Illustration by Miguel Porlan

The end of money

Physical cash is dying—and you don’t need to be a conspiracist to worry about the consequences
January 20, 2024

One day over the summer, Piers Corbyn picked up a punnet of strawberries in the Aldi supermarket in Greenwich. He then went to the help desk and placed £1.19 in change on the counter. The controversial climate change denier and anti-vaxxer (and brother of former Labour leader Jeremy)—who, during the pandemic, released an unspeakable music video in which he sang “wearing a mask is like trying to keep a fart in your trousers” (the research is awaiting peer review)—was making a political point. This particular branch does not accept cash payments but tracks customers as they shop, before charging them via an app as they exit. Welcome to the cashless utopia—or, as Corbyn calls it, dystopia.

Corbyn wasn’t having this Orwellian development. “So you people take that money—£1.19—and I will take my strawberries outside,” he tells staff, who, on the video he released on social media, can be heard remonstrating with him. “You can’t take that,” shouts one worker off camera, who advises him the police have been called. “If you want to call the police, call the police. I’ve paid my legal tender,” Corbyn retorts as he pushes his way through security gates designed only to be activated by the app. “Don’t break the doors,” shouts the same Aldi worker. 

Once outside, Corbyn victoriously hands out strawberries to supporters, telling them: “I paid by legal tender in this dystopian place.” “You should be able to spend whatever you want. It’s an absolute joke,” claims one of his supporters in the video.

There are several problems with what Corbyn did, not least pompously calling supermarket workers “you people”. First, there is a Sainsbury’s opposite that almost certainly does take cash and whose strawberries, I imagine, are no less tasty than Aldi’s. More importantly, as critics pointed out on social media, Corbyn doesn’t grasp the concept of legal tender. “Most people think it means the shop has to accept the payment form. But that’s not the case,” explains the Bank of England website. “Legal tender has a narrow technical meaning which has no use in everyday life. It means that if you offer to fully pay off a debt to someone in legal tender, they can’t sue you for failing to repay.” In everyday life, shop owners can choose what payment they accept. If, say, you produce a £50 note to pay for a bunch of bananas, it’s perfectly legal for the shopkeeper to make sarcastic remarks and refuse your offer.

Physical cash, to the chagrin of Piers Corbyn, is in decline. It’s in such short supply that, in August, the Treasury moved to protect public demand for physical money by announcing that banks would be fined for failing to provide free access to cash withdrawals for consumers and businesses. “Whilst the growing choice and convenience of digital payments is great, cash has an important and continuing role to play,” said Andrew Griffith, economic secretary to the Treasury at the time. “People shouldn’t have to trek for hours to withdraw a tenner to put in someone’s birthday card—nor should businesses have to travel large distances to deposit cash takings.”

But if the supply of cash is being safeguarded, is there really demand for it? When did you last put folding money inside a birthday card? According to research published in September by UK Finance, a trade association, nearly 22m Britons used cash only once a month or not at all in 2022. Just under one million mainly used cash. Since 2017, payments made by debit cards (including with phones and watches) have overtaken those made in physical cash. The trend may have been hastened by Covid: during lockdown, fewer retailers than ever wanted the loose change from Piers Corbyn’s or anybody else’s trousers, for fear that it could spread infection. But the decline is structural: the volume of UK payments that do not involve cash rose from 45 to 85 per cent in the decade to 2021.

That said, something striking happened once the pandemic eased. For the first time in a decade, cash payments rose—admittedly only by 7 per cent, but bucking the longer-term trend. Why? UK Finance cites anecdotal evidence that, in a cost-of-living crisis and with inflation for a while into double figures, people were finding it easier to manage their money by paying in cash.

The long-term decline in the use of cash may be disappointing to one man in particular: King Charles III. After an unconscionable wait, the septuagenarian is finally getting his mug on the coins of the realm—only for fewer Britons to be using them than did during mummy’s reign. That, perhaps, is a shame, because these rather beautiful new coins that will enter circulation by the end of next year have been devised to nudge those who hold them in their hot little hands to behave in two socially interesting ways. Each coin has the denomination marked out in large numerals next to images of Britain’s flora and fauna, including threatened species. The 1p coin, for instance, depicts a hazel dormouse, which has seen its population halve since 2007. The 10p features a capercaillie, the world’s largest grouse, which can be found in a small part of Scotland and is threatened with extinction. Rebecca Morgan, director at the Royal Mint, explained the value of this new coinage: “The large numbers will be very appealing to children who are learning to count and about the use of money. Also, the animals and everything you see on these coins will appeal to children. They are great conversation starters.”

