The architecture of a no-money economy

A couple of days ago I wrote an intentionally-controversial post on my Sidewise blog, saying that ‘The future of money is that it has no future‘.

Was I being serious? Yes. Very serious: I really do mean it when I say that the only feasible future for money and the money-based economy is that it has no future.

Which in many people’s eyes would no doubt immediately mark me as some kind of nutcase. Or worse.

To which all I can say is that if they don’t know how proper futures-work actually works, and how to apply it in practice, that’s their problem, not mine.

Perhaps they needn’t worry, though: the money-system that they know and, uh, love, isn’t going to vanish overnight. (Or rather, it almost certainly will, when the change actually takes place; but that change is probably a fair while off yet. Probably…) My point is that as enterprise-architects we need to be fully ready for that change when it comes: otherwise collectively and societally we really are going to be in a mess.

Which means it’s a topic that as enterprise-architects we perhaps really ought to be exploring right now?

What’s the background?

Let’s first do a quick recap of that post.

It’s fairly obvious to everyone, I’d think, that globally the money-system is in deep trouble at present, and hence the entire money-economy on which it’s based. It’s also fairly obvious to most people that the problems are structural and systemic. In other words, this time we can’t simply ignore it and wait it out, as in other ‘recessions’ – the underlying structural flaws have finally broken right through to the surface, which means that the more we try to make it work, the worse the problems will get. An interestingly awkward ‘inconvenient truth’…

Hence a lot of well-intentioned people are doing intensive study on ‘alternative currencies’ and the like. Yet unfortunately, by the very nature of what they’re trying to do, none of those proposed ‘alternatives’ will work, or even can work, in the longer term or at a societal scale.

The reason why they won’t work is that all of these would-be ‘solutions’ are only scratching the surface – yet the real problems they’re trying to resolve are several layers beneath that surface. Those various scratchings won’t touch the deeper flaws at all: at best all they’ll do is make things worse by giving the illusion that something useful has actually been done…

The simplest way to put it is that the money-economy is an inherently-dysfunctional overlay on top of another inherently-dysfunctional overlay – the concept of barter – on top of yet another inherently-dysfunctional overlay – the concept of possession – on top of what could actually be a functioning economy: one that’s based on mutual interlocking responsibilities.

(By ‘economy’ I mean the term in its literal sense as ‘the management of the household’, on any scale from a work-task to a literal household to an organisation to an industry to a country to an entire planet. In other words, a perfectly ordinary fractal-type pattern-structure, ‘self-similar’ at every scale, much like so many other things we deal with in enterprise-architectures.)

There are some really serious problems that we’re facing here, especially from an architectural perspective. One of the more obvious symptoms is that a possession-economy is inherently inefficient and ineffective in its management of resources: via mechanisms somewhat analogous to gravity, most resources will automatically tend to end up where and when they’re least needed, resulting in what we could describe as ‘The Worst Possible System‘. In a money-economy, money confers ‘rights’ to access resources, yet it too is a resource that’s subject to the same possession-based ‘gravitational’ pressures – which further magnifies the resource-misallocation problems.

In short, it’s a mess: yet there’s no way to escape it in a money-economy, because it arises automatically from fundamental flaws that are baked right into its core. And this is true not just of dollars or pounds or yuan or any other ‘fiat-currency’: it applies to anything that might be used in a currency-like way. Which is why no ‘alternative-currency’ model can work.

Yet the core problem isn’t money, or currency: the core problem is the concept of possession, for which money or the like will act as a proxy or token. The difficulty here is that there’s no doubt whatsoever that a possession-based economy would seem to deliver the best possible economic results, especially in the shorter-term: that’s the conceptual basis of capitalism, for example. The catch is that it’s actually a kind of addiction, a kurtosis-risk in which apparent short-gains are overshadowed by a real yet hidden probability of much greater long-term loss – a risk that could eventuate at any time. In effect, it ‘succeeds’ by stealing from elsewhere or elsewhen – and it can only conceal that theft, and the real economic consequences of that theft, through a myth of ‘infinite growth’, “a rising tide lifts all boats” and so on. (This might start to sound a bit familiar?) It must maintain that illusion of ‘growth’, because the moment it stops ‘growing’, its only possible option is to cannibalise itself. (Which might also start to sound a bit familiar…) If a possession-economy hits up against real unbreakable constraints, it will end up consuming itself into oblivion.

