'Shell Money' isn't a commodity currency. It's cere-money

What is 'shell money', and what we can learn from its resurgence in Papua New Guinea?

'Shell Money' isn't a commodity currency. It's cere-money

In the early days of the pandemic media outlets were looking for uplifting novelty stories that would show people trying out new economic ideas. For example, there were a wave of stories about a US town 'printing its own wooden money'. In reality, this so-called 'wooden dollar' was really just a voucher system printed on thin pieces of plywood by the local government of Tenino in Washington. It was ‘scrip, a legally-backed form of limited-purpose credit money. In such a system, the token material (and token production process) should take a conceptual back seat to the legal environment within which the token circulates. The Tenino voucher, like any voucher, could have been printed on paper, card, rubber, leather, ceramic tile or pretty much anything.

Nevertheless, in my piece Wooden Promises for Digital Money, I showed how the media (and the public more generally) often fixates upon the visible appearance of money tokens rather than the system that activates them in the background. Our attention - and the visual imagery of money - is often focused on tokens as if they were some kind of autonomous force in themselves. Journalists were arriving in Tenino to snap shots of the voucher's wood, distracted by the somewhat irrelevant ‘commodity’ body.

This is a very common practice. There is a long tradition of people believing that the body of the token is what matters most. This is partly due to the simple fact that physical tokens are the most visible element of any money system, and hence hog attention, but the fixation goes deeper: many people are pushed into this style of thinking by the difficulty they have in seeing the interdependencies within large-scale economic systems. In a vast capitalist economy, it is easier to imagine yourself as an autonomous individual using some commodity-like 'substance of value' to induce others to trade with you, than it is to see yourself as but one node enmeshed within an interdependent network structure held together by a monetary system that transcends you (for an introduction to this topic, see my piece Money Through the Eyes of Mowgli).

This tendency we have towards fixating on the token body gets politicised in the hands of so-called 'sound money' promoters, who insist that any money token not made from some limited supply valuable material is some kind of fraud (for example, so-called goldbugs have this mentality, but so do many Bitcoiners, despite the fact that Bitcoin tokens have no body at all).

Needless to say, there is a generalised tendency in society to have a commodity orientation to money, in which units of money, regardless of what type, are seen as some kind of substance (or a 'fictitious substance' that emulates a real substance). Even when people know that the money is not a commodity, they still often superimpose a mental model of 'commodity money' over it, seeking out its commodity elements, and using commodity-like imagery and language to represent it.

So what is that mental model? We can identify three main elements, all of which can be contrasted to the competing paradigm of credit money, in which the body of the token is not particularly relevant.

  1. Commodity money is imagined to be ‘money from something’ (it is produced through labour), while credit money is ‘money from nothing’ (it takes the form of redeemable accounting records of promises, which can be printed on anything)
  2. Commodity money only increases (once it is made it is out there for good, until it disintegrates or gets lost), while credit money expands and contracts (it gets issued and redeemed)
  3. Commodity money is ‘one-sided’ (it is imagined to be a self-contained object in the world), while credit money is ‘two-sided’ (we might hold it, but it only has power insofar as there is an issuer on the other side)

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One of the biggest areas of ambiguity in commodity money thinking, is whether or not the supposed 'value' of the commodity money is self-apparent or not. For example, goldbugs often assume that gold is 'obviously' valuable to everyone, despite the fact that it historically had very few immediate or practical uses for everyday people. Gold often features in the 'barter to binary code' narrative, the bog-standard story about the 'history of money' trotted out by standard economists, in which they insist that money emerged out of barter, and initially took the form of simple commodities like shells, before moving on to metal, paper, and finally, digital 'value'. It is a super dodgy story, but even in its own terms it is ambiguous: their shell story is particular fraught: Can't you just find shells by walking along the beach? Don't they break and fade? Why would those become 'commodity money'?

