Some Thoughts on 'Relational Money'

A supplementary paper based on Prof. John Wood's talk given at the Oxchain Research Conference
Coin Street Community Builders, 108 Stamford St, Lambeth, London SE1 9NH
22nd May, 2018

"The quality of money consists exclusively in its quantity.” (Georg Simmel, 1900)


This paper asks whether one of the causes of poverty might be the way that money works, coupled with how humans think. It is well known that Homo sapiens has a poor grasp of large, abstract quantities and what they might mean in terms of goods or services. This may explain why some individuals and corporations behave as though they are addicted to the acquisition of yet another 'nought' on their ledger sheets. This is not offered as an alternative to sociological and economic explanations for poverty but, rather, to suggest that money needs to be 'relational', rather than summative. The basic mathematics and accountancy of money probably reflects the ancient, ‘objectifying’ habits of mining, tool shaping and collecting. It was designed as a convenient and accountable way to apportion and distribute non-living things. However, as a medium of transaction, it is profoundly intangible, anonymous and forgetful. Its indirectness limits the opportunities for more creative, interpersonal collaboration. Instead of managing the world as ‘things’ we should learn to focus more on the relations between, and among, them. Relations outnumber things, so this radical approach would reveal hidden assets and abundances. A move from physical coinage to electronic ledger currencies could bring opportunities to achieve this. By designing an electronic ledger system in accord with Euler’s Law (1751) it would be possible to harvest ‘natural’ profit that would bring dividends to many more recipients, without the need for additional assets.’


By reflecting upon the implications of using electronic ledger exchange networks for charities such as Oxfam, this paper also asks whether it might be possible to repair some of the fundamental inadequacies of money, as a system. At the turn of the last century, Georg Simmel noted that money is intrinsically valueless. As he put it, "the quality of money...consists exclusively in its quantity". He also described its perennial attraction, saying that, “regardless of the amount, the liveliness of attached hopes gives money a glow” (Simmel, 1900). To paraphrase these combined ideas, although a sum of money exists only as a number, humans may imagine its potential worth to be virtually infinite. Arguably, it is this stark contrast between the addictive nature of collecting abstract tokens and the profoundly elusive properties of the money itself that has led to such extremes of inequality in the world. Although only a few individuals have an insatiable will to power, everyone's financial status is shaped by the way the money system works. In some respects, poverty has, therefore, been 'designed' into the financial system (Yunus, 2007). One reason for this is that, crudely speaking, money is not created by users, but by private profit seekers, some of whom act as financial predators (Ryan-Collins, Greenham, Werner & Jackson, 2011).

Economics Trumps the Ecosystem

Some economists have long been aware that the money system is out-of-sync with the ecosystem (e.g. Stern, 2006). Other, less enlightened, economists continue to promote policies that pose a clear existential threat to future generations. The measures we take should, therefore, be appropriate to the scale of the task. The increasing damage done to the ecosystem means that it is too late to seek 'sustainability'. Instead we must build an infrastructure for achieving ecological and cultural 'regeneration' (Wahl, 2016). Seen from within the mindset of mainstream economics, this seems an unlikely eventuality. Governments are still advised to plan for limitless 'economic growth' because, without it, they believe that money would collapse. Unfortunately, the term 'growth' (GDP) means the sum of all monetary transactions, whether useful or destructive (Keen, 2017; Jackson, 2009). This is why most governments see nothing wrong in encouraging growth by subsidising carbon fuels, such as coal, oil, or gas (Macquarie, 2018).

Monetary Transactions Can Rob Value

On face value, the traditional process of buying goods or services with money is stunningly simple. In effect, once there is an item to sell, the vendor and purchaser agree a (currency) figure that is somewhere between the asking price and the preferred selling price. Giving money as an unconditional contribution to a good cause has the same outcome, even though the figures will look a bit different (because the 'negotiation' process is not collaborative). This process fails to make best use of the potential synergies implicit in transaction. For example, making a monetary donations may be a way to express sympathy for a good cause, a willingness to do something positive and, or, a readiness to act, these are routinely stripped away from the process and they remain as traceless intangibles, once the transaction is complete. This is why cash is such an ideal vehicle for 'laundering' context, whether it was selfish or altruistic. In traditional charity models, once a gesture of goodwill has been anonymised in money it must be further separated from the donor. Eventually, it is converted into practical deeds by another. The instrumentalist nature of money therefore has both positive and negative components. Although it accelerates transaction, like all foreign investments, is dissipates value and is prone to exploitation and cynicism.

