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Speculations on a Conceptual Economy

As I explored the field of business, particularly online business, it quickly struck me how many ’experts’ there are out there, ready to bombard any newcomer with volumes of information about how to succeed in the new golden age of internet marketing and selling. A few years ago, approaching this area gingerly and simply wanting to learn, I found myself watching the prolonged birth of the online entrepreneur, the bright, loud and optimistic figure who was eager to impart to anyone who would listen the many ‘secrets’ that he or she had accumulated. All of them claimed to be millionaires, of course, because what other way was there of measuring success expect in terms of vast amounts of cash?

Money, after all, was the only true index of prosperity, wasn’t it? If one had vast amounts of cash, one surely knew what one was talking about? Many of these people were all too ready to post pictures of cheques for large amounts of money, or screen shots of bank accounts (true or not), in order to convince viewers that their riches were real. All one had to do, apparently, was sign up to the next expensive series of courses or coaching sessions, and one would learn exactly how replicate this success.

Eventually - far too long a time later, if truth be told - I saw through all of this.

It’s not that these people didn’t have ‘secrets’ or that they were lying about their wealth - I’m sure that they had learned valuable things and were framing them in a valid context which would enable others to learn from their experience; I’m even sure that many of them were wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, in cash terms. Who was I to question these juggernauts of the online world?

But eventually, after the umpteenth entrepreneur had convinced me to download the next ‘free booklet’ - always effectively a sales spiel for the vastly expensive upper level services that they were offering - I saw that their emphasis was wrong.

True commerce is about the satisfaction of need: a seller brings to market that which a buyer needs. The buyer hands over some money in order to get that which will satisfy his or her need. The degree to which the seller focuses on the needs of the buyer, and is able to satisfy those needs, is the degree to which he or she will be successful; the degree to which he or she focuses on the transaction that occurs between seller and buyer along the way towards that satisfaction is the degree to which a certain falsity enters into the equation.

Looked at through a conceptual lens alone, the ideal commercial environment would be one in which all needs were satisfied without the need for any monetary transaction to take place. Seller A would provide what Buyer B needed, instantly and without the requirement for any exchange to take place. Seller A would in effect become ‘Giver A’; Buyer B would be ‘Recipient B’. At first glance, this seems obviously unworkable: how is ‘Giver A’ going to be able to sustain such giving unless he receives something back? But in such a conceptual economy, ‘Giver A’ would in his turn become ‘Recipient A’ - other Givers would supply whatever he needed, free of charge.

Which leads us to examine what ‘charge’ is exactly. ‘Charge’, or the ‘money tag’ that accompanies anything given in a physical economy, is an insurance against the possibility that other givers may not supply what one needs.

In other words, in a conceptual economy, Bert needs an electricity supply to power his home. Fred supplies that from his power station in the next county, without asking for anything in return. Fred keeps his power station running using the hydro-electric dam run by Elsie and her team over the hill. Elsie asks for nothing to supply everything Fred needs because all her needs are taken care of by her local community, cost-free.

Elsie only needs ‘money’ if she loses confidence in the notion that others will produce what she needs. She can store up her production, if you like, in an abstract form, and use it to purchase what she needs instead of simply knowing that it will be supplied.

A need for money becomes, therefore, a symbol of a lack of confidence.

A ‘charge’ placed against any item becomes a statement of invalidation: it says ‘I don’t trust you to produce what others need, and therefore I’m demanding from you a symbol that you will do so or have done so.’ When you hand over a banknote to someone, you are in effect saying ‘Rest assured, I have produced what others need to this exact degree.’ The recipient of the note need not have any confidence in you personally; all the confidence now rests in the symbolic banknote.

So a wealthy entrepreneur, displaying his bank statement to you, is in effect saying ‘I have gathered all these symbols of confidence from people who have purchased things from me.’ The inference is that this would not have occurred had not the things purchased satisfied some need.

But on a large scale, the thing called ‘money’ becomes the repository of our trust rather than each other. If they ever had it, human beings have lost the capacity to trust each other directly and now focus on the medium of money instead. ‘If I can accumulate a load of trust symbols,’ the refrain goes, ‘I will survive and succeed’. And so society functions.

I can’t help wondering, though, what would happen if we could somehow re-frame things so that the confidence didn’t reside in symbols, but directly in each other. Any and all items or services would be received and given freely, with the statement ‘I have no need to demand from you a symbol that you will produce or have done so.’ In doing something for someone, you would in effect be saying ‘Pass this on, if you wish.’ The giver of the item or service need not have any confidence in a symbolic banknote, but only in the recipient.

People would produce what was needed by others, and receive what they needed.

But wouldn’t this mean that we would never strive to do more for anyone? If all his needs were satisfied, why would an entrepreneur seek to grow a business? What would be the point of trying to do more than enough for someone?

It’s true that, to make a conceptual economy thrive, human nature would need to be motivated by different impulses. Money serves as a symbol of confidence and of desire for more: we accumulate it so that we can get more than we actually need. In an economy based purely on needs rather than desires, what would push us to do more than the minimum? Why would we build a better car, or bake a better cake, or write a better book, if all our needs were taken care of?

If the vacuum that motivates society currently is the need to accumulate symbols of confidence so that we can fulfil our needs - leading to accumulating more than we need, fostering greed - what would be the vacuum driving a society in which all needs were fulfilled?

In such a society, attention would switch onto finding new vacuums in others. Yes, we could make a basic car which got Recipient A from one place to another in relative comfort. Our motivation to build a better car could no longer stem from need: it would have to come from desire, the desire to make something greater or better, for its own sake. Focus would return to the uniqueness, beauty and craft of the single item, on its particular satisfaction of a particular need. Commerce would become gift.

What of those who could not give? If the power to give to others became a measure of whether or not someone received, we might as well return to a money economy. Receiving would have to have no ‘price tag’. All the pleasure would be in the giving.

Would not those who gave more become resentful of those who gave less, or who simply received? Only by an introversion of focus. While givers were happy to give, and to craft individual gifts, and to take pleasure in fulfilling the needs of recipients, all would be well; recipients would probably be prompted to do more simply because of what they perceived happening around them.

A crisis of confidence would mean that givers would introvert and lose their focus. They would begin to measure what they produced based on what they received. And eventually, we would have a money economy, with all that that brings.

Just speculations, of course…

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