The euro crisis seen as an episode in the history of money

By | December 1, 2011

We all began by talking about a financial crisis and now we fear an unprecedented global economic crisis. At the centre of the second, but initially not of the first, lies the potential collapse of the euro as a regional single currency and rival to the dollar as a world currency. The link between these two moments, 2007-8 and 2011-12, is the persisting idea that we are facing the failure of specific financial institutions in the context of a boom/bust cycle of credit and debt. By taking a broader view of money than its current identification with finance, I aim to historicise the present crisis by placing it within a long-term narrative of social development, in the process offering a new explanation for our economic problems. As the economic crisis deepens, it is increasingly seen as a result of political failure, in sharp contrast to what came before, when politics was viewed as a hindrance to or mere consequence of markets. The euro is by no means the only symptom of this crisis, but it may well be seen in retrospect as the decisive nail in the coffin of the world economy today.

The money crisis in world history

I take the ‘financial crisis’ to mean the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 with the subsequent attempts of leading governments to stave off economic collapse by printing money to save the banks. Now that their capacity to do so has been almost exhausted, the world is in the grip of a growing sovereign debt crisis and risk of government defaults. Although there is talk of a ‘double-dip recession’, the world economy has not recovered since 2008 and its future continues to look bleak indeed. This is a turning point. Its denouement may be global depression, world war, fascism or democratic revolution, but eventually the contours of a new era will become clearer. One way of approaching this moment of transition is to ask not what is beginning, but what is ending. This is not straightforward.

World history since 1945 falls into two distinct periods divided by the 1970s (Hann and Hart 2011: chap. 6). In the first, developmental states generated economic growth through extending public services and increasing the purchasing power of ordinary people. The second saw the unfettered expansion of money, markets and communications and a general increase in economic inequality. We may label these periods, respectively, as social democracy and as neoliberal globalisation or one-world capitalism, and the rich benefited from the switch. Some think that the neoliberal paradigm still best describes our world. I believe that free market economics, as a matter of public ideology rather than academic science, has been holed beneath the waterline by the financial crisis. But the current break in history goes far deeper.

The 1970s were a watershed. US expenditure on its losing war in Vietnam generated huge imbalances in the world’s money flows, leading to a breakdown of the fixed exchange-rate system devised at Bretton Woods (Gregory 1997). America’s departure from the gold standard in 1971 triggered a free-for-all in world currency markets, leading in 1972 to the invention of money futures in Chicago to stabilise export prices for Midwestern farmers. The world economy was plunged into depression in 1973 by a hefty rise in the price of oil. ‘Stagflation’ (high unemployment and inflation) increased, opening the way for neo-conservative liberals such as Reagan and Thatcher to revive the strategy of giving economic priority to ‘the market’ rather than ‘the state’.

In 1975, all but a minute proportion of the money exchanged internationally paid for goods and services purchased abroad. Three decades later, payments of this kind accounted for only a small fraction of global money transfers, the rest being devoted to exchanging money for money in another form. This rising tide of money represented the apotheosis of financial capitalism, with the production and sale of commodities and the political management of currencies and trade virtually abandoned in favour of feeding an autonomous global circuit of capital. In the process, from having been tied to gold bullion, money quickly became once more a form of virtual credit (Graeber 2011).

We are witnessing the end of the social form that dominated the twentieth century. I call it ‘national capitalism’ and its origins lie in the political and technological revolutions of the 1860s (Hart 2009). Its historical trajectory includes two phases of financial imperialism, from the 1880s to the First World War and from the 1980s to the financial crisis. To understand these, it is important to distinguish between money and finance. Whereas money is a universal system of human communications on a par with language, finance concerns public- and private-sector institutions specialised in the management of money, typically banks. The financial crisis is only superficially a question of credit boom and bust. At bottom it is the unravelling of a social organisation of money that the world has come to live by since its inception a century and a half ago. Even so, we persist in thinking of money as just one thing, national monopoly currency or legal tender. As always, folk models lag behind social realities.

