Money through the eyes of Mowgli

Why getting past the Tarzan world-view will sharpen your economic vision

What is money?’ is a very popular question, but over the years I have realised that people will only accept answers to it that they are ready to receive. Our minds are not blank canvases. Rather, they are a complex and uneven landing zone for ideas, contoured with decades of subconsciously accumulated assumptions and patterns. This can cause an incoming description to crash-land, or only partially make contact. This is why it useful to explore – and prepare – this ‘landing zone’.

As an alternative metaphor, consider those ‘drivers’ you need to install on a computer before some device will work: without the correct printer driver, your computer will not understand the messages being sent to it from a printer. Similarly, for our brains to accept certain statements, we need certain underlying ‘drivers’. A statement like ‘Australia is eight hours ahead of South Africa’ appears simple, but only because you already carry a particular suite of ideas about the earth being spherical. To a person carrying the flat earth suite the statement will appear mysterious, or just meaningless.

Similarly, many statements I make about money seem mysterious to people, precisely because they do not carry the same ‘driver suite’ as me. The drivers I am running are a very unorthodox package called the Mowgli Suite. Those of us who use this package find that many conventional statements about money sound empty or circular, because conventional ideas about money run on the far more dominant Tarzan Suite. The Tarzan Suite is a mental model that lies behind almost all public language about money, and it has a huge (detrimental) effect on our understanding of economic systems. What distinguishes the two suites is their starting points. Let me sketch those out.

Mowgli as young Tarzan

Mowgli is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (if you don’t know the story you can find a great 2016 film version of it). Mowgli is sometimes called a ‘feral child’ – a term normally reserved for abandoned kids who grow up alone without language – but Mowgli is not a true feral child, because he is cared for by non-human creatures, including Raksha the wolf, Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther. They may not be human, but they teach him language and skills, and form his social network, without whom he would not have survived.

As a baby, Mowgli was taken in by a community of wolves and other creatures. Thus, the starting point of the Mowgli Suite is this: before any human is an independent being, they are a helpless baby and small child reliant on others to learn the language, skills and beliefs that enable them to navigate the world. Furthermore, all those who keep a baby alive were once babies themselves, so there is no ‘original’ self-reliant individual. There are only people kept alive by social networks, which always precede individuals.

However, if Mowgli survives into adulthood, he may become a character like Tarzan, able to exist (quasi)independently in the wild. This position – of being a solo adult – is the starting point of the Tarzan Suite, and it fascinated 17th and 18th century political philosophers.

For example, in Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 treatise Leviathan, he presents a thought-experiment in which individual adults choose to leave a primordial ‘state of nature’ to form a society to protect their individual interests. To picture this, imagine a whole series of solo Tarzans (having somehow survived until adulthood) converging on a jungle clearing to declare a contractual peace – a social contract – and thereby ‘create a society’ under which their private pursuits can flourish.

Tarzan is actually just an older version of Mowgli – he was raised by apes, and, like Mowgli, would never have lived long enough to even get to that jungle clearing without their protection. But this is why the starting point makes a huge difference. For Enlightenment thinkers, it was appealing to start from the perspective of fully grown adults, because it enabled them to present society as being preceded by individual rational choice: from this perspective you can begin to claim that people have individual reasons to ‘create society’ or enter into market exchange, for example.

This model lives on prominently in modern economics. An economics text book never begins with children being cared for by mothers. Rather, it begins with fully-grown Tarzans swinging into forest clearings to contract and exchange with others, a starting image that is then used as an explanation for why certain social forms will subsequently emerge.

Economics textbooks showcase these Tarzans bouncing around markets like independent atoms, but Mogwli is the overshadowed backstory. This is why he’s the underdog star of economic anthropology, feminist economics and left-anarchist philosophy, which take as their starting point the interdependent community rather than the autonomous individual.

The differences in these orientations can be showcased visually: Imagine the network image below as representing a group of people doing things for each other. The Tarzan Suite will analyse this as ‘a network built by the nodes’, but the Mowgli Suite will interpret each node as being built by the network. These orientations have real implications for monetary thought, so let’s delve deeper.

The Modern Tarzan

The Tarzan Suite begins with a focus on individuals, and by doing so implicitly places them as a forerunner that leads to society (and, by extension, markets). To run the Tarzan Suite, however, does not mean you literally believe that adults spring from the earth fully formed. It just means that you begin your analysis from the perspective of someone who is already fully formed. Importantly, though, this someone is fully formed in the context of a large-scale capitalist nation-state.

Indeed, the Tarzan Suite is what you would expect someone in such a setting to have absorbed through osmosis by interaction with the society around them. To return to our ‘driver’ metaphor, imagine the Tarzan Suite being automatically downloaded into you as you move about a large-scale capitalist nation state.

