A long time ago, in an economic environment far far away, the merchant controlled their own financial destiny — so they shall soon again.
This article is part of a series of adapted excerpts from “Bitcoin Is Venice” by Allen Farrington and Sacha Meyers, which is available for purchase in Bitcoin Magazine’s store now.
“No intelligent student of modern events can possibly have overlooked the vast change which the last fifty years has wrought on the enhancement of the influence of finance as a social factor overshadowing all other contemporaneous forces, with the exception of religion and love. Contemplating the ceaseless and irresistible advance of the financial power, and the simultaneous weakening of those authorities which base their claims on political predominance, tradition, custom, precedent convention, expediency, and the cognate origins, the philosophic watchman could hardly avoid reflecting that finance must increase, while these must decrease.” — Ellis Powell, “The Evolution of the Money Market 1385–1915”
Technological wizardry entirely aside, by far the biggest change to the financial services industry will be entirely prosaic and understandable to those literate in neither software nor finance. That “money” will once again “store value,” and almost certainly gently appreciate with the sustainable return on aggregate production capital, will mean that an enormous amount of contemporary financial intermediation will simply be unnecessary. It won’t be replaced by code — it will simply disappear. Its political clout will collapse as it will have nothing illicit left to offer — or to bribe. The centralization of finance, or, equivalently yet more provocatively, the financialization of everything, may seem to some to now be so thorough and permeative as to be everything, everywhere, everywhen. As Ben Hunt teases, this is water.[i]
But it needn’t be. Much of the unwinding of financialization is straightforward enough to imagine. Professor Antal Fekete writes, in the provocative essay “Whither Gold?” of the consequences of moving off the gold standard and onto a fully fiat monetary system,
“That we have lost the facility to reduce the world’s total indebtedness without resorting to default or monetary depreciation becomes clear at once if we consider the fact that a debt of x dollars can no longer be liquidated. If it is paid off by a check, the debt is merely transferred to the bank on which the check is drawn. The situation is no better if it is paid off by handing over x dollars in Federal Reserve notes, ostensibly the ultimate means of payment. In this case the debt is transferred to the U.S. Treasury, the ultimate guarantor of these liabilities. But substituting one debtor for another is not the same as liquidating the debt. The very notion of ‘debt maturity’ has lost all reasonable meaning previously attached to it. At maturity the creditor is coerced into extending his original credit plus accrued interest in the form of new credits, usually on inferior terms. It is true that the option to consume his savings remains open to him — but is it not a strange monetary system, to say the least, which forces the savers to consume their savings whenever they are dissatisfied with the quality of available debt instruments, or with the terms on which they are offered?”
It is simple enough to predict that the perversities Fekete bemoans will evaporate. Savers will never be tempted to consume their savings, and in fact, “their savings” will exist in a natural state entirely outside of “finance.” There is no point in trusting a depository institution and implicitly taking on its liabilities when the natural state of bitcoin is that of perfectly safe rest.
“Debt maturity” will regain reasonable meaning, and debt will be priced accurately relative to equity given there will be no coercion at maturity beyond that implied in a contractual obligation to pay. That savings and debt need not be directed via banks at all, and that, relatedly, we can expect there to be no artificially-lowered cost of capital on account of cozying up to the financial and political elite, straightforwardly implies a dramatic redistribution and re-localization of financing power. The default will be to invest locally rather than globally, with only the option of centralized, and publicly-listed securitization rather than the need or the expectation. While pooling capital at a far larger scale will still be possible, there is little reason to suspect it will be preferable.[ii]
The precedent here is clear, and we think can be seen as an optimistic counterpoint to Joel Kotkin’s “The Rise of Neo-Feudalism.” We expect Robert S. Lopez’s account from “The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950–1350” to be closely reflected from this starting point on:
“The early Middle Ages promoted slave artisans to serf status and occasionally paid lip service to the moral nobility of labor — were not St. Joseph and all the Apostles laborers? — but offered no fresh opportunities for industrial development. From the tenth century on, however, the rise of the merchant class brought forth a new source of potential support. As middlemen between supply and demand, merchants had a personal stake in the expansion of both; they had capital, extended credit, and promoted their business through market research. No unsurmountable prejudice separated them from craftsmen: many if not all of them originally came from the same social background, and the struggle for urban emancipation from feudal control supplied a common cause.”
