Crypto-Current (049)

§5.3 — The narrativization of monetary history which has come closest to gaining mainstream acceptance is the evolutionary model of Carl Menger, which describes the emergence of money – or ‘indirect exchange’ – from out of a primitive barter economy, as a solution to the ‘double coincidence of wants’.[1] Menger emphasizes the specific coordination problem involved in transactions by barter, which is the combinatorial explosion of ‘direct’ (and terminal) exchanges. “These difficulties would have proved absolutely insurmountable obstacles to the progress of traffic,” Menger insists,[2] “and at the same time to the production of goods not commanding a regular sale, had there not lain a remedy in the very nature of things, to wit, the different degrees of saleableness (Absatzfähigkeit) of commodities.”

§5.31 — Commodities are not equally ‘saleable’ or commercially disposable, and it is from this diversity that the differentiation of money from the world of commodities takes place. The transitional stage, within Menger’s account, corresponds to the rise of a special commodity, marked out by its peculiar Absatzfähigkeit. The ready acceptance of such intermediate goods within systems of barter exchange, due to their convenience for re-sale – i.e. their liquidity – spontaneously anticipates the monetary function.[3] To re-iterate the kernel of Menger’s analysis, at the risk of redundancy: the Absatzfähigkeit of precious metals “is far and away superior to that of all other commodities” (and, compared to this virtue, their traditionally-recognized merits are theoretically relegated to mere “concomitant and subsidiary functions of money”). The genesis of money is thus attributed to a self-organizing process of commercial abstraction, in which liquidity plays the supreme role.

§5.32 — Liquidity cannot be extracted from its commercial context. It translates with great fidelity into acceptability, and thus conceptually converts an extrinsic feature – the degree to which an item of whatever kind encounters general market receptivity – into an intrinsic property. Liquid assets will be readily ‘taken off your hands’. They constitute the negative of commercial friction, or resistance, which approaches its minimum in money. (“Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it ‘money’.”[4]) Since markets – whether comparatively concrete or abstract – are nothing but zones of asset liquidization, they tend to convert everything they touch into ‘money’ at some level of intensity. Anything that can be marketed has a monetary aspect, which is to say that it could – under counter-factual conditions determined by the absence of any superior commercial medium – become money. We return, always, to cigarettes in concentration camps as a reality anchor. Money, fundamentally, consists of market-participation tokens. It need only be swappable. What demotes any such thing, below the threshold of monetary status, is not its own essential deficiency, but always and only better money. It is better money that defines money effectively, while retro-projecting an original idea.[5]

§5.33 — Examples of extreme social relapse – accompanying the destruction of monetary systems through hyperinflation – are regularly invoked in support of Menger’s story, because they resuscitate its basic features through regression. When money dies, societies appear to recapitulate its primeval forms – seizing desperately upon candidate ‘general commodities’ such as cigarettes – on their path of descent back into the dysfunctional tangles of barter relationships. It is especially notable that under such conditions it is the promissory aspect of money, as credit (corresponding to a liability accepted by another party), that leads the way into worthlessness. Hyperinflation is a catastrophic break-down in trust, when the value attributed to the solemn word of the issuing authority is rapidly re-set towards zero.

§5.34 — The Austrian narrative corresponds to an anti-politics, in which the legitimate domain of concentrated public action is subjected to systematic constriction, in accordance with a radical skepticism regarding both its theoretical sufficiency and its practical efficiency when compared to the history and prospects of spontaneous coordination. Inevitably, therefore, the most significant antagonists of the Austrian orientation are those committed to a defense of politics – one that is equally, and reciprocally, both descriptive and normative. In recent times, the most influential account in this vein has been advanced by David Graeber.[6] The basic tendency of Graeber’s historical reconstruction, which folds economics into the politics of debt, makes it emblematic of the anti-liberal philosophy of money in general. It can therefore be taken as exemplary.

§5.341 — Rather than tracing the origins of money back to a process of spontaneous order, in the Austrian fashion, Graeber binds its history to the state. The primordial linkage of money to a ‘universal commodity’ is de-emphasized relative to its political-economic functions of taxation and debt accountancy. According to this narrative, the principal historical secret of money lies not in the facilitation of trade, but in economic exaction by social elites. Standardization is the essential feature, reflecting – and reinforcing – concentrations of power. The large-scale production presupposed by an oecumenic currency depends upon a monetary manufacturing capacity that can only be provided by royal mints, or their modernized equivalents. Abstraction – or formal mathematization – of the primitive social obligations within what Graeber dubs “human economies” leads to a radical intensification of oppression and violence.

