INTERLUDE BEFORE SOCIAL LAFFER CURVES
Economic laws impact our lives so mysteriously and with such awesome power that we resort to mythologizing them. Their effects are natural disasters, and we are confused animals on a windswept plain. They are dark, primordial forces that shift us around. And they do so seemingly without human input.
Job: imprecating the sky justly, but for that very reason utterly lacking comprehension.
It is no mistake that Chigurh is a primordial force that uses coins to determine his actions. Nothing is a mistake; everything is economics.
Regard and money – One task of this blog is the examination of the economy in people’s daily lives, and especially in power relations between them.
Continuing from the Social State, a hidden economic facet of our lives is social currency.
Social currency is the expression I use to describe the medium of exchange in social relations. It can also be (and will also be) more simply termed regard.
This is differentiated from structural currency (USD, $$$), which I will just call money.
Social power and structural power are incredibly interrelated, and for much of human history are often synonymous. Accordingly, don’t interpret this as a hard line between the two for all societies. It’s a way to tease out distinctions that certainly exist in contemporary American society, but have existed in most societies for quite some time.
Regard is not perfectly quantified, but it is understood and tracked. I know who in my community has it, and who does not. If I really wanted to, I could probably make a rough list of them. An ordinal quantification is at least something, even if it’s notas mathematically useful as a cardinal one.
Because regard is not quantifiable, it has the unfortunate quality in this discussion of looking like qualitatively different things (piety, political correctness, bravery, kindness, conscientiousness, etc.)
The confusion vanishes the moment one recognizes social currency (regard) to be a medium of exchange, rather than a specific good. A cow is qualitatively different than a pair of boots, but both have prices in money.
Similarly, with taxes: That the currency and its tax take the same form is apparently a point of contention, but should not be: the USD is both the expression of the structural (financial) economy, as well as what it is taxed in.
On power – Currency can be understood as a partial quantification and expression of power in a given context.
That context is often (broadly speaking) the society at large. This is normally a government of some kind – particularly when we talk about “official currencies” (i.e. taxables). Different things are important to different societies, and hence different things have prices within different social contexts (and are, of course, taxed differently).
Money, at its most basic, expresses not something already “owned”, but the capacity to provide something. In the former case it’s merely a more expedient barter system. In the latter it is based on credit. This is true of regard as well.
It goes without saying that certain social goods are not viewed as important by the society at large, and are thus not part of “social currency” – this does not mean that they aren’t real. We also have possessions that are not part of structural currency (the USD); whether these are important to us is immaterial. Upper end: “invaluable” pieces of art; human beings. Lower end: toenail clippings.
Note that these can all be turned into currency if the society so chooses.
Currency and power are not synonymous, but always flow together. “There will never be a poor president.” But there will also never be a celebrity or moral icon without a large account of social currency. All are “held in our regard.”
The airiness of money in general – All currency is based on a mutual agreement about exchange values. This says nothing about use value, or even about the material itself. The “real market price” of the precious metals used in minting coins fluctuates but the coin itself never does. Note that even those quantifications are expressed in terms of the coin itself, i.e. agreement on the value of a currency overrides the “material”.
It’s hard to see social currency, of course. And since it isn’t “physical” in the way a nickle is, many people will say that it doesn’t exist.
It does – one should understand also just how strange it is that the value of a nickel’s metal is itself expressed in terms of the stamp on it. Which is to say: the social “acceptance” of its 5¢ value. Indeed, that the price of nickel is only expressable in terms of a meta-level refusal to see the nickel as a “material object”, i.e. to see it not as “metal of some kind” but as a 5¢.
Similarly, I can express a given amount of nickels only in terms of “5¢” times x, but not in terms of the weight and its corresponding value on the market (i.e. market prices for x lbs. that are 25% nickel and 75% copper).
If money is just a yardstick, what then does it measure? The answer was simple: debt. A coin is, effectively, an IOU. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that a banknote is, or should be, a promise to pay a certain amount of “real money” (gold, silver, whatever that’s taken to mean), Credit Theorists argued that a banknote is simply the promise to pay something of the same value as an amount value as an ounce of gold. But that’s all that money ever is… Conceptually, the idea that a piece of gold is really just an IOU is always rather difficult to wrap one’s head around, but something like this must be true, because even when gold and silver coins were in use, they almost never circulated at their bullion value.
In other words: “Money is weird, bro.” So is regard.
Trying to give an account of the “origin” of social currency is nearly impossible, just as it’s nearly impossible to give a genealogy of the “origin” of money. Some have, to various degrees of success: David Graeber and Niall Fergusson are good starting points.
“Money” comes about after a market exists (duh), even if it opens up new avenues for it. What gets quanitified is something that was already exchanged and treated as valuable by the society. A “price” on beef doesn’t mean that beef was not valued earlier.
The exchange of beef can come through various mediums, and for various reasons. But it is always the “possession” of, i.e. capability of producing, the object that preempts exchange.
