The Abolition of Money

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The Abolition of Money

By I. Zangwill

Illustrated by Max Cowper and Herbert Johnson.


THE Cynic was very old and very wise and very unpopular. I was the only person at his "At Home" that afternoon. I gave him my views on Bi-metallism, having just read the leader in The Times, He yawned obtrusively, and growled, "Bi-metallism, indeed! The only remedy for modern civilisation is A-metallism. Money must be abolished. The root of all evil must be pulled up." "Money abolished!" I echoed in amaze. "Why, any student of political economy will tell you we could not live without it. Lacking a common measure of value, we——"

"So it has always been held by students when answering political economy papers," he interrupted impatiently. "Yet I dreamt once of a land where the currency was called in, and the morning stars sang together."

"But the exchange of commodities——" I began.

"Was effected by the sublime simplicity of barter. At one sweep were swept away all that monstrous credit system which had created an army of accountants and a Court of Bankruptcy; all that chaos of single and double-faced entry—all that sleight-of-hand abracadabra of signatures—all those paper phantoms of capital. The Stock Exchange and other gambling hells shrivelled up. There was a vast saving of clerical labour, and there were few loopholes for fraud. Everything was too simple. Swift retribution overtook the man who shirked his obligations to his fellows. Nobody could juggle with bits of paper at the North Pole and ruin people at the South. The windows of human Society were cleared of the gigantic complex cobweb full of dead flies. One could look inside and see what was going on. 'Gentlemen' could not flourish in the light. They were like the fungi that grew in cellars. Every man became both a worker and a trader."

"Not an unmixed gain, that," I protested.

"I grant you," said the Cynic. "Some of the finer shades of fine gentlemanliness were lost; the honourable feeling of cheating one's tradesmen, the noble scorn of tailors, the lofty despisal of duns. When all men were tradesmen, these higher class distinctions fused into one another. There arose a clannish feeling which prevented the tradesman from defrauding one of his own class. But there was an even graver evil to be placed to the debit side of the new system. For the professors of political economy (who had thrown up their posts as a conscientious protest against the abolition of money and of salaries) proved to be right. So clumsy was the mechanism of exchange that men were actually driven to doing more than one kind of work. All those advantages of specialisation which Adam Smith, supplemented by Babbage, had so laboriously pointed out were completely lost to a wasteful world. Rather than be without certain luxuries and necessities men gave up moving their legs all day up and down in time with iron treadles, or feeding machines with bits of material exactly alike, or remaining doubled up underground, or making marks from hour to hour and from year to year on pieces of ruled paper. The waste by friction became enormous. Some of the least thrifty even made their own furniture, and wove their own clothes, and carved out rude ornaments for themselves. Whether from a natural want of economy, or from an unwillingness to encounter the difficulties of traffic, or from a mere spirit of independence, these men deliberately reverted to the condition from which mankind had so painfully emerged.

"Some even pretended to enjoy it, and, rather paradoxically, asserted that the abolition of gold had brought about the golden age of primitive legend. Others who felt keenly the falling-off in production, and the absence of those huge stores of unsold commodities which glutted the ancient markets, and gave a nation a sense of wealth in the midst of poverty; the æsthetic spirits who lamented the disappearance of the ancient mansions and palaces, which, although they were empty three parts of the year, yet afforded men the consolation of knowing that they were ample enough to shelter the majority of the homeless—men of this stamp were chagrined by the cumbersome mechanism of exchange, which made these glories of the past impracticable, and they were for introducing counters. But counters, although they had the advantage of lacking intrinsic value, would be quite as bad as actual coins if men could entirely trust one another never to repudiate their obligations. Unfortunately Society had grown so honest under the new régime that this condition was fulfilled, and the operation of counters would have been identical with that of money. Moreover, counters would have brought back card-playing, horse-racing, fire and life assurance, and other forms of gambling, which without them involved such complex calculations and valuations of loaves and fishes that all the pleasure was spoilt. When these things were pointed out to the æsthetic and the economical, they were convinced and remained of the same opinion.

