Crypto-Current (058)

§5.8 — Whether history ‘in general’ is anything other than the history of money remains an open question. Certainly, the distinction between ‘history’ and ‘pre-history’ seems to have been decided by monetary innovation. The earliest digital recordings are accounts.[1] In the beginning was the registry. If this distribution of emphasis seems unbalanced, the fact that – in our own time – a distributed ledger manifests primarily as a monetary innovation tends, nevertheless, to vindicate it. Commentary in the “Bitcoin is about much more than money” vein, while copious, also comes later.[2] The monetary model sets the matrix.

§5.81 — A bitcoin, or part of a bitcoin, is a number of numbers, or several. In this it reproduces an abstract structure that is essential to the nature of money, in any of its variants, although realized at very different degrees of formalization. The semiotic complexity of money is expressed by a multiplicity of numerical dimensions. (Money not only quantifies, it quantifies multiplicitously.) Even prior to the introduction of allocation as a topic, monetary numbers divide by signification and designation. They function arithmetically as counting numbers and indexically as registry numbers (indices). The distinction is illustrated by the coexistence of a denomination number and a serial number on every bank note. The final term in the semiotic triad – the allocative number – corresponds to a tallying of bank notes, for instance – most concretely – through their bundling into ‘bricks’. These dimensions are primeval. Yuval Noah Hariri writes (in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p.182): “The first coins in history were struck around 640 BC by King Alyattes of Lydia, in western Anatolia. These coins had a standardized weight of gold or silver, and were imprinted with an identification mark. The mark testified to two things. First, it indicated how much precious metal the coin contained. Second, it identified the authority that issued the coin and that guaranteed its contents.” The coin bears an index of composition and a sign of credentials. The third semiotic dimension is added in a counting house, and introduces – from the beginning – the ledger.

§5.82 — Every commercial transaction involves a conversion into numbers. There is no primordial difference between monetary circulation and digitization, recognized as the historical process. In its narrower, electronic sense, however, the digitization of money does not date back very far. The first electronic money precedes Bitcoin by no more than half a century. Precursors are retrospectively identifiable, including charge coins, charge cards, ‘charga-plates’, and air travel cards. Western Union began issuing charge cards to frequent customers as early as 1921, but the runaway electronic ‘derealization’ of money is a far more recent phenomenon.[3] The first credit card[4] – accessing a bank account by means of a plastic identification document – was the BankAmericard, launched in September 1958 (and renamed ‘Visa’ in 1977). It took another eight years for the system to be extended beyond the United States (to Britain, with the ‘Barclaycard’, in 1966). The spread of electronic banking outside the English-speaking world was far slower still. Widespread adoption of the new monetary medium in Continental Europe, for instance, did not take place until the final decade of the 20th century. Most of the world skipped this stage of monetary evolution altogether.

§5.821 Electronic monetary transfers – as required by credit cards – are not yet an online payment system. The former involves electronic settlement, but not yet digital cash.[5] Electronic bank credit operates exclusively between trusted parties. The cash-like aspect of the transaction takes place offline, between the cardholder and the goods or services provider. Even here, some basic characteristics of cash are sacrificed, most notably anonymity. It is ‘cash’ in this reduced sense that is translated online by the first consumer-level digital money services, exemplified by PayPal.[6]

§5.83 — It was not the personal computer that set the frame for the next stage of money’s technological evolution, but the mobile phone. Within this new epoch of consumer electronics, ‘personalization’ is intensified, through heightened communicative-orientation and the massive distribution of computational capability.[7] It is easy to miss the full complexity of the mobile phone as a technological nexus. Not only does it serve as a telecommunications and Internet-access device, but also as a scanner, and a personal identity hub. In combination, these features enable convenient, efficient, and passably secure monetary transactions. The serendipitous contribution of an in-built camera to the mobile phone’s function as a monetary platform is especially worthy of note. A facile photographic shot closes the transaction. The era of the bar-code thus passes into that of the QR-code.

§5.831 — The age of mobile payments dates back only to 2007. In that year, Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania respectively, released their M-Pesa mobile-phone based finance application, developed by Vodafone. ‘M-Pesa’ abbreviates ‘mobile money’ in hybrid tech-jargon and Swahili. The application was designed to support elementary banking services on wireless telecommunications, in drastically under-banked societies. It enabled monetary exchanges between users, with the additional capability to facilitate microfinance credit. Anybody with identity certification (such as a national ID card or passport) could use M-Pesa to deposit, withdraw, or transfer money through their mobile device. Its rate of adoption exceeded all expectation, resulting on social, cultural, and commercial success on a now already legendary scale. From its take-off point in East Africa, the service was subsequently expanded into Afghanistan, South Africa, and India, reaching Eastern Europe in 2014. It has been in China, however, that the new fusion of money and telecommunications has developed most explosively. China’s mobile payment market has been opened by its Internet giants Alibaba and Tencent. Up to late 2015, Alipay dominated, accounting for over two-thirds of mobile purchases by value. Tencent’s competitor system, based upon its WeChat[8] social media application, consolidated its position through a highly-successful marketing campaign themed by digital emulation of traditional ‘red-envelope’ monetary gifts. By the first quarter of 2017, Alipay and WeChat between them were servicing 94% of the country’s mobile payment market. Chinese late-mover advantage has enabled the country to leap-frog plastic, transitioning directly from paper to wireless. By early 2017, US online payments amounted to scarcely 2% of the Chinese figure (which had reached the equivalent of US$8 trillion).

§5.84 — The story of electronic money is not exhaustively subsumed into that of banking. In has various quite separate lineages, of greater and lesser independence. One of the most important of these passes through online multi-user environments and games. The fictional quality of in-game monetary systems has shielded them from regulatory scrutiny, to a degree that cannot easily be philosophically defended. They thus open a zone of special interest in regards to the ontology of money.[9] What is the relation of ‘real’ money to simulated money? Virtual currencies, such as the Linden Dollars (L$) of Second Life, made this question ineluctable. If online ‘pretend’ currencies had an exchange value denominated in offline ‘real’ currencies – as they soon did – how solid could any ontological discrimination between the two be? It began to dawn upon commentators that a new age of private currency issuance had been surreptitiously initiated. It is perhaps a matter of mere historical contingency that far more consequential developments have not yet been catalyzed in this zone. There are few obvious limits to what might have come.

§5.841 — The industrialization of virtual currency production in the crypto-epoch was partially anticipated by the phenomenon of ‘gold farming’ in the world of MMORPGs (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games). Many of the most popular MMORPGs permit trading in items of in-game value. For instance, a special weapon acquired at the cost of much (in-game) effort and peril, and therefore scarce enough to be precious, might be surrendered by one avatar to another in exchange for an out-of-game payment between their respective players. Such arrangements called out for economic rationalization, through specialization, concentration, and Internet-enabled geographical labor arbitrage. China’s business renaissance during the reform-and-opening period coincided with the emergence of this opportunity, and its new entrepreneurs moved nimbly to take advantage. Tedious game play was quickly transformed into commoditized labor, as cheap, capable, Chinese youngsters were organized by upstart businesses to undertake grueling virtual activities. Such ‘gold farms’ thus functioned as exchanges. Through them, game currencies could be laundered into ‘real’ money. A Möbian economic circulation now crossed seamlessly between the virtual and the actual.

[1] See Denise Schmandt-Bessera, The Earliest Precursor of Writing (1977 / 06): “Evidently a system of accounting that made use of tokens was widely used not only at Nuzi and Susa but throughout western Asia from as long ago as the ninth millennium BC to as recently as the second millennium.”

[2] Morgen E. Peck writes: “… money is only the first, and perhaps the most boring, application enabled by Bitcoin technology.”

[3] Conceived as a popular cultural theme, the guideline to the plastic phase of money was invisibility. In this respect it evidences a teleological model, defining an axis of progress. Monetary improvement is sublimation, or dematerialization. In accordance with classical precedent, finality is identified with the pure idea, beyond all contamination by, or compromise with, particular substance. As previously noted, something more than a convergence with mathematical Platonism is at work here. The history of money – whether actual or fantastic – does not draw upon idealism as an extrinsic inspiration. Rather, it idealizes practically, and even preemptively. Elimination of friction – as implicit and later explicit goal – serves as a convenient proxy for the monetary ideal. Keynesian derision of the “barbarous relic” – the primitive lump sum – is once again the critical reference. Progress – conceived implicitly as financial dematerialization – is projected into space as a ripple pattern. Differential adoption rates and patterns of diffusion mark out stages of development, organized by a definite telos (distinguishing advanced from primitive money). According to this schema, at the end of money, the transaction coincides exactly with its Idea. The medium is then nothing. If the notion of a direct private relation without frictional mediation carries certain historic-religious associations, these are probably not coincidental.

