With VALENTIN Seehausen, JULIO Linares and BLANKA Vay, moderated by INTE Gloerich.
Saturday March 27, 2021 11.00am-11:45PM CET (online)
Transcribed by Lara Luna Bartley (firstname.lastname@example.org)
INTE: (INC, with MoneyLab since 2016): Why are we talking about this? Community currencies and basic income has been Moneylab topics since the beginning. What is relevant now (during the pandemic)? What I appreciate about both your projects is your commitment to the community.
JULIO: (Circles): I’m an economic anthropologist, from Guatemala, doing work for the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) – as social outreach. I come from a world of basic income in terms of thinking about how to bring it into being, how to finance a basic income. That lead me into anthropology, anthropology of money, anthropology of value, as a way of rethinking money.
One of the main ideas behind Circles is that you don’t need to wait for a national state to provide a basic income, it’s a paradigm shift in how to create a basic income. We call it a democratic money theory DMT, whereby people issue promises to each other, and go in and out of debt with each other as opposed to with a bank or a nation-state.
For me what is really important is to give people a sense of power, to share in the power of what it means to create money. We tend to think of ourselves as money takers, but we are interested in getting people to feel like money issuers, to take control and have a say in how the economy is organised.
VALENTIN (Social Coin): I can really relate to what you are saying because, for me, community currencies are a way to get practical from social/economic theory. I (as many of you/us) started with a strong critique of the monetary system, and I wondered whether to go into politics, but I started to think why don’t I/we start my/our own small alternative financial system? And this is often a driving factor in community currencies, that it allows us to dream about a different world. One that serves (and this is, of course, subjective) ‘the peoples’, serve ourselves.
We can create them bottom-up and there are community currencies all over the world – and the number is increasing. What we create are examples of what if we use this particular rule to create a monetary system. We can experiment, with Social Coin with Circles, with blockchain technologies. Maybe these currencies are a small money lab.
INTE: We start from big ideas, but the community currencies are a way to put them into practice. But we also need to think, if I had the opportunity to join the Circles community of to use Social Coin (for example) why would I? What can I buy?
VALENTIN: So this is the most important question that community currencies have to answer. We all know this theory of the Homoeconomicous – of the utility maximising household – which I think is totally flawed, but still, there’s some truth in it. There has to be a benefit for people to contribute, for some people the ‘good consciousness’ is enough, and the feeling of contributing to the local community. But it’s fair to ask about the economic benefit and in Siegen (for example) this would be ‘hey, you can rent an electric car or an electric bike’.
JULIO: I always say one thing is the currency, the technology, the discussions about more like macro things, but the most important part of a currency is the social infrastructure, the social structure that connects all these different producers, all these different logistics providers, service providers, care work providers… everybody that is part of an economy. An economy is a household an Oikos, but not just the walls we live within but the region. So here in Berlin, we are working with people that are setting up their own supermarkets, a beer manufacturer, it could be a farmer, a cooperative bike fleet. And so the work is connecting them to each other, transforming the surplus, and now in Corona/crisis times, the underutilised resources into extra liquidity.
So for example I was talking to the owner of a beer company that has a bunch of 50l kegs of beer that he cannot sell because the bars are closed. So he is happy to sell it for Circles and wants to use that money to advertise himself on local radio to sell more beer. And this is what Valentin is saying, you need to figure out a way to connect people so they can get a mutual benefit, but you are actually supporting something broader than yourself. There are methodologies around how to do this well so that surplus can go to the broader community, but you need to create a flow of resources first.
INTE: It sounds like community building is the central work. If there’s not community trust and network then it’s not going to work. These things don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist in the contexts of nations, with their fiat currency systems, tax systems. How do your projects exist within the wider system? Are these projects existing as pockets? Or would you want to see the whole system change?
JULIO: Georg Simmel, the German sociology, was talking a lot about how money is a claim on society. In a way what that really means is that the types of money we use in our society reflects different dimensions, imagination, unpaid labour, paid labour, all these factors are reflected in the money form. So to me what is important is that by tackling money, and embedding ourselves in the political struggles what we try to challenge is the hegemony of the monetary system as a whole whilst being really practical.
