Burning money as protest is still a taboo.
I did a weird thing recently. I burnt a £20 note.
Actually it’s not the first time I’ve burnt money. I’ve done it a few times on various public and private occasions, but this was the most significant burning, at least for me, not so much because of the note itself, but because of the place where the burning took place.
It was at the Bank of England. Not within the building itself—I’m sure they would’ve stopped that—but within the precincts, in a copy of the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, which straddles the pavement on the NW corner of the bank, at the junction of Lothbury St and Princes St. It’s a circular structure with Doric columns holding up a domed roof. There’s a hole in the roof through which the rain pours.
It was built by John Soane in 1806 or 1807. Originally it was inside the building. The passage which allows the public to pass through, and thus avoid the junction, was opened up during the reconstruction of the bank in the 1930s, a fact which is commemorated in an inscription on the ceiling: “The Bank made this way through Tivoli Corner for the citizens of London AD 1936,” it says, in a circular script surrounding the hole in the roof.
Vesta was one of the principal Roman deities. She was the goddess of the hearth, and in Classical times she was considered the guardian of the Roman people, the living spirit of Rome itself. She was never portrayed in statue form, but only as a fire that burnt in the heart of her temple, watched over and guarded by her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins.
So Vesta is a flame. And in the middle of her temple, in modern Britain, adjacent to the bank which lies at the center of the global banking Empire—the new Rome, you might say—I set light to a £20 note. Its serial number was KH10 442413 and, like all £20 notes at this point in history, it had a picture of Adam Smith on it, plus the words “The division of labour in pin manufacturing: (and the great increase in the quantity of work that results).”
Adam Smith, of course, was the great 18th-century economist responsible for the phrase “The Invisible Hand,” which has been used by right-wing pundits to justify the idea of the free market ever since. There’s a Conservative Party think-tank named after him: The Adam Smith Institute. What they don’t tell you is that actually Adam Smith was a critic of the excesses of the unconstrained free market. As he said, “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.”
The “vile” maxim of the masters of mankind, note, not the totally reasonable one. And it was these same masters of mankind, in the form of the banking industry, that I was confronting this day in the precincts of the Bank of England. I wasn’t alone. I had a number of friends with me, plus a few people I’d never met before. The occasion was the fourth annual Reclaim the Sacred Day of Ritual, which we hold on the first Monday in November. One of the co-organizers is Jon Harris. It was Jon who set me on this money-burning path. Jon has been burning money for years. He’s also presided over a series of mass burns in which people of all persuasions have come together to ritually destroy money. And every time people set light to their money Jon keeps the ashes in a little pot. He had the pot with him today.
Prior to my own personal act of immolation Jon had performed his own ritual. He read a passage from David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years (the book that was, in part, behind the Occupy movement of the early 2000s):
“In 1694,” he read, “a consortium of English bankers made a loan of £1,200,000 to the king. In return they received a royal monopoly on the issuance of banknotes. What this meant in practice was they had the right to advance IOUs for a portion of the money the king now owed them to any inhabitant of the kingdom willing to borrow from them, or willing to deposit their own money in the bank – in effect, to circulate or ‘monetize’ the newly created royal debt. This was a great deal for the bankers (they got to charge the king 8 percent annual interest for the original loan and simultaneously charge interest on the same money to the clients who borrowed it), but it only worked as long as the original loan remained outstanding. To this day, this loan has never been paid back. It cannot be. If it were, the entire monetary system of Great Britain would cease to exist.”
On this basis Jon suggested that we should forgive the Bank of England. Money is a “promise to pay the bearer.” It’s written on the note. As a debt owed by the Crown to the people of England we were asked to send waves of unqualified forgiveness to the Bank. By this process, Jon said, we were helping to transform the monetary system of Great Britain. And then he dipped his thumb in his pot on ashes (worth over £3000 at the current count, he told us) and placed a bindi mark on everyone’s forehead, while intoning the words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive those who are indebted to us.” That’s the proper rendition of the passage normally translated as “forgive us our trespasses.”
After that I read out a couple of passages from the two Karls: Marx and Jung:
“If Money is the bond that binds me to human life, that binds society to me and me to nature and men, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not tie and untie all bonds? Is it not, therefore, also the universal means of separation? It is the true agent both of separation and union.” —Karl Marx—Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.
“A sacrifice is meant to be a loss, so that one may be sure that the egoistic claim no longer exists. Therefore the gift should be given as if it were being destroyed. But since the gift represents myself, I have in that case destroyed myself, given myself away without expectation of return. Yet, looked at in another way, this intentional loss is also a gain, for if you can give yourself it proves that you possess yourself. Nobody can give what he has not got.” –Carl Jung—Transformation Symbolism in the Mass.