[4] The term ‘credit card’ seems to have first been employed by Edward Bellamy, in his utopian-socialist novel Looking Backward (1887). 

[5] Marc Andreessen says of Bitcoin, in a Washington Post interview (May 21, 2014): “…if we had had this technology 20 years ago, we would’ve built it into the browser. […] E-commerce would’ve gotten built on top of this, instead of getting built on top of the credit card network. We knew we were missing this; we just didn’t know what it was. There is no reason on earth for anybody to be on the Internet today to be typing in a credit card number to buy something. It’s insane …”

[6] PayPal was created from the merger of Confinity (founded in December 1998 by Ken Howery, Max Levchin, Luke Nosek, and Peter Thiel) with (founded in March 1999 by Elon Musk). The new company was established in March 2000, acquiring its name the following year. PayPal went public in February 2002, in an IPO that generated over $61 million. The company was sold to eBay in July of the same year for $1.5 billion. (The resulting Musk and Thiel fortunes have been among the most nourishing seed-beds of 21st century capitalism.) The extreme synergy between eBay’s online market-making business and PayPal’s secure digital payment service propelled its initial growth, first in the US, then through eBay’s international business, and finally beyond eBay. PayPal was spun-off from eBay in July 2015, following the firm recommendation of hedge fund manager Carl Icahn. It began to accept bitcoin in September 2014, announcing partnerships with Coinbase, BitPay, and GoCoin. While PayPal has been rewarded by the market for its pioneering role in facilitating financial transactions over electronic networks, its limitations are severe, and in the age of cryptocurrency increasingly obvious. Its users are entirely unprotected from the company’s radical discretion, and receive no exit benefits from the service in respect to the national-financial regime in which they operate. Essentially, PayPal adds a new ‘trusted third party’ to the financial ecology, and one of minimal autonomy. Nothing very much has been disrupted by it.

[7] The resonance between mobile consumer technology and portability as an essential monetary quality cannot be coincidental to the emergence of mobile currency. A desktop wallet is patently inconvenient. By its abstract nature, money is destined to eventual convergence with the communicative situation in general, which it tends to haunt as an accessible semiotic dimension. Wherever speech can occur, the potential for contractual execution will finally follow. Only in this way is Homo economicus completed. At the confluence of these currents lies the inevitable formula: Money is speech. It not only assumes, in the Anglosphere cultural context, informal and formal constitutional protection in the cynical culmination of liberalism. The claim extends further – into identity with the claim as such. Money – the pure power of acquisition – seizes for itself the mantle of realizable logos. The conceptual fusion of the smart contract is reversible. Transactions can be augmented by machine intelligence because intelligence is inherently transactional. Minds and market-places tend to convergence.

[8] The scale of WeChat (微信, Wēixìn) can be hard for those outside China to appreciate. With over a billion regular users, the application is truly ubiquitous. WeChat messaging accounts for over a third of the country’s (massive) mobile phone usage.

[9] Given the striking philosophical importance of (ludic) virtual currencies, the social under-development of the problem is remarkable. An obvious exit ramp from the Macro financial regime has been almost entirely ignored.

Crypto-Current (057)

§5.7 —Nick Szabo begins his (2005) proposal for ‘Bit gold’[1] with the remark: “A long time ago I hit upon the idea of bit gold. The problem, in a nutshell, is that our money currently depends on trust in a third party for its value. …” Even monetized precious metals, he notes, have involved trusted third parties in their validation. Worse still “you can’t pay online with metal. Thus, it would be very nice if there were a protocol whereby unforgeably costly bits could be created online with minimal dependence on trusted third parties, and then securely stored, transferred, and assayed with similar minimal trust. Bit gold.” Bit gold in this respect is indistinguishable from Bitcoin.

§5.71 — There is something at work here that the psychoanalytically-inclined might gloss as a return of the repressed. Since the triumph of paper over metal has been the central public narrative of 20th Century monetary history, the effect is unsettling – even uncanny. The metallic model was supposed to have been left behind. More specifically, the populations of ‘sophisticated’ or macroeconomically-managed and thus at least partially post-capitalist societies were supposed to have been educated out of it, automatically. Nothing more distinctly signals economic primitivism among such peoples than metalized wealth. Explicit lessons had seemed unnecessary, therefore. A return of gold from the economic margins looked no more likely than a restoration of Germanic Paganism.[2]

§5.72 — Among the attractions of abstract metal, none exceeds its inherited, intrinsic, adamantine resistance to discretion. Formalized negatively, with maximum concision, Alchemy is impossible.[3] Gold has no greater virtue than this. It precludes magic, as silver repels werewolves.[4] The replication of this characteristic within a digital simulation is Bitcoin’s most basic achievement. It has realized homeopathic gold. Not a molecule of the original substance remains, yet the solution still delivers the cure. Fully-abstract gold has been modernity’s obscure goal from the beginning. ‘Invisible’ credit money was its defective preliminary draft. Bitcoin, it turns out, is the true Philosopher’s Stone.

§5.73 — Since Bitcoin has no central mint, it cannot generate revenue in a way strictly equivalent to seigniorage. It does, however, permit of a close analog. Early-stage miners of Bitcoin (or any related cryptocurrency) are able to accumulate substantial holdings with comparative ease, perhaps amounting to a significant proportion of the total (ultimate) stock. Similarly, early speculative investors can afford to take a commanding position in the currency during the early stages of introduction, when its price remains comparatively – and even, one might speculatively predict, absurdly – low. Of course, the introduction of speculative hazard into this analysis is already the pre-emption of a capitalistic justification. Once Bitcoin’s prospects begin to be taken seriously, these early intimations of moral-political discomfort translate into acute concerns about the profound inequality of bitcoin distribution,[5] pitched upwards into vociferous fervor in direct proportion to the extent that such spiky stock holdings could now actually mean something. Yet even for the super-rich – defined narrowly for these purposes as those with personal assets exceeding the value of the entire bitcoin supply at present prices – optimizing a financial position in the crypto-currency at this early stage in its history involves a complex game. Since any attempt to monopolize the entire stock of coins would suppress the value of BTC as a circulatory medium, it would be predictably self-defeating. The value of any currency has necessarily to be a more or less direct function of its social diffusion.[6] There can be little doubt that such calculations are in fact taking place, and their outcome – even, roughly, their ‘equilibrium’ – is among the crucial determinations of the bitcoin price. Currency monopolization – understood as ownership, rather than issuance, of the entire monetary stock – is an inherently paradoxical project.

§5.74 — It is easy to deride the notion of monetary ‘backing’ for its naivety (or in a more contemporary idiom ‘pwnedness’). The idea has become a popular icon of duped thought. Its application to Bitcoin has therefore to be considered among the very weakest of criticisms, notable more as a symptom than an argument. There is – of course – nothing at all ‘behind’ (or ‘backing’) Bitcoin beyond the implemented Bitcoin protocol itself. This is not a unique feature. It merely makes Bitcoin post-classical (‘modern’) money. It is not being unbacked that makes it modern. Nothing was ever ‘backed’ beside deposit receipts. It is the relevance of a question of backing that carries the marker of modernity. Modernity in money is ecological coexistence with residual promises to pay. Naivety and cynicism are co-produced by it. Since the abolition of the gold standard, monetary ‘backing’ has been solely political. It rests upon the credibility of an issuing authority, which in turn rests upon more fundamental public perceptions of the durability, competence, and constrained malignancy of a regime.

§5.741 — The phased process of demetallization might appear to tell a story of cumulative monetary degeneration. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret this process as a dissolution of secure foundations. There is no type of money – however metallic – that can lay claim to an absolutely inherent value, extricable from a speculative assessment of its acceptability.[7] The desirability of a monetary medium cannot finally be grounded in its substantial properties, but only in the dynamic assessment of these properties, occurring within a market context. Its value is solely ‘based’ upon the system of scarcity it creates, insofar as this is latched onto by network effects. In consequence, money is essentially prone to ontological crisis – when it is discovered to be nothing in itself. Bitcoin accelerates the advance of monetary theory into cybernetic fundamentalism. It’s turtles – or, more precisely, feedback dynamics – all the way down. By philosophical analogy, the metallist theory of money corresponds to a pre-critical epoch, and the fiat era to an idealist efflorescence of elaborate, exhaustively constuctionist anti-realism. Cryptocurrency initiates a double-sided (transcendental realist) correction. Monetary value finds no ground outside the circuit, but the circuit is ontologically autonomous.

