"Presented with the prospect of its own eternity, capitalism – or anyway, financial capitalism – simply explodes. Because if there’s no end to it, there’s absolutely no reason not to generate credit – that is, future money – infinitely."
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when thinking aboutscience fiction and money is the different kinds of currencies that are imagined for future worlds: the poscreds of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, a currency required for every minute transaction such that the door becomes not an item you own but, rather, a provider of services for which you must continually pay, leaving protagonist Joe Chip trapped in his own apartment until someone pays his door to open; the bars of gold-pressed latinum used by the avaricious Ferengi on Star Trek, the only thing that cannot be replicated in this post-scarcity world, useless other than as an atavistic marker of wealth; the reputation- based currency of whuffie in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, used to replace the social role money plays in creating a hierarchy in another post-scarcity world. The inventiveness of SF writers creating objects or systems of account that might serve as money is matched by its actual history and the wide range of items that have served as currency, from large stone wheels called Rai used as money on the island of Yap, to the split tally sticks of medieval English practice, to coinage and the ideal that a gold standard is the ‘real’ value of money, to slips of paper inscribed with various authentications and, finally, to the electronic signals used to store and transmit denominations of value. It turns out that, although most of the world uses money on a daily basis and has done so for almost as long as there have been records of human civilisation, it is not very clear what money actually is. How does money work? What is the underlying relationship among some underlying thing of ‘actual’ value (gold, land, the goods and services produced by a nation), the tokens of that value (coins, banknotes, electronic account balances) and the entity guaranteeing that said tokens are, basically, the same as that underlying thing of value (the King, the Bitcoin algorithm, the European Union). Reading about the history of money turns out to be surprisingly like reading science fiction: the kind of money a society has tells us a lot about the kind of human sociality that is possible in that world. Most definitions of money agree that it needs to be three things: a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. The ‘store of value’ requirement tends to be overlooked in science fiction extrapolations, confusing whether money is simply a way of keeping ‘score’ of who owes what to whom or whether money is itself something of inherent value (even if it has no ‘use value’, such as gold), such that it will continue to be accepted even through periods of massive social and political disruption. More importantly, however, commentators agree that changes to this configuration of value, accounting, exchange practices and objects- serving-as-money are deeply consequential for the surrounding social order. Jack Weatherford argues in The History of Money, for example, that new forms of money destroy old forms of governance that were premised on the prior system of economics. 2 His book takes us through a number of such transitions: from a tributary economy of empire based on commodity money that was destabilised by the invention of coinage; through the invention of a system of banking and paper notes that disrupted and undermined the feudal system of medieval Europe by opening a path for power based on wealth (stocks and bonds) rather than on heredity (land); to the prediction that our contemporary system of electronic transfer will have similarly transformative effects on the future. Although science fiction has often imagined new objects or systems serving as currency in the future, it has seldom worked through the cultural power of money as an engine of social control, preferring to either posit post-scarcity societies of human fulfilment, such as Star Trek’s benevolent Federation of Planets or Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, or else envisage worlds of ever-deepening capitalist uneven development that polarises humanity between lush zones of privilege and apocalyptic zones of deprivation that are, crucially, simultaneously produced by the same forces – the Sprawl of William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogy, the orbiting gated community of Elysium (Neill Blomkamp), the privatised air of Rose Montero’s Bruna Husky series or the future of privatised food and seed corporation governance in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Although science fiction is frequently set in the future, it is always about its present moment of production. Thus, rather than predicting future kinds of money and sociality inherent in this coming shift, the more important thing science fiction can do is to help make visible – through estranging extrapolation that denatures what we take to be natural – how money functions in our present. In Money: The Unauthorized Biography, Felix Martin argues that we misrecognise money in its classic definition. Instead of thinking of it as a unit of exchange or store of value, he argues that money is a ‘social technology’ composed of three central elements: a denominating unit of value; a system of indebtedness and credits; and the possibility that debts can be transferred to another creditor. It is this third element that is the most crucial, and he contends that, ‘whilst all money is credit, not all credit is money’. Money is a social