"But even with all these deficits the balance in favour of the status quo was eminently satisfactory. It was re-discovered that man really wanted very little here below, and that it was better for all to get it than for some to continue to want it; and, taking into account also the general freedom from war, newspapers, and other evils of a moneyed civilisation, it must be conceded that the common people had very little to grumble at."

"But what of the uncommon people?" I interrupted at last. "They must have been martyred."

"Certainly, for the good of the common people. You see, everything was topsy-turvey. Besides, they only suffered during the earlier stages of transition. There was, for instance, the poet who went round among the workmen to chaffer verses. But there were few willing to barter solid goods for poetry. Here and there an intelligent artisan in love purchased a serenade, and an occasional lunatic (for Nature hath her aberrations under any system) became the proprietor of an epic. But the sons of toil drove few bargains or hard with the sons of the Muses. The best poets fared worst, for the crowd sympathised not with their temper, nor with their diction, and they were like to die of starvation and so achieve speedy recognition. But the minor poets, too, were in sore strait. The market was exceedingly limited. Sellers were many and buyers few. Rondeaux were hawked about from butcher to baker, at ten to the joint or three to the four-pound loaf, and triolets were going at a hollow-toothful of brandy. A ballade-worth of butter would hardly cover a luncheon biscuit, while a five-act blank verse tragedy was given away for a pound of tea, and that only when the characters were incestuous and the caesuras irreproachable.

"A famous female poet was reduced to pawning her best sonnet for a glass of lemonade and a bun.

"Times were no less hard for the comic writer. Hitherto he had only to outrage his mother-tongue, or to debase the moral currency, to find the land ready to accord him of the fat thereof. He used to sit in a room in Fleet Street and make or steal jokes in return for gold. By the wonderful mechanism of the old Society other men and women, in whatever part of the world he might stray, would rush to feed and clothe and house him, and play and sing and dance to him, and physic him, and drive him about in carriages, and tell him the news and shave him, and press upon him aromatic mixtures to smoke, and love him, and kowtow to him, and beg of him, and even laugh at his jokes, all in return for making or stealing jokes in Fleet Street. Some of these men and women would detest jokes, or have a blindness to their points; nevertheless, not one but would be eager to express in the most practical form his or her sense of the services rendered to society by the joker. But now that people saw with open eyes through the transparent mechanism of exchange they were extremely loth to part with their tangible commodities in return for mere flashes of wit or vulgarity. Previously they had only half realised that they were soberly and seriously making coats, or working machines, or smelting iron, while these jesters were merely cudgelling their brains or consulting back files. The complexity of the thing had disguised the facts. But now that they saw exactly what was going on, they became suddenly callous to numerous vested interests, and their new-found desire to know why they should give up the fruits of their labour pressed very cruelly upon innocent individuals. The comic writer found it no joke to live with 'I'd Rajah not's' going at seventy-five to the cigarette or mockeries of the mother-in-law yielding but a ton of coals to the thousand. Puns were barely vendible, and even comic pictures could only be sold at a great sacrifice of decency.

"The heir was a type of sufferer. When he came around asking for champagne and chicken, the working-man said, 'What are you offering us in exchange?' and he replied, 'My relationship to my father.' But they would not buy.

