The gold standard regime in its international character existed from the late 19th century through to the First World War. As a system, the gold standard is generally conceived as a monetary system represented, directly or indirectly, by gold. While having elaborate systems of coinage and paper money surrounding it, the main element was that gold backed these forms of monetary media. This itself was subject more to belief than concrete reality though, as actual backing by gold was largely irrelevant. “For paper to represent gold, it must be regarded as equivalent to a given quantity and purity of gold. In general, this equivalence is achieved by “convertibility,” the commitment to exchange the notes for gold on demand”. It was the belief in convertibility, rather than the reality of its being done. Such a system can be seen as integrated, with many flows and pathways, but with gold at its centre as the fulcrum of this regime. It was “a truly international system based on gold”.
This is the general perspective of what is termed the classical gold standard, a supposedly integrated system of capital and trade flows that ends in the equilibrium of trade amongst nations. The view is best represented by Hume’s price-specie flow mechanism model, where gold flows out of a country with a negative trade balance, and flows in with a positive one. It’s a simple, law-bound model akin to the modelling of the hard sciences, where money is treated as a “neutral veil” over the economy, providing a simple medium of exchange which only has an effect on prices. “The international gold standard provided an automatic market mechanism for checking the inflationary potential of government. It also provided an automatic mechanism for keeping the balance of payments of each country in equilibrium”.
In essence this is what Aglietta describes as the pure economy view, where there exist discoverable but unchangeable laws which govern socio-economic relations. These models proffer the view that everyone is rational, with rationality ingrained into their decision-making and valuations. From this comes the idea that there can exist perfect competition, with fully-discoverable information and little in the way of bottlenecks or market imperfections. Relating to the gold standard regime, we see such micro-economic thought informing the ways in which trade and capital flows under the gold standard are meant to work. According to a rationalist discourse, gold flows are simply representative of the economy at large, working as a neutral veil above the real economy. This is the narrative of the classical gold standard, that of a self-regulating free market that restrains government intervention and central bank rule-setting, pushing it to the peripheries, with the central system being an innately self-governing entity.
In contrast to this pure economy view, I take a more critical lens to the gold standard regime of the later 19th and early 20th centuries. By taking a critical view, I intend to show the gold standard not as a static system with inherent rules and laws which constrain states, individuals and other actors, but rather as a system which is socially constituted, and subject to change. “Critical theory calls (institutions) into question” by examining their origins and understanding how they are constituted. Salerno dismissively describes it as a “constructivist approach to the nature and function of money” when related to the classical gold standard. For Salerno, gold represents the natural, ‘soundest’ form of money as it supposedly emerges out of the Mengerian example of money’s foundation, where it originated through barter, then moved onto the use of a medium of exchange, with gold becoming the most feasible for international trade and capital flows. Money, in this perspective, is “a market institution” and “government monetary policy impinges on the “quality” of the institution of money”.
In taking a critical theory-based perspective, I see the gold standard regime as a socially-constituted reality, built not from the free flow of market exchange but from specific, historically-identifiable interventions and creations. In the critical perspective, Polanyi’s pronouncement of laissez-faire as planned is a fundamental part to understanding how the gold standard originated. It did not emerge mythically from disparate geographies of market exchange that naturally grew into an international, fully-integrated monetary system. Here, money and finance are a socially-constructed field of relations and power, born through institution’s and their legitimation. From this perspective, the gold standard regime is seen as a constructed, subjective institutional arrangement.
Finally, I apply this critical framework to the history of the classical gold standard, recognising the many interventions and crises that developed and hampered the gold standard, and led to its fruition in the late 19th century. From British imperial hegemony to the development of central bank-led rules of the game, these network externalities helped constitute what is now known as the classical gold standard. Thus a critical historiography of this regime reveals a history of crises, changes and central bank/state interventions which helped uphold the institutions and systems integral to its functioning.
In understanding the historiography and institutionalisation of the gold standard, it first must be shown what the orthodox perspective is, that of the pure economy view where the gold standard regime, rather than socially constructed and delineated, was the natural evolution of market-based developments. This orthodoxy originates from an economic picture of rationalist individualism, where “the axiom of rationality assign the same identity to all individuals in pursuit of their goals”. From this microeconomic perspective, laws and understandings are conceived that are applied to the wider macroeconomic field. Instead of understanding that “economic relations cannot exist outside a social framework”, there is instead the belief that socio-economic rules and laws are static in conceptualisation, existing as a foundational axiom of market exchanges. Relating this to the gold standard regime that prevailed from the late 19th century, particular laws and norms are left as unquestioned, foundational systems, evolving from the natural flows of unhindered market exchange. “The gold standard has thus been traditionally discussed as a set of norms to solve a transaction problem between countries: a mechanism to adjust monetary systems between one another. Furthermore, it has been assumed that the defining feature of the classical gold standard was that it addressed the problem of transaction by promoting market adjustments”. The classical gold standard then is defined as an enclosed, law-bound system of naturally developed norms, where “the unintended result of innumerable efforts of economic subjects pursuing individual interests” led to the development of commodity money in the form of gold. Gold is thus a natural evolution of these innumerable efforts.
