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Demand the Impossible: Part 2

“To walk in money through the night crowd, protected by money, lulled by money, dulled by money, the crowd itself a money, the breath money, no least single object anywhere that is not money, money, money everywhere and still not enough, and then no money or a little money or less money or more money, but money, always money, and if you have money or you don’t have money it is the money that counts and money makes money, but what makes money make money?”

Henry Miller Tropic of Capricorn (1939)

Early last year, Brighton awoke to an unusual campaign launch. During the previous night every ATM machine in the city had been tagged with a small sticker advertising ‘The Karma Pound’. Underneath the logo were the words “Enquire Within”. Whether it was a metaphysical pun or just an invitation to ask the bank staff about alternative currencies was uncertain. In a few days the stickers had all been removed, leaving the machines marked with a small rectangle of black glue.

I first heard of the Karma Pound from a friend who had attended a workshop discussing ways to engage imaginatively with money. At the end of the workshop the facilitator suggested a fee for the day’s workshop, but offered everyone the chance to pay whatever they felt reasonable. One girl, who had apparently disagreed with some of the more radical ideas during the workshop, saw the obvious flaw in his business model and told him that she wouldn’t pay anything. Maybe she saw this as a satisfying way of bursting his bubble. In return the facilitator gave her a Karma Pound. The girl left slightly confused at the reversed transaction. Not only had she paid nothing, but she had received change.

Normal money is used in order to make intangible things like ‘trust’ tangible, but it contains this idea of scarcity, which isn’t actually necessary. It also contains an idea that ‘equality’ is being maintained, which also isn’t true. The Karma Pound has no intrinsic value and cannot be redeemed for anything. It gives you a means of making the trust involved in a transaction tangible – but without the idea of scarcity or equality. You work with someone. But is the Karma Pound and its ATM advertising campaign launch a genuine currency or the latest in a long line of anarchic art statements? A re-imagining of our concept of ‘transaction’, or just a Situationist-inspired prank?

Money is a social agreement that assigns meaning and roles and is the primary agent for the coordination of human activity and the focusing of collective human intention. Money affirms and perpetuates the consensus reality that coordinates our labour, and organize our lives. It’s “programmed” and behaves in certain ways because it has been embedded with certain biases. Money as we know it today has a built-in imperative to grow endlessly. On the systemic level, interest on money creates competition, anxiety, and the polarization of wealth. The possibility and desirability of renewed growth is seldom questioned, except by committed environmentalists.

The Neighbouring town of Lewes has already launched its own notes, linked to the ‘Transition Town’ movement. The Lewes Pound is a complementary currency, redeemable for goods or services with local traders. It is not intended to replace sterling, but using it can “help support local producers and traders and raise awareness of the importance of shopping locally.” Complementary currencies normally stick to the idea that scarcity and equality are necessary parts of money. The Karma Pound appears to operate differently.

It seems that a monetary system that compels continued physical growth, that compels taking more and more from the earth, is obsolete. The phrase “more for me is less for you” is also the motto of the ego. With The Karma Pound this is replaced by its opposite: “More for you is also more for me.” This essential truth is embodied in the doctrine of karma. However, to merely understand and agree with these teachings is not enough. An actual transformation in the way we experience being is necessary.

If The Karma Pound is a genuine currency, does it have the alchemical power to really challenge or transform our conception of scarcity based monetary transactions? Demurrage in normal money can be a cost associated with owning or holding currency over a given period of time. It can be deliberately incorporated into currency systems as a disincentive against hoarding money and as a means of increasing both the velocity of money and overall economic activity.

The Karma Pound has a kind of built-in spiritual demurrage. Just as old-money has mobilized humanity’s gifts for the purposes of growth and domination, perhaps Karma Pounds will mobilize them for sustainability and cooperation. The notes are inscribed with the words “What goes around comes around” and “Terms and Conditions Within”. Because Karma Pounds are not under compulsion to grow, they enable wealth as a function of generosity rather than accumulation; the manifestation of abundance not scarcity.

If The Karma Pounds is to be regarded as anti-establishment art then we can trace a ‘tradition’ or path through recent cultural history of a similar artistic intuition resurfacing through the decades. The intention of the anonymous artist can never be certain, but these ‘situations’ inevitably have the effect of deconstructing our conditioned responses and highlight our potential for imaginative engagement to money and wealth.

The Karma Pound design mixes the old with the futuristic, the weird and intangible with the straightforward, and valued. Perhaps like many of the emerging local currencies they’ll end up out of circulation, pinned to the kitchen walls of tourists and enthusiasts. If, as some suggest, the state of the current global economic climate offers us an invitation to change the way we perceive money, The Karma Pound asks: where will our imagination take us?


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