Humans Poorly Understand Money

The introduction of the first 'futures' market was a milestone in the creation of the modern world. By encouraging more transactions in times of pessimism or scarcity, financial credit became a catalyst to social regeneration. This encouraged some followers of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' thesis (Smith, 1776) to encourage greed in the expectation that profits must inevitably 'trickle down' to the needy. Unfortunately, money is trickling upward, rather than downward (Bregman, 2017). To some extent, this also reflects the fundamental design of money, itself, coupled with the cognitive limitations of human users, who frequently get confused by its granular, and value-free nature. Misunderstandings about numbers is common in humans (Du Sautoy, 2009), who may also confuse 'quality' with 'quantity'. These problems are caused by certain cognitive biases in the way we perceive gains and losses (Kahneman & Tversky, 2013). Such aberrations should not be surprising, given that the invention of money was so recent, in evolutionary terms. Indeed, it was only around five thousand years ago that the first fiat currencies (unit-based money) enabled emperors to assemble armies of unprecedented size; then to maintain power by managing the flow of money. (Graeber, 2012).

Monetising Altruism

In a liberal capitalist economy, all, to some extent, are affected by the drive to manage altruism and compassion by monetising it. This is uncannily misguided, given the paradoxical nature of money. One reason why money is such an indirect vehicle for endeavour stems from the success of food production methods, ten thousandd years ago, which enabled the first farming communities to expand their numbers beyond the comfort zones of human beings. Whereas our chimpanzee ancestors have tended to live in groups of up to thirty or so, modern humans are able to sustain convivial relationships in larger group sizes. However, this cannot exceed around 150 people without some compromises (Dunbar, 1992). Exceeding Dunbar's number meant imposing hierarchies of control that led to the replacement of face-to-face responsiveness with bureaucratic systems of managerial accountability. Today, political leaders apply similar fiscal, legislative and bureaucratic instruments to governance at all levels, from the largest empire down to the smallest village. Charities, NGOs and local councils also find themselves operating within these indirect, colonialist methods. Often, they are applied to problems that are, ultimately, local. It is not possible to get very far by reading standard textbooks, because many of their arguments are built on assumptions that fail to take account of the way that living systems work. Many of the metaphors describing entities, such as 'making a profit' and 'making a loss', 'paying' and 'receiving' are based on the eco-logic of 'in' and 'out'.

Giving and Receiving

Arguably, the logical distinction between ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ has been around for some 3.8 billion years or, rather, since the first life forms emerged on Earth. This is not to suggest that a time traveller from the present could communicate with the earliest forms of life in modern English. Rather, that all living organisms have a cellular structure that is encased in a semi-permeable membrane, through which they conduct transactions with the immediate environment. Without the permeability of its cell wall, the organism would be unable to exchange vital assets (i.e. energy and materials) with other agents and assets in the vicinity. In this sense, the behaviour of cells accords with the logic, if not the linguistic concepts, of ‘inward’ and ‘outward’. This logic continues to pervade human thinking and can be found in the design of the first cities, some ten thousand years ago. Just as living cells were able to sustain themselves by regulating their permeability, so the gates within city walls were opened to welcome trading partners, or closed to protect citizens from marauders.

