Sergei Sitar
Voices (Towards Other Institutions) #23

Drawing by the author.
The question of money / Inverse Capitalism

“Why, there are the Houses of Parliament!  Do you still use them?”…
“… you may well wonder at our keeping them standing… Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure… ”

William Morris
News from Nowhere, 1890

Slogans, formulas, appeals, statements, objections, accounts, declarations, conclusions, conjectures, promises, agendas, programmes… Arguably, the Luhmannian concept of ‘selective-restabilizing function’ is best revealing the essential role of institutions within the inescapable and prolific realm of social communication (within the horizon of our frenzied preoccupation with collecting, sharing and exchanging signs, that is to say). In short, institutions take upon themselves the pains of endowing the course of events with a highly popular quality of being smooth and predictable. On the other hand, among the plethora of channels, registers and levels of informational exchange there is one peculiar modality, which exhibits – presently and historically – the most unwavering capacity to affect actual behaviour of participating agents. This distinct layer of communication consists of financial transactions, the flows and circuits of money. As a means of impelling actors to act, money occupies a paradoxical/hybrid ‘golden middle’ position between sheer violent coercion, which often provokes ‘jamming’ resistance, and ‘not binding’, purely discursive or emotional persuasion. Doesn’t that common ‘stabilizing’ or ‘levelling’ stance of money and institutions imply that all our institutions are ultimately about money, and money-the-capital is in its turn our world’s ultimate institution?

An epic sample (оbjet trouvé) of ‘pop-bureaucratic dadaism-surrealism’, which characterizes the contemporary state of many public institutions in Russia; found accidentally at official site of administration of Gomel municipality, Kostroma region. admgalich.ru

A deep crack has opened up this summer between the least state-integrated faction of Russian artistic community and some highly reputed administrators of presumably most advanced public (state funded) cultural organizations. Widespread and often blazing debates were abruptly triggered by the two non-metropolitan artists-curators’ statement, whereby the top managing directors of an ambitious five-year-long program, officially aimed at supporting contemporary art in Russia’s regional cities and towns, were exposed as having used knowingly invalid financial enticements to attract local participants, and as having eventually blatantly denied responsibility for their widely announced intention to procure funding for two genuinely local projects, selected in the course of tough and time-consuming curatorial competition1. Many actors and witnesses have regarded this situation as just one among the broad array of symptoms, proving that the paternalistic, ignorant, colonial, predatory and hypocritical attitude, which Russia’s metropolitan center for centuries maintained towards its vast ‘internal peripheries’, is being assimilated to and upheld in minimum disguise by its present purportedly ‘post-imperial’ cultura establishment. Others see it as testimony to the fact that the post-soviet ‘cultural elite’ in its rambling development has finally reached the state of ripe, fully unleashed neoliberal cynicism.

Dissident activists are coming up with alternative prospects and proposals, including demands for complete financial transparency of public sector bodies, fair redistribution of resources, restitution of ‘former internal colonies’, equity in remuneration, rotation in offices and artists’ direct involvement on rotational basis in financial management of cultural affairs2. The range of constructive aspirations is wide, but it’s easy to notice how this well-intentioned collective brainstorm systematically circles around the issue of financial decision-making: the question of who, how and with which objectives in mind controls the money – as today’s most consensual form of power.

I had first learned about communism when I was about 4-5 years old, in the beginning of the 70s, from my father, a nuclear researcher and a member of the now defunct CPSU. Trying to render this ‘profound’ political concept as ‘edible’ as possible for my infantile imagination, he reduced it to its clearest and at the same time queerest practical implication: the abolition of money. One would get anything one needs without having to pay. On the other hand, one would do whatever one opts to do without expecting to receive payment. That curious transformation of our daily life had to arrive, according to latest calculations ‘from high above’, around the year 1980. A point 7-6 years ahead in a future had appeared to me as almost infinitely remote, i.e. virtually not worth waiting for. But I remember that the idea as such had struck me with its immaculate elegance: somehow I was already inclined to appreciate the beauty of achieving progress by simplification, – like in the case of primitive mathematical equations, which my parents started to teach me around the same time, where one proceeds to solution by way of finding and deleting redundant equal quantities on both sides. Why then won’t people just grab tons of goods, which they don’t really need, and stop working? That was the hard question, which my father strived to fend off employing a vague and suspicious concept of ‘responsibility’. And yet there was some gain from this memorable conversation, some ‘embarrassing truth’ about money and the ‘world of adults’, which had flashed and left a deep trace in my developing brain: it turned out that coins and bills are neither objects of a real value, nor even their conventional substitutes, but rather something like crutches helping to hold people accountable for their desires and choices – and primarily to themselves. So the transition to communism seemed to me like a moment in learning to ride a bike, when a pair of small additional ‘safety wheels’, which were sticking out on both sides of a rear wheel, get removed, and – swaying between fear and excitement – you discover the euphoria of unrestrained hawk-like soaring ride. Or – taking one step further back in memory – it seemed like learning to walk on two legs.

