Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Time, Money and Charity

I keep coming back to this at the moment.

I not very happy with the last post I did Children in Need - An Heretical Thought Experiment. I'll leave it up, of course. But on re-reading, it seems as if I'm coming back to the subject of charity just to try to make excuses for myself. I'm also aware that it would be easy to read my 'problem' with charity as a consequence of some libertarian or anarchist ideology. This sort of thing; "Charity must be recognized for what it is: another aspect of the institutionalized humiliation inherent in our economized existence which must be destroyed so we can fully live." from Feral Faun formerly of Insurgent Desire (check out The Anarchist Library). I sympathise with this sort of view - I think there's some truth in it - but its not really where I'm coming from.

At the risk of hammering the nail more firmly into my coffin lid, I'll try to put a few thoughts into words that might help explain.

There was a line in that Children in Need post that stuck in my head. I just get this feeling that, for me, resisting the immediacy of charity is important. It's about creating the space for those answers to appear. The link between Charity and time seems to resonate with me. Every time a charity ad has come on the tele since, I've been noticing 'the call to action'. Act now. Call now. Give now. People are suffering now. I guess this has been accentuated by the devastation caused to the Philippines by the hurricane and the subsequent calls for support. Something that's hard to resist. A real emergency requiring immediate action.

Although, taking a step back, one does wonder why there isn't some sort of properly funded international response that can give immediate aid in such situations without the need for fundraising at the time of the crises. If I were being cynical I might be tempted to believe that fundraising occurs at such times precisely because they are the most effective time to raise funds. Are the charities replenishing funds that they have already committed to support the aid, or is the money from the donations actually used itself to fund the aid?

That might seem like an inane question. I mean, does it really matter? Certainly not I expect to the poor folks in the Philippines.

Unfortunately though, it does seem to matter to me. And I think I'm figuring out why.

A theme in my reading lately has been the relationship between repression and time. The psychoanalytical idea is that repression (and neurosis/sublimation) creates the flow of time within our minds. (Check out Norman O Brown or Herbert Marcuse for example). The manifestation of these behaviours are the ceremonies and rituals by which we punctuate or measure our lives. To Freud, the origin of all such 'civilised' behaviour is the primal crime (the killing of the father) and the means by which we alleviate our guilt for this crime. (Such ideas as they relate to money can be found in the work of Desmonde, Laum and others).

So - whether you want to think of it as symbolic, semantic, psychological, or indeed magical - within currency itself there is the concept of history. Currency is a link back to the sacrifices and redemptions of times past.

Obviously, I'm exploring sacrifice and redemption in my money burning. But what I'm interested in here, is the way in which those actions relate to time, and how that in turn relates to the act of giving in charity.

What I think happens when we see terrible suffering in the world is that we have an often overwhelming need for redemption. We need to be released from the guilt we feel for the suffering of others. I think that this is cause of the immediacy present in the actions of charities. It's why their calls are so powerful. They offer us something we really want. Forgiveness. Redemption. The feeling that we've done something to help.

You might ask, isn't it just that kind, good people want to help? Well, yes. But then do we divide the world into kind and good people, and bad and nasty people (something I was trying to get at in the Children in Need post)? At the core of Freud's explanation of mind is the concept of ambivalence. The idea that contrary emotions and feelings can exist at the same time and in relation to the same thing. It seems a pretty obvious idea, but its also a key reason why science really doesn't like Freud.

So Charity perpetuates a cycle of redemption. It is a repetition of sin and forgiveness. I'm tempted to mention here the papal indulgences that Luther railed against in the reformation - because in a sense an act of charity that involves currency commodifies Sin and Forgiveness. To remix Marx, its a S-m-F relation. This repetitive redemptive process is like a ticking clock in our mind, creating the flow of time. We project it onto our environment and experience seasonal changes as Life and Death rituals.

