The war on cash
We talk to Brett Scott about the war on our wallets, who is working to eradicate cash and how you can defend it.
Brett Scott – he is a journalist, activist, economic anthropologist, former financial broker and cryptocurrency consultant. He is the author of Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto and the War for our Wallets (2022) and The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance (2013). He publishes the newsletter Altered States of Monetary Consciousness and tweets as @suitpossum.
Dominik Kaczmarski, Rafał Górski: Could you explain who is waging war on our physical money, with whom, and why?
Brett Scott: Sure. The first thing I would say, there’s the dominant story that’s often told in the public domain. We are told that the reason why cash is declining is because ordinary people are just naturally and inevitably turning away from it, because they perceive digital systems as superior. So it’s always presented as this bottom up phenomenon, but what I’m arguing is that actually, many people find the cash system vital and actually prefer it. What’s often happening is that there’s a top down push against the cash system from big players. The book is trying to rebalance the story that we find in the public domain. It’s true that the people might experience themselves moving towards digital payment, but often this is because they’re being pulled or pushed in that direction by big institutions. And those institutions include the global banking sector.
Are banks interested in liquidating cash?
The banks in any country run the underlying account systems upon which digital money systems are based. By digital money systems I mean using your cards or using your apps, or any of these things. The banking sector has a long history of trying to undermine the cash system in various ways. And sometimes this is very blatant. Bank of America’s CEO outright had came out and said: we want a cashless society. It’s because they can get fees and data from getting people to switch to their digital payment platforms.
Who else is waging war on cash?
The second body of players are the payment companies like Visa and MasterCard. Basically these guys are intermediaries of digital transactions and every cash transaction is an event, that they’re not making fees from. Visa and MasterCard are very straightforward about their attempts to undermine the cash system. Then there’s the Fintech sector. Fintech is a broad field, a synthesis of tech and finance industry, that’s trying to automate the financial sector. Fintech basically takes any existing financial product and tries to automate it. The cash system is hard to automate, so Fintech players have a natural, ideological bias against cash. They’re not as direct as players like Visa and MasterCard, who actually lose money every single time you use cash. The Fintech sector in general supports the idea of a cashless society because their agenda is to try to automate everything and cash is a physical, offline system that can’t be automated. This also applies to big tech. Most tech entrepreneurs are anti-cash and they will present this idea that somehow it’s natural to move away from the cash system and into their platforms.
And how are the governments behaving?
Governments are a bit more complicated because there’s different departments. They don’t always agree with each other on what they think about cash. For example, some people in the tax authorities are anti-cash because they think you can use it perform tax evasion. And some people in security circles might be anti-cash because they think it is easier to hide criminal activity with it. On the other hand people in the central banks are ambiguous a lot of time, although they know that access to cash is very important for maintaining the stability of the monetary system. So you’ll find quite a lot of diversity among government players, whether they’re pro or anti cash. For example, the Indian Government’s anti-cash. Players like the Hungarian government have also come out against cash. There’s a lot of these libertarians circles or sort of civil libertarians, they often see the government’s anti-cash stance as related to a desire for increased surveillance of society. These are the main players in the war against cash and bear in mind this term, the war against cash. It’s intended to rebalance that story I mentioned at the beginning. So the war on cash is looking at the top down pushes against the cash system, which in turn can create bottom up movements. If you have these big, institutional players that are slowly undermining the cash system, what you’ll often find is that it also slowly undermines the public’s viewpoint on it. Also it will actually slowly degrade the cash infrastructure. This will make it relatively harder and harder to use it, so digital systems will start to look even more convenient, as physical money infrastructure gets weaker. This is what the war on cash is all about. It’s both the ideological attack against it, but it’s also the erosion of its infrastructure, the reduction of it. This then creates these feedback loops, which makes it even more likely that people will be sucked into the corporate systems.
In Your book you write, that when Bitcoin emerged, you worked as a consultant on it for a few years. That gave you the opportunity to work with some extremists, conspiracy theory supporters. Since Your message isn’t mainstream, I’m sure You’ve also been called that. How do you respond to such accusations?
