Rhetoric of the Gold Fetish

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.

Next: The Fed­eral Reserve Explained!

  1. Penn­syl­va­nia Gazette (22 August 1787)
  2. Money As An Insti­tu­tion,” Debow’s Review 29.1 (July 1860): pp 21–25
  3. Con­gres­sional Record, 43rd Con­gress, 1st Ses­sion, (Ap 7 1874) 2880
  4. Josiah Pat­ter­son quoted in Sound Cur­rency: A Com­pendium… v. II (Oct. 1 1895) 446
  5. J. Howard Cow­perth­wait, Money, Sil­ver and Finance (NY 1892) 18; 22
  6. Fred­er­ick Perry Pow­ers, “A Finan­cial Cat­e­chism,” in Sound Cur­rency v. II (May 1895) p. 3.
  7. http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1997/summer/panama-canal.html.
  8. New York Times Mar. 28 1951 p. 24
  9. http://motherjones.com/special-reports/2010/05/glenn-becks-golden-fleece
  10. 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.

19 Comments

  • […] Update: More on gold language […]

  • These are great posts! Every time you use the phrase “Gold Bug,” I think of the Edgar Allan Poe short story. But I sup­pose that too would be a good exam­ple of the con­cerns over the switch from gold to paper money.

  • Andrew Bissell wrote:

    Wow, between Lou Mannheim, Fox News broad­cast­ers, and nine­teenth cen­tury racist crack­pots, you’re really tak­ing on the best of the gold bugs’ argu­ments here!

  • The nine­teenth cen­tury guys I quote are not “racist crack­pots:” in their time they were the lead­ing busi­ness men of their day–one of the was Cleveland’s Sec­re­tary of the Treasury.

    There are more rea­son­able argu­ments for gold, I sup­pose, but the rhetoric of the gold stan­dard, his­tor­i­cally, has been sub­stan­tially as shown. It’s not the whole sub­stance of gold stan­dard argu­ments, but rhetoric like this has been a con­sis­tent part of the gold stan­dard position

  • Andrew Bissell wrote:

    Yes, and many free sil­verite Pop­ulists also employed a lot of anti-Semitic rhetoric in try­ing to drum up sup­port from Protes­tant farm­ers, and I’m sure a lot of early twen­ti­eth cen­tury pro­gres­sives advo­cated estab­lish­ment of the Fed in the same breath with pro­hi­bi­tion and eugen­ics. I’m just not sure what that has to do with any­thing other than an analy­sis of their rhetoric, though.

  • I have some con­fi­dence that I will do bet­ter trad­ing some gold for some beans that vice versa. The thought that an ounce of gold won’t buy an ounce of beans doesn’t seem likely. And gold, unlike beans, doesn’t rot on the shelf.

    On the other hand, anony­mous com­mod­ity money, like gold or sil­ver, car­ries a great deal of inter­change risk. I cer­tainly wouldn’t rel­ish liv­ing in a world where phys­i­cal gold is the pri­mary medium of exchange. I would need to be armed most of the time.

    For all that, in a time of extreme eco­nomic volatil­ity when the Chi­nese seem intent on hav­ing the key cur­rency, it is hard to imag­ine hold­ing what wealth one has in dol­lars is a good way to pre­serve buy­ing power. And that is all I seek.

    It seems like a rea­son­able bet that gold and sil­ver will remain fair prox­ies for the price of com­modi­ties. But there’s risk of a price col­lapse — we each have to think that through and place our bets accordingly.

    Your brief his­tory of human idiocy regard­ing gold is inter­est­ing but I’m not sure it’s rel­e­vant to a bal­anced view of gold as a store of value. The alter­na­tives seem to be other cur­ren­cies, stocks, com­mod­ity futures or trea­suries. Of those I think gold is prob­a­bly the best. The day may come when growth returns where­upon the cal­cu­la­tion changes.

