“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.
The ship burial probably dates from AD 625, 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 U.K. 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 U.K., our cosily-named proposed ‘Britcoin’ would supposedly exist alongside cash.