Social regard has existed in all societies. The rituals that dictate what is and is not valuable can be superimposed (as by a conquering force or relgion), but many aspects will already exist. Confidence, generosity, pride, bravery – these are actions or characteristics that societies prize and thus give more currency to the one who embodies or performs them.
Different currencies allow one to purchase different things. See: the clusterfuck of buying things on international markets and trying to trace the money. Another example: you cannot express wergild in USD.
New currencies often absorb the market of the old but add or subtract objects of exchange according to the valuations of the state. Adherence to Christian Ritual had more social power during the middle ages than it does in modern America.
Whenever I talk about “social currency” I presuppose the “official” one.
This currency (regard) can be exchanged for structural power (as in borrowing, or soliciting favors), but more often it remains in the social market. A person well-regarded by their community might, for instance, use this to attain a position of social influence (elders in certain societies are like this). They might also use it to get actions done, to excommunicate people from the group, to bring friends into the group, etc.
A favor is the prototypical situation, although not the only one. It occupies the same position in social currency that a quick financial transaction occupies in structural currency: the prototypical case, although not the only use.
In all of these situations, they are relying on a social “exchange”. Where they request a favor, they are spending certain amounts of currency. Other people who receive it then can request a favor back.
“Adherence to social norms” is often the easiest way to earn currency. Excelling at social virtues is another way.
These are exchanged as in our typical case (favors), but are also used to gain influence and power in the social state (or to start your own).
I’d be more likely to help out Alyosha Karamazov than Fyodor, and that would be because of their actions and coherence with certain moral norms.
What does not pre-date the State is ritual of some kind. These are often moral actions or ways of speaking that the social state requires adherence to. This is often what I mean by taxation. These also create new markets, in a similar way to introduction of currency (minting, exchange centers, banks, etc.). It goes without saying that these forms strengthen components of the state.
But 1.The question of welfare programs, etc. similar to the interplay of money, taxes, and benefits from the state, is interesting. Unfortunately, it will have to be sorted out at another time. one is not considered “virtuous” for paying their taxes, i.e. it normally doesn’t give one any social currency back. Investing in things on the social market does, and this incentivizes the currency and exchange.
Where they are not taxation, they might be viewed more as either donations or exchange. This is, after all, an economy, not simply a political theory.
Some amount always goes to the state, but other amounts strengthen the components you want to get more powerful. Regard (viewed in this light) functions exactly the same way that money does. An amount goes to the state, but money given to companies I like strengthens them.
What I spend at McDonalds helps them grow. If I donate to [charity] it too grows. This gives me goods I want, but it also gives them power. Note that, also, in both of those examples the USD “grows” because all parties have more confidence in it. The same happens “using” the social virtues we adhere to (metaphorically: confidence in USD), donations to charity (retweeting or otherwise empowering protest groups or their particular ideology we want), and personal credit (I get social cache and other benefits for supporting and marching with #Wokestcollective).
For the social state, these companies are often ideologies, celebrities, or groups.
Accordingly, many aspects of social currency pre-date the Social State, even as they are involved in it. These are positive attributes we describe people with; more often than not, they describe actions they have performed in the past. John is loyal because he stood up for his friends; Jennifer is brave because she socked the bully, etc.
The Social State and its currency do not need to be “moral”, but it’s often the easiest shorthand for them.
The Catholic Church, when taking over societies, often retained many of the original social practices. It added some and reduced others, but even more were simply cast into new language and terminology.
Much of American social currency functions the same: it takes traditional American values and updates them according to what is valued by people with social power. The vast majority aren’t changed. Some are added, as in color blindness during the 60’s. Others are downplayed or rendered valueless.
In general, the left introduced socially liberal values as a tax initially, but taxes are in the same currency. They became ways of gaining more social power (reinvestment, etc.), see the final sections of the previous essay.
Supply and demand – Since it is currency and not law, certain things that were valuable lose their value as they become common place. Perhaps we can see color blindness as an example: it became so common that it lost all potential value in social currency. Strictly speaking, of course, the tax wasn’t “color blindness” itself, but “anti-racism” or something like that. “Color blindness” was an expression of its value then, but that was simply an action.
If that’s so, and as an action it’s become too commonplace to hold the same position, then the right is trying to pay too little as a tax. This is (I think) the Left’s position, even if they don’t know to phrase it this way.
See also: simply declaring oneself “not a racist”, and the infamous “I have a black friend.”
Seigniorage – It shouldn’t be surprising that this exists going between social currency and structural. The prototypical example would be the white rapper who has to demonstrate that they care about “black issues”. I don’t know anything about pop culture, but even I know that the prototypical failure is Iggy Azalea. Understanding her as a convicted tax dodger is one way to make sense of her. There are other ways, but I don’t care about her outside of this example.
