January 25, 2021
An extremely brief look at alternative histories of money and the emergence of a new story.
‘Money makes the world go round’, ‘time is money,’ ‘money is the root of all evil,’ ‘money is freedom,’ ‘the best things in life are free.’
People’s relationship to money spans the range of human emotions and relationships: complicated, heartbreaking, uplifting, stressful. There is no way to overstate the role that money plays in our life. To be born is to enter into a world where we are participants in the global economy. We do not have a choice (of course there are a few interesting exceptions of people who opt out — Sadhu’s in the Himalayas, Jain nuns walking the roads of India, punks living in squats in Berlin, but they are the extreme minority in a globalised, commercialised economy).
The dominant story of money is one where competition for scarce resources is at the heart of social and economic life.
Many of us (particularly in the West) live in a hyper-monetised system where most things can be paid for as a service. If we’ve got cash, we’ve got independence — so much so that we barely rely on each other or our communities anymore.
Many thinkers and writers have grappled with the modern individualistic mindset of confusing accumulation of money with wealth. As Alan Watts said — “Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself.”
Freedom from monetary scarcity is the goal of many of us: to participate in life we accept a Faustian pact to exchange our productive capacity and up to sixty percent of our waking hours for a paycheck.
Our relationship to money remains a deeply personal thing — in France, it’s more taboo to talk about money than it is to talk about sex, according to sociologist Janine Mossuz-Lavau.
In many cultures we do not have a tendency to have open and honest conversations about money with friends, family or acquaintances in the same way that we might do about politics or sport. In fact, let’s rephrase that: at the personal and community level we almost never talk about money.
Not talking about it could add to a sense of what Eisenstein calls an “omnipresent anxiety, borne of the scarcity of the money, which we depend on for life — witness the phrase “the cost of living.”
Money is talked about a lot though: at the macro level it is translated into monetary and fiscal policy.
At the societal level, its power is unparalleled — and we are reminded of it everywhere. Money is inherently and closely connected to our socialisation: our gender, class, geography, ethnicity, religion all impact our relationship with money.
Economic and social anthropologists Charles Eisenstein and David Graeber have popularised an alternative history of the story of money.
Eisenstein and Graeber make the case that mainstream economics has a false assumption of scarcity — based on the so-called truth that it is natural for people to maximise their rational self interest. This is true only because it is the dominant narrative, one that has been told and retold by classical economics and other social theorists and reinforced by the money system and by our perceptions.
According to Eisenstein — “Money depersonalises a relationship, turning two people into mere ‘parties to an exchange’ driven by the so-called universal goal of maximising self interest.”
We have moved into a realm where no longer really need for our neighbours for anything (when was the last time you went around for a cup of sugar or asked a neighbour to mind your kids?), the thought of being indebted makes us insist on paying our way for every last thing. Consider the person at dinner who insists on splitting the bill down to the cent. Thirty years ago it would have been entirely normal for one person to get the entire bill and be safe in the knowledge that someone else would get it the next time. Now the narrative has changed and splitting or divvying up by item is the norm.
The narrative of money has changed over our life times and it will change again. If we move away from the narrative where more for me means less for you, this would have serious implications for how we live our lives.
Charles Eisenstein — one of the leaders in the charge for changing the narrative on money — argues that changing attitudes is not enough — we must do something real.
In practise, all around the world we are seeing initiatives experiment with different approaches to distributing resources and money.
Cryptocurrency fervour is reaching unprecedented heights. There are currently 1101 cryptocurrencies being traded, with new initial coin offerings (ICOs) every week. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2027, 10% of global GDP will be stored on blockchain technology.
Participatory budgeting is a process becoming used more commonly by local and central governments to get input from people on where to spend government budgets.
Crowdfunding is a phenomenon that has surged in popularity in the last ten years with a multitude of platforms helping people bring projects to life.
Collective finance is a new arena where individuals form a group or network (often business oriented) and collectively spend resources. A web services company based in London — Outlandish — enables its members to collectively spend surplus revenue (after core costs and salaries are paid) on initiatives and projects they want to see succeed.
Cobudget is a software tool that enables groups to spend money collaboratively and transparently. Recently they used resources held in their Cobudget to pay themselves to build School Cuts a platform to show the effect of fiscal cuts on schools in the UK.
Enspiral is a global network of social entrepreneurs who use Cobudget to resource projects and community needs.
Open Collective is financial infrastructure for open source projects — community members can chip in to help fund projects and see where the money goes.
Taking money from the personal to the community level is not new, but it is far from commonplace.
The topic of money and resource allocation does not have to be limited solely to the sphere of finance. We can talk about it and take action in our communities and organisations — this is where Greaterthan seeks to deliver impact and tools and services for the new era of finance — we think it’s collaborative.
Enabling members of groups, organisations and communities to have a say on where resources go, is one way of enabling people to experience the inklings of what it may be like to live in a society of abundance.
The notion of moving from the individual to the community in the realm of finance is a big step for many. However, humans and the history of money are not necessarily locked into the dance of scarcity and competition.
Groups striding into collective finance are showing us that by putting money in the middle, distributing decision making power over its use, and resourcing impactful projects we can challenge the story that a rational actor will always maximise her own individual happiness or utility.
We will seek to tell some of their stories here.
Sadhu. Photo by Animesh Bhattarai on Unsplash
by Manel Heredero
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