Money in the national community

Money expands the capacity of individuals to stabilise their own personal identity by holding something durable that embodies the desires and wealth of all the other members of society. The modern system of money provides individuals with a vast repertoire of instruments to keep track of their exchanges with the world and to calculate the current balance of their worth in the community. In this sense, money’s chief function is remembering (Hart 2000). People learn to understand each other as members of communities, and money is an important vehicle for this. They share meanings (cultural symbols) as a way of achieving their practical purposes together. If wealth was always a marker of identity, then the shift to wealth in the immaterial form of money, a process accelerated and expanded by the digital revolution, contributes to the growing volatility of identity. Once fixed or ‘real’ property was dominant as its marker, but this function has now been split between value realised in consumption and hierarchies of value expressed as abstract quantities. Money is intrinsic to both of these. In this way, money defines each of us by articulating relationships between individuals and their communities.

National capitalism is the modern synthesis of the nation-state and industrial capitalism, the institutional attempt to manage money, markets and accumulation through central bureaucracy within a cultural community of national citizens, and its prophet was Hegel in The philosophy of right (1967 [1821]). It is linked to the rise of large corporations as the dominant form of capitalist organisation in a bureaucratic revolution late in the nineteenth century. Its main symbol has been a national monopoly currency (central bank money). The nation-state has become the dominant model for thinking about society, and it is hard to imagine society in any other way even though society itself has been leaking across its boundaries for a while now. I identify five ideal-types of community, all represented by the nation-state:

  • political community: our link to the world and a source of law at home
  • community of place: territorial boundaries of land and sea
  • imagined or virtual community: a constructed cultural identity of citizens
  • community of interest: subjective and objective (shared purposes in trade and war)
  • monetary community: common use of a national monopoly currency

The rise and fall of single currencies is one way of approaching national capitalism’s historical trajectory.

A framework for studying money

In an early paper that borrowed from Polanyi (2001 [1944]), I (Hart 1986) identified two strands of Western monetary theory: money as a token of authority issued by states and as a commodity made by markets. I saw the coin as a metaphor for the two sides of money. One carries the virtual authority of the state; it is a token of society, the money of account (heads). The other says that money proper is itself a commodity, lending precision to trade; it is a real thing (tails). The two sides are related to each other as top to bottom; but, rather than acknowledge the interdependence of top-down and bottom-up social organisation (‘heads and tails’), economic policy in the Anglophone countries swings wildly between the two extremes (‘heads or tails’).

Money is at the same time an aspect of relations between persons and a thing detached from persons.[i] Anthropologists and sociologists have long rejected the impersonal, detached model of money and markets offered by mainstream economics, even as they long steered clear of studying banks and firms. People everywhere personalise money, bending it to their own purposes through a variety of social instruments. Increasing awareness of this neglected dimension is surely significant, but the economy exists at more inclusive levels than the person, the family or local groups. This is made possible by the impersonality of money and markets, where economists remain largely unchallenged. Money is the principal means for us all to bridge the gap between every day, personal experience and a society whose wider reaches are impersonal. Money, as a token of society, must be impersonal in order to connect individuals to the universe of relations to which they belong, but people make everything personal, including their relations with society. This two-sided relationship is universal, but highly variable. Impersonal markets have historically undermined traditional social identities and hierarchies, while generating inequalities of their own. Money is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful.

The reality of markets, then, is not just universal abstraction, but this mutual determination of the abstract and the concrete. If you have some money, there is almost no limit to what you can do with it, but, as soon as you buy something, the act of payment lends concrete finality to your choice. Money’s significance thus lies in the synthesis it promotes of impersonal abstraction and personal meaning, objectification and subjectivity, analytical reason and synthetic narrative. Its social power comes from the fluency of its mediation between infinite potential and finite determination. Georg Simmel (1978 [1900]) had something like this in mind when he said that money is the concrete symbol of our human potential to make universal society.

