Agency, finance and sociality
1.1 Contesting the current order
Despite a deepening climate disaster, consecutive global economic crises and a socially devastating pandemic, the last two decades have found us living in an era of capitalist triumphalism. In almost all capitalist countries, political leaders celebrate their achievements in promoting economic growth and stock market record highs while ‘successfully managing’ wage growth. State ‘reforms’ of all kinds have seen growing precarity of those whose living standard is low and growing wealth and security for those at the top. Indeed increasing inequality seems to be the current engine of economic growth and it is only in the very recent past that concerns for the biosphere have looked like a constraint on that momentum.
Economically and politically, if we want to build postcapitalism, we must start by recognising this power of finance and challenge it by building a different finance. The ultimate goal is an economy of production, animated by alternative social and ethical values, and the starting point is finance.1
Finance is both dynamic and fragile. In its current dominant form, it goes to where the profits are greatest, but it instantly retreats when the profits are not appearing. So it is a direct discipline on those who need finance: they must deliver profits, or they suffocate.
But its liquidity and mobility is also its vulnerability, for it depends critically on the state to provide it with a money instrument and to underwrite its social reputation and its profit. The US-initiated sub-prime crisis of 2007-2008 and, even more emphatically, the 2020s Covid pandemic have revealed how the fast and free movement of finance can undermine its own conditions of existence. In both periods we have seen nation states (predominantly through their central banks) having to throw money at financial markets to secure liquidity and sustain financial market profits. In 2008, the US Federal Reserve Chairman argued behind closed doors that the state has to do whatever it takes to preserve financial market profits or economic disaster would follow.2 By 2020, the financial institutions were themselves confidently asserting the demand for the state to guarantee their profitability.3
Our project is to design a network where participants:
- interact in the creation of new outputs (not simply gambling on price movements);
- communicate in the determination of what is deemed value-creating (not driven by private appropriation of profit);
- coordinate the assemblage of production (not corporate)
- bind in the building of a commons (not individualistic), and
- launch the capacity to scale and reproduce in sustainable ways (not reliant on on-going injections of external funding).
We cannot, and should not, pre-determine the outputs that people produce, nor what constitutes value or the content of the commons. The people who have participated in building the Economic Space Protocol outlined in this document all have views about what sorts of outcomes we would personally like to see, but it is critical that these are not predetermined in protocol design: that distributed network interactions and not a central authority coordinates network development. That’s why we frame our work as a political project as well as a project of network design.
1.2 What does the future hold?
Blockchain-based innovations for economic and financial design are evolving rapidly. Most recently, DAOs, DeFi, stablecoins, DEXs, liquidity farming, NTF markets and creator and community tokens offer expansive new possibilities. But what will be the next frontier; the next big development?
What does history suggest?
By today’s standards, history moved in slow motion. It records that money, roughly as we now know it, dates from about the 7th century BC. Recognizably modern banking developed in the Northern Italian coastal cities of Florence, Venice and Genoa in the 14th century, driven by the funding requirements of long-distance trade. This banking evolved over the next few centuries from funding commerce to funding the rise of industrial production, and a system we call capitalism. The formation of joint stock companies and a liquid stock exchange in the mid 19th century transformed ownership of capital to decentralized protocols, though the division between ownership and management served to re-centralize the control. This is the corporate capitalism we know today.
In cryptohistory, that long evolution looks like it is happening over little more than a decade. Bitcoin as a new, distinctive p2p form of money arrived in 2009, with DeFi (decentralized finance, or banking protocols) becoming prevalent a decade later; funding new kinds of distributed exchange and money games. Governance mechanisms of DAOs and in-house treasury functions, broadly replicating the roles of the corporate form, followed immediately afterwards. History would say that these developments must surely evolve to the funding of a new era of production as its next logical step. But that next step is yet to emerge, and its possible shape is still unclear.
It is already clear this future will be ‘post-industrial’, with information at the center, as both its predominant input and output. But what will be its social shape; what technical capacities and social relations will it build upon? There are two complementary, contemporary developments that are critical: distributed money and the iteration of the Internet that brings decentralization back into its heart; also known as Web3 or the Economic Web.