Monday the 15th of August 2016 marked the 45 year anniversary of Nixon taking the US dollar (and the world) off the Gold Standard. This means that we’re now about a generation and a half away from a time when ‘having money’ meant holding a tangible right to gold.

This gets a lot of people concerned. Many of them are conspiracy theorists (I often find myself forced to listen to zeitgeisty rumours-posed-as-fact at parties). Some of them are not. But the key problem seems to be this: people don’t like the fact that money is an ‘illusion’.

As the Universe would coincidentally have it, on Saturday, I went to a thematically-appropriate art exhibition in Pretoria. The exhibition was called ‘Fire Starter‘, and the headline activity involved the artist (Diane Victor – I’m a massive fan) burning money, grinding it into ash, and then using it to draw these haunting images of lifeboats, floatation devices, and men being strangled by lifebuoys. Some highlights:



And where did the newly-ashed-cash come from? Well, like everything, bank notes have a shelf life. When the SARB retires bank notes from circulation, said bank notes get transported under heavy security to a recycling plant, where they’re shredded and compacted into large blocks. At this point, the blocks of shredded paper get placed in landfills, or taken away in sacks by enterprising artists.

It’s almost emotional: a kilogram of shredded R100 notes was once worth about R100,000 – then it went through a shredder – and suddenly, it’s just relatively worthless paper.

Only, in this version of events: the shredded paper gets burnt, ground down, and affixed onto more paper to rise, phoenix-like, from its ashes – once more worth tens of thousands of Rands as an artwork. And it’s evocative art: because what does it say about humanity when we rely so heavily on bank balances and the safety of money and assets, when value can be created and destroyed so easily? Hence the lifeboats and floatation devices: we’re being saved from drowning by nothing but contained air. And all it needs is a puncture.

This is usually the point where someone hearkens back to a time when money was linked to gold. Because at least, then, it wasn’t just air. It was gold, dammit.

But what’s the actual problem though?

I know it feels really disconcerting to say that money has almost no materiality. That it’s transient, and illusory, and based on nothing other than general agreement.

But isn’t that just life, though? Almost everything that we consider important is ‘just’ some form of social construct. Almost everything we fight for, about and over is ‘just’ some kind of a belief.

So is gold, for that matter. It’s just a shiny metal in the ground. It’s just an atomic structure. We don’t need if for any particular biological function. Its value is solely based on our general agreement that gold ought to be valuable because it’s gold. And history, guys. Et cetera.

I guess that’s why I’m not particularly concerned by fears that the entire financial edifice will come crashing down when everyone ‘realises’ that it’s all just an illusion. Because that particular illusion springs from all the other supposed illusions – things like ‘society’ and ‘human rights’ and ‘morality’. Those are also artifice: a kind of thin polite veneer over our bestial true nature. But somehow, we don’t let that get in the way of living our daily lives and trying to be good people.

More than that, I have real faith in our collective desire to be wilfully blind in the face of those illusions. If psychology has taught us anything, it’s that we’re really good at developing coping mechanisms to avoid dealing with harsh truths directly. So when we hit these awkward moments where we’re brushing a bit too close to something that might be uncomfortable, we shift focus, saunter outside in search of another mimosa, and then spend time chatting about the artistic process.

And even if you’re brave enough to not shift focus:


Some post scripts:

  • The Fire Starter exhibition is on at the Collector’s Room at Fried Contemporary until Saturday 10 September. And even though you’ll have missed the opening day live demonstration of the ash drawings in process – it’s still worth a visit. Also, I strongly recommend the Chocolate, Miso and Peanut Butter milkshake at the Ginger & Fig restaurant just round the corner from the gallery. Strongly. Recommend.
  • If you feel like buying some shredded currency, eBay is full of it.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at