§5.742 — Currency[8] is money apprehended as a means of payment, flowing through transactions as a circulatory medium. Its principal virtue – liquidity – is a measure of how readily it is accepted in exchange for goods and services. ‘Acceptability’ is thus roughly synonymous with commercial value. Yet, when the acceptability of any currency is analyzed, it is found to depend primarily – if not exactly ‘originally’ – upon how widely it is accepted. However tempting it may be to dismiss such a nakedly circular definition as an absurdity, the formulation is deliberate, and informative. The acceptability of money is irreducibly self-referential. Money is acceptable in any particular case only because it is acceptable in general, while generality is a cumulative product of particularity, and nothing besides. The nonlinearity is essential, rather than accidental, and cannot be resolved into anything more fundamental. This is evidently a problem of the ‘chicken-and-egg’ type, characteristic of positive feedback dynamics. Thus, as previously noted (perhaps obsessively), the virtuous circle of liquidity translates, without remainder, into a display of network effects. The utility of a network, to each individual user, grows superlinearly with the number of users. With currency, as with all systems that generate positive returns to scale, ‘nothing succeeds like success’, and there is ultimately nothing to success besides. There is no basis of value to be excavated beyond or beneath its own self-reinforcement. The supreme, self-grounding virtue of acceptability is thus practically revealed. Conceptually, acceptability is integrative, since the functions of money as a store of value and as a unit of account can be gathered under it (distinguished only formally, rather than substantially). We enter the cybernetic abyss, without transcendent ground. The succinct account of this dynamic provided by Koen Swinkels cannot easily be improved upon:

Ultimately the only thing that matters in people’s decision to use bitcoins as a medium of exchange is their expectation that enough other people will accept it as payment in the future. That alone is enough basis for people to buy bitcoins now and to invest in the bitcoin infrastructure now. […] The circularity involved in the argument is unmistakable but unavoidable and, according to the bitcoin enthusiasts, unproblematic. That’s just the thing about a good that is used as money or is expected to be used as money in the future: people value the good because they think that enough other people will value it. The circularity is just the network effect in action.[9]

§5.75 — Since Bitcoin advocacy is indissociable from claims about the quality of money, it is propelled into a collision with Gresham’s Law, as popularly – and quite adequately – summarized by the maxim bad money drives out good. Gresham-effects can be easily recognized in modern life. Given two cash notes, one pristine, the other crumpled, stained, and taped together, which would one expect the holder to be inclined to part with first? In an earlier monetary era, characterized by widespread coin-clipping – rather than germ-saturated paper – the economic significance of such decisions was more substantial. As exemplified by such examples, the most intuitively compelling application of Gresham’s Law is to physical cash. The classic archaic case concerns two coins of identical nominal value, but differentially clipped. The negative comparative appeal of the ‘short’ coin – which any holder wants as soon as possible to be rid of – accelerates its currency. A ‘pass-the-parcel’ dynamo is envisaged. Implicit within this model is the proposition that the disposal, rather than acceptance, of currency is the primary driver of its circulation. There is a crucial irony – which we will return to in its other guises – that the spontaneously-concerted attempt to shed bad money looks indistinguishable from an illustration of good money, especially when hoarding is conceived as an anti-social economic vice. Money is most stimulative when it is least wanted.[10] Yet this assumption requires a peculiar inversion. Since even minimal acceptability is non-mandatory under ordinary economic conditions, we can be confident that it is in fact the ‘good’ coin that propels the circulation of the ‘bad’ one, by sustaining the standard of value which the inferior instance parasitizes. The tacit calculation involved in every acceptance of a bad coin includes the question as to whether it still suffices to pass as a acceptable money.  

[1] See:  

Among the comments, there is much of interest to be found. Sampled glancingly:  

“…you might want to check out It’s a decentralized, P2P, cryptocurrency based on a proof of work algorithm.”  

“Congrats on inventing BitCoin …”

“Thanks for laying the foundation for bitcoin Nick …”

“One day, people will look upon this post as the actual genesis moment of Bitcoin.”

[2] It would be tempting at this point to make a topic of progressive complacency, but in the present context it would be a digression too far. It need only be said that extravagant conclusions can easily be drawn from the realistic apprehension of ratchets. That there is no way back says much less about the resilience of the new order than is commonly supposed.

[3] Much could no doubt be made of the fact that Isaac Newton was both an alchemist and the Warden of the Royal Mint. It is surely unnecessary, nonetheless, to insist that we see here something other than a simple contradiction. The poacher-turned-gamekeeper phenomenon is surely an important part of the story. Having paid serious attention to the possibilities of magical money-creation, Newton was well-placed to understand how the enemies of hard money think.

[4] Thus gold is hated among magicians. The antagonism is explicit. In the Macro era, the gold market offers an audience reaction to financial conjuration. It measures negative applause. “Jim Grant … describes the price of gold as the reciprocal of the credibility of central banks …”


[5] In a (January 2014) article, Joe Weisenthal cites Citigroup currency analyst Steven Englander on the inequality of Bitcoin holdings. He attributes a Gini coefficient of 0.88 to its distribution. This significantly exceeds any wealth disparity ever measured within nation states. Despite this, Englander suggests the figure is probably an under-estimate.

[6] A fully-monopolized monetary stock would correspond to a multiplication by zero. In Libidinal Economy, Jean-François Lyotard applies exactly this formula to the classical mercantilist valorization of unbounded bullion accumulation, which is thus exposed as a political-economic death drive. Comprehensive possession of a commercial medium is self-extinguishing. A powerful trading position does not extrapolate to absolute concentration. In monetary matters, there can be no completion of advantage. This ‘paradox of wealth’ is further accentuated in the case of Bitcoin, since adoption in this case has to be coaxed, under conditions never less than difficult, and – at least potentially – openly hostile.

[7] To quote Michael Goldstein (@Bitstein, from a tweet 2015/01/13): “I rarely see skepticism of Bitcoin that is not more generally just skepticism of money.”

[8] A currency (from Middle English: curraunt, “in circulation”, from Latin: currens, -entis) is money circulating as a medium of exchange.

[9] See:

[10] Gresham’s Law identifies the attractiveness of a monetary medium as a source of commercial friction. Monetary quality, under the most straightforward construction of the argument, poses an intrinsic obstacle to spending. Money is thus already modeled, implicitly, as ideally repulsive. In this regard, Keynesian Macro appears as a higher Greshamism. Good and bad switch places. Or rather, the good money people would prefer to keep is denounced as an evil temptation to ‘cash preference’. It is the bad money, intrinsically motivating its own disposal, which now counts as ‘good’. A slave revolt in monetary theory has then taken place.

Crypto-Current (056)

§5.66 — Liquidity is valuable, uncontroversially.[1] It has a price. This is to say, reciprocally, that illiquid assets trade at a discount. Financial systems therefore automatically assimilate the concept of liquidity to that of risk, which configures illiquidity as negative investment quality. The essential – and innovative – macroeconomic contention is that liquidity preference, beyond a certain threshold, becomes excessive, malignant, and self-contradictory. Rather than returning to equilibrium, it feeds positively upon itself. Generalized investment aversion drains the pool of liquid assets, on a spiral into depression. Spending, then, is a social obligation, whose collective importance justifies suppression of private discretion. In this way, macroeconomics provides a specific model for the tragedy of economic liberty. This is its most profound counter-modernist theme. It is an argument translatable without remainder into the language of contradiction. On such lines, macroeconomics can be configured as an elaborated sub-plot within the critique of political economy initiated by Marxian historical materialism.

§5.661 — When configured in terms of mass social psychology, the thirst for liquidity expresses distrust, or negative confidence. Conceived economically, it is disinvestment. Conceived politically, it is dissent. Only liberalism, of the old type, would dissuade a regime from seeking to suppress it, and Macro – which is always Macro in power – means that liberalism is dead. The point can be made more strongly. Macro is the death of liberalism, in power.  

§5.662 — All earnest pretension to ‘counter-cyclical policy’ notwithstanding, the systematic asymmetry is manifest. Politics tends to soft money. Governments – especially democratic governments – do not pass marshmallow tests. “In the long run we are all dead,” Keynes famously quipped, and in doing so the voice of the state – now channeled by macroeconomics – was immediately audible. Delayed gratification was being explicitly re-modeled as a bourgeois vice. Created to ‘manage’ long-wave capitalist down-turns, and then to economic contractions of even minimal severity – its interventions scaled down by an order or magnitude to the pulse rate of (roughly) five-year business cycles – Macro tends to configure itself as the correction to capitalism in general. Globalization is deflationary, because it operates to control prices, through arbitrage. Technological efficiencies are an even stronger driver, in the same direction. The relation of macroeconomic stimulation to the capitalistic mechanization and globalization of production can therefore be understood as compensatory. Macro tacitly legitimates itself as an antidote to deep deflationary dynamics inherent to the modern economy. It is designed to make money soft.

