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In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism

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Beyond God and state, it’s money that rules. Can we still imagine alternatives? And what role will recent innovations like Bitcoin play in the struggle?

One doesn’t need to be a fan of Gilles Deleuze’s obscurantist post-structuralism to recognize that there were at least two observations on which the French philosopher was spot-on. First, his hypothesis in the early 1990s that Foucault’s disciplinary society, with its schools, prisons and mental asylums, had ceased to be the paradigmatic mode of governmentality under neoliberalism and was instead giving way to a nascent “state of control.” And second, his related observation that in this emerging control society the money-form assumes renewed importance within the reproduction of capitalist power relations. “Beyond the state,” Deleuze wrote, “it’s money that rules, money that communicates, and what we need these days isn’t a critique of Marxism, but a modern theory of money as good as Marx’s that goes on from where he left off.”

Interestingly, Deleuze tied these two observations together through the question of debt, which he considered to be the “universal condition” of capitalist control. In his widely-cited Postscript of 1992, Deleuze wrote that “man is no longer man confined, but man in debt.” I was reminded of these prescient words when I attended the fascinating MoneyLab conference in Amsterdam last weekend. Organized by the Institute of Network Cultures, the event brought together a smattering of intellectual superstars like Saskia Sassen and Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, alongside a diverse and international group of scholars, artists, activists, hackers and heterodox economists, including past ROAR contributors Max Haiven and Brett Scott. The central aim of the groundbreaking interdisciplinary gathering was to explore “experiments with revenue models, payment systems and currencies against the backdrop of ongoing global economic decline.”

With panel discussions on “the monetization of everything”, “dismantling global finance”, “beyond Bitcoin”, “a critique of crowdfunding” and “designing alternatives”, the organizers of the conference set the tone right: in a world dominated by finance, a thoroughly indebted world in which money has effectively assumed the function of a universal signifier under which all aspects of social and natural life are rapidly becoming subsumed, we desperately need to start exploring radical alternatives to the capitalist money-form — not because alternative currencies are somehow a panacea, but because the state and the banks clearly aren’t going to do it for us. Despite major technological advances made in recent years, right-libertarian innovations like Bitcoin just won’t cut it. And so there is an urgent need to dissect, discuss and discover new ways of valuing work, time, nature, community and the fruits of our collective labor.

In addition to strengthening the emerging international network of scholars, hackers and activists working on a critique of finance and the development of alternative currencies, payment systems and revenue models, perhaps the most important thing about the MoneyLab conference was that it happened at all. In fact, just half a decade ago, very few people were seriously talking about money. Today, there appears to be a veritable surge in awareness (at least among intellectual and activist circles, but increasingly among the general population as well) of the nature and importance of money, and the important role that alternative currencies and mutual credit systems could play in subverting the state-finance nexus and liberating ourselves from capitalist control.

Thanks in large part to Occupy’s critique of global finance, the publication of David Graeber’s influential Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a resurgent interest in a non-dogmatic re-reading of Marx, and the tireless (albeit not very revolutionary) advocacy of heterodox monetary reform groups like Positive Money and the New Economics Foundation, the money question finally appears to have been liberated from the suffocating scene of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, right-libertarian gold bugs and anarcho-capitalist “currency cranks” to which it had hitherto largely remained confined. At last, an international project is starting to take shape to research and experiment with concrete alternatives, laying the groundwork for a world in which the means of production are held in common and both the form and creation of money are subject to direct-democratic control by newly empowered communities of users.

While it would be impossible to fit the many relevant topics discussed at the conference into a single post, I want to shine a light here on what I considered to be some of the most important points raised by participants, along with some additional thoughts they helped inspire (I apologize in advance for missing out on countless other interesting observations). In the coming weeks and months we will hopefully be revisiting the money question on ROAR in greater detail. As always, we welcome contributions on the subject (contact us here).


1. Money is debt

One broad point of consensus among participants in the MoneyLab conference was their adherence to a heterodox theory of money creation that has been referred to as the “credit theory of money.” Spearheaded in the early 20th century by British economist Alfred Mitchell-Innes and more recently popularized by anthropologist David Graeber and heterodox think tanks like Positive Money, the credit theory of money can be said to revolve around two main assertions. First, money’s historical origins lie not in its function as a medium of exchange, smoothing out the inefficiencies of barter (as Adam Smith and even Karl Marx had asserted), but rather in its function as a unit of account for various social obligations. Money, in other words, originated in debt — or, perhaps more appropriately, in the debtor-creditor relation. Money should therefore not be seen as a thing, an object or commodity, but as a social relation. In fact, it is a power relation between unequals, one that forever pitches debtors against creditors. In The Making of the Indebted Man, Maurizio Lazzarato even goes so far as to claim that the debtor-creditor relation is the fundamental class relation, and capital the “universal creditor”.

