bars and electronic impulses. It has no intrinsic value; while barter annuls two wishes, money survives a sale but ceases to be money until it is used again. So it circulates incessantly, creating cities, satellites, population, millennial domes. It is completely unheroic. Homeric warriors knew nothing about it; they might have saved themselves trouble by using it; but at a considerable cost, for money replaces trust and honour, qualities they valued highly.

Schopenhauer observed that ‘other goods can satisfy only one wish and one need’ – food satisfies hunger, sex the needs of youth; these are goods which serve a specific purpose. But money ‘confronts not just one concrete need, but Need itself in the abstract’. Thus it becomes a universal, inhuman answer to what Sartre called besoin; or it may even have created that generalised need, which makes it even more hateful. One ancient way of demonising money was to accuse it of breeding like a sentient being. Aristotle in the Politics noted this indecency, the birth of money from money. His word for ‘interest’ is tokos, which means ‘offspring’ – money out at interest offers a demonic parody of natural reproduction. A couple of millennia later Shakespeare is writing harsh speeches about the breed of barren metal. Usury was condemned throughout the intervening centuries, and often compared to homosexuality, also regarded as a perversion of the act of breeding; but it was practised, as it had to be, under other names. Some methods of money-making were called virtuous, for instance adventuring, which entailed genuine risk; Shylock, who made money breed, and Antonio, who risked his wealth in cargo vessels, argue quite schematically about this in The Merchant of Venice. The Church, knowing that credit is necessary and that it cannot be had without interest, made the necessary accommodations.

In a feudal society things were arranged quite simply by an exchange of services or obligations. But in came money, and bonds, bills of exchange and so on, to spoil these arrangements. Buchan offers many lively illustrations of the sort of freedom that came with a money economy, and of the cost of that freedom. He is quite impassioned about some of the inventions that made capital supreme, for instance double-entry bookkeeping, which Goethe called ‘one of the loveliest inventions of the human spirit’. Its discovery has been compared with those of Newton and Galileo; and Buchan himself, though professing to keep his head, compares it with Hegel’s theory of the duality of historical events and Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. It seems that modern capitalism is unthinkable without double-entry bookkeeping. I wonder if this will be as great a revelation to others as it is to me. Equally surprising is the information that the overdraft, or cash credit, was invented by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1728, previous loans having been secured by land. It is hard to imagine overdrafts having to be invented, but they were. And without cash credit there could have been (except perhaps in aristocratic circles, which still went in for sumptuary display) no civilisation of conspicuous expenditure, no beaux or dandies; and later no middle-class mortgages and credit cards.

What was the position of women in this world of money? Not good in England, which introduced the Married Women’s Property Act only in 1882; better in Islam, where a woman retains her property on marriage. Women had to rely on other resources: ‘prostitution would seem to be the exemplary form of sexual love in the age of money ... In taking payment for sex, women free themselves from the authority of home and husband and gain the imaginative liberty of money.’

Buchan can’t help loving this imaginative liberty, despite its high price. He is a radical romantic, despising Adam Smith for his selfish bourgeois certainties, cross with Mill for neglecting the imagination, and contemptuous of Keynes for being, at moments, tiresomely ethical about the proper use of money, while admitting that ‘the money-motive ... does its job well.’ He prefers Dostoevsky, who saw that the true consequence of money was ‘the world reduced to a scorching slum, its women to whores, its men to murderers’. And he identifies as ‘the great sadness of our civilisation’ the fact ‘that by using money, we convert our world into it. Humanity ... is estranged by money from its natural habitat, without any hope of appeal.’

It isn’t quite clear whether this remark is in the full voice of the author or, more obliquely, the expression of a strong anti-money tradition; but in the end he seems to agree with the sentiment. It is, appropriately, expounded in a chapter on Marx, incidentally discovered by Buchan to have been a distant relation of Law’s. Here, one feels, is the ultimate source of Buchan’s own sombre belief that ‘the physical and intellectual senses have been replaced by ... the sense of having.’ And his book, without losing its sparkle or its power to amuse, grows more and more apocalyptic as its end approaches. There is a very interesting chapter about how the Cold War and other wars were won by money and how the Germans financed their war from 1939 to 1945. But after that he starts opening the seals, and stars fall from their places.

The great change in sentiment, from thinking money bad to thinking it good, even the only good, is described as a catastrophic inversion in the moral sentiments of the West. ‘Money is the expression of our profound unhappiness.’ It is the great destroyer, the dragon of the Nibelungen. Only when we recognise it for what it is and allow interest and profit to fall away can we be at peace with the world. And the book ends with an allegorical dream: ‘Honour pushes Credit away with an indescribable grimace of disgust etc.’ It is a dream on the epic scale:

                  the Tempter foild
In all his wiles, defeated and repulst,
And Eden rais’d in the waste Wilderness ...

If money is a kind of poetry, a book about money can decently be poetic, too. Wallace Stevens thought that the natural condition of the world was poverty, and that poetry is what we have to make that condition bearable. And, of course, money is a kind of poetry. So, in the end, Buchan deviates from the Stevens position; for he thinks that money, far from being a consolation in our poverty, is precisely what has destroyed the natural condition of the world. So here is a lively spirit who in his unregenerate youth has loved money as a means to the satisfaction of desire, turning against it in the manner of Marx in Dean Street, hating and fearing it as Augustine feared the sins of Carthage, writing poetically against it, hoping that at the imminent great turn of time it will somehow disappear and leave us to enjoy the happiness to which our nature entitles us. Meanwhile, however, he seems to be really enjoying these last days, and his pleasure is communicated in this almost inappropriately amusing book.

[*] I borrow this quotation from Peter de Bolla’s grippingly difficult chapter, ‘The Discourse of Debt’, in his book The Discourse of the Sublime (Blackwell, 1989).