This sense of incredulity that you can just wonder around a beach and ‘find money’ by picking up shells continues to be a source of fascination to this day. On the 21st August 2020, the Guardian ran a piece called “The return of shell money: PNG revives old ways after Covid's blow to economy”. Before I even began reading it I predicted that the story would fixate upon the shells, and ignore the systems that ‘activate’ their power in a particular context. The article was decent enough, but - as predicted - offered no account of what exactly 'shell money' is, and how it works. It carried that background hint of the 'barter to binary code' story: somehow, once upon a time, shells just were a crude form of money, and, in places like Papua New Guinea (PNG), some people still hold onto that memory, and - despite the 'upgrade' to a more advanced monetary system that surrounds them - they were now 'going back' to shells.

Almost all goofy or popular references to shell money make the assumption that it is in the same class of phenomena as modern fiat money. They essentially assume that it facilitated a crude form of early capitalism. To grapple with shell money, however, requires dropping this assumption. The shells aren’t the money, and the ‘money’ doesn’t do what you think it does. I made a video about this.

Ceremonial ‘commodity money’ (or ‘cere-money’)

‘Shell money’ tokens - also called Tabu by the Tolai people who use them in PNG - are not just shells. They are shells carefully and arduously manufactured into long strings of shells, a process governed by very strict production rules to produce set denominations (see this video for footage of the production). They are far more akin to jewellery than they are to some raw material.

At first glance, this places ‘shell money’ into that broad paradigm of ‘commodity money’ - money that's apparently given its power by the physical body of its token. In this case, the body of the token is a kind of ornament (the token is only a token when the shells are manufactured into strings), and - unlike a voucher, which is retired when it is returned to its issuer - they remain in circulation ‘for all time’ (perpetually). They are somewhat like artistic creations that are slowly produced, and then left to circulate amongst collectors. By all appearances, then, Tabu are a ‘commodity money’, but here’s where the language politics kick in.

In the imagination of someone who has been immersed in a large-scale capitalist economy, ‘money’ has a particular connotation. It is imagined to be general-purpose: money tokens give you access to all the other things, and are primarily transferred in private settings to obtain a huge range of goods and services. Furthermore, there are historically various taboos on what it can be spent on. For example, if you insulted your mother-in-law, handing her $20 in compensation is not going to heal that social wound. It will probably make it a lot worse.

Tabu ‘shell money’ (and many similar things like Wampum) on the other hand, is - historically at least - limited purpose, and historically was used publically at elaborate events and rituals to ‘pay’ for existential things that normal money simply cannot buy. This includes ‘paying’ for ‘bride-price’ at weddings, compensating for injury and insult, commissioning cult members to raise spirits, paying tribute to invisible forces, and hosting elaborate memorial ceremonies to display power and status.

Not only is the production of Tabu ritualistic, but the ‘exchange’ is too. There are set ‘prices’ (not truly set by supply and demand) for specific things - for example, a bride ‘costs’ 4 Mars, which are bound wheels of many strings of shells. The exchanges are more like performances, with almost comical affectations, with people feigning outrage and making jokes as if to reject the offer (see 2:14 below).

Fetishistic tokens activated by cultural forcefields

In the traditional ‘commodity money’ imagination found within capitalist societies, it is imagined that the token value is ‘self-apparent’ due to the material the token is made from (or - failing that - from some almost mystical property generated by its ‘scarcity’). But, the power of these shell strings is not self-apparent to any random stranger. Indeed, colonial officials used to see these as ‘primitive’ money, as if the tribal people were like silly children imagining that shells were valuable.

But this inability to recognise the power of the shell pendants is because they only have power within a particular cultural field. An Australian officer saw a string of shells as a mere tricket, but within the Tolai cultural field these objects have deep political power, and are even seen as a political agents, or ‘power tokens’.

