Imagine there’s no money: dialogue between Stefan Heidenreich & Geert Lovink

Geert Lovink: German media theorist Stefan Heidenreich has produced a concise proposal for a ‘non-monetary economy’. The book is entitled */Money/* and came out late 2017 with Merve Verlag in Berlin. Excerpts in English can be found at the Transmediale website. There we find the following description of Heidenreich’s project: ‘Given complex information infrastructures that have already been developed for documenting transactions, tying consumer habits to identities, and accurately predicting future exchanges, the substructure of a new kind of economy is now in place.’

I got to know Stefan ages ago when he studied under Friedrich Kittler and was part of the roaring 90s intellectual scene in Berlin. In 2008, I was surprised to see that Stefan had—together with his brother Ralph—produced an essay on money. Not every cultural critic writes freely about monetary policies. There’s a rich German humanities tradition in this respect, starting with Karl Marx and Georg Simmel and carrying through to the 1968 Freudo-economics of Horst Kurnitzky, or alternatively via Christina von Braun to Joseph Vogl. At the same time, there is a speculative faction of political economists, called ‘value Marxists’, who are brilliant in pushing the boundaries of abstraction. While I am fascinated by the way they ask the right questions, I was never sure about their answers. Value Marxists come up with frighteningly precise formula, yet fail completely to connect this to a political analysis. This school includes Robert Kurz, but also the former Oekonux circle. For me, the early Jean Baudrillard and Andre Gorz also belong to this group of thinkers. Characteristic of their approach is an open, speculative relation towards money and value, a perspective that is based neither on the descriptive method of sociology nor on the ethnography of Marcel Mauss or Bronislaw Malinowski—or on the quasi-objective laws of classical economics, for that matter.

Whereas the Heidenreich brothers’ previous two co-written books were a mix of political economy and humanities in the genre of Keynes-reads-Foucault, Stefan’s latest book is straight-forward manifesto in which he combines a Kittler-style self-confidence about the role of technology with the possibility that we might be able to imagine another world in which money is replaced by matching, value is replaced by relationships and work is replaced by doing. This is the type of concrete utopia the 21st century badly needs. This is speculation in a true sense: theory that opens possibility-spaces.

Stefan is undogmatic in his approach and takes the objections and hesitations of the reader seriously. What makes his style so convincing is the certainty that we all share about irreversible developments in highly-developed Western societies. Digitization of money is a done deal, the cashless society is already practically in use, and automatization is a fact, with or without visible robots. This is also the case with the flexible valuations of good and services that we already experience on booking sites for hotels and airplane tickets: change a parameter, come back ten minutes later, and the price is suddenly dramatically different.

Unlike most Marxists, Stefan Heidenreich does not believe in a ‘real’ value that is stored somewhere in the essence of goods and services. There is no reality behind a price; all is pure fluctuation. That’s where Heidenreich’s deep post-modernism shows through. All the references to the real have already gone up in smoke. What’s left is arbitrary. What used to be value has been simulated and matched with alien outside forces that few have a grip on. And we have to get used to this new condition. The same could be said about Universal Basic Income. In many countries, elements of UBI are already in place. A considerable number of people see that UBI would be a more efficient system that would unleash a lot more creativity and new ideas in comparison to the stress and burn-out characterising today’s neo-liberal culture of competition. The recently-published second MoneyLab reader identifies two opposite positions: Patrice Riemens vs. Dmytri Kleiner. We could also contrast Brett Scott’s concerns in the same MoneyLab reader about the cashless society with Heidenreich’s grand proposal. Time to open the debate.

Stefan, you need to explain something. The hardest part of your argument is your proposal to abolish money as such. People will associate that with the actually-existing socialism of the past and its misery, although those communists in fact never got rid of money. On the other hand, it’s not so hard to see that we’re well under way.

Stefan Heidenreich: One has to keep in mind that the ultimate task of any economy is distribution. How do we share and distribute things and how do we allocate activities? Seen from that angle, it becomes almost self-evident that money and markets deliver one possible solution, but not the only one. David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years helped me a lot to think beyond money. Given the fact that there existed a non-money—and non-barter! —economy, why should the regime of money last forever? When one looks at economic history from a media theory perspective, the point of transition to a non-money solution becomes completely obvious. As soon as we have a system in place that is able to track and compute all transactions, it is time to think again about non-money modes of distribution. That’s where we are now.

GL: You state that matching overcomes the classic mechanisms of the market. Can you explain this? According to orthodox libertarian geeks, blockchain and cryptocurrency software create a ‘pure’ market that is automated, anonymous and, in that sense, honest. The fact that there are main players manipulating that system often remains unnoticed (let alone that hacking is now becoming an economic force, stealing $100 million USD on a weekly basis). No money, no market? Or the perfect market? More market than market?

