The relatively recent advancement in digital technologies has brought into economic practices all over the world a proliferation of methods of payment, from plastic cards and mobile money to digital walletsnd cryptocurrencies. Businesses together with consumers have started to have a vast number of methods of payment to choose from and a “lot of people [are] suddenly thinking about money, its future and how we pay for things — and how we may do so differently” (Maurer 2015, 4). The emergence of these new means of exchange complicates our understanding of money, because “the means of exchange [are] usually assumed to be the medium that facilitates consumption, and not … a consumable good in itself” (Maurer 2012, 590). The widening possibilities of payment thus challenge the traditional interpretation of money and bring about new questions, such as how shall we understand the way people choose which money to use?
In such a dynamic environment, the modern idea of universal money is not sufficient any longer. New modes of exchange result in novel and imaginative exchange practices, which deserve close attention. Different modes of payment continuously stress the different functions of money and, as such, further structure how these monies are consumed. The consumption of money can have considerable sociopolitical consequences because the field of monetary re/production has significantly widened and is no longer the exclusive domain of national states and international institutions. Numerous new players — ranging from individuals to transnational corporations — have started to appropriate money and redesign it towards their own ideological and economic ends.
I argue that the choice of various forms and functions of monies can be understood from the perspective of the anthropological theory of consumption as a practice of objectification and appropriation (see Miller 1987). Using the ethnographic example of a Czech and Slovak Bitcoin community, I describe how Bitcoin — a global decentralized cryptocurrency — can be understood as an alternative form of money consumption by appropriating money as a medium of exchange and storage of value from the sovereign domain of the state and its central regulators.
Through an ethnographic analysis of the exchange practices in the Czech and Slovak Bitcoin community, my research examines how various spheres of consumption emerge within the Bitcoin economy. These spheres have different orientations. One aims at reproducing the social order, the other is driven by personal gain. Specific conversions of value then allow consumers to navigate and dialectically transcend the gap between these respective spheres. This distinction correlates with other ethnographic accounts of distinct transactional orders, although the case of Bitcoin differs from these accounts at several crucial moments.
As a result, Bitcoin is argued to represent a form of socially situated appropriation of money from the monopoly of the state. Its goal is to exclude the state from economic transactions of spending and saving. Consequentially, the social order developed by Bitcoin is mainly negative, meaning that it provides freedom from the state’s economic control, but it does not provide a new socially organized alternative (at least not yet and/or not at this level of consumption).
In the future, we can expect further multiplication of money-forms — the recent trend towards cashless societies and Facebook’s announced Libra currency serve as just two examples — which will result in further differentiation of spheres of consumption and appropriation of money by various subjects, whether individuals, states, or corporations. What is certain is that we cannot speak of contemporary Western money and its circulation as a unicentric process anymore, but we must start to pay closer attention to its various designs and properties if we are to understand its current condition.
Maurer, Bill. 2012. “Mobile money: Communication, Consumption and Change in the Payments Space.” Journal of Development Studies 48(5): 589–604.
———. 2015. How Would You Like to Pay? How Technology is Changing the Future of Money. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Miller, Daniel. 1987. Material culture and mass consumption. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.