The researcher Diego Viana is a social currency enthusiast. By mixing philosophy and economics, his main fields of study, the Brazilian academic believes that we, as a society, need to rethink the current strategy to develop a more equal and fair system focused on people and its needs. In this interview for the Horyou blog, Viana comments Bitcoin, the role of social currencies within capitalism and the challenges surrounding them. He also gives his impressions on Horyou’s Spotlight, the first social global currency for economic inclusion, which was created to distribute wealth and promote a fair redistribution system. After participating in the IVth International Conference of Social and Complementary Currencies, in Barcelona, Viana gave this interview to the Horyou blog.

Diego Viana
Diego Viana

– What does your research consist of?

The basic question I’m concerned with is how our notions of what money is and what it does, associated to the architecture surrounding it, affect the ways we live, the habits we assume, the tasks we undertake. This research takes place within a philosophical framework in which the reasoning is focused more on how things come about than on how they can be defined. In other words, it’s a question of operations, not so much of essences.

From a practical point of view, the difference is that I try to understand money according to the movements in which it appears, rather than an understanding of its nature. This means that different kinds of movements (or operations) imply different notions of money. This in turn implies that money is necessarily much more than a tool to make exchange easier or smoother, it is the core operator of a whole system that defines how exchange actually takes place, and what roles we play when we engage in it.

It is very hard for us to understand this difference if we remain stuck in the contemporary idea of money, in which our savings, our shopping and our wages are all denominated in the same currency, which is also the currency of taxes, public investment, high finance, speculation… This has not always been the case and won’t necessarily be the case in the future: different elements can be used for different forms of interaction that today are performed by money. By the way, sociologists such as Viviana Zelizer have demonstrated that even our general purpose money is earmarked in its actual uses, according to gender, age, profession etc. This is an issue in which social currencies play a decisive part; more generally, I like to use the term “monetary invention”, because these currencies aren’t necessarily designated for a social use, there can be innumerable reasons to create other forms of currency. The important question regarding monetary invention is: what kind of operations and systems are we forging when me introduce and develop new monetary forms? if we don’t deal directly with this question, we’ll be turning in circles.

social currency

– Do you believe that social currencies are important tools for tackling inequalities and promoting economic inclusion?

Absolutely. This is exactly what I believe. But we must pay attention to the architecture that comes with the currencies, that is, the architecture that makes a certain currency act the way it does, otherwise the currency in question might serve very different purposes.

First of all, let us remember that the hegemonic money in our days is designed in such a way that it will almost necessarily generate more inequality: just think about Piketty’s research, or how the Troika acted regarding Southern Europe, or how the IMF acts regarding developing countries. In the post-war period, consider how complex the economic and social had to become in order to reverse, or at least mitigate, this tendency towards inequality. And consider how quickly the very same system turned back to economic and political concentration once the Welfare State began to be imploded.

Now let’s bring up Bitcoin, for example. One of the founding ideas of this digital currency is that there will be a limited amount of it, to make sure there won’t be a tendency towards runaway emission, since it is a system that works supposedly without human intervention. The result is that those who already own Bitcoins will have less and less incentives to spend it, and those who mined them early on will always have an advantage over those who adopted Bitcoin at later stages, or who obtain them by actually buying Bitcoins on the online markets. This design doesn’t favor inclusion or equality at all, quite the reverse.

So when the chips are down, the point is that currencies aimed at economic inclusion must be thought in such a manner that they will upend certain mechanisms associated to the hegemonic forms of money: a preference for accumulation and speculation, for example, or the need to work ever harder, even though the increased productivity has ceased to bring greater welfare. This has been tried and tested in many ways, but as long as they are simply correctives to general purpose money, these efforts fall short.

So in my view the great challenge is to articulate the community of social and complementary currencies in such a way that it will be preferable, for all those who don’t directly benefit from the speculation and accumulation promoted by contemporary money, to adopt other monetary forms. And also, as it goes, to generate forms of money that can’t be taken over by the banking system, a.k.a. “Big Money” (such a lovely nickname).

