Of Tyrants and Trillions, Part II

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2015)

Having framed my Tyrant collection, together with Colonel Gaddafi, I rummaged around among the banknotes that I had brought home from my travels to various parts of the world, and realised that I had yet more tyrants to frame. Mostly, though not entirely, they were African. I also had an incipient hyperinflation collection, though in some cases the two categories overlapped.

For example banknotes from the Mobutu era in Zaire (now once more the Congo) belonged to both categories, tyrant and hyperinflation: in the end, I opted to include Mobutu in the tyrants. Lenin likewise, though he was one of the few tyrants who ever really understood the terribly destructive effects of inflation—which, however, he welcomed because economic cataclysm was the midwife of communist revolution. In 1919, while Lenin was still at the helm of Russian affairs, Keynes began in his essay on inflation:

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the Capitalist system was to debauch the currency… As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.

Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of Society than to debauch the currency… If prices are continually rising, every trader who has purchased for stock or owns property and plant inevitably makes profits. By directing hatred against this class, therefore, the… governments are carrying a step further the fatal process which the subtle mind of Lenin had consciously conceived.

And in vain do you try to persuade most people that hoarding in times of inflation is a symptom of inflation, not its cause. That is because we find it easier (and more gratifying) to blame the supposed villains who are close to hand.

A German friend of mine who lives in England told me that his grandfather had invested all his savings in mortgages and that when the great inflation came they were all redeemed in exchange for a piece of paper so valueless that robbers would throw whole stashes of them away in order to take the case in which they were being carried. You were robbed for your wallet, not for what it contained. I have a 1000 mark banknote of the period—rather handsome, with a prosperous fifteenth-century burgher of the Fugger type on it—heavily overprinted by One Milliard Marks (1,000,000,000). No doubt a folk memory of this is part of the reason the Germans are so attached to a currency that maintains its value, or loses it only slowly.

To avoid the anger that creditors expropriated in this way understandably felt in Germany, I believe the Brazilians, during one of their periods of hyperinflation, re-valued mortgages pari passu with inflation so that mortgagees could not take advantage of it in this way, to pay off debts contracted in good, or at least better, money with bad.

In framing my new tryant and hyperinflation collections, I had to decide on who was a tyrant and what constituted hyperinflation. There was no doubt that Macías Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, self-designated as El Único Milagro, the Only Miracle, was a tyrant; if a man who regarded the possession of printed matter as in itself suspicious of treason, reduced output of the principal export crop by 90 per cent despite (or was it because of?) near universal forced labour, and either killed or drove into exile a third of the population, was not a tyrant, who was? The green 100 Ekwele note, with its portrait of the Unique Miracle, printed in London by Thomas de la Rue and Company, is very handsome, however.

But what of Julius Nyerere, Mwalimu (Teacher), of Tanzania? Was he a tyrant? He didn’t much care for opposition, kept a large number of political prisoners, and ‘villagised’ 70 per cent of the population—that is to say, drove peasants into semi-collectivised villages—with predictable effects on agricultural production. And yet he did not have the stigmata of a full-blown African tyrant. Despite his adoption of Mao-type costume after a state visit to China, during which huge crowds turned out to greet him (until then, he had worn a collar and tie or safari suit like a normal chap), and which he assumed was a spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm for his person, he was not truly bizarre. He even had his good points, as I now see in retrospect: he was genuinely no tribalist, and as for corruption, he kept it within limits. I have a book by him inscribed to an old friend of his, a British fellow-traveller of his villageisation scheme, and he had very refined handwriting, that of an educated and cultivated man (he translated some of Shakespeare into Swahili). So in the end I decided he was not really bad enough to qualify as one of my tyrants.

As in most things in life, however, it was hard to be entirely consistent. I decided to include El Haj Omar (formerly Jean-Bernard) Bongo of Gabon among the tyrants, though he was not really the worst. But what le Grand Camarade (the Great Comrade) lacked in stature—he always wore platform shoes in public and no one in any photograph published in his country was allowed to appear taller than he, much as churches in Moslem countries are not allowed to be higher than mosques—he made up for in longevity as dictator.

About General Momoh of Sierra Leone I had few doubts. When I look at him I think of what the American ambassador to Paraguay, Mr Washburn, said of the second head of state of that country, Carlos Antonio López: he so loved his country that he owned half of it. Momoh, by contrast, looked as though he so loved his country that he had eaten half of it. He looks out at one with a kind of greasy, post-prandial satisfaction.

I decided to include Jean-Claude Duvalier among my new tyrants for two reasons: banknotes bearing his portrait appear to be rare, and I have a sentimental attachment to Haiti. Whether a man so weak, foolish and easily manipulated as he really deserved to be called a tyrant (when really he was a figurehead)—unlike his father, Papa Doc, who was undoubtedly a real tyrant—is perhaps doubtful.

