MoneyLab: Is money the issue?

The meeting of minds in viva is over. Posters removed, photos posted on Flickr, speakers returned home on multimodal transport. But MoneyLab the project has just begun.

The two-day conference was not the cumulation of years of research, but the launch of a new endeavour to network diverse minds to consider "digital experiments with revenue models, payment systems and currencies against the backdrop of ongoing global economic decline."

Where will it go to from here? What did we achieve that we can build upon, and what needs to be brought into the fold that was forgotten?

What happened at the conference?

The short answer to this question is "a lot." When you bring together researchers, programmers, activists, artists, practitioners, and economists with a vast array of experience and political perspectives, it is virtually impossible to draw a common thread between speakers' presentations.

In fact, Max Haiven's presentation began with the comment that the conference was "confusing." To many, including Max, this is a good thing. His invocation of Marx probably summarizes it better than anything. Max told us how Marx saw the Paris commune as ultimately successful because it disrupted normative thinking and made them see that there are alternative ways of doing things.

In my mind, this was precisely what the MoneyLab conference achieved. The speakers demonstrated that there are many ways that we can think about creating alternatives to the problems that globalized finance generates today: debt, foreclosures, viral crises, and inequality, to name a few. States, markets, and individuals all featured in the alternatives suggested by the speakers.

When we think about alternative currencies, the first initiatives that normally spring to mind are anarchistic projects that favour bypassing the state altogether. The common feature of these projects is that they challenge the idea that all money has to be fiat money. Instead, as Bitcoin and PunkMoney show, people can create new currencies themselves.

This is nothing new: shell money and IOUs have been among the currencies that have existed for thousands of years, long before nation states and central banks appeared. Today, enabled by the Internet, people are again developing new ways to exchange with one another, this time beyond the borders of states and their regulations.

Some approaches continue to be state-centric. On the first panel, Bill Maurer’s talk emphasized the historical importance of federal government and banking in creating security and convenience for consumers in the United States.

Others reinforced the continuing importance of states in regulating money for the benefit of society. Even the Heidenreich brothers, who proposed an idea to abolish money, retained a place for the state in their plans, emphasizing the role of sovereign nations in protecting their own markets.

In fact, the state may retain more power and influence than we give it credit for. Brian Holmes he argues that we are living under "creditism" rather than capitalism, given that financial institutions are being propped up by state bailouts. Is this, he asks, a kind of communism for corporations?

What was missing from discussions?

Realistically speaking, all alternatives, regardless of their focus, will depend upon the forging of agreements between states, markets, and people. Even the most anarchistic of alternatives exist in an environment where regulation and business models shape our relationships with finance. Yet this point was acknowledged only implicitly during the conference.

Donald Robotham, in his book "Culture, Society, Economy: Globalization and its Alternatives," has argued that the efforts of the political left to achieve socioeconomic change generally fail because they do not have a plan for what they would actually do if they achieved power.

I would argue that this doesn't just apply to the left of the political spectrum: anyone who wants to achieve any kind of change should think carefully about how their model fits in with existing political and economic structures.

It is one thing to make people aware that alternatives are possible and "disrupt" the system: it is another to actually achieve a goal that has a lasting and positive effect. Projects that are poorly planned may be fun and exciting, but at best their disruptive effects will be limited as they are subsumed into the very system they are trying to oppose. At worst, having been ill thought through, they will actually cause harm.

To borrow a phrase from the anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, this discussion needs to be "historically deep and geographically broad." Our debate about alternatives could benefit greatly from examining how different cultures around the world, in different time periods, have organized themselves financially. Eli Gothill, citing David Graeber's book "Debt: The First 5,000 Years," touched on the historical development of money in his mention of the IOUs used by Islamic traders thousands of years ago. Other historical milestones, such as the rise and fall of the gold standard, were also mentioned.

These histories of money are probably quite familiar to most of us. But what about other, non-monetary ways of making financial transactions and creating value?

One example that comes to mind is the billions of people around the world who invest in property, such as livestock or houses, without resorting to banks and debt. These investments aren't static savings accounts: they grow. Cattle give birth; people add rooms to their homes. In contrast to finance with a capital "F" that literally makes money out of nothing, this is a finance that is embedded in tangible capital. It is still the primary means by which most people around the world engage with finance.

Of course, there are also many people around the world who are trapped in piles of debt. After the conference, Ken Kostyo of Student Jubilee made a comment to me that caused me to stop in my tracks. He said, "The problem isn't money, it's interest."

It’s not money per se that places people on risky paths and in the power of others. It's not even the accumulation of debt (and money is a kind of debt) that is the problem. Rather, it's the obligation to pay interest on debt that is the real social ill. This is why usury has been outlawed by all the world's major religions at some point or other in human history.

Moving forward

The global financial system in which we all exist today may exhibit some new, strange features, but none of the issues we face today are actually novel. Looking to the past to identify the anxieties and inequalities that finance has generated, and the solutions that human societies have invented to deal with them, can assist us in assessing our world today.

This should not be an exercise in generating a homogeneous viewpoint or seeking consensus. If there is one thing that anthropology in particular (and the likes of Graeber) have demonstrated, it's that human societies are extremely plastic and capable of organizing ourselves in a vast range of ways.

Global corporate finance is often represented as a homogenizing force, but the current proliferation of financial tools and money forms, as well as the continued role of the state, suggest that this is an illusion. We continue to co-creating a multiplicity of financial tools and practices that is as least as diverse as any other period of the anthropocene. Digital experiments are part of a financial ecology that includes non-digital financial diversity and mainstream practices.