Occupy Currency

geometric electrum

From its start, the Occupy movement has been noted for its lack of both specific demands and leaders. Yet these very weaknesses may be its greatest virtues: the movement reflects the general will. By this I mean something like a force of conscience, which is unbeatable because ungraspable. The sheer fact of existence becomes evident beyond special interest, beyond factions, beyond concentrated power.

The movement does have a subject, however. It is surely worth remarking that a common thread among its many incarnations is money, because money has no specific demands to make either, except the demand of its issuer that its value be honored. That’s a big exception, of course. Issuers of currency tend to wield concentrated power in order to exact specific demands. Is it possible, then, to mint currency that has no leaders — that reflects the general will?

The world has seen many unofficial, alternative currencies, all of which are worthy in their right. It has seen federations of nations bound by a common coin. In recent years, there have even been intimations of a single global currency, an ambition that is not only undesirable but probably flatly impossible. What the world has not seen, however, is an association of completely independent currencies bearing a common symbol in addition to their own familiar marks.

Here is the theory. The symbols on a currency refer to its spirit, to the ineffable increase that guarantees surplus over the known value of goods and services. It is the eagle, the star, the tree that are believed in, and it is this belief on the part of the people that permits the issuer to generate seigniorage (the value of money above the cost of manufacturing it), thus setting in motion the cascade of capitalizations that allow currency to circulate.

Anyone who thinks digital money abolishes these symbols need only try to write out a currency conversion without the essential denomination marks. In what universe is “1=1.36” a true statement? Digital money merely conceals the iconography of sovereignty, which then functions through its implicit power to call for a state of emergency.

What symbol might possibly represent the general will then? Apparently, only a symbol that refers to itself alone. Anything else, after all, will refer to a specific will and so to a set of specific demands.

In keeping with the Occupy movement’s non-specific character, I would like to submit such a symbol, shown above, for adoption by any issuer of any currency, alternative or official, existing or as yet unannounced, anywhere in the world. It need not take the place of any currency or affect its valuation. Indeed, it cannot, because it does not represent any particular currency. It represents “more than one” currency.

The symbol comes from the infancy of money itself, yet it lacks any known meaning or issuer. It was found in Asia Minor, on a proto-coin known to collectors simply as the geometric electrum, and dates to the sixth century before the Common Era. It cannot be claimed by Turkey, because the locale was a Greek colony at the time. It cannot be claimed by the Greeks, because it may have been issued under the control of Lydia, which ruled much of the region. And it cannot be claimed by the Lydians, because they no longer exist! By default, it belongs to any and all without bias. It is the mark of that which exceeds any one currency or group of currencies. It simply occupies a note or coin as intention itself.

By its very nature, an association of currencies holding in common a symbol that belongs in the public domain will reflect demands that can always renewed by the general will. In Egypt, the people can always return to Tahrir Square. In the world, a new occupied currency can always be minted.

As such, any individual attempt to create an alternative currency bearing this symbol will face important challenges. Can an occupied currency stand the test of legitimacy? Will its first adopters be able to sustain its use if an “enemy” adopts it as well? Can it survive digital commerce as a statement of presence, as a symbol that passes literally from hand to hand and refuses to court concealment?

Of course, there will be startup costs as well. A low-impact approach for existing currencies could be to include it on the reverse side of the lowest denomination. Besides being relatively easy to implement — for existing currencies, it would amount to a commemorative coin or note — this approach would also establish a democratic “threshold of appearance,” a simple rule of thumb that acts as a check against the exaggeration of one’s allegiance to the general will.

No doubt the Occupy movement will continue to evolve and to differentiate into specific projects as it does so. No doubt, too, the occupation of place will take on different meanings over time. This offering seeks in no way to diminish any of these developments. On the contrary, it may provide a means to replenish expressions of the general will independent of place altogether, as goal-oriented actions arise.

I do not stand to gain anything in particular from seeing the adoption of this symbol. I do not know if it will follow the path I imagine, or take some unforeseen turn. I do know that there is only one way to find out, and that is to try it. Occupy currency: the time has never been more opportune.

More about the origin of the symbol here.  More about complementary currencies here. 

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