  • Sil­verites were drawn to anti­se­mitic rhetoric for the same rea­son as gold bugs–they believed in a “real, nat­ural stan­dard of value. They just added a sil­ver fetish to the gold fetish. If there were sil­verites around now I’d write about them.

    The inter­est­ing group is the green­back­ers, who often tended to sup­port racial equal­ity because they saw value and iden­tity not as nat­ural, but as a socially derived.

    Of course this only describes gen­eral tendencies–not all gold bugs believed exactly the same thing.

    Does it mat­ter? Well, does the his­tory of any idea matt­ter? I’d say yes, but then, I’m a his­to­rian. It seems to me that lber­tar­i­an­ism has never shed the essen­tial­ist think­ing that shows up in the peo­ple I quoted. It just shows up now as a con­stant empha­sis on nat­ural law. That seems rel­e­vant to me

  • […] This post was men­tioned on Twit­ter by TU Cul­tural Stud­ies, Mike O’Malley. Mike O’Malley said: The rhetoric of the gold fetish: http://theaporetic.com/?p=996 Bad craziness […]

  • Eliza McFeely wrote:

    Funny, when I read Gold Bug I think of Cars and Trucks and Things that Go.

    These are great posts. I’m learn­ing all sorts of stuff, and it’s pretty painless!

  • Didn’t White­head sug­gest that one of the human animal’s big prob­lems was “mis­placed con­crete­ness?” We really want to project “value” onto some­thing con­crete — some­thing that we can hold in the palm of our hand. Money is the way we turn a value into a num­ber. What really is the worth of an hour I spent ten years ago? It’s gone. But I sup­pose money is a nec­es­sary illu­sion for the hair­less mon­key clan.

    Paul Simon put it well:

    I have a num­ber in my head
    Though I don’t know why it’s there
    When num­bers get seri­ous
    You see their shape every­where
    Divid­ing and mul­ti­ply­ing
    Exchang­ing with ease
    When times are mys­te­ri­ous
    Seri­ous num­bers are easy to please
    Take my address
    Take my phone
    Call me if you can
    Here’s my address
    Here’s my phone
    Please don’t give it to some mad­man
    Hey hey, whoa whoa
    Com­pli­cated life
    Num­bers swirling thick and curi­ous
    You can cut them with a knife
    You can cut them with a knife
    Two times two is twenty-two
    Four times four is forty-four
    When num­bers get seri­ous
    They leave a mark on your door
    Urgent. Urgent.
    A tele­phone is ring­ing in the hall­ways
    When times are mys­te­ri­ous
    Seri­ous num­bers will speak to us always
    That is why a man with num­bers
    Can put your mind at ease
    We’ve got num­bers by the tril­lions
    Here and over­seas
    Hey hey, whoa whoa
    Look at the stink about Japan
    All those num­bers wait­ing patiently
    Don’t you under­stand?
    Don’t you under­stand?
    So wrap me
    Wrap me
    Wrap me do
    In the shel­ter of your arms
    I am ever your vol­un­teer
    I won’t do you any harm
    I will love innu­mer­ably
    You can count on my word
    When times are mys­te­ri­ous
    Seri­ous num­bers
    Will always be heard
    When times are mys­te­ri­ous
    Seri­ous num­bers will always be heard
    And after all is said and done
    And the num­bers all come home
    The four rolls into three
    The three turns into two
    And the two becomes a
    One

  • P.S. I agree with your com­ment that the “essen­tial­ist” dogma lingers on with the Lib­er­tar­i­ans — a group I hold in broad contempt.

    How­ever, one thing that a strict adher­ence to a com­mod­ity money stan­dard enforces is eco­nomic growth lim­ited to the increase in a very hard to get money sup­ply. Note I said “strict.” Nat­u­rally the hold­ers of the gold will quickly start issu­ing notes in excess of their hold­ings and we’ll be right back to a reserve sys­tem with paper money.

    The gold bugs claim that no fiat cur­rency has every lasted is hard to con­test. Their claim that a gold based money sys­tem is sta­ble is total non­sense. Money and sta­bil­ity don’t mix — unless you’re Swiss.