And yet, for all these subtle economic and financial adaptations, it is possible, if not likely, that the re-decentralization of finance and de-financialization of everything[iii] will have even more profound social effects that we can only begin to imagine. “What if securities ownership was more widely and directly distributed?” is practically a mechanical question in contrast to the spiritual weight of “what if finance and financialized patterns of thought cease to be dominant cultural forces?” In “The Culture of Narcissism” Christopher Lasch writes of the profoundly damaging psychological effects[iv] of the dissolution of the Protestant work ethic as a motivating force in American life. All the more powerful and telling of Lasch in no way intending to make a point about economics, he writes,
“In an age of diminishing expectations, the Protestant virtues no longer excite enthusiasm. Inflation erodes investments and savings. Advertising undermines the horror of indebtedness, exhorting the consumer to buy now and pay later. As the future becomes menacing and uncertain, only fools put off until tomorrow the fun they can have today. A profound shift in our sense of time has transformed work habits, values, and the definition of success. Self-preservation has replaced self-improvement as the goal of earthly existence. In a lawless, violent, and unpredictable society, in which the normal conditions of everyday life come to resemble those formerly confined to the underworld, men live by their wits. They hope not so much to prosper as simply to survive, although survival itself increasingly demands a large income. In earlier times, the self-made man took pride in his judgment of character and probity; today he anxiously scans the faces of his fellows not so as to evaluate their credit but in order to gauge their susceptibility to his blandishments.”
There is an astonishing overlap with what we know is caused by degenerate fiat money and what Lasch highlights as partial causes of a narcissistic breakdown in traditionally prudent rules of thumb for economic behavior. Is it fair to predict, therefore, that a reversal of these causes might make us less narcissistic? This certainly seems reasonable insofar as it might mean that a more natural trustingness ought to equate to less defensive selfishness — less living by our wits. The Protestant work ethic is easily caricatured as egocentric, and probably rightly if taken to an extreme, as Lasch sardonically emphasizes from time to time. But we would do well to remember that its flourishing — arguably even its stable existence — depends on a backdrop of trust. Economic capital cannot exist without social capital, and yet, as Lasch shows, the strip-mining of economic capital seems to have a reflexively destructive influence on the social fabric.
In “The Organization Man” William Whyte takes more direct aim at the economic roots of changes in the popular ethic. Whyte picks up on much the same desperation and decay as Lasch[v] but argues for a kind of tragic logical inevitability: The more successful raw individualism is in creating endlessly-proliferating capitalism, the bigger will become capitalist institutions and the stronger will be their social influence that is by nature antithetical to the small and the heterodox. Contrary to the naïve conception of corporate America as a bastion of individualism, Whyte argues it is more like a Petri dish for risk aversion, cowardice and collectivist sentiment. He writes of the historical transition,
“By the time of the First World War the Protestant ethic had taken a shellacking from which it would not recover; rugged individualism and hard work had done wonders for the people to whom God in his infinite wisdom, as one put it, had given control of society. But it hadn’t done so well for everyone else and now they, as well as the intellectuals, were all too aware of the fact.
“The ground, in short, was ready, and though the conservative opinion that drew the fire of the rebels seemed entrenched, the basic temper of the country was so inclined in the other direction that emphasis on the social became the dominant current of U.S. thought. In a great outburst of curiosity, people became fascinated with the discovering of all the environmental pressures on the individual that previous philosophies had denied. As with Freud’s discoveries, the findings of such inquiries were deeply disillusioning at first, but with characteristic exuberance Americans found a rainbow. Man might not be perfectible after all, but there was another dream and now at last I seemed practical: the perfectibility of society.”
Admittedly ironic as Whyte writes it, this is high-modernism par excellence. Whyte also makes a prescient observation, for having been astute in the fifties but obvious and widely resented as a social tragedy of financialization and corporate bigness today. He notes that, at large enough corporations, the executives effectively cease to be members of the community of the workforce of the corporation in any meaningful sense, and are probably more accurately classed as financiers. [vi] He describes the shift as follows:
“The difference can be described as that between the Protestant ethic and the social ethic. In one type of program we will see that the primary emphasis is on work and competition; in the other, on managing others’ work and on cooperation.”[vii]
Lo and behold, senior corporate managers are far more likely to have an MBA than to have worked an entry level job in the industry in which they now manage. They personify “big city capitalism,” as Whyte derides it, and if your city isn’t big enough — for few are — they tend to radiate that they are from somewhere else and are likely going somewhere else as well. Wherever they are from, they are homogeneously at home in and only in the big city, which is to say they aren’t really from anywhere at all.