Well, the key feature of a conspiracy theory tends to be that, it’s imagined that there are these particular human players who will be pulling the strings behind the scenes, right? So you’ll look at a very complex system like the global economy for example and you just say: “Oh well, it must be Bill Gates”. You’ll isolate this particular human beings. It must be these particular people who are the ones behind the curtains calling the shots. So often conspiracy theories have the feeling almost of fairy tales. We tell them to ourselves to explain how something works right now. We often use stories about people like ourselves to try and understand our world, right? And because we, human beings experience the world in quite small scale, we often struggle to understand things that have huge reach. So conspiracy theories are often an attempt to spin a human story about inhuman scale systems. Somebody could say: “ OK, the reason why the global economy is doing something is because these groups of nefarious people have orchestrated it to be like that”. I don’t argue this at all.
And what is it like in your opinion?
What I say is that what’s actually happening in the global economy system is precisely a lack of anybody particular controlling it. What often happens is, you’ll have large scale processes in market systems where these firms will be competing with each other. Big bank CEOs believe that they’re locked into a kind of death struggle with each other. Then this in turn makes them believe that they got to do certain things in order to stay competitive. They got to automate, they got to do XY and Z, but they’re not consciously trying to orchestrate a conspiracy there. They don’t perceive themselves like that. But often there are pressures in the global economic system which will lead them to behave in these certain kind of ways in order to win power. This is often what leads them to doing things like undermining the cash system as they try to automate all their services. My perspective is a systemic description of why these players end up attacking the monetary structure and I don’t even claim that they actually have self-knowledge that they’re doing it. Bear in mind, for many people it’s hard to do a systemic level analysis. Most people find the global economy too big to do so. So it’s actually easier to tell stories. Human scale stories like, Bill Gates met some guy in a room and they discussed this. Then they decided that this the path forward for the global economy. You have these sort of fantasies, that individual people have the ability to totally control the economy. That’s a very classic conspiracy theory type of mentality. I try to do a systemic level analysis.
And what does this analysis reveal?
I’m arguing there is a top down push against the cash system. It does superficially look similar to conspiracy theorist, who will argue the same thing, but from a different perspective. I’ve actually been featured, for example, in conspiracy videos where directors have taken cuttings of me from some other films and then spliced it into their production. The basic point though, is that you don’t need a conspiracy in the global capitalist system for power grabs to happen. Big firms do it naturally, they don’t need to be coordinating in a conspiratorial fashion in order for these types of processes to occur. Actually, it’s often precisely the fact that because they’re not that well-coordinated they end up doing this.
I’m assuming that the systemic approach is the anthropologist education, talking through you right now?
Yeah, it’s the anthropologist. It’s also the political economist. When you come from the anthropology background, you are taught that groups of people are held together by these sort of collective force fields. If you’re a person in a particular society, you’re affected by everybody else around you. A lot of your behaviour doesn’t stem from yourself. It stems from everybody else around. You’re not really an individual, you’re part of this collective mesh. So that’s a basic starting point for anthropology, we’re all sort of stuck in these big interdependent structures. Then you add that actually nowadays we’re also stuck in these huge scale economies, which are also interdependent webs of corelations. So you have all these cultures, held together by his giant systems. All sorts of systems with lots of interactions in them that emerge from the actions of other people, like internet for example. We experience change in those systems almost like the weather. You just see these storms happening and you don’t really know where they come from. Suddenly recessions or inflation are hitting. These things appear to you as if they just come out of nowhere. In reality they’re coming out of interactions between people. And in that context you often will try to develop these stories for why this stuff is happening.
So why are these things happening?
One of the big points, I’m making in the book is that, we’re stuck in these large scale interdependent structures, but there are players that have different sizes and influence in that systems. So big firms will have relatively more power in a large scale system to pull others in the direction that they want to go in. For example, the whole banking sector and the whole tech sector starts slowly moving in a particular direction. They want to automate their systems, they want to push and issue digital money. They want slowly recalibrate the whole structure and they have means to do so. So when you’re on the street wherever you could be and you suddenly feel that increased pressure to use, say for example digital payment. That’s a kind of a systemic level effect that’s happening beyond you. It’s not just suddenly appearing in your environment, making you think: maybe I should use a credit card. You fast forward a few years down the line and suddenly it’s no longer a choice.
Could You give an example?
