Meeting the English activists who refuse to go cashless, and plot the return of proper currency, just like it used to be.
There’s no greater insight into the collective mind than strolling into a Middle England market square on a Saturday morning. You’ll find it all there: consumerism, conspiracy, leisure and lore. Because alongside the farmers’ markets and fairground rides, these pedestrianised assembly zones have become the frontline of British street politics.
At this point, stumbling on a protest feels almost routine. Even living in a fairly untravelled, disconnected part of the country I’ve seen them all: xr, blm, tuc, fbpe, ukip, lgbtq+ and every other radical acronym group you could imagine. At the tail end of 2022, they have become as much of a Saturday morning fixture as doughnut stalls, away fans and pound-in-a-hat crooners belting out You Raise Me Up.
However, one morning, I came upon a movement that hadn’t yet reached my radar: the campaign for the end of digital currency and the ensured survival of cold, hard cash. It first appeared to me in a procession of whistles, banners, placards, pushchairs and megaphones – all the paraphernalia of post-covid discontent. The message was loud and surprisingly clear: ‘Save cash’, ‘Keep cash’, ‘No more digital banking’. Familiar protest chants like ‘What do we want?’ had been repurposed in honour of this niche new cause. There was passion in the crowd and ideas on cardboard.
Even in that moment, it felt like I was witnessing the halcyon days of something new and fast-moving. In the weeks following, I began to pick up on other incarnations of the same cause; hashtags, podcasts, adverts for forthcoming demonstrations and pickets across the country. I noticed more and more local news stories about businesses offering sizable discounts for anyone paying in cash, with signs that told customers to leave their shitty plastic rectangles at home. I started to delve: the umbrella group behind it all appeared to be ‘Cash is King’, a small, not-particularly-well-funded, but undoubtedly growing movement.
My research led me back to one major player: a woman named Debbie Hicks, an ex-politics and social sciences lecturer from the recently trendified market town of Stroud (interestingly, also a hotbed of climate activism). Hicks has a background in the Speakers’ Corner-adjacent brand of leftist politics. During the Jeremy Corbyn era she was running a socialist action group called ‘Stroud Red Shed’, campaigning against homelessness and even featuring in a Morning Star article. But more recently, her politics appear to have muddied. Because despite the mlk quote banner on her Twitter page, Cash is King keeps some interesting bedfellows.
The pro-cash movement has clear and unabashed links with the anti-vaxx/lockdown extended universe, with Piers Corbyn appearing at several Cash is King events. Indeed, he and some fellow cash-tivists recently picketed a south London Amazon Fresh store in protest of their highly automated business model. Look through photo dumps of pro-cash events and you’ll usually spot a few ‘fringe’ concerns knocking around; references to the ‘vaccine-injured’, ‘smiley face’ symbols and so on. Much of Cash is King’s literature seems to hinge on ‘The Great Reset’ – the World Economic Forum’s post-covid recovery plan, which many have interpreted as an attempt to reassemble society in the plans of banks and Big Pharma.
At the Cash is King event I stumbled on, it was easy to miss all the other side concerns that were being pushed. But in the cold light of Instagram, the nods to bioengineering, climate change denial and lines about how the wef must be destroyed at all costs became much clearer. I noticed that Danny Rampling, the acid house guru turned anti-vaxx brigade commander, had shown his support to this obscure march in a forgotten part of the country. On Twitter, Gareth, ‘son of David’ Icke has commended Hicks’ actions.
‘Keep Cash’ is also a message that appears frequently at the burgeoning ‘Yellow Boards’ protests; the redpilled flash mobs that take over roundabouts and traffic islands, getting people to honk their horns in support for a catch-all cause of chemtrails, vaccines, digital id resistance and vague allusions to ‘freedom’. One of the more specifically currency-focused Yellow Boards events invited the rallying call: ‘Tandle & Rochdale Rebels, join us at Tesco Rochdale this Saturday 5th November’. Laugh all you want, but it’s a movement that is gathering moss.
Debbie Hicks herself also has solid covid-denial credentials. Earlier this year, she was convicted of a public order offence after entering a Gloucester hospital at the height of lockdown and filming inside. Hicks claimed she was acting as a ‘guerrilla journalist’, looking for evidence of empty beds and wards – and was ultimately convicted of using threatening language and behaviour against a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist who tried to stop her (Hicks did not respond for The Fence’s request for an interview).
In a video of a Cash is King rally from summer 2022, London’s Shoreditch Park is flooded by hard currency advocates and within the crowd you can see all the disparate themes and scenes that have been swept up in it. After a crew of crusty troubadours – accordions and all – lead us through a rendition of You’re Traitors You Are, Hicks launches into an impassioned speech about financial disobedience and organising boycotts of card-only businesses. She’s clearly well-researched on the issue of cashless societies and the economy, and largely delivers her ideas well. But then Piers Corbyn takes to the stage and shouts about Co2 levels for a bit. Quite what that has to do with trendy coffee start-ups refusing to take readies isn’t quite clear – but to the crowd, it makes total sense.
Much like the Leave movement that preceded it, much of the pro-cash chatter happens not on heavily-secured forums or Discord – but on Facebook. With my interest growing by the day, I signed up to the ‘Keep Cash: Worldwide’ page and found myself drawn into a subculture which was simultaneously endearing and troubling. Anecdotes about forcing cashiers at the Doncaster Morrisons to accept notes were interspersed with full blown Infowars discourse. Harrowing tales of old biddies who couldn’t pay their gas bills – as they didn’t have online banking – sat next to Photoshopped murals of the wef’s Klaus Schwab.
