New Money or No Money?


At the LETSlink London gathering on Sat 3rd January 2015, ROBIN UPTON posed the question “New Money or No Money?”: link to power-point slides.

Money limits the attention of its users. This is necessary in the globalised economy, since weighing up of all the consequences of our economic actions is unthinkable – we do not know even the names of those with whom we economically interact. Money encourages its users to temporarily suspend their ethics and behave purely selfishly:- to seek the best available goods at the lowest prices.

The selfishness which the money system engenders has implications well beyond the often remarked upon externalisation of costs. The phenomenon of price differentiation highlights the problem of reckoning in money terms. As an example, consider INTEL, who damaged some of their 486DX CPUs, destroying the maths co-processor, to produce a strictly less functional chip, the 486SX. By giving them two different products, so they could charge a premium price for the DX while the SX one was sold to a wider market. It economic terms, it was rational for them to damage their own property. This is still true of all ‘alternative’ currencies, none of which challenge the basic doctrine of selfish maximisation.

By limiting its users’ attention to what can be bought and sold, they ignore things that are beyond price, such as the health of the wider community of life, on which all human life ultimately depends. By granting people economic access to whatever they can pay for, it implicitly confers a moral right. Charities provide an outlet for people’s altruism, buy they end up degrading it to the extent that they use money, generally reflecting the self-interest endemic in business. In fact, the business ethos of ruthless competition has lead to what Chris Hedges refers to as a “hollowing out” of society; the facade of traditional societies and cultures remains, but a sociopathic money inspired selfishness eats it away from the inside out.

People have a natural tendency to be altruistic, to consider the impact of their decisions on those with whom they come into contact, but this is at odds with its explicit ethic that people are expected to behave as selfish maximisers, and even more fundamentally, with the money system’s zero-sum nature. Is it realistic to expect that a work-a-day world in which people are encouraged to be selfish can be devoid of an impact on how people treat family and friends?

Ever more areas of life are now being controlled by the market, which since “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, is structuring activity not for the common good, but according to the plans of the super rich.

Decentralised crypto currencies are inherently more democratic than national currencies since they have no central position of power which regulate them. However, Bitcoin (and the like) are zero sum, so they do little to challenge to scarcity mentality that pits all against all. Moreover, since Bitcoin is freely exchangable for dollars, it is hard to see it having a truly equalising effect upon society.

Altruistic Economics, by contrast, was designed not to imitate the current economic system. For one thing, it doesn’t have money – there is no abstract evaluation system which takes precedence over the real world. Wealth is not measured by accumulated points, but by strength of relationships. Users are as rich as others choose to make them, by declarations of sympathy.

For example, what if a friend calls you and asks you to call her back – not because she’s low on credit, but because it’s cheaper for you? If you are ready to give up your own profit to prevent someone else’s loss, you have sympathy for that person. Altruistic economics allows everyone to independently evaluate interactions, so it is non-zero sum. Interactions are not expressed in strict win-loss terms (as they are when using money, since one person can only get what another loses). This method of independent evaluation allows truer reflection of joint value creation, since it exerts no systemic pressure on people to misrepresent their feelings.

Users can record whatever they choose to about interactions – they are not limited to $,£,€ etc, but may prefer to supplement (or completely replace) such evaluations with records about the real world, such as trees planted, kilos of fruit harvested etc.

In the late middle ages in UK, capitalism gradually became as the primary means by which activities were structured. The importance of heredity began to wane in assigning social roles and the stability of feudalism was replaced by a system that was more fluid, and to many people more unsettling. In the same way, there are those who – awareness of the failings of the modern economic system notwithstanding – doubt that any new paradigm could or should replace globalised capitalism. Is there, though a fundamental obstacle to a grassroots movement replacing the existing social order – a movement that normalises altruism rather than selfishness?

More than ownership of dollars, gold or any kind of asset, concern of the people around us is a more promising structure. Doesn’t almost everyone, rich or poor, have a network of people who care about them. If not, wouldn’t they like to? Shouldn’t they pay attention to this as a matter of priority?

What if, for example, a cellphone app were developed to help connect givers with receivers. Since money normalises selfishness, a money-free method of interactions may be more effective at encouraging its users to take one another into account. Some fairly simple accounting could encourage people’s natural inclination, for example, by giving priority to the requests of people who have given a lot lately, allowing altruism to become a self-reinforcing norm.

Grassroots options are emerging along these lines, such as Streetbank and Streetlife, but individual websites inevitably face difficulties achieving critical mass – problems that would be lessened if an agreed data standard allowed users to share data between sites, an approach that would also tackle the issue of centralisation.

Initially, such a system would probably be beyond the ability of many within the current economic fold to comprehend, and might be expected to appeal only to those for whom the current economic system is demonstrably failing. The “precariat” are a global class who are denied access to stable living arrangements, or healthy food. Within this exploited underclass economic dissent is already manifest, and already people are thinking I need to get by, how many are thinking how can I make this a healthier world.

The pandemonium about the collapse of capitalism misses the fundamental point that unless we accept that debts can continue to grow for ever, there will be a mass default, and that we (presumably!) all wish human life should go on even when an economic discontinuity occurs. How better to prepare for this than with a renewed attention to human relationships? Taxes and interests payments could, in principle, go unpaid, but we must not become blind to the consequences of our actions in the real world.

The powers that be have been waging what Ivan Illich referred to as “a war on self-subsistence”, manipulating society to try to promote dependence on “the system”, but as circumstance begin to unmask how disposable people are to the system, they are seeking to make alternative arrangements. This is clearly easier in Bangladesh, where most people grow their own food and the country is covered in handpumps which access the ground water. It may seem impossible in a modern city, but we won’t know unless we try it. What is clear is that the current, fossil fuel based, system cannot continue for long. It is also clear that there is a huge amount of slack in the current system – which throws away about 50% of the world’s food, and shuttles millions of people to and from offices to work for the man at activities which in the real world, are useless or even worse.

A world without large hierarchical social structures may be hard to envisage, but then so is a world devoid of fossil fuel use, or how the current system could ever respect the earth’s natural limits unless it had a fundamental revision. Robin points to Illich’s prediction that “social power” is about to collapse. Gandhi’s idea of self sufficient villages offers a vision of independent ‘cells’ which might coalesce to create a new social body. Even in the midst of capitalism, many of us seek an alternative way of living, one that doesn’t divorce a hard-nosed “business mentality” from our social selves, one that would allow us to naturally cooperate with strangers just as we cooperate with friends. Modern technology allows us unprecedented options (such as a high tech, decentralised system of globalised goodwill). But more than any particular technology it is important to have a new vision of what humanity is. We should not see ourselves as a blight on the earth, in competition with one another and with the rest of life on earth, but with the potential to fulfill our special, unique roles, or expressing our love and giving gifts to those around us. The utility of new systems directly relates to their ability to facilitate healthier patterns of interaction. Our life patterns need to fit with our fundamental natures. • contact: robin-upton [ÀŤ]

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