Whichever way you look at it, the Prime Minister was going to have a rough week. Unless something further comes to light, I’ll stick my neck out and hazard a guess that, unlike his counterpart in Iceland, he will survive. I don’t even think he’ll sustain much political damage. There’s a weary resignation in Britain when it comes to the systematic rip-off of the poor by the rich. People will shrug and say, “It is what it is.” I recall that when the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed criticism of Pay Day Loan Companies he rather shot himself in the foot because it turned out that The Church of England had shares in one such company. Well, you can’t necessarily be held personally responsible for a shady inheritance.
Somebody asked me yesterday what I understood by the term “money laundering”, and I was reminded of the time I put my jeans through the washing machine with a £20 note in the hip pocket. I was left wondering if the bank would honour its promise, now faded to illegibility, to pay the bearer on demand. At medical school, the psychiatrists taught us that the inability to think in metaphor was indicative of various mental health issues. You say to the patient, “What do you understand by the expression, ‘A stitch in time saves nine’?” and he replies, “If your clothes get frayed, it’s better to darn immediately, otherwise the job will get much bigger.” You ask, “Could it mean anything else?” and the patient will look at you suspiciously, and say, “No.” He will not extrapolate to the abstract and tell you that the entropy of the universe is always increasing and that it takes less energy to reverse a little disorder, than to reverse complete breakdown and chaos.
I’m on the side of the man in the psychiatrist’s chair. Keep it simple; keep it concrete. Once a metaphor turns into an epigram it begins to lose its meaning much as a bank note in the Hotpoint fades and loses its value. But I gave “money laundering” my best shot. You take some money that is “dirty” because it is ill-gotten or, to be frank, stolen, and you put it through some sort of process that renders it “clean”. Therefore it no longer has the appearance of being stolen. You have effectively hidden its mode of acquisition.
I checked that out with the last arbiter, the OED:
Launder: to transfer funds of illegal or dubious origin, usu. to a foreign country and then later to recover them from what seem to be “clean” (ie legitimate) sources.
Interestingly, OED cites the first use of the term in this sense to have occurred during Watergate in 1973 when Republican campaign funds (suitcases stuffed with $200,000) were allegedly “laundered” in Mexico.
Any metaphor that slips into common usage begins to function below par, degenerate into cliché, and finally become meaningless. Far from being an act of hygienic purification, any financial scam, or white collar theft, is a deliberate muddying of tracks. You take somebody else’s hard-earned cash (clean money, if you will) and sully it by burying it in an impenetrable quagmire of deceit and obfuscation. No doubt the digital age has made the possibilities for manipulation of smoke and mirrors endless. It is easier to transfer money in silica than in a suitcase.
Now that we are eschewing banknotes in favour of tapping our debit cards on the screen at the supermarket checkout, we need to revisit the question of what money actually is. The stock answer is that money is a system devised for the exchange of goods and services, that is less cumbersome than barter. This sounds too democratic, collegiate, and sensible to be true. I’ve heard another explanation for the origin of money that has the horrible ring of truth about it. An absolute ruler invented money in order to pay his army. He constructed a mint, and paid his army in coin. If he needed more money, he produced more. (We might call it quantitative easing – a licence to print money; he was just coining it.) The army then used the money to pay the populace of the country it occupied in return for food and provisions. The populace then did indeed use the money as a substitute for barter. You might call this the real economy. Additionally, and regularly, the absolute ruler got some of the money back, through taxation. This was for defence procurement. Thus the populace was financing the army. You might call it a protection racket.
It’s a dark view. It suggests that money, and even taxation, are scams organised by the rich and powerful for their own benefit. It suggests that the quality that invests money with value is neither confidence nor trust, but fear.