§5.663 — While it requires a portrait of Macro – as a consummate regime – to see where we are, the picture takes us away from money, rather than toward it. Crypto-currency is the negative of all this.[2] It shorts political economy in general. The broad contours of a Micro Counter-Revolution are for the first time definitely indicated. Macro is essentially oriented against saving. In striking contrast, Bitcoin invents the ‘hodler’ who disdains short-term market interventions.[3] This is nothing less than the synthesis of a new bourgeois mentality or its substitute. A fierce re-animation of prudence accompanies the cryptic Micro insurrection. It understands, this time around, that it has dedicated enemies, true opponents, and not merely feckless villains indifferent to its virtues. Since Keynes, incontinence has been a cause, and then – almost immediately afterwards – a regime. All capacities for prudential self-protection outside state guarantees have been targeted explicitly for destruction. This is the framework within which money has been increasingly understood. Everyone should know, by now, what happens to ‘hoarders’ under socialism. Macro is only very slightly more subtle. Stigmatized liquidity preference is legible enough. The cultural importance of the intrinsic Bitcoin ideology follows from this. To ‘hodl’ is to hoard defiantly, in explicit recognition of the socio-political game being played. It is to save, not merely for the future, but for an impending revolution in the order of time. The value of Bitcoin, in this critical regard, is that of an option for liquidity preference that cannot be politically neutralized. It is the anti- New Deal. In other words, it is the Old Deal, but this time capable of protecting itself. No one is any longer relied upon to keep it. It keeps itself. That’s what algorithmic governance means.

§5.664 — As money has ‘evolved’ the axis of inflation-deflation became ever more strongly determining. Money’s dimension of variance through depreciation or appreciation is the carrier of its macroeconomic control function. As a good tool, it keeps the potential distractions of ulterior features to itself. Value is the message it is trained to focus upon. Also ever more, it seems ever thus. Yet ‘inflation’ is only superficially a trans-historical economic category. Over the past half millennium three distinct – if over-lapping – phases are identifiable. These can be related to the very different dynamics of monetary asset (bullion) glut, excessive (private) credit creation, and national macroeconomic relaxation. In each case there is an expansion of supply, which becomes inflationary when it results in a comparative abundance of money (relative to the general level of economic production). Such formal equivalence, however, offers little concrete guidance to the specific working of each monetary regime. Insofar as fractional reserve and then central banking can be seen to obey pre-existing economic laws, the insight is overwhelmingly retrospective. Neither innovation was discoverable through such compliance. On the pattern of the synthetic a priori, their necessity was found late. This – alone – can also be expected from what comes next.

§5.665 — Crypto-currencies initiate a new phase in the history of inflation. Bitcoin, crucially, structurally forecloses inflationary processes of the three dominant antecedent types. Its absolute abundance is rigidly constrained, fractional reserve multiplication is invalidated (as ‘double spending’), and absolute ‘policy neutrality’ excludes macroeconomic laxity.[4] There is no tried-and-tested method of doing inflation with Bitcoin. This is not, however, to reach the end of the question. In the era of crypto-currency, appreciation-depreciation becomes ecological. It occurs between coins. Monetary pluralization, rather than monetary expansion, becomes the leading phenomenon.[5] After Macro, the deflationary dynamic reverts to a properly capitalistic – which is say Darwinian – distributed mechanism.

[1] Alfred Marshall’s variable k defines aggregate liquidity through the ratio of broad money to economic output. While the formula acquires a certain rigor through its approximation to sheer tautology, both of its productive terms are notably elusive. Neither ‘money’ nor ‘output’ can be realistically conceived as simple, elementary, unambiguously measurable, or categorically delimited. Each is as plausibly captured by the processing of the other through k as by some supposedly primary factual apprehension. Macro, of course, fully – or at least very substantially – understands this. It takes perverse institutional (i.e. guild) pride in the inadequacy of its foundations, when inspected from the inside.

[2] The realization that Bitcoin is an implicit threat to the entire edifice of the reigning macroeconomic order had been refracted, by end-2017, into Internet clickbait. “Dutch national newspaper urges people to sell all their Bitcoins as it undermines the government, could destabilise the economy and reduces the power of central banks.”

[3] To hodl is to hoard bitcoins, based on the presumption that they are radically undervalued relative to the eventual near-equilibrium level when they have come to denominate the principal terrestrial money system. The term seems to have been coined in late 2013, with the word freezing a comic misspelling. (“Hold on for Dear Life” is a subsequent humorous acronymic.) See:

[4] Pierre Rochard describes Bitcoin’s “non-discretionary monetary policy” as “asymptotic money supply targeting (AMST)”.  

[5] It should perhaps be noted that within the world of crypto commentary, this thesis is highly controversial.

Crypto-Current (055)

§5.65 — When conceived theoretically – or targeted administratively – as a macroeconomic aggregate, the ‘quantity of money’ turns out to be an extraordinarily elusive object. Two sources of complexity are especially notable. Firstly, the effective quantity of money is a twin-factor product, comparable to physical momentum, of monetary mass multiplied by velocity (the macroeconomic ‘multiplier’).  Secondly, the nature of money is inherently multiple, and intensive. This is formally recognized by the systematically differentiated – and nested – monetary definitions (M0, M1, M2, M3 … Mn …MΩ) employed by economists and financial professional.[1] Any asset of non-zero liquidity is money to some degree of intensity. (Monetary intensity is approximated by the reciprocal of the index.) Between the speeds and types of money there is only illusory orthogonality, or theoretical decomposition of the diagonal.

§5.651 — The most consequential area of controversy within the macroeconomic era – with intellectual roots that can be pursued back to the 16th century – concerns the relation of the velocity of money to its quantity. According to Irving Fisher’s formula MV = PQ, when the quantity of money and goods (‘M’ and ‘Q’) is held constant, the price level (‘P’) becomes a function of monetary velocity (‘V’). Potentially, and as a matter of historical fact, an entire technoscience of monetary management follows. Any authority that is attributed with responsibility for the money supply is compelled to concern itself with liquidity. Tightening-loosening defines the control axis.

§5.652 — Given the extreme complications of technical monetary analysis, it is not unrealistic to describe macroeconomics as the monetary neo-baroque. Its elaborations are implicitly unlimited. To present its convolutions as ultimately manageable requires a more-or-less cynical public relations exercise. It cannot be admitted – for reasons of trust-preservation – that the final overseers of the financial world do not have, and cannot have, any definite idea what money is. MΩ has no calculable determination. Far more importantly, at the other extreme, M0 is an advanced edge, and not a settled reality. It designates the intensive frontier of cash, commercial liquidity, or what money can do, as it has yet been historically encountered. In other words, it is problematic rather than theorematic, experimental rather than conceptual. Mx deranges all the formulas. We haven’t seen anything yet. Crypto-currency is showing us that.  §5.653 — To refer to a neo-baroque is to invoke a decadent paradigm, in something like the Kuhnian sense.[2] Ptolemaic cosmology is the unsurpassable model. Crucially, it is indefinitely expandable. As it decays, epicycles accumulate, but never to a point of intrinsic lethality. There is no such point. The fundamental error is wholly retrospective. It would be no less mistaken to imagine the monetary neo-baroque dying from its own exploding complexity. Macro need only add epicycles. Nothing impedes such a development. Computers and professional hyper-specialization even facilitate it. Simplicity is for gold-bugs, and other primitives. If Macro’s hypertrophic theoretical complexity appears increasingly magical – so much the better. Magic, as we have repeatedly seen, is functional. What matters to Macro – as institution, meta-institution, or regime – is primarily the credible illusion of understanding. That is where its authority lies. Macroeconomics must only pretend to a theoretical competence that is practically unobtainable. In this it epitomizes the socio-cultural status of expertise in progressive modernity, if not something far more general. Clerical authority has always rested on a pretention to mastery of that which is a mystery even to itself. Nothing new is to be expected there. Innovation arrives from outside.

