Money tears us apart
Accounting, taking account of, is what actually does this, but to the extent that money is an abstracted form of account (or a unit of), it fits the bill. (puns aplenty)
I’m in the final stretches of a trip to Europe for a conference in the Hague and a failed attempt at biking from there to Luzern, Switzerland (n the ongoing battle between mind and body, body has taken this round). The conference was the Second International Conference on Complementary Systems, and I presented with Stephanie Rearick further developments, both conceptual and in terms of implementation, of our trophic model for thinking currencies, wealth/value, and everything else under the sun. (more puns!)
A big part of this paper stemmed from my realization that in our closest of relationships, not only do we not keep ready account but we actively forget or lose track of accounts in order to constitute the relationship. We write off slights, transgressions, and imperfections of our close friends. I, for one, readily require this as my imperfections are plenty. Accountability in these situations only arises in moments of strain, as justification (trying to make sense of) and to resolve the strain either through restitution or fissure.
– You said…
– Yes, but you said…
– Well what about…
As we step outside of these spaces of affection and intimacy we suddenly feel a need to maintain active account, whether loosely in the form of gossip or strictly in the form of financialized debt. Hard currencies: gold, bitcoin, the dollar and euro, anything which does not rust, are the ultimate form of account. They are also assert that not only do we not know each other, but that we are incapable of knowing one another, that we are incapable of forming intimate spaces and relations where other sets meaning prevail. This is the power and curse of logics of rationality.
We may tell ourselves that this accounting, or money, is an effort to resolve distrust by externalizing it in another agency (God or The Market: is there a difference?), but this is false. Even in our most intimate relations, we do not actually know each other. We do not know what thoughts lie behind words and gestures. We never actually know if we can trust each other. Instead, we take a chance as chance requires.
Regards to Ian Curtis.
Is money the ultimate form of account — or is it just an *extreme* (and blunt and anti-social) form of account? Because though accounting is the end served by money, and money is anathema to relationships, it doesn’t seem to follow that accountability is anathema to relationship.
Among blood-family (and to a lesser extent, close-friend) relationships, where some level of trust is unconditionally assumed: your blood-family and chosen-family will support you even though they know you’re a human being with failures etc, so the process of accounting is not actively involved, at least when things are all good. Among less-than-close relationships, trust must be earned or at least sustained, and for that, we need measures of accountability. Accountability consists of shared understanding, which entails a flow of information that is reliable, full, and free (as in speech). Gossip (as an illicit trade of potentially bad information) implies an absence of accountability; money ultimately displaces and even negates other forms of information that can/should comprise accountability. And so when it comes to those close social relationships, over time, sometimes we do have to account for money (or even behavior) in order to protect the relationship’s precious unconditionality from the realities of the human condition (error; material scarcity; etc).
But this is what being an adult is about: not a presumption of infallibility, but an assumption of responsibility. Systems of account are technologies that make these assumptions shareable, which is on some level necessary for social relationships to function. This does not mean that debt, per se, is necessary for accountability; however, it may be that a debt-free Utopia is a world with perfectly accurate and trustworthy systems of accounting.
Generally I agree, although in an era of hyper-accountability, which is predicated on assumed initial untrustworthiness, I feel justified in taking a hard tack in an other direction. If I wanted, I could make an argument extended from biopower or something of the kind about how the belief in the necessity of account/accountability produces as an initial moment the conditions which require it. Like private property, is it an actually necessary condition or is an assumed necessary condition that leads us rapidly in the direction of centralizing control? If we were to adopt a radically different approach where we exorcised our ideas of accountability from our minds and practices, would it result in shambles or would different logics of production and creativity become empowered?
For most of my life I’ve tried to live such that trust is assumed until demonstrated otherwise, and then making easy the conditions by which trust is reformed. This does mean, of course, that I get burned from time to time and live constantly in a fairly precarious position, but in most instances trust given is received as such. I accept the presence of failure, which can stem from any of a number of directions, not all of which (or maybe most of which) are necessarily blameful.
It’s also worth noting that in information theory, information is the acknowledgement of an absence, not the presence of something. The acknowledgement becomes a presence that bridges a gap, but it does not fill the gap. An unknown is not resolved, merely roughly accommodated and we then operate around that accommodation.
Finally, “perfectly accurate and trustworthy systems of accounting”, Rousseau’s ideal, I will fiercely argue is impossible. We can dive into logics of various philosophies to analyze how such suppositions were argued for and enforced, but the image of absolute transparency is the image of absolute tyranny. It’s what Bentham sought to constitute through his panopticon. It can be read into Hegel’s logics of ultimate understanding. It’s what our government and other agencies public and private seek to constitute with big data. It is based on a series of logics which does not understand the central role of entropy. It is not something I will ever support.
Wookay this took me a minute to get back to. I’d like you to build that argument on biopower! (i thought that was renewable energy or a video game or something.)