One of the great joys of paying in cash is that it doesn’t leave a digital trail. Physical money can do things—encourage numeracy, make us realise that we need to act to save the capercaillie before it’s too late—that swiping a debit card on a soulless digital reader never will.

The decline in cash is unwelcome, not just to Piers Corbyn, kings and the Mint’s design team, but to those who, voluntarily or otherwise, don’t have bank accounts. It may also create understandable worries regarding the drift of our digitised societies to a place where our every keystroke, phone call and eyeball roll is digitally harvested—by shady tech bros with shareholders to satisfy or authoritarian rulers with dubious agendas—in ways that would make Big Brother envious. 

Cash, by contrast, is an “anonymous bearer instrument”, meaning it is traded without any records and payable to anyone (the opposite is an “order instrument” payable to a specific person). The Piers Corbynites apparently believe that cash liberates us from totalitarian oversight by the Man. Unless, of course, you decide, as Corbyn did when he took his stand in Aldi, to film the exchange and post it online. 

If the Orwellian ramifications of the rise of cashlessness seem far-fetched, consider what happened in Kenya last August. As Corbyn was paying for his strawberries in Greenwich, thousands were queuing in Nairobi to have their eyeballs scanned as part of the “Worldcoin” project, founded by OpenAI chief Sam Altman. In exchange for handing over their biometric data, some 350,000 Kenyans each received 25 free crypto tokens, worth approximately $50. Those tokens were transferred directly via Kenya’s main mobile payments app, M-Pesa.

The stuff of science fiction: a man has his eye scanned by an orb for biometric registration to the cryptocurrency Worldcoin The stuff of science fiction: a man has his eye scanned by an orb for biometric registration to the cryptocurrency Worldcoin © AP/Emilio Morenatti/Sipa Asia/Shutterstock

But Worldcoin faced what’s being called a techlash over this project, not least because it seems like dystopian ­science fiction. A hardware unit known as an orb scans irises to identify individuals and prove they are human. Being able to verify a person in that way will be a key part of the new digital economy when artificial intelligence is integrated into society, according to the company.

When the Kenyan government stepped in a week after Worldcoin’s launch in the east African republic to establish “the authenticity and legality of the aforesaid activities”, it was possibly also motivated by revulsion for what looks like a neo-colonialist enterprise predicated on plundering human data in ways redolent of how British imperialists violently exploited Kenya’s natural resources and human beings.

Rachel O’Dwyer, lecturer in digital cultures at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, argues that Altman’s Worldcoin project is symptomatic of a wider development of major digital platforms now trading your digital identity for “tokens”. “By tokens, I mean money-like things ranging from airtime credit and loyalty points to game tokens… and gift balances.” She also means NFTs—non-fungible tokens—unique digital assets that have turned the art world on its head, inducing it to value not boring old paintings and sculptures but works that exist only digitally. 

One of the great joys of paying in cash is that it doesn’t leave a digital trail

“Tokens have always ghosted the economy of publicly mandated currency, but now they are coming to the fore, threatening to replace money itself. It raises the question: was money only ever a blip?”

In her riveting new book Tokens: The Future of Money in the Age of the Platform, O’Dwyer argues that online platforms are becoming the new banks. Handing over one’s biometric data can be the condition of admission to this new monetary regime—something O’Dwyer describes as a Faustian pact.

But what does it mean when online platforms become the new banks? The radical dream that began with bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto’s breakthrough 2008 paper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”, was to cut out untrustworthy middlemen—especially central bankers—and realise a radical future of decentralised authority. This would allow, for instance, Argentine citizens to escape hyperinflation by holding bitcoin, not pesos. 

Nakamoto’s innovation was creating a distributed ledger, a global registry of transactions that was not held by a single bank—as with a credit card—but by thousands of independent bitcoin “miners”. Because this “blockchain” is held not by a single entity but—at least in theory—by thousands of independent users, the need for a central, third-party authority is obviated and banks might become obsolete.

Fifteen years on, the dreams behind bitcoin’s radical reinvention of money have not been realised, just as the vision of a decentralised, uncensored, free internet foundered with its commercialisation. The cryptocurrency space has been taken over by charlatans and swindlers.

