In anthropology, a “fetish” is an object believed to have magical powers. A rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe, a lucky coin: these are “fetishes,” material things supposedly animated by magic power. They can ward off bad times.
Historically, when Americans talked about the gold standard, they often talked about it as magical. Gold would make bad people good, banish false values, and restore virtue to the republic. Paper money enabled lies and false promises: gold restored honor. A letter to the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1787 lamented “dirty” paper money. “At the sight of a dirty paper bill think—how many hearts has this worried? What number of dirty actions has it done? … Away with all worthless paper money; the source of all daily corruption and misery; let gold and silver restore solid integrity, pure innocence, and splendid honor.” 1
Gold would banish evil because it was “God’s money,” insisted DeBow’s Review in 1860. DeBow’s claimed that “all attempts to depreciate it by alloy, or to compel the use of a paper or any other substitute, have resulted in disastrous failure…The surgeon or the anatomist who attempts to invent a substitute for the blood, is not a whit more presumptuous and charlatanic than the statesman who endeavors to force into circulation any other currency in place of the precious metals.” Money was natural, like blood. 2
Although the Bible frowns on worshiping golden idols, gold’s fans often came very close. In 1874 New York Senator Jacob Cox claimed of gold: “preciousness, cohesiveness and divisibility belong to gold as to no other element,” and “God has hardened it in the millions of years in which the mountains come and go like the rainbow. It is as true as its burnished source, the sun.”3 God had made gold to be money.
If not connected to nature or deities, gold appeared as a symbol of civilization and progress itself. “The history of money and the history of the civilization of the human race are intertwined,” argued “A Currency Primer.” “Gold is the standard of civilization and Christianity,” insisted another gold tract: “As Mexico adheres to the implements of which the farmers of the United States discarded fifty years ago, so does it adhere to a standard of value [silver] which this country…discarded in 1834.” Advanced races used gold. 4
In the 1890s, gold partisans could not resist making racial comparisons. An 1892 pamphlet argued that “fair tests of the state of civilization in any country” included “the kind of money it uses;” and that only the poorer nations of the world used silver. “Congress cannot cause us to be born again, and into the Hindu, Chinese, Japanese or even into the Mexican or South American silver–handling type,” it concluded. Gold money was a genetic predisposition, a biological “type.” 5 “What prevents Congress from legislating the value of a dollar?” asked “a financial catechism” of 1895: Is it the Constitution? “Not the Constitution of the United States,” came the answer, “but the constitution of man.” 6
Fantasies of gold’s “racial” or genetic value translated into real effects. By 1903, American workers on the Panama canal were segregated by task and by pay into two groups—white workers, known as “gold” workers, took their pay in gold, working on the “gold roll,” while black workers, the “silver workers” on the “silver roll,” took silver coins home. Gold and silver workers used separate restrooms; they ate and slept in segregated quarters. “If white Americans are needed, I think we should employ them on the gold roll,” wrote one canal official: “the silver roll was not created for [white] Americans any more than the gold roll was created for negroes.” Gold money was for white people: its superiority mirrored theirs. 7
The gold standard was never simply about money: it was always encumbered by other social anxieties about the negotiability of things and people in daily life. It was always about other standards, standards of civilization or conduct, the line separating us from them.
Gold enthusiasm waxes and wains. In the 1950s, the Daughters of the American Revolution were mocked when they claimed liberals had stolen all the gold in Fort Knox, and demanded Truman conduct a recount.8 (Ron Paul recently demanded the same thing). In the James Bond film Goldfinger, love of gold is shown as a version of evil megalomania and sexual perversity. By the 1970s, even the Wall Street Journal regarded the gold standard as a relic of earlier times.
Modern gold bugs rarely advance overtly racialized arguments for gold, but they tend to invest it with magical properties in much the same way some Americans did in 1787. Or they see it as the magic antidote to generalized social decline.
“The country’s going to hell faster than when Roosevelt was in charge,” declares the fatherly, avuncular trader Lou Mannheim at the start of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: “Too much cheap money sloshing around the world. Worst mistake we ever made was letting Nixon get off the gold standard.” Cheap money equals cheap people: Mannheim watches as the working class climber, Bud Fox, gives up his corrupt ambitions and gaudy pretensions returns to his proper place in the lower classes.
