According to the Romanian philosopher Constantin Noica, the magnitude of a thought can be seen in how widely it has brought a new idea into circulation – a new idea that is significant for how we explore the world and for the development of thought itself. Even if an idea might seem strange at first, the essential measure of its significance is that, because of the power it possesses, the world and how we think about it have been irrevocably changed.
This benchmark also applies to the thoughts about money. The real significance of a money-thinker comes from delivering an original idea that leads to changing our way of thinking about money, setting our thoughts in a new direction.
This is especially important for two reasons. First, the “riddle of money” makes it one of the most opaque and vexing mysteries mankind has faced since the origins of society. And second, insightful explanations have the power to transform our habituated thought patterns, mental blocks, misconceptions, misrepresentations, ideological and cultural truisms and trivialities concerning money. A third, perhaps less central, reason reflects Copernicus’ idea that of all the dangers threatening a society, money is probably the greatest, because it impacts all aspect of life, but above all, because it is invisible and its destructive effects are only apparent when it is too late.
In this respect, it is not bad to cultivate mistaken ideas about money; what is bad is to have no idea at all about it. False ideas can be discussed and exposed, but the absence of ideas is the language of indifference. This is especially true with money. Not that money isn’t talked about. On the contrary, everyone makes sense of it in his or her own way. Everyone believes they have something to say about this, the second most important topic, after God. Everyone is convinced that they have mastered it. But this would-be knowledge is mostly just a cacophony of trivialities, clichés and empty claims that only block more useful thinking about money. In this discordant chaos, truly new ideas about money are in short supply.
Everyone may talk about money but most, let’s be honest, are clueless. Only a very few people can claim to speak clearly about this deeply mysterious object, money, really is.
Money-thinkers tend not to be pioneers but rather are more reflective thinkers. They tend not to formulate any grand programs for the future. Rather, they generally stick to broad scenarios, prognoses and utopias. Even the really alternative money-thinkers limit themselves to battling the worst excesses of chrematistics, the corrupting form of the money-based economy.
As thinkers, their basic tenor is usually ... thoughtful. They try to understand the historical evolution of money – be it the way money has been dematerialized (Georg Simmel), how it has become an instrument of power (Karl Marx) or a production factor (John Maynard Keynes). That is why it is important to us in this series of portraits to present not only the most famous but also the most original money ideas and money-thinkers.
There are some giants, like Aristotle, who really did articulate some groundbreaking as well as misleading ideas about money. Or Goethe, who one might have assumed devoted himself solely to the fine arts, but who had some revolutionary ideas about modern money. But we also present some peripheral figures of intellectual life, historians, anthropologists or psychologists, generally unknown to broad public, who formulated valuable ideas on the subject of money.
Sometimes great minds produce only trivial insights with minor impact, but sometimes, as well, insignificant thoughts about money and its reform have far-reaching consequences. For example, consider the unexpected revival of Silvio Gesell’s free money among some of today’s leading economists, such as Greg Mankiw or Ken Rogoff.
Some may complain about the limited space that we have granted academic economists. But this merely corresponds to the marginal attention that has been given to money in the work of most economists. In the standard books of discipline, money is largely ignored, or, and if it is treated at all, it is still regarded as a medium born from the needs of commercial exchange (which is factually false). Such misguided theories of the “veil of money” are still evident today and show how thoroughly the subject of money has been suppressed in economic thought.
That is why we feature some of the more unorthodox money-thinkers in our series. Today we are witnessing a momentous social and economic transformation: the abolition of money. We have entered the era of the “cashless” society. At a rapid pace, everything that we had taken to be money is vanishing. This alone underscores how important it is for us to revise our conceptual understanding of money. In the following, we devote particular attention to this important topic.