technology of transferable credit, ‘a set of ideas and practices which organise what we produce and consume, and the way we live together’. Martin goes on to explain that to arrive at this idea it was necessary first to develop one of a universal standard of value, a concept of economic value that is detached from any particular social organisation in which a debt might be incurred. Debt thereby becomes not a social exchange between people as part of a larger social structure of mutual obligations but simply a unit of account that might be transferred to another creditor and mean exactly the same thing, as if the value measured by money was a physical property in the world instead of a measure of human social structures and decisions. This idea of abstract and universal value opens the door to some of the more deleterious effects of the social technology of money. As Martin acknowledges, ‘[T]the choice of monetary standard is always a political one – because the standard itself represents nothing but a decision as to what is a fair distribution of wealth, income, and the risks of economic uncertainty.’ For Martin, the decision to view money as a thing rather than a social technology – which he dates to the Enlightenment and John Locke, with his insistence that the value of the coinage had to be the ‘material’ value of the metal, not the nominal value designated by the sovereign – was the first step in what would eventually become our 2008 financial crisis. In the Lockean understanding of money as a thing with inherent and universal worth, a centuries-long question regarding the degree to which money should be allowed to structure how we live with one another was short-circuited, taken out of the realm of ethical debate and put into that of natural ‘fact’. We treat money as a mathematical truth rather than a social choice with often disastrous consequences, reducing ‘vital questions of moral and political justice to the mechanical application of objective scientific truths’. 7 With this understanding of money, Western societies came to see a myriad of complex human social relationships through the single and narrow framework of economic self-interest. In its role as a genre that defamiliarises the present by exaggerating it into an imagined future, science fiction can serve a vital role in reminding us that money is a social technology, not a thing. For example, Andrew Niccol’s film In Time (2009) posits a world in which the unit of account is simply time: one works not for dollars or credits but for minutes, hours, days and, ultimately, years of one’s life. One of the things it immediately makes clear is how ridiculous the fiction is that capitalists and workers (that is, sellers of labour-power) meet at the market in any manner that remotely resembles an exchange among equals: the capitalist can always wait another day for a more favourable negotiation but the worker, who needs to sell his or her labour-power to continue to live, cannot. Niccol shows the social costs of inflation, which makes a cup of coffee cost more ‘minutes’ than it did the day before, creating dilemmas for workers who can stretch the working day only so far to accommodate the change. More and more of one’s time is spent working – that is, accumulating minutes to live – but at some point the number of currency minutes needed to sustain life exceeds the time needed to accumulate them, and the most economically vulnerable simply die. The rich, in contrast, are seemingly immortal, since their time simply existing continues to accumulate ever more minutes through the crucial fact that what they own is capital, not mere labour-power. Time is a problematic image for currency, of course: it can function well as a unit of account and perhaps even can serve as a medium of exchange (people gamble minutes, hours and years; people give one another minutes, and such economic support is, quite literally, life support), but it is difficult to imagine how time can be a store of value. This is where the film’s attempt to critique the discrepancy between the one-percent and everyone else falls apart: a disaffected one-percenter with centuries of life but no purpose (Matt Bomer) decides to give his years to protagonist Will Salas (Justin Timberlake), who uses this unexpected luxury (of time that need not be productive) to penetrate the echelons of the wealthiest citizens – tolls to these inner zones are paid in weeks, then months, then years – and attempt to destroy the system of lives held in thrall to generating money. The image the film uses to convey this revolutionary overthrow is a raid on a ‘bank’ that has an accumulated stockpile of time, time that is simply sitting there unused while people expire due to its lack. Salas forms a partnership with the disaffected daughter of one of the bank’s major stockholders (Amanda Seyfried), and together they steal and freely distribute this vast quantity of ‘unused’ time, thereby ending the structures of precarity lived by those struggling to ensure they have enough ‘time’ to live another day. Rather than critiquing the limitations of imagining time as a currency, I want to focus instead on what this image makes visible: that money is a social technology, that it always is, as Martin argues, a political tool that structures the way we live collectively and what we as a society have decided is a fair distribution of wealth and risk. By so directly linking the ability to secure a wage to the chances to continue to exist, In Time lays bare an underlying logic of neoliberal capitalism that is otherwise obscured by a discourse that naturalises the market and attempts to compel us to believe that we must accommodate ourselves to its dictates rather