So something we are doing – with Valentine – is trying to create an international network of mayors that can issue a basic income to their citizens. Then we can provide a roster of different systems, Circles is just one of them, and we can have a look and what the local conditions and needs are, and we can hand over a bunch of tools with which to work. That can coexist – and that is the political question – with the national systems which exist today. The US is always the case in point, so there is a national system that is controlled by the FED, but you can have sub-national systems which coexist at the broader level. So you can have local basic incomes being issued out to potentially millions of people, by the local constituencies as a way of complimenting and putting in line the interests of the broader spectrum. But you may challenge national sovereignty, so it depends on the context, it depends on the politics.
For context, I am an anarchist, I don’t believe in the nation-state, I don’t believe in capitalism, I want to abolish them. But, I do think it’s important to think practically about where we are at the moment, and these structures will take a long time to fall and what I am doing is helping them to fall better.
——- giggles all round ——–
VALENTIN: I really love that disclosure after 20 minutes that you call your self an anarchist. I’m kind of aligned. It’s a way to change the system, and it’s a way to get this power back to a municipal level. We’ve got these nations and we’ve got these international organisations – I’m not an anarchist, I think there is value in them – but also I think that the monetary system serves a fraction of the society. And, of course, there are 10% or 1% that really benefit a lot, then there’s this 50% that don’t really benefit, and then there’s – I don’t know – maybe 5% on the people of the planet in extreme poverty, and they don’t have enough food and that is a disaster in my perspective.
There’s this idea of de-nationalised money which was proposed by Hayek, who is famous for being a neo-liberal. But I’m still wondering what would happen if we had this denationalisation of money and everyone can print money. I would say ‘hey, this is a Valentin Coin, use it.’ ‘And you would say, why? What do you want?’ But if it was the mayor, for example, the mayor of Berlin and he printed a Berlin-coin then people would actually start to use it. And this would mean the power and the seigniorage (the profit you can make from issuing money) would actually go to Berlin, to the municipality, to small villages and poor countries. This might be the opportunities that society has when it starts to experiment with local money.
About the shift that these smart projects can have to the wider context, I think that Bitcoin and blockchain is something we should bear in mind because community currencies existed for decades if not for hundreds of years. But they were still illegal mostly and blockchain came along and issued money which is impossible to stop because blockchain is so decentralised that no government or power can actually intervene. So what the states are doing right now is that they legalised it, they regulate it. The states realised this won’t go away, and so they created rules to try and control it of course, but then it’s legal and we can actually use it. This is what I find – and Inte you said this – this year interesting because the regulators and the states are creating this legal framework for community currencies to actually exist, and I am a lobbyist for community currencies and local currencies, that’s why I’m here. These are the policy changes that I would like to see.
INTE: But Social Coin in Siegen doesn’t use blockchain, right? So you have created a space that has opened up for your own purposes if I understand correctly.
VALENTIN: Communities use the technologies available at the time. So there is Worgl – this famous example we probably all know – the technology was ‘we issue papers and then we stamp them’. Then we had centralised service access, and the point of this is that you can go to the server and then take it off and then the currency is gone. But blockchain is just this technology that made it impossible to track and impossible to stop. The concept of decentralised money was actually powered by technology.
Personally, I don’t believe in blockchain. I don’t think that if we have a world with lots of community currencies and different value tokens, we can go crazy, but I don’t think we need blockchain for that. But I do think we need blockchain to break up these rules, to break up these rules which have prohibited community currencies. But I don’t see why we should use blockchain. People trust us, they trust our partners, they trust our faces, trust humans. So we don’t need blockchain.
INTE: So this idea that there’s an open space created whether we want to use blockchain or not.
I want to invite you to think about… we’ve covered the practical benefits, the societal context, but I’m also curious to hear your most utopian ideas with this. In the workshops, you’ll be talking about where you are now, what concerns you now. But you have big ideas about what could be in the future, what you want to achieve. Maybe this point on the horizon is something we can talk about.