– Can social currencies thrive under capitalism?

There is much that can be done with social currencies under capitalism, from easing the connection between small businesses to the enforcement of local economies. But of course, these are all limited in scope, as I said in the examples above, since capitalism itself will only interact with them as long as they can be seen as assets available for monetization from the hegemonic banking system.

If by thriving we mean surviving and having a certain role in the wider world, sure, social currencies can complement capitalism quite well. But if we have greater ambitions for social currencies, for example, opening doors for a more sustainable, fair and humane world, then we must think of social currencies as inventing new forms of organizing the economies of collective living, beyond the mere exploitation and competition of capitalism. In this sense, to thrive means to overcome capitalism and cannot be done under it, except in the sense of underground, sapping its foundations.

– What are the main challenges you see for the global spreading of social currencies?

Aside from the challenges I mentioned above, I’d also bring up, firstly, the continued tendency to view social currencies, or complementary currencies, as merely a local feature, a strategy to improve the living conditions of this or that group or region. I’d also mention the difficulties concerning communication and, more important still, technologies: not every group of people involved in monetary invention has the ability to use technologies that articulate social currencies globally. But once more, there would have to be the desire to do just that: spread social currencies globally, in the sense of being articulated, perhaps convertible among themselves. After all, there already are social currencies all over the globe. The only question is whether this is part of a wider project or not. I would like it to be, for certain.

Spotlight, the first global social currency for economic inclusion, created by Horyou
Spotlight, the first global social currency for economic inclusion, created by Horyou

– Spotlight is a global social currency that aims to use internet interactions to promote wealth redistribution. Do you believe the Internet and social networks have a critical role for the success of social currencies?

This is easy to ascertain: since the digital technologies of blockchains and others came about, the attendance to social currency conferences has grown at an accelerated pace. To this I could add that even the smallest and most limited social currency initiatives seem to have projects for becoming digital these days. Also, barter clubs or time banks, which used to be associated to neighborhoods and other small territories, can now function in much wider contexts. Cellphones can be used for microcredit and social networks dedicated to lending and donating have been created.

Once again, it is a question of who holds the knowledge, thus the power, and above all how many participants actually share the conception of what can be done with a social currency and what it is being generated for. This is why, for example, the fact I mentioned above, about so many small social currencies going digital, is neither good nor bad in itself. But it does express a certain awe and amazement with technologies that is certainly not desirable. Technologies should be envisaged as the opening of possibilities to act, not as panaceas.

In the digital realm, the destiny of social currencies is inseparable from the destiny of the commons. For now, the commons are losing the war, as the plutocracy takes up more and more power. Let’s see if we can rethink the strategies and turn this over.

Diego Viana is a researcher at Diversitas (FFLCH-USP) and Iconomia (ECA-USP) Laboratories. PhD candidate at FFLCH-USP, Master in Philosophy (Nanterre) and economist (FEA-USP). Also a regular contributor for the press, most notably Valor Econômico and Página 22, in Brazil.

Eric Lonergan first grabbed my attention when I came across an interview with him in an Irish Sunday newspaper. As somebody who also read philosophy and political economy at University, I’m always intrigued as to how I often look at economic issues through a completely different lens than some of my contemporaries who have studied pure finance or mathematics. Horyou, although not solely profit seeking, is an enterprise like any other with respect to having financial costs, so it is keenly aware that money, whether used for social or personal interest, is a tool of mobilization. In the interview I read, I learned that Eric Lonergan has just written a book on the philosophy of money and society’s relationship with it it. And I found myself nodding along with much of Eric’s hypotheses, so I was delighted when he agreed to sit down for a chat.

