Monday, July 2, 2012

David Graeber and Geoffery Ingham - how they combine to challenge my thinking!

The idea that money is a social relation as described by Ingham points to the importance of exploring what Ingham has called the "nature of money" and its production. As a political economist I am deeply interested in what the creation of money means for the entire operation of a given political economy. Who controls its creation? What quantity is produced? Is it created by one centralized authority? By a multitude of entities? And, most importantly how do we construct the "money of account"? What political economic configurations enable the construction of a given "money of account" and how might that "money of account" come to be threatened, weakened or challenged?

With this in mind I am deeply curious about what the rise of new technology means for the future of money and how this might impact the nature of money and its production. Several anthropologists have made the claim that history has been marked by different periods of money - virtual verse commodity based money. These anthropologists, including David Graeber, claim that these different forms of money are tied in some way to different political economies/ social relations. If this claim is true then the period that humanity is entering into in which our experience - as everyday citizens - is increasingly mediated through forms of virtual money heralds a shift in the political economy.

The combination of these two claims - that money is a product of a specific set of social relations and is always the result of political compromise and that virtual money is associated with specific and in many cases non-capitalist social relations - can be combined to explore a unique set of developments in today's political economy.

The first is the rise of mobile technology and the associated rise of mobile banking (or e-money, m-payments, m-transfers and more) which are increasingly resulting in the virtualization of our monetary experiences. Though it is true that 98% of money is already virtual - meaning we only print and mint about 2% of our money supply - up until fairly recent, almost all day-to-day economic exchanges have been mediated in some way by cash (or checks) giving money a sense of realness and tangibility and real scarcity. The shift away from cash based transactions has been occuring in the developed world for the past couple decades with the rise of credit and debit cards (though in America upwards of 35% of all economic exchanges are still carried out using cash). While, in the developing world the change is much more rapid due to the rise of mobile technology which is leading to an almost instant virtualization of money (in some cases some people have only ever experienced money as a virtual thing).

The second important trend is the personalization of the idea of money creation. Increasingly, there are claims, efforts and philosophical arguments being made that state that individuals can and should make their own money. This is a unique claim one that, as far as my research has found, has not been made before. There have been claims that local communities or individual institutions (such as banks) can create their own money but never have individuals claimed that they, themselves, can create money.

The combination of these two historically specific developments deserves further exploration in light of the recent work of both Ingham and Greaber. The importance is emphasized by the ongoing crisis in our financial system and the need to understand the true nature of money - its production and the way in which this production impacts the political economic options and possibilities. 

All of this points to the very important question of how we produce money and the failings of most theory to fully understand the importance of the money of account (despite Keynes best effort to highlight its importance). The challenge is to break away from the historical mistake made in most theoretical explorations of money - that is the obsession with the "form" of money - and to rather fully understand the production of a viable 'unit of account". What political economic configurations are needed? Does a shift from commodity to virtual money have any significance?

The challenge in all of this is that, given my personal belief that the form of money is not of importance but rather the unit/money of account is the most critical and hardest to understand - why then does the virtualization of money have any real importance? My claim is that this virtualization of money is leading to new experiences of money that are raising deeper questions about the production of money - if money is not something that is naturally scarce (i.e because it is gold or silver or cows) then why is it scarce? Why are there not sufficient supplies of money? And, if there are not sufficient supplies of money, and money is not a unique object then why can't I just produce my  own money? Or why can't my community just produce its own money to meet its needs? 

All of these questions will result in deeper questions - questions that highlight the current systems of power, of class and more comprehensively of the existing social relations. These questions may yet lead to deeper revolutionary thoughts that may enable a disruption of the given political economy.

If, as I believe, these shifts are part of a pre-revolutionary change - the better we understand the political economy of money production as it relates to the questions of the social the better prepared we will be for developing viable alternatives which are more closely aligned with idea of economic democracy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

OS Homo Sapien 2.0

"Both of these authors assert that the root cause of our difficulties lies in our view of reality. They contend that our shared worldview — based upon principals such as atomistic or mechanical materialism, duality, anthropocentrism, separateness and reductionism — has been heavily shaped by outdated scientific insights that formed the catalyst for the Scientific Revolution approximately 300 years ago. In other words, our crisis is one of software and not hardware."

