Ghoulish ATMs, It’s a Wonderful Bank, and Bloody Valentines: Personal Finance as Civic Communication

On April 5, 2010, President Obama issued a proclamation (PDF) declaring April “National Financial Literacy Month.” It was a call for collective agency and responsibility, positioning the “recent economic crisis” as the “result of both irresponsible actions on Wall Street, and everyday choices on Main Street.” He condemned the financial industry, but also noted, “We are each responsible for understanding basic concepts: how to balance a checkbook, save for a child’s education, steer clear of deceptive financial products and practices, plan for retirement, and avoid accumulating excessive debts.” Global economic disaster became a wake-up call for quotidian financial literacy.

About a month before, a headline from the parody newspaper the Onion declared, “U.S. Economy Grinds To Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.” It begins, “The U.S. economy ceased to function this week after unexpected existential remarks by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke shocked Americans into realizing that money is, in fact, just a meaningless and intangible social construct.” The revelation radiates out from Bernanke, and bewildered traders show up out of habit for the opening bell to blankly stare at “meaningless scrolling numbers on the flashing screens above.” President Obama is depicted alone with his coin collection, muttering, his mind “too blown” to hold a press conference. Would-be bank robbers laugh with security guards about the “absurdity of the idea of $100 bills.”

The Onion article and Obama’s declaration of National Finance Literacy Month are metonyms for money’s position in what Time called the “great recession.” Money is both central and illusory. There seems to be a growing sense that money is system of socially contingent shared meanings and practices– far from the totally rational method of exchange we have sometimes imagined it to be. However, this awareness alone bestows neither the knowledge to monitor banking reform legislation nor to climb out of credit card debt. However, it does put the meaning of money into play.

After the jump, I take a closer look at groups that have seized this opportunity to infuse even traditional uses for money with new significance, undermining the taken-for-granted authority of financial institutions and turning personal banking into a form of civic communication. Plus, since we’re beginning the holiday season, there’ll be some ideas for a slightly late Halloween, an early Christmas, or a rather early Valentine’s Day!

One campaign that uses personal financial literacy as a form of protest is Move Your Money, which encourages people to “limit the power of the big banks and create a more sane, stable financial system” by transferring their accounts from “Too Big To Fail” banks to local banks and credit unions. Although Move Your Money frames this as decision based in part on “values” and uses imagery from It’s a Wonderful Life (there’s your Christmas tie-in!) to remind people that banking can be a community-based activity, it also presents the decision to switch to smaller banks as a sound financial one as much as a sentimental or civic one.

Move Your Money video

Rather than just ask people to assume that credit unions are always better than big banks, Move Your Money links to resources like Institutional Risk Analytics, which rate the “soundness” of community banks. The website provides a checklist for smoothly transferring funds without overdrafting or hitting other snags in the transition and it gives targeted advice for institutions and small businesses. Its downloadable flyer provides charts and graphs to appeal to the rational-minded consumer. Move Your Money speaks the language of rational finance in order to demonstrate how big banks do little more than talk this talk.

A New Way Forward, “a public, grassroots campaign and structural reform thinking group,” takes a more emotianally provocative approach. A flyer for its Big Break-Up campaign shows a distraught cartoon blonde. Her eyes well up with Zip-A-Tone tears and adjacent text describes a sad tale, full of disappointment, betrayal, and exploitation, one all to familiar too many Americans. “It was time to break up…” she resolves, “with my big bank.”

Doing business with big banks is a “relationship that’s bad for you,” and punitive overdraft fees and predatory lending are a form of abuse. This implicitly compares the sense of shame experienced by those who have been impacted by these practices to the shame experience by a domestic violence survivor who feels that she somehow “deserves it.” It is particularly poignant in this context to be able tell Bank of America, “It’s not Me, it’s You.” What was once private pain becomes public protest.

The only way to “mend a broken heart” is to move on to a credit union who will treat us right. A New Way Forward encourages people to not just leave their big bank, but to send them a Dear John Valentine. The campaign converts Valentines’ Days, perhaps the most commercial of all “hallmark holidays,” from an annual ritual of spending to one that raises awareness about financial literacies.

Groups like A New Way Forward turn decisions about personal finance into a form of ethical spectacle. Stephen Duncombe, in his book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, pushes progressives to think of ways of “appropriating, co-opting, and most important, transforming the techniques of spectacular capitalism into tools for social change” (15), to learn to “manufacture dissent,” and embrace “a politics that understands desire and speaks to the irrational; a politics that employs symbols and associations; a politics that tells good stories” (9).

As part of an informal network that also includes Move Your Money and A New Way Forward, the Raging Grannies, group of proudly older women who have been staging playfully serious and ethically spectacular protests since at least 1987, initially handed out fliers to people withdrawing money from big banks, asking them to transfer their money. As the Move Your Money blog asked, “Who wouldn’t listen to their granny?” This subtly shifts and broadens the the appeal: Although Gramma may not be the world’s greatest financial advisor, it suggests, she certainly knows right from wrong.

Perhaps because sometimes the stories wise women tell are not supposed to be comforting, the Raging Grannies next began affixing animal masks to big bank ATMs so that it looked like anyone inserting their card were sticking it into the mouth of an angry, gnarly-toothed tiger or gorilla.

Granny ATM Tiger

Most likely inspired at least in part inspired by the Raging Grannies, A New Way Forward, also created creepy Nosferatu-style vampire masks with logos of 4 major banks. For Duncombe, in order to be ethical, spectacle must be participatory, in the sense that “hierarchies of creator and spectator, producer and consumer, leader and follower are broken down” (133-4). A New Way Forward remixes and promotes the work of the Raging Grannies and overtly facilitates further adaptation by providing full-size downloadable masks, flyers, and other materials.

A New Way Forward also links to Move Your Money’s financial advice. As Duncombe also point outs, ethical spectacle “must not only root itself in the real and also lead back to it” (157). Horror and heartbreak can undermine the authority of big banks, but this protest should be paired with an actual transfer of money, and this action certainly should not endanger the financial agency of those who participate. Move Your Money, Raging Grannies, and A New Way Forward build a new epistemological framework for what money is and what it can do, and their collective efforts are more effective than they would be on their own.

Other Directions
Protest through financial literacy and ethical spectacle is not the only way that money and economic exchange has be used in civic behavior. Some other groups establishing related but varied practices for money are:

-Community-based financial literacy organizations like Operation HOPE, which frames financial literacy as a civil rights issue.
LIONs, or Local Investment Opportunities Networks, which allow members to invest in intra-community loans. Because small-scale investment trading is not permitted under current SEC policies, LIONs circumvent regulation by acting as more of a facilitator than a bank
-Micro-funding platforms like Kickstarter, which raises money for creative projects through a unique “all-or-nothing” funding” structure
Neighborgoods, which helps people find and share everyday items and resources with their neighbors, building community through “collaborative consumption”