2. Private banks create money

The second assertion of credit theorists of money — echoed by many participants at the MoneyLab conference and recently confirmed by a widely-discussed paper by the Bank of England — is that every time a bank extends a loan to a customer it actually creates money in the process. The sheer simplicity of this statement often invites incredulity. Surely private banks can’t just create money from scratch? Isn’t money created by central banks, acting on behalf of the state? The answer is yes: central banks do create money, but the money they create is either credit extended to private banks or cash — and cash nowadays only constitutes a very small percentage of the total money supply. In the US and the UK, paper money and coins constitute roughly 3% of the largest monetary aggregate (in the eurozone the amount is closer to 10%). The remaining amount is “virtual” credit-money that exists only as numbers on a screen. Most of this money came into existence through a basic accounting trick in which a bank simply credited a customer’s account and created the deposit in the process.

Mainstream skeptics often argue that this money is still technically created by central banks by extending credit to private banks which then “multiply” their deposits upwards to generate additional money. In this classical Keynesian theory of money creation, vehemently defended by Paul Krugman, central banks still control the total money supply. Recent evidence has challenged this view, however, and and the Bank of England paper — while not denying that central banks still play an important role – unambiguously states that “Money creation in practice differs from some popular misconceptions — banks do not act simply as intermediaries, lending out deposits that savers place with them, and nor do they ‘multiply up’ central bank money to create new loans and deposits.” It is rather the other way around: private banks take the initiative by extending credit and only look to attract additional deposits after the fact. In a word, “Whenever a bank makes a loan, it simultaneously creates a matching deposit in the borrower’s bank account, thereby creating new money.”

3. Finance is not just about money

The above account clearly illustrates that finance is not just about money — or at least not about money as a thing. Banks are not simply intermediaries that match savings and investments and efficiently redistribute capital through the economy to where it’s most needed. While finance has allowed for the monetization of everything, Saskia Sassen correctly insisted in her talk that, “if you reduce finance to money, you are missing the key aspect of the plot.” Sassen rather defines finance as a capability; and not necessarily a benign capability at that. Finance is the capability of selling something you don’t have; or going back to what we said before, creating money and allocating credit without actually possessing it prior to extending the loan. This endows finance with vast structural power and enormously destructive potential: just think of the 44% of Greek households that now live below the poverty line, or the 9 million American families and the nearly half a million Spanish homeowners who have been evicted from their homes since the financial crisis began in 2008. As Sassen put it, modern finance, with its debt instruments, over-the-counter derivatives and endless innovations, is all about “enormous complexities producing simple brutality.”

4. It’s time to start “hacking” money

From this, it is clear that, to liberate ourselves from debt bondage, truly democratize society and create political and fiscal space for radically emancipatory alternatives, the public-private duopoly of money creation — what David Harvey has referred to as the state-finance nexus — urgently needs to be dismantled. The idea that this can somehow be done without taking on capitalism is a dangerous illusion. There is no such thing as a “real” productive economy that somehow exists in isolation from the “virtual” financial economy. Contemporary capitalism is thoroughly financialized in nearly every respect. To take on finance is to take on capitalism; and to take on capitalism is to take on the capitalist state. At present, we clearly do not have the tools, nor the strength, to fundamentally challenge this state-finance nexus, let alone destroy it and replace it with something else. But some of the more privileged among us do have the opportunity to start subverting global finance in playful and creative new ways.

This was the subject of Brett Scott’s talk about “hacking the future of money,” in which the South African activist argued that we need to apply a hacker ethic to the way we interact with finance: beginning by disassembling small parts, studying their internal functioning and their relationship to other parts, and then trying to tweak core components in order to explore the outcomes of such interventions. What would happen, for instance, if we took interest out of the equation? What would happen if we moved towards full reserve banking? What would happen if our currency included an automatic demurrage fee (a tax on hoarding money) that could be redistributed in the form of a basic income? Needless to say, “hacking” finance in these small ways will not be enough to undermine its structural power as such; but “opening up” money and tweaking its core components will be an essential first step in deepening our knowledge of its inner workings and finding ways to subvert its destructive potential (and even wield its creative capabilities) with revolutionary intent.

5. Money is one of the keys to autonomy

Alternative currencies, while certainly not a panacea (more on that below), can play an important role in building autonomy from both finance and the state. Of course complete autonomy is impossible as long as the hegemonic mode of production and the dominant money-form remain thoroughly capitalist, but that shouldn’t stop us from starting to make cracks in the facade of financial domination by developing concrete alternatives in the here-and-now. Countless experiments are already taking place around the world to develop worker-run cooperatives, autonomous healthcare clinics, solidarity economies, and so on. But as David Harvey has rightly observed, these laudable projects will ultimately be short-lived if they continue to depend on capital and/or the state for their economic survival.

