Alternatives to Capitalism

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Money is central to capitalism and to our many sustainability crises. This book nuances this, by now, commonplace knowledge by arguing that it is not money per se but its architecture – its internal design and governance structures – that is at the root of our variegated civilisational challenges. Yet, history shows, money’s internal architecture can take many forms and, with them, be conducive to different social and economic dynamics. Building on this insight, monetary entrepreneurs – grassroots groups, municipalities and radical crypto-entrepreneurs – are reclaiming, reorganising and remaking money to advance a sustainable future.

Approaching money as a sociotechnical arrangement with infrastructural effects, the book examines past and present monetary initiatives to unfold their architecture and trace the connection between monetary design and the behaviour of the money so designed. It finds three principles along which money is designed and organised – the market, the state and the commons – each shaped by a distinct imaginary of money. It also finds that each organising principle incites particular individual relations towards the collective, resulting in different community dynamics. This has implications for markets’ role in the economy and the health of our democracies. The book concludes that in remaking money, monetary entrepreneurs are opening up new horizons to build new civilisational forms.

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Having understood money as an instrument to organise towards a different economy, many a monetary entrepreneur have a particular vision of what economy they want to bring forward. The chapter unfolds three complementary monies, all created to advance a more inclusive economy through the implementation of a universal basic income paid in the new money. The principle organising the three monetary arrangements differs though, alongside the nature of the actor designing and governing it. In Demos, the chapter finds a group of citizens remaking money along a commons organising principle. In Mumbuca, the chapter finds a local government remaking money along a state organising principle. In GoodDollar, the chapter finds a crypto-entrepreneur remaking money along a market principle. Comparison of the three complementary monies shows that money organises society to its own image. As money is made, it makes society. This has direct implications for the socioeconomic dynamics in the community, the role of markets and the quality of democracy.

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To cope with the scarcity of money experienced during economic crises, groups of citizens take back the power to create money. A widespread monetary design among these local monies is mutual credit systems, through which currency users also become currency issuers. In mutual credit systems, monetary tokens are produced through relations of give and take that involve a promise to give forward. By provoking a sense of solidarity towards a community of equals, the mechanics of mutual credit monies tightly embed markets – and the economy – in the social fabric of the community that creates them. And conversely, to work, mutual credit monies require continuous relational work by the community of currency users–issuers. The chapter unfolds two mutual credit currencies – Sardex in Sardinia, Italy, and Málaga Común in Spain – to observe how their mechanics shape community dynamics as well as how the community governs and shapes these monies.

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The science is clear: climate change and ongoing environmental collapse are driven by human activity, both manifestations of the tight relationship between how we organise society and the health of nature. This means that tackling our many environmental crises and restoring healthy ecosystems requires reorganising our economies. Attending such insight, some monetary entrepreneurs attempt to put the economy at the service of nature by articulating the environment into the very rules to make and govern money. The chapter dives into three complementary monies designed to infrastructure a healthier relationship between nature and society. Each following a distinct organising principle, Turuta, Vilawatt and Plastic Bank rearrange actors, imaginaries, interests and materials so as to make a difference on the individual motive of action – from pure gain to service nature – and thus on the capacity to organise collectively. In this doing, they are prefiguring new civilisational forms that respect and care for nature.

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Today’s discussion on money is as much driven by a frustration towards the financial system as it is by excitement about new technological developments. Among others, much hope is placed on blockchain technology and the cryptocurrencies that use it, for, these monetary entrepreneurs argue, it makes money truly apolitical. The chapter unfolds Bitcoin to unveil a monetary design that translates ‘monetary stability’ into monetary rigidity, rendering this money incapable of adapting to the needs of the economy and inciting currency owners to hold it forward, to speculate on its future value. In aggregate, the consequences of such individual behaviour are far from apolitical, just as the governance of the underlying algorithm by a small closed community of tech-experts is. Imagined, designed and governed as a commodity, this form of money has no built-in mechanism to foster its circulation through the real economy and work for the ‘small casual transactions’ Nakamoto intended bitcoin to support. This is unfortunate for, being the first cryptocurrency, it frames the imagination of many of the efforts in this monetary entrepreneurial space.

