A Fundamental Shift in the Nature of Value

I’ve never quite understood finance. It’s a nut I just can’t crack. I don’t get why the stock market goes up when there’s bad news.

Or why at a time of climate crisis the Dow Jones is breaking all records. I don’t know why 30 percent of new wealth is speculative — no physical objects bought or sold. Or exactly what work the three trillion dollars sloshing around the global economy every day is actually doing. Nobody has ever been able to explain this to me in a way that makes sense.

And how come tax havens still exist? And why did no one on Wall Street go to jail after the meltdown of 2008?

It’s all a mystery to me.

But I think maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place. Maybe the answer isn’t in The New York Times, The Guardian, the CBS evening news or the books I’ve been reading.

My new theory is that a long time ago, capitalism got infected with a virus. And that virus seized control of its host and began to deform it. Capitalism drifted from its origins in honest trade between two parties, with both walking away satisfied. The purity of that transaction gradually got eaten away, until now, a millennium later, we have . . . whatever it is we have today. Junk capitalism. Predatory capitalism. Or simply a “death cult,” as Jia Tolentino called it.

If this really is a doomsday sect then it all starts to make sense, this place we ended up. With the dehumanization of personal exchange. The explosive tension between rich and poor. The constant threat of speculative bubbles and ecological tipping points.

And maybe the virus, the actual virus, the one that has taken root in the heart of the global economy is . . .

Money itself.

This thing that has grown and grown until it casts an immense cultural shadow, eclipsing security and trust and freedom and even love.

The story of this infection begins the moment we replace gift- giving and straight-on barter with some symbolic object: a shell, a coin, a paper note. This early money is a harmless, necessary thing — a placeholder for my chicken and your promise to build me a chicken coop. A portable bit of value that says, “Yes, I’m good for it ...” It’s a leap of faith, really. We agree to believe in the value of the things being exchanged. We look each other in the eye and say yes, together.

But the thing about “trust me” is that there are no guarantees. Our best intentions are vulnerable to outside interference. This is what the old myths were about, how we puny humans are powerless when the gods start moving the furniture around.

And so as more and more distance creeps in, as money becomes more abstract, the virus mutates into ever more deadly strains.

In his marvelous book The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century, historian Fernand Braudel tracks the gradual insinuation of the money economy into the lives of medieval peasants. “What did it actually bring? Sharp variations in prices of essential foodstuffs. Incomprehensible relationships in which man no longer recognized either himself, his customs or his ancient values.” His work became a commodity. And he himself became a “thing.”

Because, see, as soon as there’s money, lo and behold someone shows up whose job it is to . . . handle it. To keep track of our affairs for us. And naturally they need to make a living — just a little off the top.

So now there’s this third party in the mix, between you and me, between my chicken and your promise to build me a chicken coop. A middleman. He isn’t part of the actual exchange, but he’s taking a cut of our trade.

And holy hell, that is the job to have. Because unlike our original transaction, there are no limits to it. Making money off of money is pure magic. That guy can get ahead no matter which way the wind blows. It’s a sweet deal, because now there’s real wealth to be had — it’s in the currency itself — silver coins, gold ingots, printed notes.

A purity of intention used to run through the village: we are neighbors; we are trading partners. We are tight. What can I give you, brother? But now things have changed. You could be ripped off. So you look at that transaction with your neighbor with a touch of suspicion. Human interactions are no longer holy but transactional — every move has become a cost-benefit calculation.

Alienation creeps in.

The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in all this. In 1095, it made a move no one saw coming: it started selling papal indulgences. This changed the very nature of money. Money was now this thing so powerful you could buy your way into heaven with it.

What a great business model for the church. The exploitation of medieval fears of damnation proved so successful that the sale of indulgences became an industry. Usury. Debt and the erasure of debt, a gateway to unfathomable riches.

Let the colonial pillaging begin!

When the Spanish conquistadores landed in the Caribbean and put slaves to work extracting gold, some mothers opted to kill their children and themselves rather than die slowly in the mines. For those Spanish sailors, looting and murdering with a view to earning more and more and more, the drive wasn’t greed so much as shame and desperation. Everyone was caught in a debt trap. Living to pay off high-interest loans for their supplies and excursions. They could never get out of the hole. They sold their souls trying.

