Map #40: Corrupted Currencies and the Path to Collapse

Happy New Year!

(Can I still say that? I say it all January…in part because my friends in China are just about to celebrate theirs. February 5th, Year of the Pig. Damn, those ancient astrologers had some predictive powers, eh?)

Thanks for the many kind holiday notes. I hope you had a great break and a chance to slow down. The world certainly didn’t!

I’m looking forward to seeing where these maps lead us in 2019. I hope we can continue to zoom out together and find some big-picture perspectives that help us all to navigate the storms, the crises, the paradoxes and the possibilities of this next trip around the sun. Weeeeee!

This particular map is drawn out of the latest episode of The Atlas Project podcast. I wanted to develop it a bit more fully with you, the wider brain trust. As ever, i’d love to hear your thoughts.

Brave voyages,


Are we on a path to collapse—or renewal?

A big, looming question right now—as a new year gets going, as the US and the UK struggle to get going, as markets and climate fluctuate—is: are we on a path to renewal or collapse?

Some people wring their hands and ask: What is wrong with democracy today?

Others push back: Is there something wrong with democracy today? After all, isn’t the present-day upheaval a demonstration of democracy in action? Democracy at work? Democracy that steps back, asks “Where are we going?” and chooses a new direction—as only democracies can?

How do we distinguish the upheaval that stimulates renewal from the upheaval that causes collapse? Because we can’t discount the possibility of the latter. Republics die. Couples divorce. Covenants end. So…which story are we in?

Which currencies count?

One answer that Scott and I are just starting to play with is that any Republic, any relationship, is held up (at least in part) by the currencies it trades in.

By “currencies” we mean not just monetary currencies, like dollars and euros, but all the things that parties to a bargain widely decide have value. Such things are more commonly called “virtues” or “norms”, but it can be helpful to think of these things as currencies instead, because—like money currencies—they only have value when we buy into them. But when we talk about them as norms or virtues, sometimes people mistake them to be hegemonic rules of behavior: restrictions imposed upon us without our approval that therefore limit our freedom.

When certain pundits and politicians deride “political correctness” (e.g., saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas), they’re invoking this latter way of thinking, so that audiences chafe at the constraint. The pushback is to tell audiences, “No, no, no—inclusive speech is a political currency, and it has as much value in your pocket as it does in mine. Unless we all stop using it, in which case we’re both poorer.”

In ancient Rome, one of the major currencies in use was civic honor. If you were a good Roman citizen, you accrued civic honors, and you could trade that political currency in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of public situations, to your benefit. In the book Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny, the historian Ed Watts traces how that political currency became devalued. A virtue-rich political culture in which citizens had the habit of asking “Why?” before performing any public action eroded into a virtue-poor, permissive culture that had a habit of asking “Why not?”

As it turned out: civic honor was a vital currency that helped hold that particular society—the Roman Empire—together. Oops.

I suspect that the list of vital currencies is specific to each society. Say there’s a marriage whose main currency is honesty. If one partner cheats on the other but then admits it, maybe that crisis will ultimately lead to some kind of renewal to the couple’s original bargain. If instead fidelity is the primary currency they trade in, then maybe their crisis ends in collapse because one party has stopped trading in it.

Maybe one way to judge whether we, too, are headed for collapse or whether we instead can trust that we are somehow on a path of renewal is to take a good look at our currencies in use. We can try to determine which ones matter most to our social bargain, and ask: are those currencies being devalued, or revalued, or holding their value steady, as a result of this upheaval?

Momentum’s on whose side?

One of the sober truths that Ed found in his study of Rome’s collapse is that—like in money markets—momentum…herd mentality…plays a big factor in either the devaluation or revaluation of social currencies. Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s hard to put it back in.

(That seems right. Remember the crypto-currency craze of one year ago? It’s still a stark example of how something, which until recently was worth nothing, can suddenly become real & valuable in a way that shapes the behavior of a large number of people.)

Take personal dignity, for example. In our first podcast of 2019, Scott confessed to me his guilty pleasure of watching The Bachelor on U.S. cable television. As he put it: “The Bachelor completely confirms my belief in the depravity of the human condition.”

But, I had to explain to him, The Bachelor is positively Victorian in comparison to some of the reality dating shows that now air on UK cable television. In Naked Attraction—which I swear, I only know about because Katherine Ryan (London-based Canadian comedian) mentioned it in her show Glitter Room—players evaluate the genitalia of several nude contestants before stripping naked themselves in the final elimination round. (Back in the Roman Republic, the only people trotted around that way were slaves.)

I’m not suggesting that the liberalization of nudity poses any threat to society. (Some researchers argue that shows like Naked Attraction promote realistic body imagery, which is a good thing. Others say that it promotes premature sexualization of children, which might have bad consequences.) But it’s a clear example of how the momentum of currency devaluation has the power to smash taboos.

A wish-list?

The social fact of momentum is a big worry. It implies that currency valuations can swing widely—maybe too far, too fast, for us to correct in time?

And so it becomes urgent to know which currencies are critical to our ability to keep trading in, to renew, our social bargaining with one another. Again, Republics die. Relationships end. Covenants break. So we know such a list exists. Given how much norm-bashing is taking place around the world today, I wish I knew what’s on it.

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