Money Isn’t Real: remarks for the Greg Palast event, 26 June 2012

June 27th, 2012 | Work

This is what I said at the launch for Greg’s VULTURE’S PICNIC book at ULU last night, more or less.  I believe Greg’s team got audio, and may put that up on gregpalast.com later.  Please bear in mind that I was hopped up on massive painkiller loads when I wrote this. Thanks to all that attended – we had a full house – to Oliver for organising, and Anna for running the stage.

I’m a writer of fiction.  It’s fair to wonder why I’m here.  I’m the last person who should be standing here talking about a book about real tragedies and economics.  I come from a world where even the signposts are fictional.  Follow the white rabbit.  Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.  And a more recent one, from forty years ago, the fictional direction given by a mysterious man to an eager journalist: follow the money.

Economics is an artform.  It’s the art of the invisible.  Money is fictional.

The folding cash in your pocket isn’t real.  Look at it.  It’s a promissory note.  “I promise to pay the bearer.”  It’s a little story, a fiction that claims your cash can be redeemed for the equivalent in goods or gold.  But it won’t be, because there isn’t enough gold to go around.  So you’re told that your cash is “legal tender,” which means that everyone agrees to pretend it’s like money.  If everyone in this room went to The Bank Of England tomorrow and said “I would like you to redeem all my cash for gold, right here, in my hand” I guarantee you that you all would see some perfect expressions of stark fucking terror.

It’s not real.  Cash has never been real.  It’s a stand-in, a fiction, a symbol that denotes money.  Money that you never see.  There was a time when money was sea shells, cowries.  That’s how we counted money once.  Then written notes, then printed notes.  Then telegraphy, when money was dots and dashes, and then telephone calls.  Teletypes and tickers.  Into the age of the computer, money as datastreams that got faster and wider, leading to latency realty where financial houses sought to place their computers in physical positions that would allow them to shave nanoseconds off their exchanges of invisible money in some weird digital feng shui, until algorithmic trading began and not only did we not see the money any more, but we can barely even see what’s moving the money, and now we have people talking about strange floating computer islands to beat latency issues and even, just a few weeks ago, people planning to build a neutrino cannon on the other side of the world that actually beams financial events through the centre of the planet itself at lightspeed.

Neutrinos are subatomic units that are currently believed to be their own antiparticle.  Or, to put it another way, they are both there and not there at the same time.  Just like your cash.  Just like fiction: a real thing that never happened.  Money is an idea.

But I don’t want to make it sound small.  Because it’s really not.  Money is one of those few ideas that pervades the matter of the planet.  One of those few bits of fiction that, if it turns its back on you, can kill you stone dead.

It’s a big story to tell.  A big idea.  And to get to grips with it, what you need is someone who understands it, to explain all its strange invisible edges.  Someone who uses the tools of writing to tell the truth.  A journalist.  I’m here for the same reason you’re here.  Because it’s important to have someone around who can crawl back out of the rabbit hole with reports from that other world that are accessible and informed.  We’re lucky enough to know someone like that. I know a journalist whose truth-telling has left a trail of fire halfway across the world.  And we’re launching his new book here tonight.  And I want to stop talking now, so we can listen to Greg Palast talk some more.


2 Responses to “Money Isn’t Real: remarks for the Greg Palast event, 26 June 2012”

  1. […] Warren Ellis on the fiction of money […]

  2. […] Money Isn’t Real: remarks for the Greg Palast event, 26 June 2012 So this isn’t as smart as the Bruce Sterling rant but it has the benefit of being much much more concise. I doubt there’s anything explored here you haven’t already thought about at least once or twice but Warren Ellis sure can turn a phrase. […]