This post on the UN blog speaks to something that I have been talking about, in one way or another, for the past several years. There is essentially a convergence occurring in our environment where we will be forced into a new set of revolutions on the level of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution combined. This shift is fundamental because it not only requires a shift in our material experience of life - how we organize our economies - but also in our social philosophies - our consciousness needs to shift - in order for us to survive the current multiple crises.

I have tried to articulate this in my writings around an idea of a Somatic Future - a future in which our humanness is valued because we have "sense" of our environment. This means that we have to increasingly perceive our physical world, understand, relate and emphatically experience our interconnectedness in a way that we have never really imagined. I have struggled with this articulation in much of my research over the past 15 years. These issues of interconnectedness and the failings of a Newtonian and atomistic understanding of the world drove me to engage with questions of global corporations, and ultimately to study international political economics. The work of my academic mentor, Gillian Hart, greatly inspired me (and the work of Critical Human Geographers) who engaged the failings of an atomistic view of the world and of the economy. I worked in my MA research on trying to understand money not as a technology, or something that appears from the outside, but as something deeply intertwined and socially constructed.

All of this creates great complications but also the potential for empowerment but it must be based on some configuration of collaboration, new forms of social and organizational structures, and a view of the future that clearly realizes the future as a time of deep interconnectedness. We are approaching a fourth dimension of reality, one that will give us insight into the relationships between everything and one in which we may struggle to ever see apartness as something given and unbridgeable. In fact the idea of "individual" may come to be viewed as a total fallacy and a false god!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Data, Decision Making - Somatic Age?

This very interesting article appeared in the latest Mother Jones, "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science". It is a great article showing how we fail to make rational decisions - or rather fail to absorb new facts in a way that results in our changing our minds about a particular view we may have, essentially arguing that there is more to decision making then rational fact-based arguments. And, that more information and data is not how you get people to change their minds or accept a particular issue as important or otherwise.

The article is easy to read and does a great job of explaining some pretty complex ideas. My favorite line in the article goes, " In other words, paradoxically, you don't lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values—so as to give the facts a fighting chance." The author is arguing that we need to think about how we frame our arguments and thinking first about how it can be presented in a way that is not threatening to the value framework of a particular individual - that we are not trying to destroy that persons framework of values but trying to expand it in some way. Collaboration rather then hierarchy I guess! Emotion rather then logic. Engaging the irrational.

What this all points to in this age of information and head based thinking is that we are sooo far off still from understanding how our emotions are so critically involved in our decision making, and that our biases are built into what we actually perceive (much like what they say about us trying to observe quantum particles - that they are essentially impacted by our very viewing of them). In many ways I think the age of information overload and free access to data is slowly pushing us (or maybe not so slowly) towards an age where we focus on our emotion and spiritual and energetic beings. I think of this as a somatic age.

In other words, my believe is that the outcome of the somatic age will be a great enlightenment that will result in our understanding and exploration of the spaces of our existence that do not fit within rational frameworks or conscious thought. Many neuroscientists are starting to discover the role of our subconscious and that it is far far more important in our decision making process then previously believed or accepted. I see this as a wonderful thing - the age in which we start to become embodied, the age in which we start to sense our selves somatically is upon us. This, after all is what separates us from machines and technology - our somatic ability to sense our world around us, to process complex emotions that are co-produced by those around us.

I think this is already why we are exploring collaboration and other methods of connecting that allow us to realize our collective value and strength. The revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East show the role of emotion. No fact was released, no leader emerged that suddenly "reasoned" the people into action. Their emotional selves, and their subconsciousness made a decision to act and this was picked up on collectively. And they perceived this somatically feeling driven to collect and could not ignore the overwhelming feelings of their existence.