Money and markets, according to Polanyi (2001 [1944]), have their origin in the effort to extend society beyond its local core. He believed that money, like the sovereign states to which it was closely related, was often introduced from outside, and this was what made the institutional attempt to separate economy from politics and naturalise the market as something internal to society so subversive. For him, ‘token money’ was designed to facilitate domestic trade, ‘commodity money’ foreign trade; but the two systems often came into conflict. Thus the gold standard sometimes exerted downward pressure on domestic prices, causing deflation that could be only partially alleviated by central banks expanding the money supply. The tension between the internal and external dimensions of economy often led to serious disorganisation of business. The final collapse of the international gold standard was thus one consequence of the ruinous attempt to separate commodity and token forms of money.

In ‘Money objects and money uses’, Polanyi (1977 [1964]) approaches money as a semantic system, like language and writing. His main point is that only modern money combines the functions of payment, standard, store and exchange, and this gives it the capacity to sustain those functions through a limited number of ‘all-purpose’ symbols. Primitive and archaic forms attach the separate functions to different symbolic objects, which should therefore be considered to be ‘special-purpose’ monies. Here Polanyi is arguing against the idea that money is only a medium of exchange, and in favour of a multi-stranded model of its evolution.

The breakdown of all-purpose money

Polanyi pointed out that the era of national monopoly currencies to which we have grown accustomed is very recent. Before the 1850s the circulation of several currencies within a given territory was normal (Guyer 2004; Kuroda 1987) and it took half a century after the Civil War for the dollar to secure a domestic monopoly in the United States (Zelizer 1994). ‘All-purpose money’ in the sense of one symbol combining the four functions of exchange, payment, store and standard has been breaking up, ever since the US dollar went off the gold standard in 1971 (Dembinski and Perritaz 2000). One possible explanation for the financial crisis, then, is that it was precipitated by the separation of functions between different types of monetary instruments. The currency wars of today are vivid proof that the world economy has reverted since the break-up of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates to the plural pattern of competing currencies that was normal before the modern era.

National capitalism has been in decline since the 1970s, but it still dominates popular and, to some extent, professional thinking about the economy. How can we conceive of society as plural rather than singular, as a federated network rather than as a bounded and centralised hierarchy? Before the era of national monopoly currencies, and already for some decades now, multiple currencies have been the norm. Central bank control has been undermined by a shift to money being issued in many forms by a global distributed network of corporations, not just states and banks, as Horacio Ortiz (2009) has demonstrated. The formation of world society as a single social network has been driven by money, markets and telecommunications for several decades (Hart 2009). After a period of convergence of a highly unequal world as a result of Western imperialism, ours is now a multi-polar, divergent world whose plurality of associations and centres of influence resembles the Medieval period more than anything since. The digital revolution in communications has been transforming money and exchange through a radical cheapening of the cost of transferring information. This has introduced new conditions for engagement with the impersonal economy (Hart 2000).

The apparent triumph of the free market after the Cold War induced two massive blunders based on the illusion that the design of specific political institutions was not an indispensable prerequisite of economic progress. Radical privatisation of Soviet bloc public economies ignored the history of politics, law and social custom that shored up market economies in the West (Durkheim 1960 [1893]). The new European single currency, introduced by the treaty of Maastricht, was to provide the social glue for political union without prior development of effective fiscal institutions or economic convergence between the EU’s North and South. This error took longer to be exposed than the first, because it was masked by the credit boom.

The biggest mistake was to replace national currencies with the euro without the necessary institutional change. An alternative, the ‘hard écu’, would float politically-managed national currencies alongside a low-inflation European central bank currency. Countries that did not join the euro, like Britain and Switzerland, have in practice enjoyed the privileges of this plural option, since they participate in Eurozone markets but retain the flexibility of manipulating their own currency. That flexibility is important, because the debt crisis can only be addressed through devaluation, managed defaults and the unpleasant alternatives of deflation and runaway inflation. The first option is denied Eurozone countries, with the results we have seen in Greece, Ireland and Portugal. The euro was invented as an expanded single currency after money had already broken up into multiple forms and functions. The Americans centralised their currency only after a civil war; the Europeans hoped that centralising theirs would be a means of achieving political union, even though it is difficult to see how a single currency could serve the interests of 300 million Europeans (Hart 2002).

