As central bankers and governments around the world move us inexorably towards cashlessness, there remains considerable resistance. In Italy, prime minister Giorgia Meloni tried, much to the displeasure of the European Commission, to enable Italian businesses to refuse card payments for transactions under 60 euros ($64). While in Nigeria, people have taken to the streets to protest cash shortages as the country switches to new currency by February 10 as a step towards encouraging more digital payments. And in Switzerland, an advocacy group recently collected enough signatures to force the authorities to hold a referendum on introducing clauses to ensure the country cannot go entirely cashless.
Writer Brett Scott has been covering how the banks are working towards a cashless world and what’s in it for them. His 2022 book, Cloudmoney, chronicles “cash, cards, cryptocurrency — and the war for our wallets.” He’s skeptical about the idea that the world is heading, irrevocably, for a future where cash doesn’t exist, where we can pay for everything with the swipe of a smartwatch or the blink of an eye.
Scott argues that a cashless society would sound the death knell for small businesses, and wipe out any remaining privacy we have, paving the way for a fully-fledged surveillance system. He’s campaigning for us to hold on to cash —- old, slow, and dirty as it may seem — if we want to hold onto our freedom.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Was there a moment in your personal life where you were suddenly switched on to the implications of a cashless future?
I’ve had a high degree of tech skepticism since I was very young. I was always suspicious of being told that I had to endlessly update. I was then working in finance and I also had a background in economic anthropology. I noticed a lot of the conversation around cashless societies was deeply inaccurate. People had internalized this idea that digital money was an upgrade to cash. They say things like — “my grandmother still likes cash, but she’ll eventually have to get with the times.” But really, they’re two systems that work in parallel.
Are you saying people shouldn’t use digital money?
I’m not saying that. I’m saying that if you didn’t have another option, the digital payments system would become very oppressive. Think of it like Uber versus bicycles. So we might like the Uber system and find it convenient, but we don’t want our entire transport under the control of Uber, right? Uber can be a positive thing — so long as you have the choice to not use it. Bikes can’t take you on long trips, they’re more localized. But they have their advantages. You can get around when there are traffic jams, you have autonomy over a bike, you control it yourself — and you can’t be tracked while riding them.
Have you been following what Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been doing recently? She’s had quite a lot of backlash for saying cash is still king.
Well, she’s actually — bizarrely enough — the only politician that I know right now who is channeling a pretty left-wing take on money. And she’s absolutely right in the sense that all digital money is private. Cash is a public form of money issued by central banks or state entities. Whereas anything you see in a bank account is privately issued by the bank. Think of bank deposits like digital casino chips. And I’ve almost never seen a politician that actually understands that. So when Meloni says that the “cashless society is like the privatization of payments,” it’s absolutely true.
But she has had a lot of criticism. People are claiming she’s helping uphold Italy’s black market and all the criminality and tax evasion that goes with it.
If you want to create a hygienic society and destroy all forms of black market deviance, whether it’s criminal or not, you’ll end up with corporate domination. Let’s say you try to crush all forms of shitty behavior by forcing everybody to use the banking sector. Well, now you’ve created a whole bunch of new problems. You’ve created serious resilience problems in the economy. You’ve created credible new vectors for inequality. Your banking elites, your tech elite, suddenly now control everything: all access to economic interaction in your society. If you suddenly defer control of the entire system to an oligopoly of private sector players, that gives them enormous power. You have to maintain the cash system if you want to create counter-power to that.
Now all those players and a bunch of other people are going to argue that the cash system is allowing various forms of black market crime to exist. But the fact is, the cash economy has always been associated historically with the most marginal people in society. And a cashless society probably wouldn’t actually solve the problem of crime — it’s well known that the banking center is extensively used for crime all the time.
What does a cashless society mean for the surveillance industry?
A cashless world leaves these huge data trails. There are well-known examples of intelligence agencies spying on payment networks. Right now, the worst excesses of that type of surveillance are dampened because there is an alternative, right?
You mean there’s currently a way to fly under the radar by using cash.
Right. The thing about the cash system is that you can’t steer people’s behavior. Once it’s out of the system, cash becomes far more localized and has a much more organic way that it moves around. But let’s say there’s a total implosion in the cash system, and it’s allowed to happen. Maybe the world wouldn’t necessarily immediately become some giant surveillance state –– but the potential for that outcome becomes much much greater. A cashless world has crazy potential for surveillance. And crazy potential for censorship.
What does a cashless society have to do with censorship?
It’s about the ability to control people through their behavior. People’s activities can be monitored — but they can also be blocked by simply freezing their accounts. Think about the crazy levels of trauma faced by someone who can’t get access to the banking sector in a society that won’t take cash. Think about the crazy levels of economic terror that a person would face if they got excluded from the payment system in a cashless society. Right now we have a buffer against us if we get locked out of the banking sector, like if our cards are lost or stolen. We always have cash as a backup.
What do you think will happen if no one starts to engage with the arguments against a cashless society?
I don’t think most people want a cashless society. If you ask people if they like digital payments, most people will say yes. But if you ask them if they want cash to be taken away from them most people will say no. People don’t like having options removed from them. But many people aren’t able to articulate this, say, in the bougie coffee shop that only accepts digital payments. Many people feel a bit weirded out by the fact that they can’t use cash — but often, they don’t have an argument. They can’t articulate it. And they have no ideological support from the political class and the business class. So they’ll just think “oh, well, I guess I’m a bit old school or something.”
So how does a cashless society take shape?
It’s kind of a feedback loop. The bank stops taking cash, meaning small businesses can’t deposit cash, which means they’re less likely to accept cash. So then access to cash goes down. ATMs start closing. And so on. In order to stop this feedback loop, you have to actually act against it — and start putting in access to cash laws, like what Meloni is doing. And you also have to actually build a cultural movement that says it’s totally okay to demand a non-automated form of payment. It has to go against this narrative that we all want a cashless world because it’s so convenient because it’s cleaner, because it’s faster, and so on. Because the reality is, for all this so-called convenience, people are more burnt out than they’ve ever been before. We have less time than we’ve ever had before. We’re more confused and disorientated than we’ve ever been. And this is what happens in an accelerating capitalist system. And if you don’t sync up, you get thrown off the edge.