The most intuitive way to understand this is to leave your house, walk down the street and observe the random strangers that pass you by. If you find that experience normal, and believe the strangers are not connected to you, then you are probably running some of the basic components of the Tarzan Suite. This experience – of strangers drifting past you – was not normal for most of human history: for most of human history people lived in tight clans and kinship groups, and in such societies there was no such thing as ‘randomly passing a stranger on the street’. As Mowgli knows, in a true ‘state of nature’ survival would require being part of a closely-knit band.

This experience of strangers passing you is very modern. Indeed, it is a core component of the sociological concept of modernity, in which old tribal ties have been replaced with huge institutional infrastructures run by states and companies. Rather than trying to understand this intellectually, however, you can see it showcased in The Verve’s classic music video for Bittersweet Symphony. In it, a man – disassociated from the people around him – shoulder-barges his way down a street.

The video (and its lyrics) is an almost perfect exemplar of the existential experience of pushing your way through the fluid networks of a large-scale capitalist society. This man would not have been able to do this in tribal Amazonia, or in a medieval village, or in a Viking settlement, or in a nomadic hunter-gatherer band. His ability to barge past people as if they don’t even exist is a phenomenon forged in the context of nation states, which have huge institutional infrastructures that make the organic ties between us fade into the background. Indeed, he is under the protection of a state as he walks, which is why he is so confident that he can break through the small-scale groups of people with their little ties of solidarity (which he does about eight times in the video). As long as he does not overtly breach the overall peace, he has zero obligation to those who pass him by.

Put simply, it is only in the context of mega-states that you can begin to imagine yourself as a free-floating atom – or individual – bumping around and off random strangers, who you may choose to meet or ignore. Many people are unaware of this, because they have never experienced anything different, but human communities have existed for over 50,000 years, and it is only in the last 5000 that states have formed, and only in the last few hundred that large-scale formal nation states have formed. The latter dissolve older social ties and atomise us into a much looser collective called ‘the public’, which is the sea of strangers who you are vaguely connected to but do not know.

Crucially, it is in this context that all the foundational theorists of modern Economics emerged, which is why that discipline proceeds as if the world is driven by the market choices of floating individuals. Many basic statements that economists find ‘obvious’ (such as ‘the economy is markets driven by individuals’), would appear meaningless to a person 10,000 years ago, but to a stranger-amongst-strangers in a modern nation state this might seem ‘close enough’. This is where the Tarzan Suite emerges: when focusing upon the vast market networks that lie before them, a person can forget about their background kin networks who raised them, and with this orientation can imagine themselves as being an individual preceding a network. With this outlook, they can then believe theories that present human groups as being collections of individuals coming together out of individual economic rationality.

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The Tarzan Suite: Primitive Edition

The Tarzan Suite is forged in modern societies, but it pretends to be ancient. If you artificially project it back in time (using presentist history, in which the conditions of the present are used as a model for the past), it generates a mental image of a prehistoric wilderness man, an ‘individual’ wandering around using their wits to survive. To see this person, you need only look at all the ‘primitive survival expert’ channels on YouTube, which all revolve around solo men going about creating shelters, fire and tools in the wilderness.

This is curious, because actual primitive life was focused on intensely communal groups, and ‘primitive survival skills’ were acquired by little kids growing up in these tightly knit settings. This can easily be seen in photos of Amazonian tribes.

Notice that the latter are not solo adventurers, but the image of the solo wilderness man is a myth that leaps out of the modern imagination when you take the Tarzan Suite and project it back in time. It is telling that the fetish for individual wilderness survival and ‘prepping’ is popular with US-based libertarians, because North American libertarianism is a highly amplified and ideologically-charged version of the basic principles that underlie the Tarzan Suite. Libertarian-orientated survivalists will thus produce thousands of videos about self-sufficiency – with how-to guides for sharpening your knife or improving your crossbow skills – but almost no videos about the complex kinship structures of ancient pastoralists.

Don’t get me wrong. It can be fun to try solo survival skills, but the image of the solo primitive individual is of ideological importance within the Tarzan Suite: this is because it provides a building block for a more complex image: that of a society formed when these solo people are imagined to come together to live in proximity to each other.

Living apart together, and the ‘make something first’ assumption

The Tarzan Suite runs on a ‘living apart together’ image, in which individuals retain self-sufficiency even when they live together. To picture someone producing something in a ‘self-sufficient’ manner, you have to start with an image of them as an adult, possessing a self-contained ‘battery’ of inner strength which they can then use to make things (this is in contrast to say, a small child, who first needs things from others before they have the strength to create anything themselves). This image of people producing things from some inner energy store leads to the ‘make something first’ assumption: in the Tarzan Suite, the first phase of an economy is assumed to be a collection of energetic autonomous individuals making things.