That’s when I set light to my £20 note. I lit one corner and then watched as the blue-yellow flame licked up the paper—turning an incandescent green as the silver strip melted—holding the note delicately in the fingers of my left hand. I held on to it as long as possible before it began to scorch my fingers, at which point I dropped it into the little brown pot that held all the other ashes. It curled and folded as it burned. Finally tiny golden-red flickers like incandescent insects chased themselves through the embers, before sending a twist of gray smoke into the air.
And that was it. My note was gone, never to return.
Before I go on perhaps I’d better justify this. People can get very irate when you tell them that you burn money. Radical pagans, revolutionary communists, dissenters, non-conformists, they all act shocked and offended and try to dissociate themselves from you. Even hard-core anarchists become conventionally moralistic at the mention of money burning. They say, “You could have given that to charity.” That’s true. But how come they don’t get similarly irate when you waste money on trivial and pointless things? “You spent money on chocolate even though you didn’t want it. You could have given that to charity.” Or: “You spent money on some regrettable movie choice on Netflix. You could have given that to charity.” Somehow these things are seen as morally superior to the act of burning money.
But even if I’d given it to charity, so what? Take a look at the world. There’s a lot of charity about, but is the world really any better for it? Most charities are run as corporations, and their chief executives do very well out of it, but the world hasn’t changed for all our millions spent in this way. Children are still going to bed hungry. People are still homeless. People are still cold and alone and on the streets.
In fact, you could say charity is one of those things that props up system, while the act of giving and receiving charity is demeaning. It creates a dynamic in the relationship of giver and receiver that’s not good for either party. Wealthy people give to charity to make themselves feel better about their wealth. They’re not really giving; they’re buying. They’re buying a sense of self-esteem. They’re buying off their guilt. Meanwhile the person receiving the charity is diminished by it. He is often resentful of it. Ultimately he is impoverished by it. No one questions why some people are rich while others are poor. No one questions the fact that it may be private wealth itself that creates poverty and therefore the need for charity in the first place.
“Charity is a cold grey loveless thing,” Clement Attlee said. “If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.”
The reason that throwing money away on pointless trivia is considered okay while burning money is wrong is that it still pays homage to the money-god. Chuck money away as much as you like. Piss it up the wall. Snort cocaine through it before spending it down the pub. Give it to charity. Spend it on the latest forgettable fad. Buy things you don’t need made in sweat-shop conditions in the Third World. It makes no difference. None of that matters as long as the money-bond itself is kept intact.
Money is almost the last taboo. No one cares about your sexuality any more. Gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, trans, asexual, non-binary—no one gives a damn. The only sexual taboos left are bestiality and pedophilia. But ask someone what’s in their bank account and they become coy. It’s not polite to talk about money, any more than it’s polite to ask about the size of your genitals.
As for money-burning, people will turn their backs on you in disgust. They’ll avoid you on the street. They’ll pretend they don’t know you and will dissociate themselves from what you do. But the truth is, people who think this way have misunderstood the nature of money. You haven’t really burnt anything of value. It’s a piece of paper, that’s all. It displays a number of symbols, and a promise to pay the bearer, along with various other arcane features. It’s a sigil, a magical sign. By burning it you consign it to dust. The only thing that’s lost in real terms is the cost of producing that single bit of paper.
Its real value lies somewhere else, in the imagination, in the unconscious, in the collective unconscious of the world. It’s an elaborately printed IOU. When you burn it you are renouncing your claim to it. You are forgiving the debt. You are letting go the hold it had over you. This has interesting implications. It’s a symbolic act, a specific act of forgiveness, but it can be extended to the whole of your life. You can forgive other debts at the same time. You can begin the process of forgiving all debt.
Everyone is indebted, psychically speaking. We owe and we are owed. (We own and we are owned). By forgiving the debts of others, maybe we can learn to forgive the debt to ourselves. That is the true significance of money burning. The release of debt.
We are made of debt. Things we owe. Things other people owe to us. We store it all up on some level in the great account book of our lives. Everything we ever lent and never got back. Everything we ever borrowed and never returned. Every good deed we committed. Every obligation we incurred. Every slight, every misunderstanding, every misplaced word. Every joke that went awry. Every embarrassing moment. Every cause we betrayed. Every callous act. Every regret. Every spurned advance. Every love not fought for. Every failure to respond. Every petty act of spite. Every subtle act of violence. Every unkindness. Every loss. Every humiliation. It all goes into the plus and minus columns of the karmic bank account of our lives. On a cellular level we never forget anything.