SH: The market is a place where information, supply and demand, is aggregated into a price. Karl Polanyi has shown that this supposedly ‘free’ market is an illusion that relies heavily on regulation. But the dishonesty of the system lies not in the market, but in money itself. Unfortunately, money allows not only for payments and valuation, but also for accumulation. That’s why all economies of money inevitably turn into tributary regimes. And that’s why markets and money need to be replaced by matching. With a caveat: it will be possible (and some people will try their best) to tweak matching algorithms towards inequality, but it doesn’t come as ‘naturally’ as with money. We have to be ahead and start to think of what politics of matching we want.

The bigger question looming in the background is: Do we still need a general equivalent? And my rather philosophical claim is: No, we don’t! In saying that, I am not referring to a purely fictional post-modern fluctuation with no attachment to a so-called ‘reality’. On the contrary: there is value; and, it is generated within networks. For a start, think of Google’s PageRank Algorithm. It uses the structure of links to assign value to information. I know, it no longer works that simply, but let’s start with the basics.

The value I have in mind is an assignment that is being calculated at the instance of a transaction. It refers to a range-continuum of network-value that stretches from instantaneous, individual desires on one end to the far-reaching infinite projections of a sustainable world at large. This is no fiction, but way closer to real behavior than market prices.

There is also a philosophical parallel to be added. It was Alfred Sohn-Rethel who linked philosophical models of abstract representation to the invention of money as general equivalent. Seen from that perspective, replacing money with matching connects to a philosophical model that looks to what we actually do instead of focusing on representations. I still have to dig deeper into the philosophy of Robert Brandom and his concept of inferentialism, but my impression is that one can speak of an ‘inferential economy’ that comes after money.

GL: Unlike most researchers, artists and activists, you seem positive about algorithmic governance. You state that we simply have to politicize this field. Can you elaborate on this? Right now, even scholars who claim to study this phenomenon do not understand what’s going on for the simple fact that there is no direct access to these algorithms. We’re tapping in the dark. Frank Pasquale calls this the ‘black box society’. How can we overcome this lack of knowledge and transparency?

SH: There’s no choice. Coming from a Kittlerian standpoint, I take the media a-priori as a given—almost as a second nature, following the laws of physics—and not the needs of humans or a society. It would take a world-governing bureaucratic power to stop the inherent dynamics of technology. Society is not in charge of technologies, but rather is itself an effect of media and platforms. For that matter, I also do not believe in the power of critique. It tends to concede the driver’s seat to the powers in charge. The possibility to shape our future and our modes of living grows not through retrospective miserabilism, but with progressive utopian proposals. Luddism is no option. ‘Wo aber Gefahr ist, wächst / Das Rettende auch’; ‘But where danger is, grows / The saving power also’ (Friedrich Hölderlin). A short-cut translation of this might be: ‘No risk, no fun.’ That is why we need to come up with projective political proposals before we find ourselves in an algorithmic quagmire that is fully owned by the old capitalist forces.

This approach casts some doubt on the role of critique. Is warning against technologies, or pointing out dangers and all that doesn’t work, enough? My impression is: it means we are always a step too late. How do you see the role of critique?

GL: Here at the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam we’re always accused of being too early. We started our MoneyLab project on internet revenue models, such as mobile money, crowdfunding and the blockchain in 2013. Your first book on money came out in 2008. The problem these days is not that we are coming too late. We have lost contact with mainstream media. Here in NL, all communications have to be positive and simplistic. Criticism is not uplifting and ‘Gezellig’. We’re spoiling the party (which is correct). For years, no one was interested in our social media critique. Nowadays, our critique of Bitcoin is compared with arrogant remarks of big banks and New York Times commentators. At the same time, we’ve lost the ability to unleash cultural trends and social movements. Our content is radical and up to date but our organizational understanding is not. However, there is also a good side to this dire situation. If we’re able to change our formats and tone, we can achieve a lot.

Criticism is not a culture of complaint. I promote it as a literary genre, an ability to reflect on one’s work, genre, and professional practice. Criticism runs against the dominant forces of marketing and PR. A review asks questions and puts a work, discourse, or event into a larger context and lifts the entire culture to a higher, more complex level. Lively, rich and diverse cultures are driven forward by review cultures that push the boundaries. Critique doesn’t put things down but radicalizes situations and opens new windows. The idea of the critic as a bad-tempered and depressed failed professional has always existed, but should not concern us. What’s at stake now is freedom of expression. Both New Age positivists and authoritarian bureaucrats love to shut down critique because it essentially disturbs their business. Participatory culture and citizen involvement can only join the table if they come up with constructive proposals for ‘change’. Negative feedback is banned. We clearly see that in the crackdown on ‘comment cultures’ on social media platforms. As long as educated citizens contribute to an Habermasian rational discourse, all is fine.