§5.342 — The axis within which Graeber’s analysis unfolds is determined not by (commodity) trade, but by obligations, stretching from the fluid reciprocities of primitive societies – and residual “everyday communism”[7] – to the cyclopean power structures of centralized states. Within the latter, as recorded already in the excavated tablets of ancient Sumer (c. 3,500 BC), cash money has been consistently marginalized relative to financial credit. It is this construction that supports Graeber’s inverted sequence of monetary history, which is no longer conceived as an abstraction from commercial traffic, but instead as a commercialization of formalized obligations, beginning with credit as the primordial phenomenon. It is from debt that money is subsequently developed, with barter appended, at the end of the theoretical sequence, as a mutant, terminal annex. Credit and not barter, then, or obligation and not trade. This is, for Graeber, the political matrix in which money is born. An innovation in social hierarchy is its midwife, introducing it to the world through the “military-coinage-slave” complex of the Axial Age civilizations.

§5.343 — It is notable that Graeber considers the Axial Age[8] to be an essentially unmitigated historical calamity. Where Karl Jaspers drew attention to an incomparable cultural awakening, occurring in the centuries around the middle of the first millennium BC, Graeber derives its efflorescence from a revolutionary advance in the machinery of social oppression. The ascription of values is reversed. Yet abstraction is the consistent key to both accounts. Concrete existence becomes calculable on an unprecedented scale. Something like a ‘question of being’ arises. Graeber earns his role in this discussion through participation in the hypothesis that monetary innovation – operating as a spontaneous stimulus to abstract thinking in general – is the basic phenomenon. During the Axial Age the world begins to learn what money can do.

§5.344 — Graeber’s analysis is consistent with a far wider cultural tendency to conceive debt as the principal instance of economic domination (supplanting the classical role of mere destitution in this role).[9] Social contestation over economic flow (profits versus wages) is displaced by a central image of class war between creditors and debtors, radically and fundamentally financialized. This is not a socio-historical construction to be lightly dismissed. The model of political revolution as an insurrectionary extinction of debt, in particular, is productively suggestive. It embeds into itself a theory of post-revolutionary social memory – or strategic amnesia – in obvious accordance with large swathes of historical evidence. The revolutionary ‘Year Zero’ symbolically wipes the slate clean. Evidently, the financialization of capital and its revolutionary negation have modernized in parallel, if not at tightly-bound velocities.

§5.3441 — While the complex historical entanglement of modern revolutionary politics and ancient eschatalogical religion is a well-worked topic far exceeding the scope of this book, it intrudes inescapably at this point, in the specific guise of the jubilee.[10] ‘Redemption’ is a term cutting across the registers of religious and economic discourse, sustained by a consistent appeal for absolution, or forgiveness. From Prophetic Judaism to Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, via The Merchant of Venice, Das Kapital, and countless additional examples of anti-usurious polemic, the voice of the debtor has been bound to an apocalyptic promise of forgetting. The obliteration of the secular ledger in the name of a higher accountancy has been the insistent theme. For roughly a century, administrative inflation-tolerance has provided a moderated expression for the same popular clamor. Inflation strikes a compromise with the demand for financial tabula rasa, by erasing debt values incrementally. It is revolutionary redistribution on an installment plan. The veil of the ubiquitous credit system allows inflationary macroeconomics to reach beyond debt, and make the abominated ‘liquidity preference’ of cash accumulators its target. Money as a ‘store of value’ – as economic memory – is brought into the arena of programmatic erosion. In this way a chronic, or normalized, war on money offers a concession to populism that epitomizes the compromise-formation political economy has become. Socialist revolution is forestalled by a continuous debauching of financial signs, but in this way it is also executed. Macroeconomics delivers eschatological communism in slow motion. An explicit attraction of discretion-protected crypto-currency is making such deals unobtainable.[11]

