[Kapital] Money as a belief system in metamorphosis

After last night’s long conversation with my friend on different phenomenological dimensions of the metamorphosis of the world (vulgo: digitalisation and its revolutionary afterbirth), I dreamt myself during a night shift at Sabancı University’s 24/7 library. It was in April 2014. In that dream, I saw me walking to the vending machine at the building’s entrance, craving for coffee. As coffee from the machine tastes horrible, I decided to do like the locals do, and so I chose çay (tea). Çay costs less than 1 Lira. But the Lira coin fell through, again and again, and a local student in the queue behind me showed me how to resolve the problem best: use your credit card! And before I could seize my credit card, he would pay my çay, by simply swiping through a credit card – probably one of his parents‘ credit cards. Teşekkür ederim! – Rica ne demek!

Unlike in Berlin, in Istanbul’s libraries you are allowed to bring drinks, food, bags. Sabancı University, spring 2014.

At the time being, you could still hear Berlin’s newcomers complaining about the local supermarkets‘ unwillingness to accept credit cards. Ec cards were OK – but no credit cards at Aldi! Only a few years prior to this scene at Sabancı University’s library (which actually really happened), when I was still working in my old job as a student assistant at my university’s international office, one of my main tasks was to welcome international students and visiting academic staff. I accompanied them to their accommodations and assisted them with all kind of red tape: registration, immigration office, bank account, and the like. I remember many of them wondering how backward Germany was; because of the internet, and because of that thing with money: nobody accepted credit cards. Often, it was required to pay in cash. Not to mention other regular issues, like office hours, dead Sundays, or naked people in the sauna.

Whatever – what was it with credit cards? To be honest, I didn’t know the answer, but neither did I quite understand the question. I didn’t feel disadvantaged because of the conservative habit of most people and shops around me to keep on with cash and ec cards. Weren’t, after all, credit cards false friends and debt traps? I guess one of the most plausible explanations for Germans‘ disapproval of credit cards is to be found in the role of money in the mythic cosmology of „German mentality“ as a belief system. To understand what is meant by that, you should go back in time, to the years before 2002, when the Euro definitely replaced the Deutsche Mark (D-Mark). Even though I didn’t live in Germany in this transitional period between July 2000 and October 2002, I can vividly remember the fuss around the Euro-introduction (and it is noteworthy to mention in this context that in Bosnia, the D-Mark survived its official abolition as the BiH’s currency in the vest of the „K-Mark“, the Konvertibilna Marka, which was and is 100% convertible to the D-Mark). Everybody was speaking about the new currency and the dangers and opportunities aligned with it. The Euro was immediately renamed „Teuro“ („Expenso“, roughly translated), and even a political party was founded, the „Pro DM“, a predecessor of the current neo-right wing and populist parties. I think the D-Mark’s position in Germany’s post WWII and post-transitional (post 1990s) mythic belief system is couched quite well in the following quotation:

The mark „was never just a currency,“ says Fuhrmans (sic!). „It became a symbol of the country’s postwar economic miracle amid the ashes of World War II, and one of the few [symbols] in which Germans could comfortably express national pride,“ given the lingering connections of many flags, anthems, and monuments to Hitler’s destructive nationalist agenda. Many Germans praise the mark’s „look“ and „feel,“ and the coins and notes depict historic German figures, such as the Brothers Grimm, whereas the euro’s pan-national imagery is a tad forgettable. (Source: The Week, 19.7.2012)

Regarding the mistrust in credit cards, I tried to explain that the use of any plastic cards containing invisible information invoked fears of control and surveillance; also inherited from the dictatorship that lasted until 1990 (1989). Truth be told: I didn’t believe this story myself. This nice and often told story on the „good German citizen“ who has gone through Nazism and Actually Existing Socialism (Real existierender Sozialismus / Realsoz), now cleared from their former inclination towards surveillance, is rather an actually existing myth, I’d say. It can explain many people’s stance, but it is not the answer.

A Kebapçı (Dönerbude) in Berlin, where a green 20 DM note is hold in high esteem. Bank notes from outlived states are a classic in fastfood restaurants, often presented to the customers as a iconologic collection under the glass of the counter.

I felt bewildered: so you pay your tea with a credit card… For less than a Lira… In the forthcoming weeks on campus, I realized that everybody was paying everything with one of their credit cards. Many, if not all students had multiple credit cards; At the campus‘ own Starbucks, more than one card reading machines were in use; Everywhere in the city, ATM machines were ubiquitous, and often, they formed islands of four to six vending machines from different banks; whenever I had to pay a bigger amount of money, I was asked whether I wanted to pay „taksitli“ (in rates) or not – which obviously works for payment via credit card as well (which I never tried).

After a while, I stopped feeling bewildered, as credit cards were „the new normal“. For me, too: I paid everything with a Visa card issued by a German bank popular amongst travellers and so-called „expats“ (hate that word). I mention this, because this blog post is not only a reflection on Turkey, but on the transformation of money in general: as an inhabitant of the global village, I am, of course, part of the belief system ‚money‘ and its transformations. But back to Turkey for a moment.

The whole country seemed to live in a bubble economy, as Jesse Colombo had concluded in an article in Forbes in 2014, already. The description ‚bubble economy‘ seemed to be the perfect match for what was surrounding me, in Istanbul: there were new buildings and construction sites everywhere, and many Istanbulite friends‘ complaints started with the word inşaat – ‚building sector‘ in English. In fact, this context was already quite well analyzed in the documentary Ekümenopolis: ucu olmayan şehir (Ecumenopolis: City without limits) by İmre Azem from 2011, whose other films I can also recommend to everyone who is interested in deeper understanding of the context in which the ruling regime is thriving. However, the word ‚bubble‘ deserves a more thorough look. Later.