The major themes that encompass this perspective of the gold standard regime include the belief that gold was “an ideal monetary standard, domestically and internationally, because of its unique qualities both as a standard of value and a medium of exchange”. Thus, taking the pure economy perspective, because individuals saw gold as the most saleable commodity for exchange, it meant that it fit the role of a medium of exchange for most economic transactions. As Menger notes “the reason why the precious metals have become the generally current medium of exchange…is because their saleableness is far and away superior to that of all other commodities”. In this perspective, the social foundations of economic relations are ignored, as a spontaneous order-like view is taken where precious metals are the natural consequence of separate forms of rationalised economic exchange. For Menger, there are no civilisations which have not come to “covet the precious metals” which inform the international monetary system. In this sense, gold’s use as a currency is static in history, with alternative systems losing out due to the choices of individuals and nations.
Another theme was that of Hume’s price-specie flow mechanism, which ensured price uniformity amongst integrated economies in the sphere of international trade. It also meant that arbitrage was a systemic consequence of these flows, which itself guaranteed trade balances and the maintenance of this price uniformity. There was also the role of international capital flows which acted as another “equilibrating mechanism”, fitting into the flows of gold by allowing for quicker adjustment to interest rate changes due to an increased supply in gold. These then are rules, or laws, which inhibit their users from deviating from them, whether that be individuals or nation-states participating in trade and exchange. Hayek notes that “the gold standard requires a constant observation by government of certain rules which include an occasional restriction of the total circulation”. The classical gold standard wasn’t socially constituted, but rather a market system which constrained the ability of social actors to change the natural outcomes of the gold standard regime.
Rules of the game, as Eichengreen described the central bank’s use of discount rates where “the central bank could thereby affect the volume of domestic credit”, are not taken into account when understanding the classical gold standard through the lens of the pure economy. In the rules of the game, central banks had a constitutive role in affecting capital flows and the rates of borrowing. But for advocates of the classical gold standard, these are at best peripheral. Mises states that “the-gold standard is not a game; it is a market phenomenon and as such a social institution. Its preservation does not depend on the observation of some specific rules”. When Mises says it is a social institution, he is implying a non-governmental one, borne of market rules and relations rather than constructed via governmental influence. The rules of the game do not matter so much as the impediment the gold standard had over the government’s ability to direct monetary policy.
Thus the socially constitutive practices, the so-called rules of the game, are ignored in this conception of the classical gold standard. Governments and central banks, the supposed “economic tsars”, are disempowered under the gold standard according to Mises as “it makes the determination of the monetary unit’s purchasing power independent of the measures of governments”. A dichotomy is presented in this view, with two utopias: the free market as represented by the gold standard and the totalitarian government as represented by state control of the money supply. This is the myth of the classical gold standard, that it is natural and formed from the free market where individual’s choices collated over time to the point where gold became a currency simply because of its saleableness. Any critical historiography is thrown out the window as there is effectively no history in this view. Everything about the gold standard, from its origins to the laws that are meant to govern it, is static and practically unchanging. Governance structures and informal networks of central bank power which inform the rules of the game are either peripheral or a bastardisation of the gold standard itself. A dichotomy is presented between whether one wants government control of the money supply, or a free market gold standard.
However when considering this mythical gold standard regime in its theoretical origins, from the theory of money’s origins to the position of money in society, it is extremely problematic and built on assumptions that do not hold up to scrutiny. The Mengerian theory of money is more a thought experiment than an historical theory. Anthropological evidence points instead toward a social origin to money, rather than a natural evolution of money from barter. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing”. The theory of the origin of money where barter is the foundational element is not historically justified. Socio-economic exchanges involving barter were generally done between strangers, and thus were not cohesive or consistent. For money to develop, there need to be consistent relations of monetary exchange so as foster trust and an understanding of what constituted the medium of exchange, not infrequent relations amongst distant groupings. Similarly, the pure economy perspective purveyed by gold standard advocates fails to note the function of money in the economy. They see it as a neutral veil over the real economy of production and exchange, while ignoring its role as a monetary constraint on the realisation of multiple forms of credit. As a monetary constraint, it centralises the functions and scope of credit and maintains their saleability in the realms of production and exchange (of which they are integral), which then requires particular social institutions such as the central bank which is “charged with a social function that sets it apart” from a private bank, to regulate this constraint on the expansion of credit in the economy.
