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When I received an email containing one of the first COVID-19 payment memes—“How do you wish to pay?”, with an image of Visa, MasterCard, and a roll of toilet paper—I thought, OK, there might be some interesting payment and money things I should pay attention to during this pandemic. Students and colleagues sent me lots more toilet-paper themed memes and made jokes: about scenes of barter, the transactors trying to determine an exchange rate; toilet paper on a golden platter; stores accepting toilet paper rolls for one cup of coffee or one scoop of ice cream (“must be new; one roll per visit”). A satirical (I think!) account of a churchgoer placing a roll of toilet paper on the collection plate. One Sunday afternoon my family ordered delivery. Every order over $40 came with a free roll of toilet paper.

In between all the new kinds of work involved in transitioning a large university to fully-online operations, I filed away the toilet paper stuff in a special email folder. Toilet paper economies.

But when the University of California, Irvine Graduate Division announced that it would henceforth accept scanned forms and digital signatures (it has long been a preserve and holdout of paper) and more than that, suspend all fee payment associated with those forms—which heretofore had to be paid with paper check—I thought, game on! This pandemic is changing payment.

It is at the ground level, so to speak, where we may glean insight.

Some establishments—my local ice creamery, for instance—have suspended all in-store payments and require customers to pay online for curbside pickups. Some places ask you to Venmo. CNN aired a segment on cash as a possible vector for viruses, and a company offering contactless tap-and-pay card readers has launched a marketing blitz. But cash is still there, too. In fact, cash demand is way, way up. It is at the restaurants offering take-out whose proprietors prefer the one-way transmission of cash to the back-and-forth passing of card or card terminal between customer and vendor. It is in the cash stashes people are starting to build up. A reporter from the Financial Times called me asking why people are stockpiling cash (not just toilet paper) when the cash distribution system is not likely to be disrupted the way it has been when hurricanes and floods knock out servers or the electricity grid.

The coronavirus pandemic has been occasion for the visibilization of lots of the infrastructures that make modernity possible, that allow it to endure, to say nothing of the newfound recognition of “essential” services such as health care, education, logistics, and transportation employees. It has also made the seemingly impossible possible—sheltering the homeless, or getting something that bears a family resemblance to universal basic income into an actual act of Congress.

“Socially distant” and removed from so much physical world activity, many people are nevertheless newly conscious of the sources and vectors of transmission—viral, but also supply chain and goods distribution, the (uneven) distribution of care, the (also uneven) distribution of the labor of maintenance, and their differential valuation. As restaurants transform themselves into grocers in some areas, we can see attempts to maintain continuity of those supply chains—those enduring social relationships—like the local Mexican place that always has a butternut squash cream enchilada on offer and now sells those squash to consumers, keeping its relationship with its organic supplier alive, at least for the time being.

For the time being. What about the after-time?

When we hear about the surreptitious tips handed to grocery store clerks or nurses as a note of appreciation; or the parents using Venmo to send money to teachers, not for supplies or any reason, just because; or people coming up with ways to ask for payment for services they no longer directly render (hairdressers, artists, gym owners, yoga instructors, house cleaners) or their patrons just paying them anyway without having to be asked; we see the visibilization of the role of money long noted by anthropologists from Marcel Mauss to Jane Guyer and Keith Hart—money as an extension of relationships and an effort to make those relations endure.

Speaking of Mauss: perhaps we can discern a new “kind of economy that is undergoing a laborious birth. We already see it operating in certain economic groupings, and in the hearts of the masses, who very often have a better sense than their leaders of their own interests, and of the common interest” (2016 [1925]).

Watching how long those economic groupings, those relationships last, and in what form, is an urgent task for the work of rebuilding ahead.

“Socially distant” and removed from so much physical world activity, many people are nevertheless newly conscious of the sources and vectors of transmission.

We are rapidly entering a time when more and more people are going to have less and less money, a time of ever-increasing income fragility continuing a secular trend that has been going on since the last financial crisis and before. The question of payment and credit in relation to the relationships we want to maintain and have endured has always been a political question. Those politics are going to get even more interesting.

But it is at the ground level, so to speak, where we may glean insight. Someone put up signs in my neighborhood offering his assistance to anyone who needs it—to get groceries or medicine, to run errands, to just talk on the phone or from the street to the porch. He wrote he wants to create a mutual aid network. “I’m not an organizer,” he writes, “I’m just a guy with two arms, a bus pass, and a desire to help my community.”

My neighbor, like Mauss, is seeking to “create a foundation for society and constitute a life in common, and whose conscious direction is the supreme art.”

Alongside these open-ended offers of help and hope, there are of course payment and financial scams galore—and please don’t click on any links in emails purporting to get you your government payment faster, or respond to robocalls asking you to sign up for PayPal. Also, existing racialized inequalities have been exacerbated almost as exponentially as virus transmission in some places itself.

In the use of money to maintain connection almost more than to maintain “an economy,” however, we might be able to discern a new ethics of exchange. It is important in the coming months to imagine what new economies we might build from this ethics, what new livelihoods emerge that we can nurture so that we can inhabit lifeways for the future we want to build.

Bill Maurer, dean of social sciences and professor of anthropology; criminology, law and society; and law at the University of California, Irvine, is one of the world’s leading experts on money artifacts and technological systems, from cowrie shells to credit cards. He is the director of the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Filene Research Institute.

Cite as: Maurer, Bill. 2020. “The Use of Money to Maintain Connection (and Toilet Paper).” Anthropology News website, April 9, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1376