Those of us who explore long range futures and use scenario planning methods need to acknowledge that the future is not just about technological or "social" change, but about a transformation in our somatic understanding of our world and that this is by far our weakest muscle or skill. We know how to deal with data - even if we don't do it in ways we thought we would. As we as humans get more and more inundated by technology and as technology takes over the roles of our rational data processing minds we will gravitate to exploring this other side of our selves the side that will increasingly distinguish us from machines and technology as a whole.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fourth Sector Financialization and the Value of Pricelessness

"New layers of financialisation pose challenges for the sustenance of local ecological knowledges and 'biocultural diversities'. They rationalise human and non-human natures to conform with a particular economic system that privileges price over other values, and profit-oriented market exchanges over the distributive and sustainable logics of other economic systems." (Banking Nature? The financialisation of environmental conservation)

The above quote from a recent article published through the Open Anthropology Cooperative Press highlights one of my biggest concerns about the current trend in the development of what are being called hybrid business models, or fourth sector networks or for-benefit corporations. Essentially the same determinant is being used to guide the decisions of consumers and producers - price. If something can be produced cheaper then it is going to be more successful. So, it becomes about how can you produce goods in an enlarged framework of values at the cheapest price. Hence, the idea that you can include environmental or social costs into your overall final price will again be driven by reducing those impacts on the environment or society as viewed as costs. This I think can go both ways - you can either lower your negative impact on the environment or society, thereby reducing your costs and enabling you to provide your good at a lower cost, or alternatively you can add value to the environment or society that in someway enables you to offset other costs again with the aim of lowering the overall cost of your good. 

This means that the exact same metric is being used to guide our business decisions and our consumption decisions: price. 

This then reminds me of my idea of infinite value which I have expressed in other places on this blog. What I found so powerful about this idea is that it ultimately throws the whole "price" question into a bit of turmoil. It is both a price - but is also no price - it is priceless. So we have assigned it a price but it is a price that is infinite meaning that it can not be purchased. The flip side being that it can be destroyed, or reduced. Something can go from priceless to worthless - through destructive behaviours or through the compartmentalization of the whole. So a forest, seen and valued as a whole system, can be viewed as priceless. But, a tree can be assigned a price that is within the realm of reason.

In a conversation I had with a professor at UC Berkeley a few years ago it was this exact issue of price. The financialization of everything does not necessarily avoid its consumption or destruction. However, today the alternative has been focused about the zero valuation or pricing of most shared resources. Somewhere in there we need to give it a value that removes it from the ability to price it at all.

It is time for another metric to dominate - something other then price!

The point is that if we are able to price everything - the entire ecosystem - and then price the costs of reduced or increased value of this ecosystem - we will come out with a better price. Yet, this does nothing to reduce our destruction or consumption of the environment. If the price is low enough someone will buy it. And, as the luxury goods market shows - some people will even pay a higher price. A destructive product can still be produced, and its price may be high, but someone will purchase it.

Price is the wrong metric. What is the alternative metric? Is it about metrics at all? What is this deeper shift then that we require? Damn...I wish I had that answer.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wall Street Leviathan

Here is a decent look at what the Financial Commission's report on the 2008 Financial Crisis found (
). Though it fails to address the deeper issue of the actual systemic way in which we construct or create money. I think what is so striking is that even though we had financial regulation that was supposed to limit the instability of the financial system from roughly 1933 to 1999 we had a series of ongoing financial crises that led to in part the Lost Decade in South America, the S&L debacle, the need to end the dollar/gold standard, a massive increase in debt, and more. And, it only took 9 years from the time that the Glass-Steagal Act was repealed to have an almost catastrophic global financial collapse, this despite this long history of supposed stability! 

What has actually been going on throughout most of modern financial history, and including supposedly the stable years under the Glass-Steagal Act is a series of mini crises that have been viewed by the elites (regulators, politicians and bankers) as having been dealt with. The solutions have generally been focused on shifts in the regulatory environment. All of this has been presented as increasing the stability of the system. Then, the argument goes that in 1999 we ended the stable era by repealing the Glass-Steagal Act and before we knew it we had a full blown global financial crisis. The question is what is the more important data point to follow? Was it the ending of the Glass-Steagal era or is it the much bigger pattern of data seen through the lens of multiple mini-crises throughout the US financial system (and really globally). What is being argued often is that those earlier crises are not related to the current crisis. The current crisis is related to a shift in the regulations of 1999 and the solution is new regulations that will return us to the pre-1999 era of stability. 