And even though, we may claim to be secular for the large part (at least here in the UK) the rhythms of Life and Death, of sin and forgiveness, of the redemptive cycle remain with us through currency. In secular life it is currency that creates the flow of time. Time consists in either earning it, or spending it. The moments in between these two activities are liminal, they are where we find our noumenal self, they are when we feel emancipated from the tyranny of time. The act of charity actually collapses that blissful state of noumenon (sorry, its my word of the week) and plunges us back into the redemptive cycle; into the world of 'becoming' rather than the divine state of 'being'.

So I think money burning creates an end point to a redemptive cycle. It is a noumenal act. In spiritual terms it takes you closer to God/Zen/the-result-of-subtracting-the-universe-from-itself because you are stepping outside the S-m-F relation. This is weird I know, but given that in three days, on the 23rd it'll be the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, perhaps you'll allow me some latitude to say that, by burning currency you are escaping from time itself.


Anyway, I'll let that bizarre thought linger, and try to bring things back down to earth with a thought that seems very much related to what I've been discussing above. I'm just not sure how.

Bitcoin. The thing has been going crazy lately. It looks set to reach $1000/BTC soon. Not only did I miss out on mining it when I first came across it just a few weeks after the client was unleashed, I even ignored my own advice to buy when the price dropped to $70/BTC earlier this year. Oh well.

The interesting thing about Bitcoin and this discussion of time is that the problem fundamental to crypto-currencies - and the one Bitcoin seems to have solved - is the double spending problem.

I'll illustrate this with a little story. Times were tough when I first moved out of home in 1984. Sometimes having enough money to eat was a problem. The banks were no help. I learned to hate the hole in the wall (ATM) for the disappointment it would deliver. One day I was really short of cash. I needed £40, and only had £25 in the bank. I knew already that they wouldn't give me an overdraft (I'd asked) despite the fact that money would be going into my account in a few days. Then I had a brain-wave. I went up to the counter and cashed a cheque for £20, leaving just £5 in my account. As quick as I could I went outside and jammed my cash card into the machine, keyed in my PIN, and asked for £20. The machine delivered. I had beaten the system. I'd already formulated the excuse of not being properly aware of my balance should the bank call the police (they didn't of course, they just charged me an exorbitant unauthorised overdraft fee). What I'd done was exploit the fact that (back in 1984) the recording of my withdrawal by cheque was not instantaneous. I'd manage to double spend my balance.

Its easy enough to (practically) eliminate the double spending problem with a central authority. My little scam wouldn't work so easily today because the cashed cheque would be marked  pretty instantly against my account - back in the day they used to just pile the cheques up and then send them to a back office for processing. But eliminating double spending without a central authority is a different matter. Bitcoin achieves this by the clever way it records transactions across its network. Effectively it achieves a consensus on what has been spent and received across the network. Part of the 'experiment' of Bitcoin (its easy to forget at $650/BTC that it is really an experiment) is to find out how effective this method of dealing with the double spending problem without a central authority really is. It seems to be doing pretty well so far.


The important lesson both from my little bank scam and from Bitcoin is that the closer to the transaction you get, the greater the chance there is of double spending (or if you prefer - fraud). This is interesting. It seems to me to suggest a connection between time, currency and morality; that the moral possibilities are broadest in that 'liminal' area closest to the transaction. This makes some sense in terms of our Marxian S-m-F cycle. To have the greatest chance of turning sin into forgiveness you need 'm' to have the broadest moral possibilities. Essentially, you need money not to be amoral (which is the way it appears to us) but to be super-moral - to contain within it a universe of moral possibility.

A donation to charity then seems to have its own kind of double spending problem. It is a gift which gives both to the recipient and to the giver. It creates (hopefully) a good event for the recipient and a good feeling in the giver. But it also has the effect of maintaining the redemptive cycle (and of maintaining hierarchy), of creating a flow of time and taking us one step closer to death. In other words, time is the unauthorised overdraft fee that karma charges us for our double-spending through charity. To not incur such a fee in future burning is advised :)

And by the way, if you think I mean that the folks in the Philippines shouldn't be helped, you are wrong.

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