We jest, of course, in our caricature, but the fact that these people have scrambled as close to the fiat spigot of artificial money as possible gives them immense control over society’s common pool of capital and hence immense cultural power to boot. It is worth seriously contemplating what example they set and what trickles down to the merely medium cities and below. It is even worth contemplating what that kind of unchecked power can do to a person’s character and intellect.
The intellectual appeal of finance is that it provides a totalizing vision and toolkit. Absent Whyte’s sarcasm, contemporary finance truly is high-modernism par excellence. Once a budding financier masters the basics, he can explain absolutely everything from chemical manufacturing to logistics to software-as-a-service to real estate to government debt to money.[viii] The same language, mental models, patterns of thought, and so on, can be gleefully recycled time after time in remaking the world as they see fit.
At some or other level of suitable abstraction, everything becomes understandable as a combination of long or short exposure, volatility, diversification, leverage, cash flows, securitization, or whatever else. Since their domain is everything, they have no domain. There is simply no other explanation for the seemingly never-ending corporate fascination with “Blockchain, Not Bitcoin” — a string of words that literally has no meaning; a Chomsky slogan, were there such a thing, given it is not quite a full sentence. There is no content in this expression it is possible to actually believe, and so it works as a kind of anti-secret handshake, whereby the technically incompetent and intellectually unsophisticated yet desperate to be thought of as competent and sophisticated make themselves known.[ix]
But they don’t really know anything, or understand anything, besides the meta-game of management, which is, of course, a euphemism for social manipulation rather than productive contribution. Recall Whyte above: Managers used to be trained to work and learn to manage. By his time, the transition was already underway towards being trained to manage and literally not knowing how to work. By now that transition seems well and truly complete.
So, what then are the social consequences? In the aptly-titled “The Culture of The New Capitalism,” Richard Sennett observes that an obvious consequence of this organizational framework of prioritizing management rather than competence is a disorienting mix of constant change in roles and responsibilities yet indifference to the quality or even the completion of the alleged purpose of the previous change. He provides the following enigmatic critique:
“An organization in which the contents are constantly shifting requires the mobile capacity to solve problems; getting deeply involved in any one problem would be dysfunctional, since projects end as abruptly as they begin. The problem analyzer who can move on, whose product is possibility, seems more attuned to the instabilities which rule the global marketplace. The social skill required by a flexible organization is the ability to work well with others in short-lived teams, others you won’t have time to know well. Whenever the team dissolves and you enter a new group, the problem you have to solve is getting down to business as quickly as possible with these new teammates. “I can work with anyone’ is the social formula for potential ability. It won’t matter who the other person is; in fast-changing firms it can’t matter. Your skill lies in cooperating, whatever the circumstances.
These qualities of the ideal self are a source of anxiety because disempowering to the mass of workers. As we have seen, in the workplace they produce social deficits of loyalty and informal trust, they erode the value of accumulated experience. To which we should now add the hollowing out of ability.
“A key aspect of craftsmanship is learning how to get something right. Trial and error occurs in improving even seemingly-routine tasks; the worker has to be free to make mistakes, then go over the work again and again. Whatever a person’s innate abilities, that is, skill develops only in stages, in fits and starts — in music, for instance, even the child prodigy will become a mature artist only by occasionally getting things wrong and learning from mistakes. In a speeded-up institution, however, time-intensive learning becomes difficult. The pressures to produce results quickly are too intense; as in educational testing, so in the workplace time-anxiety causes people to skim rather than to dwell. Such hollowing out of ability compounds the organizations’ tendency to discount past achievement in looking toward the future.”
Mastery and competence are dramatically devalued at the expense of what Sennett calls “cooperation,” presumably unintentionally echoing Whyte’s far more blatant derision in using this word, but which we are happy to characterize more bluntly as manipulation. Moreover, notice a clear, if somewhat abstracted, analogue to the toxic effects of leverage: There is no space — no time — to experiment or to discover. Things need to be done effectively and immediately because everybody’s roles — locations even — are due to be changed at a deadline well before what would be required to really learn; to understand. Sennett elaborates further on the kind of person all this benefits, hence who tends to climb the corporate ladder, hence who wields cultural power both by example and by resource:
“Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions. This ideal man or woman has to address three challenges.