“Tune into Glenn Beck’s Fox News show or his syndicated radio program,” wrote Stephanie Mencimer in Mother Jones, and you’ll soon learn about the precarious state of the US dollar, a currency on the verge of collapse due to runaway government spending, a ballooning national debt, and imminent Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation.” 9
As Richard Hofstadter noted about the paranoid style, in the rhetoric of the gold standard we are always at the brink of Armageddon. Like the conspiracy theorist, the gold bug:
traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse.
Wes Vernon, blogging at RenewAmerica.com, suggests that in a second Obama administration, “the Dark Years will spread around the planet and could collapse the human future for decades, even centuries.” He describes looters in the streets and families citizens huddled behind steel bars as roving gangs terrorize the countryside. See also here, or here, or just google “Obama, gold inflation, collapse.”
Thus the popularity of gold buying among conservatives, who often similarly want to endow gold with magical personal properties. Fox news host Brian Kilmeade endorses gold trader Rosland Capital. Kilmeade tells their customers “Gold is pure. Much like the motives, principles, and traditions of the men who founded our fine country.”
RenewAmerica references Craig R. Smith, who draws out the lurid scenario of apocalyptic collapse in his new book Crashing the Dollar. Smith, co-author, with Swift-boater Jerome Corsi, of Black Gold Stranglehold, is Chairman of SwissAmerica Trading, another gold investment firm. He sells gold as “morally-correct money” and notes “Today the U.S. dollar is on the same trajectory as Obama’s approval ratings, which have fallen one-third — from 65% to 45% — the lowest level since the election.” 10 Gold is the opposite of an African American president: “morally-correct,” naturally valuable and uninflated, it barricades civilization itself. Smith says:
Let’s be brave enough to tell the truth here…America’s economy has been skyjacked. And it appears that the big-government crazies at the controls aim to crash the economy and the dollar. They aim to bring about a ‘fundamental transformation’ of the world in ways that will destroy everything America’s founders made, every individual freedom our . . . Constitution enshrines, every opportunity our children were supposed to have in a free society.
It’s not just about gold.
Since colonial times there’s been a tension between political forces that want inflation, easy credit and loose money, and political forces that want stable prices and a “naturally” limited money supply. There are arguments for both, and it’s not easy to resolve these two camps. Gold bugs made many of the same arguments in 1787 that they make today. Compare Smith’s language to economist Amasa Walker’s 1887 comments, referenced here and in full here.
Gold bugs see more than just prices at stake: they tend to see paper money as a violation of the natural order, and gold as the restoration of all that’s virtuous. It’s never just about prices: it’s almost always about the wrong kind of people being in charge.
And that rhetoric screens the class interests at work. Deflation really helps those with money. It drives down wages. It raises interest rates. It generally stagnates economic growth. But that’s not a bad thing if you’ve already grown big. Craig R. Smith’s apocalyptic arguments go hand in hand with his business selling gold. Maybe he believes that Obama’s presidency heralds the end of civilization as we knew it. Maybe he’s just cynical.
It is certainly possible that the United States could collapse tomorrow, and paper money suddenly lose all value. It’s possible a comet will strike the earth, or the rapture will loft the chosen to heaven. Plagues, catastrophes, disasters: we’re all only an inch away. It’s true that if paper money suddenly collapses, gold will probably have value, but so will guns and bullets, and canned beans, and power tools, and whiskey, and clothes and really any commodity that has value today. Gold is just a commodity. Stockpile it if you like, and wait eagerly for the apocalypse. Or stockpile the beans, and watch the gold guy try to eat gold.
- Pennsylvania Gazette (22 August 1787) ↩
- “Money As An Institution,” Debow’s Review 29.1 (July 1860): pp 21-25 ↩
- Congressional Record, 43rd Congress, 1st Session, (Ap 7 1874) 2880 ↩
- Josiah Patterson quoted in Sound Currency: A Compendium… v. II (Oct. 1 1895) 446 ↩
- J. Howard Cowperthwait, Money, Silver and Finance (NY 1892) 18; 22 ↩
- Frederick Perry Powers, “A Financial Catechism,” in Sound Currency v. II (May 1895) p. 3. ↩
- http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/panama-canal.html. ↩
- New York Times Mar. 28 1951 p. 24 ↩
- http://motherjones.com/special-reports/2010/05/glenn-becks-golden-fleece ↩
- Craig R. Smith and David Bradshaw, “Morally-Correct Money for the 21st Century” (Sep. 4 2009); online at http://www.swissamerica.com/article.php?art=09-2009/200909041235f.txt. ↩