Not for All the Money in the World

Review of Blood and Money by David McNally

Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire

Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance, and Empire

David McNally

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed for being Black—but also for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. The Black-led multiracial uprising sparked by the collective witnessing of Floyd’s murder put calls for defunding and abolishing the police in the public eye with renewed urgency. As activists encounter arguments to reduce police and prison abolition to budget cuts, paper reforms, and sensitivity training, understanding the link between George Floyd’s murder and the counterfeit bill in his hand is a key abolitionist insight 1 that helps clarify what the project of challenging state violence involves.

David McNally’s Blood and Money: War, Slavery, Finance and Empire, which came out shortly before Floyd was killed, is a stunning contribution to efforts to think through how cash is connected to violence and how news about police violence is also news about money. McNally argues that the world of money—of currency, credit, debt, exchange, investment, finance, and so on—is steeped in the blood of slavery, war, and empire throughout its history to the present. The book helps us understand how George Floyd’s race and poverty marked him for death precisely because he lived in a regime in which dollars have value, and how the money regime grows out of that violence.

Blood and Money traces how technologies of money—coins, paper currencies, and their perception and meaning—develop historically in and through a society’s capacity for violence. In chapter one, McNally argues that in archaic Greece, slavery made coinage possible for a couple of reasons. First, since buying and selling slaves was the main form of trade with foreigners, the cost of a slave became a standard for measuring equivalences with other commodities. Second, violence toward enslaved people was what guaranteed the value of coins. In the agora, the dokimastes—the public slaves responsible for weighing coins and processing currency exchanges—worked under constant threat of lashings on suspicion that they made the wrong calculation. Marking the legitimacy of a coin was inseparable from marking enslaved people physically with brands and scars of violence that identified their status and function. In this way, violence against slaves—be it in the silver mines, the households of masters, or in the agora and elsewhere—expressed the dominance of masters that secured the value and legitimacy of coins. Coin values were forged in a crucible of violence against slaves.

Chapter two describes how regimes of blood and money include ideological means of obscuring their violent origins. Here McNally considers how Socratic philosophers presumed to escape the conflictual transactions of the material and political world by discoursing about eternal truths. Drawing on the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, McNally argues that philosophical discourse about “things eternal” mimics how money establishes abstract relations detached from the world of the body. The philosopher achieves in discourse what the slave master and tyrant achieve with organized violence: the dominance of abstract measures and ideas over bodies and their desires. McNally rightly associates this purgation with cults of sacrifice to the gods.

The origin of money in ancient slavery sets the stage for its later development in financing modern war and slave trade. McNally argues that money’s development as an instrument for economic transactions is inseparable—conceptually and materially—from the development of modern warfare and slaving. Key to this history is the consolidation of state power under Henry VIII and the emergence of agrarian capitalism in England, which McNally describes in chapter three. Here we see how the rise of wealthier peasants and farmers after the Black Death created a corresponding growth of an underclass of dispossessed poor. This change in property relations triggered rebellions from below, but these were crushed by 1549. The techniques of dispossession and repression in that context developed further as wealthy English families and merchants sought to extend their domains of control overseas, in colonization from Ireland to Virginia. Colonial conquest led to the English bourgeoisie privately financing imperialist war against Spain in 1585-1604. Hence, the rise of capitalism in England drove wars, slavery, and empire building. But, as McNally goes on to show, it also established the need to subordinate the sovereign to a new monetary regime that serves this rising bourgeoisie.

The lesson here is that war develops with the form of money, and the form of money develops with war; the advancement of one depends on the advancement of the other. The dialectic running through Blood and Money leads to the explosive account in chapter four of the formation of the Bank of England and the birth of financial capitalism. Here McNally breaks through to the other side of the mystical spell of modern finance that so often obscures its connection to violence and blood. We learn that by the end of the 17th century Britain’s need to wage war against its imperialist rival France outgrew what the existing institution of money could support. It was to keep up with military needs that the Bank of England was founded in 1689, to pool private investments to finance the war and expand colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade. McNally’s account of this is riveting. He explains how a new monetary system came into being based on private investments in the state that the state was required to pay back. This public debt was secured by tax revenues the state was expected to raise in the future from the production and exchange of commodities as conquest expanded the market. This new monetary regime blew open the limit on war financing because the value of money was now based on its anticipated future returns, not on the limits of past transactions. When the future becomes now in war financing, the bond of blood and money forms a tighter spring propelling history.

It is impossible to relay the nuances of McNally’s account of the emergence of financial markets that sustain war and empire with debt-made money. This new monetary regime was fragile, as it coexisted with a hodgepodge of bills, notes, coins, and privately produced tokens. People had trouble wrapping their minds around it. In order to support the emerging system, gold remained the ultimate measure of how much money was worth. Having gold in hand gave people a sense that value was grounded in an established world, not on its risky future returns.