A Thriving Corporation is a Living System

Just as this rudimentary cell-based reasoning may have inspired the design of cities, cathedrals, corporations and banks, it has also led to concepts, such as 'giving' and 'receiving', 'donor' and ‘recipient’, 'producer’ and ‘consumer’, 'responsibilities' and 'rights'. It is strongly implicit in Maturana and Varela’s (1974) systemic theory of ‘autopoiesis’ (literally, ‘self-creation’). Here, the authors use the idea of internal ‘unity’ to describe a living system’s ability to remain functionally viable. Its ability to make the transactions that are vital to life will rest on ability to manage its relations with itself, in accordance with its others. In short, it must be able to manage its own identity, in order to remain recognisable, and to be perceived as valuable, to adjacent agents and assets. This is a radical idea that applies to biological organisms and human organisations alike. It led Maturana and Varela to make the startling assertion that the only cause of death in a living system would be its failure to maintain a viable 'relationship' between its 'inner' and its 'outer' identities. Again, this process can be applied to a range of real-world systems, such as health care, or brand identity management (c.f. Olins, 1989). For example, it is well known that a perceived mismatch between a company's ethics and behaviour have an immediate effect on its share value.

A Currency is Not a Living System

Although the logic of living cells can be applied to profit making companies, it does not translate into the narrow monetary logic of supply and demand. Whereas living systems maintain themselves using the metabolic logic appropriate to their relevant organs, instruments, or offices, the traditional logic of money (e.g. macroeconomics) is bound by the reductionist idea of quantity. And, whereas the ‘unity’, or unique ‘wholeness’, of a living system is qualitative (Maturana & Varela, 1992. p. 51), the ‘unity’ of money merely exists as a simple sum of identical quantities (Simmel, 1900, p. 271). Thus, the mathematics of money and accountancy is fundamentally summative, rather than synergy-oriented. Whereas an inanimate product, such as a lump of coal, or a cake, may be divided fairly for distribution among a given number of recipients, living systems do not conform to this logic. Whereas, for example, we might usefully divide up some 'dead' things (e.g. cakes, or money) for distribution, living things tend to die when treated in the same way. The more lively (e.g. psychological and cultural) aspects of money are part of human organisms and, therefore, confound the mathematics of the spreadsheet by replicating themselves and, or, by evolving into amended versions of themselves. As Paul Romer said, “...possibilities do not add up. They multiply.” (Romer, 1991).

Direct versus Indirect Transaction

It is useful to compare transactions within living systems with those of non-living systems. We might, for example, compare acquisition patterns in HFT (automated trading) systems with the way that a bunch of squirrels find acorns, and hide them from others. Whereas the first case cites actions that are highly abstract and indirect, the second case operates at a biological and ecological level. However, although scientists may regard the mutual grooming habits of Bonobo monkeys and chimpanzees as a kind of currency exchange (Schroepfer-Walker, Wobber & Hare, 2015), this is a reductionist viewpoint that merely validates the myopic, one-dimensional nature of money. Surprisingly, chimpanzees are smart enough to use fiat money (Chen, Lakshminarayanan & Santos, 2006), but they make errors of judgement similar to those of humans. As with the gathering of nuts, by squirrels, grooming is a very intimate, direct and self-fulfilling form of exchange. It is replete with synergies and hidden benefits to themselves, and to others, within their habitat. By contrast, algorithms are designed only to gather a surplus of digits in a database. In other words, its social context has been excluded, in order to hide, or eliminate 'superfluous' actions (i.e. 'externalities'). Seen within a wider social or ecological context it is likely to be suboptimal.

Relational Money

For around 3 million years, Homo sapiens has been mining minerals from the ground and shaping things into useful implements and artefacts. This may explain our tendency to focus on individual objects, rather than seeing the world as a set of relationships. Mathematically speaking, this is not surprising. If we were to count up the number of 'things' in a particular room, they would always be outnumbered by the number of relationships (i.e. between them). After all, relations are potential synergies; and these are always many times more plentiful and useful (i.e. valuable) than their component parts.

In effect, the evolution of money as a token, or ledger, that denotes a single number, meant that the many relations and qualities that would have attended a given transaction were stripped away from the record. More importantly, the quantities of money in the world

By recording multiple parameters that reflect more of the transactional context, rather than just the sum itself. this would entail a re-evaluation of the perceived purpose and design of money itself.
In England from approximately the 12th to the 17th century the Commons were a kind of ‘usury free zone’. It was this free zone, coupled with an economic system that was built around the tally stick exchanges that ensured, more than anything else during this time period a relatively prosperous society with rights to self-determination. It becomes important to see here, that the rights that were confirmed in Magna Carta were only as good as the stability of the currency system that was in place on the Commons and the same is true today. Economic rights have always depended upon a stable currency, and what history has shown repeatedly is that usury destroys economies. Both the Forest Charter and Magna Carta found their roots within a much older body of law that predates modern history and that body of law, both secular and ecclesiastical in nature dealt with the problems, punishments and restrictions on usury in great detail.

