Stefan Heidenreich believes that some day, money will seem like an ancient religion. In his recent book Money: For a Non-money Economy, the German philosopher and media theorist speculates on how the money-based global economy could soon transition to an entirely different system based on the algorithmic matching of goods and services. Such a system could match people with what they need at a given moment without relying on the concept of a stable, universal price — and, just possibly, do away with the vast inequities caused by the market.

If you find the idea of an economy without money hard to imagine, you’re not alone. As the saying goes, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But that very difficulty proves Heidenreich’s main point: We have to imagine what may sound like wild possibilities now in order to steer the future before it’s upon us. Getting rid of money could lead to what he calls a “leftist utopia” of equal distribution — or it could enable mass surveillance and algorithmic control on a whole new scale. Faced with the second option, Heidenreich says, we have no choice but to try to envision the first.

This interview is an edited version of several conversations.


Medium: Your book is a speculative proposal for a future global economy based on matching, rather than money. What is matching?

Stefan Heidenreich: Matching is at the core of any economy. Matching people, things, and abilities with each other is a daily, simple, constant economic task. People need places to live, so people have to be matched with houses. The economy is the way they get matched. In the current, money-based, market economy, money determines a match, and under this system the matching is often incomplete. There are plenty of empty houses where nobody lives because they’re being used merely as investment vehicles. Houses are being matched with money instead of with people.

Most of the distribution problems we have can be mapped onto matching problems. How we choose to solve them is a political decision: do we want to have a housing system that mainly serves to provide everybody a place to stay? Or do we want one that mainly serves to provide investment goods? Currently, the economy’s bias towards wealth is not presented to us as a political choice with alternatives. Going back to the matching function is to liberate our understanding of economy from money and payment, which allows us to imagine other possibilities.

What other ways can matches be made without money?

There are lots of other ways it could be done, and is already being done. For instance, Airbnb combines monetary and nonmonetary matching operations. The cost of a home plays a part in making the match, but another part is the reputation economy, and another is who is searching for a house at a given time of day or year. The factors could and should become much more diverse. Airbnb is not a particularly positive example, because it shows what can happen if matching is not regulated properly. The rules of matching, as with any economy, would have to be political decisions.

More and more decisions are already made by algorithms according to considerations other than monetary ones. It’s almost like a whole level of distribution technologies exists underneath the monetary economy. It’s entirely possible that the mapping of transactions on the monetary level is going to recede to such a degree that we don’t think in monetary terms any longer. The whole idea that we have to assign numbers and a numerical value to the things we want will appear as an absurdity of the early 21st century. Rather than a radical change happening at once, it’s more likely that the transition will go unnoticed for a long time, by hollowing out the money system until it lingers as a shadow. An ancient religion whose roots we no longer know.

So rather than having price as a mediating device to indicate how much something is worth, a matching system would connect two things of equal value automatically?

No. The very idea of value is derived from the money fantasy. That homogeneous, universal idea of value is one of the big mental roadblocks to imagining alternatives. We are so accustomed to dealing with money that we internalize all those calculations. Matching could be a negotiating procedure that takes into account personal history, urgency, utility, and a lot of other factors. We don’t need a value, we need a match, a decision, and a transaction.

You can see this on the level of daily life. You probably want a coffee in the morning, not in the evening. You might consistently want a car — but if you see it as a mobility provider rather than a constant asset, your desire for a ride shifts constantly. On a personal level, there isn’t monolithic value, there’s a variety of changing desires and decisions. That’s where a matching system could most obviously come in.

Price also leaves out other markers of value, like ecological impact. What’s the ecological footprint of a ton of steel or coffee? How do you calculate that with our current value system? Matching could include both momentaneous individual needs and long-term consequences much more swiftly and accurately than a single price.

How is matching different from barter?

Barter is a transaction where one person brings one thing and another person brings something else and they trade. It is a symmetrical transaction. Matching is asymmetrical. On one occasion you give, and on another you get. Both transactions form part of each one’s history. There is no equal exchange. It is just that all transactions are noted down.

Following David Graeber, it’s clear that barter societies have never existed. The barter society is fantasy created from the vantage point of our system of monetary exchange. Before money, there were systems of credit and notation. My speculative proposal for this future matching system is a scalable revival of those early notation systems. As soon as you have memory systems that can track and store every transaction, there could be a system to mediate transactions without money.

Does that mean the distributed ledger enabled by blockchain is fundamental for a widespread matching system?

It’s not necessary, but it could be used to facilitate lots of exchanges that would otherwise require centralized institutions. Blockchain and the advent of nonmonetary systems are independent developments that are not contingent, but it makes sense to think of them together. So far, most people have associated blockchain with bitcoin and forgotten that it makes possible all sorts of nonmonetary exchanges.

If we want to have our data private, and we want to own it ourselves, a blockchain ledger would be useful. If we had a trusted state-run entity, the state could also perform notation and matching tasks, which would be way more efficient than a distributed blockchain architecture. But given that centralized actors tend to corrupt themselves or be taken over by rogue entities, blockchain is an alternative one has to keep in mind, in the hope that the future may bring better, less energy-consuming, and more scalable peer-to-peer solutions.

What’s the closest thing to a matching system already in use?

The closest example to a nonmoney economy today can be found in computer games. In role-playing games, you have a notation system with things like health status, the tools you’re carrying with you, and your abilities. You have a complex ranking system that records what you can do and what you can get for it. And you’re operating according to those measures; if your health rating isn’t good, you can’t go to a dangerous place. It’s an environment that transcends the monetary but still creates incentives and gives you things.

This relies on a system that keeps a lot of data, communicates the data with you, and allows you to make decisions according to the data. If your economic health status is red, you should take a job. If you want something, you apply for it or go get it. But there’s no barter. You give and you get at different times, and in the long run this more or less equals out.

But in computer games, you often do have some kind of aggregate score combining all those factors. How would a matching system avoid becoming like that Black Mirror episode where everyone is ranked on social behavior and ends up with a single score that doubles as purchasing power?

I like that episode because it shows what can go wrong. But it doesn’t show what can go right. Given that so many things go wrong with the money economy, there’s a chance that things might go better with a nonmoney economy. For now, given the political and economic powers in charge, the most likely outcome is that, just like the Black Mirror episode, we’ll get a data-rich control environment. China is preparing for that kind of system of data-driven social control already. Matching is already embedded, negatively, there — in some cases, services like train rides are denied to people with a bad social score. That leads to a situation where matching connects to judicial powers, which becomes really frightening. There are a lot of dangerous possibilities, but there are also good ones. To actively avoid the worst outcome, we should consider a nonmoney economy as part of a politically desirable future.


Stefan Heidenreich’s book Geld. Für eine non-monetäre Ökonomie was published in German by Merve Verlag, 2017. English translation forthcoming from Zero Books.