Five years ago in London, people were using multiple forms of payment, they would use cash, they would use cards. Now if you go to London, it’s almost impossible in many places to use cash. And people somehow believe that it came from them, that they were the ones that pushed that change, but that’s not true. This was a change that was set in motion by the corporate sector, and it’s been slowly in the works for a long time. What’s happening now is that this reached the kind of tipping point, where the corporate sector has won. Londoners are all slumping into conformity, into that cashless platforms and systems. That’s quite a complicated way of talking about this stuff. These processes are very subtle, invisible and quite hard to see. The problem is that modern economies are often described as if they’re driven by the isolated actions of individuals. So you’ll say that it’s the individuals decisions that are driving this whole structure, but in an actual economy, there are no isolated players. We’re all entangled with each other. So if you have these big organizations that are pulling you in certain ways, this is why slowly but surely, your behaviour starts to change. We’re not lonely islands. That is why I think that economic anthropology is way better at analysing this than economics is.
You’ve already mentioned it, Visa admits that it wants a cashless society. El Salvador had announced cryptocurrency as an official means of payment. India in 2016 invalidated most of the banknotes in usage. Could you give three more examples of war on cash?
Just bear in mind the El Salvador example is a very specific one. El Salvador is actually very pro-cash as a country, most people want to use physical cash, but the president of El Salvador has entered into an alliance with the cryptocurrency industry. He is trying to force people to use Bitcoin there, but it’s encountering a lot of resistance, so in many ways El Salvador is heavily cash based society. There is just an opportunistic president that’s playing a game. India was a very obvious one, but many other countries have been much more subtle about these processes. So for example, Sweden has seen a long process where everyone has slowly been weaned off the cash system. Bear in mind, in a place like Sweden, you’ll have high levels of trust in institutions. Generally in all Scandinavian societies that is a thing. So a lot of people in Scandinavia are very uncritical about becoming dependent upon institutions. People often are shocked that you would think that there was something wrong about becoming totally dependent upon the banking sector. They’re very self-apparent that somehow it’s fine to constantly be dependent upon these organizations. Whereas if we move away from places like Sweden into, for example Mexico or somewhere where public trust in big actors isn’t high, many people prefer the cash system. So this is often where you need these top down pushes, because these big institutions have to try and force people away onto these digital platforms. Nigeria, for example, promotes fintech and tries to attack the cash system and they do it in various kinds of ways. Refusing to accept cash for government services would be one example. In Australia, the government’s got this cashless welfare card system. Rather than paying welfare in the form of ordinary cash or bank deposits that could be taken out as such, they decided they would give welfare money in the form of this card that cannot be used at an ATM. It cannot be converted to cash basically.
What was the reasoning behind it?
Explanation behind it was this paternalistic message saying, that this will stop welfare recipients being able to buy alcohol or cigarettes and things like that. It would also only be usable in particularly approved places for approved goods. That’s actually been scrapped recently, because it wasn’t working and there’s lots of backlash against it. In Greece, there’s been a huge amount of anti-cash rhetoric after their financial crisis. Bear in mind what happened. Big French and German banks recklessly extended credit into the to the Greek economy. Because of that Greece was enforced into these austerity measures and anti-cash stance to just basically please German and French banks. I could probably go on, but I’m drifting around with this question a bit. There’s so many different countries and so many different perspectives. In general however the lead is really coming from the corporations and a lot of this narrative originates from Silicon Valley. It comes out of sort of your mainstream corporate circles and it’s filtering into the consciousness of many politicians.
Who sets the ideological tone of society?
It’s actually the corporate sector. So for example, in the UK where I was based for a long time, politicians like Boris Johnson, the kind of places where he hangs out are filled with his banker friends. The part of the same social class as him. So when these politicians are forming their sense of what’s normal and what’s expected in the world, they’re often taking it from the social circles they’re in, which are most of the time filled with other elite classes. And within these elite classes there’s often the idea that what you should to do, is to suck people into ever greater dependence upon large scale institutions that the elite class runs. The aforementioned ideology comes from the corporate sector and actually then it’s projected into many political classes across the world. If you’re a small government, for example, let’s say even the South African government, where I’m from, you will be receiving all these messages. The international scene says: “If you want to keep up with progress in the world, you better be moving towards these corporate systems. Otherwise you’ll be left behind”. There’s this whole sort of ideological structure and it’s hard for ordinary citizens to pick out.