In understanding a critical perspective on the classical gold standard, we need to contrast it with the pure economy view laid out by Mises, Salerno and other writers. For them money is but a function of the market. But in the critical perspective I take, the role of institutions and social validation are just as important. Thus there are two theoretical understandings of the gold standard. One is an uncritical historiography, or a “problem-solving theory”. The world is understood simply by what relations currently exist, with the “general pattern of institutions and relationships” not being called into question. In the case of the gold standard, the laws and rules which govern it (along with the institutions that aid in the creation and enforcement of these rules) are treated as ethereal.
In contrast, Cox identifies another method of theorisation, that of critical theory. A critical view is that where institutions and forces are viewed not as static realities that have existed unproblematically, but rather as constituted constructions which have histories. They’ve been informed by social action and intervention, which means there are bottlenecks and problems which are associated with their creation. It does not assume fixity, but instead continual processes of historical change, where particular pathways are developed. These two theories represent a rethinking of Mises’ dichotomy. There are no utopias, but there are two distinct perspectives on the classical gold standard. One is akin to problem-solving theory, that “posits a continuing present” and sees the rules and norms of the gold standard regime as fixed and timeless, applying non-historically. The second is the critical perspective which sees the gold standard as containing socially-constituted rules and informal networks which governed its practices and implementation. Historical patterns and forms of institutionalisation guided the gold standard to the hegemonic position it held in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By understanding the former, we begin to see the myth of the gold standard and the need for the critical perspective. The pure economy view is grounded in erroneous theories of money’s origins and foundations, and is reliant on the idea that spontaneous order constructed the realities of the gold standard, when in reality it was institutions and the social validity they gained which truly brought forth what is called the classical gold standard.
Two theoretical concepts make up the critical perspective. The development and validation of institutions, and the ability to create monetary hegemony. Both are linked inextricably with each other, as the development of hegemony requires institutionalisation and the cultivation of social validation. In conceiving of an institutional praxis surrounding the gold standard, there needs to be an understanding of what constitutes an institution. One element of an institution would be the development of its validation. Validation includes what institutional facts are part of its makeup, and whether they are observer-dependent or observer-independent. Searle notes that in the case of money, “the fact that a certain object is money is observer relative; money is created as such by the attitudes of observers and participants in the institution of money”. For something to be recognised as money requires a collective observer dependence. “My attitude (toward money) is observer independent, but the reality created by a large number of people like me having such attitudes, depends on those attitudes and is therefore observer dependent”, thus showing that money’s social validation arrives from its widespread acceptance. The monetary constraint therefore is created through the development of a societal objectivity, whereby something is recognised as a common currency. In relation to the gold standard this may stand to affirm the Mengerian theory of natural development, but that would ignore the wider context of institution’s workings and positions in the wider system.
This is where monetary hegemony comes in, both in its ideological and governmental guises. In the development of an ideological hegemony, Polanyi shows the development of free markets as having no natural occurrence. “There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; free markets could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course. Just as cotton manufactures – the leading free trade industry – were created by the help of protective tariffs, export bounties, and indirect wage subsidies, laissez-faire itself was enforced by the state”. In contradiction to the pure economy view, markets were a creation of states and their institutions. Any natural evolution from the free interaction of humans in any geographic boundary is an ahistorical image. Rather, there needed to be a continuous governance over and subsidisation of the fictitious commodities: money, land and labour. To regulate these things outside of their social context and inside a reconceived economic sphere requires their subordination to this new economic sphere, thus producing (or at least attempting to produce) an ideological hegemony. Central banks constitute an important part in this ideological hegemony by providing a form of social validation. It provides a link between private bank money and the state, giving a “pseudo-social validation” to the governance of the monetary constraint. As Deleuze and Guattari show in their study of capitalism’s flows, the turning of money into a fictitious commodity causes its deterritorialisation from its original social foundation (as unit of account), while the social validation of the central bank causes a form of reterritorialisation so as to hold in check its “decoding and axiomatizing flows” and thus maintain a socialised hegemony. Linking this to the gold standard, the regime’s supposed objective, observer-independent facts were in reality socially-constituted, variable rules of the game which are informed by forms of political power and social validation.