§5.345 — Initially at issue here is the sanctity (or sacrilege) of the free contract – an essential pillar of the liberal social order from the perspective of the right, an objectively-merciless formalistic extravagance from that of the left. Supporting these contrary judgments are diverse ethnographic orientations inclined, respectively, to the naturalization or denaturalization of commercial life (with Smith’s “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”[12] at one end of the spectrum, and Graeber’s “everyday communism” at the other). Providing consoling doctrines, respectively, to the ‘haves and have-nots’, this axis of variation reflects an antagonism no less durable than the human species itself (and quite possibly more enduring by far). There is a liberal and a socialist End of History, and neither unambiguously approaches. This is what any social animal – poised between the tiger and the mole-rat – should expect. Persistence of ideo-political conflict is the safe prediction, with the corollary that partially-insecure property is the socio-economic norm. Projects to strengthen or weaken property security – that is to adjust its degree of political insulation – mark the PPD like traffic indicators, illuminating its basic axis, and describing the great games.  

[1] In chapter 17 of Human Action, Mises refers to this narrative as: “an irrefutable praxeological theory of the origin of money.”

[2] ‘On the Origin of Money’ (1892):

In ‘Shelling Out’, Szabo integrates the problem into game theory. “Barter requires, in other words, coincidences of supply or skills, preferences, time, and low transaction costs. Its cost increases far faster than the growth in the number of goods traded. Barter certainly works much better than no trade at all, and has been widely practiced. But it is quite limited compared to trade with money. … Money converts the division of labor problem from a prisoner’s dilemma into a simple swap.”

[3] For an illuminating discussion of the re-emergence of intermediate goods in the wake of the gold standard, see Nick Szabo’s ‘Two Malthusian Scares’ (2016):

[4] This is to repeat the line from David Mamet’s Heist that is cited at the start of this book. Beyond the humor, it is perhaps the most insightful contribution to political economy to be found within the history of cinema.  

[5] Upon being asked to predict what Bitcoin would ultimately come to be called, Pierre Rochard offered the acute response “Money.” The absence of anticipated qualification is, of course, the critical point. Superiority predicts eventual normality. The forecast runs: First Bitcoin, then ‘standard crypto-currency’, then ‘computer money’, finally ‘money’. Something roughly like this has to be probable, even if the prediction is implicitly revolutionary.

[6] Graeber’s argument is detailed in his work Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). The author’s academic foundation in anthropology makes it philosophically tempting to categorize his work as an empirical revolt against transcendental – or a prioristic – economic theorizing (of the kind exemplified by Austrian praxeology), and it has been frequently defended on these grounds. Perhaps the most crucial empirical observation, which has already become a staple of anti-liberal monetary theorizing, is the remarkable absence of anything approximating to a ‘barter economy’ within the record of historical anthropology. The primordial commercial problem, for which money is proposed as solution, has little obvious instantation among human societies – past or present. The pertinence of this apparent fact is irreducibly ambiguous, however, since an economic order based upon barter, even in the terms of the liberal analysis, clearly cannot be conceived as a stable – and thus enduring – social equilibrium. The absence of barter economies from the ethnographic and historical record is thus predictable as a selection effect (with the radical maladaptation of these systems – i.e. their intrinsic inclination towards extinction – exempting them from the domain of empirical evidence). We do not see them because they do not work. For a succinct Austrian riposte to Graeber’s theory of monetary history (along these lines), see Robert P. Murphy’s ‘Origin of the Specie’

[7] Graeber’s fascination with the entanglement of debt and definite moral ideas is overtly indebted to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, down to the details of its etymological observations. In particular, the moral-economic ambivalence of Schuld (guilt / debt) is crucial to both. It can be predicted with some confidence that this Nietzsche text – untimely in a way that is only now becoming starkly apparent – is set to acquire a special prominence among the emerging conditions of the 21st century, as the foundations of contractuality are subsumed into the technosphere, and thus require explicit formulation.  

[8] Karl Jaspers coined the term ‘Axial Age’ (Achsenzeit) in his work The Origin and Goal of History (Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, 1949). Thinkers of the Axial Age include Laozi (Lao Tse, 6th-4th century BC); Kongzi (Confucius, 551–479 BC); Li Kui (455-395 BC); Mozi (470–c.391 BC); Yang Zhu (440–360 BC); Mahavira (599–527 BC); Gautama Buddha (c.563-483 BC); the authors of the Upanishads (from 6th century BC); Thales (of Miletus, c.624–546 BC); Anaximenes (of Miletus, 585-528 BC); Pythagoras (of Samos, c.570–495 BC); Heraclitus (of Ephesus c.535–475 BC); Aeschylus (c.525-455 BC); Anaxagoras (c.510–428 BC); Parmenides (of Elea, early 5th century BC); Socrates (c.469–399 BC); Thucydides (c.460–395 BC); and Democritus (c.460–370 BC), among others. The origination of philosophy in this historical episode is scarcely deniable. The Neo-Marxist explanation, re-animated by Matteo Pasquinelli, is rooted in the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and the identification of real abstraction. Philosophy is located downstream of a distributed cognitive machine, activated by the creation of money.