The euro may not be a national currency, but it does aim to be federal, like the US dollar, and the participating countries represent in effect a league of states. Joining a larger currency bloc is a way of trying to cope with ‘the markets’, the global tide of virtual money that threatens to swamp the independence of national economies. However, the euro is still a form of state money and its management is even less democratically accountable than its national precursors. The euro is in principle a throwback to the Bretton Woods era of fixed exchange rates; and the Europeans are paying now for its rigidity. The EU is a community, not a state, and its founding principle of ‘subsidiarity’ ensures that there is room for many levels of community underneath. There is plenty of scope, therefore, for less inclusive monetary instruments to complement the euro, as long as Europeans can break with the outmoded idea of a national monopoly currency. However, the Europeans hoped for political union as a result of centralising their currency. This was a mistake.

Alternatives to national monopoly currency

The nation-state is such a powerful and enduring social form that, although single currencies have been with us for only a short time, were only partially realised and have been breaking up since the 1970s, it is very hard to dislodge the idea of money as legal tender in a sovereign territory to which its users belong. There are alternatives to national monopoly money in the form of thousands of community and complementary currencies (Blanc 2010), but most people are initially reluctant to embrace new approaches to money (Hart 2006).

The situation is psychologically complex, however. On the one hand, conventional money flatters our sense of self-determination: with some money, we can exert power over the world at will. On the other hand, there is comfort in the notion that money is not in our control at all. As an exogenous force of necessity, it serves, in a manner analogous to number, to promote clarity of judgement and action, whereas otherwise things might be frighteningly wide open. If they issued their own currencies, people would not only be freer, but would have greater responsibilities also. There is a parallel with slavery: the monopoly claimed by national currency is felt to be inevitable, since no one would freely choose it; to be told that there are viable alternatives makes nonsense of a lifetime’s enslavement to an unrewarding system. So, we cling to what we know as the only possibility. We often talk about wanting to be free, but we choose the illusion of freedom without its responsibilities. This is perhaps why we prefer money not to be of our own making. People have to be sold the idea of making their own money, and this involves challenging their most cherished beliefs.

One reason it is difficult to persuade people consciously to adopt new ideas is the unconscious use of old models when they form new associations. The nation-state has successfully represented society for a century or more, so that we have internalised its principles and reproduce them whenever we construct new forms of community. It is not surprising that, when people come together to make alternatives to the national economy, they often replicate it in their design for a new association – as a stand-alone multi-purpose community of like equals rather than, say, as a federated network of unequal social entities (Hart 2006).

A stand-alone community currency is like a radio or TV that can only tune to one station, a computer with just one programme.[ii] Supporting trade between people who keep their accounts in different currencies requires some sort of clearing network. This would be operated primarily through the internet, with each community or complementary currency having its own unique domain name. Such a system would be further enhanced by ‘multi-cc’ smart-card systems, which currently can carry up to 15 different currencies at a time, off-line and anonymous, and are designed to make community money systems easily adopted in the retail sector. The card system allows participating businesses to have their own loyalty loops if they choose. Of course, co-ordination is difficult when there is no one body concerned with establishing standards. In order to provide a genuine alternative to national monopoly money, community currencies should mimic what mainstream money has already become, a multitude of monetary instruments issued by a distributed network of institutions including far more than governments and banks.