[1] Precise definitions of the monetary phases have not been internationally standardized. The principle, however, is uncontroversial. Money is defined as a series of nested categories, proceeding from the narrowest to the broadest types (with the latter enveloping the former). Monetary ‘narrowness’ closely tracks liquidity. The extreme of narrow money, M0, is cash. Broader phases of money include bank credits, of incrementally rising maturity, and other comparatively viscous financial assets. Typically (but with some national variance), M0 is strict cash, M1 encompasses M0 and cash-like equivalents, M2 adds current accounts, M3 adds longer-term bank deposits and similar financial assets, while M4 (and higher) extends to monetizable assets and investments on longer time-horizons. Broader phases are more inclusive, more complex, more diverse, and of lower mean liquidity. They therefore exemplify, most obviously, the Monetary Neo-Baroque. A tempting error would be to construe the monetary phases as ascending from the intuitively accessible into lofty technical obscurities. … Cash is cryptic. …

[2] Thomas Kuhn outlined his catastrophic model of scientific history in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). He argues that empirical research is necessarily dominated by a conceptual framework which is comparatively resilient in respect to factual disconfirmation. When expressed at this level of generality, this is not a conclusion unique to Kuhn. It is one way that Kant’s Copernican Revolution is expressed through the philosophy of science. Data is never unframed.

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§5.6 — Once extracted from a domestic competitive environment, through establishment of a state monopoly of currency issuance, money supply is exempted from commercial spontaneity and becomes a macroeconomic problem. This is to say that it acquires the status of an overseen aggregate. Money is no longer conceived primarily as a kind, or as a distribution, but as a whole. It is envisaged in entirety.

§5.61 — It might be asked whether the term ‘macroeconomics’ has anything reasonably described as a common usage. The word is intrinsically extraordinary. It implies a very specific structure of professionalization, and credentialized expertise. In its maximally-reified sense – as it is employed here – it also has a designation that might escape familiarity, and certainly seeks to. Macroeconomics is not merely an intellectual domain, or its corresponding social object, but a regime.[1] Positive institutions are essential to it. These cross, consistently, between the realms of academic research and social administration. The theoretical procedures under consideration here are essentially managerial, shaped originally by policy orientation. The model macroeconomic thought-experiment takes the form: What if the government did X? Thesis and recommendation are one. Macro never speaks, then, without a side-address – at least – to the state. Power is endogenous to it. The ambiguity between Macro the thing and macroeconomics as a research domain naturally – and strategically – elicits confusion. Macro is a singular catastrophe in the technical sense, which is to say a systemic phase transition, but also – from certain inherently fragmentary and now systematically marginalized perspectives – an actual socio-historical disaster. The clue to Macro, so telling as to pass almost for a synonym, is oversight. It is lodged in that part of the social organism tasked with supervision of the whole.

§5.611 — Between the whole and its parts lies something more than a difference in scale. In no case does one simply scale-up to totality. The whole appears only to oversight (or is made to seem so). It is thus tempting to conceive macroeconomics as a structure of visibility.[2] Its essence is defined by what is called to appear before it. Any tribunal is like this. The economy is to be brought before Macro for inspection, judgment, and correction. Macro, then, is a massive, complex, pseudo-transcendent operation in the name of the whole, conducted upon the axis of trust, or confidence. It is the metaphysics proper to the economic realm. In the alien language of German idealist philosophy it might be characterized as central banking for-itself. In this respect, among others, it could not be anything other than the mainstream magical tradition.  

§5.62 — On the singular path actually taken by the world, money is recomposed as a Macro aggregate, the money supply. Under retrospective consideration, some such thing has long existed. In the same way, volcanoes erupted with a bang before anything with ears could hear them. But it is only in this way that Macro aggregates pre-existed the managerial structures which formulate them. The model of money as debt has limits, and thus provokes critique. Neither precious metals nor crypto-currencies can be assimilated to it. Positive monetary assets (collectibles) are its unthinkable outside.

§5.63 — According to the quantity theory of money, money supply determines the general price level. The economic consensus on this point is so broad it approaches recognition of a tautology.[3] After all, it would be strange indeed if money – the model object for economic estimation – were to be exempt from elementary principles of supply and demand. Although meeting a reception in popular culture appropriate to a tendentious claim, Milton Friedman’s succinct maxim that “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon” is in actuality almost entirely uncontroversial. The fundamental idea is one that even the Antichrist of today’s hard-money advocates, John Maynard Keynes,[4] subscribed to – without serious hesitation. Any instance of economic value is a registration of scarcity, and the value of money is only a special case of this general rule. It is, of course, in recognition of this utterly pedestrian claim that scarcity is included in any list of the essential properties required by a monetary medium. In the extreme case, glut destroys economic value. It is therefore understandable that the tendency among economists has been to negotiate the terms of this formula’s application, rather than to challenge it at a fundamental level. Submerged – very slightly – beneath the macroeconomic argument lies the real topic, which is institutional discretion in respect to money-supply management, and therefore the politics of trust. To what extent should controlled monetary debasement be available as an option to the regime?

§5.64 — The central Keynesian argument, as formulated in his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), has surely to be included among the most influential in history. Its unique virtue, from the perspective of the modern nation state, was to provide a rationalization for currency debasement. No previous political power had ever been blessed with such a thing. A Roman Emperor adulterating the coinage harbored no illusion about the essential corruption of the undertaking. It was nakedly a swindle, whose advantages overrode reservation. Now, however, there was for the first time an articulate justification for what was essentially the same procedure. Macro grounds its legitimacy in the proposition that programmatic monetary devaluation can, under certain circumstances, have positive aggregate economic effects, by contributing to the mobilization of unemployed resources stranded in social ‘liquidity traps’. This trade-off between inflation and unemployment – formalized in the Phillips Curve – has insinuated itself deeply into macroeconomic intuition, surviving even the complete collapse of its supportive empirical regularities during the ‘stagflationary’ 1970s.[5] It relates the inflation rate to an ideal socio-political equilibrium point, and therefore defines a managerial responsibility. Money is now indexed to a thermostat. It can be too hot (‘loose’) or cold (‘tight’). The regulatory imperative thus codified transcends any specific empirical hypothesis. The hypothesis is adjustable, and even radically replaceable. The new power, once installed, is far more resistant to retraction. Once the case for a campaign against ‘cash preference’ has been entrenched at the level of mass psychology, its theoretical foundations become dispensable. The communist and fascist anti-bourgeois tide of the 1930s found its principal Anglo-American expression in Keynesian macroeconomics. Here, too, ‘hoarding’ was denounced as a crime against the collective.[6] Implicit socialization of all economic resources was made rigorously axiomatic. There is nothing so fragile as a mere theory, here, then. Rather, there is the maturation of a socio-political program. The theory flexibly rationalizes a regime.

§5.641 — At the greatest scale of historical analysis, Macro is characterized by the way it places itself beyond the bourgeois definition of civilization. Among modernity’s ascendant prudential classes, high time-preference (or low impulse-control) served as distinctive markers of barbarism. Civilization thus acquired a measure, corresponding to a time-horizon. Industrial civilization was based upon psychological tolerance for efficient indirect methods. Roundabout production had secured its ethic. Macro breaks with all of this. Imprudence is now re-valorized on Keynesian grounds as pro-social stimulation. To spend is glorious. Anti-bourgeois cultural politics and administrative economic doctrine become one.

[1] Is Macro a regime, or does it decompose (diachronically) into regimes? The question might be inelegantly re-phrased: Would this vocabulary not better be reserved for a compendium of macroeconomic regimes (plural), in the sense that, for instance, Mark Blyth uses the term (to distinguish, in particular, social democratic and neoliberal eras)? The significance of the transition at the center of Blyth’s analysis is beyond all serious controversy. Yet, upon examination, the problem tends to self-liquidation. Social democracy underwent neoliberal transformation at the point when its stagflationary crisis became politically unsustainable. Unelected central bankers could do what democratic politicians could not (save the system, through ‘sado-monetarism’ – to use UK Labor Party Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey’s apt expression). The break, nevertheless, occurred within Macro. Regime continuity was its presupposition. Between social democracy and neoliberalism there is nominal independence, but dynamic complicity. The latter corrects the former, and makes no sense outside this context. It was a reaction, of near-mechanical predictability. Macro encompasses the oscillation.

[2] James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed undertakes a celebrated critique of ‘high modernism’ conceived as a system of visibility. Its mode of analysis thus bears comparison with Foucault, in applying philosophical criticism of the construction of objects to the social field. Such analysis, predictably, has distinctively anarchistic slant.