The first concerns time: how to manage short-term relationships, and oneself, while migrating from task to task, job to job, place to place. If institutions no longer provide a long-term frame, the individual may have to improvise his or her life-narrative, or even do without any sustained sense of self.
“The second challenge concerns talent: how to develop new skills, how to mine potential abilities, as reality’s demands shift. Practically, in the modern economy, the shelf life of many skills is short; in technology and the sciences, as in advanced forms of manufacturing, workers now need to retrain on average every eight to twelve years. Talent is also a matter of culture. The emerging social order militates against the ideal of craftsmanship, that is, learning to do just one thing really well; such commitment can often prove economically destructive. In place of craftsmanship, modern culture advances an idea of meritocracy which celebrates potential ability rather than past achievement.
“The third challenge follows from this. It concerns surrender; that is, how to let go of the past. The head of a dynamic company recently asserted that no one owns their place in her organization, that past service in particular earns no employee a guaranteed place. How could one respond to that assertion positively? A peculiar trait of the personality is needed to do so, one which discounts the experiences a human being has already had. This trait of personality resembles more the consumer ever avid for new things, discarding old if perfectly serviceable goods, rather than the owner who jealously guards what he or she already possesses.”
Once again, Sennett strives to maintain an air of calm disinterest and anthropologically-motivated curiosity, whereas we are minded immediately to scorn and disgust. If Sennett is correct, this is horrific.
Lasch concludes his book with a grave warning against allowing the cultural power of the constitutionally narcissistic to go unchecked, ending on a call to arms, of sorts. He writes,
“It is true that a professional elite of doctors, psychiatrists, social scientists, technicians, welfare workers, and civil servants now plays a leading part in the administration of the state and of the ‘knowledge industry.’ But the state and the knowledge industry overlap at so many points with the business corporation (which has increasingly concerned itself with every phase of culture), and the new professionals share so many characteristics with the managers of industry, that the professional elite must be regarded not as an independent class but as a branch of modern management. […] Professionals, [Daniel Moynihan] observes, have a vested interest in discontent, because discontented people turn to professional services for relief. But the same principle underlies all of modern capitalism, which continually tries to create new demands and new discontents that can be assuaged only by the consumption of commodities. Moynihan, aware of this connection, tries to present the professional as the successor to the capitalist. The ideology of “compassion,” he says, serves the class interest of the ‘post-industrial surplus of functionaries who, in the manner of industrialists who earlier turned to advertising, induce demand for their own products.’
“Professional self-aggrandizement, however, grew up side by side with the advertising industry and must be seen as another phase of the same process, the transition from competitive capitalism to monopoly capitalism. The same historical development that turned the citizen into a client transformed the worker from a producer into a consumer. Thus, the medical and psychiatric assault on the family as a technologically backward sector went hand in hand with the advertising industry’s drive to convince people that store-bought goods are superior to homemade goods. Both the growth of management and the proliferation of professions represent new forms of capitalist control, which first established themselves in the factory and then spread throughout society. The struggle against bureaucracy therefore requires a struggle against capitalism itself. Ordinary citizens cannot resist professional dominance without also asserting control over production and over the technical knowledge on which modern production rests.[[x]] […] In order to break the existing pattern of dependence and put an end to the erosion of competence, citizens will have to take the solution of their problems into their own hands. They will have to create their own ‘communities of competence.’ Only then will the productive capacities of modern capitalism, together with the scientific knowledge that now serves it, come to serve the interests of humanity instead.”
Between Sennett’s measured discomfort at the social ramifications of the “new capitalism” and Lasch’s blistering assault on the homogeneously banal financial and managerial elite at its helm, we find all the seeds of a positive reversal: We stand to reclaim local and democratic control over ownership of capital, of production and of technical knowledge; to strive for craftsmanship, competence, and independence, not surrender; to be first and foremost producers, not consumers and clients; and to rid ourselves of a surplus of ignorant meta-thinkers. In short, we stand to de-financialize.
What do we stand to gain? As these parasitic, rent-seeking intermediaries whittle away,[xi] should institutions want to save, be they pension funds, charities, endowments, corporate treasurers, insurance floats (or what is left after securitized DLCs are done with them), they need not engage in leveraged speculation. They need never engage in the scourge of “passive investment,” nor accidentally pool the leverage of governance that is legally and fiduciarily due to their beneficiaries into a glaring political attack vector for degenerate fiat activists to infiltrate and co-opt. They need only stack sats — something they can do with no bankers, brokers, or asset managers, and that will be commonplace among teenagers, if not even younger children.