The optional trade assumption

Once the ‘living apart together’ and ‘make something first’ models are up and running, you can then imagine the people trying to use the things they have made to induce others around them to trade. The Tarzan Suite always assumes that trade is optional, because, if Tarzan wishes to retreat into the jungle again to become a wilderness man, he can (this principle is often overt in libertarian thought, where individuals are claimed to have a kind of self-sovereignty that cannot be assailed, as if they had a backup option to exist apart from others if necessary).

Thus, interaction with others is conceived of not as a mandatory means to survive, but as an optional action undertaken by rational adults, who see that they may secure advantage by convincing others to give them things for mutual benefit. This translates into a more complex vision of an economy as a vast collection of autonomous individuals trying to convince each other to trade by dangling pre-produced commodities in front of each other (but with a lingering background option to peel off from society if necessary).

Notice that there is no notion of an interdependent network, where all the people are permanently tied together. Rather, there are solo individuals trying to make temporary contracts out of an aspirational desire to gain advantage. This in turn sets the stage for one of the deepest components of the Tarzan Suite – the barter assumption.

The barter assumption

So what happens when you set up an image of solo people trying to induce optional trade with each other? You imagine barter. You imagine people holding things they have already produced, and then trying to get other people to hand over things they have already produced. Many classical economists took turns to invent their own versions of this myth, but Adam Smith and William Stanley Jevons are perhaps the most well-known examples. Jevons, for example, said:

The earliest form of exchange must have consisted in giving what was not wanted directly for that which was wanted. This simple traffic we call barter.

Jevons then used this to imagine a problem called the ‘double-coincidence of wants’. Two autonomous people holding things they have already produced must find it difficult to exchange these things with each other, unless both wants what the other has: one Tarzan has produced cheese, but the other has produced cloth, but what if the one Tarzan desires the other’s cheese, but cannot get the other to desire his cloth?

This is turn sets up all the classical models for the origins of money. It is imagined that these autonomous individuals are bumping around awkwardly trying to induce each other into trading, and that this creates a need for a type of intermediary commodity (or ‘universal commodity’) that can fill in the gaps created by the double-coincidence of wants. Thus, in order to go about trading, everyone seeks out some widely accepted commodity that they are sure everyone will always take, and this then becomes ‘money’.

Money as value, and the commodity orientation to money

This crude theory leads to something I call the commodity orientation to money. This is where money is imagined to be some kind of object that ‘carries value’, or ‘is value’ (those are linguistically quite different, but are often collapsed into one). The Tarzan Suite requires this orientation, because – in the model – money is supposed to be used by one autonomous individual to convince or induce another autonomous individual to give them something. It is figured that – given people have the option to be self-sufficient – they can only get things from each other by appealing to desire: they have to use one thing of value to override the other person’s desire to hold onto some other thing of value.

The value-for-value assumption, and the ‘unstable atom’ model

A core element of the commodity orientation to money, then, is the belief that monetary exchanges are ‘value for value’. One person hands over something of value to get something else of value from someone else. All economic interactions are seen as ‘value flows’ and there is no deep distinction made between money and goods: money is seen as being just a special kind of generalised good used to induce someone to release a more specific good. It is imagined to create a temporary bridge, where two autonomous people briefly come together to ‘exchange value’, after which they retreat from each other and burn the bridge as they go. You might picture this as two atoms that form a very temporary unstable bond, before breaking again into their stable individual forms.

The fictitious commodity

At this point it is important to reiterate that the Tarzan Suite is not necessarily literally believed. It is an abstract background model. The commodity orientation to money that accompanies it, likewise, is not a literal belief that money is a commodity like oil. It is a mental orientation that tries to understand money – in whatever form it appears – as if it were a commodity. Thus, when faced with modern fiat money, a person running the Tarzan Suite has to invent an explanation for why it must be some kind of fictitious (or imaginary) commodity.

This is where all those ideas of money being a ‘social agreement’ come from: when someone says something like ‘money is just a collective belief’, they are (normally) using a commodity orientation to make sense of money that is not a commodity. They are claiming that we use our imagination to create a fictitious substance of value, that – in accordance with the Tarzan Suite’s value-for-value assumption – will induce someone to form a temporary bridge with you to give you something.