Isn’t then our inability to perform this transition just a matter of deeply rooted social prejudice? Much later on this question had spurred the development of the ‘ Inverse Capitalism’ concept, a visionary pedagogical model of social interaction, which – rather inadvertently – we conceived together with my friend Ilya Voznesensky, a cofounder of Iced Architects. The general idea behind it is to maintain money’s ‘stabilizing’ social function, while reversing its accepted meaning, thus challenging its ‘natural’ attractiveness. Within its framework possession of money should be simply re-coded as being burdened with a debtor’s duty. On a practical level this re-coding would give rise to a number of quite paradoxical consequences. An individual, willing to acquire some goods or services, would be obliged to accept along with these items an amount of money equivalent to their market value, instead of paying for them. The accumulation of goods and outcomes of services in someone’s hands would thus lead to the accumulation of money in the same hands. Destroying or concealing money in one’s possession would be regarded as a grave crime and entail legal prosecution and sanctions. Respectively, ownership of real estate and other nonmonetary assets would imply parallel ownership of their monetary worth.All employers, on the other hand, would be obliged to regularly (monthly or weekly) accept a monetary equivalent of the cost of their employees’ services specified in their individual contracts. Entrepreneurs would have an opportunity to get rid of money, which they get from their employees, suppliers and subcontractors, by distributing it in small portions along with goods and services they provide to their customers. The most talented and diligent would succeed in keeping their ‘savings’ at zero level. The ‘poorest’ therefore would eventually be envied as the most accomplished and successful members of society, while the ‘richest’ would be disdained as miserable losers and outcasts. Accumulations of large sums on accounts of big corporations, municipalities and nation states would be treated as major economical disasters and call for crisis management interventions aimed at gradual dissolution of these ‘malicious tumours’. Banks would accept bulks of money as credits and loans from their clients in exchange of their clients’ obligations to accept annual or monthly interest payments from banks, etc.

Visual by the author.

It may seem that this ‘mirror model’, once put into action, would create a world so similar to the original one, that it won’t be worth the effort. There is though one critical distinction that perhaps shouldn’t be overlooked. Whereas Straight Capitalism’s generative principle (imperative of quantitatively measured growth) is additive and thus oriented towards blind infinity, Inverse Capitalism’s is intrinsically subtractive and has a definite seizable limit of perfection at ‘zero possession’. And isn’t any activity, which deserves to be viewed as ‘rational’, characterized precisely by choosing more or less attainable goals and setting them in advance? On a global scale Inverse Capitalism would imply that ‘central banks’, instead of their present right to steadily increase the mass of money in circulation, would be endowed with an exclusive right to periodically unburden the ‘member banks’ of problematic excess of liquidity and annihilate it without further consequences. The present world’s ‘money stock’, i.e. the total of existing ‘representative’ and ‘fiat’ money, measured in trillions of leading currencies’ units, is hard to conceive as anything other than a grant, which humanity has awarded to itself for acceleration of its millennia-long exploitative conquest of the world, space-time, other species and everything what can be identified and named. It should appear quite logical (and maybe as the only coherent logical choice), if the calculated gradual contraction of this monetary base to zero and the attainment of the mendicant ‘zero possession’ principle would advance hand in hand with the pursuit of such trendy objectives as ‘zero-waste’, ‘zero-energy’, ‘zero-emission’, ‘zero-extinction’ etc. In all likelihood, this perspective would also entail the achievement of a ‘zero-institution’ state, at least if the word ‘institution’ is taken in its contemporary sense.

1 — This statement consists of two parallel accounts of the events, by Elizaveta Kashintseva and Oleg Ustinov, and is yet available only in Russian; see: Кашинцева Е., Устинов О. «Задача проекта в том числе фасад»: о «Немоскве» // aroundart.org, 6 августа 2020, http://aroundart.org/2020/08/06/nemoskva/
2 — See for example the collective open letter signed by 20 art-activists from different regional self-organized cultural institutions: Бурлюк А. и др. Всё растворяется в воздухе (кроме вопросов) // Артгид, 4 сентября 2020, https://artguide.com/posts/2071; and the action plan by Egor Safronov, editor of Moscow Art Magazine and Aroundart webzine, including proposal for establishing ‘Planetary Artists’ Council’: Софронов Е. #ДеколонизируйПушкинский // aroundart.org, 9 сентября 2020, http://aroundart.org/2020/09/09/decolonizethepushkin/ (both sources are only in Russian).

Sergey Sitar is an architect, architectural theorist, designer and curator. He is senior tutor of the module Theory and History of the MARCH (Moscow Architecture School) MA program, author of Architecture of the External World (Moscow, Novoe Izdatelstvo, 2012), a book on mutual influence between European natural sciences and architectural theory. Since 1995 he has been a regular contributor and editor of the architectural magazine Project Russia; since 2001 – editor of the theoretical section of the magazine Project International. He was involved as an architect, researcher and planner in development of a series of strategic programs for regional centers of RF, as well as in international research and exhibition projects in architecture, urbanism and local-regional cultures. Sergey was co-initiator and curator of the international design-and-theory seminar New History Will Come (2019).

Download PDF