But so yeah though I’m pretty sure it’s possible to side with Rousseau and not end up on the side of tyranny. The ideal of accountability, by definition, points the way to Utopia — and yes Utopian things are by definition impossible — but isn’t it good to know which way you want to go? Seems helpful to me, among other reasons, to cast in sharper relief what’s wrong about the nonutopian entropic real world where people may or not fuck up, but their fuckups can fuck anyone else up, and knowing that fucks everyone else up, and plus the state is fucked up so most people just want to give the fuck up. Like, you try to live trusting others freely, you also live ‘precariously,’ if i understand you, in some degree of fear and anxiety — I know that’s how I live, and it’s wearying. And I wish to hell I had more tools at my disposal to manage that process. And I know how this anxiety compares with the precariousness of others who don’t even have the privilege.
Non-utopian reality time real talk: we need to find all kinds of ways to unfuck ourselves, as much as possible. That’s going to require the sharing of a lot of information. Again, I’m not arguing that we build systems of total information awareness. Rather, given the entropic state of information, and given the rate at which we’re hurtling through it right now, it seems like it’s our challenge to create good, meaningful information — including information about each other — to bridge as many gaps as possible, which seems to me to also mean building good systems of accountability. I thought that’s what you were trying to build; I may have misunderstood.
Still thinking about this, and just wonder why you vehemently reject the possibility of “good” accounting systems while you allude to the possibility of “a radically different approach where we exorcised our ideas of accountability from our minds and practices.” Seems like the latter is more hopelessly Utopian than any notion of perfect systems of account — game theoretically, it’s not even comprehensible. Rather than dream of a world without any possibility of review, without the light of consciousness and its attendant concern for repercussion (the womb?), why *not* tack hard in the direction of social democracy: employing the new tools available to us to establish new kinds of trust, made possible by systems that subjugate money as just one factor of account, alongside peer review, environmental monitoring, etc? Why *not* explore, ideals in hand, the emerging potential for new kinds of truly-social systems of account? Certainly Big Brother is already with us and will acquire more and more data no matter what we do; better to round up the rest of your sibs and the cousins, draw up a balance sheet in a Google doc, and figure out how you’re all going to live together in his shadow. Account for the money and the time and the deed, and perhaps the gifts will flow freely once again.
Biopower is a Foucaultian notion, interested in how entities like States, etc. enlist a population in enforcing and maintaining the logics that constitute it, often through otherwise-banal practices. Rather than a big brother idea of power, it’s interpersonal, mediating, for example, expressions of the body and sexuality through presentations of ideals to which we are meant to adhere, the inclusion of sexed categories on documentations (why, for instance, does a passport or other photo id which contains my image need me to declare a sex identity? They have my image, fingerprint, and other biometrics. What does the M/F perform other than enforcing the idea of sex binaries?), and so forth. Biopower is about enlisting ourselves in methods of control of self and other.
From a pragmatic standpoint, I understand the logics of accountability. I understand the function of privileging certain factors or values over others, minor evils. Given that we live in a world hard-titled towards privation and control, I understand trying to create a tilt in a different direction, towards a different goal. And ultimately any system of valuation constitutes a tilt in a given direction. We create a context to functionalize the prioritization of one thing over another. We must of necessity hide somethings in order to make visible others, and I’m fairly certain that the ratio of visible:hidden is *always* few:many. The more we render visible the more we actually render hidden. When we talk about transparency, we effectively write off the presence of the hidden, thinking that what we see is both necessary and sufficient. It never is.
I had a conversation a few years ago with John Rogers, no slouch, at this currency design workshop he was leading. I had suggested to him that timebanking should incorporate demurrage. He said no, because a functional system requires those who have taken on a debt to repay it. I said, 1: that it’s not a debt but a relation, and 2: that a persistent debt/debit only tells us that contributions haven’t been logged in a ledger, not that contributions haven’t been given. We don’t know what is off ledger, so do we punish someone for not recording something in the way we want them to or do we create things in a way that recognizes that the actions, not the account of the actions, matter.
Now, I’m not naive about this. Both the Tyranny of Structurelessness and the Tyranny of Tyranny are valid. If we pretend like we live and operate in a flat landscape we make it easy not to notice emergent minor tilts which can and will be leveraged to large, tyrannical tilts. If we pretend like our intentional tilts are just or good, we make it easy to ignore or write off the injustices created through them. The history of the 20th century and beyond is based on the premise that after the revolution all is well (whether it’s a bourgeois capitalist revolution, a Marxist one, an anarchist one, etc). Noble sacrifices, declared such by those who were not sacrificed.
When I’m trying to produce systems in the world, I will by necessity constitue priorities and do my best to make sure they are tilted in a more just, equitable, and emancipatory direction than what we have now, based upon my intuitions. When I’m doing philosophical/theoretical/ontological/critical work, I am forced to examine premises we rest upon and ask what else is possible. When the tyranny in which we are enlisted is based upon maintaining a point of view, I need to ask what elements might actually constitute that position. I think the belief in accountability-as-such might be one of these initial moments of banal tyranny.
At the very least, I cannot afford to assume that it isn’t.
[Fuck, this should just be a separate post…]
Very interesting. Thanks for talking through it with me.