Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Payment instruments on a daily basis appear to effortlessly perform the magic of monetary substitution. Money as concept and form exemplifies this disappearing act. Whether one pays with cash, credit, debit, or digital payment application, it appears to be the “same" money. Different and yet not different, the forms money takes and the channels through which it passes often seem incidental to the value flow. And yet, in the current battle between cash and digital for the future of payments, the ideology of complete substitutability of payment forms is surprisingly unstable. Current efforts underway to rescue physical cash as a bulwark against the gentrification of payments, complete digital surveillance, and the privatization of value turn around the political and ethical stakes of what will count as public money. In this paper, I describe and analyze policy and industry efforts to argue for cash as a public good and how this upends certain conventional wisdoms about the infinite substitutability of money via its payment forms. I argue that attention to the materiality of payment matters to the relational stakes of money’s capacity to participate in democratic processes of power sharing, public access, and the conditions of possibility for refashioning more equitable futures.