than recognise that its very functioning is a creation of human choice. If time in the film functioned as do other currencies, of course, Salas’s heroic gesture would simply contribute to inflation, the collapse of the ‘buying power’ of a unit of time. Despite this limitation, however, In Time points us towards the fundamental injustice of an economic system that extends some people’s lives and capacities while it shortens others. The underlying issue is the relationship between creditors (those with time to spare) and debtors (those whose very lives are in bondage to an economic system). David Graeber’s masterful Debt: The First 5,000 Years is actually another history of money, despite its title. One of his most powerful claims is that we more properly understand the social technology of money as a system of debt rather than one of credit. Whereas, for Martin, money is transferrable credit, Graeber points out that this is simultaneously a transformation of the social obligations that humans have to one another into specifically economic obligations, creating a society that, taken to its logical extreme, results in a world in which all social exchange is financialised debt. Graeber begins his book with an account of the massive social disruption caused by International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to developing nations, indebtedness that required countries ‘to abandon price supports on basic foodstuffs, or even policies of keeping strategic food reserves, and abandon free health care and free education’ in the name of prioritising the obligation to pay back debt, leading to ‘the collapse of all the most basic supports for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth’. Whereas for Martin the transferability of credit is essential to making it function as money, for Graeber it is precisely the way credit (that is, indebtedness) becomes transferable that creates the social chaos of a society that is thus premised on inequality. For Graeber, debt can become transferable only when it becomes ‘simple, cold, and impersonal’, detached from any larger social context of mutual support and purely a ‘precisely quantified’ sum for which ‘one does not need to calculate the human effects; one needs only calculate principal, balances, penalties, and rates of interest’. He traces the history of debt – and social crises of indebtedness – from the beginnings of recorded human civilisation through to the IMF crises and beyond, connecting the 2008 financial crisis and bank bailouts to the same fundamental mechanisms of inequality that always structure an economy based on money: just as governments spent money to repay IMF loans rather than to offer social services to their population, so too did governments pay to protect the wealthy few who own bank bonds at the expense of other taxpayers. This was a crisis created by the seemingly endless generation of new forms of credit, new ways to make money out of records of debt, a specific form of money as capital – that is, as money that must continually grow. Only the power of the US military, Graeber argues, holds the world economic system together based on a fear of reprisal: ‘[T]he last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.’ Here his discussion of the history of debt begins to sound a lot like discussions of the SF imagination. In recent years critics such as Fredric Jameson and writers such as Kim Stanley Robinson have deplored the failure of the utopian imagination, our inability to imagine alternatives beyond the social order created by capitalism. For Graeber, the disappearance of hope has to do with the crushing circumstances of chronic indebtedness, a cycle that has recurred throughout history and for which, until modern times, a solution existed. This solution is an amnesty on debt, a decision to simply reset all accounts and start over whenever the burden of debt on one segment of the population became so heavy as to debilitate its chances to thrive and also to destabilise the entire social order premised on class difference between debtors and debtees. Graeber links debt forgiveness to an ancient biblical Law of the Jubilee, which ‘stipulated that all debts would be automatically cancelled “in the Sabbath year” (that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in bondage owing to such debts would be released’. Martin dates the idea of periodic debt forgiveness as a way to manage the socially deleterious effects of indebtedness even earlier, arguing that records of this ‘Mesopotamian practice of proclaiming a clean slate when the burden of debt became socially unsupportable are almost as old as the earliest evidence for interest-bearing debt itself – dating from the reign of Enmetana of Lagash in around 2,400 BC’. Graeber ends his book with a call for a contemporary Jubilee on international and consumer debt, arguing that it would be helpful ‘not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way’. The best kind of SF vision of the future of money may thus be an idea taken from the distant past, a period proximate enough to the emergence of money and its new social structures that people remained capable of recognising it as a social policy, not a fact of nature. While science fiction has often imagined post-scarcity societies that thereby eliminate indebtedness, very little has imagined the future of monetary policy and banking. A notable exception is the work of Charles Stross, especially his novel Neptune’s Brood, which uses a passage from Graeber’s book as its epigraph. Stross imagine the future of capitalist social organisation as mutated to accommodate trading across the vast distances of space colonisation and at the high speeds of computer consciousness. Taking his cues from the fact that much of the derivative market consists of trades done by algorithms and software, often requiring an advanced degree in physics to be understood, Stross posits a future of artificial humanoid beings whose ethos is shaped by an ecology of capital treated as if it were nature. Most of the critical discussion about the novel focuses on Stross’s idea of slow, medium, and fast money. Fast money is what we are accustomed to: ‘Cash is fast money. We use it for immediate exchanges of value. Goods and labor: You sell, I buy.’ Medium money is something that more durably stores its value, and is not reliant on the vagaries of governments and fiscal policy like fast money, as in: ‘Cathedrals and asteroids and debts and durable real estate and bonds backed by the honorable reputation of traders in slow money.’ And, finally, slow money is the kind of money required to finance interstellar trade and colonisation in a world without faster-than-light (FTL) travel: ‘Slow money is a medium of exchange designed to outlast the rise and fall of civilizations. It is the currency of world-builders, running on an engine of debt that can only be repaid by the formation of new interstellar colonies, passing the liability ever onward into the deep future.’The details of the novel’s adventure plot – featuring a forensic accountant hero – show us how such a society, continually passing along debt, would be filled with avarice and exploitation, with only the most instrumental of interpersonal relations. The novel is a careful and thorough figuration of the end extreme of capitalism. A vision of the future anticipated in the epigraph from Graeber above, a future of ever more overwhelming indebtedness, the flip side of money understood as transferable credit. The ultimate horizon of the novel is the reinvention of the Jubilee, the ‘systemwide rest of the financial system entailing nullification of all debts’. Its characters, shaped by capitalism as a necessary fact of life, struggle to imagine the possibility of such a Jubilee. The accountant protagonist, Krina, for example, is shocked when she hears of someone functioning as a debt termination officer, exclaiming: ‘[M]atters should never reach the stage where they need to terminate a bad debt! Far better to stir it up with a bunch of lumpen credit properties and shuffle it off to a long-term investment trust for toxic assets.’ So how does Stross create the conditions for a Jubilee in Neptune’s Brood when no one is power has any incentive to forgive the debs that are the foundation of their social structure? The transformation happens because of the discovery of a kind of matter transmission that enables the equivalent of FTL travel, meaning all financial exchanges can happen at the speed of fast money, and so the accumulated stockpiles of wealth that are slow money are suddenly rendered meaningless. Indebtedness is thereby wiped out when the value of this currency collapses, since a vast slow money debt can now be paid with a pittance of fast money. Obviously Stross’s solution cannot easily be translated into our world, because we do not denominate our currencies in this way nor trade at interstellar distances. Yet I think it still holds a lesson for us that only the displacements of science fiction thinking can capture. The collapse of the slow money economy completely transforms existing power relations, and it is also devastating for those who have accumulated vast holdings in this debt-based currency. At the same time, however, freedom from debt for others opens up so many more possibilities as to where the resources and energy might go that the positive elements of change are equally powerful to the disruptive ones. The transition is enabled in part by a branch of humanoids whose neural architecture has been transformed to communicate mental states through light, a post-human redesign intended to make them more effective workers (bypassing the slowness of language). This transformation also changed their social order, however, in ways that ultimately sidelined money and property: ‘They’re still individuals, but the border between self and other is thinner. And they don’t hate. They own property but they don’t have strong social hierarchies – top-down control is a dangerous liability to a team trying to trap a runaway natural nuclear reactor – they’re instinctive mutualists. They understand money and debt and credit and so on, but they don’t feel a visceral need to own: What they owe doesn’t define their identity.’ A different kind of human sociality plants the seed for a different relationship to property and money, which ultimately opens the door to detaching human futures from the tyranny of debt. If, as Martin argues, money is a social technology, ‘a set of ideas and practices which organise what we produce and consume, and the way we live together’, then science fiction can make visible the kind of social engineering done by the capitalist technology of money. As a social technology, the tool of money can be oriented towards other kinds of ideas and practices, other kinds of social orders, other kinds of subjectivities. Both In Time and Neptune’s Brood offer exaggerated and extrapolated visions of the society the current technology of money creates, focusing on the human suffering that is produced by keeping this technology in place. Science fiction has always been about the idea that social arrangements might be otherwise, about extrapolating known technologies towards novel ends. Stross gives us a tantalising hint of the possible future of a debt Jubilee, of one way we might reinvent the technology of money.
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