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Swedish Cash-Phobia

The fall of a kingdom, or when cash is no longer king

This Christmas I returned to the motherland to see family, friends, and to experience the short days, dark nights, and inexhaustible snowfalls that we in the north of Sweden are regularly blessed with. On New Year’s day I took a bus south to Stockholm to revisit my prior place of dwelling and, in the spirit of hangovers and its remedies, I took my partner out to one my old haunts — a place that I know serves tasty vegan pizza. After enjoying our dinner of fake-meat covered with fake-cheese, I walk up to the register to pay. Our server reaches for the card reader, but before she can pull it out I hand her a 500 kroner bill (approximately $50). She looks at the note and then back at me, an unstated question behind her eyes. “We no longer accept cash, only cards,” she says.

I ask her if she is joking; she assures me she is not. I tell her that I don’t have any other money — no card-money at all. But instead of waiting for her response I turn defeatedly to my partner and ask for his card.

***

During the following few days of our stay in Stockholm I am struck by how wide-spread the phenomenon of cashlessness has become: I am unable to pay at the cafe of my favorite cinema, or at the museum of photography, or in several grocery stores — not to mention cafés and restaurants. It is obvious that, in Stockholm, cash no longer is king.

Throughout my stay I tried talking to my Swedish friends about this stunning and, in my view, horrendous development. These are the type of friends who, in many ways, are critical of, even radically opposed to, constraining societal norms. But their reaction to my observations about Sweden’s cash-phobia was mostly… indifference. It was not something they had thought about. It did not cause them any worry. At its worst, the subject of cashlessness was met with enthusiasm, as a development worthy of praise. “Cash is complicated,” they would tell me, “and cards are practical: less messy, more hygienic, safer.”

“Don’t you remember what just happened in Greece?” I would respond, all but yelling. To this they would laugh and tell me that I sound like my mom.

***

My mom really does love talking about cash.

About a year ago my mother (herself an ex-Swede like myself) went back to Stockholm for a visit. Passing a bakery, she decided to pick up some bread. As she handed over exact change to pay for her loaf, she was advised to provide her credit card instead. My mom, unlike my own cowardly reaction at the vegan pizza place, left in a fury — without her bread.

Business owners in Sweden are increasingly switching to cashless payment methods, and yet Riksbanken (The Central Bank of Sweden) has for some reason since 2015 been in the process of updating all printed banknotes and minted coins (except the 10 kroner coin). Not that this is something Swedes seem to have noticed; a distant relative remarked this Christmas upon receiving a 100 kroner bill (from my mother, of course), that it was his first time seeing the new note — even though they have been in use since October of 2016.

Rather than harboring sentimentality toward the materiality of money, I care about the growing cashlessness of my home country because I want to retain all that can be retained of privacy in our digital age. As Foucault has noted, the emergence of the police was tightly tied to the development of the modern merchant society. And the main function of the police, Foucault wrote, was “l’organisation des rapports entre une population et une production de marchandises.” [1] Monetary society is thus, for Foucault, always-already steeped in surveillance. The values passed down to us by the Enlightenment have convinced us, as Luce Irigaray recalls, that darkness is threatening; light is safe. This schema is, however, fraudulent — since only the one controlling where the beam of light lands can feel comfortable with what is illuminated. Light, clarity, and transparency are siblings of Foucault’s panopticon, where visibility at best induces a false sense of security. Credit cards are not safer. They are, however, much easier to manipulate. And while cash does not necessarily contribute to equality, at least it makes it possible for us to fund our own revolution.

When it comes to trading privacy for convenience, we Swedes are forgiving to the point where we seem to be suffering from a collective form of Stockholm Syndrome: the increased surveillance around us is making us long for even more control. It is not hard to imagine a future without cash, and it’s increasingly easy to picture a Sweden without cards as we know them. The Swedish government-owned train company SJ comes to mind here, as it’s this company that has developed the world’s first human-chip-implant on which transportation tickets can be stored. Into the swath of skin between the thumb and the index finger, a rice-corn sized chip can now be inserted — all so that we can access our tickets with less friction. Already between 1,500 and 2,000 Swedes have had this procedure done; they are the proud bearers of sophisticated solution. So it is that the gaze or Argus is, in Sweden, not evaded but invited.

***

The numbers show that my own ad hoc observations regarding this overwhelmingly uniform attitude towards cash and cashlessness in Sweden is not an anomaly. Perhaps I should be less surprised than I am. After all, we Swedes find it easy to trust institutions with our personal information, so why should this be any different when it comes to bank transactions, which are so well guarded, recorded, controlled?

Had my mom not instilled in me her unrelenting distain for banks I would probably join the happy, homogenous chorus that keeps convincing itself that being more-monitored somehow offers more autonomy. Suspicion towards institutions has never been our strong suit, but the ceaseless faith in banks that contemporary Swedes are nurturing still takes me by surprise.

How is it that the capitalist fairytale of cash as villain representing illegal trades, and cards as rulers representing respectability has become the norm? A norm no one deems worthy of questioning? No one, that is, besides mom.

 


[1] Michel Foucault, “Securite, territoire, population,” p.346.

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Angelica Stathopoulos

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