And, of course, this presents an even greater social benefit. Finance as it exists today is a chokepoint for extra-legal and supra-democratic political attack, in the sense of activists pushing high-modernist agendas via the absolute practical necessity for corporations to have at least a commercial bank, if not access to capital markets. The looming threat of regulators, goliath capital “allocators,” or even individual banks cutting off corporations from the ability to finance themselves — with artificially cheap, politically preferential capital or otherwise — is why multinational corporations virtue signal for LGBTQ+ rights in the United Kingdom but dare not do so in Saudi Arabia, and for Black Lives Matter in the United States but conveniently ignore slave labor and genocide in China.
The customer base of Nike, McDonald’s, or whoever, and the beneficiaries of assets managed by BlackRock, or whoever else, may or may not care about these causes. But this doesn’t matter: This is not a clumsy attempt at marketing. Or rather, it is, but the customer is the tax-collecting state, the operationally-necessary rent-seeking banking cartel, and the social caste of narcissists that populate both ranks, rotating amongst roles, and from which the decision-makers wish not to be excommunicated. It is very much not individual consumers or savers.
This is perhaps the cleanest way of describing how the merchant strikes back. Much of her financial necessities and actions will be entirely within her own control. She will return to a state of having only one customer: the customer.
This is a guest post by Allen Farrington and Sacha Meyers. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.
[i] From the Epsilon Theory blog: https://www.epsilontheory.com/this-is-water/.
[ii] See Alfred Chandler’s Scale and Scope for a compelling theoretical and historical argument that industrial capitalism naturally gravitated towards bigness and, in turn, catalyzes its own adaptive forms of management that would not have been necessary on a smaller scale — largely indifferent to the circumstances of its being financed. We do not present this argument as either a binary or even a single spectrum of variables. Chandler is almost certainly correct in the crux of his argument and we would not be so arrogant as to brush his incredible work aside. But we see two differences — or, we might say, two extra dimensions — he does not analyze: that of the supra-economic and arguably political influence of fiat taken to its contemporary (degenerate) extreme and, therefore, the logic of its unraveling precisely on account of Bitcoin.
[iii] Parker Lewis, “Bitcoin Is The Great Definancialization,” Unchained Capital, December 23, 2020.
[iv] The precipitation of narcissism, unsurprisingly.
[v] Earlier, too, “The Organization Man” was published in 1956, “The Culture of Narcissism” in 1979.
[vi] A sentiment recaptured recently by the likes of Joel Kotkin’s “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism,” already cited in the introduction, and Michael Lind’s “The New Class War.”
[vii] Whyte hilariously notes a few pages later: “It is quite obvious, nevertheless, that [a corporate trainee manager] must pursue the main chance in a much more delicate fashion. To get ahead, he must cooperate with the others — but cooperate better than they do.”
[viii] We leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how this squares with encountering Bitcoin for the first time. Having sufficiently pondered it on her own, we can highly recommend Croesus’s short piece, “Why the Yuppie Elite Dismiss Bitcoin,” https://www.citadel21.com/why-the-yuppie-elite-dismiss-bitcoin.
[ix] There are plenty other such entirely empty technologisms, by the way, that function in exactly the same way. We just happen to have chosen one that is pertinent to the topic of “Bitcoin Is Venice.”
[x] One sentence has been removed from this extended quote in which Lasch picks up on a criticism he makes of Ludwig von Mises that he began earlier in the chapter, and which reads as jarring without that earlier context. But the criticism as a whole is fascinating: Lasch quotes Mises’s Bureaucracy, as emblematic of what he calls “the conservative critique” of bureaucracy, as opposed to his own more communitarian critique. In this case, we side against Mises and find Lasch’s critique incisive and persuasive. Lasch writes of Mises, “This argument suffers from the conservative’s idealization of the personal autonomy made possible by the free market,” and while the discussion runs for four pages or so and we don’t intend to reproduce it here in its entirety, we think it is fair to interpret this as very similar to a claim we make several times but will analyze in much more detail in a later extract, These Were Capitalists, that economic capital requires social capital. This is similar also to de Soto’s thesis of the importance of capital over freedom: Freedom alone is necessary but insufficient for flourishing.
[xi] They won’t go quietly, mind you, but on a long-enough time horizon they will become insignificant. Or so we can hope.