Money

Maria Alvarez is currently working on her second novel. Her first, Mirror, Mirror, is published by Penguin.

Still better to splash out than lose grip

It may be a psychoanalytical cliché as old as Freud's couch, but in these economically unsettled times it pays to bear in mind that our earliest system of exchange involves the production of poo in return for a reward. It's really no fanciful invention. The link between faecal, polluting matter and money goes back to antiquity. The introduction of coins to replace the barter system would have served to further forge the link. And it was the Renaissance philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon, a notorious spendthrift and often dangerously in debt, who put it that "Money is like muck, not good except it be spread".

Amidst the recent brouhaha over the Big Freeze there have been smaller headlines pointing cautiously towards economic recovery, higher consumer spending, an increase in mortgage applications. Has the trauma of financial meltdown altered us one iota? One is tempted to give a great Gallic shrug and say "Plus ça change". As soon as things begin to mend, we fall back into a state that Slavoj Žižek has termed "fetishistic disavowal" about a system which relies on the flimsy principle of bankers believing in a belief. We comfort ourselves with the convenient corrective narrative of ensuring tighter strictures in future so it Never Happens Again, and trust in the myth of having learned from our individual credit-happy recklessness. We think we have emerged chastened and sobered from the experience but somehow, I doubt it, you doubt it and almost everyone else really doubts it.

Our relation to filthy lucre and the way financial crises and the idea of loss affect people stretch beyond bread-and-butter economics. Much as we continue to further the abstraction, the movement of money via online banking and chip-and-pin technology, our relation to money is ultimately darkly rooted in our bodies and in early gratifications. Some of us withhold and hoard beyond reason and comprehension; and some of us, like Francis Bacon, enjoy a quasi-sexual thrill in the spread of the muck to the point of self-destruction. This is not to sound overly reductive. Particularities and idiosyncrasies will vary from person to person. But once upon a time we unrestrainedly produced something from our bodies, and were brought to realize that the control of this production was a highly powerful system of exchange. And, as the psychoanalyst Darian Leader says, "What the recent crisis has most definitely done is stirred up all those early experiences of having and not having".

Alongside the having is the guilt of having too much, and the fear of having it taken away. The myth of ownership is pregnant with the fear of loss. It's hardly surprising that during the successive banking crises of 2008, people took to thinking of emptying their bank accounts and stashing the cash under their mattresses. Some no doubt did. It answered a primitive call. We feel the impact of money physically. It causes pleasure and sickness and constitutes a major cause of many a sleepless night. And of course the fear of loss is far worse than the loss itself.

Loss is perhaps the most crucial of realities to assimilate, and it's paradoxical. Consider the South Sea Bubble crisis of 1720 after the British government allowed one sole company to underwrite the entire national debt. The bubble in the traffic of stocks and shares involved everyone from maids to marchionesses. When it burst, mayhem ensued with a rash of suicides and rioting. However, studies made by nerve specialists at the time recorded an intriguing fact: the significantly higher incidence of breakdowns among those who sold their shares just in time to save themselves compared to those who were effectively ruined.

Might this be behind the discreet phenomenon observed by contemporary shrinks – that of a certain underlying relief among high-flyers who have lost considerable amounts? What we indubitably now know is that the capitalist system exists in a vampiric form; that we will return to our old ways of spending, that those who have lost jobs and houses will hope to recover enough to own and spend all over again. This is not simply inherent in an advanced capitalist consumer society; we are archaically linked in to money as real matter and its exciting and/or guilty evocations. Which is why in films good and bad, when people finally steal or acquire the suitcase of money, they splash it around the room along with the champagne.

It's no surprise that the old place to hoard cash was under the mattress – a space not miles away from the chamber pot. And it could be that's why we hate actual banks. They are no real substitute for the faintly grubby, faintly shameful nexus of the private and vulnerable. They only evoke it – like a Luis Buñuel scenario in which giant corporate lavatories are run by hoards of highly indifferent nannies.

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