Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Double Coincidence of Pillages

Aeon has published a great article by Brett Scott (@suitpossum), one-time finance mole and author of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance, which gives an introductory overview to alternative currencies, with special attention to Bitcoin and the Brixton Pound, and with an anthropologist's terrible, unstoppable cunning.

Three things really stick out for me. (a) The first is Scott's metaphor of financial instruments as high level code, and money itself as machine code. A bit more on that in a minute. (b) The second is his suggestion that the problem with general purpose money is that it is too efficient!
"[...] Part of the essence of the Brixton Pound is its deliberate inconvenience. We’re used to thinking that absence of friction must be a virtue in any transaction, but a local economy thrives on inconvenience. Chance encounters in the street market help to bind a community together and give it richness of character. We lose all that when we opt for the robotic mediocrity of the automatic till and debit-card reader. It’s a fine balance, of course, and the Brixton Pound recently added a pay-by-text system that combines the ease of electronic payment with the richness of local exchange. I still have to hand-deliver the books I sell that way — knocking on the door of a guy called Rico who writes a food blog, having a chat, getting to know someone I didn’t know before. The inconvenience is where the connection comes in [...]" (See note 4).
Of course we may be dealing with more than a "fine balance." We may be dealing with a sort of contradiction: forms of friction which are socially desirable overall could be unsustainably irritating at the level of the individual. Over on Brixton Pound's site, even Scott himself wistfully appspirates (appspirate, v.: The feeling of wishing there were an app for something), "I’d love a swish new mobile phone app to further streamline the pay-by-text system and that could alert me to shops that accept B£."

(c) The third thing which sticks out is the optimism. I'm optimistic too! But many people's main contact with alternative currencies -- loyalty card reward points, company scrip -- is anything but liberating. The right friction may be okay, but too much friction sloughs your skin right off.

Besides, at its origins standardised currency is already entangled with special purpose money. (See note 1).

At the Brixton Pound site again, Scott explains that there are "two sides to starting an alternative currency. Firstly, you need vendors who will accept it. Secondly, you need people who will use it to buy things. Ideally, over time, you want those two to form a close-ended loop".

One important kind of close-ended loop is between farmers and soldiers. Imagine that you live on a farm, exchanging with your neighbours via gift, favour and IOU. One day the news comes that you, or your male relative, must pay tax in official currency. But only the king's soldiers are salaried in official currency. So suddenly there is a pressing need for you to find something the soldiers want. (See note 2).

Or, of course, you could find something wanted by someone who has something the soldiers want . . . that is how an army and a mint (a rudimentary state, we might call it) can summon a market economy into the world. In a way, it's a bit like the Panoptican effect: instead of raping and pillaging every day, they only need to violently persecute a few tax dodgers about once a year. Perhaps this marvelous invention also solves the "double coincidence of pillages" problem, in which your family and farmstead get massacred and razed by latecomers who suspect you're holding out on them.

So just to be clear: I think Brixton Pound is a goodie. Soon as Kickbackstarter approve my "McDuck money bin skyscraper" project, I'm going to stack some Brix of my own. I just don't think alternative currencies are necessarily or categorically good, and I'm not sure I yet know what their risks and setbacks actually look like. Obviously if Tesco or News Corp found an alternative currency, we ought to be suspicious, but even then how do we formalise our suspicions into analysis and critique?


Now I'm once more on shaky ice. The three things I've mentioned -- money as code; money as friction; and the entanglement of alternative and standardised currency, the porousness of both to power and violence -- are certainly related. Perhaps together they can start to respond to that question.

I sometimes wonder if the world's net debt/credit situation could in principle be expressed without using numbers. After all, we frequently translate our finances into various qualitative formats: into narratives, desires, fears, complaints, counterfactuals ("if only we could afford..."), conditionals ("when I can afford..."), hypothecations ("baby, my salary covers the mortgage, yours covers the bills and groceries") and so on. I also know people who talk in a gripey, "First World Problem"-kind-of-way about incoming money as "already spent." The apotheosis of "already spent" money, and of a "close-ended loop," is in the "wages" "paid" to bonded laborers, where the arithmetic has become all but irrelevant: it is more a matter of order of magnitude of debt and repayments.

How precise and wide-ranging could such qualitative redescription of money become? Just as a thought experiment (or a sort of focus imaginarius): could money's whole influence within human life at a particular moment in history be expressed as magnificent library of interlaced legalistic contracts?

I suspect any attempt, as it progressed from quarter-serious to half-serious, would find that its qualitative redescriptions resembled legal contracts less and less, as they more and more resembled computer programs. Perhaps there'd be a lot of complicated if-then-else nesting. "If I do not grow enough surplus crops to sell to the soldiers" . . . well, human behaviour is complex, and the numbers, perhaps, would creep back in eventually -- but might be better-behaved, having spent some time in the doghouse.

