Commentary Magazine


Frozen Desire by James Buchan

Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money
by James Buchan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 320 pp. $25.00

Not many fledgling journalists dream of writing for the financial pages. Most start with ambitions that are rather more literary in nature. But money has to be earned; a job opens up; and a career is launched. To their surprise, some then find that the business world actually offers a compelling beat. But while the wheeling and dealing of the big players has its allure, many business writers still tend to suffer from the mental burden of covering seemingly unsophisticated or uneducated people who earn more in a month than they do in a year.

James Buchan seems to have this problem in spades. A British writer with a superb education, an adventurous spirit, highbrow tastes, and a grandfather (John Buchan) who was a famous novelist, he has labored for many years as a correspondent for the Financial Times—a noble soul locked in the most pecuniary of papers. To make matters more complicated, Buchan is obviously one of those who at some point become fascinated with their subject. He is as proud of his understanding of the grammar of finance as he is of his command of Latin and his polished German. And yet, true to type, he has never quite made his peace with the capitalist world. To the contrary, as this book makes clear, he loathes money with an overriding passion, and dreams of a society without it.

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Frozen Desire is an eclectic history of what has been said and thought about money. Starting in the classical age, Buchan speeds straight up through Michael Milken, mining the writings of the greats in literature (Cervantes, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky), philosophy (Bacon, Mill, Santayana), and economics (Smith, Keynes) for wisdom bearing on his topic. He describes the doings of financial whizzes and scoundrels, and for spice and filler throws in chunks of autobiography and family history. Throughout, Buchan is an eloquent expositor; if he tends, intellectually, to be a show-off, he is at the same time a provocative guide.

As his account abundantly confirms, Buchan is hardly the first person to see money as the root of all evil. Aristotle, for one, preceded him, condemning profit and interest income in a passage Buchan ranks as among the most influential ever written. In fact, Buchan argues, what made the classical age noble was that men fought for vengeance and honor rather than for monetary gain, and when they were not fighting they were content to satisfy their natural needs rather than being obsessed with the limitless desires that currency would introduce into the world.

From ancient Greece, Buchan cruises forward to the New Testament, noting that for many early Church leaders, Jesus’s most important attribute after his divinity was his poverty. (For contrast, Buchan dwells at length on the story of Judas, the man corrupted by coins.) Medieval Europe, continues Buchan, was essentially a moneyless place, and his portrait of life in the feudal era is correspondingly rosy: people lived within the rhythms of nature, and each place was unique and tranquil.

But the Middle Ages yielded to the Renaissance, when the spread of money transformed everything. “The land itself begins to change,” Buchan writes. Instead of selecting crops to meet local needs, farmers started to grow what was profitable. Lords no longer needed to live on the land. Kings found they could pay for standing armies. As Buchan summarizes: “The medieval dream of a fixed world of stable commercial and moral values, of good money and just prices, earthly duty and heavenly reward, gives way.”

All the rest is decline and corruption, typified by the figure who best qualifies as the nemesis of Buchan’s book, the Scotsman John Law. In 1715, Law offered to rescue the nearly bankrupt French government through an elaborate financial scheme. His system crashed, and France was badly burned.

Frozen Desire concludes with the prediction that our own whirling monetary regime, in which money is just a flashing series of digitalized notations that can be sent instantaneously around the world, will suffer a similar fate. And we will deserve it.

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But who is “we”?

For many years, James Buchan was stationed in the United States, and as readers of his reportage in the Financial Times can attest, it is this country, past and present, that he considers to be the epitome of money corruption in the modern world. The framers of the U.S. Constitution, he writes, “resolved not to be free but rich, not good but rich, not equal but rich.” Americans are so greedy that they “look without blinking at death.” And because they think of nothing but their bank accounts, “Americans often do not like their heirs, who they fear will dissipate the money in lawyers’ fees, foolish speculation, the entertainment industry.”

It would be wrong to dismiss Buchan as a crank simply because he purports to loathe the riches he finds in this country (all the while building a successful career built on globe-trotting and expense accounts). He is better seen as an aspiring Ruskin or Carlyle, one of those dissenters who strike a necessary and even appealing note of anger and nostalgia while failing to put a halt to the processes they decry or to further the causes they advocate.

The problem is that the modern capitalist world is even more recalcitrant than the early industrial society that so exercised Ruskin and Carlyle, and not least because it already sounds many countervailing notes of its own. Some entrepreneurs, indeed, have managed to capitalize on this strange and fascinating phenomenon. Fortunes have been made not through appeals to naked avidity but through the effort to reconcile affluence with Buchan-style “naturalness.” Far outstripping in ingenuity the fears of its most fevered critics, American capitalism has created a market in spirituality that, in products like organic groceries and environmentally sound cosmetics, caters to a population beset with the anxieties of abundance.

A whole generation of well-to-do, mainstream Americans is trying, however amusingly, to reap the delights of affluence without succumbing to the corruptions to which it can tend. The spectacle they offer to the eye is far richer and more intriguingly complex than anything imagined by those, like James Buchan, who can only dream idly of a moneyless world.

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