A Cryptoeconomy of Affect

Can the blockchain finally solve the problem of how to sustain decentralized political momentum without resorting to centralized institutions?

Robert Rauschenberg, Money Thrower for Tinguely’s H.T.N.Y., 1960

Why would two anti-capitalist philosophers create a cryptocurrency? Erin Manning and Brian Massumi were given a challenge by the Economic Space Agency—a global collective working to create a network of noncapitalist, blockchain-based economies—to reconsider value in financial terms. Dismissing the prevailing free-market libertarian discourse, they identified the radical potential of the blockchain’s ledgering system for creating decentralized organizations built from a network of public, automated contracts. They’re working on reappropriating the technology to invent a cryptoeconomy that can create and sustain what they call “emergent collectivity”—the type of energy palpable in groups learning together, making art together, or building a political movement together.

Massumi is known for his translations of French post-structuralist classics like Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (1987); Manning is a prolific author whose last published book was The Minor Gesture (2016). They work together at the SenseLab in Montreal, a research laboratory Manning created to experiment with collective pedagogy. The lab provides a base for intellectual and creative activity that is intended to spin off into projects that grow or die according to their own momentum. The Three Ecologies Institute (3E) is one such offshoot.

This interview has been edited for concision. Read the full transcript here
Named after Guattari’s notion of the three interconnected “ecologies” of the mental, social, and environmental, the Institute’s project is to digitally codify offline qualities and affects so that they can then be tokenized as a unit of the cryptocurrency, and in turn exchanged for fiat money—generating cash from a reading group. Much of the platform has already been conceptualized, but the key obstacle remaining is to invent what they call an affect-o-meter: the specific computational mechanism that can turn a quality that hangs in the air into the binary quantities of machine code. I sat down with them to talk about what they have accomplished so far, and what work remains to be done.



MARC.— What is the concept of value underlying cryptocurrencies? How does it differ from value as conceived of within capitalism?

MASSUMI.— Cryptocurrency designers tend to take up the traditional definition of a medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account. That traditional market definition, however, doesn’t correspond to how money actually functions in the capitalist economy, because it understands money in terms of exchange and exchange in terms of equivalency. The capitalist economy actually runs on the production of surplus value, in other words on excess. The very definition of capital is the potential to generate more in the future from a given amount of money invested now. The libertarian market-fundamentalist ideology behind the design of Bitcoin and embraced by its early boosters simply disregarded the thing that is most characteristic of capitalism, which is, needless to say: capital itself. But capital caught up with Bitcoin. Its use as a speculative vehicle has led to a near-total collapse of its traditional money functions.

The economic ideas designed into Bitcoin hark back to very early ideologies of free-market liberal capitalism. They don’t correspond to how capital actually works, especially if you take into consideration the present-day dominance of financial capital. If the blockchain, or technologies developing out of the blockchain, are to lead to progressive social innovation, a much more complicated vision of the economy has to be factored in, and for that it is necessary to grapple with finance capital.

MANNING.— For our cryptoeconomic work, the 3E Process Seed Bank, we don’t begin our thinking of value around financial value in that archaic definition that Brian mentioned. We begin with the question of value more broadly: What is value, what are the conditions under which value expresses itself, how does it enter into relations of power, and can it be extracted from those relations of power? Our interest in financial value is in that wider range, because we realized that if we don’t grapple with forms of money beyond money as a medium of exchange—forms like derivatives, options, and futures—we could miss potential alter-economic strategies, or find the activist work we do undermined by not taking these economic realities into account.

MASSUMI.— Basically, we want to think about value qualitatively, rather than assuming that the only viable model of value is quantitative, as it is in the case of monetary value. There are certain points in the capitalist economy where the qualitative basis of value makes itself felt. But it is telling that when it does, it is in the form of what are called “externalities”: things that affect price but aren’t themselves quantifiable. The classic example is the way that perceptions of the quality of life in different neighborhoods affect real estate prices, whether it’s green spaces and good schools or the conviviality and cultural life of a neighborhood. These quality-of-life factors are reflected in the prices, but because they aren’t things that are quantifiable as such, this typically leads to distortions in the market, as can be seen in the insanely high prices in desirable inner cities, and in the onslaughts of gentrification. The monetary expression of value is just that: a numerical expression of something else. And that something else, being qualitative, always eludes capture. It distorts the market, or is distorted by it. So we wanted to ask, is there a way of putting a qualitative notion of value back at the center of economy?

