It’s been branded the root of all evil, and the unquenchable desire to amass obscene quantities of it plays a starring role in the downfall of the human condition. So if we rejected the concept of money entirely, what would become of us?
At first glance, rejecting the very concept of money might seem ludicrous. Why wouldn’t we want the security blanket in the form of central banks, living completely at their mercy, regardless of the consequences?
Historically, there has always been some form of medium of exchange present in communities – be that cigarettes in prison, or ancient runes in Aztec culture. But societal behaviours are changing quickly: today, renting is a valid alternative to ownership, and virtual currencies compete with gold. If money were to be wiped out, what would the ramifications be?
In an increasingly virtual world where the physicality of ownership is removed from the consumer, does money still hold the same status or level of importance? Alongside the invention of effortless, hassle-free ways to spend (like Paypal or contactless cards) comes an increasingly nonchalant attitude concerning the ability to part with your money. Anyone who’s ever worked in retail is familiar with the forced smiles and small-talk that come with customers proclaiming “it’s far too easy for me to spend everything here!”, to which you can only respond in nodded agreement and artificial laughter.
Some countries have almost already lost the physical aspect of currency: roughly 96% of all transactions in the UK are made electronically. Should all transactions be made electronically from this day forward, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to speculate that very little would actually change. We are, it could easily be contended, a civilisation completely at the mercy of The Banks. So what happens if this authority gets taken away?
Imagine a scene a few years from now: some form of vague uprising has resulted in a total rejection of the concept of capital. Would a lack of currency result in a form of all-out anarchy, or would it be possible to construct and maintain an ordered society which totally excludes the theory of money? Cash only has any form of intrinsic value because we have given it one. Outside of our grubby macrocosm, these coins and pieces of paper are of no worth to anyone or anything.
Please forgive the fatigued metaphor, but if an alien of some description were to land on earth, their first point of interest most certainly would not be these papery trinkets we hold so dear.
In cases of gross inheritance, or attainment of fortune through immoral or unsettling avenues, select individuals having wallets bursting at the seams appears to be deeply unfair. Perhaps the entire theory of currency is a generational concept (admittedly, it spans a few, but stay with me). In a similar way to one culture’s religion being the subsequent’s humour, it might be argued that the notion of money could eventually be erased as an idea in itself, becoming something to be laughed at and ridiculed.
Naturally, people may be a little hesitant to give up these pennies they’ve managed to accrue - one might suggest that this wouldn’t be possible without force.
This presents a rather dangerous idea: would it be ethical to remove this notion from people’s minds? Sure, whilst a utopia in which worries over personal finances become obsolete seems more than ideal, it poses the rather problematic complication of how to achieve this.
Let’s take a momentary detour to consider what would be needed to erase money: just like the persistence of myths and old wives’ tales being passed along from our ancestors, it is unrealistic to expect our predecessors to simply forget that money ever existed. As such, the only solution would be somewhat invasive: to delve into the depths of the human brain itself and somehow forcibly remove this ideology, Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style. And if the removal of the concept of “money” requires some unpleasant persuasion, we need to ask some bigger questions.
If we can erase the idea of “money”, then other ideologies might be removed from human memory under the guise of social evolution; perhaps the doors to certain unsavoury incidents from history would quietly be closed and never spoken of again. And then why not dive deeper? As soon as certain concepts were to be conveniently discarded, it would be difficult to know when to stop.
The desire to be utterly oblivious may become addictive; the impulse to erase the unpleasantness of our existence proving to be far more appealing than suffering through life's difficulties in the traditional sense.
Alternatively (and somewhat worryingly), if the ability to remove information from the brain somehow becomes an option, the opposite may also be possible.
One recent study, in which a group of monkeys received a series of microstimulations to the premotor cortex (essentially, current-driven excitations of neural elements), resulted in electrical impulses simulating information. Basically, it's possible to deliver new “knowledge” to parts of the creatures' brains.
Cleansing our minds of stressful concepts – be it finance, awareness of poverty and war, or even the memory of a person who was rude to you on the bus this morning – does hold a certain attractiveness. If we're able to erase parts of simian memory, there's nothing stopping us from implanting whatever we like in its place.
So if money is something that humans are biologically wired to develop, there'd be little point in taking the time to delete it. A post-money community would very possibly develop their own form of exchange. It’s hard not to conclude that there's nothing we wouldn't turn into a “new money”.
And if our current human nature is by and large a selfish beast, a money-free future may result, ironically, in a more self-absorbed society. In essence, the issue at hand is not the problem of money itself, but the way in which we perceive it.
Historically, we’ve been driven by an unconscious desire to own, but that has started to change. When you can easily borrow instead of owning, or aim to accrue experiences over possessions, maybe a culture could develop in which people simply help one another improve their lives.
After all, "wealth" is a relative term. Maybe a post-money world doesn't tinker with the basics too much, and is actually a place where we address another from of wealth entirely: one that doesn't have a number attached to it.
Instead of focusing on an alternative to currency, maybe we should erase our need to own and amass it. And then we'll all ask the question that only the super-rich have thus far addressed: what shall we do with our time, now that we no longer worry about cash?