The fictitious commodity ‘flowing’ like a substance

There are actually many variants of the accounts given for why money ‘carries value’ (for example, many libertarians will use a coercion-based account, in which they imagine that a state forces you to imbue the money with value) but, regardless of the version used, all characterise monetary exchange as ‘value for value’. This is why you will often see payments systems being called ‘value transfer systems’: people are using a commodity orientation, and imagining that the units of money being transferred are like a substance that is ‘flowing’ through the wires of the payment system. When faced with giving an explanation for what this ‘substance’ is, they have to revert to those fictitious commodity ideas, saying things like ‘we have all just collectively imbued it with value’, or whatever. This language is common in mainstream finance, for example, but also in a lot of new-wave crypto-currency circles, where innovators imagine that the payments systems they are trying to build will form a new ‘internet of value’.

The economy-of-things, and the ‘nobody is forcing you’ assumption

When you put all the various elements of the Tarzan Suite together, they focus your attention on the act of handing over things for things, that unstable moment when two (supposedly) autonomous individuals meet, before retreating back to their baseline individual form. The Tarzan Suite thus generally avoids thinking about the economy as an interdependent network of permanently connected people facing constraints created by the others they are dependent upon.

There are ideological implications to this, because it can be used to present people as having the option, but not requirement, to interact, which in turn is crucial for denying that labour exploitation exists: a desperate person who accepts a tiny wage to secure a job is just ‘entering into mutually beneficial contract’, rather than being exploited by someone in a position of power in an interdependent network. Lurking in the background is the solo wilderness man assumption: nobody is ‘forcing you’ to live in society, and if worse comes to worse you can simply break away and live off the land, like Tarzan.

This is of course a fantasy, because almost nobody truly has that option. More than this, regardless of era, humans have always been forced to be dependent on others by default, simply because they cannot survive without others (indeed, you cannot even be born unless two other beings precede you, and you certainly cannot speak unless you are immersed amongst others as a child). This takes us to the Mowgli Suite.

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The Mowgli Suite

You may be able to predict the components of the Mowgli Suite by contrast to the Tarzan Suite. It starts by assuming that people are always dependent upon a network that precedes them, and that everyone is born into that situation. This means human society is always made up of interdependent networks, within which no individual being is truly autonomous. If you project this back in time, you do not end up with a solo wilderness man. Rather you end up with something that looks much closer to the anthropological record of pre-capitalist societies: bands and clans with kinship ties and reciprocity, and so on.

The ‘get something first’ assumption

The Mowgli Suite immediately throws out the ‘make something first’ assumption. Rather, it assumes that all people come into the world is a position of dependence upon others, and that you do not start with some internal ‘battery’ of power that enables you to build things. Rather, your ‘battery’ is other people who will give you things to keep you alive. In his starting position, Mowgli does not get things from Raksha by ‘exchanging’ something he has produced: rather, Raksha and the others simply give things to Mowgli.

The mandatory interaction assumption

The Mowgli Suite locates all value in people (or wolves like Raksha) within the network. What we refer to as ‘value’ in an economic context is the efforts of other people, which manifest in the form of goods and services. More than this, given that the networks are interdependent, there is a requirement to engage with these people. There is no optionality to interaction, and there is no mythical zone to retreat into if you do not like the terms of the interaction.

Everyone relies on credit, all the time

When you assume that people are always in a position of dependence by default, it means everyone is always relying upon others to give them things, and often without those others immediately getting something back (which is a form of ‘credit’). For example, Baloo keeps Mowgli alive without getting anything back, and in so doing informally racks up a form of existential ‘credit’, which Mowgli will acknowledge in later life by slowly returning things in the other direction (albeit in a very informal and unmeasured way).

But Baloo himself was given things, and is caught within these same elaborate webs of obligation. A core feature of economic anthropology, feminist economics, and ecological economics is that they acknowledge that at this most basic level of society there are immense and unmeasured reciprocal flows between interdependent people (and ecologies). This is the substrate into which later monetary systems have to embed themselves.

The credit orientation to money

The credit orientation to money emerges from this. It is a way of seeing money – in whatever form it appears – as being modelled upon those same principles that underlie the processes of interdependent reciprocity described above. A more specific intuition found within the credit orientation, is that people or institutions – starting from a position of dependence – can get things from a ‘battery’ of other people they are connected to, by issuing promises to return things later. This immediately runs counter to the ‘value for value’ assumption in the Tarzan Suite’s commodity orientation. In the credit orientation it is assumed that monetary exchange has value going one way – in the form of actual labour from someone in the ‘battery’ – and a promise or credit for future value going the other way. It is ‘value for credit-for-value’.

