Today I finished reading properly Rebecca Spang’s marvellous Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution, having only dipped in when I first bought it. It really repays the attention. What seems to be a book about a specific aspect of the historical episode is really a reflection on the nature of money and its intrinsic relationship with politics and with conceptions of property. Set in the 1780s and 90s, it could not be more relevant to the bitcoin/ledger debate.
Stuff and Money in the Time of the French Revolution
I learnt much from it, starting with the insight that the problems with the infamous assignats issued after the revolution stemmed from the unquestioned belief that the venal offices sold by the old regime, raising much government revenue, could not be cancelled or expropriated. Spang writes: “Throughout the debate, no one (not even Marat or Robespierre) took the truly revolutionary position of suggesting venal offices might be illegitimate privileges that could be cancelled without payment.” But, she adds, “Simply aboloshing the offices was unthinkable but so too was leaving the debt on the books, since officeholders who had not been repaid woulf retain their property and ‘privilege’ would still exist.” Settling the debts in one go would would consign the ancien regime to history and complete the revolution. Hence the issue of assignats backed by the expropriated land of the church.
The book also has a fascinating section on The Big Problem of Small Change (to quote the title of Tom Sargent and François Velde’s book on this): the cost of manufacturing the low-denomination coins used by most people exceeded their face value. A shortage of usable cash led to the proliferation of private currencies in many areas, and eventually their replacement by breaking up the assignats into smaller denominations, so that they morphed from something like bills of exchange, backed by specific property, into generic paper money. A sophisticated credit network built on personal relationships and specificities gave way to anonymity and ultimately distrust. But the distrust was the product of political uncertainty, the dissolution of everything familiar and the clear invalidation of the assumption that the future would be enough like the present that credit – and money – could be relied on.
The book concludes with a reminder that the past is different from the present but what it does serve to underline is the culturally specific character of not only money but other foundation stones of economic relationships – property and value. These “have never been naturally given categories but are historically produced.” And, perhaps, poised for another revolution, as digital everything continues to strain conventional ideas of property and value to breaking point and beyond.