MASSUMI.— This brings up a very difficult problem—the biggest problem we face, that has really pushed us to the limit of our imaginations. For something like our alter-economy to work, it has to somehow be registering qualities of interaction. It is with this in mind that we’re attempting to invent something we call the affect-o-meter. It’s a key to the alter-economy we’re envisioning. We literally want to invent an affective economy, an economy that runs on intensities of relations and values those, their process, more than any particular product. The affect-o-meter digitally performs a qualitative analysis of collaborative interactions, and we want to use that registering of creative activity to monetize our platform.

MANNING.— Before we go more into the economy, perhaps we should say what kind of activity we’re talking about?

MASSUMI.— The SenseLab is a laboratory for experimenting with forms of creative collaboration that foster qualitatively different experiences of collectivity in action—what we call surplus values of life. Their production is so integrally collective that it can’t be factored down into individual parts or inputs without losing a sense of the intensity of the experience. We refer to this as emergent collectivity. The process—emergent collectivity—is our product, and the dissemination of creative activity is our object. We’re thinking of the 3E Process Seed Bank as a creative process engine designed to help seed collective creative practices.

Most collective action is thought of as simply the sum of its individual parts. Everything revolves around individual input, and ultimately individual interest. The ethos of our project is to say that we can desire more than we know, and go beyond what we take to be our individual interests, into unknown intensities.

This is not just knowing different things, it’s knowing differently—inventing new modes of knowledge. This can only be done by leveraging collective energies into an emergence that no one individual, or simple aggregate of individuals, could have charted in advance. This requires constant attunement and care. Our conviction is that it has to be built into the programming as much as it’s built into how we interact with each other offline.

MARC.— Does the model you’re developing with the SenseLab translate into other forms of organization?

MANNING.— There are people all over the world we don’t know who are doing this kind of work, who are creating ways of working together, inventing new forms of collaboration, engaging with complex ecological models of encounter, who are inventing new forms of value. We never believe we are alone doing this work. The question we have isn’t the usual start-up question of how to scale up, it’s how do we create techniques for the registering of that which doesn’t register?

The 3E Process Seed Bank is deeply allied to the question of what else learning and living can be, having grown out of its sister project the Three Ecologies Institute. We actually began there, with the Three Ecologies Institute, working from Félix Guattari’s definition of the three ecologies as the conceptual (psychic, mental), the environmental, and the social. It was only two years ago that we realized that thinking value transversally across the three ecologies required us to also take financial value into account.

We see the 3E as a kind of intensifier of modes of thinking and living dedicated to inventing ways that we can continue to learn together, regardless of our age, background, or learning style. We don’t see it as an opposite to the university; we see it as a parasite. You could put the emphasis on the site: a para-site, a para-institution that maintains relations with the institution of the university but operates by a different logic.

It would be very naive of us to think you could just walk out of capitalism. We’re not that naive. Neoliberalism is our natural environment. We therefore operate with what we call strategic duplicity. This involves recognizing what works in the systems we work against. Which means: We don’t just oppose them head on. We work with them, strategically, while nurturing an alien logic that moves in very different directions. One of the things we know that the university does well is that it attracts really interesting people. The university can facilitate meetings that can change lives. But systemically, it fails. And the systemic failure is getting more and more acute. And so what we imagine is that the Institute, assisted by the 3E Process Seed Bank, will create a new space that might overlap with some of the things the university does well, without being a part of it (or being subsumed by its logic).

MASSUMI.— Going back to the question of value, we want to create an economy around the platform that does not follow any of the usual economic principles. There will be no individual ownership or shares. There will be no units of account, no currency or tokens used internally. The model of activity will not be transactional. Individual interest will not be used as an incentivizer. What there will be is a complex space of relation for people to create intensities of experience together, in emergent excess over what they could have created working separately, or in traditional teams. It’s meant to be self-organizing, with no separate administrative structure or hierarchy, and even no formal decision-making rules. It’s anarchistic in that sense, but through mobilizing a surplus of organizing potential, rather than lacking organization. You could also call it communistic, in the sense that there is no individual value holding. Everything is common.

MANNING.— Undercommon.

