What is Currency and Empire?

The Currency and Empire Sawyer Seminar is designed to study the relationship between monetary systems and imperial power, through deep interdisciplinary engagement. It is convened by Emma Park, Gustav Peebles, Paulo dos Santos, Aaron Jakes, and Sanjay Reddy. The project is funded by a Sawyer Seminar grant awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, hosted by the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, and is housed at The New School. Through this grant, faculty members and graduate students explore the relationship between monetary systems, the production and consolidation of racial difference, and imperial power.

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The Motivation

In this wide-ranging research collaboration, we are motivated by two complementary hypotheses that challenge popular understandings of money.

  • First, far from being a “technocratic” exercise defined by the pursuit of neutral and quantifiable objectives—as conventional economic theory often assumes—the design and management of monetary systems is a deeply social, political, and cultural enterprise; It is inexorably bound up with relations of power, not least among them the construction and reproduction of international inequalities, often inflected by racial differences.
  • Second, and relatedly, monetary systems are at the heart of both the constitution and the subversion of modern forms of national sovereignty. As such, monetary functioning and management have been integral to the constitution of “formal” and “informal” empires under capitalism, the distinctive forms of political subjugation and economic extraction they enforce, and the popular intellectual critiques—too often ignored and marginalized—to which they have given rise. Resistance to empires, and at the times of their collapse, has often featured contestation of monetary regimes.


Grappling with the multifaceted interrelationships between currency and empire requires lines of inquiry that transcend conventional disciplinary boundaries and that draw on an array of analytical and conceptual instruments. Perhaps for this reason, the rich terrain has been relatively neglected.

Inspired by scholarship that has destabilized imperial histories and the social categories that they attempted to institutionalize, the Sawyer Seminar encourages and engages new scholarship across disciplines (including anthropology, history, political economy, and social and political theory) working monetary systems past and present. It brings together work on, among other topics:

  • The managerial practices and discourses of hierarchical monetary systems
  • The archive of colonial and neo-colonial monetary institutions, including the vernacular reception and critique expressed by people who were deemed “non-experts”
  • The social conventions that underpin monetary systems
  • The history of economic thought about money and empire
  • Contemporary critical perspectives in monetary theory
  • Case studies examining specific national, regional, and global monetary systems

Crucial to all of these inquiries is a recognition that while we currently live in a world of nation-states and national currencies, the resulting multitude of national monies exist and circulate in an international arena marked by steep inequalities of wealth and power. In this sense, the Sawyer Seminar’s insistence on placing the study of money and the study of empire within a single analytical field is guided by a shared critique of the methodological nationalism that has too often shaped the contours of inquiry within both the humanities and the social sciences.

Although economics possesses many analytical resources pertinent to such a study, as a field it has infrequently engaged with the social, historical, and political contexts of money, market outcomes, and capitalism, for which the other disciplines have considerable resources. There is thus a rich potential, and indeed a necessity, for deep collaboration across the trenches of the disciplines, in order to make such an investigation possible and fruitful. Our aim is for the seminar to generate an integrated understanding of the centrality of monetary management in past colonial enterprises, and of the fundamental role it may play in enforcing postcolonial and neo-imperial hierarchical and exploitative relationships among individuals, peoples, communities, and countries, as well as their renegotiation over time.