Money Talks

Design by Creative Director Kemper Rodi 

Article by Diego Jaramillo

The Background

The most frequent manifestations of ideology occur not in debate halls or literary reviews, but rather in the fabric of the everyday. In a discussion about our management of waste, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek famously stated that, “It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe, but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology.” This observation – in reference to certain comparative differences between German, French, and American toilets – is astute in that it presents ideology as more than merely a complete set of beliefs governed by principles, but also as the ‘hidden-in-plain-sight’ codes, arrangements, and norms that give structure to human sociality. 

Nowhere else do these two components of ideology – the outward principles and their commonplace appearances – intersect as much as in currency. Coins and banknotes represent the most ‘everyday’ medium governments can utilize to make official those pre-existing collective feelings of nationhood and togetherness present in their society. Nuggets of state-endorsed social consciousness are sprinkled into public education and daily use; no other form can dispense the content of propaganda the way spare change reaches both the least fortunate among us and the car seat cup holders of upper-class toddlers. Now more than ever, as physical currency approaches economic obsolescence and leaves pure symbolic significance in its place, a study of the emblems and myths that grace the world’s money is needed to illuminate the path we’re taking. 

In this brief series of blogs entitled Money Talks, I will set out to accomplish two primary goals. Number 1 is to analyze the genealogy of currency’s symbolism within particular nations as an inquiry into the value systems that most heavily influence their social conscience, governance, and enterprise. Number 2 is to, in some meaningful way, use these observations to make wider-ranging conclusions about how global moral structures and rhetoric may change with the emergence of new world superpowers. Therefore, given that this journey will end with the titans of the future, it only makes sense to begin with the greatest titan of the past. 

Great Britain

To study the evolution of English coinage is much like researching the evolution of the platypus: that is, to study close to nothing at all. All the way back in 616 AD at the very beginning of Anglo-Saxon currency, the King of Kent’s protrusive portrait held the bulk of the territory on the obverse of the coin. [1] Through the ensuing eleven centuries featuring dynastic change, Civil War, religious scandal, Enlightenment, and decimalization, the face of the monarch continued to dutifully adorn these most everyday forms of currency. Although the royal likeness is surely the most dramatic example, this same longevity tends to hold for most of the iconography still present on modern British money: the royal shield has been present on shillings and pennies since the 1480’s, representations of the United Kingdom’s nations have stuck around for two and a half centuries, and Christian symbolism such as the quatrefoil and St. George’s cross has survived since the 14th century. 


This observation serves not to exclude the presence of minor changes that do tell stories of historical blips and paradigm shifts. Early years of the House of the Plantagenet (1154–1485) show the inclusion of a cross with King Henry II as an effort to foster public confidence in the House’s ascendance. [2]  When the monarchy was restored with Charles II after a brief 11-year commonwealth period, the female figure of Britannia first began to appear in 1672 on the reverse of the farthing and the halfpenny; to this day, she can be seen in all her glory on the £2 coin. [3] 



However, despite the minute alterations emerging from developmental idiosyncrasies – at least when contextualized against the long history of the British Isles – , the consistency of Britain’s monetary symbolism is nothing short of remarkable. For a period lasting longer than the Byzantine empire, Anglo-Saxon governments and communities have found their heritage to be so important that even world-historical transformations couldn’t cast them into the depths of history. It should be abundantly clear why modern Britons still take such pride in seemingly archaic and useless traditions: to do so is the fundamental core of their nationhood. 

Back to the topic of global power, it should also be clear why the greatest diminutions of British imperial and ideological hegemony took place during the ‘age of reason’. Nations increasingly aware of the ills associated with blind reverence for tradition saw through this British romanticism and drove out the empire that exploited them on those very grounds. The new global social conscience that emerged in this period fought off the “ancient” imperial powers and made way for the harbingers of capitalism founded on Enlightenment ideals. 

The Point

The utility of starting this series with an analysis of the world’s former superpower is that it teaches valuable lessons about how global change occurs. Large paradigm shifts, often themselves spurred by material and economic transformations, come to structure the ideological debates that take place in individual nations and on the international scale. In the case of the UK, the emergence of a global trade economy and pre-capitalist economic structures were the foundation for the Enlightenment. This philosophical shift toward ‘reason’ scaffolded the exact domestic discourses that eventually thumped the ‘traditional’ British Empire. All of this historical context aside, the primary takeaway from this post should be this: if an 18th century researcher were to have studied the history of English money, they, too, would have recognized the government’s/populace’s rigid adherence to their heritage. Combining this with their knowledge of the world-historical circumstances they found themselves in, it is reasonable to conclude that they would also have been able to recognize the threat the Enlightenment and pre-capitalism posed to the strength of the British empire. In other words, combining these ‘hidden-in-plain-sight’ manifestations of ideology (bills and coins) with historical context could lead to broad-stroking conclusions about international relations. 

This is exactly the project I have set for myself with this series. Studying the currency of the existing and emerging powers of our world to see 1) the structure of value hierarchies within these nations and 2) how these national identities and social cognitions may collide amidst the changing landscape of 21st century global power. Starting in the past and ending with the future, we will hopefully see which way our world will swing.

Diego Jaramillo is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact him at