I'm not a computer scientist (unless you count Klik & Play) or an anthropologist (unless I'm not telling), so maybe I'm fetishizing the intellectual resources of these disciplines a bit. What I'm groping for are ways of demystifying the "generality" of general purpose money. That is, models and heuristics which would let us trace, with unprecedented specificity, standardised currency's own special purposes, affinities, dispositions, limitations, etc. (See note 3). Such techniques would have to stand against (i) the dogmatic assertion that any unit of currency must count as a medium of exchange for all the goods and services denominated in the same currency -- even for those on which in practice (that is, when social, cultural, psychological and other factors are taken into account) it is unlikely to be spent -- and also (ii) against the dogmatic counter-assertion that all money is always already spent: that social relations among people are more intelligible when the illusion of money is stripped out of them, along with whatever mechanisms sustain that illusion.

Likewise, friction isn't just an inconvenience over which communities can bond emotionally. Scott also quickly starts talking about serendipity and networking opportunities, for instance. "Friction" is really just a starting point for thinking about all the social, cultural, psychological, geographic and other dimensions of the circulation of value.

Note 1: I am using "standardised currency" and "general purpose money" interchangeably; and "alternative currency" and "special purpose money" interchangeably. But I'm also trying to blur some boundaries between what's standard and what's alternative, between what's general purpose and special purpose, in the hope of eventually coming up with more robust and exacting categories.

Note 2: The IOUs of course could be denominated in whatever -- crops, animals, textiles, a hard currency no longer in circulation. Almost anything will do as a unit of account. And if the scenario is all a bit simplified and abstract, well: anthropologists complain that economists still trot out the thoroughly discredited myth that "money emerged to solve the double coincidence of wants problem inherent to barter economies"; economists retort that it's not a myth, it's more a sort of pedagogical parable, and so the anthropologists better provide a counter-parable or STFU; so maybe there's your counter-parable.

Note 3: Compare Scott again:
"[...] I don’t suggest that we start suspiciously eyeing the change handed back to us in shops. Coins are designed to be symbolic and abstract, and perhaps that’s required. What we need though, is the right kind of doublethink, a carefully managed form of cognitive dissonance that allows us to see the centuries of real technological change that lie behind them, the oil and dirt and oceanic dragnets, the limestone blast furnaces and neon lighting systems and chemicals synthesised from fossilised trees. Perhaps we can tinker with the word ‘money’ itself. It’s a mass noun, like you’d use for some kind of tangible substance, and it makes money sound like a ‘thing-in-itself’. As a kind of mental discipline, I prefer to use a different word: COGAS. It stands for ‘claims on goods and services’, which is all money really is. And now I have a word that describes itself, as opposed to one that actively hides its own reality. It sounds trivial, but the linguistic process works a subtle psychological loop, referring money to the world outside itself. It’s a simple way to start peeling back the façade. 
"To go deeper, we need to start actually experimenting with alternatives. Money, we know, is a technology, and it can be designed for different purposes — always for exchange, of course, but with auxiliary characteristics. To uncover and experience these characteristics, I actively play around with as many esoteric currencies as possible [...]"
Note 4: Smofs of the Jürgen Habermas fandom will rapidly spot a certain coin lying glinting on its flip side. Rather than thinking about how money (a steering medium which allows people to co-ordinate their actions without necessarily understanding each other's motives) may actually be rooted in a shared lifeworld (a sphere in which communicative rationality has priority, in which action is oriented towards mutual understanding, and in which conflicting norms lead to deliberative resolutions), Scott is interested here in how aspects of a lifeworld may emerge from a particular form of money. Steering media embedded in lifeworld and lifeworld embedded in steering media . . .

Note 5: Compare the poet Sean Bonney in "Letter Against Ritual":
"[...] How he couldn't tell the difference between his prison cell and the entire cluster of universes. How the stars were nothing but apocalypse routines, the constellations negative barricades. I was thinking about the work-ethic, how it's evoked obsessively, like an enemy ritual, some kind of barbaric, aristocratic superstition. About zero-hours contracts, anti-magnetic nebulae sucking the working day inside out. Negative-hours. Gruel shovelled into all the spinning pits of past and future centuries, spellbound in absolute gravity, an invisibility blocking every pavement I was walking down. I wanted to cry. In fact I think I did. Actually, no. I was laughing my head off. A grotesque, medieval cackle. No despair, just defiance and contempt. Ancient disturbances. Ghost towns and marching bands. Invisible factories. Nostalgia crackling into pain and pure noise. No sleep. No dreams. An endless, undifferentiated regime of ersatz work [...]"

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