Although coinage was in circulation on the Commons it was inadequate as a means of exchange; there was simply not enough of it. What financed the Commons were the tally sticks that were the principal means of exchange from the 11th century onwards. The tallies were sticks eight inches and longer notched with various size kerfs across the stick, these cuts according to depth, angle and width indicated different currency amounts in pounds, shillings and pence. The stick was then split providing each party an identical transaction record, and counterfeit proof because only the grain from the same stick would match the other half providing a match grain ‘signature’. This signature was accepted as legal proof in Napoleonic courts for hundreds of years.

To make money operate more like a living system it would need to add 'dimensionality'. For example, by re-imagining existing assets in clusters of innovation it would be possible to create 'keystone synergies'. Doing so in the appropriate number of clusters would obviate the need for 'profit' because they should deliver a greater diversity of benefits to a wider variety of stakeholders. Eventually, this would soon produce a 'synergy-of-synergies'. In order to map the relations that pertain, say, to a gift, rather than 'things'. The purpose of developing a relational currency would be to encourage generous actions of (re)combination. Humans, like other primates, can easily become confused, or biased, when dealing with large numbers. What is less well known is that we are also poor at imagining more than 4 interdependent variables at the same time. Nelson Cowan, and others, suggest that our brains 'chunk' information in fours (Cowan, 2001). Note that, in the tetrahedron (below), each of the nodes is connected directly to each of the others.

square-50cm-spacer.jpg triangle-and-tetrahedron.jpg

The claim that relational innovation can produce a 'natural profit' can be illustrated by Euler’s (1751) formula for polyhedra.

Fig. 1. Assorted drawings of polyhedra (Wikimedia).

Euler's equation is: V + F = E + 2
V represents the number of vertices
F represents the number of faces
E represents the number of edges

This formula can also be applied to value networks by identifying the vertices (V) as single assets and the edges (E) as their relations. Compared with clusters smaller than four, there is always a potential profit of two, when assets are cunningly selected and combined in clusters greater than three:

(V ÷ E ) + f = 2

This insight suggests moving from a monetary system that is fundamentally 'object-defined' to one that emerges from auspicious relations. Instead of denoting a one-dimensional face value, a viable cryptocurrency system might operate within a relational field of, say, four values.

4-fold Relational Currency Map
A - the donor
B - the recipient
C - the transactional purpose (e.g. covenanting future support as goods and/or services) 
D - the circumstances of the transaction (immediate / local / global etc.) 
Further Reading

Relational 'Profit' (a proof)

The claim that relational innovation can produce a 'natural profit' can be illustrated by Euler’s (1751) formula for polyhedra.

Polygons Die Geschichte Der Natur Als Zweite Gänzlich Umgearbeitete Auflage Der Allgemeinen Naturgeschichte 1836
Fig. 1. Assorted drawings of polygons (Wikimedia).

Euler's equation is: V + F = E + 2

    • V represents the number of vertices
    • F represents the number of faces
    • E represents the number of edges

This formula can also be applied to value networks by identifying the vertices (V) as single assets and the edges (E) as their relations. Compared with clusters smaller than four, there is always a potential profit of two, when assets are cunningly selected and combined in clusters greater than three:

    • (V ÷ E ) + f = 2

This insight suggests moving from a monetary system that is fundamentally 'object-defined' to one that emerges from auspicious relations. Instead of denoting a one-dimensional face value, a viable cryptocurrency system might operate within a relational field of, say, four values.


A 4-fold Relational Currency Map

A - the donor

B - the recipient

C - the transactional purpose (e.g. covenanting future support as goods and/or services) 

D - the circumstances of the transaction (immediate / local / global etc.) 

Also see John's talk "Monkey Business", hosted by Positive Money in March 2018

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