Then there is the role of hegemony in an imperial sense. Ideological hegemony is only one aspect of the institutionalisation of the gold standard as a recognised monetary constraint, acting in a covert sense when developing social relations of power that favour the gold standard. Another aspect are overt forms of coercive power, such as those used by imperial powers to develop new outlets for trade and production. The gold standard was integrally linked to colonial and imperial movements, as Eichengreen shows in his concept of network externalities. With the industrial revolution having made Great Britain the preeminent imperial power of the 19th century, their use of gold created a shift toward the gold standard as it opened new markets and allowed countries not as industrially developed to engage in this “liberal imperialism”. Eventually a network effect created a pax Britannica of internationalised British statism where local administrations from different geographic locations became part of this imperial network, recreating imperial hierarchies in peripheral countries and colonies and implanting capitalist relations of production, including monetary relations centred around an international gold standard regime. Outside the colonial framework, many European countries also followed the path of the gold standard (moving from their bimetallist monetary systems) due to the network effect of an integrated, imperial economy based around British industry. Central banks were an integral institution that played a role in this overt hegemony. The centralisation of British and other international monetary systems was a “consequence of the public banks’…international roles in the dual system of precious metals and credit-money” which then provided a “de facto dominance” and a form of social validation over the monetary system of the gold standard.
The main centres of power in the gold standard regime emanated not from the interplay of free market actors, but from the legitimacy provided by particular social institutions that were crafted through ideological and coercive hegemony. The “maintenance of the gold standard was axiomatic”, with the main directive of its foundational institutions being to maintain the standard and keep the monetary constraint as gold. “It was required to provide a nominal anchor for fiduciary money”, providing social validation and a link between national monies and private credit. Central banks were the institution at the heart of the gold standard, creating the framework for a stable monetary system. Through the “rules of the game”, central banks had a large level of control when it came to informal rules and networks that governed the gold standard regime. The use of the discount rate gave significant discretion over the control and distribution of credit. This helped circumvent the specie-flow mechanism, allowing for a reduction of the money supply which put downward pressure on prices and enhanced domestic competitiveness, this being particularly acute when considering “gold movements respond(ed) more readily and more frequently to capital flows induced directly by discount rate changes than to changes in price levels and trade balances.” Further, in central bank’s lender-of-last-resort function there existed another type of trade-off between social validation to the domestic economy on the one hand and creditors and investors on the other. Following Bagehot’s rule, central banks would provide credit assistance while raising interest rates so as to raise the rate of return. These forms of market management were required to maintain stability and the primacy of the monetary constraint, in effect reterritorialising international monetary flows in the 19th century global economy. This shows that the central bank made decisions relative to its social function rather than to an innate, neutral market system that constrained its ability to manage monetary flows.
There also existed “escape-clause provisions” which further show the social constitution of the gold standard regime. By invoking these provisions, the central bank allowed its reserves to go below their normal statutory minimum. Such a radical change required governmental approval, usually from a finance minister or through the payment of a tax. This again does not show the normal functioning of market mechanisms, but a change in circumstances which required new forms of social validation so as to maintain stability and provide a viable monetary constraint. Government’s could only do this if they maintained confidence in the unit of account, which they did through guaranteeing that invoking these provisions would be temporary, and that in the resumption of the gold standard parity would be brought back to its original position. In the same way that the informal rules of the game are important for the stable governance of the gold standard, the ability to neutralise them remained an important feature to maintain the equilibrium between the monetary constraint and credit money. “These ad hoc measures are emblematic of the fact that central banks did not enjoy a sufficient credibility to stave off destabilizing speculative runs”, showing that the ability to maintain rules and norms were not natural phenomena, but rather constructed variables open to problematisation and deconstruction.