Usury was the original sin. Something horrible happened at that moment, in the West, when we started going down that path.

But this isn’t really a story about money. It’s about the choices we made to allow money to shape us. The moment money started using us, rather than the other way around.

So when was the tipping point? When did money stop being a tool and become . . . a craving?

Was it in the Middle Ages, when the goldsmiths who were storing folks’ savings in their vaults realized they could crib a bit and issue receipts for money they didn’t actually have in the vaults? That was the moment deceit got baked into the banking system.

Or was it in 1971, when President Nixon abandoned the gold standard — unhitching global currency from any real value at all?

Or was it 2008, when, as the banking crisis threatened to hobble the world economy, the governments of industrial nations used three trillion dollars of taxpayer money to bail out private financial institutions?

At what point did it become clear that money is simply a fiction?

And that those in charge of the storytelling hold the real power in a culture?

In truth there was no single moment that money became the lifeblood of our civilization, any more than there is a single identifiable moment when a virus starts making you sick.

And so here we are, in the endgame of financialized speculation, of digital hyper abstraction.

This is the most toxic strain of the virus.

It’s out there, moving faster than the human mind, in volumes we can no longer comprehend: complicated bets made with borrowed money by computer algorithms. Financial assets like derivatives and credit-default swaps — the same instruments that stole the show in the 2008 meltdown and provide much of the global economic muscle now — bundled together and hawked as the world’s best way to get rich. Speculations on speculations, hedges on hedges . . . these trillions coursing through the circulatory system of the world, this isn’t real money, or even the idea of money. It is the idea of the idea of the idea of money. A consensual hallucination that rips through every human being on the planet with untold brutality.

The value of over-the-counter derivatives contracts now dwarfs the entire world’s GDP. Debt has lost all meaning. The US has no intention of ever paying back the $32-trillion it owes.

A fundamental shift in the nature of value has taken place right before our eyes.

It didn’t have to be like this.

What if we could walk this story back, as far as it takes, and then upend some key moments, so that a different story unfolds?

Maybe the rewrite begins in 1095, but this time the Catholic Church thinks about selling indulgences and then decides against it: No! And so the next step never happens, the step of virtuous “gain” — the idea that justified pillaging and slavery and consuming more than you produce simply by raiding the Colonial pantry — never happens. That idea is stillborn. Indeed, the church doubles down on the other side and prohibits the hoarding of treasure on the backs of others. With that moral weight against it, usury never becomes the bedrock of global finance.

And another world emerges.

What would be different now? Would we still have derivatives?

Flash trading? Predatory loans? Perpetual growth? Or might those artifacts of capitalist overreach have starved in the shade of more humane ideals?

Maybe in this alternate universe our Western economic system retains a bit of the pure exchange ethic, worth for worth, the dignity and humanity of the exchangers intact. And maybe instead of a transactional system slowed at every turn by intermediaries reaching in to take their cut, we instead create a frictionless money system. Something a bit like the Islamic model.

Islam never went the usury route. It never took the bait. Islam said: We will not allow money to be made off money, we will not allow the rich to become richer just because they are rich. And with that decision they steered clear of the worst of the class warfare we’re seeing now, the raging hatred that threatens to bring our whole Western house of cards crashing down.

The point is, we had a choice.

We still do.

The way forward is to kill off flash-bot trading, outlaw derivatives and credit default swaps, curb Wall Street’s predatory appetites and flatten the money curve until the virus slowly dies.

That is our charge.

We start building towards frictionless money flows. We turn money into a public good, like highways. You can drive from New York to San Francisco without paying any tolls — so why can’t you send $100 to your mother in Lebanon without someone lopping $5 off the top?

Cutting the middlemen completely out of the equation: that is the dream, that is our salvation. It’s a long shot, a wild card, an almost impossible strategy to implement any time soon.

But as our current world system implodes along with our social and ecosystems, and market crashes start coming at us hard and fast, it might turn out to be the only viable financial play we have left in the planetary endgame.

— Excerpted from Adbusters’ forthcoming book.

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