But let’s return to the Money Question. The European Left doesn’t seem to play much of a role in this debate. How come? At what point in time did they start to lose touch? Is the Left still attached to industrial capitalism and the working class? When it comes to global finance and the virtual nature of money, there seems to be a real refusal to critically analyse such phenomena. There’s Yanis Varoufakis and the DiEM25 agenda, which focused on the non-democratic nature of the European Commission in Brussels and the ECB in Frankfurt. However, what you’re addressing goes well beyond the level of the Euro as a common currency. On the other hand, there was Andre Gorz… Who are your positive examples? How can we expand speculative economics?

SH: The Left has won the culture wars. But it has paid a heavy price. It won by succumbing to the neo-liberal ideology. Blair, Schroeder, Clinton, also unfortunately Obama, when it comes to drone-wars and finance, and so on. Having won the cultural side of this two-sided war, the left turned normative – ‘CTRL-Left’. Whomever brought it up, that term gives something of an accurate assessment. With the Left turning normative, the dynamics of transgression are being pushed to the Right. In the end, we’re about to lose both: the economic grounding of a genuine Left and the transgressive dynamics needed for a collective movement.

The left also suffers from another normative drawback, and that is Marxism. There is one big difference between Marx then and today’s Marxists: Marx was very much aware of the economic discourse of his time. Unfortunately, large parts of the Left are stuck with economic theories dating back to the 19th century, which also come with very old-fashioned morals. As in: the good, honest worker’s eternal struggle against the bad, greedy capitalist. I’m not saying it’s all wrong. It just creates a dumb, enclosed, and unnecessarily rigid intellectual climate with lots of dogmas not open for discussion: the labor theory of value, class struggle, surplus value, a completely outdated theory of money. Again: I’m not saying it’s all wrong, but hey, let’s try to do what Marx did: read and openly discuss what contemporary economic theory from a diverse spectrum has to say about those ideas.

Politically, there is lots of ways to go—as Varoufakis, Sanders, or Corbyn show. Unfortunately, Varoufakis does not really make his ideas stick with normal people. Too far away from daily needs. That distance combines unfavorably with a highbrow-elitist intellectual image that he sometimes likes to give himself. I know, in real life he’s different, but from far away one doesn’t notice. Just compare Corbyn or Sanders. Varoufakis may be good as economic advisor, but hardly as an integrating figure that moves people.

Speaking more generally, we need to find ways to preserve the achievements of the cultural fights—when it comes to gender, race and all the issues covered in the debates on intersectionality—and at the same time to liberate the left from the spectre of neo-liberalist and militaristic politics. To achieve that, we need to think further ahead and develop utopian models for a remote future. It’s not enough to know what we don’t want. We also need to think about what we want.

GL: We seem to want blockchains, or at least so it seems if you read the Zeitgeist: we want multi-purpose distributed ledgers that secure anonymity, transparency and undermine old hierarchies. This is at least the promise. Hipsters in their 20s and 30s are open to these ideas and do not seem to mind the underlying right-wing values. In terms of money, the utopian crypto-currency movement has two antagonistic aims. One way of looking at it is to see the blockchain as a transfer of assets from the older to the younger generation, with the assumption that ‘the crypto market is a device for transferring money from the impatient to the patient’. In this way, the new generation experiments with new forms of money that are no longer controlled by banks and national banks. On the other hand, as you suggest, this same set of technologies promotes values that go beyond money as such. This leads to confusing trends that happen at the same time: we have a financialization of everything, and a movement to go beyond money as such.

SH: I was just in Italy, which has a political system that, according to a recent Jacobin article, is decades ahead. They had their version of Trump more than 20 years ago, conventional parties started to collapse in the 90s, and now they have 5Stelle winning most of the votes of all parties. In the small town in Southern Italy where I often spend time they won more the 50%. I had long discussions in my favorite coffee bar trying to understand why. Is platform populism the political future? Is there something to be learned here? And what can we do about it?