And are there specific organisations interested in abolishing cash?
There are particular groups like the Better Than Cash Alliance, which I talk about in the book. This is an example of an organization that directly tries to project that idea into governments. They are funded by Visa, Citigroup and other big players. They literally go to big humanitarian NGOs or states to ask: do you want to join our alliance where we promote cashless world, which is in fact corporate payments world. The mainstream narrative is that it’s always better to absorb people into large corporate systems under the excuse of inclusion rather than protecting our own local cash system.
EU in one of their announcements from 2020 says, that they are concerned with decline of cash usage in eurozone, therefore they will discuss the possibility of enforcing on every member of the eurozone the law to accept cash as a means of payment. That’s hopeful, but could you tell me who is our ally in this battle?
I mean look, over half the world’s population uses cash far more than they use digital payment. So in many ways the biggest ally is actually the hidden voices of all the people who use the cash system. Who never get heard because the public narrative was totally dominated by your innovation elite, who constantly project this idea that the natural evolution is to move to these corporate systems. There’s a huge supressed voice of all the people who not only use the cash system, but actually often prefer it. One of the insidious narratives you’ll find in these mainstream circles is that the only reason people haven’t yet started using digital is a lack of access or some barrier to it. If only we could remove the obstacle, then everyone will just naturally want to move to these systems. Actually many people prefer cash.
Then what is the issue?
Unfortunately many individuals in political circles, when they’re defending the cash system, they often will still actually buy into the corporate narrative. They’ll say something like: “There are still some people, who remain dependent upon cash and who haven’t yet quite learned that they should have upgraded. So we need to protect their access to cash until they manage to join the digital system”. They won’t say something like: We need to protect a strong public alternative against corporate domination”. They’ll say that, there’s still some elderly people who haven’t yet transitioned and we better give them more time. This reinforces the corporate narrative. It is very rare to find a politician who will say, not only should we protect access to cash, but we should promote it. That’s very, very scarce but better than nothing. There are proposals for laws to do that and for example, in the US, there have been cities which have pushed out pro-cash laws. In cities like Philadelphia you have to allow people to pay with cash and I think those laws are great. It would be hopeful to see that actually implemented in Europe more.
It is worth noting here that Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, came out with a legislative initiative making it compulsory to accept cash in shops. This success was also influenced by our civic campaign „Defend cash!”.
Unfortunately what we hear is that the market will naturally choose the best option. The idea is that if we’ll just let the market develop then people immanently move away from the cash system. Because it’s known that if you have hegemony in society, if you dominate the economic landscape, people will start to choose your platforms. If you just let the market run, it will bend towards corporate hegemony. Some of these pro-business lobbies will say things like: “You better not put in requirements for businesses to accept cash, because you’ll be squashing innovation, you’ll be hampering the activities of the market”. So a politician’s desire to protect the cash will often be presented as some kind of unnatural intervention, that’s stopping the natural workings of the market. They’ll never of course, mention that the whole market is dominated by an oligopoly of financial players and tech players. Most of the time the pro-cash actions will be presented as an temporary solutions. What we really need is a permanent protection saying, we want to guarantee that cash stays, but also promote it so that it actually gets more powerful relative to the corporate systems.
Could You give some insight on what brought You into the fight? Who were Your inspirations, mentors? Who could You refer us to?
Yeah. I worked in the financial sector and derivative contracts, which are referred to as high finance. It’s often considered a complicated large-scale money operations. I was working in that field and actually I realized that many people in the big financial institutions didn’t actually really understand the monetary system very well. They often assumed it was just quite simple. Central Bank issues money and that’s basically it. I became even more interested in the in monetary systems because in economic anthropology there’s a much stronger history of critically analysing how monetary systems actually work. You don’t really find much of this in economics. Economics as a discipline tends to ignore the history of money and monetary analysis. Anthropology on the other hand, studies precapitalist societies and it studies them on their own terms. Whereas economy was forged in the context of societies that are already immersed in the monetary systems. A lot of economists just takes for granted that money exists. Anthropologists don’t, so you actually end up with a much more sort of critical analysis of monetary systems.
