Call a spade a spade: on exploitation, coercion, and violence

Some of the work I do deals with community or complementary currencies. These days many people are offering different currency models in an effort to address failures* in the currencies, like the dollar, we are accustomed to using. The other day a colleague also with interest in different currencies asked me if I’d seen this new one called Monetas and what my thoughts were.

They aren’t good, and not just for the immediately obvious reasons.

As soon as I looked at the front page I knew I was dealing with goldbugs by any other name. The color scheme alone signals that. For anyone unfamiliar with the many critiques of gold as currency, I’m not going to cover it much right now. Suffice to say, though, that gold is the currency of exploitation and conflict. A gold-based currency (or any other material dug from the ground) is a rejection of the world. It rejects people and labor. It rejects decay, rust, rot, and death in order to make a highly privileged class of people the defacto rulers in perpetuity. This is no hyperbole. Take a look at Graeber. Take a look at how advocates of gold frame the issue.** It’s raw individualism writ large. And remember: inflation is bad for the hoarders and misers because it erodes their leverage over the rest of us.

I could go on, but maybe some other time.

Monetas claims to be virtual gold. That’s their initial pitch, in yellow and white. Libertarians everywhere rejoice. Moving through the site in the more-or-less intended order, we start to find more explicit statements of what they claim to offer. First, a phone application for transactions as they attempt to access, by their own statement, the “unbanked” poor across the globe. The potential to extract wealth from the very poor has been understood for a while. It’s a basic principle of long-tail economics. It’s what fuels micro-finance regimes.*** This is simply an attempt to mine the poor.

Never mind that poverty as we understand it is substantially a creation of capital relations. But that will also need to be a future post.

They also claim that no bank account is required to use their technology. That’s part of how they intend to access the so-called unbanked. If users don’t need a bank, then where do we stockpile whatever assets we’re meant to exchange? Presumably, “bank” here means one of those things with pesky regulations which keep them from completely fleecing their depositors. Not “bank” as in piggy bank or river bank or anything else that collects and directs a resource. Thus, I presume assets are stored in their accounting framework. You know, that one free of any consumer protections or regulations.

Their product overview ends with the assertion:

Our products will enable people to do business easier, faster, cheaper, safer, and with greater freedom than ever before.

We’ll encounter the freedom language again in a moment, but freedom here means the ability to “do business.” Economic relations underscore everything, apparently. This is the world of capital where one’s value is based on new worth. What else could there possibly be? This is the main question I’m dealing with in my research, but suffice to say: everything. More on this in some future moment.

Moving on to their system’s features, we find a fairly banal list of appealing keywords: Open-source! Decentralized! Peer-to-peer! Global! Fast! Cheap!

And my favorites: Sophisticated! and Automated!, complete with algorithms (aka math and processes shoved into a black box) to make the magic. Because nothing ever goes wrong when we automate everything with algorithms.

I digress.

On the one hand, there’s nothing too noxious here, although any instance of buzzword bingo makes my warning flags pop up. On the other hand, these terms constitute a particular framing of an ideal world: one focused around market exchanges and making sure that new actors, unencumbered by social or local obligations, are able to become the new power brokers of the 21st century. Because while I’m all in favor of decentralization, let’s not forget that decentralization wrapped in the blanket of all-people-and-places-are-equal[-ly exploitable] is actually an effort to entrench new centers.

So that’s the product. The solutions they offer basically constitute a list of every possible financial scheme. Community currencies? Check. Crowd-funding? Check. Micropayments? Check. “Jurisdictionless” financial markets? Check and check. Keep in mind, all this is supposed to be an instant and global transactional system, which means these so-called community, virtual, or digital currencies will need to be closely entailed. I would have thought we’d learned to avoid these One Ring types of systems, but I guess not. And while they claim that with their system:

a new ecosystem will arise with a highly robust, resilient infrastructure of products and services that are decentralized, peer-to-peer, and beyond the control of any person or entity. This will deeply transform the world and create undreamt-of freedom and prosperity…

One Ring is anything but resilient.

This is all interesting enough, and there are the other obvious promises to potential investors that this idea is “is very profitable” while fulfilling their vision of “a free and prosperous world of thriving individuals and communities.” But then we look at who is behind these bold promises and what else they’ve been up to.