MASSUMI.— Yes, undercommonly. The undercommons is Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s word for emergent collectivity, which is one of our inspirations. We want to foster emergence and process, but at the same time find ways of making it sustainable. That means that the strategic duplicity has to extend to the economy as we currently know it. We have to be parasitical to the capitalist economy, while operating according to a logic that is totally alien to it.

What we’re thinking of is making the collaborative process moving through the platform function according to the radically anti-capitalist principles we were just talking about, centering on the collective production of surplus values of life, and separating that from the dominant economy by a membrane. A membrane creates a separation, but at the same time allows for movements across. It has a certain porosity. The idea is that we would find ways, associated with the affect-o-meter we were describing earlier, to register qualitative shifts in the creative process as it moves over its formative thresholds, and moves back and forth between online operations and offline events. What would be registered is the affective intensity of the production of surplus value of life, its ebbs and flows. The membrane would consist in a translation of those qualitative flows into a numerical expression, which would feed into a cryptocurrency. Basically, we’d be mining crypto with collaborative creative energies—monetizing emergent collectivity. The currency would be “backed” by the confidence we could build in our ability to keep the creative process going and spin it off into other projects, as evidenced by the activities of the Three Ecologies Institute as an experiment in alter-education.

On the side of the membrane facing the monetary economy, we would be producing a recognizable, quantifiable movement of value. But the membrane would shelter the creative process going on inside the platform from being colonized by that logic. We’d try to have the best of both worlds. It would be essential that the currency not be just a speculative vehicle that joins the crowd of coins. Our economic space would have to inhabit an ecology of other economic spaces experimenting with adapting blockchain and post-blockchain autonomous organization to cooperative endeavors. The key, once again, is finding workable solutions to the problem of how to use qualitative analysis to register movements of creative intensity—how to coax numbers into an alliance with qualities of experience. There is a new concept being developed by Nora Bateson that she calls “warm data” that has a similar goal, in relation to basic science, that we’d like to hook into.

MARC.— You want to use blockchain to create a parasitic economy that reappropriates speculative finance to generate profit from collaborative events. You are working within the immaterial level that the movement to occupy public spaces only gestured at, and uses the collaborative spirit common to any movement. Do you consider yourself to be “occupying” the abstract?

MANNING.— If we’re “occupying an abstraction,” we’re doing it in a way that is extraterritorial. All of this is a thought experiment that we want to help sow, but needs to be continued by others, and with others. It will be interesting if it manages to produce process seeds that get away from us and end up going beyond anything that we could have imagined. I’m not sure what Brian would say, but my feeling is that if we’re occupying anything, it’s the imagination. The postcapitalist imagination.

MASSUMI.— Another way of saying it is that we are talking about creating what’s often been called a temporary autonomous zone, but recognizing that we’re all complicit with capital, and not pretending we can just step outside that and go our merry way. If you do that, you only end up carrying unexamined presuppositions with you, and everything breaks down. We want to work from and with that complicity, using strategic duplicity. That doesn’t mean being deceptive. It means working in two registers at once.

We want to create a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ), following anarcho-communist logic, while at the same time being able to articulate it to the existing neoliberal economy, because like it or not, those are the conditions under which we live, and its grip is so tentacular, reaching not only all around us but inside of us, that you have to work hard and with great technique to start loosening the grip. You have to find ways of inhabiting the present, while setting off sparks of futurity that prefigure a postcapitalist world to come. So it’s an occupation in the sense that it’s a cohabitation. The TAZ isn’t a world apart. It’s a pore in the world as it is, in which something else can grow. It’s a relational space that you can enter without the conceit that you’re leaving the existing world. It starts by supplementing, rather than purporting to replace right away. Hopefully that supplementation grows and takes more and more of our cohabitation in, to the point that it can rival the dominant economy.

The phrase “occupying an abstraction” comes from Occupy Wall Street. In a sense, that’s what we’re trying to do in a different way: occupy money, occupy finance, take back value. Wall Street and the world of finance are the dominant sector of the economy now. You can’t confront capitalism without grappling with them. The dominant financial instruments, like derivatives and credit default swaps, are highly, highly abstract. And they all run on surplus-value production in its capitalist form. They run on speculative energies oriented toward the more-than. If we want to occupy finance, it’s to take back those speculative energies, for creating new modes of living together. We want to occupy the imagination—but it has to be a collective imagination.