Eric Lonergan
Eric Lonergan

1) You did your undergraduate degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and your masters in economics and philosophy at the London School of Economics. Subsequently, working as a hedge fund manager, do you find yourself reading certain situations or analyzing things differently to your colleagues who might have studied pure finance?

One of the challenges with education in areas like economics and finance is that you have to learn the conventional wisdom before you can identify what’s wrong with it. So I spent a lot of my time studying mainstream economics and finance – much of which has some insight. Even advocates of ‘efficient markets’ like Eugene Fama, have useful observations. That said, the most useful studying I have done, ironically, was philosophy. I learned that virtually all theories are flawed, as is a lot of ‘expert opinion’.  Financial markets are similarly unforgiving. Pure finance typically ignores the most important aspect of markets – human behavior and psychology.  

2) In your recent, highly acclaimed book ‘Money’, you make the point that money as a function should be looked at as a tool to live rather than an ability to accumulate. Was this view formed from your academic study or from seeing money at work in the real world?

Part of the reason I wrote ‘Money’ was to broaden our understanding of money and finance. One of the intellectually fascinating aspects of money is that it underpins human progress, but it is also a source of many problems. I tried to explore this theme more broadly. Finance connects us all at a real human level – pensions are inter-generational transfers, mortgage lending connects depositors and young households etc. And at the other extreme, millions of people are inter-connected through global financial markets. I have seen both sides at work in the real world. At a positive level, global investors can try and set high standards for global governance, encourage long-term thinking in policy-making, and finance international trade and the exchange of technology and ideas. These are all positive forces. The other side of this interdependence is that you can have destructive financial panics – which I witnessed first-hand in the late 1990s, during the Asian crisis, and again in 2008. The challenge for policy-makers is to harness the benefits of trade and finance and mitigate these risks – which primarily means developing policies to prevent or shorten recessions.  

3) There are hundreds of stories of people leaving finance post crises, when the greed of the system was exposed, including Horyou’s own CEO who held director positions at JP Morgan and Bank of China. As someone who still works in the industry, have you seen a definite culture shift/change in priorities? How does conversation within the industry compare to pre-financial crisis?

I do think there has been a cultural shift, encouraged also by a major shift in the regulatory environment, which should be welcomed by the industry. But it would be naive to think that an industry mainly focused on making money will foster a culture of generous, socially-minded, individuals! The main challenge for the regulators, who have a difficult task, is to ensure that the incentives of participants in the industry are aligned with doing the right thing, and ultimately the interests of broader society. 

Money: The Art of Living
Money: The Art of Living

4) Horyou have just launched their global social currency “Spotlight”, which matches investors to social enterprises they want to support. We see that there is a huge appetite for impact investing, green finance etc. What are your views on these areas? Will environmental/social returns ever override profits for investors or as consumers become more discerning and regulations tighten, do you think they even have a choice to ignore more sustainable investment patterns?

My thinking on this has been heavily influenced by knowing and working with Nigel Kershaw from the Big Issue, and one of the UK’s leading social entrepreneurs and thinkers. I think social enterprises will grow in importance. In contrast to many charities, which have to devote considerable resources to fund-raising, social enterprises can be self-sufficient. And they can have an economic advantage – there is little doubt, I think, that consumers will continue to be more discerning in considering the broader effects of their actions and those of the enterprises they interact with.

5) What are the main areas you are seeing investment opportunity in, in the short term?

I try always to think in terms of the ‘long term’ – there is a lot of distracting noise in the short-term. I think one of the most interesting aspects of public markets currently – a huge fad – is what I call ‘volatility aversion’. Investor obsession with recent historic volatility as a measure of risk is causing huge anomalies in pricing. The most straightforward manifestation of this is the equity risk premium – the difference in implied returns from equities compared with government bonds. Global equities are currently priced to deliver far superior returns to government bonds over the next five to 10 years.

6) Finally, Horyou support people making impact on society for good. What impact or contribution do you want to be remembered for/still want to achieve? 

