Carl Wennerlind

 

On his book Casualties of Credit: The English Financial Revolution, 1620-1720

Cover Interview of December 06, 2012

A close-up

While chapter four, dealing with the debates surrounding the use of the death penalty for counterfeiting crimes, offers some revealing examples of how contemporaries understood money politically, I would steer the “just browsing” reader to chapter six, in which I discuss how the South Sea Company was created to rescue the national debt with the revenues expected from its newly acquired monopoly on the slave trade to Spanish America. In addition to uncovering a lesser-known tie between money and slavery, this discussion highlights credit’s capacity to obfuscate its underlying social relations in a manner that differs from that famously described by Marx as money fetishism. Marx argued that money has a tendency to hide the social conditions wherein value is created. This allowed an early modern Londoner to sip a porcelain cup of sweetened coffee, while enjoying a smoke of tobacco, paid for with a silver coin, without acknowledging the horrid conditions laborers across the globe endured in the production of these luxuries. I argue that credit fetishism constitutes a higher degree of abstraction. Since credit—in this case the credit issued by the South Sea Company’s engagement with the slave trade—is based on carefully calculated projections of future earnings, investors are more consciously concerned with the source and conditions of value formation. This was certainly the case during the inception of the company, when the public discourse engaged nearly all conceivable opportunities and threats associated with the scheme. Yet, despite carefully imagining the future of the slave trade, both proponents and opponents of the scheme completely ignored the agency, subjectivity, and mortality of the slaves. Even though the lack of attention to human suffering did not constitute a deliberate choice on the part of London investors trading shares in the coffee houses of Exchange Alley, it was nevertheless a more active and selective abstraction than the more universal blind-eye towards the social relations of production that Marx’s concept of money fetishism entailed.