Baltimore’s “green” local currency, the BNote, is almost one year old. Happy birthday, BNote. But unfortunately, I don’t really like babies, and I fucking hate the BNote. The mentality behind creating a currency that forces those that hold it to spend it on the products and services of area small businesses does not only reflect the idiocy of petty bourgeois calls to “think local,” it is also a means to accentuate Baltimore’s deeply ingrained structural racism and economic polarization. Some of us need every dollar we have to pay for rent or groceries, and if we are paid tips or worse, wages, in BNotes, forgive us for being enraged that the only thing we can now access is one-tenth of a dinner at Woodberry Kitchen, an artisanal piece of garbage from somewhere in Hampden, or a shitty coffee at Red Emma’s. Supposedly these are convertible into dollars, but as anyone who has tried to break a dollar for change at a restaurant knows, asking small businesses for currency exchanges is a pain in the ass.
Let me point out some other aspects of how annoying the BNote is.
- Localism. The assumption behind creating a local currency is that Baltimore is depressed because the local economy cannot compete with the economies of scale accomplished by multi-national corporations, which can afford to produce far cheaper (but inferior!) goods. Some version of this story might be true, but by attempting to tackle this condition by encouraging consumers to buy local, the actual reasons for Baltimore’s economic depression are obscured and this depression is refashioned as a relatively amendable problem of keeping money flowing within the city limits. The dynamic of capital flight and the formation of the rust belt in the U.S. are not spurred by a lack of consumption, but by an inherent tendency for capital to require cheaper and cheaper wages, until it reaches a limit point at which it is more profitable to relocate elsewhere. In short, the problem is capitalist businesses themselves. Which brings me to my next point…
- Pro-capitalism. There are many irritating ways in which the BNote shores up and affirms capitalism. By calling for consumer support of local businesses, the BNotes presumes economic stability can be created within capitalism, and worse, by the very flows of commodity exchange on the market. The BNote does absolutely nothing to address or even acknowledge the problem of the exploitation of labour, and therefore offers no means to understand how the wage relation affects women and people of colour in very specific and harmful ways. The BNote has no problem with capitalist accumulation — as long as those capitalists are located here.
- Liberalism. The BNote politic can be summarized as follows: we can peaceably pursue collective freedom by carrying out individual acts that are grounded on the basis of property ownership and exchange. This is precisely the story of classical liberalism. Spending ridiculous fake money at the Hon Cafe is not revolutionary, it is a concession to the appearances of social power and freedom that attend money, the most alienating form in capitalist society. Money mediates our social relationships. We cannot reconnect to others through the very thing that separates us in the first place. Forms of collective political organization require that we actually interface, act as collectives in the flesh: you can’t buy your way to freedom.
- Blaming banks. This is in some ways a reiteration of the pro-capitalism point, but because this response to the crisis has proven so popular around the white “progressives” faction of Baltimore leftism, it merits debunking on its own terms. The BNote takes issue with the fact that the dollar is backed by the federal reserve, instead of gold. In this criticism, they are aligned with those that treat the fall of Bretton-Woods and the unhinging of dollars from the gold standard as a death knell for economic stability. In the same vein, these types usually complain about the growth of deregulated finance as the full cause of the economic crisis. Like proponents of the “slow money” movement, these anti-bank people assume the causes of crises are rooted in the velocity and fiat character of money, in addition to the “greed” and unproductiveness of financiers. They thus try to reconnect money to place — to local businesses or agricultural cycles — in order to solve the problem of money moving too fast or going too far, or being an insecure symbol inconvertible to real wealth. In short, finance is a dangerous parasite on and parody of the “real economy”; we need to get back to producing things. Problem is, banks and finance are necessary components of the capitalist economy. Capital necessitates an international credit system precisely because it cannot equalize profit rates, transfer capitals, or initiate new lines of accumulation without it. Because finance is an integral (although certainly contradictory) part of capitalist accumulation, it makes no sense to try to claim it and localize it — unless you love capitalism. Doug Henwood has made a compelling case in this respect against the Huffington Posts’ pet project of moving money into credit unions.
- The BNotes guy. I’ve met him, and he is incredibly creepy. At a meeting once, he vigorously bragged about being friends with Muhammad Yunus, and talked up microcredit as revolutionary. (Microcredit is not revolutionary so much as a slap in the face to women (largely WOC) in poverty.) Next, he described himself as “really, really good” at social justice organizing and “the guy you call when you want to get things done.” FInally, he moved to sexualize an entire room of people (“You are all so hot right now, this is hot hot hot”). I think it’s only fair to say that he is a very suitable representative for a stupid and annoying project like the BNote.