There appeared to be a kind of informal register taking place on these groups, a green list of businesses that take cash and a blacklist of ones that won’t. The examples clearly show the everyman nature of the movement: ‘Carnaby St Bar in Benidorm last night, most bars are cash only’, said one. ‘Went to the chippy yesterday… cash only. Word is spreading,’ said another. On the flipside you had declarations like: ‘The Real Greek restaurant is card only. They have just lost two customers.’
Much of the page is dedicated to people’s hyper-specific experiences on the matter – tales of self-service machine prejudice at individual branches of Matalan and thundering condemnations of petrol stations in Shepton Mallet. Businesses that make a point of preferring cash, or accepting cash only, are lauded with hundreds of emoji claps and flames. The ones that don’t are told they’ve lost customers (even if they live 300 miles away). On these pages, the most banal aspects of consumerism are held up like grave human rights abuses.
Clearly, the people congregating under this banner are not the same ragtag group of conspiracists, addled ravers and raging freedom zealots that the anti-covid crowd is largely made up of. Rather, I would suggest that there are two tiers of the Cash is King movement: one which is made up of Debbie Hicks, Piers Corbyn and their fevered acolytes, and another which is far more pedestrian – but perhaps far more powerful.
Many of the people in these groups appear to be small business owners themselves, and for them, cash certainly is king. You can also see the birth of something much bigger at play here; a wider fear of a dehumanised society, of financial intangibility and instability. It’s easy to sideline a movement that puts Piers Corbyn on a podium, but putting your faith in old currency is also a very natural reaction to the world we live in.
‘I think it’s this sense of powerlessness in late capitalism,’ says Simon Youel, Head of Policy and Advocacy at financial reform group Positive Money. ‘People feel like they’re being forced into certain ways of doing things; herded onto these banking platforms and having to rely on Big Tech companies for something as simple as paying someone. Involving all of these corporate data centres in other parts of the world justto settle a transaction with the person in front of you. It’s wanting to express your own sovereignty over the economy, combined with a deep suspicion of our financial system.’
The bank’s reasons for the push towards a cashless society are, of course, about making money, says Youel: ‘For the banks, it’s expensive. Whenever you take out cash from an atm, they have to pay the interchange fee. Banks also don’t like having cash on hand because it’s not interest-bearing, as opposed to bonds and what have you, which they get a return from. For customers, cash machines are a very cheap, if not free, payment system. Digital currency gives the banks more of a monopoly over payment systems and enables them to price-gouge. Which is why we’ve seen the likes of Visa and Mastercard trying to lobby for a cashless society. It’s all about profits.’
Chain-store checkouts aside, there is an interesting battle at play here between two different kinds of small business; one that is pushing for cash and coins and another that almost seems to pride themselves on not taking it. It’s the difference between kiosk and ‘coffee space’, market stall and microbrewery, a kind of financial culture war that pro-cash movements are no doubt seizing upon.
‘It’s the gentrification of payments,’ says Youel.
‘In my experience on the streets of London, cash-only shops are more working-class, or exist within immigrant communities. Whereas all of the places that are proudly cashless, they’re after a specific type of customer. Almost as if they don’t want people who use cash to be their customers – that they might not be the affluent clientele they’re after. I can understand why a lot of businesses starting out now might just run everything off a little card reader, but at the end of the day, it’s actually more expensive for them than cash.’
Part of me wonders if there is an element of performative altruism involved with that breed of cashless business; a lingering effect from the days of lockdown, when cash became a dirty, dangerous item associated with germs and organised crime, whereas running everything through an iPad came across as modern, safe and easy. I also think that might be what gets people’s goats up about card-only businesses, that they represent a new way of doing things, a Davos-led threat to casual British retail.
To many, digital currency represents a loss of freedom, an increase in surveillance and a powerlessness in their own finances. With Trussnomics nearly taking us to the brink, endless news about nuclear war and climate disaster abounding, then cash (or crypto, if you’re that way inclined) starts to look like a sturdy option.
Right now, there is a very real fear of some kind of societal or economic collapse, one which you certainly don’t have to be a doomsdayer to imagine. The very idea of digital currency comes with a sense of impermanence and unreality that’s easy to associate with debt, living outside your means and perhaps just disappearing altogether one day in the midst of some great economic crash or cyber hack. Many of the Facebook group posts seem to be predicated around the idea of something like this happening, a ‘What if?’ reflex. That all feels quite natural to me, even if cash is just as vulnerable to the world around it as any other legal tender.
But there is a far more compelling force, powerful beyond even suspicion and fear, that drives all this: nostalgia. Look through the Facebook groups and you’ll find plenty of memes and posts that veer into Memory Lane uk territory. Photos of smiling housewives handing over cash at the greengrocers, photos of pound notes and comments sections flooded with sentimental anecdotes about pocket money.
At this point, I can almost understand. Personally, I find the contactless lifestyle a troublingly bad habit, one which has certainly made me less connected to my finances and my reality. There is an ease to it all, a disconnect, which can bely all the work we’ve done to get to this point. When my mum told me that the 13-year-old boy who was feeding the cat when she was away had a pre-arranged day rate and his account details to hand, part of me wondered if we’d lost that informal, responsible economy forever. It’s hard to romanticise something as vicious and difficult as money, but that’s possibly where this deep, alienating capitalism has left us.
Perhaps most interestingly, what Cash is King has done is stumble on an accidental form of hard-left economics. On one Facebook post, someone suggested an idea that if everyone took all of their money out of the banks, they would collapse overnight. The post did great numbers and everyone cheered. Judging by the profiles of these people, they probably don’t realise that they’re essentially advocating for anarcho-communism, but there you go – this is Britain we’re talking about.