In the end, we die, and the slate is wiped clean. But until that moment we’re a breeding swamp of psychosomatic debt symptoms.
Burning money is a way of releasing us from that debt, a way of letting go. If you can let go of the value behind that £20 note, maybe you can let go of all your other debts too, both real and imagined. And, let’s face it, if money isn’t real—and there’s a good argument that it isn’t—maybe most of the things you think you are owed aren’t real either.
Money’s one of the first symbolic objects in our lives. It signifies desire. You quickly learn, from a very young age, that it’s money that gets you what you want. You see the adults handling it. You see the benefits of it. Put it into another person’s hand in a shop, and they will exchange it for stuff, for toys and sweets and all the other things you want. You begin to grade the world in monetary terms. If you and your family have money you are better off than the families without, and it’s a short step then to begin to imagine that you are intrinsically better. To quote Marx, again, money is “the universal means of separation.” From a young age you are inculcated into the cult of money. You become a money-devotee. As you grow older it begins to ensnare you, to trap you; ultimately enslaves you.
Anyone who has performed a paid job will know this. You sell your time and your body for money. You become effectively a slave, albeit a paid one. You’re told what to do. You have no choice. Your life is given over to the production of things that don’t belong to you. You become a machine: a cog in a wheel. You work until you’re so tired you don’t have any energy left. Your life becomes a round entirely dedicated to work: resting from work, eating for work, sleeping for work, getting up for work, preparing for work, going to work, and then working to begin the cycle all over again.
Money is the alchemy of desire. It turns your work into paper, which allows you to buy the things you want. In this sense you are money. The life you expend is exchanged for money that allows you to live. The money is a crystallization of your own living heartbeat, your own living breath, your muscle-power and your brain-power, your nervous energy, your creativity, your imagination and your wit, given back to you as a token which you can then exchange for the fulfillment of an infiltrated desire. Money is the modern form of slavery.
This is why money-burning is such a powerful ritual. It’s a sacrifice. You sacrifice something you can spend for something you can’t buy. You turn a something into nothing. You turn paper into ashes. You turn your personal desire into something that transcends desire. You create space in your heart and mind. You release the debt. It’s no good asking for something at this point; that would only replace one debt with another. What you do is to leave an empty space that may or may not be filled, a space pregnant with possibility. You “emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” as Bob Marley so eloquently put it.
You can blame David Icke for all this. It was David Icke who started it. There’s a YouTube video of him promoting his book The Biggest Secret, which came out in 1999. The video takes place in the City of London. Icke is going around the City pointing at various buildings and telling us how they fit in to the general scheme of his grand conspiracy theories. At a certain point he indicates one of the dragons that mysteriously stand guard at all the entrances to the City, after which he reveals the theme of his book. “A reptilian race from the 4th dimension is the source, or one of the sources, of the manipulation of this world,” he says.
It’s worth repeating that. “A reptilian race from the 4th dimension is the source… of the manipulation of this world.”
That’s a very strange thing to say. What does he mean? I always think that Icke is part of a conspiracy to undermine conspiracy theory. Do conspiracies exist? Of course they do. Any two people in a room breathing together (that’s the literal meaning of the word “conspire”) are engaged in conspiracy. They are discussing things that lie outside of other people’s ability to influence. There are big conspiracies and small conspiracies. If people make plans to their own advantage that exclude other people, that’s a conspiracy. If those people are very wealthy, very powerful, then the conspiracy is likely to have a major effect around the world.
Some of those people undoubtedly have reptilian characteristics. That’s why Michael Douglas’ character in Wall Street is called Gordon Gekko. It’s a reference to his cold-blooded rapaciousness and greed. Are they manipulating the world? Undoubtedly. But are they shape-shifting aliens from the 4th dimension engaged in human sacrifice and ritualized child-abuse, as Icke suggests in his book? I think we need to reserve judgment on that. Nevertheless it was an interesting thought, and the existence of those dragon-like guardian figures at the gates of the City is definitely a symbol of something. I stored it away in my brain for processing.
Later I was talking to a journalist from the Daily Mirror. This was near the Mirror headquarters in Canary Wharf. It was during the election in 2010. My friend Arthur Pendragon was standing for election, as he always does. Arthur is the self-declared modern incarnation of the legendary King Arthur, who I’ve written about extensively in the past. He was also a witness to my money-burning ritual today.