However these are the institutional facets of the gold standard regime. They show the functioning of central banks as a central parameter in institutionalising the monetary constraint and governing to maintain social validation. But beneath are the institutional facts as identified by Searle. These are the legitimating ideologies and the groundwork which allows for the development of a hegemony. This includes “social relations of persuasion, trust, credibility” which create the hegemony of a “monetary leader”. The gold standard relied on historical specificities produced from a favourable political climate and the hegemony of the British empire which pushed a liberal, internationalist imperialism of globalised trade and exchange. The main political priority of monetary authorities was to safeguard the attachment of their currency to gold. This was something that investors and creditors were aware of, thus maintaining to an extent that link between the public’s unit of account and the private need for a monetary constraint relative to credit. This ideological hegemony allowed for the breaking of the rules of the game as I mentioned earlier, as there was the belief that institutions would return to the commitment of gold parity. However, social commitments imposed by the state also had an important role in the stabilisation of the classical gold standard, with states expecting “low interest rates in order to alleviate interest payments on their debt” and the provision of credit to aid in the development of domestic industry. The state also had a foundational role in instituting the monetary constraint. This shows that the gold standard as an all-round monetary system required degrees of overt power in developing its hegemony. This included providing the social function of money to a central bank, and placing limits on the full extent of financial activity available to private actors. “The gold standard moulded finance to its image, rather than the opposite” direction, where the collation of private actors spontaneously ordered the monetary relations of the gold standard.
These political commitments shaped the direction the gold standard took, creating its social validation and the ability for its hegemony. The general belief that commitment to convertibility would be maintained, and that the state (while creating limits and boundaries) acted as a partner in these institutions provided the social validation necessary for the gold standard to become an international regime in the late 19th century. It also becomes evident that this general system was historically specific, and would be difficult to replicate. The main reason is the expansion of political interests that came about in the 20th century. The expansion of the franchise to the working classes and women created different pathways and possibilities for monetary policy, which endangered the commitment to convertibility and the ability to hold credit amongst particular networks of power and privilege. The ideological and imperial constructs that shaped the gold standard were socially-constituted in their specific historiography.
In recognising the two understandings of the gold standard regime, the pure economy view and the critical perspective, I have intended to show a historiography not patterned by uniform relations and static laws and norms, but informed by informal relations of power and forms of social constitution specific to the time they were created in. I’ve been attempting to view the gold standard as a genealogy, “a practice of criticism that is motivated by finding insecurities and uncertainties in that which is represented as stable, coherent, and self-perpetuating”. Thus in deconstructing the arguments of Mises, Salerno, Hayek et al I show that the gold standard cannot be conceived as something developed through spontaneous order. Its laws and rules are not timeless evolutions, developed from a linear history of monetary development that began with barter and reached its peak with the classical gold standard.
Rather, it was a socially-constituted system that involved interventions and governance on its behalf. There is no real naturalness to the gold standard. It is not a free market utopia as Mises presents it, but a historically specific, politically grounded and institutionalised monetary system that contained informal rules and regulations which restricted finance and maintained the credibility of the gold standard and the wider banking systems that became reliant upon it. Central banks comprised one of the fundamental institutions which provided social validation and created the link between the state’s control of the national money, and the multitude of private credit networks which if unhindered could overtake the monetary constraint. “This (state) intervention was motivated by the attempt to protect the value of the sterling and reduce inflation, and was pursued by the adoption of measures to institutionalize, rather than liberalize, the market”.
This institutionalisation was borne of particular time-based boundaries, where political obligations were focused on monetary credibility in relation to the gold standard, and where the franchise only included property-owning men. “This commitment mechanism was predicated on the credibility that the central bank would move to maintain the parity, which in turn, de facto, relied upon domestic wage and price flexibility. In practice this relied upon the credibility that the government would suffer the central bank to impose the deflationary consequences of adjustment in the form of rises in the discount rate, and the effects of the attendant monetary contraction on the domestic populace”. The political environment encouraged the hegemonic status of the gold standard as a central economic axiom. In this sense, it could not be a truly market-based phenomenon as the expansion and accumulation inherent in capitalist market exchange encouraged destabilising flows of money and credit. “Central banking reduced the automatism of the gold standard to a mere pretense. It meant a centrally managed currency; manipulation was substituted for the self-regulating mechanism of supplying credit”.
In conceiving of this critical perspective, it has been key to understand that the gold standard is constituted by institutions and by institutional facts. They are integral to its acceptability as unit of account, providing political and economic legitimacy by attempting to combine the interests of the state and private actors. Further, the most important aspect of the gold standard is its historical specificity. It required the hegemony of British imperialism and pax Britannica, where the relations of the British state became internationalised and thus the economic relations of a “liberal imperialism” became fundamental to international production and exchange flows.
Above all, the gold standard was a fundamentally social institution, not in the Misesian sense of a naturally evolved structure based in the socio-economic relations of the free market, but in the sense of a structured, constituted system of informal and formal rules which provided boundaries on finance and regulations around the full extent to which the social and economic spheres of money could be separated, and with significant discretion given to states and central banks. The classical gold standard is not a form of spontaneous order, but rather a system socially constituted, hegemonically conceived and developed from tacit and explicit power relations.
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