"Antiquarians and scholars, too, found it a hard task to live. No one needed the things they raked up from the dust-heap of the past. Critics were in an exceptionally critical condition. No one cared to exchange his productions with a man who in return had only to offer his opinion of somebody else's! As this opinion was usually worthless even under the old régime people soon began to turn up their noses at it, and nobody would give a rusk for the information that Turner was a better artist than Nature, or that hanging was too good for Whistler. Remarks about the Italian Renaissance were accounted paltry equivalents for green peas, invidious comparisons among the Lake poets were not easily negotiable for alpaca umbrellas, and the subtlest misreadings of Shakespeare were considered trivial substitutes for small-clothes. The artists were reduced to borrowing half-rolls from their models, partly because people had gone back to Nature and liked their scenery free from oil, and drank in the Spirit of Beauty without water, and partly because it was so difficult to assess the value of a picture now that critics had been starved out and speculation had died away. Allegorical painters continued a much-misunderstood race, and the fusion of classes had re-acted fatally on the brisk trade in 'Portraits of a Gentleman.' People who, in their celestial aspirations after the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, had forgotten that they ate and drank and required food, warmth, and shelter to hatch all these sublime things with Capital Letters—people who had heretofore poured lofty scorn on those who could not forget that man was a being with a body—these were now the most clamant demanders of the material. Only by the withdrawal of physical necessities and luxuries did they come to realise how much they had depended on such or to perceive the impossibility of the Worship of Truth on an empty stomach. Alas! under this crude system of barter the most ardent expression of their sentiments concerning the ideal and the Kalokagathon would not keep them in cigars. The professional paradoxist went about with holes in his boots. Epigrams in hand, sickness at heart, and emptiness at stomach, he crawled through the town in search of a buyer. He offered a dozen of the choicest apothegms for a pair of hob-nailed boots, conjuring the cobbler like the veriest 'commercial' to note the superiority of the manufacture. He pointed out that he travelled with the latest novelties in Impressionist Ethics, perfect unfitness guaranteed. He even offered to make a reduction if the cobbler would take a quantity. The worthy craftsman, stung by the prospect of a cheap job lot of epigrams. was prevailed upon to look at the goods. But when he read that 'Vice is the foundation of all virtue,' that 'Self-sacrifice is the quintessence of selfishness,' and that 'The Good of Evil outweighs the Evil of Good,' he felt that he could do much better with his boots, even if he only employed them to kick the epigrammatist. The poor wretch thought himself lucky when he succeeded in purchasing two epigramsworth of tobacco and a paradoxworth of potatoes. To cap his misfortunes, the nation suffered from a sudden invasion of immigrant epigrammatists, so that cynicisms went a-begging at ten for a sausage-roll. Nor was the dull but moral maxim at less discount than the witty but improper epigram. Essays inculcating the most superior virtues failed to counterbalance a day's charing, and the finest spiritualistic soft soap would not wash clothes. Even the washerwoman deemed her work more real and valuable than the manufacture of moralities too fine for use, and the deliberate effusion of sentiments too good to be true. In those days, too, a complete political platform, comprising a score of first-class articles of faith, sold at a pair of second-hand slop-trousers, and a speech of three hours and three hundred parentheses could not fetch more than a pot of jam in the open market. The workhouses were crowded with politicians, critics, poets, novelists, bishops, sporting tipsters, scholars, heirs, soldiers, dudes, painters, journalists, peers, bookmakers, landlords, punsters, idealists, and other incorrigible persons. Nothing was more curious and heartrending in the history of this transition to a new stage than the rapidity with which those who had been most exigent towards life bated their terms. Men who, in their aspirations after the Good and the Beautiful and the True, had unwittingly wasted an intolerable deal of the world's substance in riotous idealising; men who had so long breathed the atmosphere of ottomans and rose-leaves that they were barely conscious of their privileges, now found themselves clamouring for bread wherewith to stay the cravings of their inner selves, and accounted themselves happy if they found a roof to shelter them. The pathos of it was that they felt it all too intensely to see the pathos of it or to express it in poem, picture, or song.

"It was, of course, the current political economy to which was due this immense depreciation in the exchange value of the higher kinds of intellectual and artistic work. In the old Socialistic system which had been swept away by the abolition of money, men had purchased literary and musical commodities in common, each consumer paying his quota for his share of an unconsumable and infinitely divisible whole. But now few individuals cared or could afford to purchase whole works for their private edification; and so it came to pass that men of talent suffered as much as men of genius in the olden days. And when it began to be understood of the people that the times were other, and that Art and Letters and Apostleship would not pay, men turned in resignation to work with their hands, and they made all kinds of useful things.

"And the bookmakers returned not to their pens, nor the pot-boiling painters to their palettes, nor the apostles to their prophesying, being otherwise engaged and not thereto driven by inward necessity.

"And the Society of Authors perished!

"But the great poets, and the prophets, and the workers in colour and form, upon whom the spirit rested, these wrought on when their daily labour for a livelihood was at an end, for joy of their art and for the religious fire that was in them, giving freely of their best to their fellow-men, and exempt for evermore from all taint of trade."

The Cynic paused and I sat silent, deeply impressed by what he had said, and striving to imprint every word of it upon my memory so that I might sell it to a magazine.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1926, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.