The consequence of all this is that bank-controlled cash appears—at least to those of a dystopian temper—to be at risk of steady replacement by payment in tokens. And examples of that development are not limited to Worldcoin.

Consider Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a (bizarrely named) website owned by the vast retail multinational where humans are employed online to do tasks which, for the time being at least, are not suitable for artificial intelligence. This might include identifying specific content in an image or video, writing product descriptions or answering survey questions. The online ad reads: “Make money in your spare time. Get paid for completing simple tasks.” But, as O’Dwyer points out, thousands of Mechanical Turks without US bank accounts are not paid in cash—they are paid in Amazon gift cards. 

The stuff of science fiction: top, a man has his eye scanned by an orb for biometric registration to the cryptocurrency Worldcoin; bottom, the world’s first large-scale crypto art exhibition in Beijing back in 2021. Images: AP/Emilio Morenatti/Sipa Asia/Shutterstock The world’s first large-scale crypto art exhibition in Beijing back in 2021 © AP/Emilio Morenatti/Sipa Asia/Shutterstock

O’Dwyer argues such closed loops of token-based remuneration constrain freedom, and they are becoming more commonplace. In the United States, for instance, food stamps—known as SNAP benefits—are pre-loaded onto Electronic Benefits Transfer cards. These tokens can be used for fresh produce, but not alcohol. When I suggest to O’Dwyer that this sounds like fairly benign social nudge theory in action, she counters that the tokens cannot be used to pay for hygiene products such as tampons, nor for vitamins or medicines. What’s more, tokens can be used for cold deli food, but not for hot meals. “Why cold, pre-cooked meat but not half a rotisserie chicken? It seems there is something too ‘easy’—too idle, maybe—about buying a hot meal for your family using benefits.” 

But such nudging through state payments to change behaviour is not new. In 2003, for instance, the Bolsa Família card was released in Brazil, giving households below the poverty line a monthly stipend of around $20 per vaccinated child attending school. In 2016, the UN World Food Programme trialled a system that issued relief payments through the use of biometrics. Refugees were able to buy items from the supermarket using their biometric data as a credential: all they needed to do was scan their iris to pay for an item. The idea was to improve convenience and prevent fraud. Since that trial, the World Food Programme’s Building Blocks initiative has become the world’s largest humanitarian use of blockchain technology. The WFP estimates it is responsible for financially supporting four million people each month in countries including Bangladesh, Jordan and, since mid-2022, Ukraine. The WFP reckons this technology helps tailor its support to meet humanitarian needs. 

O’Dwyer, though, has worries about this trend. Tokens can also be programmed to specify not only an exchange value, but a whole range of other terms and conditions that must be met before an exchange will take place. “Whose values are these? We’re not at liberty to know,” O’Dwyer says. This, no doubt, is what worries Piers Corbyn and his followers.

Unlike him, though, O’Dwyer takes heart from human subversiveness in undermining the values of state-­proffered tokens. In Ireland in the 1980s, she tells me, there was a surfeit of butter resulting from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. There was so much butter—piled into great butter mountains, or stacked up like what O’Dwyer drolly calls “Kerrygold bullion”—that butter vouchers were issued to the poor and needy, effectively padding out dole money with food stamps. “MUST NOT BE EXCHANGED FOR ITEMS OTHER THAN BUTTER,” said the booklet that held the vouchers. But people did, with the assistance of sympathetic shopkeepers. The vouchers were accepted as payment for tobacco, alcohol and groceries. “They were passed around. People even put them to non-transactional uses—as a decoy for insurance discs displayed on a car’s windshield, one official paper masquerading as another.” You couldn’t have done that with physical money. 

I mention this phenomenon to Jen Parker, operations manager of the Oasis Partnership, a charity for supporting vulnerable people in Buckinghamshire. Six months ago, the partnership became involved in a project in High Wycombe to cut down on anti-social begging through the creation of three “diverted giving points”. These are card terminals allowing locals to make donations to groups offering assistance with shelter, food, and drugs and alcohol support. The hope for Thames Valley Police and local councillors backing the scheme was that scammers posing as beggars, deprived of cash handouts, would cease operations, thus reducing street unpleasantness in the town. “We thought it was a good way to ensure funds were given to the homeless community rather than going to services that wouldn’t help that community,” Parker tells me.