Anxiety about what money is based on brings us back to the murder of George Floyd for being Black while allegedly using a counterfeit bill. In a particularly engrossing section of the book, McNally tells the story of how during the rapid escalation of the Atlantic slave trade after the English Revolution, renowned physicist Isaac Newton became “Warden of the Mint,” in charge of catching counterfeiters. Newton put knee to neck ruthlessly, managing a network of spies and imposing the death penalty at least 15 times in London, to protect the value of coins from counterfeiters and fraudsters. McNally argues that the drive to defend the value of the English coin came from the growing recognition of its role in supporting transactions around the world. Since the commercial activities of colonialism and slave trade required a currency that could be used around the world, the metallic content of the English coin had to be tightly controlled and policed. Newton’s policing of the London poor was thus part of the economics of slave trade and empire. Cutting Newton’s budget or providing him with sensitivity training would have had little bearing on how the policing of money was part of a world order of violence against Black people.

McNally devotes the final chapter of Blood and Money to the emergence of the American dollar as world money. Here again, we see how war drives innovations in the form of money. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln, faced with the mounting costs of the American Civil War, secured financing by temporarily severing ties to the gold standard and tying US notes instead to future taxes and interest payments. Reliance on debt-made legal tender (“fiat money”) financed the war and supported economic growth in the North before the gold standard was restored in 1879. For the next century, war and the dollar continued to develop together in this way, with one limiting and driving the other. McNally explains how the US maneuvered to position its currency as world money during the First World War, sealed this position in the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 during the Second World War, and then returned to fiat money once again to manage its deficit during the Vietnam War. He also explains the role the American dollar now plays as the world’s currency in the global system. This system depends on reproducing conditions of profitability around the world that have clear benchmarks and measures tied to discipline over labour. But this system continuously undermines itself, as its reliance on bailouts drawn from debt permits unproductive capital to circulate, creating bubbles and recurring crises of profitability and in the value of money. The recurrence of these crises constitutes what McNally calls the “global slump” of the current period.

Blood and Money comes together with remarkable coherence. Even though money was increasingly abstracted from blood as it developed first into coins (its first modular form), then into universal currency tied to precious metal (its second modular form), and finally into currency based on debt that can now be generated at the click of a button (its third modular form), McNally shows that all along the way money has a material and conceptual connection to blood and the history of violence. The money/blood nexus is, of course, not the only thread in the history of class struggle, slavery, and empire. There are other ways to tell the story, with different starting points and trajectories. But since McNally’s writing is so clearly in touch with the project of liberation and solidarity, every point in his narrative invites a synaptic branching out into parallel connected narratives of study and phenomenology. McNally’s dialogical openness contrasts starkly with the chokehold of infantile metaphors and trite rhetoric that make up mainstream economics, business commentary, and histories.

Leaving the critique at the level of ideas, moreover, would fail in a fundamental way to learn from McNally’s book and the radical tradition to which it belongs. This is because Blood and Money is a work of demystification in a deeper sense: more than a mere critique of ideas, McNally’s explication of the blood/money dialectic links arms with efforts to hold open a radical imagination that can name money’s murderous stupidity and, for example, connect the murder of George Floyd to the monetary system the police were called to enforce. This radical imagination knows that cuts to police budgets will not be enough to address the blood/money problem. Even if money is directed to the social services where it is desperately needed, the difficult lesson of Blood and Money is that what gives money its life-saving value in capitalism comes with strings attached; it entangles people systemically in the same coercion and violence that brings money into being in the first place. Money’s purchasing power depends on the realities and threats of unemployment, poverty, eviction, deportation, abandonment in sickness, incarceration, or the anxiety of not being able to help loved ones through these and other difficulties and brutalities. Money’s circulation and valuation depends on recurring recessions, unemployment, housing and health crises, wars, state murders, and other devaluations of life around the world. It’s either the rule of money or the rule of life, and to value one is to devalue the other. Hence, a lesson from Blood and Money would be that defunding the police is a coherent demand only if it is part of the struggle against carceral and colonial states and the system to which they belong.

To defend Black lives is to confront the blood/money regime. The dollar in my hand connects me to a global system of violence, but it also connects me to those who endure it and resist it. To see the coercion and violence that is present when money circulates, and to recoil from it, is to feel a sense of solidarity and care for others. Crucially, that feeling does not depend on money, but on the origin of all labour-power: the existence of living beings who love others and desire their well-being, and who demand meaningful and life-affirming justice. Beyond blood and money are the relations of care and solidarity that drive people to do things because they want to help others and live in a better world. May the imagination that grows from that radical care continue to shape organizing and struggle against blood/money. *


  1. See the June 10, 2020 interview on The Intercept with Ruth Wilson Gilmore after George Floyd’s murder: ↩︎