There is, however, an alternative to plural currencies or to the global distributed network of specialist money instruments that I have described earlier, a single currency divided into compartments by a political authority. Thus, not everyone can use the Chinese renmimbi for the same purposes and its circulation is restricted in several ways. For example, the ability to purchase shares in domestic stock markets requires a licence, as does participation in foreign markets through Hong Kong banks acting as a port-of-trade. It is conceivable that, if the eurozone broke up, one form this might take would be for France and some of its smaller neighbours to impose controls on foreign exchange and capital flows, in much the same way that France and Italy re-introduced passport controls within the Shengen area in response to the North African crisis. This represents an attempt to return to the 1970s and it probably requires a political economy as large and controlled as China’s to achieve a measure of success. Meanwhile, some economists are contemplating a return to capital controls.

The evolution of money today

Simmel (1978 [1900]) argued that money’s substantial form (precious metals, then coins and paper) would wither away and be replaced by social institutions. Its functionality (the ends to which it is put and the technical means of its organisation) would be emancipated from its substance and money’s essence (what people use it for in society) progressively revealed. Money, according to Simmel, always introduces a third party to bilateral exchange, the community that shares its use. Polanyi, as we have seen, identified the four functions of money conventionally as means of payment, standard of value, store of wealth and medium of exchange. ‘All-purpose money’ unites these four functions in one symbolic form, ‘modern money’. Special-purpose monies and plural currencies were always in circulation before central banks learned how to impose the system of legal tender and this pluralism is rapidly becoming the case again.

‘Financialisation’ (Epstein 2005) describes the situation since the 1970s when institutions specialised in money management grew in size and influence while the money circuit became detached from production, trade and political oversight. The digital revolution in communications has vastly accelerated and cheapened electronic transfers, allowing many more institutions specialised in particular monetary instruments to join governments and banks in a distributed network supplying money in multiple forms.

So Simmel’s prophecy of the triumph of function over substance has been realised, thanks in part to technical innovations of the last few decades. But if the essence of money is its use within a community with shared social institutions, this too is in bad shape. Central bank currencies helped crucially to define where society and the state are, but this is no longer so. At the same time money has become much harder to define, since it is breaking up. Yet the idea and practice of national money remain strong. Globalisation has stimulated the formation of new supra-national groupings like the EU and ASEAN, while two-thirds of the 100 largest economic units on the planet are now corporations, not countries. Digital communications support new forms of commerce and association world-wide. Local currencies have sprung up in their thousands; corporate loyalty systems (e.g. air miles) multiply (Blanc 2010).

At one level, the financial crisis of 2008 was the bursting of a credit bubble that took a quarter century to build up. The larger states moved to bail out the banks, while promising to rein in their profligacy (split up investment and retail branches, curtail bonuses etc). But this did not last and the use of financial means to solve intransigent economic problems has left the world on the edge of deeper systemic failure, now manifested as a sovereign debt crisis. Nothing has yet been done to restore consumer demand in the leading Western economies and all of them look vainly to exports as their salvation. In the meantime, the banks and other corporations exploit the plurality of national jurisdictions to ensure that they are not held accountable for their financial recklessness, while seeking to influence supine governments to preserve a political framework favourable to them.

When it comes to money, one size does not fit all and it never has. But the national moment in history established the illusion that it could. If Simmel was right, if money, having lost its anchorage in substance, must be shored up by a community’s social institutions, there will have to be as many monies as there are communities. The digital revolution has begun to make that technically feasible. But there is clearly a contradiction between the technical possibilities for organising money today and the idea of society as a closed hierarchical community rather than as a decentralised egalitarian network. Society has escaped from its former home and has not yet found another one. The infrastructure of money has already become decentralised and global, and attempts to squeeze it back into a national straitjacket can only lead to international breakdown, at best economic depression, at worst world war.