When I use the term ‘cultural field’, I mean it literally, like a forcefield. We are all social creatures, and all of us frequently experience that feeling in social settings where you sense that you are part of a collective that extends beyond yourself. Indeed, your individual perceptions and judgements seem connected to some looming ‘entity’. Imagine a simple line from a novel, like ‘a heavy silence descended on the room as he ate before the others. Looking up, he sensed he’d done something wrong’.

That ‘sense’ is generated by the social forcefield. (As an aside, in occult circles this is referred to this as an ‘egregore’, a looming feeling generated by the interconnections between individuals in a group that can be personified into a being.) These ‘fields’ exist around us all the time - because, as discussed in my tribute to David Graeber, we are never just individuals. We are normally enmeshed in many of these fields - some large, and some small. They can even be generated between just two people (many couples have private languages and symbols they only use around each other).

Crucially, these fields have the power to ‘activate’ objects into more than just objects. Imagine, for example, a couple picked up a piece of driftwood on a beach where they fell in love. Now they keep it as a sentimental token imbued with deep meaning. Imagine then that a friend, house-sitting their house while they are away, decides to burn it to make a barbeque. Upon returning they are outraged. The friends says ‘come on, it was just some wood, I’ll get you more from the forest’.

This obviously doesn’t cut it. It wasn’t ‘just a piece of wood’. Within their private social field, it was a material embodiment of their relationship. The friend, who is not part of that field, can’t see that. To him, it is just wood.

Now imagine the social field generated by a much larger collective of people. It’s in this setting that the anthropological concept of ‘fetish objects’ emerges. Webs of human relationships are often tense and amorphous - we barely even understand ourselves, never mind the complex and subtle power dynamics with others, so it’s very common for people to take these vague semi-visible dynamics and focus them into objects that are concrete and easy to see. This then enables you to manipulate the objects as a way to concretely and visibly negotiate the invisible relationships.

We have fetish objects all around us, and some of them span public and private settings. Consider, for example, a wedding ring. In reality it’s just a piece of metal, but within certain cultural fields it is publically recognised that it’s not just a piece of metal. It is - supposedly - a physical embodiment of a relationship between two people - complex and changing - manifested in an object, simple and unchanging. This public understanding permeates into a private one. Upon a divorce, the bearer might go to the ocean and ritualistically hurl the object into the sea, metaphorically giving up the relationship.

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With this in mind, we can begin to look deeper at Tabu. It is very risky to see them as being ‘basically the same’ as normal money tokens (or, even worse, ‘a crude version of our money’). Rather, they are fetishistic power tokens used for fundamental rituals, and are activated by a cultural field within which they are used to negotiate considerable tensions. A cultural field is not a legal system - and many of our modern money tokens are activated by legal systems - but these fields are powerful enough to make it unthinkable to treat these shell pendants as ‘mere commercial money’.

I will go into the ambiguities of the use of Tabu - because they have seeped into commercial settings - but the biggest amounts of tabu are used for all sorts of things that ‘money cannot buy’. For example, in this video they are used for the reconciliation of Japan and East New Britain (the region of PNG that was occupied by the Japanese). At point 5:20 in the video, the announcer says 'Japan, we forgive you' as Japanese delegates hand shell strings out in a gesture of ‘repaying’ some kind of existential debt that doesn’t really have a price. The complex history of Japanese invaders is being ‘resolved’ as if it were a quantifiable exchange of some sort, when everyone knows that it is not.

Similarly, at Tolai marriages, the groom’s family is not literally 'buying’ a bride on a market’. Rather, they are ritualistically acknowledging the loss of labour the wedding brings to her family by offering a performative ‘exchange’. An alternative would have been for the family to, for example, collectively perform 10,000 pushups while the community watched.

