New to Altered States? Here are my top 10 pieces in summary
Get up to speed with economic anthropology, the barter myth, MMT, the structure of money, crypto countertrade and credit thinking
There are new people joining Altered States of Monetary Consciousness (ASOMC) every day, so here is a summary list of my Top 10 articles to get any new reader up to speed with everyone else. I’ve also finished a mega book this year, and I’m going to take a month off, so you’ve got some time to get through these pieces while I’m away!
In tribute to David Graeber, 1961-2020
This is one of my most popular pieces. It was written as a tribute to the late great David Graeber, who tragically passed away in 2020. I was just beginning to collaborate with David, and I like to think of ASOMC as carrying forward the anthropological perspective on money that David was so amazing at.
Why you should read this: It will help you understand how economic anthropology is different to economics, and why the former is way better for understanding monetary systems.
See also: Money through the Eyes of Mowgli (No.10 below).
Exploring the modern monetary universe
This is one of my earlier visualisation pieces, where I draw a simplified representation of the three-tiered modern monetary system, whilst also summarising some major themes in modern monetary politics. The visualisations are by no means perfect, but they’re a good start. You can also see these in animated form in my YouTube videos...
Why you should read this: It will help you to see the existing monetary system in much more concrete, visual terms.
Follow-up read: A Comic Artist's Rendition of the 'Hovering Banks'. In this piece I showcase Miguel Guerra’s images whilst summarising contemporary monetary politics.
And why this is a very bad idea that continues to haunt us
One of the things that drives economic anthropologists crazy is the archaic ‘history of money’ that economists try to tell, which always begins with the barter myth (‘in the beginning, people used to barter’). This piece shows how the barter myth is derived from dubious ‘presentist history’ (in which the conditions of the present are projected back in time into ancient contexts where they do not belong), and shows why this is a terrible way to understand the history of money.
Why you should read this: It will show you why you should not trust the economics discipline to explain money or monetary history.
Uncovering the truth about the magic money trees
Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT, has risen to prominence in the last few years as its proponents have pushed back against the lazy myths about public money promoted within standard economics. This piece provides a very simple primer to MMT, using a metaphor of squirrels and ents (mystical tree-beings).
Why you should read this: you need to know what MMT is if you want to understand current debates about government finances, and you don’t want to rely on reactionary explainers that straw-man MMT.
How our personal states of burnout are linked to bank overcommitment
The term ‘fractional reserve banking’ is both controversial and misrepresented. Some people insist that fractional reserve banking was a historical system that ended with the end of the Bretton Woods system, while others provide dubious accounts of how it supposedly works in modern day banks. This piece helps you understand the modern version of the concept of ‘fractional reserve’, and it does so by looking at other systems – beyond banks – that have fractional reserve dynamics, including our emotional life and gyms.
Why you should read this: way too many descriptions of fractional reserve banking are written by grumpy cranks and right-wing conspiracy theorists who misrepresent it. This piece will help you to build a more realistic understanding.
And how this leaves us confused, disorientated and exploitable
One of my flagship pet peeves is the ‘functions of money’ paradigm. To describe money solely by its supposed functions (‘means of exchange, store of value and unit of account’) is lazy, often inaccurate and also politically dodgy. It is also by far the most dominant way that money is described by economists, politicians and academics, and it has huge implications for the public understanding of everything from banking through to crypto-tokens. In this piece I show why it is dubious, and why we should be focussing rather on describing the structure of money.
Why you should read this: so you can begin to see through the evasive language that surrounds money, and so that you can start asking deeper questions.
Follow-up read: Overcoming Monetary Nihilism. This one is a bit more experimental, but it plants the seeds of many future pieces.