Interestingly, two of the worst tyrants of the twentieth century, Hitler and Stalin, never appeared on banknotes of their own countries. What, if anything, this means I do not know.

There were definitional problems too with hyperinflation. When does ‘ordinary’ inflation (such as most mortgagees have benefited from, at least if they have not been foolish) become the hyper variety. (I suppose it is the same problem with children: when does their activity become hyper? When the patience of adults run out, I suppose.)

In the end, I decided on a crude measure: once a currency had a banknote of the 100,000 denomination, there must have been hyperinflation. By the standards of some banknotes produced, 100,000 may not seem very much, but appearances can be misleading. The case of Peru is instructive. In my hyperinflation collection, for example, is a banknote for a paltry-seeming 100,000 IntisInti had already replaced the old Sol, at a rate of one to a million, so that 100,000 Intis was 1,000,000,000,000 old Soles.

I was in Peru with a friend at the time of the hyperinflation. Not surprisingly, you couldn’t buy much with Intis: for anything worth more than a few trillion, you had to pay in dollars. For small purchases, however, it was best to pay in Intis. You conserved your dollars for big purchases, such a paperback book. Lining the main roads were money-changers, waving huge wads of paper currency to entice you to change.

My friend and I decided one afternoon to have a cup of tea. Has we enough Intis with us? We thought of changing some money at 90,000 Intis to the dollar, i.e. 90,000,000,000 Soles, but decided against: we probably had sufficient for now. On our way back about 20 minutes later, the dollar was at 110,000 Intis, or 110,000,000,000 Soles. It was two or three decades later before we became accustomed to figures such as these, and then it was for entire national debts rather than for the price of a cup of tea. As Paul Krugman would no doubt say, this shows that there is still plenty of scope for quantitative easing.

One of my favourite hyperinflation banknotes, aesthetically-speaking, is a Turkish one, for the comparatively modest figure of ten million Turkish Lira. From this splendid blue and red creation stares the face of Kemal Ataturk. I am an admirer of Ataturk’s, though now that we have reached a stage of complete enlightenment we cannot possibly agree with all his policies. Ataturk stares at us head on, in his western garb of stiff collar, cravat and black cutaway coat. I mean no disrespect to Ataturk (still, I believe, a crime in Turkey, Erdogan notwithstanding) when I say that on this banknote he looks like a stage hypnotist, with his penetrating gaze that seems to goes straight to your weak spot. When you come to think of it, this is perhaps the whole secret of leadership, that is to say penetration to your followers’ weak spots. Only then can you exploit them fully.

But the star of the hyperinflation collection, if I may so put it, is undoubtedly the Zimbabwean note for fifty trillion Zimbabwean dollars. I could have had the hundred trillion note, but I preferred the fifty for its cerulean colour—appropriate, considering that inflation in Zimbabwe had long since gone through the roof.

There was a reason why I preferred the blue note: I also possess a Zimbabwean $2 note dated 1986, when two such dollars would actually have bought you something. What is interesting (to me, at any rate) is that the design is almost exactly the same, $2 and $50,000,000,000,000. Indeed, the $2 of 1986 is the same design as that of 1975, when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia. The Rhodesian coat of arms was removed, but apart from that, the design was more or less kept constant.

This, I think, is illustrative or symbolic of, the deep ambivalence felt in the country towards its colonial past, in some ways hated but in other ways admired, with a desire also for emulation and to keep some things the same. The uniforms, the judicial robes, Mr Mugabe’s personal tailoring, are all indicative of the same thing; and it seems to me that if only we had taken Mr Mugabe to our hearts, or at least pretended to do so, to treat him not as an African potentate but as an English gentleman, much of Zimbabwe’s hardship could have been avoided. If only our leaders had had the Ataturk penetration to a weak spot, how much better things might have been. But I suppose such an accommodation of vanity would not have met with everyone’s approval.

The Governor of the Bank of Zimbabwe promises to pay the bearer on demand the sum of fifty trillion dollars: I admit that I cannot read those words without them bringing a smile to my face. It brings an absurd image to my mind, that of a teller of the Bank counting out fifty trillion dollars one by one. But of the course the paper on which the note is printed is now worth even more than fifty trillion times a single Zimbabwean dollar, something like a thousand trillion times, in fact. No matter how many times I read the words, they never fail to amuse me.

The Tyrant and the Hyperinflation collections are on my kitchen wall. I examine them closely while I wait for something to boil. They always tell me something new, like a great work of art.



Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Out Into the Beautiful World from New English Review Press.

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