The limits of a normal commercial voucher are defined by its issuer, who guarantees to give you particular things if you present the voucher to them. Tabu ‘cere-money’ is also limited purpose, but these limits are defined by the cultural field, which will only ensure their acceptability for very specific spiritual and political services if their production process follows certain ritual procedures. Part of the fetishisation process is dependent upon the non-utilitarian labour involved in producing the cere-money tokens. Rather than spending a day weaving nets for fishing, a person exerts intense concentration stringing shells together. These shell strings will come to be seen as being brought to life, and thereby ‘containing’, some kind of ritualistic exertion, and this act is required before the shell tokens can be ‘activated’. Put simply, if a company mass produced shells and automated the process of stringing them, the cultural field would not recognise those as valid.

Now, some readers may be thinking ‘Isn’t this a little bit like Bitcoin?’ After all, in Bitcoin, digital objects - tokens - are ‘produced’ through a process that requires large amounts of ‘pointless’ energy to be expended. Bitcoin, however, is explicitly intended to create a type of capitalist commodity money for ordinary market exchange, and the 'labour' is completely impersonal, abstract and automated. By contrast, Tabu requires highly personal, non-automated labour to create a limited-purpose power token for negotiating human relatioships. It’s not like any old person can find some shells, attach them to string, and then buy Coca Cola.

The grey zones of cere-money

Cultural fields, though, are not without internal tensions or contradictions. One of the most detailed accounts of Tabu I’ve read comes from the anthropologist Richard Frank Salisbury, who worked in PNG in the 50s and 60s. Salisbury explicitly explores the ambiguous nature of the tokens, and how there is a zone of ‘convertibility’ from sacred power token to non-sacred commercial object for everyday commerce.

At the time he was observing, a small percentage of the Tabu was in fact being used as an everyday ‘commodity currency’, with standard prices for goods-to-Tabu. The largest amounts, however, were being used for ‘buying’ or commissioning dances, songs, spirit-raisings, and memorial ceremonies. The latter in particular are characterised by extensive competitive gifting, with political upstarts throwing Tabu around as a kind of ‘dick-swinging’ exercise.

Salisbury is more ‘economisty’ than some anthropologists: he suggests there are ‘rate-of-return’ type calculations going on in these ceremonies, in which powerful ‘big men’ spend a lot and get a lot, acting like conduits via which people pool resources. Furthermore, he describes 'companies' formed by pooling shell-tokens, along with a coordinator that manages them, and who can end up capturing the surplus.

He is, however, a lot less ‘economisty’ than most economists, painting a picture of a strange and complex mix of 'economic' and 'non-economic' logics, with Tabu-as-Political-Power-Token seaguing into Tabu-as-Economic-Commerce-Token. The blending of logics creates grey zones: for example, only a small fraction circulates for day-to-day commerce, with most of it being held in large bundles that - by convention - can only be broken open at non-commercial events. Furthermore, when people die, their unbroken tabu wheels are broken open and distributed equally to every clan member who comes to the funeral, forming a natural redistribution mechanism.

As much as I love Anthropology, however, it also has a dark history of being associated with colonial power. A modern anthropologist would explicitly try to parse out the degree to which cultural fields are warped by colonial forces, whereas older anthropologists had a tendency to speak of cultures as unchanging. The key question to ask when reading Salisbury's account, is whether the increased commercial logics in Tabu had been induced by the presence of colonial capitalist systems, or whether they were ‘always there’.

Colonialism, syncretic money and token possession

Cultural fields are not static, and this is especially the case when they comes into contact with powerful external networks. Think of cultural fields as being somewhat like magnetic fields. If there is just one, you get drawn to its centre, but if a more powerful external one turns up, it can dilute and co-opt the weaker one, especially if it’s an imperial military force.

This happened extensively during colonial times, where powerful nation states walked into much smaller and more fragmented societies, and set about dismantling or dissolving their internal structures in order to absorb them into a larger network in a subordinated position. Think about it as two cultural fields - or networks - colliding. The more powerful one can warp, or even break, the internal coherence of the weaker one.