Now, I have no idea who Johann Gevers is. I’d never heard of him until the other day. I’m sure he’s a great chap to have a beer with. All I know is what he tells the world through the projects he’s been involved with. The top such project on his list is a little something by the name of Future Cities Development. Now, it might be worth noting that one of the things that got me interested in geography as a discipline was my developing critique of urban planning as an authoritarian venture. You know, a small group of people with a lot of wealth and other influence deciding what type of world the rest of us unwashed masses are going to live in. Development and planning conversations interest me a lot. Gevers says he basically revved up the company over three months, got a bunch of investment and developed a strategy, and then probably left for new, exciting ventures. He describes FCD as something that makes a company startup out of a country.

Huh. That sounds a bit suspicious, but I may have been involved in some anti-corporatism, pro-democracy activism in times past. What do I know? We’ll look at this more in a moment, but first let’s take a look at the next thing on the list.

Next of the greatest hits is something called The Institute for Freedom, tagline: “for a free, just, and prosperous society.” That sounds nice enough. It seems to be a think tank of sorts, or one he’d like to rev up. I understand how these things go. We get ideas, kick them around, write up some text, and see what sticks. It does look like the TIF is legitimately interested in forming a more just and peaceful world. Of course, being a libertarian thing, “economic freedom” — the freedom to to exploit, to coerce through commerce, to parasitize humanity in pursuit of financial leverage — is focal.

A sister site, The Freedom Universal, lays out more of the framework: individuals are sovereign unless one is in debt to has injured another; everyone is equally punishable by the law (aka. every debtor must pay back whatever is owed, regardless of situation or context); private property is foundational (never mind that Burke, to whom such ideas are generally attributed, was no believer in democracy); government’s role is to protect property (presumably with the threat of violence which will be later decried). The ultimate focus is on the creation of wealth. Never mind what’s actually done with it.

This is a fairly standard collection of libertarian ideals. Community is evoked, with the state fingered as its main enemy. Because the state is coercive and produces violence. Nothing else is. Also, the freest and least violent countries are the richest and most benevolent. Like the US, I suppose.

There is a lot more happening on those sites, but I’ll leave it be for now.**** With them in mind, however, let’s turn back to Future Cities Development and see what it’s all about:

Whoa. If that’s not the spitting image of Ayn Rand’s ideal, I don’t know what is.

See that? Future city? Where are the people? Oh, sure. They’re in those buildings, on those streets, along that shore. But we don’t see them. They’re not what matters.

Buildings. Architecture. Howard Roark’s penis. That’s what matters.

Maybe when they say “eradicated poverty” the mean “eradicated the poor except those we need on hand to clean up after us.” I don’t know.

And where is this magical mystery City of Tomorrow?

Honduras. This Honduras. The one meant to become “an engine of wealth” by building extra-legal cities on land stolen from peasant farmers.

And everything comes together.

There are statements within all three of these sites, Monetas, Future Cities Development, and The Institute for Freedom, that raise the question of community, poverty, and violence. Read lightly, it all seems to hit the right notes. A world without coercion, built upon choices. Don’t buy it. The framing is that governmental bureaucracy is the cause of problems in communities, with no mention of the violence of commerce and privatization. Wealth concentration produces violence. Privation is violence. This is more than a glaring oversight given the movement towards neo-colonial exploitation in Honduras.

I see all this too often. Systems parading around as social and community betterment while participating in exploitation, far too much Ayn Rand and dog-eat-dog framing, and far and away too much whitewashing of the suffering our ideas actually create. Money isn’t the vehicle that will produce an ideal society. Economies are not the vehicles of ideal societies, either. To say that the state is an instrument of coercion without recognizing the role of currency itself, regardless of issuance, is inept. Money is just a proxy for information, and the more we use it, the less we need to know about those around us, and the fabrics of our communities fray.To say that economies and markets do not produce violence would be laughable if it didn’t lead to such terror.

A choice between starvation and slavery is no choice at all.

It doesn’t matter if it’s by hook or by crook. We’re never simple numbers.


* I don’t actually think the dollar is a failed currency. I think the dollar is quite a capable and successful design. It just was never meant to do the work we want it to do. It’s for allocating scarcity and concentrating wealth, not for building community.

** I’m not going to link to them. Just search “gold standard,” “gold money,” or something similarly silly.

*** Incidentally, this is the same reason for the push towards smaller slices of transaction time and extended derivatives. Something is always lost in aggregation, and if we access the pre-aggregated we find more to divert. Of course, that also means those prior aggregations become more fragile. That which is lost through aggregation isn’t simply uncaptured waste. It’s the means of aggregation.

**** If I ever stumble across it again while investigating some other looks-too-good proposal, I’ll tear into it. They evoke complexity and hierarchy, after all, while washing hands of exploitation via commerce. That’s just asking for it.