Allow me to draw an analogy with the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt. We can see them as one off events that "suddenly" emerged driven by say a prolifieration of social media technologies that due to a shift in technology (regulation) we have a break from the old pattern and the result is a revolution (financial crisis). Or, we can see them as the result of a series of efforts, strikes and demonstrations (mini financial crises), that had finally culminated and created enough momentum to realise a revolution (2008 Financial Crisis). The analogy I am making here is that for many of the elites in Egypt and Tunisian socieites those earlier demonstrations and strikes had been viewed as mere annoyance and requiring small shifts in regulation (and of course violent oppression) - but the sense was that they had been successfuly squished and represented no systemic problem. However, they were blatanly wrong - each little permutation was helping to build energy towards a bigger shift - a revolution - despite the best efforts of the elites (or regulators or authorities or politicians; call them what you want). 

This same thing is, I believe, going on in the financial system. We view all those earlier events as mere business cycle permutations that occurred under a given regime - a regime that was put into place in the 1930's and presented as stabilizing and unifying. The truth is far from that, instead we have had decades of financial crises slowly spreading and linking up around the world. And, despite all the efforts over the decades of squishing their bigger impact it culminated in the 2008 crisis. For the elites of this system they view the important data point as the shift in regulation they do not see a systemic risk, they do not see a major shift in their operating terrain and they do not see all of this history of events linking together and building momentum and energy. So, the question is does the 2008 crisis truly represent a culmination - a revolution? - or does it represent just a bigger permutation still to be followed by a bigger revolution/crash in the financial system? 

I think the fact that the answer from the elites has been to change regulations points to the fact that 2008 is not the revolutionary moment but rather another, though much bigger, permutation in our financial system. The last time our financial system experienced such a grand permutation was during the Great Depression which at first led to a series of regulatory responses, but ultimately led to one of the biggest shifts in global society and the horrors of World War II - though it took almost 6 years before America was fully impacted by that global revolution driven by WWII. 

We sit in 2008 and debate our regulatory shifts and solutions, our new presidents and banking brands. We view it as a one off event driven by a shift in the regulatory environment. Yet, my sense is there is something deeper here and that the forest is being missed, while we focus on a couple big trees. I have a strong sense that in the not to distant future we may witness another major financial crises and at some point it is going to truly culminate in a revolution - one that will require a major reconstruction of one of the most fundamental human concepts - money!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Viva the Peaceful: 9/11 and Libya

There is certainly the danger that this blog post gets a bit rambling. However, I have been dealing with many threads of thought with the recent events around the world especially those of North Africa (note - that Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco are all in Africa) and Wisconsin.

My feeling from the start has been of total awe and true support - despite what might emerge from these attempts at political revolution - for these local democratic efforts. All of these uprisings have essentially swelled up - though not without many decades of tyranny and abuse by the targeted regimes - without clear leadership, without a coherent plan and without violent aims. These movements remind me of what was going on around the globe with the rising international movement of activism at the turn of the end of the 20th century. These efforts focused on the multi-lateral institutions of the world that seemed to only pander to the interests of the elites. The lack of many of these institutions at having any kind of social voice was one of the biggest complaints. People felt that the interests of communities, of locals, of underprivileged and poor were not being heard or acknowledged. This led to the organic rise of a non-hierarchical globally connected movement. This movement was what created the Battle for Seattle in 1999 (an event that I had the privilege to attend as a photojournalist for the Independent Media Center), and the growing World Social Forum in Brazil and many such efforts.

Then came 9/11 and we had war! And our movement was derailed, our focus shifted, government now had increased power to crack down on demonstrators, to block access to countries and use new surveillance tools. At the time - and I think maybe somewhere on this blog - I wrote about how I felt that 9/11 was as much about our history in the Middle East as it was about ending the rising social movement. 9/11 became an excuse to crack down and switch our focus to a debate over violence - and acceptable forms of violence and war and more.

