The Counterfeit Money of Boris Johnson

The last week has seen Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Manchester, resisting the imposition of ‘Tier 3’ coronavirus restrictions in Greater Manchester, in the absence of a guarantee from the UK government of sufficient funding to support the region. Talks eventually broke down over a matter of £5m – the difference between the government’s highest offer of £60m and Burnham’s lowest acceptable figure of £65m (originally £90m was requested).[1] During a pandemic which has seen the government spend billions (an estimated £210bn on measures announced up to 7th August),[2] why this reticence over a few million pounds for Manchester? The money certainly could have been found, so why did Boris Johnson and his team happen to decide that the maximum available was just a little lower than the minimum required? And, as many have commented, isn’t this whole drama ludicrously contradicted by the vast contracts handed to the likes of Serco for failed contact-tracing and inadequate provision of testing sites?

In fact, the refusal of regional funding and the granting of enormous contracts to selected businesses are two sides of the same coin. They both reveal the Johnson government’s stance to be that of Charles Baudelaire’s friend in his short story ‘Counterfeit Money’. In Baudelaire’s narrative, his friend hands a poor man a silver two-franc piece on leaving a tobacco shop, explaining this apparent generosity by remarking that it was a counterfeit coin. Baudelaire is appalled, observing that ‘his aim had been to do a good deed while at the same time making a good deal; to earn forty cents and the heart of God; to win paradise economically; in short, to pick up gratis the certificate of a charitable man’.[3] To do a good deed – or at least to be seen to do a good deed – while also making a good deal, is also a motivating drive for Johnson’s Conservative Party. For them, the distribution of money must never be simply the giving of it where it is needed. It must always also serve as either a badge of good economic sense, a distribution of largesse, or a demonstration of divine, arbitrary power – or preferably all three – never mind that these goals are mutually exclusive. So, the Serco contracts continue to enrich the network of Conservative supporters who run the company (the CEO is Rupert Soames, the brother of Sir Nicholas Soames, while Edward Argar, the current Health Minister, is a former Serco executive), and the £60m offer to Manchester, which we are told ‘remains on the table’, acts like Marcel Mauss’s potlatch.

The potlatch – a form of gifting practised by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest of North America – is understood by Mauss as a lavish gift that exerts an obligation for return. Bataille and Derrida take this further by emphasising the disruptive and destructive elements of the potlatch. From this perspective, to accept the ‘gift’ of £60m also means either accepting that which you know to be insufficient, or accepting that one’s own economic analysis is wrong, and in either case being seen to do so. Moreover, it establishes a precedent that condemns other regions to similarly inadequate settlements (this is virtually the government’s stated aim). Such a gift threatens to put Manchester in the position of the scab who crosses the picket line, accepting poverty wages on the employer’s terms. The same potlatch structure is evident in the recently launched Culture Recovery Fund, which obligated arts organisations who benefitted from it to publicly thank the government via social media. The government thus extracts the appearance of benevolent generosity whilst in effect giving nothing at all, since the funding provided is less than the lost earnings resulting from (the government’s poor handling of) the coronavirus.

The structure of counterfeit money is not confined to the pandemic. Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU broke down for most of the last week, after Johnson demanded a fundamental alteration of the EU position, and are now due to restart. This despite the fact that little has altered from the EU side, other than some slightly more open rhetoric from Michel Barnier. The EU, which is of course not without its own agenda, has been a perceptive reader of Johnson in this regard, at least up to a point. Before Barnier’s conciliatory words on October 21st, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, remarked of the stated British position ‘You can’t have the butter, the money from the butter and the milkmaid’s smile’.[4] This phrase recognises the conjunction of the economic (the butter and/as money) and the libidinal (the milkmaid’s smile) in the Tories’ negotiating stance, but it fails to recognise – and perhaps the EU is not capable of recognising – that Johnson’s goal is not to operate within the boundaries of conventional economy, what Bataille and Derrida called the restricted economy, but within a general economy of counterfeit money, in which a coin be given away, without hurting your pocket, while at the same time securing the beggar’s smile of gratitude.

This kind of generalised but counterfeit economy has also been operating in the discourse generated by Johnson’s Conservative Party. Gracious offers are repeatedly made with no intention that they will bind the giver to future commitments (obligation is something they are due, not something they owe). The ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal of the election in December was presented as a pre-wrapped gift for the public– though even at the time not a particularly appetising one – and then discarded by the summer, as the government rejected elements of its own withdrawal agreement. The first pandemic strategy, announced in May (or the second, if we count herd immunity as the first), included five stages of alert, with the prospect of a smooth movement to Level 1. It gave the appearance of a economy of crisis response, covering all possibilities, but was swiftly dropped. It has now been replaced by three tiers of alert levels, to be regionally enforced. This too is provisional, a plan for the moment; it should not be taken as representing any kind of future commitment.

Language is also the scene of counterfeit money. As Derrida wrote of Baudelaire’s story, the ‘text is also the coin, a piece of counterfeit money provoking an event and lending itself to this whole scene of deception, gift, forgiveness, or non-forgiveness’.[5] This recalls Nietzsche’s description of conventional truths as coins which have lost their inscriptions from passing through so many hands. From this point of view, the risk of Johnson’s counterfeit discourse, and indeed his politics has never been anything else, is not only in its attempt to claim gratis the name of the charitable man, as Baudelaire puts it, but also its attempt to characterise those from whom money is withheld as beggars. The international company to which money is freely distributed without need for supplication (as when Serco contracts are awarded with no tender process) is permitted to exist in a sphere of dignity, whereas those from whom money is withheld (which would include universal credit claimants or children eligible for free school meals, as well as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority) are designated, by the very act of that withholding, as beggars. They become marked as ‘marginal people excluded from the process of production and circulation of wealth’.[6]

On the other hand, according to Derrida the beggar ‘always looks threatening, incriminating, accusatory, vindictive in the absolute of his very demand’.[7] Such a demand exerts the force of an obligation, the obligation to pay and appease the spirits, or the gods. If that demand is refused, or if it is met with counterfeit money and counterfeit words, the would-be giver relies on the credit and accreditation of others to maintain its own self-evaluation as an embodiment of noblesse oblige. This is what the Johnson government is increasingly relying on and what we, whether we stand in the position of the supplicant or Baudelaire’s narrator, must not grant it.


[1] See for instance https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-54617898

[2] https://www.nao.org.uk/covid-19/cost-tracker/

[3] Charles Baudelaire, ‘Counterfeit Money’, trans. Louise Varèse, in Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 32.

[4] https://www.barrons.com/amp/news/eu-chief-warns-uk-has-a-big-decision-to-make-01603268403

[5] Derrida, p. 86.

[6] Derrida, p. 138.

[7] Derrida, p. 139.


Ben Moore is co-editor of Everyday Analysis and lecturer at University of Amsterdam.

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