Currency of Politics is a well-researched and informative history of money and the (non)politics that govern it.
published 2023-07-09

I think money is fascinating. A physical, malleable thing held in your hands. Taking on the form of bills & coins, which themselves carry heavy artistic and symbolic representations of the societies that made them. And yet here in the 21st century, the abstract nature of money as a mere system of account is underlined everyday by the fact that most of our transactions simply involve moving numbers around in a database somewhere. As someone who works as a computer programmer & hears about crypto almost everyday, thinking about the form & structures of money is inescapable.

In my free time I began to read about the history of money & currencies. I find the roots of it in the Mesopotamian collective grain storage system particularly fascinating. It started out as a very simple system, where a farmer could deposit some weight of grain for a token to be redeemed for that same amount of grain at a later date. So when I was listening to the podcast American Prestige last summer and they had a guest on to talk about money, my ears perked up. Their guest, Stefan Eich, was on to discuss his new book The Currency of Politics. When they started discussing the Mesopotamian grain system I knew I had to read the book for myself.

Primarily structured as a historical survey of western philosophical thought regarding money & the politics that surround it, we start with Aristotle[1] and then climb our way back up through the historical record past Locke, Fichte, Marx, and Keynes before finally taking in the post Bretton Woods status quo.

It is also written as a surprisingly cutting-edge and present text. It is not presented in an evergreen, disconnected philosophical prose but rather as a voice specifically speaking from within the midst of the COVID pandemic and the brewing social and economic unrest that has continued to flow from it.

One of the most important insights of the book that I took away is that money has not always floated above us in a neutral, disconnected manner. In Aristotle’s time, money was very openly grounded in the people. Its very power was connected to the polis that minted it, in the same way that a collective trust and agreement between a group of humans develops language and laws.

He was mostly ambivalent about money though. Seeing the same greed and capacity for wealth hoarding and power development that we can see in our modern society. But with the understanding that its ultimate value came from the same place as laws & language, and thus could be a tool for justice.

Skipping ahead to Keynes, I found the concept & exploration of his bancor particularly interesting and farsighted. It was a supra-national unit of account for international finance, pegged to a basket of common commodities. It was a fair, even headed proposal that could have led to a more equitable and just society.

So of course the US delegation, high off atomic powered victory, rejected it outright in favor of the Bretton Woods system that established the U.S. dollar as the de-facto reserve currency for international finance. At least until that system broke down & was replaced with the current floating exchange rates managed by central banks & backed by the almighty petrodollar.

The majority of the book is spent getting its historical house in order, but I found the most interesting and insightful part of the book to be the forward looking Epilogue. In my experience it is easy for authors to do a historical or literature survey and then just leave it at that. It’s rare to have an author with the courage to ask some questions & even propose solutions!

The three questions that stood out to me were “Who gets to decide who creates money?” “Where should money power reside in our constitutions?” and “Is a more democratic money possible?”

Based on what I read in this book and what I understand about the world, I have to take for granted that the answer to the last question is yes. The alternative is to simply accept that the status quo is the best we can have, and considering its blatant failures in this current moment I don’t believe that is the case nor do I believe that less democratic control of institutions is the answer.

Who gets to decide who creates money is a question that I think is given some good consideration in the epilogue. The idea of creating more seats at the table of governing boards that are accountable to the working class (or really anyone outside the banking industry) seems like a good first step. I will always be skeptical of a bureaucrat who says that inviting people who are not a part of the bureaucracy to look at their work will make things worse in the long run. I’ve been in enough bureaucracies myself to know shirking when I see it.

As for money power and where it belongs in government I feel less clear. I’m not a professional in this space, but I think if there’s one thing this book has made clear it is that not having enough outsiders involved in the process has diminished the potential of our monetary systems. Pages 214-216 of the book give some good jumping off points though if that’s something you’re interested in.

This is an academic work and expects the reader to have some familiarity with the field. The chapter on Marx in particular assumes a familiarity with his Capital texts that occasionally left me feeling lost.

But even with my amateurish status in the field I felt well taken care of and was able to get new information and insights out of it. My only real critique is that the book took me 10 times as long to read as I think it should have, as the end notes contained both citations of texts that I will never read & the juicy asides that I live for and wish had just been footnotes.

It also left me with a couple of questions of my own. First, what would a book like this look like if more women, and non-white/western thinkers had been surveyed? Second, with the book grounding all but the last chapters in the body of a particular person, who is the political theorist who best represents the thinking in the post Bretton Woods world?

Overall the book is an interesting, educating, and insightful primer about the Western political philosophy and approach to money up to the present day. If you have any interest in why money is the way it is or how we got to the modern international financial system we live in, I highly recommend you pick this book up or at least take a listen to the American Prestige interview that started me on this path.

[1] I would expect nothing less from a western philosophical text.