[3] The ‘quantity theory of money’ (i.e. of inflation) can be traced back to Nicolaus Copernicus. Subsequent proponents have included Jean Bodin, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill, among very many others. Its insistence should not be surprising. The principle of scarcity – that for any commodity abundance is inversely related to price – is a candidate for the most basic of all economic intuitions. It is unlikely that any market agent has ever seriously doubted it. Milton Friedman writes in The Counter-Revolution in Monetary Theory (1970): “Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon in the sense that it is and can be produced only by a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output. … A steady rate of monetary growth at a moderate level can provide a framework under which a country can have little inflation and much growth. It will not produce perfect stability; it will not produce heaven on earth; but it can make an important contribution to a stable economic society.”  

[4] While Keynes’ reputation as the arch-inflationist among serious economic authorities is amply justified by his influence, it is less easy to square – consistently – with the letter of his text. His early writings are especially notable in this regard. Perhaps no one has ever understood the ruinous effects of inflation better. As he remarks: “Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become ‘profiteers’, who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds and the real value of the currency fluctuates wildly from month to month, all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless; and the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. […] Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.” – The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), Chapter VI, pp. 235-236.

[5] If the highly-contested term ‘neoliberalism’ is determined with primary attention to its historical limits, it coincides with a naïve confidence in the mortality of Keynesianism. The empirical commitment upon which it assumed Keynesianism would perish is easily sketched. According to the Keynesian Macro consensus, as it prevailed up until the late 1970s, the most fundamental relationship between inflation and unemployment was conceived as negative, or compensatory. It thus supported trade-offs. In the post-war Western order, an entire structure of socio-political negotiation had been erected upon this foundation. Dynamic tension between the quality of money and the quantity of employment opportunity became an arena – and even a proxy – for class struggle. Money was publicly degraded in the cause of social peace. The breakdown of this theoretical relationship was signaled by a stagflationary trend. Stagflation is an important word in the history of recent political-economic regimes, because it announces a cybernetic inversion. Under stagflationary conditions, unemployment and inflation advance together, without prospect of cross-substitution. They exhibit positive, rather than negative, cybernetic linkage. Between this acknowledgement and neoliberalism in its compact historical sense, there is no difference. Monetarism and Rational Expectations were the critical counter-thrusts to the prevailing Keynesian consensus. Monetarism challenged the Keynesian contention that the responsibilities of financial authorities and central banks ever extended to anything beyond conservative monetary management, oriented to price stability alone. The rational expectations analysis of thinkers such as Edmund Phelps and Robert Lucas argued that inflationary policy orientation would eventually be fully discounted, as populations factored it into their economic calculations. It worked then only in the short-term, as a confidence trick does until recognized. This period of efficacious money magic does not last long. As confidence tricks go, inflation is remarkable for its crudity. Macro, then, could not help but train its own marks to neutralize it. It was the epistemological differential between policy agents and targets that did all the work. Once the recipients of central bank scrip understood what was being done to them, it was all over. An epoch was closed. Yet the peculiar resilience of Macro to empirical contradiction is no less an intrinsic characteristic. Prolonged failure to grasp this has had far-reaching socio-political consequences. The ‘neoliberal’ epoch – to use the term now in a more relaxed acceptation as favored on the Left – has proven strangely inept at carrying through a cultural revolution against economic orthodoxy. Its brief ‘monetarist’ heyday succeeded only in reinforcing the dependency of market-positive and disinflationary social outcomes on the democratic-political cycle, by consolidating their formulation as policy options. The effects of this have been predictably perverse. Those firmly market-based (‘Austrian’) perspectives that had opposed the rising macroeconomic regime from the point of its emergence remained entirely marginalized, excepting only a few impressionistic, decontextualized fragments, filtered through Hayek. It is tempting to conclude that the institutional requirements of academic and administrative economic authority dictated a state-managerialist doctrine in respect to money, immune to all empirical or theoretical contravention. There is here a matter of comparatively simple political right – that of oversight – masked as a complex scientific proposition. Once monetary value is based on the potential to extinguish tax liabilities, it is implicitly defined as an obligation to the state. Absolute subordination of civil society is then conceptually fundamental. It is not ‘Keynesian theory’, narrowly conceived, that stands in principled opposition to the autonomous determination of property and its corresponding monetary order, therefore, but rather the Macro regime as such. Radical naivety in this regard was constitutive of the late-20th Century ‘Neoliberal’ moment, and finally fatal to it. Macro is essentially illiberal. It cannot in any serious way be reformed. The only way past Macro is around it.   

[6] The systematic macroeconomic conflation of the prudential and the anti-social is an innovation of great consequence. It prepares for the partial displacement of the Principle Political Dimension into the ‘culture wars’ of the late 20th century. Mere continence had now been reconfigured as an anti-social disorder. More specifically, extended private time-horizons had been made an explicit target of political denunciation. Marshmallow-test winners were the new Kulaks. Their capacity to defer gratification had been theoretically-reconstructed as social aggression, expressed concretely as a denial of employment opportunities to the people. Macro’s cultural rebellion against impulse-control had begun. A campaign against saving (i.e. private capital accumulation) could now be conducted in the name of sexual liberation. Keynes’ Bloomsbury sexuality is a crucial reference in this respect. See, in particular, Hoppe:

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§5.59 — As financial modernity advances, ‘printing’ becomes an increasingly unreliable metaphor for money creation, even as paper continues to support its metaphors. The engine of currency production is no longer any kind of minting or printing, but (fractional-reserve) credit. At the limit, the formula of the Macro epoch is an equation of money and debt. Its foundations are as old as Modernity, but no older. Mere centuries sufficed for it to fabricate the illusion of something more archaic, or even eternal.

§5.591 — Political economy is an apparent identity, but a real synthesis. It requires a coupling mechanism. Concretely, the crucial communication medium has been the bond market.[1] Given a fixed coupon, the effective interest rate will vary as the reciprocal of the bond price. The yield on government paper thus articulates a ‘market verdict’ on the political regime. It expresses something far more valuable than ideological affection, namely pragmatic confidence. The question addressed is only: Will this work? While stated confidence in government is communicated through a variety of professional channels, media, and electoral processes, revealed confidence is expressed through secondary markets in public debt. The bond market has provided such automatic commentary since the beginning of the modern period (already operating in the city states of Renaissance Italy), and can even – again concretely – be identified as an essential or defining component of modern political-economic governance. Capitalism might – quite sensibly – be taken to mean precisely this, at least up to the point currently reached. Political regimes make themselves an object of economic investment, inviting private wealth-holders to ‘go long’ government. Because this mechanism enables – to some effective degree – private markets in public policy, it provides the Macro regime with its most important feedback control. We meet Janus again (as with every social regime). Political-economy is only Janus’ modern name. The ambivalence is the engine. A hinged singularity produces effects of pseudo-universality on its public face, and intelligible incentives on its private face. Continuous temptation to resolution, in one or other direction, adds camouflage as a supplement. There’s a simple story you want to tell, which is how it hides.

§5.592 — Money has fully absorbed the ambivalence of political-economy. This has made it cryptic, quite beside it becoming cryptographic. It invites misapprehension. Of course, it is no secret that, historically, the promissory value of paper money has been very specifically tied to the prospect of redemption in precious metal. It is in fact almost, though not quite, the precise opposite of a secret – an anti-secret. With the consolidation of Macro, this has matured into a type of tolerated hypocrisy, and something like an inside joke. A concession to tradition is made where it appears most harmless. Much more is happening here, though, than a joke. The persistence of this image of value advances metallic durability into an abstracted dimension. Whenever money is momentarily jolted from its constitutive – cash-like – amnesia, it grates upon metal memory. Sheer semiotic inertia would suffice to ensure this, in the absence of any additional considerations. The Mises Regression Theorem acknowledges the same track-marks. Despite the appearance of anachronism, at no stage has this concrete definition of monetary obligation been formally updated. It has merely been repudiated. The commitment is restated without being maintained. This preserves it as a dramatic violation. To describe it as ritualistic sovereign transgression is not an excessive stretch. The repudiation of metallic obligation has been politically spectacular. Overt contempt for a nominally enduring formal constraint was itself sold as a viable – and indeed overwhelmingly dominant – socio-political position. The mass psychology of the New Deal remains entirely unintelligible until this is understood. The abuse was the attraction. In this way, as in so many others, the New Deal was classically fascist. When unleashed executive power is the selling-point, there is no inclination to conceal the broken leash. It takes the trampling of old constraints to legitimate a Caesar, and it takes a Caesar to master popularity. Only hopeless naivety would recognize FDR as anything else.  

