Sunday, July 01, 2007


It's a funny business who a nation puts on its banknotes. As I noted a while ago,

James Joyce, a writer so controversial that when he delivered Dubliners to the printers they refused to handle it, ended up on the Irish tenner. Hilariously, Australia put a portrait of convicted forger Francis Greenway on their 10 dollar bill.

In this year when we're told we white folk kindly abolished the slave trade out of the goodness of our hearts, it's instructive to consider one of Jamaica's national heroes, Nanny. She was a leader of escaped slaves who waged a guerilla war against the British.

She - committed and active killer of the British - is on Jamaica's $500 bill.

Jamaican $500 note

In England and Wales, we had Charles Dickens on the £10 note until 2003. A brilliant chronicler of the darker sides of urban life, he was incongruously illustrated by a cricket match scene from one of his books.

There are several reasons why that didn't bug me too much though. The Americans get 'in god we trust' on their dollars, so it is fitting we got cricket on ours. As George Bernard Shaw explained, 'the English are not very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity'.

Also, the wicket keeper had a particularly plump arse, and when you held the note to the light the Queen showed through, seeming to perform fellatio on the said stout-rumped fellow.

Dickens gave way to the newer Darwin tenner, which aroused a particular glee as it must've really fucked off the Creationists.

But now they give us Adam Smith on the £20. What a fucker. Father of the freemarket, believer that the self-interest of those with money is the best ruling tenet for society, bringer of misery, a man who viewed humans as mechanical industrial components for the benefit of the rich.

He contended that bakers don't bake as a social service, but as a way to make a living. As people need bread, they pay for bakers.

The bit he missed was that this guarantees a society that will provide anything required by people with money, in proportion with the amount of money they have. Those with less money get less of a say in social structure, and those without money can fuck off and die.

Adam Smith on the £20 note

The image of the pin manufacturers behind him taunts those who use money; see how your labours are dull and you are given a small fraction of the wealth they produce.

And that's just viewing it from the workers' side. Beyond that, there's the effect on the wider world. What's good for meeting the desires of the rich is rarely in keeping with what's fair for all, let alone what's good for things that can't be measured in monetary terms.

As the New Economics Foundation explained

In everything from the massive corporate scandals to anti trust cases to serious environmental degradation we see all around us, it is obvious that Adam Smith's famous 'invisible hand' cannot be relied upon to bring us successful or sustainable outcomes.

Gyrus recently gave us an Adam Curtis quote that perfectly nails Smith's fallacy.

In economics, the whole idea that the free market is an efficient system is coming under serious attack. Over the past five years, many of the Nobel Prizes for Economics have been awarded for studies that show that markets do not create stability or order; that what Adam Smith called “the Invisible Hand” is invisible because it isn’t actually there; and politicians do have a powerful role to play in controlling the markets.

And a new discipline, called Behavioural Economics, has been studying whether people really do behave as the simplified model says they do. They show that only two groups in society actually behave in a rational, self-interested way in all experimental situations: one is economists themselves; the other is psychopaths.


Anonymous said...

I've never actually read any of Adam Smith's writings, so I don't really know what he said about the "Invisible Hand". I know what others have claimed he said, but that's not quite the same thing.

I was talking to someone recently who said that capitalism has done to Adam Smith what the Nazis did to Nietzsche. As I say, not having read the original source, I can't say for sure one way or the other, but Smith was the guy -- after all -- who stated that "whenever two businessmen are engaged in conversation they are involved in a conspiracy against the public". And Chomsky certainly seems to think that Smith gets far more bad press (or good press, if you see what I mean) than he deserves. According to Chomsky, "we're all supposed to worship Smith, but not to read him".

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a little light vandalism might be called for? There's plenty of room for a speech bubble on those notes - you could quote him directly (I rather like the one that jim bliss mentions above) if you're in a fair and evenhanded mood, or put "I'M TEH CUNT WOT RUINED THE ENTIRE WORLD!!!!!!!1!!!" if you're not...

PS: It just struck me that this might be illegal. Use pencil. :)

Anonymous said...

Just managed to track down the exact quotation by Smith (referred to above)...

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."

Anonymous said...

I am convinced that these designs are chosen to flattter the PM of the day. The Dickens tenner coincided with John Major, whose excessive love of cricket was well known. I cannot believe the choice of Adam Smith is unrelated to the accession of Gordon Brown - a fellow Kirkcauldy boy. Whether there is any further significance in picking the pin factory, I cannot imagine, unless it is about Scottish prudence somehow ("See a pin and pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck...") but perhaps it is a punning reference to the Scottish inventor James Goodfellow (from Paisley, Renfrewshire) who devised the idea of the PIN for credit cards and cash machines. Wouldn't surprise me.

merrick said...

astvinr, I'd not thought of that, and it does seem to fit as you tell it.

didn't Isaac Newton come on to the 1 pound note under Thatcher though? Got a theory there?