At the very least, what often ends up happening is the creation of interstitial zones of overlap - or syncretism. Syncretic religions are extremely common in the aftermath of colonialism, creating situations in which, for example, animist beliefs get practiced alongside Christianity. This is explicitly the case with Papua New Guinea, where local Christian pastors participate in ceremonies where Tabu is used to invoke cult spirits that are definitely not found in the Bible.

PNG has a long history of colonialism, starting in 1828 when the Dutch claimed it, followed by the Germans, English and Australians, until it finally got independence in 1975. This man lays it out pretty succinctly.

The arrival of anthropologists coincides with the colonial period, and this is where all our original accounts of shell money come from. But this means the anthropological literature - which has had an ongoing debate about the use of shell tokens for ‘high’ ritualistic purposes versus ‘low’ everyday commerce - cannot be separated from the political context which was creating extensive changes in PNG life.

For example, at the time Salisbury was writing, colonialism had been in full swing for over a century, and the local PNG economy had changed to a ‘syncretic’ blend of traditional subsistence farming and cash cropping. There was extensive syncretic religion, and, a syncretic dual token system, with the traditional cere-money shell tokens existing alongside a much newer national money (which at that time was the Australian dollar) - used to access foreign manufactured goods. Also, there was now an official fixed ‘exchange rate’ between the Tabu and Australian currency.

The economics discipline has left us with a legacy of depolitising money, describing it through the flat and vague ‘functions of money’ paradigm, in which money is also assumed to simply spontaneously emerge out of ‘natural’ human exchange and barter. The reality of capitalist money - as colonised people have experienced - is that it is anything but spontaneous. It arrives with imperialistic nation states and gets forced into your society.

Indeed, the introduction of capitalist money is a core feature of all colonisation processes. In my country of South Africa, demanding taxation in state money was one way to ‘proletarianize’ the population, forcing them into markets to find the token required to meet the taxation obligation (this observation lies at the core of even progressive monetary movements like MMT today).

General purpose money in the capitalist sense thrives when people have been thrown off their land and are forced into wage labour, but many pre-capitalist communities historically had basic subsistence. They were not - initially at least - precarious wage labourers trying to use their meagre general-purpose credits from the coal mine to buy tea from merchants importing from distant lands.

This is why colonisation processes either have to pull at the cultural field from the outside, or - alternatively - seek to corrupt it from within. The first thing any good colonist does is look through their own tinted cultural lens for things that vaguely approximate behaviours they are used to. In this context, ritualistic fetish-like exchange which involves passing cere-money tokens around gets seens as ‘primitive monetary exchange’. If you are an official from a colonial nation, this offers you a route to co-opt the cere-money token like a trojan horse. It’s already embedded in the cultural field, so you start treating it as capitalist money - allowing it to be used to be handed in as tax, for example - as a way to pull on the threads of the society from the inside. This, for example, is exactly what happened with Wampum beads in North America.

This is done in conjunction with the creation of official ‘bonding’ points between the two discrete token networks. Think of this as where two membranes meet. The official ‘exchange rate’ between Tabu and the colonial currency is an attempt to create a bridge between the two networks, and this opens a portal from the outside world of the colonial power into the inner one of the colonised. From here, the internal logics of the token get all disorientated, and a limited purpose form of cere-money can be parasited upon - or ‘possessed’ by - a militaristic all-purpose money. This is used as a mechanism via which those systems creep into previously clan-based societies to dissolve and rearrange economic relationships.

For example, Salisbury arrived at a time when ‘cash cropping’ was present. This is not organic. ‘Cash cropping’ is a euphamism that accompanies colonialism, referring to small-scale farmers who will sell for a pittance to colonial traders who will resell the goods for major profits on international markets. It is how you turn an autonomous island nation into a subservient commodity-producing vassal of a much broader international system. And this is what the normal money system in PNG was originally for. The Bank of Papua New Guinea was originally part of the Reserve Bank of Australia, and is nowadays connected into vast international money networks.

