We are delighted that Bill Maurer has joined the Journal of Cultural Economy editorial team. Here we reproduce an extract of an interview with him, conducted by Lauren Tooker the day of his recent talk at the University of Warwick. A version of this interview will be published in the journal in due course.
Many thanks to Exchanges: the Warwick Research Journal, who kindly granted permission to republish this extract and to the Global Research Priority in Global Governance that sponsored Bill Maurer’s visit. The interview can be read in full here. The lecture took place at Warwick on September 8, 2014, and was titled: ‘Governing Money After Bitcoin and the “Sharing Economy”: Closed Payment Communities and the Public Good’.
In the following extract, Tooker1 invites Maurer to explain his interest in payments and payment communities and why exactly payments matters.
Payments – publics – politics
LT: I would like to move to what you’re working on now and why you’re at Warwick giving a talk on closed payment communities and the public good. What draws you to this area? A lot of people might say that payments are really quite banal, quotidian stuff. Why does this topic matter?
BM: I came into this whole field of payment infrastructure by accident. I had been doing my work in money and finance and one day someone knocked on my door. It was Scott Mainwaring, who used to work at Intel. He introduced himself and said that he was thinking about digital payments and he had read my anthropology of money review essay and wanted to talk to me about it. And that led to a collaboration that continues. We ended up planning a conference where we brought together a bunch of people who were thinking about digital money and electronic payments, including some folks from the Gates Foundation who at that conference announced that they were going to be funding the institute that I direct that’s looking at the spread of mobile phone enabled payments systems in the developing world. So very quickly all of this came together. Scott and I were asking questions that we felt were not being asked in the electronic money world, namely, is electronic money all about security and electronic encryption– which is what everybody was saying – and we were saying ‘no’. If we believe everything we’ve written and read about money –if we’ve read our Jane Guyer, our Viviana Zelizer and our Keith Hart – then we know that money is always carrying other kinds of meaning and doing other kinds of work. So what other kinds of work is money already doing in these digital networks, what other kinds of work is almost being forced on it as it’s being channelled through new private infrastructures? And then what are peopledoing? How are people hacking and remaking or personalising these things?
All of us stumbled into the payments field around the same time and then a whole host of problems hit us in the face. They’re problems that people have done before, when Visa and Mastercard were being established, or when Diners Club was established before them, but they took on a new urgency because the mobile phone was spreading so quickly and mobile money seemed to be taking off in a number of places so forcefully and particularly among very vulnerable people. There were all of the questions about things like interchange fees that cut into the transactions or things like interoperability between systems, which in the States and in Europe had been regulated. For me this opened up the whole question of payment as a public good and led me to dig back into the history of the establishment of currency itself as a kind of public good. It’s odd to think about this but money is a kind of public infrastructure that allows people to do other kinds of things that we call the economy. Since the nineteenth century, it’s been seen primarily as a function of the state to provide this mechanism of exchange and payment so that then you get the spill-over effects of the economy. Yet here we have so many instances where companies and other entities are trying to close off bits of it, or to get people’s transactions within a closed loop so that they are only using one method of payment and that method of payment is only accepted in four or five venues or shops or online market places. It’s almost like a company store – keeping a person sutured into one little sub-economy and especially where the poor are concerned, that raises a whole bunch of issues. It raises issues now, post-global financial crisis (GFC), when even for the not-poor, the banking and payment services that we are offered increasingly come with higher fees or fees that are not disclosed, and the whole normal banking sector starts to look more and more like the fringe banking sector.
So I think that like many people, even in the payments industry itself, I kind of stumbled into payments and once I was there I went ‘wow’. Number one, this is not capitalism as usual. The business models of the payments industry are all based on tolls and fees. There is not a price mechanism at work here, it’s not the market. And in fact in the States, when the card networks have been taken to court for anti-trust violations, which means contorting the market in various ways, they’ve almost always settled out of court. They’re saying ‘yep, you’re right, that’s what we’ve been doing, that’s how it works’. That in itself in my own academic programme is an important thing to say. The systems that do the transit of value for us when we are doing our capitalism thing themselves operate according to principles that are not capitalist. There’s a wonderful kind of Gibson-Grahamian thing right there.
LT: Yes, and if you are talking about currency being a public good, then obviously Bitcoin flashes up as a question. What’s your position on Bitcoin?
BM: Well it’s certainly evolving. I work very closely with Taylor Nelms (UC Irvine) and Lana Swartz (USC) on this. We started watching Bitcoin from the moment the Satoshi paper was published and did an article (Maurer et al., 2013) where we basically went through all of the Bitcoin forums and did a kind of discourse analysis of what was happening. I’ve pretty much come to realise that I need to be a better anthropologist when it comes to Bitcoin people because it’s very easy for me to slam it, and say this is really stupid libertarian mumbo-jumbo and they have a commodity theory of money that’s stupid, that nobody really believes in except for Hayekians, and it will never work anyway and it’s only really a tiny little blip – I mean 8 billion capitalisation is nothing in the wide world – and it is posing all of these regulatory questions. But I’m starting to see, particularly among some of the younger folks who are involved in Bitcoin, reconfigurations and rewiring of ideologies into new configurations that I certainly was not prepared for. So I feel that it’s time for me to start trying to get my head into their head, or to put myself in their shoes a bit more and really think about what Bitcoin means, for instance, for people whose investment in technology was shaped profoundly by PayPal freezing contributions to WikiLeaks, or people for whom the suicide of Aaron Swartz really affected them.2 I think that it’s really stitching together a new kind of configuration of what I’ve been content to call libertarianism, where there’s a sense that indeed, government has failed. Over here there was austerity in response to the GFC; back home we had Obama who tried to do all kinds of things but kind of failed and has been rather disappointing to many people on that score. So there’s your government, right! You can talk about various kinds of protections and so on that it affords and then at the same time the NSA thing explodes.
So I’ve been trying to think through that, and to hear what the other possibilities are in things like Bitcoin. I’m also utterly captivated by the playfulness that has emerged. There’s the Dogecoin phenomena, the playfulness of creating all kinds of cryptocurrencies initially to poke fun at the phenomenon but which then become something, take on a life of their own and still have that sense of irony. Or the way that people are using the blockchain database that lies behind Bitcoin to chronicle their own little stories, almost using it like a microblogging twitter sort of thing but for whatever reason putting it all to the blockchain.
BM: The ‘whatever reason’ speaks, I think, to the passionate need or ability to chronicle one’s story and one’s engagement with the world in a way that is completely attentive to what Twitter and Facebook mean in terms of the corporatisation of our personal stories and narratives and the harvesting of our personal data for various kinds of return. It’s also completely attuned to issues around NSA surveillance and state monitoring and so forth. Here you have these folks who are microblogging or doing other playful things with the blockchain, right! So it ain’t Twitter and it ain’t NSAable– although it is, of course – but it taps into this irrepressible desire to tell our stories in new ways. So I’m curious to see where that takes me.
Maurer, B., T. C. Nelms and L. Swartz (2013), ‘“When Perhaps the Real Problem is Money Itself!”: The Practical Materiality of Bitcoin’, Social Semiotics23 (2), 261-277.
1. Lauren Tooker is a doctoral researcher in Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Lauren works in the broad areas of finance, political economy and cultural and political theory. Her PhD thesis examines the everyday politics and ethics of debt resistance after the global financial crisis.
2. Computer programmer and political organiser Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013 while being prosecuted for downloading a large number of academic articles from JSTOR.