What did You discover then?
I started noticing that majority of the reports around cashless society had a lot of inaccuracies in it. What was often being presented, is this idea that digital money was just some kind natural upgrade to cash. That there’s only one form of money in society and you can implement it in different forms. That a digital system is basically the same as cash, just more efficient. Through my long explorations of monetary systems I could see that was completely inaccurate. There’s different types of money in society issued by different players and they have got different political properties. The cash system is the core underlying structure upon which digital systems are actually built.
How do we explain this to ordinary citizens?
In the book I used this casinos metaphor. If you go to a casino and you hand over, let’s say $100 in cash, the casino takes ownership of it and issues out these chips. That can be used within the confines of the casino. They’re privately issued secondary form of money that’s actually tethered to the first type of money. They are a privately issued promise for taking out cash, that can be passed around. The banking sector is quite similar. If you deposit $100 in a bank, they issue out these digital chips, let’s call them. And then you can move those digital chips around the confines of the bank payment system, but they’re actually tethered back to the cash system. Public confidence in that second layer of money is predicated upon having access to the first layer of money. You can have huge problems of confidence in your monetary system if you can’t get access to that first type of money, if you can’t go to the ATM and exit the banking sector right now.
Any real-life examples?
Younger people, for example, who have been born into the situation where there’s an increased domination by digital players might have partially forgotten this distinction. That will very quickly be remembered again in the context of an actual financial crisis or when the banking sector is under threat. It quickly becomes apparent that actually the first tier state money is superior to the second tier digital chips that are a form of cash. Narrative that we don’t need cash system I a very fickle one. I guarantee it will very quickly change in any situation of crisis. Even among young people. In any economy, it’s always the youngsters who are the most vulnerable to the marketing of the big firms because, they’re the ones who are currently going through the process of differentiating themselves from the generation before them. This applies to your parents’ generation and to your grandparents generation as well. They too would have been at one point at the cutting edge and they would have been the targets of advertising campaigns telling them what was normal. For example, a lot of young people have been told that if you’re not using digital apps and internet, you’re out of sync with all your friends. I guarantee you that in 15 years’ time, those people who are currently being targeted as the leading edge of innovation, won’t be treated as such anymore. There is this futile process in large scale capitalist systems where the younger generation always believes that it’s somehow leading. What’s really happening is that the corporate sector is leading and it’s just projecting its interest into the culture of the young people. They can then use young people to make older people feel out of sync, uncool. That same process will happen to currents millennials and Gen Z. This is an ongoing process that continually happens in capitalist systems. There’s multidirectional things happening here and often most of them are out of your hands.
What should we do then?
I say, promote the cash system, but I don’t try to say that people should lack digital ones. It’s entirely legitimate. Being pro-cash doesn’t mean you’re anti-digital. That’s industry’s’ perspective. Most people actually prefer multiple options. Most ordinary citizens would like to have multiple things. They don’t want options removed from them.
If we go cashless then technically, commercial banks and corporations will take control of the flow of money. Will that be a scenario from sci-fi movies? Scenario in which it is those institutions that hold true power and central banks have to give in to them, am I right? Would that make them obsolete?
That won’t make them obsolete. I think it’s unlikely that that scenario could actually happen. Precisely because for financial stability reasons. Again, we have a narrative that cashless a society is somehow inevitable, but the reality is different to the narrative. For a capitalist system to stay stable, you have to protect the integrity of your monetary system, which underpins everything. Removing the cash system harms the integrity and resilience of the monetary system, which in the end isn’t in the interest of corporations. Bear in mind, many of these corporations act against their own interests because they are pursuing their private, individual gain rather than thinking about the collective effects of their actions. All these banks are pushing against the cash system and Visa is pushing against it as well. They’re undermining the monetary system and in result forcing the state to do the same. If you’re a capitalist state and you’re thinking: how do we protect our structures, then it actually forces them into this harmful action. Which is why they’re for example thinking about these CBDCs – central bank’s digital currency. They’re saying if the cash system gets deeply undermined, we might need to then issue a form of digital money in central bank digital currency that can be used by ordinary people. If they do that they will be competing directly with commercial banks, which they don’t want to do. So actually it’s in their interest to protect the cash system because it will maintain the balance of power and the monetary system. In this scenario however, where actually the cash system was fully undermined? Yeah, you’d have huge problems of corporate domination and surveillance and all these things.