I’m too much of a philosopher to want to be remembered for anything – I’m not sure that’s a helpful ambition! I would be very happy if I could contribute to the development of policies that shorten the duration of recessions.

Eric Longeran has an interesting way of looking at the world. I could be accused of bias, considering we share many of the same views on the concept of money within society, but the more we watch economies evolve each day, the more we realise how we view money and our propensity to spend or save, is actually very much driven by human sentiment and social pressures, be it from our neighbour or the data we see in the markets. There is nothing to say that these views are right or wrong, but it is becoming more apparent that the discipline of economics is moving away from linear models and learning to adapt to the uncertain world we live in today.

Written by Dearbhla Gavin

Escritor, professor e conferencista, o paulistano Roberto Otsu estuda e ensina I Ching e Taoísmo há mais de 40 anos. Inspirado por grandes nomes da filosofia como Lin Yutang e por um dos pais da psiquiatria, Carl Jung, Otsu se dedica hoje a conhecer e compartilhar conhecimentos sobre o desenvolvimento interior do ser humano. Autor dos livros “A Sabedoria da Natureza” e “O Caminho Sábio”, ele também traduziu o clássico milenar da literatura chinesa “Tao-Te-Ching” e hoje se dedica ao lançamento de seu terceiro livro, que fará reflexões sobre os textos do I Ching. Na seguinte conversa com o Horyou Blog, Roberto Otsu fala sobre sua visão de mundo, filosofia e sobre a sua grande inspiração: a natureza.     

Roberto Otsu é conferencista, professor e escritor
Roberto Otsu é conferencista, professor e escritor

1. Qual é a sua história com a filosofia chinesa?

Todos sabemos que a ideologia predominante desta vida está relacionada ao sucesso, ao ser um “vencedor”. Na prática, isso significa atingir a fama, obtenção de lucros exorbitantes, a riqueza, o poder, estar na lista dos top ten do que quer que seja. E, para isso, as pessoas não medem esforços e recursos. Sacrificam sua própria vida, sua saúde, a vida familiar, emocional, afetiva, social, a vida dos outros, os recursos naturais. Nos piores casos, são capazes de passar por cima da dignidade, dos princípios e dos valores para chegar lá, como infelizmente se vê todos os dias nos noticiários. Minha intenção é apresentar uma visão de mundo e um modo de vida que sirva de contraponto ao que existe. Não com o objetivo de atacar violentamente e destruir o pensamento dominante, mas de levantar questões que permitam às pessoas conhecer e agregar outra forma de pensar, ver, sentir e viver a realidade. Um dos caminhos para isso pode ser encontrado na filosofia clássica oriental, mais especificamente no Taoísmo, que é minha área de estudo e trabalho. A partir de 1997, comecei a receber muitos convites para dar palestras e cursos sobre Taoísmo e I Ching e desde então ministro aulas sobre os dois temas em cursos de pós-graduação e em diversos espaços culturais, grupos de estudos e outras instituições. Em 2006, publiquei o livro “A Sabedoria da Natureza”, e em 2008, publiquei “O Caminho Sábio”, uma tradução do “Tao-Te-Ching”, de Lao-Tsé, um clássico milenar da literatura e da sabedoria chinesa.

2. Quais são os seus projetos para 2016?

Este ano, tenho evitado me comprometer com projetos e atividades para poder me concentrar na redação do meu terceiro livro. São reflexões sobre os textos do I Ching para que as pessoas possam encontrar conteúdos e inspirações para intuir com mais profundidade o que este antiquíssimo livro de sabedoria e de orientação pessoal quer nos transmitir. Ele está sendo escrito em linguagem bem acessível e sempre ilustrado com exemplos simples, que correspondem à realidade do homem contemporâneo. É um texto complementar das versões do I Ching de Richard Wilhelm e de Alfred Huang, para que a pessoa possa compreender os aforismos, as metáforas e o simbolismo com mais facilidade.