The scheme also had the added benefit of encouraging locals to donate by swiping their cards—crucial when fewer people than ever have cash in their pockets. “I’m as guilty of this as anyone,” Parker says. “I just don’t carry cash around anymore. In the past I would have donated that way, but for a lot of people that’s not happening anymore, so initiatives like this are important.” 

Beggars in China with QR codes which collect personal data rather than money © Sipa US Beggars in China with QR codes which collect personal data rather than money © Sipa US

“We weren’t sure how much money we would make from these diverted giving points, but we planned to consult with homeless people through our… outreach workers and supply them with what they want—sleeping bags, food, whatever.”

Sadly, Parker tells me, after six months, the scheme has only raised £200. “Whether that’s because people are not aware of them [the card terminals] I don’t know, but we haven’t much to spend on marketing. It might also be because High Wycombe is not that prosperous. There’s a similar scheme in Windsor which is probably more successful.”

When I mention how Chinese beggars are equipped with QR codes, Parker surprises me by being enthusiastic. “It’s quite enterprising and it’s not as though anybody’s being coerced. If people want to give away their private data to help homeless beggars, that’s their choice. My concern would be, is the homeless person being paid a fair wage for effectively doing this work for these companies? If they are, then it seems quite a good system.

“We have to think of new ways of financially supporting homeless people because their days of shaking a bucket for cash are over.”

Some have rebelled against the money fetish by burning vast wodges of cash

If so, that is a big change. Physical money has been part of human society for thousands of years. In early 2021, the world’s earliest known coin-minting site was uncovered in Henan Province, China—it dates back to 650BC.

Karl Marx detected a downside to the monetary phenomenon, writing that “Money is the alienated essence of man’s labour and life; and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it.” In our godless age, the money fetish has replaced earlier deities, which has led some to rebel by burning vast wodges of cash. For instance, on 23rd August 1994, the chaotic music duo and performance artists Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty burned £1m of notes behind a boathouse on the Scottish island of Jura. They are not alone in attempting to reduce money’s power by sacrificing it to the flames. Jonathan Harris, also known as MBG (Money Burning Guy), has been burning money since 2007. “I see it as a ritual of disenchantment,” he has explained, “a de-fetishisation of money, a rite that paves the way for a new narrative.” Harris, author of The Money Burner’s Manual: A Guide to Ritual Sacrifice, claims on that he and like-minded cash destroyers have burned £7,266,157 since 1969. 

The disconcerting and the downright daft: top, beggars in China with QR codes which collect personal data rather than money; bottom, Piers Corbyn during his stunt buying strawberries at a cashless Aldi. Images: Sipa US/Alamy Stock Photo/via YouTube Piers Corbyn during his stunt buying strawberries at a cashless Aldi © Alamy Stock Photo/via YouTube

Harris describes himself as high priest of the, whose homepage is emblazoned with this quote from Charlie Waterhouse of Extinction Rebellion: “Church of Burn is a portal into a glorious world we’re not supposed to see. Where money’s power is revoked, reclaimed and reassigned. A sacrificial rite that rewrites our failing modern world. For once one has burnt money, what else is possible?” Such thinking suggests that Piers Corbyn doesn’t go far enough—he’s still championing physical cash. 

For those who despise money itself, we should worry not just about the rise of cashless Aldis but such bizarre new phenomena as Axie Infinity. This is an online video game based around NFTs—themselves a mind-bending new development in the way society (or the very online parts of it) understands value—and developed by Vietnamese studio Sky Mavis. The game involves breeding and trading cartoon axolotls (a type of salamander) which can be swapped for money and which earn tokens that can also be swapped for money. During the pandemic, players in the Philippines and elsewhere made this game their work, collecting digital cartoon characters and using them to cash out. They converted the airy nothings of cyberspace into pesos.

O’Dwyer sounds an optimistic note. Irish butter mountain subversives from the 1980s have their spiritual descendants today. Tokens are “lively and subversive,” she writes. “Users online and on the ground remake them to be paid in informal economies, to communicate, to protest, and to reimagine money… Gig workers, streamers, gamers and sex workers still find ways of transforming online gift cards, wish lists… and gaming tokens into liquid cash.” The future of money, even if it doesn’t include the physical cash that Piers Corbyn romanticises, may not be entirely dystopian.