When Cash Is the Tie That Binds: Situating Affective Monetary Attachments in the Euro-Zone

Friday, June 24, 2016: 10:45 AM-12:15 PM
183 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Ursula M Dalinghaus, Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion UC Irvine, Irvine, CA
“The euro in your pocket” is the single most important material object that brings the EU into being for Europe’s citizens, so one is often reminded by institutional proponents and scholars alike. And yet, with recent speculations about the possibility of Greece leaving the euro zone and the imposition of capital controls there—which have limited ATM-withdrawals, disabled international payments, and called into question the free movement of capital, goods, and people built in to the principles of the European monetary union—why are the challenges inherent in detaching persons and states from euro cash, and hence the euro project, not accorded the same analytical attention? What would it actually mean to “cash out” of the euro entirely? How has the long process of “cashing in” to the project materialized in peoples’ lives?

This paper explores the importance of euro cash in “domesticizing” the single euro currency for European publics. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork of communications work at the German Central Bank (Deutsche Bundesbank) as well as oral and archival histories of Germany's 1990 monetary union, I propose to think of euro banknotes and coins not simply as media of exchange with their attendant European iconography, but also as singular yet dispersed material objects that keep the monetary union together through various affective and institutionally embodied attachments. I do so by simultaneously conceptualizing capacities for detachment (see Deville 2015) based on empirical histories of previous currency shifts in order to trace the specific modalities and infrastructural relations that cash enables in this case. My work draws on literatures from across STS, cultural economy, and the social studies of finance to understand cash as a market device through which the affective economies of state-issued currency are produced.

Like the “economy of words” (Holmes 2013) I argue that banknotes are also a crucial form of central bank power that must be continually negotiated with these diverse publics. In communications work and public outreach by the Bundesbank and European Central bank, euro banknotes are a primary means of establishing intimate ties to a project often seen by many as top-down, abstract, and distantly removed from citizens’ lives and concerns. While such communicative work around the security features of banknotes and cash management is easily dismissed as mundane and anecdotal, my research shows how these practices materialize and incite a complex interplay of power relations often overlooked in macro-economic expert analyses about the future of the euro project. As a pedagogical tool and socio-material relationship that must be managed to earn trust, euro banknotes solidify but also complicate the affective ties of money relationships within the euro zone.

German experiences of the euro ‘pre-crisis’ suggest old yet emergent forms of using currency as a vehicle for critical reflection on the nature of money and its relation to the state. Independent central banks mediate this relation by promising to guarantee the stability of money—a national or in the case of the euro, a supranational monetary regime—in their capacity to side with or against the state. Central Banks are public institutions simultaneously within and outside the state. As the Bank of banks, the central bank acts as a lender of last resort, or as Gustav Peebles has recently put it, a central bank is ironically “unbanked” since there is no institution above them with which it could bank (2014: 607). Cash is one part of this infrastructure (Maurer 2015; n.d.) of exception. It is a public good and a medium of control that central banks work to orchestrate, but whose score is ultimately played by a diverse set of human and non-human actors.

The euro, as a currency and monetary instrument, is on the one hand one currency among others. It is money just like the dollar is money. On the other, the euro is an unprecedented experiment in binding 19 national member states to a single monetary institution and policy that resides at a different level than the sovereign nation-state. The efficacy of the euro must therefore also be concretized as a particular quality of belonging and interconnection within the euro-zone. As the material instance through which member-states are most universally and integrally connected to the single currency as a monetary and political project, banknotes are quite literally the tie that binds.

Speculative debates about potential exits of member-states like Greece from the European monetary union often take for granted the logistical bind and bindings presented by euro banknotes. Drawing on logistical proposals and propositions for an orchestrated euro exit, I consider the ways in which exits and entrances are inseparable from infrastructures of cash. Specifically, I focus on the problem of what should be done with the cash in these various scenarios in order to bring to light some of the ways in which banknotes orchestrate multiple and overlapping relationships within and between diverse European publics. Whether to facilitate the seamless movement of people and things across the national boundaries of the single market, or to halt and anchor monetary flows and persons—where capital controls limit the mobility of the singular euro—euro cash indexes moral ties and tensions around the mutualization of debts and the materiality of belonging in the euro community. Ultimately, I show how euro-cash attaches people differently and unevenly to national-historical and financial economies of belonging and immobility in Europe.

By shifting focus from the immateriality of money in bank bailouts and quantitative easing to its cash impediments, I aim to open up new avenues for analyzing the relation between affective monetary attachments and human mobility currently at the center of multiple crises in Europe.