Our question ‘what can money do?’ is thus modulated by the compelling hypothesis that to be included among the things money has already done is the initiation of philosophy. According to this understanding, ‘philosophy’ – defined so broadly that it comprehends even the birth of systematic mathematics (Euclid) – is a side-product of social monetization. Its cognitive machinery cannot be accurately specified at any level that falls short of commercial process. The conceptual equation does not precede the exchange relation. In the beginning was the swap.   

[9] A Malthusian lineage passing through David Ricardo’s Iron Law of Wages made the primary contribution to the classical Marxian analysis. The identification of a socio-historically contingent ‘natural’ or equilibrium tendency for wages to approximate to a subsistence income, under conditions of chronic labor supply glut, was the prediction that propelled the Marxist analysis to its peak of popularity – at least in the West – during the late 19th century epoch of mass proletarianization. It can surely be no coincidence that the recession of this paleo-Marxist immiseration thesis – among conditions of comparative generalized abundance – have been accompanied by a redirection of critical attention from the commoditization of labor to the registration of accounts, associating economic oppression with debt peonage, rather than absolute destitution.  

[10] The Jubilee (yovel), referenced already in the Torah (or Pentateuch), is the culmination of a – seven-times-seven – 49-year meta-cycle, in which ‘the slate is wiped clean’ by debt-forgiveness. Every seventh year of the ancient Hebrew calendar was a shemita or fallow year, of which the Jubilee is evidently an extrapolation. (The modulus-seven pattern is generally accepted by scholars based upon overwhelming evidence, notwithstanding the description of the Jubilee in Leviticus 25:10 as the ‘fiftieth year’.) Within the cyclic system of the jubilee, debt-annihilation appears as an equilibrium function. The regenerative (positive-feedback) tendency of money as proto-capital is capped by a circuit-breaker. From the perspective of human social conservatism, there is no doubt a perennial wisdom in this, even if it runs directly contrary to the trend of the modern (Ashkenazi) contribution to finance capital in its attainment of historical escape velocity. Any deeper venture into the ironies of Jewish socio-economic history exceeds the ambitions of the present work.  

[11] Absolution is the theological model of the reversible commitment, and thus of time annihilation. Time cannot forgive, by definition. It is non-retraction in-itself. Only within a soteriological construction of eternity can what is done be undone. To be saved is to be rescued from the intrinsic consequences of time. Can there be serious doubt that the project of reversing the irreversible provides the final content of modern political dialectics, and especially of ‘revolution’ in its dominant modern sense as applied soteriology? Aufhebung is absolution, undisguisedly. The transmission mechanism, from theology to political history, is provided by the Nietzschean insight (from On the Genealogy of Morals) that institutional slavery has a humanistic origin, offering immediate respite from execution, and mediate opportunity for redemption, to a defeated enemy. In this context, deferred settlement is mere contingent survival, or mercy in the form of time. Primordially, the condition of slavery is a stay of execution. One owes everything to the hesitation of the killer, within which a transition from military history to economic history surreptitiously takes place. Debt peonage is the bridge.  

[12] See: The Wealth Of Nations, Book I Chapter 2.

2 thoughts on “Crypto-Current (049)

  1. 1) Do you think that Walter Ong’s ideas about the importance of written language also have relevance to the axial age, i.e. was written language a co-catalyst along with money? Also, do you agree with his assessment that the two different directions that writing took in the west and east, alphabetic and logographic writing, respectively, had an impact upon the direction that philosophy took for each?

    2) “There is a liberal and a socialist End of History…” So the liberal end of history comes to mean the trend that emerges out of historical process, whereas the socialist end of history means its negation.

  2. 1) Not sure, but since the first writing seems to have been economic accounts, the difference in orientation might be slighter than it initially seems.

    2) There might even be consensus on that (due to the miracle of dialectics).

Leave a Reply