Friday, October 25, 2013

Money Burning at the Horse Hospital

On Wednersday 23rd October 2013 I burned the twenty pounds sterling note OA37 598019 at a Fortean Society event at the Horse Hospital in Bloomsbury, London. The event was a talk on Robert Anton Wilson given by +John Higgs followed by Daisy Eris Campbell and friends performing a scene from a dramatisation of 'Cosmic Trigger' (a book by Wilson) that they hope to stage in the near future.

My burning was filmed by @sarahsparkes

I'm grateful to John Higgs for giving me the chance to do my burning at the event. I've live streamed it before, and done it in the presence of family, but doing it in front of a live audience was a first. The reaction was very interesting.

I sensed a nervousness in the audience. Burning money is taboo. I didn't really want to interact with the audience during the burning itself, so I just kind of zoned out of the comments you can hear in the video. It's important to me just to watch it burn.

The only comment that broke through to me was "How many children in Syria would that save?" The chap who asked this, repeated it. I think that most folks understood that this is a serious ritual for me. I can't break off mid-way through to engage in debate. If I had done, I'd have needed to burn another £20, contributing to the deaths of more Syrian children (in the questioner's reality tunnel).

It's not that I wanted or expected silence for the burning. Far from it. I'm really grateful to have an honest reaction. And - I'm possibly imagining this - it was good to feel the attention of the audience focused on the burning itself. In that respect it felt like I'd plugged in to an amplifier. I'd rather just not have had the 'deliberate' attempt to break my connection with the ritual. It was the repetition that bugged me a bit.

The question itself though, is entirely valid.

Similar questions were asked of the K-Foundation after their burning. After my second burning I got a comment about 'not giving the money to good causes' and my response was to examine charity itself. But the 'kids in Syria' question is not really about charity. It's more direct than that. It's about morality. I'll try my best to answer it here.

There is a terrific passage in John Higg's book The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds that I used as Money Wisdom #80. I'll quote it here in full:

"It was the pointlessness of the whole thing that got to people. When it was revealed in 2000 that Elton John had somehow spent £40 million in 20 months, including £293,000 on flowers, people reacted differently. There was much head shaking, tutting and many jokes. but generally speaking people didn't take it personally. It was Elton John's money after all, and his extravagance seemed in keeping with the personality that earned him that money in the first place. His wasted money, at the very least, had made a number of florists happy. 
When Cauty and Drummond wasted their money it felt it different. Seeing video footage of the burning was a genuine shock. Their money looked like kidney dialysis machines, beds in homeless shelters or funding for young artists in a way that Elton John's wasted money didn't. This wasn't money being wasted; it was money being negated. The argument that it was their money, and they could do what they liked with it, didn't ring true. What they had done felt wrong." (my emphasis)

JMR Higgs KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money [Kindle Edition](2012) 127/3140

John says here that people see wasting money (spending it frivolously) and burning money as two distinct moral categories. And what happened at the Horse Hospital confirmed this. If I had gone up to the bar, bought five beers and tipped the bar man a fiver, I'd have spent £20 but no-one would have mentioned the 'children in Syria'. But I didn't. Because I burned £20 the morality around money came into sharp focus and suddenly my £20 was connected to the suffering of children in Syria.

But what actually happened when I burned the £20?

First let's take things literally. I destroyed a promissory note issued by the Bank of England, I forgave them their debt and I gave up any claim to the goods and services that the £20 would purchase. But even with a literal explanation things aren't totally clear. OA37 598019 still exists in the Bank's ledger. The money is both dead and alive at the same time.

Let's look at the economics to see if that helps. There are broadly two theories about Money; one thinks Money is a commodity and the other thinks it's a social relation. Strangely, commodity theory is preferred by schools of thought at either edge of economic theory. Both Hayek and Marx adhere to commodity theory and see money as a real thing (or at least as a symbol of something real). Social relations theory on the other hand is used by economic pragmatists such as Keynes. His blend of economics builds around the idea that money is abstract. But neither commodity theory nor social relations theory would conclude that burning a paper note of currency diminishes the world's resources. Indeed, generally speaking economic theories see money as neutral.

I doubt though, that a literal or economic explanation will convince anyone. The plain feeling is that I have done something morally wrong.

So what about the morality of it? The passage from John's book makes it clear that saying 'It's my money' is not a sufficient moral defence in most people's eyes. The fact that burning money is legal (in the UK at least) seems not to matter either. What might seem relevant is what philosophers would term a 'consequentialist' moral argument. I've chosen to burn £20 rather than give it to a good cause. The consequence of my action has been the creation of small amount of ash whereas it could have provided medicine for Syrian children. But it hasn't just been the ash, has it? Without the burning this post wouldn't exist and conversations wouldn't have been started. And then there is the problem of my intention. I don't burn the money to deprive Syrian children of their medicine.

I think the key moral objection actually must lie in deeply personal terms, in what philosophers call virtue ethics. I think those who object feel a deep sense of 'wrongness' in me choosing to burn the money, and try as I might to convince them otherwise by using references to economics or moral philosophy, that sense of 'wrongness' will remain, and form itself into a judgement about my morality, rather than the morality of the act itself.

We all have a relationship to money. I've chosen to break a taboo by burning it. It may be that my thinking and writing about money is my attempt to justify an immoral act. But that's not what it feels like from this side of the taboo. It feels like burning money is a profoundly moral act and my thinking and writing about it is an attempt to explain why.

For me the act of burning money is about forgiveness; literally, economically, philosophically and most of all personally. It's about loss without gain. It's as close as we can get to the impossibility of pure forgiveness; of forgiving the unforgivable.

The event was my first evening out since my wife and I separated in May. We'd been together 28 years. The last time I was out for an evening, was in April. I went to a talk by David Graeber at the London School of Economics (David is an Anthropologist, leading light in the Occupy Movement and author of 'Debt - the First 5000 years'). I did a long post about the talk and my thoughts on what David said but the key point is the role of forgiveness.

Forgiveness has a staring role in the history of money and of mankind. The role of forgiveness in the history of money is a story I'm trying to tell on this blog. I also have some very strange sounding ideas about what money is, and how it relates to reality. And actually the idea of forgiveness is something I've stumbled upon through my burning. If you'd have asked me ten years ago about forgiveness, I'd have said its something that Christians do; it's a Christian virtue.

Christians will tell you that it's forgiveness that is the true path to Justice, not charity. I think they're right about that. So I guess that's why I don't feel the same way about burning £20 as the 'Syrian children' chap did. I suspect that burning the £20 was a more moral act than donating it. If others judge me as immoral, then so be it. Given my suspicion, in terms of virtue ethics donating it would definitely be the wrong moral choice for me.

Burning money hasn't been only an intellectual exercise for me, it also visceral. It can't really fail to be that. A fire ritual is a powerful thing. And the karmic universe seems to find its own way of testing us. The combination of the visceral and intellectual helped me understand the importance of forgiveness not only in relation to my study of money, but also in my own life. Money burning has helped me realise that life can be better if you can forgive and if others can forgive you. That's been a real comfort to me in a difficult six months.

Forgiveness binds together a moral order from the chaos of events. And its something that, if we allow it to, permeates the most intimate and deeply personal moments of our lives. I think we should reclaim it from religion.

The beautiful thing is that the potential for pure forgiveness is frozen in every note in your wallet or purse. Burn them and you'll release it.

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