Could you then tell me more about forms of resistance that you’re witnessing?
OK, so I would split the resistance into like top down and bottom up. There are these sort of public groups which are pushing for the protection of cash. These citizen groups, those are bottom up oriented. There’s also individual action. You can have people who for example, do individual activism trying to protect the cash system. When they see a shop that refuses cash, they will engage the owners and they’ll say, hey, you shouldn’t be doing this. There’s various forms of bottom up activism like that. I think a lot more citizen groups need to be formed to represent the voice of cash users, because course the voice of the digital payments industry is so well-funded. There needs to be top down action as well from states and big institutions. Actively promoting the cash system, that’s one of the big things that’s needed now. As you mentioned, there are already initiatives where there’ll be these quite weak and tentative types of approaches saying, OK, well, we should maybe, you know, maintain the system. That’s mostly what these top down things right now say, let’s try to maintain the system rather then, let’s make it stronger. That is what you need.
Why is it so crucial?
Because many central banks claim, that they are neutral on this issue. That it’s not for them to arbitrate. Bear in mind, the digital payments industry is so well funded that it’s not an even playing field. Cash has no public advocates. They’re not promoting it, there are no advertisements on the streets because it’s a public utility. When central banks say things like, we’re neutral, we’re not going to take sides, they’re basically taking the sides of the digital payments industry. The metaphor used in the book about this was, imagine there’s a parent and it’s watching an older brother beat up his younger sister. The parent insists on being neutral, but not taking sides is conceptually equivalent to them taking the brother’s side. They know that he’s going to win and they’re letting him do it. It’s the same thing with the cash system right now. These big players, they say, well, it’s not up to us. They’re basically just letting the cash system get destroyed. So really what they need to do is to take an active side and say, actually, it’s important for the public to know the implications of going cashless. They don’t realize what’s happening in these structures. That will take an active effort.
Could You give me 3 concrete you reasons behind defending cash and have you got something reassuring to say to people of Poland fighting this battle?
Yeah. Three concrete reasons: cash doesn’t crash. In a world where large scale digital systems are under threat from cyber-attacks and natural disasters it’s important to keep a form of money that doesn’t fail for resilience purposes. Cash is the public bicycle system of payments. It’s inclusive and not controlled by private interests. It maintains your privacy and resilience, so it’s important to keep that. Cash is intuitive to us. We are told that what we should desire these transnational digital high speed systems. However we are increasingly realizing that this systems actually don’t really make us very happy. Many people feel increasingly stressed, disorientated, confused, overloaded, burnt out by large scale digital interaction and in many ways, there’s a kind of a backlash happening against it. There’s nothing wrong with using slower physical forms of money. It’s very natural actually and we should stop accepting this narrative that somehow there’s something wrong with that. I think many people are slowly realizing this and this is also a source of hope.
You know, even beyond this issue around cash, people are noticing that what we’re calling convenience and digital systems are actually just some kind of addiction. Many people are realizing that they are in fact addicted to these digital platforms. That they’re having their data harvested but rarely do they gain some forms of well-being from these systems. We’re increasingly heavily burnt out from digital world. I think there’s going to be some forms of backlash going forward, even among younger generations who will start to realize that actually there’s something toxic about being completely immersed in digital systems all the time. And I think you’re going to see like a lot of pro-analog movements starting to come out in the future. Actually I think it’s going to get even more so in the context of like climate change for example, where there’s going to be an increasing scepticism about being totally dependent on large scale transnational digital infrastructures. I think it’s short sighted to imagine that there’s something futile about protecting analog systems. I think actually they’re going to have a comeback. So This is why the public bicycle system metaphor makes sense as well. The bicycle might have had a sort of brief moment where it dipped in popularity as the cars boomed, but now bicycles are making a big comeback. Lots of people actually realize that it is a better solution. I think it’s going to be something like that. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there’s a big return at some point to people noticing that there are actually a lot of important reasons to protect physical forms of money.
Thank You for taking the time to talk to us.
Dominik Kaczmarski, Rafał Górski