Saturday 2nd March 2024

Redefining the value of money in lockdown purgatory

The coronavirus crisis has thrown into relief the transactional fundament of money and what its presence in our wallets liberates us to do, says Cem Balci. He says it’s time to start thinking in terms of ‘gains’ instead of ‘savings,’ liberate ourselves from the ‘Money God’ and take pleasure in what it affords us

It was Adam Smith who said that “all money is a matter of belief”, but life and literature are full of characters who have their doubts – who actively reject what Orwell called “the Money God” or tacitly refuse to accept its spell.

In the cultural imaginary of nineteenth-century France, it was the archetypal figure of the urban flâneur who would saunter down the nation’s expensive new boulevards and scoff at exhibitions of material worship. Capitalism is both saviour and enslaver of the “sprawl[ing]”, “swarm[ing]” masses in Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (1869). And the wandering protagonist of Sartre’s Nausea (1938) ignores the finery of Sunday crowds to focus rather on their flesh beneath: “bloated, slavering, vaguely obscene”.

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Like Smith, all these authors understood that money (and its many incarnations) is at best a social construct – but a construct whose ‘constructedness’ endows it with reality. It’s like a distant mirage on a desert highway, a glittering deception on a dusty patch of tarmac: the allure resides in the illusion, the eternal attraction of the unobtainable.

Make no mistake; money does have very concrete implications (you can’t tell the bank, for instance, that your debt is a reflection repayable in shadows). But this is true of all the world’s most ardent beliefs. Finance is to money what religion is to faith – a tangible but tawdry (and troubled) realisation of the abstract ideal.

Refine your financial philosophy

With this in mind, I want to suggest that the coronavirus lockdown has been, however awful, an unusual opportunity to find or refine your financial philosophy. In particular, it’s time to reflect on so much more than straightforward spending and to reconsider “value” less in terms of pounds and pence and more in terms of feeling and experience.

Of course, it’s worth acknowledging that this is not an opportunity available to all. It is a sad but unsurprising truth that the people whose wallets have expanded in the past two months are not the ones out fighting on the front line. Instead, it’s those of us who have retained our jobs within the cosy, white-collar business world.

But the fact remains that millions of workers have been forced to reflect on the money demanded by their normal routines – most of which is channelled into three central categories: food, transport and social engagements. Par for the course of any working life, these expenses are apparently irrelevant in terms of productivity.

Lockdown has proved that many of us can work remotely with little or no discernible difference in the service provided. Which leaves us wondering why we’d ever reconsider spending thousands a year on so-called “excesses”.

Certainly, I haven’t missed my usual lunches, for example. Of the thousands who flock to a major high-street chain every day, I genuinely wonder how many enjoy it. Why would we choose to queue for minutes on end, grab forks that have been fondled by everyone in London, eat a second-rate sandwich an inch away from someone with a chesty cough and pay £6.50 for the pleasure? We do it because we always have done, but I for one am drawing a line. I simply don’t expect to restore the habit. 

Too quick to celebrate “savings”

Anecdotes like this abound right now and so they should, for there is nothing like a crisis to expose our errors and inspire change. And yet I feel that we’ve been far too quick to celebrate our “savings”. The word implies a reduction in costs in return for a result that is the same, better or at least satisfactory. None of which is what we’re getting whilst working remotely.

Were I to start bringing lunch in from home, I would be paying less for something more pleasant:  that would be a saving; that would be good value. But take a walk through London in its current state of lockdown and you’ll quickly remember that we’ve lost something special.

The problem isn’t simply that the restaurants are closed and the theatres dark and the streets a silent, deathly shadow of their former selves. It is the sum effect of inhumanity – of total emotional abandonment. And what is a city without a soul? Those cynical flâneurs of the nineteenth century must be turning in their graves.

So let us not talk of money “saved” during lockdown. Let us think of it instead as money gained – a gift, a bonus, a kind of karmic compensation for collective patience.

Needless to say, we don’t really deserve it, not nearly as much as the nurses and the doctors and all those whose lives have been in particular danger. But we owe it to their efforts to remember the freedoms that they’re working to restore: to remember the thrill of a dash through the crowds; to remember the sense of pace and possibility; to remember the art of the casual conversation and the looks and the laughs that Zoom will never capture.

To forget these pleasures in the face of our “savings” is to sacrifice our instincts on the altar of the Money God. Yet it is also to deprive that money of its meaning. Its power depends, like all social constructs, on emotional investment and a dose of unreality – which is precisely what’s been lost after months of isolation.

Facts vs feelings

In the cold, hard light of unadulterated logic, there is no good reason to return to our offices. There is no good reason to assault our salaries with trains and lunches and parking and drinks and all those things that we’ve abandoned lately. Put simply, it is “bad value”.

But only if we think of value as a matter of fact and not of feeling. When it comes to spending, we have often acted with our hearts, not our heads (that’s the reason why branding is important and effective). And soon it will be time to restore that distinction.

When the virus abates and it is safe to return to some kind of normal, the question we must ask ourselves is not: “Do we need to?”, but: “Do we want to”? And armed with a freer, more flexible philosophy of money and value, we’ll have all the more reason to answer, “Yes”.

“Yes” to the sights and sounds of the city. “Yes” to the friends and colleagues we miss.

Cem Balci

Mouthy Blogger

Cem is an account executive at a financial PR firm in London and recently graduated with a degree in English. His literary studies have taught him to distinguish between money as capital and money as a concept.

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