Modern Bonding

We’re getting closer to understanding the Guardian article, but we need a few more pieces of the puzzle. In recent decades, as transnational globalisation has kicked in, the inter-network boundary between Tabu and ordinary money - already warped and blurred - has got even more grey, as new forms of inter-network ‘bonding’ emerge. For example, Tabu are accepted for modern taxation (see here for numerous examples), and other official payments associated with the state, such as school fees and local fines.

A second form of bonding emerges from the fact that the raw material for the tokens - the shells - increasingly are bought from the Solomon Islands, which means the raw material for the tokens gets a money price. A third form of bonding is through tourist markets. For example, the World Bank has been encouraging women to treat shell money as tourist objects to be sold for normal money. This creates an explicit external market for the tokens (somewhat similar to the collectors market for novely vouchers like the Tenino Wooden Dollar). More than pulling on the internal cultural field, this literally pulls the tokens out of that field and into the vast realm of the global capitalist market, appearing as an image on Amazon to be sold in return for general purpose money, which in turn will be used to buy imported tinned goods produced from afar (and which promote diabetes and other issues, which in turn requires money to get medical help).

In this context, Tabu begins to live an explicit double life, one as a kind of subservient object sold for normal money, and another as a proud token embedded in a community trying to hold onto some sense of unique place in the world. In other words, the token has much the same status as colonised people do. By day it does dances for tourists in the capitalist market, but on the weekends it has a place just for itself, with it’s own language and zone of power, as it were.

And this small zone of power is protected. The Tolai people try to only allow the membrane between their token network and the outside world to work one way: while there are increasingly stories of people ‘selling their Tabu for money’ to buy stuff at shops, ordinary capitalist money is not used in the ritualistic settings that Tabu is used for. The spirits will not rise when dollars are thrown at them.

Thus, despite the blending, and despite the cognitive dissonance that accompanies the blending, in their essence the two systems remain separate, conceptually at least. The limited purpose cere-money tokens activated by a cultural field are not the same as the general purpose fiat tokens that operate within a government-bank legal field.

The present day story: Counter-trading cere-money

So, finally we arrive to the Guardian article about the ‘resurgence’ of shell money in PNG during Covid-19. With our background knowledge, the story becomes clearer. Over the years the ‘syncretic’ dual money system has evolved, with limited-purpose cere-money eking out a life in the shadow of normal general-purpose money. But, as a result of Covid-19 transport disruptions, there is now a breakdown in the distribution system of national physical fiat money tokens (cash). Central banks and banks run an elaborate system for getting cash to ATMs and retailers and back again, and when that system breaks down there can be cash shortages in particular areas.

This means that proletarianized, formerly colonised people that are partially integrated into global capitalist markets suddenly have reduced access to the general-purpose fiat money tokens that connect them into those markets. This means that locally the cere-money token - which has been increasingly taking on a mentality of a dollar-priced commodity - is stepping in to take on a ‘ordinary money’ role even more. It is however, more complex than this.

The article notes that people initially turned to subsistence:

Personal gardens were quickly depleted quickly, prompting residents to “go walkabout” within their village boundaries in search of a friendly exchange.

The article also notes that 'barter was revived'. As soon as you see lines like this, know that you are in dubious territory. In de-politicised accounts of money, barter is always assumed to be the origin of money (hence the term ‘revived’), and, furthermore, is assumed to have operated much like capitalist exchange does. What is always missed out is that historically barter only really occurred on the boundaries between groups, in situations where trust was low. Subsistence mixed with reciprocity is a much more important mode of distribution internal to groups, where trust and interdependence is higher.

Nevertheless, barter becomes far more likely after money is introduced, because money creates the distance between people that in turn induces barter in situations where the money is suddenly removed. To put this another way, capitalist money is a disassociative, or dissolving agent, which loosens the tight communal bonds that hold pre-capitalist societies together. This is in contrast to the original experience of non-capitalist cere-money, which is a bonding agent. Thus, it is only when communal bonds are loosened, and people have become accustomed to normal monetary exchange, that ‘barter’ temporarily emerges to fill the vacuum when the normal money system breaks down.