The permanent connection, and ‘shifting molecule’ model

Crucially, the ‘battery’ of people who you rely upon are constantly and permanently connected to you. This does not mean you constantly interact with every single person in that battery, but it does mean that everyone experiences a permanent requirement – on average – to fire up latent connections to the battery, even if the people who make it up appear to you as strangers. Indeed, in a modern capitalist economy a large part of your ‘battery’ will be made up by strangers, and it may be impossible to tell which particular connections will be made, but they have to be made. There is no optionality.

Remember that the Tarzan Suite pictures people as independent atoms who make temporary unstable bonds with each other, after which they return to their stable individual state. The Mowgli Suite, by contrast, characterises our stable state as ‘molecular’: every atom has to constantly be part of a molecule. In a modern capitalist economy that molecule might morph around you as you move from one part of the economic network to another, but there is no option for you to ever be an independent atom. Indeed, if do find yourself temporarily as an independent atom – like an unemployed person with no money does – you will experience an immense existential dread, and an immensely strong magnetic pull to return to a molecular form (especially in the absence being able to live off the land).

Small-scale vs. large-scale latent connections

This concept of constant latent connections to a ‘battery’ of others is found at a small-scale within Mowgli’s world. On one day Baloo is helping him, and on another Bagheera is calling on Mowgli’s assistance. They do not have any monetary system that is inserted within this, but a core feature of a credit orientation to money is that you begin to view monetary systems as mimicking those processes of interdependent reciprocity at a large-scale.

Notice that this is not an account of any particular monetary system – it is a mental orientation to use when approaching any monetary system, even those that appear – on first glance – to not be based on credit.

A credit orientation often leads to the realisation that large-scale interdependence cannot exist without monetary systems, and that monetary systems have thus led to large-scale interdependence (or co-evolved with it). This is very different to the barter theories that come out of the commodity mindset: in the latter, it is imagined that a big network of people producing specialised goods exists before money, and that their subsequent awkward attempts to exchange those specialised goods creates a frustration that brings money to life as a ‘solution’. A credit orientation, by contrast, is far more likely to make you think that specialisation is induced by monetary systems (aka. before monetary systems people do not specialise very much, which means they do not end up in the ‘barter’ position to begin with).

The takeaway point, though, is that while small-scale interdependence is a basic fact of human life throughout all ages, the situation of large-scale interdependence is inextricable from monetary systems, which scale up interdependence. In this context, money units do not have to be seen as packages of ‘value’ that one solo individual uses to convince another solo individual to give them something, because – on average – there is no such thing as a solo individual with an option to not trade.

Applying the credit orientation to commodity money

Note that this is different to saying that money cannot be a commodity. What it is saying is that even if money takes the form of a commodity, it will be subject to principles that transcend commodities. Put differently, it is possible that an interdependent network of people could use a commodity form as a host for a money unit, but the commodity is not being used to create a ‘temporary bridge’ between two autonomous individuals. It is being used to fire up latent connections between de facto interdependent people, a commodity form running on credit rails, as it were.

How large-scale credit money creates the commodity mindset

A key irony is that large-scale modern monetary systems are de facto built out of vast credit circuits created by banks and states, but the huge interdependent networks of people that form around them become so distant from each other that they may begin to indulge in the fantasy that they are autonomous individuals, which is – ta da! - the core feature of the Tarzan Suite. This in turn will generate that idea of money as a ‘commodity’ with ‘value’.

This returns us to Bittersweet Symphony: many people shoulder-barging their way down city streets run a casual mental model in which they imagine the money in their wallet ‘carries value’ (and that they can use this to hustle for things from those random strangers that pass them), rather than the value residing in the very people who they are pushing past. It is only when you ignore this fantasy of autonomy, however, that you will see that it is everyone who you are pushing past that is creating much of the pull that will lock-in monetary systems like a vacuum.

Upgrading your drivers

It is important to reiterate that the Mowgli Suite, and the credit orientation to money that accompanies it, is not an attack on the possibility that commodity-like things could be used as money. Rather, its core feature is the recognition of constant interdependence, and you can use this to make interesting arguments for how examples of commodity money might actually work. Consider for example, the Bitcoin community, with its (pseudo)commodity-like unit: to make such a unit work as money (rather than remaining in its current form as a counter-tradeable collectible), that community would do well to upgrade to the Mowgli Suite. It offers a much more adaptable, flexible and realistic set of ideas than the ones found in the Tarzan Suite.

Indeed, once you start to run the Mowgli Suite as a default, you will discover that much conventional language around money – such as ‘money stores value’ – starts to sound childish. In running it, you will start to see through economies, almost like you have X-ray glasses. Where one person will see atomic individuals bumping off others on a street, you will see a dense hidden network, all around you, constantly.

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