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“Frozen Desire” By James Buchan: As Relevant Now As Ever

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The Romanticism of the 19th century was a direct response to not only the materialist underpinnings of the Enlightenment but also the increasingly monetary-centric worldview that subsumed all human relations.”

James Buchan’s book Frozen Desire was the right book for the wrong time. When it was originally published in the mid 1990’s, the financial markets seemed triumphant. The international community was giving economic agreements such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) the same import that was once only granted to the minutiae of Cold War arms treaties. In the preceding decades, the pursuit of wealth had come to dominate all other human endeavors; to this effect, Buchan muses in the introduction: “duty, religion, public service, liberty, equality, justice or aristocracy—all the cultural flesh that clothed the bones of money for those that possessed it—all became suspect: only money, it seemed was to be trusted.”

I had originally come to know Buchan after reading Days of God, his superlative history of the revolution in Iran and its consequences. Buchan became interested in the psychology of money while working as an editor for an English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970’s. He was bearing witness there to the flood of money pouring into Saudi Arabia as oil prices soared and the parochial societies of the Persian Gulf tried to cope with their new-found embarrassment of riches. After a successful career as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times that sent him from the war-torn Middle East to the crumbling Berlin Wall and finally to downtown Manhattan, he began to write novels and nonfiction.

Frozen Desire is filled with the type of flowing prose (laced with glittering vocabulary and turns of phrase) that one expects from Oxford or Cambridge graduates, and the author’s command of foreign language sources and the literature of the Western canon is most impressive. While the book professes to be a study of money’s psychology and its effect on the human experience, the book’s chapters are a collection of loosely connected essays on how we conceive of currency. And each chapter serves as a richly detailed window into various periods of financial history.

Money, the author posits, is mankind’s most powerful invention. To demonstrate the point, Buchan jumps from Aristotle to the rise of Christendom to the advent of double entry book-keeping before stepping into explaining the creation of credit and insurance. He chronicles how the financial nexus shifted from Italian city-states to gold-hungry Spain to the tulip markets of the Netherlands and finally to the British Empire. All the while, he narrates how the logic of capital accumulation spread from the European continent around the world.

But Romanticism retreated as the Age of Empire wrapped the globe in ever more circuitous trade routes and the manners and tastes of the bourgeoisie, in turn, went global.

The sea of money, as Buchan describes, quickly dislodged traditions and hierarchies and created what a Japanese textbook from the 17th century describes as, “The Floating World.” Without money, mankind would still be at the mercy of feudalism, but the advent of money dislodged conceptions of honor which, per the author, had stood at the nexus of human public relations. It was a new guiding force for the world. 

Buchan’s reflections on how money gradually replaced the need for vengeance with the idea of there being a price for everything is reminiscent of observations made by Nietzsche in On The Genealogy of Morals. Buchan sketches out the new worldview that emerges in the wake of the Enlightenment among Lock, Hume, and Smith, holding that, “Liberty is pre-eminently the unequal right to property, commerce a substitute for morality and money for religion.”The Romanticism of the 19th century was a direct response to not only the materialist underpinnings of the Enlightenment but also the increasingly monetary-centric worldview that subsumed all human relations. But Romanticism retreated as the Age of Empire wrapped the globe in ever more circuitous trade routes and the manners and tastes of the bourgeoisie, in turn, went global.

Two of the most interesting sections of the book concern Buchan’s reading of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. Buchan regards Smith and his followers with supreme suspicion, noting that, “In the two centuries after Smith, more mental effort was wasted on objectifying his system of belief than on any other in history, not excluding the immortality of the soul and the rentability of civilian nuclear power.”

While admiring some of Marx’s writing on how money radically shifts human relations and society’s worldview, Buchan also criticizes the 19th century philosopher for naiveté, disapprovingly quoting The German Ideology:

“while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Marx certainly cannot be given praise for laying out a coherent alternative to capitalist society, but the modern workforce is now characterized by workers who are forced to shift occupations with ever greater frequency, and constantly “re-educated” in order to keep apace with the accelerating rate of technological change.

The 19th nightmare of wage laborers trapped in the same repetitive and dangerous machine tasks, cowering in obeisance on the factory floor before the wealthy industrial bourgeoise, has been replaced by a job market warped by information technology. In this new paradigm, whole occupations are created and destroyed at the blink of an eye through the market signals of a tech-finance elite whose global influence dwarfs anything that the Rockefeller’s and Rothschild’s could have ever dreamed of.

The book concludes with a plea to stop money’s incessant advance: “if I have laid too much stress on money’s disservices to humanity, I ask for understanding: for money has no lack of professional devotees.” Buchan warily surveys the world of the mid-1990’s, noting the rise of mega-cities completely cut off from nature or rural life as the second and third world is speedily absorbed into the global capitalist system. Individuals in rent-seeking professions, once scorned, now dominate the global economy, and Keynes dream of the “euthanasia of the rentier” is further away than ever before. Today, it seems the pursuit of profit remains the only ideology left to idealize.

Although the book occasionally loses its narrative thread as Buchan indulges the reader in speculative rabbit holes and reminisces about his life in New York during the financial “Big Bang,” Frozen Desire is a challenging and innovative survey of how radically money has altered human consciousness. In a world where frequently the pursuit of money is seen as the highest good, perhaps it is high time to put Frozen Desire back in print.

Luke Rodeheffer is a cybersecurity intelligence analyst in New York City. He holds an MA from Stanford, and his research has been cited by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications.

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