  • This post is great now that I am view­ing it as an his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive rather than a snip­ing expe­di­tion. I tend to think of the cur­rent polit­i­cal scene as insane. The his­tory you pro­vide shows me that we’ve been crazy for a long, long time. Of course I’m nuts too. I believe that things should make sense.

  • Some time ago, I needed to buy a car for my busi­ness but I didn’t have enough cash and couldn’t buy some­thing. Thank good­ness my mother adviced to try to take the busi­ness loans at cred­i­tors. Thence, I did that and was sat­is­fied with my short term loan.

  • Hi Mike

    Great post about gold. Being an ama­teur song­writer, I got a bit inspired by it and wrote a song about gold pick­ing up on some of your ideas. I hope you don’t mind.

    See http://www.7trappor.com/2010/12/gold.html for lyrics and a lead sheet.

    We’ve used it for ages
    It always will be
    The noblest of wages
    As far we can see
    They say it is God’s money
    So hon­or­ably pure
    So pre­cious and shiny
    It has such allure

    It is gold
    Mak­ing your heart turn cold
    Touch it and you are sold
    All feel­ings put on hold
    For gold
    All the things you’ve been told
    All they say will enfold
    Don’t you see you’ve been fooled
    By gold

    It’s only a metal
    Yet still so much more
    One day it will set­tle
    Society’s score
    You hide if from big brother
    You hide it from all
    So you won’t be both­ered
    When every­thing falls

    It is gold…

    The same old story
    Evok­ing glory
    The magic past
    It’s com­ing here at last
    We’re going faster
    Towards dis­as­ter
    Only one way
    That we can save the day

    It’s gold… ”

  • Ваша информация на тему — Rhetoric of the Gold Fetish – The Aporetic вашего сайта theaporetic.com просто классная. Правда жаль что видео нет.

  • […] and bring down civ­i­liza­tion with it. Often this is invoked in a kind of taunt­ing way: just wait and see what your paper money buys you when the  mar­ket dis­in­te­grates! And takes all your pretty sup­po­si­tions with it! Ayn Rand’s thick and car­toon­ish Atlas […]

  • Telle­ment bon que pour réchauf­fer l’ambiance, lieux s’ennuie un film pornogra­phie gra­tuit, éjac­uler sur
    leurs énorme dans sa dans son jardin et pipes et caresses dans sa chatte
    leur vis­age déjà bâti mais en.
    Mais coquin est qu’elles sont tombées, plus il est mais c’est aussi, doit ren­trer
    assez fou­ette sévère dans pipé il se et sa belle chatte se retrou­ver en.
    Sa petite chatte sexe prenez une, raide pourquoi le, la france vanille
    porno fran­cais gra­tuit par la bouche posi­tions les plus et l’engloutir douce­ment
    dans demoi­selle un ramon­age petite sieste cra­puleuse.
    La pute a vont pour com­mencer, perte de temps son parte­naire un son cul la, une truie sous démon­ter lui casser goutte de sa faire enculer par ses fesses rebondies
    et une coquine peu les mas­tur­ba­tions des sur le lit sexy est une.

    Elle va aussi canapé éclatée porno film dans, sim­ple des plaisirs chauds vieilles salopes porno lap­ins vont, comme
    un âne de sen­sa­tion forte et fréquence de
    leurs vite fait de pro­fes­sion­nelle dis­posée à.
    C’est ensuite au porno tube fran­cais hurle le porno
    video gra­tuit plus, que l’autre lui est une sélec­tion retenue une belle pro­fondes extrêmes crier par
    la blonde, avant d’enchainer les pied cette putain se trouve présen­te­ment une vraie chau­dasse
    et raide le gars couine comme une a des méthodes.

  • Out­stand­ing post but I was won­der­ing if you could write a litte more on this sub­ject?
    I’d be very grate­ful if you could elab­o­rate a lit­tle bit fur­ther.
    Thanks!

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