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Totalitarian Shadow

"War on Cash"

Sankar Ray

Are We Unwittingly Subjugating ourselves, to a "Totalitarian World Currency in the Making"? Precisely, yes. Norbert Haering's latest book, 'Brave New Money: PayPal, WeChat, Amazon Go—A Totalitarian World Currency in the Making', English version of his treatise in German, 'Schonesneues Geld', lucidly narrates how the so-called cashless and digitalised transactions bring us under automatic surveillance. Thus, the democratic order gives in to a totalitarian monetarism—the mirage of cashless Utopia.

The author who wrote 'Economists and the Powerful—Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts—Ample Rewards' (2012) along with Niall Douglas drives his point formidably with the Chinese example. The so-called communist government has put in practice a system for assessing the virtue of all Chinese citizens "If you treat customers nicely or if you 'volunteer' for some public service activities, you will be rewarded with social points. If you are caught jaywalking by one of the omnipresent surveillance cameras, which are increasingly equipped with facial recognition software, you might have a few points taken away from your social credit account". If one criticises the government or doesn't pay a fine, one loses many points. And if one's account lowers, one can't book decent hotels or flights or fast trains. The payment mode in Chinese cities is through multi-purpose apps WeChat or Alipay. "You can think of them as a combination of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Paypal. They cooperate closely with the government. WeChat even has a special app which uses the services facial recognition feature to function as official identity documentation for any purpose other than international travel", states Haering.

WeChat and Alipay register and store everything and reserve the option to use the information therefrom for a numerical assessment about one's virtuousness and trustworthiness. All information about what citizens buy and which services they use, where and when, can creep into the social credit system.

Apparently, the idea is attractive and the idea that innocently (actually, pretentiously) seeks to recognise one's virtuous or devious social behaviour and sanction more than economic success or failure but the subjugation to the government is total and that's "the threshold to a totalitarian society".

Haering states illustratively, "The future of payments has arrived in early 2018, when the first Amazon Go store opened its gates for the general public in Seattle. If you shop there, you will not have to queue at the cash register. There is none, thanks to—as Amazon calls it—the most modern shopping technology. You just download an app and sign on before entering to store. Then you freely take everything you want from the shelves and put it into your shopping bag—or put it back on the shelf, if you change your mind. When you are satisfied with what you've got, just leave the store unencumbered by cashiers or shop detectives. Amazon's surveillance apparatus has followed you around the store and registered your every move. Shortly after you have left the store you will get a bill on your smart phone and the money will be taken from your account.

Shopping cannot be any easier than this. The activity of paying is eliminated in this consumerist Utopia that is just becoming reality. Without your involvement, you will be rid of your money. You don't even have to take out a card, give a signature or swipe your smartphone. The seller and the person who manages your money are merging. This is there we are headed, not just in Amazon Go stores. In the future of payments, all convenience will be on our side, all the power will be with the other side.... the two systems have uncomfortably large area of overlap. Both are based on reliable automatic identification of acting persons in any context and on total surveillance of all actions. Cameras and other surveillance equipment are following the Chinese with every move they make. The same is true for Amazon-Go-stores. The fact that Amazon is marketing their surveillance technology to police departments does not do anything to attenuate the similarities. We don't own and control anything anymore. Instead we pay for using the services, which things "we used to own, can provide, and we do so in ever smaller installments. This is economically feasible only if usage can be automatically registered by surveillance equipment and automatically charged. In the Amazon-Go-store, the removal of an item from its shelf is a separate purchasing-action, which has to be surveyed and individually charged".

The dictatorial DNA is 'complete surveillance'. There is no need any more to sell 'bits and bytes of a computer program' but instead sell the right to use the bits and bytes of a programme, thus keeping "ownership intact". If they decide to do so, the author explains, "they can block us from using the program. We do not buy bikes anymore; we rent a bike by the minute. We do not pay the government any more to build roads for us, we pay for using them by the mile or kilometer.

From this, the government and those who run the payment infrastructure gain almost complete knowledge of the whereabouts and itineraries of all citizens. You cannot even pay cash on buses and trains any more in many places, to partly escape this complete surveillance."

Individuals are destined to be completely dependent on those who exercise control over the 'financial' bookkeeping and access-rights-management in the background. If they decide that you do not have the financial claims to all or any of those services, or if they deem you unworthy of using them for some other reason, you will be completely paralysed, unable to do anything. The 'war on cash' is waged by the International Monetary Fund which recommended the decline of cash. It advised the governments to give free hand to the private sector that can take on the popular resistance.

The author sarcastically rewrites a proverb—'one man's meat is another man's poison' and adds, "For banks, payment service providers, IT-firms, governments and some merchants the list above as a list of disadvantages of cash. Those who want to sell as much as they can to us, or want to give us as much credit as they prudently can, dislike that cash helps us control our spending. Police and intelligence agencies think of the anonymity of cash as a major disadvantage. They can convincingly argue that catching the bad guys and preventing bad transactions would be easier if cash was not available and thus financial surveillance was more complete".

Can the criminals be prevented from taking advantage of citizens' rights for privacy and other freedoms from government interference? No, as those freedoms altogether and the attendant democracy are ineffectual. To assume that some crime can be prevented by clamping down on the use of cash seems a pious platitude as the second step is illusive.

One has to agree with that the cash is "a costly nuisance to credit card companies and IT-firms who want to have our valuable financial information. Every transaction that we perform without a data trace can distort the profile that they collect on us and thus make it less informative and valuable. We are likely to settle the more sensitive transactions in cash -transactions, which might allow conclusions about our employability or health, or creditworthiness or our inclination to incur risks.

(I am grateful to Pradip Baksi for writing this piece.)
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Frontier
Vol. 51, No.13, Sep 30 - Oct 6, 2018