I mentioned Arthur’s candidature to the journalist and he was very enthused. He thought it would be an interesting idea to get Arthur to perform a ritual here, in Canary Wharf. “After all this is where the dragon is buried,” he said, indicating the pavement on which we stood. Nothing came of that, Arthur being too busy at the time; but, once again, the thought planted itself in my brain.
Finally there’s Michael Hudson. Hudson is one of the few economists who predicted the banking crisis of 2007-8, and I’ve been following him for years. He wrote an interesting little booklet, which is available online. It’s called The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations. I came across is by accident one day. In it, Hudson suggests that in Bronze Age times the notion of a periodic economic renewal through debt forgiveness was routine.
Many Bronze Age Kings practiced it. In an age before standing armies it was a way of keeping the peasantry happy. By wiping the slate clean, the King would ensure the loyalty of his subjects, and thus be able to call on them for military duties when war or invasion threatened.
There are many records of this in the ancient world. In the case of the Jewish covenant this was enshrined in law as the Jubilee. Every 50th year the slate would be wiped clean and all property given over to creditors would be returned to its original owners. Those who’d been driven into bondage would be set free. This is the original meaning of the word “Jubilee.” The jubilation of the 50th year was due to a release from slavery and the recovery of property rather than any celebration of an anniversary.
This is also the meaning of the word “redemption,” which is echoed in the line from the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us.” Redemption means to buy back what you once owned. You redeem your property by paying back a debt. In the ancient world it also had the secondary meaning of release from debt bondage, or debt slavery. What was previously owned was yourself, your freedom. Redemption means release from slavery.
So that was it. These three insights collided in my brain and led to the notion of a series of magical rituals taking place in the City of London that would culminate in King Arthur (our own modern-day Bronze-Age King) declaring a debt jubilee.
The discovery of the Temple of Vesta had happened in the third year during a circumnavigation of the building. Previously we’d held rituals in various places throughout the City: in front of the Monument to the Great Fire, on a patch of land in front of the Mansion House, on the concourse outside of St Paul’s Cathedral, and in front of the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand, amongst others. This is where the first reading of the debt release document had taken place, on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in the first year, as Arthur had read out the proclamation. The same document was read out again on the third year, in the Temple of Vesta.
Here it is: “I, Arthur Uther Pendragon, having been raised Druid King of Britain on the Coronation Stone at Kingston upon Thames in January 1998, this being the first day of the Celtic New Year according to some calculations, do declare a Clean Slate, and a state of economic renewal, according to powers vested in the ancient Kings.
“Just as the Sun returns to the same position on the horizon each year, and the Moon revolves around the Earth; just as the land is revived season by season, and the Earth begins anew again; just as birds return to their nests and salmon to their breeding waters; just as Winter gives way to Spring and Spring gives way to Summer, so the money cycle must be ever renewed and returned to a state of economic equilibrium.
“Let all debts be forgiven. Let all forfeitures be returned. Let those who were dispossessed reclaim their customary possessions. Let the records be wiped clean and the Jubilee declared throughout the lands, as it always was. Let those who are enslaved by debt be made free. Let those who are brought low by financial burden have the weight lifted from them. Let the power vested in government to create money be used for the benefit of all the people, and not just the favoured few.
“Let a new bank holiday begin, a holiday from banks. Let the banks be made accountable to those they have indebted. Let their privileges be revoked. Let those who hoard money be cured of their addiction. Let the money be free to circulate as it wills. Let it flow freely throughout the economy, like irrigation in a barren wasteland. Let the financial canals be opened and the land be brought to life again.
“We are planting a seed here in the heart of the City of London, City of Cities, the birthplace of the old economy, where all debt is created, and to which all debt must be returned.
“It is the seed of monetary Justice, the seed of hope for a bright new future, the seed of the new debtless economy, where usury and interest bearing debt give way to sovereign money in the hands of the people, and all of the people are free.”
Also in the third year a friend had set light to an old £10 note which someone had discovered down the back of a sofa—that had taken place on the concourse in front of the Mansion House—but so far no one had set light to any legal tender, and certainly not in the precincts of the bank itself, which is where we understood the Temple of Vesta to be. This was a first.
I opened this essay with the words “I did a weird thing…” I want you to understand the word “weird” in its original sense, meaning “connected with fate” or “suggesting the operation of supernatural influence.” Its synonyms are “eldritch,” “uncanny” and “unearthly.”
The weird sisters in Shakespeare’s Macbeth were weird because they were telling Macbeth about his fate not because they were weird-looking. They were the ancient goddesses of Fate casting a shadow over the future of the hapless protagonist leading him to his final demise. This is why me burning money in the Bank of England was weird. It was a magical spell designed to bring on the creation of a new economic awareness.
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