By Brett Scott and cross-posted from The Guardian
Sweden leads the world in cashlessness. In doing so it also leads the world in opening its citizens up to fine-grained financial surveillance. “Cashless society” is a euphemism for a “bank payments society”, in which every transaction must be passed through a complex of banks, card companies, phone providers and payments apps.
In granting financial corporations complete control over the money system, our every economic interaction ends up logged in their databases for analysis. Sweden may end up being the first society in which every private economic action is recorded.
Cashlessness is often presented as natural “progress”. Indeed, a recent BBC article about Sweden’s digital payments fetish asks: “So how did the Nordic nation get so far ahead of the rest of us?”.As if cashlessness is a state we are all willingly racing towards.
Commentators often suggest the phenomenon is driven by “consumer demand”. It’s partially true. Ask a room of people to raise their hands if they wish to be able to use digital payment, and most will do so. But if you reframe the question as “Do you want to not have the option to use cash?” people are more hesitant. We like new options, but we don’t like having options removed.
Automobile evangelists in the early 1900s pitched cars as the transport of the future, superior to other forms, such as horse-drawn carriages. The bicycle, though, has remained stubbornly persistent, despite the car’s greater speed, distance and carrying capacity. That’s because the bicycle is more efficient in certain contexts, and requires lower maintenance. Cars have come to cause congestion, pollution, accidents and urban sprawl, and nowadays we see the simple bicycle as one solution to the problems caused by the “superior” car.
So it is with cash. The digital payments industry tries to cast cash as the horse-drawn carriage of payments; but cash is the bicycle, more flexible, resilient and convenient in certain settings, especially informal ones.
People don’t “want” cashlessness any more than they “want” a society where you’re allowed to use cars only. And once people glimpse the dark side of bank digital payments – with surveillance, massive increase in financial cybercrime, and exclusion of people who cannot access the formal banking system – they will probably want cash to remain.
There are, however, certain institutions – banks, payments companies, and governments – that really do want the death of cash. They are waging a war on cash, publicly smearing it as an outdated social evil while contrasting it against a romanticised vision of digital payments. Most ordinary people do not see cash as a “social evil”. They see it as a normal public utility. Private companies, though, see public utilities as competition. The only reason Visa ran its “cashfree and proud” campaign is because Visa loses revenue when you use cash…