O Caminho Sábio, um dos livros de Roberto Otsu
O Caminho Sábio, um dos livros de Roberto Otsu

3. A filosofia do Horyou é “Sonh​ar​, inspirar​ e agir”. ​Conte-nos de​ onde sua inspiração veio e o que fez você tomar uma atitude?

A inspiração é a mesma desde sempre. É a mesma de todos os pensadores, sábios, poetas, artistas, filósofos, escritores, e de todas as pessoas comuns, que sejam sensíveis e sensatas: a Natureza. Qualquer pessoa pode ter esta inspiração, desde o índio, o homem do campo, o barqueiro, o surfista, o pescador, a cozinheira, o astrônomo, o veterinário, o arquiteto. É só uma questão de contemplar a Natureza, não importa se a pessoa trabalha com coisas naturais ou burocráticas, na indústria, no comércio ou em serviços. Quando observamos como a Natureza é perfeita, como tudo nela é interconectado e como tudo funciona de modo harmônico, aí, sim, compreendemos o que é sabedoria. Aí, entendemos o que é fluxo, mutação, equilíbrio, ciclo, impermanência, suficiência, unicidade, interdependência, economia de energia, ordem natural, não-interferência, despojamento, integração dos opostos, a importância da flexibilidade, etc. Se estas coisas valem para a Natureza, então também valem para o ser humano, afinal de contas nós fazemos parte da Natureza. O que me faz atuar na minha área é a vontade de promover o equilíbrio e a harmonia interior das pessoas, resgatando-lhes a consciência de seu lugar na Natureza e no Universo. Acredito que somente uma pessoa em harmonia e em equilíbrio consigo mesmo pode promover a verdadeira paz, a justiça, o equilíbrio social, a harmonia diante da diversidade, a tolerância, a inclusão, a sustentabilidade.

4. Horyou apoia​ as pessoas agindo em seus sonhos, qual é o seu objetivo final? 

Permita-me “viajar” um pouco. Foi dito acima que “Sonhar, inspirar e agir” é um dos conceitos sobre o qual Horyou atua. É interessante notar que “sonhar” tem o mesmo sentido da palavra “aspirar”. Sonhar algo ou aspirar algo é a mesma coisa. E, no fundo, fisicamente, “aspirar” é o mesmo movimento de “inspirar”, isto é, de colocar o ar para dentro dos pulmões, para dentro do corpo. O ar é invisível, portanto, inspirar é colocar o invisível para dentro de si. “Spir” em latim significa “vento”, “sopro” e é a raiz da palavra “inspirar” e também da palavra “espírito”. Significa que o espírito é o sopro divino (invisível) que penetra o ser humano, é o que inspira e dá vida à pessoa. Respondendo à pergunta, meu objetivo final é justamente levar inspiração para as pessoas. É levar o conceito de algo maior, transcendente (como a Natureza) para dentro delas. É permitir que as pessoas tenham dentro de si o mesmo espírito de equilíbrio e harmonia da Natureza.

Roberto Otsu
Roberto Otsu

5. Você pode compartilhar uma mensagem com a comunidade Horyou? 

Acredito que enquanto houver pelo menos uma pessoa no mundo que deseja o bem, a humanidade ainda terá esperança. Mesmo que essa pessoa seja você. Mesmo que esta pessoa seja eu. Felizmente existe muito mais pessoas do que você e eu que desejam o bem. Existem dezenas, centenas, milhares, milhões de pessoas em toda a Terra que buscam o melhor para a humanidade, para o planeta. A existência de uma plataforma como a Horyou só faz aumentar a certeza de que esperança de um mundo melhor não é um mero sonho. É um sonho a caminho da transformação. Fazer parte de uma comunidade como esta, é unir forças e pavimentar o caminho para o bem social. Assim, unidos no mesmo objetivo, podemos fazer coro com um outro grande inspirador que cantava: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one”.

Por Claudio Rahal

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