VALENTIN: I think utopias are super important. I love this question because there are so many aspects of it. On a national level, I am a huge fan of a wealth tax and a UBI (universal basic income). So on an international level, it would be amazing if there was a world government, and we had a global wealth tax that was redistributed as a UBI, so that the tendency of our global financial system to become more and more unequal… could be turned around with a wealth tax and UBI. I think society and human beings would totally benefit from it. And from a community currency lobbyist perspective, I want to have a secure legal environment. I care more about this, it’s still very complex. We talk a lot about technology but I think legal issues are still the main bummer in community currencies. I would love it if there was a structure such as ‘if you have a community currency and it has less than £1,000,000 then we won’t regulate it. After that, we will regulate.’ This is something I demand from politics.
INTE: I think Julio might have a different opinion about future governments.
JULIO: This is a difficult question. It’s a lot about political economy. We are talking about blockchains, we are talking about the law, and we are talking about technology. But, what it really comes down to is questions related to power, economic power and political power. The question of the law is very interesting, because today legally, the only bodies that can issue money other than the states are the private banks. If you have a bank license, you can issue money by giving debt to people, which means you have a claim upon their resources, a claim upon their work, and that is also what creates these unequal power structures.
So I agree with Valentin that a wealth tax at an international level and a UBI would be amazing. But, for me thinking practically in democratic terms, in direct democratic terms the only way to go there is by democratising money. If you think about money as a territory, what we are doing when we democratise money is that we are re-localising economic relation, political relationships, ecological relations also, between different producers that can complement each other in regional ways. And like this you can build real decentralisation of power – that’s what we really need, a decentralisation of power.
In Circles we talk about the four principles: localism, local solutions for global problems; decentralisation of power; sustainability, as in more regionalisation of relationships and finding ways to rely on each other in more interdependent ways; and democratic co-federalism, so you have democratic assemblies that can federate, but the power always remains with the people. So this is a very practical mechanism to scale up, and this would be my very practical utopia to scale up democracy. So it’s not just in money, it’s in everything. What we need beyond money is the democratisation of life. This goes back to the question of power. Today, we are powerless. Most of us don’t have power. We live in a society where we can turn our wealth into power, so people that have a lot of wealth – who also cause a lot of the catastrophe in the world also have a lot of power. The only way we can get political power is through the organised masses, and this is what we need to build.
INTE: I’ve been reading the chat, and there’s a question here about social reproduction. How do these community currencies and UBI sit in the social relations and the societies we want to create? What values are represented in the tokes that function in your systems? And how does that design go with the community? What if there are competing and contrasting ideas about what that should be? How does that process go? And how do you relate to such abstract things of society and the kind of societies you want to facilitate within something so practical and code-based such as tokens?
JULIO: In terms of social re-production, we are in a moment of crisis right now with a lot more care falling on families right now, especially on women. Violence is also rising. So for me, a basic income is the way to give people a way to say no to a lot of exploitative relationships. Or a least have the ability to have the basis of a wage with which they can take care of themselves, take care of other people, take care of the environment of the societies around them. A ‘full’ basic income would enable people to live without selling their labour time, to rent themselves for a wage, and that is something we really need.
Today the money system goes from the realm of production – you hire a worker, they go to work – and then they bring the wage back to the household so they can reproduce themselves, and buy the stuff that they need. There is no currency for the commons. This is what we need to build, a money-commons, that allows for social reproduction to really thrive, so the commons can also grow. And this is a really fundamental contradiction of the system. If we think of feminist-marxism, if we do not create a system of value in which our practices of care, our practises of social reproduction can thrive, we are going to become more and more precarious through dependence on huge infrastructures such as Amazon, and big food companies. So it’s really about creating territories we have to defend: from our bodies to the land to the promises we make to one another.
INTE: And how about the Social Coin Valentin?
