Money

A key question the book explores, in particular in Chapter 1, is the relationship between credit and money and, more particularly, between credit and monetary objects. This is a relationship that is not as straightforward as might at first appear. Often it is assumed that the functions of particular monetary forms are quite separate from the objects that do the work of conveying value from one place to another. It might be reasonable to conclude that it matters little whether one coin or another, or this or that banknote, does the work of moving value between people, persons and organisations. This is actually very often quite right. However, as I show, this is not always the case. And in those moment when not, the consequences can be extremely significant.

This is partly because of the phenomenon that the sociologist Viviana Zelzier has called ‘earmarking’. Different types of money can, in some circumstances, do different things in different situations because of the meaning that people attached to them. Monies and monetary objects, as she shows, don’t just move value from one place to another but become actively wrapped up in the relations and obligations that give particular colour and character to people’s everyday lives. When it comes to credit, an example might be the difference in how someone treats a small cash loan from a friend as opposed to the same loan amount that perhaps an overdraft or a credit card provides access to.

But there is more to it than that. What I show is that the actual object that does the work of making money money can – and again, only in certain circumstances – matter too. This has been demonstrated to a degree in a number of experiments that psychologists have conducted in recent years – for instance showing that people are more willing to spend using electronic cards used in Laundromats and for photocopying than they are when they use cash,[1] or that people who use gaming chips in games of poker gambled significantly more than if they used cash.[2] But it can also be shown to have been relevant in the recent and much longer history of credit and payment.

Maestro Campain, 2007. 'Coins Jar'. Photo by Joe Deville.

Maestro Campain, 2007. ‘Coins Jar’. Photo by Joe Deville.

One way this has been the case relates to how issues of payment cards seek to actively play on and exploit the differences between how it feels to use cash as compared to payment cards, as in this campaign for Maestro payment cards (I explore this and a number of other examples in the book). Or, further back in time, we can see how important it was in the very earliest days of nascent credit card market to get payment cards into the hands of borrowers rather than borrowers having to apply for cards. To get round this problem, in both the UK and the US, credit card issuers simply mailed credit cards, unsolicited, to thousands of customers, often without any credit checks at all.

This is something I explore at length in the chapter – looking in particular at how payment devices affect how particular economic decisions come to be made; its effects, in other words, on economic calculation. I provide a short extract below to give a flavour of this. Before doing so, and by way of introduction to the section, Ii should be noted that the analysis of monetary objects in the book also performs a theoretical function. It allows me to begin to introduce an analysis of how credit objects – here monetary objects, but it could just as well be a credit statement or a debt collections letter, as I explore in this and other chapters – can be seen as ‘emergent’ and operating through dimensions of ‘affect’. That is, and here I draw on a particular philosophical architecture that there’s no need to go into here, such objects – like all objects in fact – have the capacity (a capacity that is quite often passes by unrealised) not just to be grasped by people but also to themselves ‘reach out’: to pull or ‘lure’ people (and other practices/process) towards them. And, indeed, the concept of the lure is one I also explore at length in the chapter, via the idiosyncratic work of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Anyway, without further ado, the extract, which explores some of the outcomes of the mass mailing of credit cards in in the US in the late 1960s/early 1970s:

Something similar is captured in a Life magazine article from 1970 on ‘the great plastic rush’ (O’Neil 1970, p.55). The piece imagines a typical conversion of a person (here, presumed to be male even though women were also targeted) from a ‘sorehead’, actively annoyed by and resistant to the solicitations of the creditor, to a borrower:

The average man, his senses dulled by an endless reception of junk mail, simply chucks his card into a desk or cupboard or dresser drawer if he is among those who are not instantly galvanized by their bank’s sudden new interest in their well-being. He may eventually betray reactions characteristic of the sorehead group: when the bank send him a follow-up statement … he may poke holes in it or punch it full of staples and send it back to confuse the bank’s computer. But as long as the card stays in his dresser he is subject, though he is not aware of it, to a curious and sort of subconscious temptation. Bank records indicate he will eventually dig it out and give it a try and will thereafter tend to use it again … and again … (O’Neil 1970, p.50)

As we saw earlier, [George] Ritzer understood credit card products as deeply connected to the amplification of the ‘lure’ of consumption. But, in his focus on the product and not the card he, like many other writers, misses the role of the device doing the work of attaching consumer to product. The credit card, once delivered into the homes of borrowers, comes to play an active if understated role in their everyday lives. It retains an important capacity: to exert a small but significant effect on the user to whom it has been directed, what the author above describes as a curious and sort of subconscious temptation. This might be a pull on the memory, jogged by event or circumstance; it might be its sheer physical presence, as a forgotten card is later stumbled upon; it might be a very constant and nagging attraction which is resisted only so long. Whichever trajectory it takes from drawer to hand (or not), what this apt turn of phrase points towards is that consumer credit devices, like all things, should be considered as processual, emergent entities operating in and through the affective dimensions of life. Seen in these terms, it is not just credit, consumption, or underlying social structure that act to lure and to attract, but also the cards themselves (of course in interaction with a range of other forces).

 

[1] Soman, D., 2003. The Effect of Payment Transparency on Consumption: Quasi-Experiments from the Field. Marketing Letters, 14(3), pp.173–183.

[2] Lapuz, J. & Griffiths, M.D., 2010. The Role of Chips in Poker Gambling: An Empirical Pilot Study. Gambling Research: Journal of the National Association for Gambling Studies (Australia), 22(1), p.34.

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