Hack Money, Hack Banking
Rushkoff on the economy

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 20 March 2009

I’ve received a ton of great email and response from last week’s piece [“Let It Die”] on letting the banks die and letting the market go down another 70 percent. My commentary also generated some confusion, though, so I’d like to clarify and expand on a few points. (I’ll do this again on WFMU on Monday evening, when I’ll have the opportunity to take some calls and actually converse.)

First off, and I can’t stress this enough: Commerce is good. Commerce is not the problem. Monopolies are.

Except in a few rare cases, corporate charters and centralized currency were never intended to promote commerce. They were intended to prevent locals and non-chartered entities from creating and exchanging value. They are not extensions of the free market, but efforts at extracting value from the free market. Corporate monopoly charters were extended to a king’s favorite companies in return for shares. Then, no one else was allowed to do business in that industry. Centralized currency forced businesses to run their revenue through the king’s coffers. Likewise, in its current form, centralized currency is more akin to a ponzi scheme of interest rates, each borrower paying up to the banker above him.

Both of these innovations—corporate charters and centralized currency—tend towards resource exploitation rather than innovation. They are extractive in nature, not productive. And, more importantly, these particular innovations cause wealth to end up being generated through speculation rather than creation. They cause scarcity, not abundance. Over time, it becomes easier to make money by having money than by doing anything. And this was the pure, stated intent of centralized currency and banking in the early Renaissance: to keep the wealthy wealthy, in the face of a rising merchant class.

This isn’t some extremist perspective. It’s just historical fact, though largely forgotten and seemingly refuted by our collective false memory of the Renaissance’s greatness. If you’re interested in finding out more about this, or seeing the evidence on which my research is based, take a look at the best historians writing about the era: Fernand Braudel (The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century, Volume 2, Univ. of California Press, 1992), Carlo M. Cipolla (Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700, WW Norton, 1994) or Bernard A. Lietaer, whose book On Human Wealth used to be available for free download off his site, but doesn’t seem to be anymore. In these books, you can find out about the sustainable local economic systems of the Late Middle Ages, learn that the Black Plague actually began after mandated centralized currency had impoverished Europe, and find support of my contention that cathedrals were built with local money before the Renaissance, not Vatican money during the Renaissance.

For reasons I cannot understand, people seem to think that my explaining this phenomenon somehow means I want us to go back to a hunter-gatherer stage. Or that I long nostalgically for a return to a late-middle-ages lifestyle. Or that I am somehow renouncing my earlier enthusiasm for new technology and media.

Nothing of the kind.

The cyberpunk ethos was actually based in the very same DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos I’m espousing now. Cyberpunk was about reclaiming technology, making modifications oneself or with one’s friends, generating value from the bottom up, exchanging goods and services in an alternative economy. I’m not saying we get rid of money—only that we learn to make it ourselves, as communities. I’m not saying we get rid of banks—only that we stop outsourcing our banking to Wall Street firms that mean only to extract value from our communities.

I have always admired hackers—computer hackers and social hackers. I’m just trying to expand the range of technologies and institutions we feel ready and willing to hack. We should hack money. We should hack banking. We should hack business. This doesn’t necessarily mean hacking the dollar, which is just one kind of closed source currency. We should hack money by coding new kinds. Bank hacking has been around for a long time—it’s just that credit unions and other local or community-based bank models were driven down by the anti-competitive practice of banking conglomerates. It’s time for those institutions to be renewed, as well.

When I say it’s okay if the Dow Jones goes down another 70 percent, I’m not calling for an apocalypse. I’m calling for the re-balancing of the speculative economy. The speculative economy owns, represents and controls a disproportionate amount of money. There are simply too many investors, traders, and brokers trying to get rich off moving pieces of paper back and forth. These pieces of paper represent shares in companies (or derivatives based on the value of these shares), and trade at valuations unsustainable by real world commerce and activity. That’s why it’s a good thing, and not a bad thing, for these valuations to move back down to a level corresponding to the revenue stream of the company. This helps the company make decisions consonant with the needs of its customers and employees—its real culture—rather than people who invest from afar, with little personal human stake in its affairs.

The banking bailout is a fiasco because it is taking money from future generations to restore the lending-based economy. I believe it would be cheaper and better to use a tiny fraction of the money to actually employ people, and to educate communities in how to rebuild local economies.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the global economy has to go away—just that it be balanced by local activity. This doesn’t necessarily mean computers go away, or that we lose our internet. We can still work in big groups making really complex stuff. We can still enjoy cities and farms, Radiohead and Britney. We can still ship refrigerators from South Korea to Australia.

It’s just that this activity would be based less on the requirements of corporate debt structures than it would on actual supply and demand. It would be a much more efficient economy, by virtue of being one that would require people to create real value. I think it’s that final part that scares people so much at the mere mention of such reforms: they think the last time people actually created value was back in the Middle Ages, when folks made shoes or raised chickens.

Well, there are many different things people can do to create value for one another. And a few people can still be bankers and brokers. Just not so many of them. Maybe about 70 percent less.