VALENTIN: Just thinking about this broad picture that Julio painted in my mind, which is about how does society actually work and which role does money play. But, to narrow it down to which values… I was looking for a name for this currency we have in Siegen – the Social Coin – and I think it’s a common currency. We have this ‘kind of’ commons, this electric car and we are going to have three in the future and this electrics bike. And the society that I work for wants to distribute these commons, these electric vehicles to the local population, and we use the currency as a tool to distribute it.
We are still experimenting. The first idea was to do volunteer work and give out the coins which are then redeemable on the electric cars. Now we plan to implement this UBI scheme, this basic income, which would mean every human being would have the same right to consume this common resource.
But what are the values about commons? It’s not property, it’s the opposite of private property. How would you define the values of the commons? It’s a really interesting question.
INTE: The idea of money as a commons, I think it deserves some more explanation. Julio, maybe you can give it a few minutes. Because money is personal ownership, usually…
JULIO: There is an author, Karl Polanyi, who talks about the three false commodities. These are labour, land and money. And it is very interesting to think of them as false commodities because it means they weren’t always commodities. Our labour time, our work, our bodies, were not always commodities. The land wasn’t always a private commodity, the square, the little garden. This was not always a commodity. And money also, money is a debt, it’s a credit relation, it’s a social relation between people of the types of things we want to promise to each other. Through the process of the history of capitalism it became commodified, it became a private commodity, which reifies (makes real) capitalism. If you follow a Marxist definition, you will define capitalism as an M-C-M formula. So money makes more money, you sell money, to buy commodities to get more money.
So there is a reification or even a fetishisation of a token of value, that we call money today, that is just growing for its own expansion – we call it growth, we call it many things – through processes of interest-bearing debt and so on. And this is what actually destroys the planet, the growth of this fetish, of this God, at the expense of the commons, at the expense of the land, at the expense of our bodies at the expense of our planetary values. And so, when they talk about the commodification of money – not the commodification the common-ification – we are going back to the question of democracy. How do we create money where we are all co-owners? Where there is no private ownership, where it’s not owned by a private bank, it’s not owned by a state it’s actually a common resource that we can issue out and then claim resources and so on. And decide what type of resources we want to claim.
Today we don’t have this power, we just have to wait and see what is actually there and see that there is a problem with the rent and we have no power over this. And so I think that the ‘commonification’ of money given as a basic income, can free our bodies from wage labour so we can become, freeing money, and through this process also commodifying land. It’s basically transforming money from a private commodity into a commonly own resource. This for me is the main theoretical point that I’ve been working on for a long time, to provide an alternative to the current capitalist crisis. And we have to go to the root, and money has been a problem for the last 5000 years or more, ever since the Sumerian ziggurats, you have all these priests giving out debts enslaving people into bondage. That history, that long duree of history goes all the way to the Fed and the military-industrial complex. The US military is the biggest polluter in the world and it’s funded by the US dollar. So if we don’t reclaim the power of money creation as a people, we are not going to go to the root of the problem.
INTE: It’s almost time to wrap up, but I want to give you each a moment to talk about what you will do in the workshop, in case people want to watch the recording.
VALENTIN: The workshop is called: How to start a community currency as an NGO because we are an NGO and we started this currency. This will be a practical hands-on workshop, where I will share all the experiences I had set up this community currency. And just a disclaimer, we still have a long way to go. This is not a ‘follow these steps and you will have a community currency’. I will just share my experience and I really want to have a discussion and learn also from other people in the workshop who have practical experience, so that we – those of us in the community currency alliance – learn from each other, and what solutions might work for different challenges and how can we help ourselves.
JULIO: First I will talk about this question of power, and then about these two sides of money, to give people a sense of how Circles work in terms of exchange and mutual obligation. Then I will run through the recently published handbook, which explains what Circles are and how it works. Also, some of the principles I talked about today and also giving people the methodology of how to organise locally in their area. So going from a circuit of producers and merchants to their workers and then the community at large. This is very practical, it’s what we do at the assemblies on the last Sunday of every month. Anyone who’s listening is welcome to join, from anywhere in the world. And they can get a sense of how to get started.