What is it about The Wizard of Oz that makes it so popular now? There was the new production at the Festival Hall last year. Now there is the success of Wicked. Well, I have a suggestion. It is to do with economic collapse.
The idea that Frank Baum actually wove his tale around the monetary battles of the 1890s only emerged in 1963, but I’m sure it is right.
Although Oz stands easily on its own as a tale, it was also a subtle tract urging more money in circulation on behalf of the agricultural workers (the Scarecrow) and the industrial workers (the Tin Man).
Baum was involved in the battle between the supporters of gold standard money – authoritative and scarce – and silver money (much more plentiful). So Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road wearing the Witch of the East’s magic Silver Shoes (they were red in the Judy Garland film) – shoes that neither she, nor the Witch of the North, nor the Munchkins understand the power of.
The poor deluded residents of Oz are required to wear green-tinted glasses fastened by gold buckles. They see the world through the colour of money. Oz, of course, was the well-known measure of gold – the abbreviation for ounces – and the Wonderful Wizard, the personification of the gold standard, was finally revealed as a fraud.
This is how Baum saw the wizard-bankers who defended the gold standard: “Toto jumped away … in alarm and tipped over the screen that stood in a corner. As it fell with a crash they looked that way, and the next moment all of them were filled with wonder. For they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.”
All of which is a way of saying that The Wizard of Oz is about economic collapse. The 1939 film certainly implies that, but the original tale is also about the pomposity and delusions of bankers.
The Populist movement that inspired Baum has all gone now, but actually these issues remain with us, seeking shape. We still regard money as one, indivisible, totemic, semi-divine, golden truth, issued from on high by an infallible Federal Reserve or Bank of England, and handed down to a grateful populace. Actually it is many things, and as adaptable to human ingenuity as it ever was. We still walk around, like the people in the Emerald City, wearing tinted glasses which can only recognise what Wall Street or the City of London says is important.
We still suffer from the way that these eyeglasses twist how we see the world, causing so much of what we value to disappear because it has no monetary worth: families, communities, forests, rivers. We still see the monoculture imposed by our money system driving out other cultures, species, languages, opinions, and forms of wealth. We find that financial services are so profitable that almost every other economic activity – and especially Aunt Em’s farming – is threatened. The big banks are now twice as profitable as they were even ten years ago. The rare occasions when they are not, we all of us find ourselves bailing them out.
In the UK, there is a particular problem of a serious shortage of banks after generations of consolidation and centralisation. Our businesses are now in a far weaker position than American or German competitors, and potential competitors, because we have no equivalent lending infrastructure. There are only 170 branches per million people in the UK, compared to 520 in Germany and 960 in France.
Meanwhile, the great corporations are striving to become banks themselves. They are shedding the real work until they are shells that just do financial services. Money, at least as we conceive it, is driving out life. We feel the hurricane of $3 trillion a day blowing through the world, but we have to remember it isn’t what it seems. It reeks of decay.
Could anyone write a parable along the lines of Baum, to put the same points as he did? Well, that was what was suggested to me some years ago, and I made an attempt. It is an updated Oz, still a mythic story in its own right, about also about money – a Wizard of Oz for the age of derivatives trading and Goldman Sachs.
It is on sale now, published through The Real Press. It includes a short essay about the meaning of the original Oz, my speech at the launch of the Brixton Pound last year, and some wonderful illustrations by Karin Dahlbacka, which are worth all the rest put together.