You can’t stop progress, or at least irreversible change (quite a lot of people don’t trouble to make the distinction). One of the changes that is promised us in the near future is the cashless society, and indeed a few countries are there already. I cannot say that I anticipate such a society with pleasure.
For one thing, I love banknotes as physical objects. Often, indeed usually, they are things of beauty if one looks at them carefully. In part it is because of the exigencies of their production. They must be intricate and difficult to forge, and they are never without visual interest, often being of considerable artistic merit. In addition, they are stimulants to historic imagination, and are often documents of historic importance. They are living proof that the mass-produced need not be an abomination to the eye.
Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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On the wall overlooking my kitchen table, where we take most of our meals, are two framed sets of banknotes. By sets, I do not mean sets in the sense that philatelists use the word: rather, they are of two themes, neither of them of merely passing interest, alas, namely tyranny and hyperinflation (there is some overlap).
The tyrants are of varied ilk and countries. My wife says that the nastiest of them (to look at) is the Ayatollah Khomeini (above), and it is true that he looks both shifty and cruel, the kind of man who cannot look you in they eye unless he is going to kill you. Two of the tyrants came to very sticky ends, Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Though they deserved their sticky ends, yet one cannot rejoice at man’s cruelty to man. Gaddafi’s end, indeed, was so awful that it performed a miracle that I should not have thought possible: it made one feel for him.
My banknote is the last bearing his likeness, shortly before his overthrow. It is typical of the incompetence and cowardice of leaders that they chose to overthrow him only after he ceased to be a real threat. On the banknote Gaddafi, younger than his years, looks relaxed and happy. He holds the palm of his hand to the side of his smiling face, his head draped in a strange headdress that looks like the kind of towel that hairdressers wrap elaborately around the heads of their female customers. He might have been an extra in a film by Cecil B. DeMille, or perhaps David Lean.
Saddam, by contrast, looks a more serious figure, handsome in a sinister way, as a medieval battle takes place in the background, evidently one in which Saladin (the successor to whom evidently Saddam considered himself) emerged victorious. One would never guess from the look of Saddam that he would end up being hanged like a stray dog: but which of us knows his own fate?
Two of the tyrants, Saddam and Idi Amin, are dressed in army uniforms that are clearly of British inspiration and design. They have the lapel-collar flashes and shoulder straps of the British general, and Idi’s peaked cap could not have been more British. They would neither of them have been out of place (as far as their costumes were concerned) in a British army parade. I leave it to others to discern what, if anything, this signifies.
Only the banknote (dating from 1978) depicting Kim Il-sung could be described as kitsch; the others are in good taste. There is a central roundel surrounded by a halo of baby pink flowers and foliage. As for the President for Eternity himself, he makes Mr Murdstone seem like a stand-up comedian.
I bought a collection of these banknotes some time ago as I was walking down Cecil Court in London. In this street of book and engraving shops, there is one specialising in banknotes. In the window, at a modest price, there was what it called its Tyrant Collection. I went into the shop and asked for one. The man behind the counter turned to his assistant and said, “Janet, fetch me a Tyrant.” The man who framed it was so impressed that he asked me, the next time I was in London, to buy one for him. He needed a present for his brother, a rich man who already had all that he could wish for—except for a Tyrant.
The collection of hyperinflationary banknotes is similarly rewarding to look at. Some of them are beautifully produced: what manna from heaven hyperinflation must have been to banknote-printing companies! Two of them, however, are simply overprinted, giving their notes a new denomination: a billion in the case of the German one-mark note, a comparatively modest 500,000 in the case of the Nicaraguan twenty-córdoba note.
My favourite, I suppose, is the bright orange 100,000 new zaire note of the Congo under the rule of Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko (the old zaire had, of course, already undergone hyperinflation). I have a soft spot for the old marshal through whose realms I travelled back in 1986. I didn’t realise then that there was far, far worse to come.
Below the marshal is the Father of the Nation, Kemal Ataturk, on the 10 million Turkish lira note. It, too, is a handsome artefact, predominantly red, with Ataturk staring ahead in his eternally-winged collar, Svengali-like, or perhaps as a fortune-teller in a fairground booth, at any rate mesmerising. At any rate, there is no mistaking the power of the man, which is brilliantly conveyed.
I cannot, of course, fail to mention the 50,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwean dollar note. (There is a 100,000,000,000,000 note, the highest denomination of any banknote, I believe, in history, but I thought the lower denomination’s green suited the colour scheme of the collection better than the blue of the higher denomination.) The Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe promised to pay the bearer on demand the sum of fifty trillion dollars, and I confess that this gave rise to imaginary scenes in my mind of a clerk counting out coins, one by one, from here to eternity. Sisyphus had an easy time of it by comparison. But one of the strange things about the Zimbabwean banknote is that it bears a strong family resemblance to the Rhodesian banknotes when I was there in 1975, a bit like the flashes on the lapel-collar on the uniforms of Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein.
In the brave new world of cashlessness, there will be no more such notes, and generations will arise which will not understand what coins and notes were ever used for. Numismatists will be regarded as being like taxonomists of beetles, harmless but eccentric. Cash? What was cash, and why study it?
One of the vaunted benefits of the abolition of cash is that it will destroy trafficking in commodities such as drugs. What repression cannot do, reducing all transactions to electronics will do.
I have my doubts of this. Crime, wickedness and fraud are the mother of much invention and, if nothing else, barter will always be possible. The main effect of the abolition of cash will be to force criminals to be more cunning than they are now. I have little doubt that they will manage.
As with the late Marshal Mobutu, I have a soft spot, or admiration, for cunning rather than violent criminals. They are the types who, if they turned their minds to honest endeavour, could make a very good living, but refuse from principle to do so. They are idealists of a kind: they would rather turn a dishonest penny than an honest pound.
I once asked a criminal who said to me, “You have your workers and your earners” what he meant by this. “Well,” he replied, “your workers go out to work from nine and finish at five. Your earners steal and rob.” He clearly had contempt for the former, whom he regarded much as the ladybird regards the aphid or the bee regards the stamen.
The idea that the abolition of cash will put an end to tax evasion and trafficking is a strange manifestation of the belief that man is perfectible. If the conditions are right, he will behave himself like a choirboy: the urge to traffic will disappear with the possibility of trafficking.
I think Hamlet was more realistic. He asks Rosencrantz, you will remember, what news he has brought with him. “None, my lord, but that the world’s grown honest.”
“Then is doomsday near,” says Hamlet. But he doesn’t believe the end is nigh, for he adds: “… your news is not true.”