Other currencies – There will of course be unofficial economies, as there are in every single economic structure. The currencies in these are often traded for goods in the primary currency. In a monetary economy, an example would be the infamous cigarette trade in prisons. For a social currency, an easy example would be “piousness” (christian churches are not official state currency) translating into social regard among christian communities. These can be exchanged for power in the main currency, but one must pay seignorage and their wealth in the unofficial currency will only hold sway among their congregation.
A good rule of thumb for social currency is to ask: “If I said this in public, would the media report it positively?” If the answer is yes, then it is in official state currency.
Other may be negative or neutral, and these will change depending on smaller unofficial markets, but they aren’t important for official currency,
Since we view everything morally (the personal is political), truly neutral things are hard to come by. Think of them on your own.
Negative things to say that will nevertheless play positively among small groups are much easier. The immediate thought is anything related to [social liberalism], but that’s to misunderstand just how wrapped up in everything the personal-is-political is: Skill at video-games (coded: internet loser, dork; hence: libertarian, MRA, etc.) will play positively for a much smaller demographic than skill at chess (coded: cultured, intelligent; hence: liberal). Dropping out of college is positive for one group (largely the left, but increasingly the hard right), but coded negatively in mainstream society.
Signalling – The right wing likes to talk about “meaningless signalling”, but they aren’t invested in the left-wing social economy. Hence, they misunderstand it in precisely the same way that the left misunderstands the stock market, i.e. “the 1% getting rich on stocks while contributing nothing to society.”
In both cases, someone is investing in a “company” (for the left: social ideal) and raising its power, while gaining a profit from the use of this increased power.
It shocks people on both sides that social behavior corresponds to economic behavior. It should not.
On the Right believe that capitalism is simple “human nature”; turning around and assuming that social interactions aren’t part of “human nature” is madness.
On 2. Of course, simply accepting this axiom doesn’t determine how much of Marx one does accept – more on that later.the Left, and a starting point of this blog: Marx made one single observation that undergirds his entire philosophy. Economic structures influence human behavior to a very extreme degree. I am not an economic determinist, but I’ll accept a few nods from that direction.
I will repeat what I said last time: money and structural power are expressed in rich and poor. Regard and social power in terms of good and evil.
Friendship – A problem with currency would be the instance of a specific good, say an act of bravery. One cannot spend social currency to simply get an identical act back.
But while one can’t buy “virtue” as an abstract, good people tend to have better friends, and the pious more pious friends (read: better and more powerful socially.) A parallel would be investment in a company. Having well-regarded friends will accumulate your regard after some time (much in the way a company will) but the social capital required to befriend those people isn’t trivial.
In the social economy, there are only friendships of utility.
“His name is Chigurh.”
We interpret the dissimilar as identical. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet; what we hear as sweet Sugar will destroy us all.
update: continued here
6 thoughts on “Theses on Social Currency”
Just above XIV, the link to ‘the previous essay’ just links to this essay for me.
I’m not sure the “currency” analogy is quite accurate, though I’m hard-pressed to find a better one myself. Currency operates in a very specific way: if I spend $10 to buy lunch, I now have lunch but am out $10 (yes, I know, this is a fascinating observation). But “regard” or “social currency” often doesn’t obey this law. I personally wasn’t exactly a Casanova in college, but I had a friend who was a real player so to speak. Every time he used his “social currency” to get laid at another party, his regard went up, not down – his reputation as a ladies’ man made him more popular with girls, which helped him get laid more, which contributed to his reputation, etc.
This isn’t the only example of such a thing, of course. Ben Franklin famously made the the observation that you can befriend someone by getting them to do you a favor. The psychology (at least his explanation) was that they would then ‘rationalize’ their decision to do you a favor by convincing themselves that they like and respect you.
Perhaps the best analogy I can come up with off the top of my head is bodybuilding. “Regard” is like muscle mass and strength. If you stick currency away for a long time, you can earn interest on it; if you use it, it’s gone. Physical strength operates on the opposite logic: use it or lose it.
Perhaps you are misinterpreting the analogy? Spending your reputation, you are right, would mean diminishing or exhausting it. Leveraging it for the purpose of gaining further reputation translates to investment.
So, extending your personal example – sounds like your friend simply had the social capital to reach accredited investor status. Meanwhile, the options with more modest means might have been a) f— an untouchable or b) stay respectably lonely.
If your friend were to, say, hawk his memoirs as a pickup artist’s guide, that would be spending his reputation.
I don’t see how this concept is any different than the existing theories of social or cultural capital. The division of old and new money, the value of education and taste in defining those categories, British manners and accents and how those divided people… None of these things have gone away. We are still in a social barter system, or at least a pre-central-bank system. The form of currency you describe becomes useless when you leave its very specific context.
Also, there is no social currency that acts as a store of value.
It’s an interesting metaphor but it falls apart for me when you examine the purpose of money vs the purpose of what you describe here, which I suppose could be called conformity? I