GL: Certain countries and electoral systems will not allow new parties to emerge (USA, UK, Australia), while in other Western countries it is relatively easy to establish a new party and get votes, even if you’re outside of the system and relatively unknown. The electoral system and the mainstream media in Germany are pretty rigid. In Italy and the Netherlands, on the other hand, people are open for new faces and ideas and try out new parties, often just for the sake of it—not even because they are in agreement with the political program of Geert Wilders (or the Five Star Movement, for that matter). There is a cynical reason behind this. It’s a veto against the neo-liberal consensus model of the global elites: Make Europe Evil Again. We’re tired of the permanent re-education that teachers, media and even friends are imposing on us.

The progressive pedagogical approach no longer works and arguably results in even more support for right-wing populism (what this has got to do with platforms, I don’t know). Instead of responding in a politically correct fashion, we should go on the offensive: let’s approach our adversaries head-on and expose the manipulative schemes of extraction and expulsion not only with reasonable investigative journalism, but also with memes, trolling tactics, and slogans.

Bitcoin is an anarcho-capitalist tool that is neither distributed nor anonymous and that is manipulated by a small group of insiders. It’s got nothing to do with a ‘market’, nor are any of the players interested in the development of practical cases in which these crypto-currencies are actually used. Let’s try to impose such counter-rhetoric like this also to other fields. I like the idea of ‘fake Left’ and ‘fake Right’. It is clear that social-democrats are on the way out because of their shameless defense of austerity and neo-liberal policies. Why should income cuts, unemployment and rising living costs for health care etc. be good for us all? They are fake-left. Why should they be rewarded for the mess we’re in right now?

SH: My suspicion is that the progressive approach formerly known as ‘leftist’ no longer works because its pedagogical self-esteem has turned into normative paternalism. Whoever is ‘deplorable’ enough to reject its just cause is now being called out as populist. Here, a post-modernist perspective could indeed help. One would need to re-think Baudrillard’s logic of fake distinctions in the light of network laws. To cut the argument very short: the fake distinction between left and right ceased to be applicable once opinion clusters replaced the general public and its common ground. The common battlefield that has supported a binary distinction of political parties (as fake as it’s described by Baudrillard in his book The Divine Left: A Chronicle of the Years 1977-1984) has been turned into a clustered network of opinion leaders surrounded by hordes of trolls patrolling rhetoric boundaries.

What it has to do with platforms? Everything. They define the discursive field. Marshall McLuhan returns as fake news; as in, news whose purpose it is to spread, regardless of its relation to what actually happened. The medium, as in: the network platform, decides what becomes message. The related loss of control of the public opinion is met with hysterical outbursts that no less rely on fake claims.

This all means that we may no longer be able to fix democracy by education alone, along the Adorno model. It is very clear that democracy needs to be defended. I’m afraid we cannot defend it in the form that democracy has right now. Democracy is a 19th century ritual executed within the communication media constraints of its time, with manually counted choices on paper collected every four years. We may have to rethink and reinvent viable democratic procedures under network conditions.

GL: True. Many of our generation have shied away from the challenge. Instead we have put all our cards on the indirect forms of influence—such as change in mentality, spirit, education, or other politics towards the body—with the aim to undermine power as such. New forms of decision making have been developed but they are often avoiding the formal level of decision making, such as consensus-building during the assembly. Our experience with the ‘network conditions’, as you call it, has only been indirect. We grew up with opinion polls and now live under the regime of Cambridge Analytica, in which target audiences can be influenced on the level of the individual user. At the same time, we are used to ‘striking back’ in the form of dissenting behaviours and opinions. What we know best is the creation of ‘participatory cultures’, to use the ugly term of Henry Jenkins. However, Silicon Valley carefully prevents us from turning desperate disappeared voices into decision making machines.

In Germany, the cultural elite is still afraid of the ‘vox populi’. Denazification is, more than 70 years later, still an unfinished project. In the Netherlands, where bluntness is considered part of the proud national character, citizens have recently lost the right to cast a referendum. In short, we ’re going backwards. As you say, there’s no progress. Dutch hackers have been campaigning against unsafe internet voting software for at least two decades. What’s left are tiny pockets of virtual communities that experiment with internal voting apps, such as Loomio. We’re still afraid of the ‘fluctuations of our opinion’, to use a phrase of Jean Baudrillard. His analysis has proven to be wrong: we’re not fascinated by our own ‘fluctuations’. We’re afraid of our own opinions concerning the Other, and this is precisely the exploit trolls so effectively explore. So, instead of the automation of democracy, I would argue for the creation of offensive network cultures that can make hegemonic claims. This is why the development of alternative social media architectures is so urgent. Inside those social systems, we can experiment with decentralized digital decision-making and go from there. A top-down approach right now would be disastrous.

Stefan Heidenreich, -Geld-, Für eine non-monetäre Ökonomie, Merve Verlag, Berlin, 2017.