My friend, the chemist and economist Peter Bowman, reminds me that money is ‘crystallised trust’. Another friend, the Art Historian Andrew Spira, describes money as ‘a promise’ . That is certainly what it says on the bank notes. And of course a promise and trust in that promise are intimately related. What is a promise that one cannot trust? Just useless words.
But this view of money is profoundly immaterial. Ironic then that money in many descriptions is that great lubricant of the material society, the originator and propagator of material values. Money works because of trust in society, because of confidence in political and societal stability. And yet it is the thirst for money qua money that can threaten that stability; it is rarely acknowledged by those fortunate to earn a lot of money that they could not do so were it not for the stability and functioning of the society in which they operate. Very few money men acknowledge this openly. As far as I know, only Warren Buffett (see from about 1 min in), takes pains to point this out.
But if money is essentially crystallised trust in a society, might there not be some way to reflect that directly in ways of transacting and interrelating? Might there not be some way to abstract out that trust such that we are not led to a disconnect between people, such that we are not led to vast financial and power disparities and a flight to narrow materialism?
This blog is filed under Speculative Economics, so let me offer a sci-fi vision of future money:
One day, all money represented as some medium of exchange will be done away with. There will be no paper, no coins, no plastic and no blips and bleeps on machines you can run your plastic through. One day there will be some way to tell directly whether you trust me when you transact with me. And the value of a person – their monetary value – will depend on how much they can be trusted to do what they say they are going to do.
How will we achieve this? I don’t know. I’m speculating.
But maybe we can imagine some tiny implant in our hands which keeps a record of how trustworthy we were in the past, that shows others our worth to the society in terms of delivering on promises. We will only need to touch hands to understand each other’s trustworthiness and therefore ‘monetary’ worth. Lest we think this is too weird, implants are already here, in people’s brains to counter depression, in their hearts to make them work and as part of prosthetics to restore the function of limbs.
In this world, there would be little scope for vast differentials in economic value. I don’t see how multipliers would operate here. The mass producer or originator/inventor would have no more intrinsic value than the reliable and competent cleaner. And that is perhaps as it should be.
This is a future of money without money. It is a future where the material stuff which has come to represent the trust and the promise is finally done away with. Let us imagine a future society without the strange and abstract substance that seems to have stolen away and destroyed much of the very thing it was supposed to represent: the trust, the promise to one another. Let us imagine a world where human beings are valued in terms of things that really matter, not how much money they are able to make.