Money in the making of world society

It is no longer obvious where the levers of democratic power are to be located, since the global explosion of money, markets and telecommunications has exposed the limitations of national frameworks of economic management. A return to the national solutions of the 1930s is bound to fail. We seem to be aware of the lessons of the 1930s, but are pushed by the cultural logic of national capitalism into repeating the same mistakes. There are substantial parallels between the last three decades and the similar period before 1914. In both cases, market forces were unleashed within national societies, leading to rapid capital accumulation and an intensification of economic inequality. Finance capital led the internationalisation of economic relations and people migrated in large numbers all over the world. Money seemed to be the dominant social force in human affairs, and this could be attributed first to its greater freedom of movement as the boundaries of society were extended outwards, then to colonial empire, now to the digital revolution and transnational corporations. The main difference is that the late nineteenth century saw the centralisation of politics and production in a bureaucratic revolution, while now public bureaucracies are being dismantled by neoliberal globalisation.

I have suggested that money has reverted to a plural form where specialised monetary instruments are now issued by a distributed network of disparate organisations that go far beyond just governments and the main banks. The functions of exchange, store, standard and payment are now performed by money instruments that few people understand. The history of credit default swaps, for example, and AIG’s under-capitalised role in insuring banks against loss was only revealed after the financial crisis broke. This case highlights how inadequate government regulatory pressure is when the money force has escaped its national bounds. Yet politics is a dialog of the deaf, between those who deny the need for political regulation of markets and others who remain trapped in the outmoded discourse of central bank money. I do not know how this impasse can be transcended.

Reversion to national protectionism would be a disaster, but social thinkers are not yet offering a more inclusive alternative. The idea of world society is still perceived by most people as at best a utopian fantasy or at worst a threat to us all. We need, however, to build an infrastructure of money adequate to humanity’s common needs. One response in this direction goes by the name of the ‘alter-globalisation’ movement (Pleyers 2010). This is a loose network of initiatives seeking to coordinate global development from below. The idea of a ‘human economy’ (Hart, Laville and Cattani 2010) may offer a bridge to that movement for progressives of an interdisciplinary bent. Meanwhile the tragedy of the euro drags the world economy into a terminal crisis of Sophoclean proportions. Even if the Germans come round in the end with proposals to save it, they will fail since human intentions cannot undo mistakes made in the past. The Europeans will cling to their notions of national interest while thinking of the crisis as one of debt when it is a turning point in the history of money.


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Dembinski, P. and C. Perritaz 2000. Towards the break-up of money: when reality driven by information technology outshines Simmel’s vision. Foresight 2: 483–97.

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Hart, K. 2002. A tale of two currencies. Anthropology Today 18: 20–2.

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Kuroda, A. 2008. Concurrent but non-integrable currency circuits: complementary relationships among monies in modern China and other regions. Financial History Review 15: 17–36.

Ortiz, H. 2009. Anthropologie politique de la finance contemporaine: évaluer, investir, innover. Doctoral thesis, l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

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[i] David Graeber, in his path-breaking new volume (2011), takes the contrast between credit money (its original form) and currency (notably bullion) as the basis for a wide-ranging analysis of world history over the last 5,000 years.

[ii] I learned most about the potential of community currencies from Michael Linton and his associates in 2000–02. See

One thought on “The euro crisis seen as an episode in the history of money

  1. John Bryden

    This is a great paper Keith, and we must all think fast about the question you raise (the dialogue of the deaf). At the moment the crisis is destroying democracy as we know it, and in several directions. First, money markets are actually removing governments (eg Greece, Italy) – it is not people who re doing this – and replacing them with ‘functionaries’ who no doubt belong to at least one of the two camps you identify. This is very dangerous. Second, governments seem to be hell bent on killing off the social sciences in order to focus on ‘real science and technology’ which is supposed to assure us of a competitive future. E.g. the coalition government in the UK’s recent actions to remove teaching grant from social sciences and humanities. This at a time when at least some social scientists have been trying to reassert their role in terms of working with social movements, rather than being led by the governments. Etc etc. I could go on.
    But for me, living in Norway, I feel our social and political system is worth something, which is worth fighting for – a good decentralised and relatively egalitarian social democracy with good free education for all, and attention to human rights issues. The national state assures this. Joining a fiscally united EU would not!

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