§5.593 — Ever since the gold standard was ended, the principal support for monetary value has been the state guarantee of its acceptance for the extinction of tax obligations.[2] By denominating their exactions in the national currency, and thus authoritatively defining their medium of internal revenue, governments are able to support a very substantial demand-floor for their own paper (whether currency notes or bonds). Within this arrangement, socialist and nationalist themes are merged, without significant remainder on either side. Government market-making of this kind – in which the state operates as a customer – fulfills an important mercantilist function. In most modern societies it has a wide domain of application, extending typically across business sectors more-or-less plausibly classed as ‘strategic’. Nowhere beyond the monetary sphere, however, is such a mercantilist program comparably cloaked by the purity of administrative fiat. The barrier posed to the adoption and spread of alternative currencies by the normalization of state-centric monetary nationalism vanishes beyond the horizon of public perception. It is only on the global periphery – among economies that are to some considerable extent ‘dollarized’ – that the nation state’s monetary power remains naturally conspicuous (and thus susceptible to refusal).

§5.594 — The spontaneous cosmopolitanism of the precious metal coin exposes – through contrast – the historical peculiarity of ‘globalization’ in the age of monetary nationalism. Metal maintains an exteriority in relation to the minting regime. Its value indexes a substance outside political dependency.[3] Government paper, in contra-distinction, requires additional institutional support. The decentralized verification process of the assay is not available, or relevant. What matters for verification now is only the authenticity of the statement, whose negative is forgery, or counterfeiting. The currency unit is irreducibly invested in its regime of issuance. Thus, forex operations become an institutional subspecies of international relations. Acceptance of a currency now implies substantive – rather than merely formal – political recognition. There can only be foreign exchange once the right to make promises has been granted to all relevant regimes.

[1] By productive irony, the primary meaning of the bond market is a secondary market in government paper. Efficient feedback is the result of a substantial step removal from participation. There is no direct engagement with the government here at all. Rather, there is something like detached commentary, but with every intellectual commitment put to the test, through bets. Neither citizen involvement, nor journalistic opinion, then, but an index of political-economic judgment supported by real incentives, and characterized by unprecedented objectivity. It is retreat from the public sphere – in both its practical and epistemological aspects – that allows for its neutral evaluation.

[2] Paul Krugman unexceptionably remarks: “Money is a pretty amazing thing. Why does a piece of green paper with a dead president on it have value? Ultimately, it’s because other people believe it has value, and [it] circulates. However, there is an anchor for dollar bills which is not gold. It is the fact that you can use it to pay taxes.”

See: Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz: The Genius of Economics

[3] The world’s first international currency of modern times, the Spanish Real de a Ocho or ‘Piece of Eight’ (Peso de Ocho), was a silver coin that monetized the precious metal acquisitions of the New World. Its value was invulnerable to hypothetical collapse – or even comprehensive annihilation – of the Spanish empire. The regime risk borne by those holding it was zero. Reciprocally, it involves minimal regime complicity. The Spanish empire was not being in any serious way automatically endorsed by those holding or trading in its currency. Hence classical mercantilism sought to deny foreign access to the national currency, with ‘losses’ of treasure analogized to bleeding. Since geopolitical legitimacy cannot be propagated through metal, no regime incentives exist to promote its diffusion.

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§5.58 — Central banking did not begin with the Bank of England, in exactly the same way that terrestrial capitalism did not originate among the Anglophone Powers. This is to say that a comparable ‘usurpation of destiny’ – in the full ambivalence of the term – is evident in both cases. Fate was settled on an English path, which took work.[1] An obscure opportunity for supra-national influence was captured, and became self-consolidating, through convergence. Which is to say: the occasion for financial elaboration found its strongest expression on the supra-national line. It was, from the beginning, world-historical.[2] In the final analysis, it has happened to peoples more than from them. Teleological instrumentalization of the English-speaking peoples, as agents of global process, has been no less basic than their adoption of new financial technologies. The two developments have been one. Central banking has been nationally functional to the exact extent it has been internationally competitive, and thus globally compelling. It won wars that mattered, first for the Dutch, then for the English. By the time the United States inherited managerial responsibility for the world order, its principles of financial sovereignty had been firmly set in place. The task of managing the national debt was, as a matter of concrete practicality, a military logistics function. It assured war-fighting capability at the highest level of strategic abstraction. Whatever was needed was made affordable. The consequences were consistently dramatic. Because the states that quickly took the lead in central banking were – not at all by coincidence – the successful vehicles of a supra-national (or global-revolutionary) undertaking, nothing like a simple nationalization of money was ever actually happening. Rather, the production of international reserve currency was becoming reflexive, and institutionally self-aware. This does not make monetary nationalism a mere illusion. The organizational level of the nation state did in fact become increasingly dominant, and all the more so when international adventure was at stake. It did not, however, control its own context. The supra-national process preceded, exceeded, and catalyzed all national developments, because the battlefield was the arena of selection. The history of central-banking is bound far more tightly to the production of world-money than happenstance could account for. The global revolutionary mission was primordial (i.e. essential, or intrinsic). In contra-distinction to the financial myth, sound domestic money management did not simply come first.

§5.581 — The Bank of England was incorporated by the 1694 Bank of England Act. However much centralized monopolization of bank note issuance now looks like the basic destiny of the institution, it was only very gradually established, over the course of more than two centuries of subsequent legislation.[3] It was not, therefore, a guiding project (in anything other than an obscure teleological sense). Monetary nationalism was only a slowly emerging outcome. It was fiscal nationalism that provided the primary imperative. Twin agendas were originarily complicit, directed at once to domestic financial stabilization and to state revenue-raising with a definite outward, geopolitical orientation. The incorporation of the Bank, then, marked a further step in the integration of modern banking with sovereign political power.

§5.582 — The much later US central banking Federal Reserve System is far more arcane than the Bank of England. It dates back only to the final days of 1913, as a creature of the Federal Reserve Act, through which Congress announced an American public (i.e. national) monetary policy. The institutional origin of the Federal Reserve is explicitly inseparable from a post-liberal ideology of money, which conceives it as an administrative tool, to be placed in the service of national economic objectives (the macroeconomic suite of full-employment, stable prices, and moderate interest rates).[4] The British experience had been educational, in this regard. Money had been re-minted as an imperial project, with twin global and domestic faces. Where the Pound Sterling had found itself elevated by fortune to the status of imperial scrip, the US Dollar now ventured onto the same path of geopolitical fatality with greater self-consciousness. The relation to war economy was effectively deepened. By the early 20th century it was obvious to all observers that the primary Anglophone world power could have no (merely) national interests that were not immediately matters of global geostrategic and ideological competition. The US Dollar could only be an architectural pillar of world order. To trust it was direct psychological investment in a planetary destiny.[5]  

§5.583 — Under conditions epitomized within the era of matured central banking, but by no means restricted to it, monetary value reduces ultimately to a political substrate, where confidence is maintained by evidence of effective power. This registers a critical inversion. The capacity to protect property begins to ‘appear’ – i.e. to trade – as its essence. Recognition of the ‘protection racket’ as a mode of criminal enterprise closely coincides with this development in time. Investors – including even mere holders of currency – have been re-sensitized to regime risk, which sub-divides into two broad (but intricately inter-articulated) categories. Firstly, the 20th Century has dramatically featured sheer expropriation, of the nationalist-communist type. In response, assets of any kind now feature some degree of Marxist discount. They are priced with a measure of definite regard to their vulnerability to government seizure, or ‘revolutionary redistribution’, which automatically increases yields in the most hazardous cases. The antithesis is practically assimilated. Secondly, and more subtly, political authority has been increasingly formalized as an asset class. No longer merely devoted to the protection of property, whether to a greater or lesser extent, it has itself become an object of comparatively direct financial investment. Government bonds offer a share in imperium. They securitize regime resilience and demographic purchase, or geopolitical capability.[6] Under conditions of global stress, most conspicuously, the lender of last resort transitions into a debtor of last resort, and thus a savings facility, socializing deferred private consumption through the medium of public financial obligations. The Federal Reserve Note is nothing less than a wager upon the future of America, its central government, and – most specifically – its taxation power. By extension, the exceptional global acceptance of the US dollar is an investment in American world order. All these relations are analytically reversible. Geopolitical crisis implies currency crisis, or – still further – potentially follows from one. The coin has two sides, and can be easily flipped. ‘Derealization’ into pure credit only accentuates money’s ambivalence. As it is incrementally demetallized, money takes the form of a promise, whose credibility is founded upon the public image of state power, as fully-expressed within both domestic and international contexts. Under such circumstances – especially when a global hegemon is in the spotlight – the stakes of a ‘monetary revolution’ are not easily over-estimated. Nor are its positive implications readily anticipated. The nature of money has long ceased to be separable from the order of the world.[7]  