And in the process revealed one deep truth underneath it all
I have been involved in Bitcoin since 2011, but in recent years have become known as a critic of all the hype around it. Bitcoin is surrounded by a highly vocal community that makes many naive political claims about the tokens. But the worst part is that while Bitcoin has a radical technological design, the monetary ideology that comes packaged with that like a Trojan Horse is deeply conservative. In this piece I use time travel to uncover three secret conservative messages in a popular Bitcoin meme, hidden under apparently empowering rhetoric. It may be the case that many people can make speculative gains by buying and selling Bitcoin tokens as an investment, but I show why the monetary ideology used to market that is likely to favour creditors and shareholders in the standard monetary system.
Why you should read this: Bitcoin hype is at record highs. You need to have your wits about you to get through it.
Understanding the phenomenon of crypto countertrade
Another one of ASOMC’s flagship projects is to help people understand the concept of ‘countertrade’, and how it is central to almost all so-called crypto-currencies. Countertrade is the process of using non-monetary objects for exchange, by piggybacking on their monetary price (or, put differently, using the implied resale price of a non-monetary object to indirectly buy something). The entire Bitcoin ecosystem is dependent upon countertrade, but the media almost never reports on it. Rather, the standard narrative is that Bitcoin is a ‘monetary system’. In this piece I show why all Bitcoin transactions are in fact disguised dollar transactions.
Why you should read this: Once you understand how countertrade works, you will be able to see through the vast amounts of topsy-turvy BS that cloud the public debate about crypto-tokens, and also come to a realistic understanding of what you might do with them.
Follow-up read: The one concept crypto promoters are afraid to understand. In this piece I tackle the concept of countertrade from a new angle, and extend it beyond Bitcoin.
9) I, Token
The untold story of the hole in Bitcoin's heart
This is probably the most controversial piece I’ve written on ASOMC, and one that still attracts much fire from the Bitcoin community. It’s a big read, but in it I show why Bitcoin tokens (and many other crypto tokens) are ‘blank tokens’ when you strip them of monetary branding and imagery. I also show that, in the digital realm a blank token is actually just a numerical noun, a number written out, referencing nothing beyond itself. I contrast this to the numbers we find in a normal monetary system, which are numerical adjectives - numbers that point to things beyond themselves. The entire Bitcoin gambit relies on people believing that you can turn numerical nouns into a monetary system, but it is by no means obvious that such a feat is possible. It is, however, quite easy to turn limited edition numbers into collectible countertrade objects, which is what Bitcoin tokens currently are.
Why you should read this: It challenges the very foundations of everything the standard Bitcoin community claims, and shows why they are so resistant to staring too deeply into the soul of their token.
Why getting past the Tarzan world-view will sharpen your economic vision
Another flagship project of ASOMC is to champion ‘credit thinking on money’, or a credit orientation to money. This is not easy, because by far the most dominant way of thinking about money (regardless of what type), involves the commodity orientation to money. This piece shows you how to de-install the ‘Tarzan Suite’ from your mind, a particular way of viewing economies that will lead you to believe in a commodity mythology of money. It also shows you how to install the Mowgli Suite, an orientation that will open up an entirely different viewpoint on money.
Why you should read this: Being stuck with the dominant commodity orientation to money is like being stuck with the view that the world is flat. Updating it will make everything lighter.
Follow-up read: The Art of Drawing Money for Aliens. This piece builds upon the themes by showing how the commodity orientation plays out in peoples’ sketches of money.
Want to go even deeper? Subscribe
If you wish to become a paying supporter of ASOMC and its flagship projects, consider becoming a Subscriber (or gifting a subscription to others). You’ll get access to the Unboxing Series, where I do deep dives into particular alternative currency projects, using them as case studies to illustrate broader points. Current Unboxings include critical breakdowns of projects like GoodDollar, Duniter and SEEDS, and this repository of studies will build over time. You will also get access to key Subscriber essays (and videos) like The Five Dualisms of Money, and The Six Tokens, which provide you with conceptual tools to do your own analysis. Finally, if you’re looking for a Christmas present to give someone who is interested in these topics, consider getting them a gift subscription below (you can schedule it to start on Christmas day). Happy holidays!