And yes, what we think of as ‘the economy’ started to hit up against exactly those kinds of unbreakable constraints, certainly around half a century ago – such as documented in Limits To Growth – and probably quite a bit further back than that: colonialism can be seen as one of its symptoms, for example. What we’re seeing right now is the early-ish death-throes of a delusionary ‘possession-economy’ in non-recoverable terminal decline: and if we don’t want to be taken down with it, we need to be doing something about developing some real global-scale alternatives right now.

Hence a real sense of urgency in this. In a sense it’s not quite that urgent: we probably have a decade at least before everything really does start to fall apart in an irretrievable way. Yet the point is that will take at least a decade to get alternatives in place such that we can swap over to that an alternative in an instant: in the real world, an apparent ‘overnight success’ usually takes a very long time to prepare. It’s a bit like the old orchardist’s aphorism: the best time to plant a fruit-tree is twenty years ago, but if you haven’t done that, the next-best time to plant it is today. Right now. Prepare the ground, plant the sapling, keep a careful eye out, but mostly a lot of waiting-around and careful yet apparently ‘unprofitable’ tending whilst nothing much seems to happen, for what probably seems much too long a time. That to me is what we’re facing right now, at the ‘Really Big Picture‘-scale of enterprise-architectures.

What do we do about it?

Most enterprise-architects aren’t ‘economists’ in the conventional sense – which, under the circumstances, is probably a good thing. 🙂 Yet we are economists in a much more general sense, because we do know a lot about the broader ‘management of the household’ within our business-domains and business-organisations. Most of us know well that whilst business-folk will talk about most things in monetary terms, about ‘cutting costs’ or ‘making money’, in reality the business runs neither on money nor on machines, but on the responsibility and commitment of individual people. In other words, the business may purport to be a money-economy, but it’s actually a responsibility-economy, a value-network of interlocking mutual responsibilities. For the most part, money just gets in the way…

Most of us have also learnt the hard way that many of the real intractable problems in a business context arise from misunderstood notions of possession. For example, when we talk about a process-owner or project-owner, we mean the person who accepts responsibility for the appropriate usage or completion of that item – and it’s when someone tries to claim exclusive ‘possession’ of that item that things go wrong. (Or the corollary as ‘anti-possession’ – the purported ‘right’ to not accept responsibility for something.) It’s only by gently breaking free of delusions of ‘possession’ – or, in a few cases, prying the desperate claws of a would-be ‘possessor’ off from something that needs to move on – that things can actually be made to work.

We also know from writers like Daniel Pink that money is actually one of the least-successful motivators in a business context: in any kind of knowledge-work, for example, monetary rewards are more likely to damage performance than to improve it.

And there are a few other closely-related themes that most of us would know all too well: for example, the chaos that will routinely arise from the fact that whilst the physics definition of ‘power’ is (roughly speaking) ‘the ability to do work’, far too often the social definition is more like ‘the ability to avoid work’…

So as enterprise-architects we do know what works, and what doesn’t work, at the relatively small scale of business change in a business context. What we’re talking about here is the need to adapt that experience and awareness up to a much larger scale. We know that we can do that, because we know it’s a fractal pattern. (Unlike the money-economy: try scaling-down a supposedly all-inclusive money-economy model to the level of an ordinary family-household, and watch how fast its fundamental dysfunctionalities will surface! 🙂 ) And we can also observe and test and practice what does work there within a business – a responsibility-based economy, without the possession/barter/money overlays – so that we do know how to scale it up when the time comes.

Some practical questions to explore:

  • In what ways do attempts at ‘possession’ of anything tend to slow things down? What is it that is attempted to be possessed? – money? authority? ideas? resources? others’ attention? Who attempts to do the possessing? And what are the results of the attempted ‘possession’ – especially in the medium to longer term?
  • In what ways do attempts at possession reflect a lack of trust? Who or what is not being trusted, by whom?
  • In what ways do attempts at possession reflect overt or unacknowledged fear? What or who is feared in each case? What could be done to ease those fears?
  • In what ways is responsibility taken up and enacted by people? What problems arise when ‘anti-possession’ attempts are made to ‘assign’ or otherwise offload responsibility onto others, rather than the responsibility taken up as a conscious choice and commitment by the respective ‘other’?
  • In terms of the overall metaphoric ‘management of the household’, what structures, processes, procedures, performance-metrics and governance assist in this active take-up of responsibility? What deters it? Architecturally speaking, what works, and what doesn’t?
  • Given what you know about what works and what doesn’t, what can you do architecturally to support what works and gently dissuade what doesn’t?
  • What would you need to do to scale this up to your organisation’s relations with its immediate partners and clients, the broader market-space (or equivalent), and the overall shared-enterprise in which it operates? How would you scale it up to a city, a country, an entire global economy?