Throughout the past years, I had the chance to attend several public discussions on that topic, when this was still possible in Istanbul, e.g. at the fancy venue SALT Galata, in the beautiful Bank-ı Osmanî-i Şahane building. These public discussions also helped me to understand how religion, as the other big belief system, is entwined with capitalism in its endemic oligarchic dynamic called holdingleşme (holdingization). Together with the topic of virtual or intransparent money („from Qatar„, as was often added), it seemed to be the all-encompassing code word for the neoliberal, neopopulist and pseudo-religious regime; some call it Islamic capitalism. During my field work for my doctoral thesis in the Balkans, I would also understand that the whole dynamic of bridge-, mosque-, shrine-, cultural center-building of Turkey abroad with its rent, the Renommiergeld (money of renoun), is totally dependent of the functioning of holdingleşme.

salt galata
„Der Mensch ähnelt dem Ort, den er bewohnt“ (İnsan yaşadığı yere benzer) – eine der im Winter 2014/2015 häufigen Veranstaltungen, die sich mit Stadtsoziologie befassten, hier im Aushang der Bilgi-Universität.

But the context should also be understood as a broader, global dynamic. I guess the above-mentioned sequence from the library at Sabancı University was the first time when I started to realize and to question the substantial transformation of the abstraction known as ‚money‘. Money is, of course, a belief system, for being an abstraction: coins and notes are, materially, worth next to nothing; they are decreasingly reminiscent of gold, oil, gas and other precious rarities, which could make their abstract value plausible. And yet, coins and notes are, at least, still „reified“, touchable, visible, graspable. In that sense, the abstraction money corresponds with something „real“.

And here, I guess, I am already a bit closer to the explanation „why Germans love cash“ and mistrust credit cards – if this is still true in the year 2020. Here, two years later than the first sketch of this blog post, I am partly responding to my dear friend Ilgın from California. She knows the world from as different angles as Cyprus, Turkey, Berlin, and the USA. As a Berlin lover – a city that she knows from her own field work, when we first met each other – she had sent me a BBC article titled Will coronavirus change Germans‘ love for cash? This is a very interesting question, indeed!

But please let me first sort out that I cannot speak on behalf of „the Germans„: for instance, if you asked me why so many Germans watch soccer, I could only give you some boring, theoretical answers which can be found in scientific (sociological) textbooks: I really hate soccer, in all of its forms, and so I can really not explain to you why so many would love this weird running to and fro on monetized turf. I am probably a not so representative German in some other regards, too. But Germany, just like any other nation, is a social construct not only consisting of concrete buildings, cities, borders and landscapes, but also of ideas, languages, stories, stereotypes and other reoccuring tropes – and trope or discourse analysis is my job.

nation told
Actors and tropes of a nation, in one of the temples of Washington, D.C. (picture from 2015), in the central temple district.

So how can we say or approve that (if) „Germans love cash„? They say Germany is being narrated on Sunday evenings on the first TV channel (ARD), in the Tatort; in that sense, as a regular Tatort-watcher, I am probably in the position to tell you how they – we? – narrate each other German Wirklichkeit in a fictionalized way. In that TV is telling, to a certain degree (considering indeed German Germans who do not watch TV at all), about a nation and how it „thinks“ and „feels“, we could ask how prominent TV actors would answer this question.

Nothing is richer in tropes, is more tropic than theatre and TV. Actors have many lifes, but at minimum two of them: they are ‚real‘ persons with ‚real‘ habits, characters, hobbies, children, wives and husbands; and they are figures of a figuration called film or play. Some actors become so iconic that their dual life aspects melt, at least in the public opinion, and in Germany, this was the case with late Inge Meysel, who died in 2004, aged 94. She was regularly called Mother of the nation (Mutter der Nation), and I know at least one Tatort where she staged. I guess it is fine to take her words as somewhat representative. [ paragraph will be completed soon ]

Spiderman and Jesus Christ: two figures from two different, entwined belief systems meet on Times Square in NYC in April 2015, where I met Ilgın again.

You can stop reading here, what follows is under construction.

I asked myself: If money – the abstraction and the belief system called ‚money‘ – loses touch with reality (reality in a very literal sense of the res that constitutes reality) – what will happen? Will anything happen? Will reality topple the hedge fund, or will the hedge fund overturn reality? What if goods – say: oil or gas – turn into bads, and bads, like CO2 emissions, become goods, as in the example of the CO2 emissions trade?

[A § on the difference between „reality“ (réalité) and „Wirklichkeit“ (stvarnost) is evolving here]

[Working on a § on trans-ferre, trans-latio, meta-phorein, „metaphors we live by“ and the significance of belief-systems and the critical moment that occurs when a belief-system (like state-directed socialism, but also and increasingly monotheism) implodes and needs substitution]

Today, as if the newsfeed can read my thoughts and dreams, I read a headline jubilating that Sweden is about to introduce an official cryptocurrency, the ‚e-krona‘. Fake news? Perhaps. Yet, Sweden would neither be first nor alone: remember Venezuela’s introduction of the ‚Petro‘, or the fuss around the ‚bitcoins‘ (read here a recent call to „shut bitcoin and all other cryptocurrencies“, in Forbes).

[Working on a § on cash, fiat money, „Vollgeld“, digital currencies]

My premature conclusion is that there is a lot of heavy thinking, demystifying and new myth-making ahead of us. However rasonable and ‚good‘ arguments against cryptocurrencies and the substantial change of money may be, these changes seem to come with the unstoppable power of an idea. Once an idea is born, it can never again be unborn. You can, of course, try to discredit it. And right: an idea is not per se something „good“; yet, it seems that money in its current vest will change, is changing.

For money is a belief system, the conclusion could also be that old belief systems will inevitably die out and transform.


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