It’s in this context that the Guardian article then talks about the revival of Tabu, but implies that it is object with a commodity-like 'value'. This places the article in broad alignment with ‘commodity money’ thinking, in which monetary exchange is basically assumed to be an elaborate form of barter.

"Vanessa Mulas, a resident of Kuradui village, says those who were able to circumvent the cancellation of public buses brought back store goods and exchanged them with neighbours for tabu."

What the article doesn’t talk about, though, is all the dynamics I went through earlier, and in particular the fact that the over the years Tabu have been ‘colonised’ by a much stronger monetary network, such that the tokens are now commoditised as an object sold for money. This means that what is actually occuring here is a form of countertrade.

Yes, countertrade. This is a major concept I will keep returning to in this series.

Countertrade is the situation in which a ‘barter-like’ transaction appears to be occuring, when in reality what is actually occuring is two superimposed fiat money transactions (incidentally, this is what Alfred Mitchell-Innes used to blow up some of Adam Smith’s bogus accounts of ‘commodity money’). In the global capitalist market, there is - nowadays - a fiat currency price for Tabu, and a fiat currency price for, say, rice. You then compare those two prices to create an exchange ratio for Tabu-to-rice. (As an aside, fiat countertrade is also how Bitcoin pricing works).

From my perspective, what is most likely going on here is fiat currency countertrade, with people using the body of an old cere-money token that has been ‘bonded’ to fiat currency to countertrade for goods.

The biggest subtlety we have to deal with, however, is to reconcile the fact that - according to people like Salisbury - there already was some internal commercial logic within the cere-money tokens in the pre-globalisation world, which in time must have been warped by the post-globalisation world. The soul of the token is in flux, like a tidal estuary that has one coherent but diverse upriver life that then mixes with a chaotic ocean that comes in and out. Sometimes it is itself. Sometimes it is inhabited by an external system.

Despite this ambiguity, the Tabu cere-money/money/countertrade-object is undoubtedly local, and its use - like the Tenino Wooden Dollar - does signal a more general return to localism. This is a resurging theme in the age of Covid. In the case of PNG, the country is historically very fragmented, with colonial powers, and then development agencies like the World Bank trying to integrate and homogenise the people into bigger global economic networks. Big currency systems induce that, but now that integration is proving risky, creating a new impetus to create smaller networks that split off from bigger ones in order to localise. Insofar as they occur, returns to localisation, reciprocity, communal work and subsistence are a reversal of the dissolution, expansion and specialisation impulse that accompany mainstream money and the mass goods that accompany it.

Ending the ideological abuse of cere-money

One final theme I will bring up is the symbolic abuse of cere-money by entrepreneurs and economists who wish to assert that it operates by the same principles as any money. Many dubious 'history of money' accounts start by talking about various cere-money forms and then placing them in a ‘chain of progress’ leading up to modern money, as if they were basically the same thing.

For example, I’ve seen the Bank of England speak about state central bank money alongside images of cowrie shells in their ‘What is money’ page. I’ve also seen Bitcoin entrepreneurs try to argue that the Bitcoin system is akin to the Rai stones of the Island of Yap. I wish they would back off, because you cannot understand things like cowrie shell money and Rai stones until you reverse - temporarily at least - the Pandora’s box of capitalist money thinking that has been opened in our minds.

This returns us finally to David Graeber. Our conventional accounts of money often disguise deep politics. The desire to present shell tokens as being ‘basically the same’ as modern money, and operating on the same principles, is nothing else but a subliminal attempt to deny the vast power of a historically unique system of nation states, private banks, and vast depersonalised markets within which exploitation can be hidden very effectively, and explained away with pseudo-scientific models.

In closing, while the Tabu might nowadays have a day job being used to buy tinned sardines, they moonlight as a portal into a pre-capitalist spirit world that very few of us will ever see.

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