Some serious challenges there…

(And yes, given that the money-economy and its dysfunctions do still hold sway in almost all organisations, it’s probably best to do this kind of exploration ‘by stealth’, in the background. The results will speak for themselves in terms of greater real efficiency and effectiveness, but probably best to keep quiet for now as to how you got there… 😐 )

To see how this works in the wider world, just imagine a world without money. From what you’ll have done above within your own organisation, you’ll have recognised by now that it actually isn’t necessary: it’s just a huge and scarily-wasteful overhead on the economy that we really don’t need at all. Money doesn’t make the world go round: in reality, it mostly makes it go stop – as you can see every day in the struggle to get out of the darn supermarket…

So imagine your High Street, or Main Street, without any of the accoutrements of money. All the banks and building-societies and insurance-companies would vanish: they’re literally just a waste of space. Down at the grubbier end of town, the pawnshops and betting-shops would vanish, too. The general shops would change, quite a lot, but would still be there: a much stronger focus on not-selling, rather than selling-for-the-sake-of-selling. Cafes and bars and bakeries and restaurants would still be much the same as at present. It’s a very interesting thought-experiment… And the only thing that stands between us and that world – one that, for most of us, is a lot more appealing than what we have right now – is just one literally deadly delusion: the myth of possession, on which the current myths of ‘property’ and ‘money’ are based.

I’m not saying money is somehow ‘wrong’: it isn’t. The same applies to money-economy capitalism: I’m not saying it’s ‘wrong’. (Far from it, actually.) In reality, all of it’s just a kludge at best – though it is a workable kludge if you’re trying to do any of a fairly limited range of types of trade. But the point is that most of us aren’t doing those kind of trades – and it doesn’t scale properly either to anything outside of that scope, or to a global scale. Which means that in most real-world cases it’s an unworkable kludge – along with the entire possession-model on which it’s based. And pretending that it does work, when it doesn’t, is not a good idea…

Money isn’t ‘the root of all evil’; the existence of a bank or an insurance-company or monetary taxes isn’t ‘wrong’ as such. If you’re working for a bank right now (and bluntly, most of us do, one way or another…), probably best not to worry about it overmuch as yet. It’s just that it doesn’t work: it never has, and we were always fooling ourselves in pretending that it did. It sort-of worked within a narrow business-context, but it was always ludicrously inefficient and ineffective, especially at a social scale and in any social context. And whilst in the past we could sort-of gloss over its inefficiencies at the cost of a recession or two, we’re now reaching the point where we literally cannot and dare not attempt to ignore its inherent flaws and frequent failures – because they could literally kill us all. It’s in that sense, and that sense only, that money, or barter, or possession, is ‘wrong’ – and why we literally have no choice but to say that somehow they must go, replaced by an economic model that can run without them.

So yes, in this it’s definitely ‘interesting times ahead’: yet also very interesting indeed for enterprise-architects. Care to explore more? 🙂

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3 comments on “The architecture of a no-money economy
  1. attila j.a. sala says:

    I wrote a proposal for a no-money economy which was based on work credits and incentives to consume less. It did not change forms of ownership outright but people were free to organize more communal forms of ownership if that was more efficaceous depending on the item. It would make it very difficult to throw things away in order to prevent over accumulation. Respond to my e-mail if you are interested in seeing a copy of the proposal.

  2. David Robinson says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thank you for you visionary insight into the state of the economy. I agree with you on many points, particularly on the dysfunctional overlay of our concepts of money, possession, and exchange. However there is an emerging force for change which is becoming visible that you have omitted: Robots.

    Just like you, I am afraid that people think you slightly mad when you grasp something that doesn’t seem to line up with the rest of the world, but that’s a risk I’ll take. I’d like to explain my version of reality with you further, I have a feeling that the truth lies somewhere between my version and yours. Please reply and I’ll send you a slightly different version of the future that you might find interesting (no, it is not a cashless economy, but a resource based economy, driven entirely by machines and expert systems. But that summary needs some flesh on it to do it justice)

    David Robinson

    • Steav says:

      Hi David,

      Wouldn’t mind having a glimpse of your resource based economy, i’m currently working on an architecture project (at university) with similar projections.


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