[1] Within six years of the 1688 ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the installation of the Orange monarchy, the Bank of England was born. It is difficult, therefore, to miss seeing a transnational socio-historical project at its root. Many nations undoubtedly find a way to frame their fate exceptionally, within the terms of a mission exceeding common geopolitical interest. A country is thus conceived as a vehicle for something other than its people. The Glorious Revolution illuminates the English version of this. Protestantism and – more profoundly – capitalism is the cargo. Neal Stephenson’s ‘Baroque Cycle’ of historical novels captures the process in its cultural essentials. National independence, holy war, and unprecedented financial technology composed an original compact system. Catholic ‘conspiracy theory’ in this regard is not unwarranted. The hostile perspective of an E. Michael Jones brings out the contours of this new thing more sharply than its liberal defenders can. It was built so that schismatic theology might prevail in global conflict. With all due diligence to the hazards of unfettered teleological apprehension, it remains near-irresistible to ask: What was the Bank of England designed to finance? Nothing less than a planetary revolution could count as an adequate answer. The Dutch Revolt or Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) had set the template. Advanced financial infrastructure offered near-miraculous strategic geopolitical advantage. The defeat of the Spanish Empire in the Dutch independence struggle meant that the culture of modernistic schism, or autonomizing capital, would not be stopped. No future foe would present comparable challenges, whether estimated in terms of the apparent balance of forces, or even the clarity of ideological decision. Globalization in the ‘neo-liberal’ sense was henceforth implicit, dominating the historical horizon of the world. All of its subsequent contestants would be compelled to articulate their resistance within a framework fundamentally shaped by the liberation of Capital, and benchmarked to it.  

[2] There is no doubt a Globalist Idea and most probably several. The Oecumenon tilts towards one. (One is never less than simply compelling.) It would be precipitous, nevertheless, to assume that the supra-national points unambiguously towards global unity. Delocalization and globalism are synonymous only under strained dialectical assumptions. It takes more than an entire planet to complete the logical sense of a globe. Comprehensive globality has no possible empirical instantiation. Proselytizing religion is its natural territory, and it evokes concreteness only to mock it. From the perspective of oecumenical globalism, the empirical process necessarily underperforms at oversight. It is, critically, excessive in its singularity. Ethnic peculiarity, in particular, inflects it. There is no side-road back to the universal, even through a conception of ethnic peculiarity in general. Capital escapes exactly once. It therefore shrugs-off generic characterization. Concretely, within modernity, ‘supra-national’ has meant predominantly Anglophone. In addition, the requirement for expertise at delocalization almost sufficed in itself to ensure significant Jewish involvement, which the Protestant revolution notably facilitated. In can therefore be insisted, on grounds exceeding firm analogy, that globalization is not a project, in precisely the same sense that there is not an International Jewish Conspiracy. Which is to say that there is in both of these cases really something – and even the same thing – manifested as a structure of fate, though without commanding deliberation. The conspiratorial interpretation is encouraged (and simultaneously misled) by the fact there are not here simply two different things. Ayn Rand’s widely-derided identity assertion (“A = A”) finds productive application on this point. Capital – as historical fatality – is what it is and nothing more.

[3] The first Bank of England notes were issued in 1694, the year of the bank’s founding. Initially, they functioned as bank checks, written for arbitrary sums. Their denominations were not standardized until 1745. Large notes predominated. The smallest note issued by the Bank was £20 until 1759, worth £3,300 in 2017. Innovation tracked the cycles of the war economy. The first £10 note was issued during the Seven Years’ War, the first £5 note during the war with revolutionary France (in 1793), followed quickly by temporary £2 and £1 notes before the end of that same conflict, and the century. These early notes were units of government debt, but not circulating currency. It was not until 1855 that they became payable to the bearer, and thus freely exchangeable. In keeping with their new function as currency, the notes became entirely machine-printed in the same year. Previously, of course, standardized national currency production was the exclusive responsibility of the Royal Mint, as it had been since AD 886. Monetary transition into the fiat regime has been tracked by the rise of the Bank of England, and reciprocal marginalization of the Royal Mint (which continues to manufacture UK coinage to the present day, although now out of intrinsically near-worthless base metals). Issuance monopoly came slowly. Even the smallest banks were permitted to issue their own bank notes prior to the Bank of England Acts of 1708 and 1709. Currency issuance was actually liberalized by the 1826 Country Bankers Act, extending the right to print money to joint stock banks (meeting certain criteria of size, and distance from London). It was only with the 1844 Bank Charter Act that monotonic progression towards Bank of England currency monopolization was set unambiguously in motion, with removal of note-issuing rights from England’s last private note issuer (Fox, Fowler and Company of Somerset) following its acquisition by Lloyds Bank. The process was not fully completed until 1921. The comparatively rapid demotion of the UK from the geopolitical responsibilities of recent centuries took place over a small number of subsequent decades. Partial convergence with a broader European trend to currency integration was an indicator. The pound was only decimalized in 1971, following the entry of the UK into the European Common Market (predecessor to the European Union).

[4] The US central banking Federal Reserve System came into being on December 23, 1913, with the enactment of the Federal Reserve Act. The brief of the new institution, quite explicitly, was to subject financial market psychology to centralized governance. Specifically, it was designed to suppress panic. The most immediate reference was the 1907 Banker’s Panic or ‘Knickerbocker Crisis’ (named after the Knickerbocker Trust Company whose collapse triggered the nationwide financial catastrophe). In keeping with the modern formula, bank-runs had been the primary driver of cascading insolvency. Under American institutional conditions, there was no circuit-breaker in the process. This was the conclusion of an investigative commission into the panic, established and chaired by Senator Nelson W. Aldrich in 1908, which identified the country’s lack of a central bank as the root cause of the crisis. The Aldrich Commission proposals led directly to the creation of the Federal Reserve System. The new institutional structure, named with misleading simplicity as the Federal Reserve (or just ‘the Fed’), was characterized by Byzantine complexity. Its Board of Governors has seven members, appointed by the US President (subject to Senate confirmation) for 14-year terms. In order to maximize administrative continuity, and manifest independence, one member is appointed every two years (in a 14-year cycle). In addition, there are twelve regional federal reserve banks (FRBs). The entire Board is supplemented by five presidents from the regional FRBs to compose the (twelve-member) Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC). In recognition of its status as the nation’s financial capital, the New York City FRB is privileged with a permanent position on the FOMC. It is the FOMC that wields primary executive power within the system, practically directing national monetary policy. Finally, the (private) banking industry is provided with formal consultative representation within the system, through the twelve-member Federal Advisory Council. In respect solely to the occult social status of the Federal Reserve, the most appropriate comparison might be to The City of London (as an institution). William Gibson makes this private crypto-governance (whose medium is the open secret) a theme of his time-travel novel, The Peripheral.

[5] In God we Trust, the official motto of the United States of America since 1956, began to appear on the country’s paper currency in the following year. It had already been struck onto coins for almost a century (beginning in the Civil War year of 1864). Over the course of three centuries, the implicit commitment underlying the monetary credibility of the world’s principal English-speaking power had escalated from (the 17th century) Protestantism will survive to (the 20th century) Anglophone global capitalism will prevail. The difference is primarily cosmetic. Those oblivious to the core identity of Protestantism and Capitalism understand neither, or the fact each is the occult aspect of the other. Schism and automation are the guiding threads. The Great Seal of the United States, with its twin mottos Annuit Cœptis (‘our undertaking is favored’) and Novus ordo seclorum (‘New order of the ages’), has decorated Federal Reserve notes since 1935. The intensity of Federal Reserve conspiracy-theorizing has not, of course, been harmed by this.

[6] As Niall Ferguson remarks in The Ascent of Money (p.102), while describing the economic consequences of the First World War: “Those who had bought war bonds had invested in a promise of victory …” Insolvency then follows from an erroneous interpretation of destiny. At work here is an economic domestication of geopolitical risk. If any single index captures bourgeois nationalism, it is this. Private savings are explicitly invested in a national-collective undertaking. No less notable is the dynamic of self-reinforcement, accentuated by survival bias. One thus sees in the bond market political economy being synthesized in real time.

[7] At the world-scale of the economic hazard transitions into transcendental risk, where the stake is nothing less than the system in its entirety. The whole cannot be hedged. Wild bets on, or against, the future of capitalism stretch the competence of markets to their outer limits.