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The stories we tell about the origins of money express how we imagine and govern money. There are, as it were, two main origin stories and, alongside them, two main money imaginaries. The first sees in barter the precedent of money, imagines money as a thing with intrinsic value, and markets as made of independent individuals exchanging commodities – one of them being money. The second sees money as originating in debt–credit relations between a central authority and its subjects, imagines money as a claim on goods based on those debts, and markets as organised by the central authority for provisioning the polity. Money imaginaries are of practical relevance because the different locus of agency of the money imagined – intrinsic value versus central monetary authority – makes a difference to how government, banks and the public are made to relate in the monetary arrangement. As a result, the implications of monetary imaginaries on monetary design and governance have world-making effects.

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The broad argument in the book has been bidirectional: money makes society and society makes money. Approaching money as a sociotechnical arrangement elicits money as a relational human-made phenomenon. As such, money can be remade by rearranging its constitutive elements so as to project us into a sustainable future. A commons imaginary of money can guide us in this endeavour for it offers a vision of a money at the service of the community behind it, thus opening up for groups of citizens, cities and activists to define anew the rules of the money game. The sense of social obligation built into relational debt–credit monies acts as a perpetuum mobile mechanism that aligns individual interests to the interests of the collective, thus making those monies work for the commons. The chapter translates the somewhat abstract ideas of a commons imaginary and pendulum mobile into a set of practical guidances to design and build plural, specific, locally responsive monetary architectures that can help us advance in our efforts to build more ecological and inclusive futures.

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Money is neutral to the workings of the economy – or so mainstream economics tells us. Thinkers as far apart as Adam Smith and Karl Marx treat money as a mere intermediary in market exchange, with no effect on the form markets take or on wider social dynamics. If anything, money is a magnifier of the persons that we are. And yet, if one looks back in history, we see that the shape money takes in turn shapes our relationship to it. Whether money is made of silver coins or entries in a digital ledger matters to how it works. A money’s internal architecture – the particular arrangement of entities and agents constituting it, its underlying technology, and the imaginaries it builds on – shapes socioeconomic relations, thus infrastructuring the economy. There is possibility in this insight. For, as a sociotechnical arrangement, money can be remade to advance more sustainable civilisational forms.

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To start delineating the contours of monies able to align the interests of those creating it to the interests of people and planet we need a different understanding of money. On the island of Yap, we find an imaginary of money as a commons, a resource system we not only depend on, but in whose existence, form and functioning we are deeply implicated. A money commons imaginary emphasises money as personal credit or acknowledgement of debt, only, this time, the debt is not towards a central institution but towards one’s community of equals. It thus expands the lay-person’s economic agency from today’s limited possibilities of borrowing, consuming, saving and paying back to participating in assembling and managing the monetary infrastructure. Imagining money as commons opens up an alternative to both market and state – or central authority – as organising principles to make and govern money, enabling us to broaden our sense of collective possibility and enabling monies that reflect the plurality of communities and forms of life.

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How do we make money work for society? How to align the individual interests of money users to the collective interests of the community? Commonplace answers to that question refer to the value of money, pointing to where value is thought to reside, what value is thought to be, or the quality of that value. Looking for value, such answers blind us to the mechanism that makes money work for the many. The interlude follows therefore a different strategy. It looks into the various monies unfolded in previous chapters to identify the mechanism that impels people to relate to each other, to accept and spend in recurring give-and-take interactions that keep money-tokens continuously moving through interactional circuits. The interlude finds three interactional patterns each sustained by a distinct organising principle and shaped by a particular money imaginary. It then contemplates how the social obligation built into relational money imaginaries constitutes a perpetuum mobile that keeps money circulating. In contrast, the individual and one-off nature of the obligation built in commodity monies deprives them of any perpetuum mobile that could make money work for the collective.

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