This article is a repost with the permission from Brownstone Institute
‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever,’ said O’Brien, the grand inquisitor of the totalitarian regime in Orwell’s futuristic novel 1984.
Alternatively, you could imagine a sandal.
Last month I visited Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-Saxon burial site of a king and his ship in Suffolk. A gold coin pendant in the museum caught my eye. It depicted a triumphant Roman standing over a conquered barbarian, his sandalled foot placed firmly on the supine opponent’s chest.
Coin depicting Emperor Honorius at Sutton Hood museum. View a better image on the British Museum website.
The ship burial probably dates from 625 AD, long after the Romans had left. The gold could have been melted down by the Anglo-Saxons but instead it was fashioned into a pendant. Maybe it conferred the prestige of the Roman world onto the wearer, or was totemic of victory. Perhaps it was an ironic reminder that the Romans were gone and every empire has its day.
The Roman on this coin was the Emperor Honorius, who ruled between 395 and 423. Miserably for Honorius, he was emperor when the Visigoths captured and plundered Rome and when the British Isles slipped from Roman control. In fact, when Romano-British cities asked him for help against barbarian attacks he told them to look to their own defences. You would never know all this from the coin, which is a fine piece of reputational management.
Coins have always been more than lumps of precious metals; they are also a means of propaganda and control.
Early bronze coins depicted cattle, as the state property of Rome was originally comprised of herds of cattle. Then coins featured Roman deities such as Mars, the god of war, or symbols of the state such as the she-wolf with twins. Later in the Republic, images of politicians featured on coins. The first living man to be embossed on a coin was the powerful Julius Caesar. One silver denarius minted around 29 BC shows a Nile crocodile (the symbol of Egypt) with the inscription ‘Egypt conquered.’ And other coins also showed emperors defeating barbarians, gleaming with undistilled power.
Imagine handling a coin which depicts your own subjugation. If you were privileged, hard-working or lucky enough to obtain some of this lucre for yourself, it was nonetheless a reminder of the sandal on your chest. Every time you bought a luxury good, your fingers would slide over the embossed symbol of your defeat. Coins reminded you of your place in the world.
Coins in circulation in the UK are at a record low. In fact, not a single one or two penny coin was issued in 2022. Yet there has never been greater potential to use money for propaganda and control.
Digital money and particularly Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) offer the potential for the government, through the central bank, to see every purchase and transfer you make, in real time. And not just see, but control.
Of course, our governments in the West will say that central bank money in digital form is convenient, safe, and stable. They will promise never to use it as an instrument of control, as an authoritarian government would. Here in the UK, our cosily-named proposed ‘Britcoin’ would supposedly exist alongside cash.
China, the country that took the lead with lockdowns, has taken the lead with CBDCs. It started researching CBDCs in 2014 and has been running live trials of DCNY (Digital Chinese Yuan) for years, with the size and scale increasing each time. The Chinese government has tested expiration dates to encourage users to spend their DCNY quickly, for times when the economy needs stimulus. That’s right, an expiry date for people’s money has already been trialled.
The Chinese ‘Social Credit System’ is a broad regulatory framework that is designed to score and incentivise the trustworthiness of individuals and companies. In other words, the government will either reward or punish various forms of behaviour using real-time monitoring, data gathering and sharing, curate blacklists and redlists, and use punishments, sanctions and rewards.
A report in 2019 found that 23 million people had been blacklisted from travelling by plane or train due to their low social credit score. In 2018 a student was denied access to university because her father was in debt. There isn’t a centralised and transparent set of rules, instead it’s been operated locally so far, but it has been reported that behaviour such as poor driving, spending too long playing video games, or posting fake news can result in low ratings, as well as more serious matters such as not fulfilling court orders.
You won’t find many Chinese critics of the Social Credit System – there is probably a sanction for criticism of government policy. You’d think this system would unite Western commentators in horrified criticism, but it is quite neutrally and even warmly described by some left-leaning writers and think tanks.
We don’t need to look as far as China to understand the implications here in the West. In 2019, Mastercard and Doconomy launched a credit card with a carbon footprint calculator that can switch off your spending when you reach your carbon max. This functionality is voluntary, but it could be an automatic aspect of a CBDC.
Tom Mutton, a director at the Bank of England, said that the Government would be required to make the final decision on whether a UK CBDC should be programmable. Sir Jon Cunliffe, a deputy Governor at the Bank, said:
‘You could think of giving your children pocket money, but programming the money so that it couldn’t be used for sweets. There is a whole range of things that money could do, programmable money, which we cannot do with the current technology.’
As this quote reveals, CBDCs won’t just alter our relationship with money but with government. Governments around the world have shown increasingly authoritarian tendencies during the management of the Covid pandemic, and more recently to discourage driving in cities. Behavioural science has been leveraged to manipulate, incentivise and coerce us into behaving as model citizens. Do we want to negotiate with Daddy State to be allowed to spend our ‘pocket money’ as we wish?
An account-based CBDC would give the government enormous power over your money as your identity is connected to the money. A 2020 Bank of England discussion paper gave examples of programmability, for example that smart cars could automatically pay for fuel directly at the dispensing pump, with automated taxation and charitable donations at point of sale.
That all sounds very convenient. But politicians pushing Net Zero goals on an unwilling population could choose to go a step further. If you insist on keeping your private car, despite the inconvenient 20 MPH speed limits, the ULEZ and congestion charges, and the Low Traffic Neighbourhood barriers, they could simply dictate a maximum fuel spend in a given time period. Just ten of your Britcoins on petrol this month, Sir, no more driving for you.
Money grants freedom and so it is also weaponised to deny freedom. Domestic abusers restrict access to money, and therefore essentials such as food, clothing, and travel. Economic abuse is insidious, effective and subtle, and it leaves no bruises. As with the domestic abuser, the potential is there for the government to weaponise money to exert the ultimate financial control.
The jackboot and the sandal were graphic symbols of authority subjugating conquered peoples. If programmable CBDCs are introduced, your own digital financial footprint will be used to control you. The means of control change over time but the insatiable desire for total control remains constant.