I bring 9/11 up because I believe in many ways what is going on in Libya is another example of this. The movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the ongoing demonstrations in Yemen, Morocco and those of Bahrain were movements focused on peaceful demands. Many of these efforts first met with violence and harassment, many of these movements were against US supported dictators. But, most importantly they were non-violent, they were spreading organically, they had no leadership and there seemed no way to stop them. Enter the use of violence - the effort to stop Qaddafi - who conveniently is an enemy of the West so we have a good excuse and a good history of indoctrination in the mind of Westerners to his evil ways (and I am not saying that he is not a tyrannical leader that should leave immediately). But, note that there was and still is no mention of protecting demonstrators in Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Bahrain. I don't need to get into the geo-strategic questions of this reasoning. Rather, what I am trying to draw attention to is the way in which the use of American (and Western) violence has again come to control the debate. It has meant that the movements in these countries are now faced with the prospect of violence and of the divides between the West and Arab worlds. It returns us to the same rhetoric of violence, and us verse them, while moving us away from the awe-inspiring, hair standing up, immense voices of democratic peoples movements.

My point is that there seems to be a connection here. In both instances violence was inserted into the global conversation around the power of peaceful movements. It is as if we are being reminded, dis-empowered almost, by the fact that violence will inevitably enter the picture and that violence is the solution in the end - that peaceful movements (and by peaceful I don't mean that there won't be violence in the form maybe of self-defense against government forces - the same thing happened in Seattle and hence became the Battle of Seattle, but again in this instance the government inserted the violence and changed the debate) can't solve the problem.

The attacks on Libya deeply concern me. Yes, it is true that maybe Qaddaffi would have attacked and slaughtered people in Benghazi, maybe he would have retained power. But, in the end maybe his legitimacy would have been so weakened that he would not have been able to hold onto power. Now, we are at war, now we see the splintering return the Middle East verse the West - the insertion of US military power. Why in this instance is technology not all powerful? Why in this instance are the people not empowered? Is it because Qaddafi has chosen to use force? Has he not done this before? Did not Mubarak or the leaders of Yemen, or the leaders of Tunisia or other countries use violence and oppression?

I think that this decision to bomb Libya is the right decision for the elites and political powers of the world - because it returns the debate to a terrain they know and understand well. A terrain of violence and overwhelming force. I think this decision is aimed at ending the spread of these movements around the world. Leaders never know what to do with non-violent demonstrators. Thans Gandhi, thank MLK, thank Mandela for showing us this.

Viva the peaceful.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Japan and the need for Scenario Thinking

I am sitting listening to the radio about what is going on in Japan. There is much being said about how the government is not helping the local authorities around the nuclear power plant, how the American's are not playing a bigger role in providing food and other goods to stricken communities, and why there isn't a greater presence of the global nuclear power authorities housed in the UN.

And, there was one thing that each expert on the panel mentioned, the fact that there was no preparation for this scale of disaster. They said repeatedly that this "scenario" had not been thought of. This puzzles me in several ways - surely the global nuclear authorities would run a set of scenarios that would look at multiple environmental disasters - or was it just assumed that such a conflation of events would never happen? The American's obviously have no plans in place for helping Japan, or any other country that they have a large military presence in, for helping that country in the throws of a major catastrophe. And, there was obviously no plan within the Japanese government for a nuclear meltdown in a region that may not be accessible via road.

This event in Japan follows quickly on the heals of the series of North African revolutions. Again, here we see a bunch of events occur that no one had thought of, or had considered as within the realm of reality. We see this is in the failings of the American's to have any clear response to the revolutions - they failed to know where to stand with Mubarak, they have miss-stepped a couple times in Bahrain - between supporting the monarchy and now dealing with Saudi Arabia's military arrival.

All of these events over the past couple of months point to the need to fully explore multiple futures, and to take into consideration wild card futures (very unlikely) and other possibilities in a way that allows us to build resiliency into our system. The need to consider the range of unexpected events and the possibility of increasing convergence between environmental and human disasters - as our populations grow so will the devastation be increased.

At my company, Adaptive Edge <>, we work to provide this to companies and governments. We explore ways in which these entities can learn to adapt to unexpected events while helping to be part of the already existing shifts in our global political-economy. Ideas of involving stakeholders, engaging unexpected realties, and exploring the impact of already existing trends on our possible futures.

I think the big message here for people, governments and businesses, is that they need to prepare for multiple futures and possible scenarios of what could occur. Having those futures on their shelves with associated strategies is something that we all need - it is a way of being prepared, agile and resilient.

My prayers are with the people of Japan, New Zealand and North Africa as they all deal with the arrival of unexpected events and the sudden emergence of new futures - futures that many may not have ever thought possible.