One of the fundamental contradictions that autonomous and cooperative forms of production tend to run into is that they usually require some form of investment to get started and keep going. As long as worker-run cooperatives are required to turn to private banks to finance themselves, they will be subjected to the same structural exigencies as ordinary firms: they will need to achieve a surplus (i.e., generate profit) in order to be able to repay their loans plus interest, and therefore are forced to either reproduce capitalist forms of competitive market behavior or face the consequences and go out of business (the recent bankruptcy of some Mondragón cooperatives in the Basque Country is a case in point). Here, alternative currencies and mutual credit could play an important role in severing the dependence of worker-run cooperatives on private finance and the cycle of capital accumulation more generally, thereby recovering a sense of collective agency and productive autonomy.

6. Money is bound up with trust

Since money is a ultimately a social relation rooted in a common understanding and a mutual recognition of our obligations towards one another, successful currencies fundamentally depend upon trust. Not coincidentally, this is also the Latin root of the word credit: credere, to believe and to trust. In this sense, the credit crisis of 2008 — of which we continue to feel the ramifications today — is properly a crisis of trust: mistrust about the ability of borrowers to repay their loans, mistrust about the real value on the balance sheets of financial institutions, mistrust about the willingness of bankers to stick to their side of the bargain, mistrust about the intentions of the state with respect to our pensions, public services, life savings, etc. This observation is not intended to “psychologize” capitalism (clearly the roots of the crisis are systemic), but rather to expose a fundamental paradox that lies at the heart of its financialized form.

After all, is it not a defining feature of Wall Street’s mafia culture that we should trust no one? Fidite nemini seems to reign supreme as the competitive capitalist’s dogma of distrust. Did not Ayn Rand espouse the virtues of egoism and denounce the evils of altruism precisely because man was supposed to trust in himself, and himself alone? In today’s hyper-individualistic society, our trust in humanity and one another is rapidly becoming displaced into a childish sense of trust in the two avatars of neoliberal governmentality: credit-money and the security state. Look at a $20 bill or flip a coin and you will find the inscription: “In God we trust.” But what God? Giorgio Agamben was entirely right when he recently remarked that “God did not die; he was transformed into money.” Isn’t it precisely because we are so uprooted from any meaningful sense of community, so deeply suspicious of the people and the world around us, that we are still willing to display unquestioning devotion to an abstract higher being that we don’t even fully understand — in this case Mammon, the deity of avarice? Money, then, is both what ties us together and what keeps us apart. As the young Marx put it:

If money is the bond binding me to human life, binding society to me, connecting me with nature and man, is not money the bond of all bonds? Can it not dissolve and bind all ties? Is it not, therefore, also the universal agent of separation? It is the coin that really separates as well as the real binding agent — the chemical power of society.

Of course, the displacement of trust and faith into the money-form is nothing new. When credit-money and fractional reserve banking first emerged in proto-capitalist 15th century Florence, withering away the community of believers that sustained the power of the Church, the reactionary Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola famously organized a “bonfire of the vanities” to protest the evil encroachment of money upon the love of God. For much the same reason, Dante reserved a special place for the miser in the fourth ring of hell, while the usurer would be forced to walk on burning earth under a rain of fire until the end of time. Thanks to capitalism, the Church lost its monopoly on wealth, and money rapidly became the master signifier of value. The displacement of human faith from God into money clearly reaches its apotheosis in the symbiotic development of modern finance and the nation state. As Marx observed, sovereign debt (and private trust in the willingness of government to honor this debt) played a central role in that process. “Public credit,” he wrote, “becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven.”

7. Alternative currencies face a question of scale

The somewhat more abstract discussion above directly feeds into the next point, which was another important observation made by a number of crypto-currency critics at MoneyLab, including Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. One of the main challenges that alternative currencies face is the question of scale — which in turn has some very important implications for the question of trust. On the one hand, we have a proliferation of local currencies, some already quite deeply rooted in their communities, where ordinary people seek to re-appropriate and re-embed money within a different matrix of common values in order to facilitate the satisfaction of important social needs and desires. These local currencies sometimes hark back towards a somewhat romantic notion of territoriality that seeks to re-ground human relations within the material life-world of really-existing human beings, thereby counterpoising a tangible sense of human sociality to the virtual and abstract realm of credit default swaps and complex derivative contracts that characterize modern finance.

It is clear, however, that local currencies will never be able to challenge — let alone replace — globalized finance capital as such. At most, local currencies will develop into significant complementary currencies that can be added to a wide-ranging mix of monetary instruments. If we are to devise some kind of alternative to global capitalism, however, we will have to start thinking either on a much larger territorial scale (i.e., globally) or transcend territoriality altogether by developing non-local currencies (whereby non-locality refers to a concept in quantum physics according to which two objects, separated in space and with no perceivable intermediary between them, can nonetheless stand in direct contact with one another). The latter is the realm of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin: a peer-to-peer digital currency that can put a Kenyan farmer in direct contact with her customers, and an American college student or Wall Street banker in direct contact with their drug dealer, without any intermediation by a bank or state. The peer-to-peer technology behind Bitcoin is quite revolutionary in this respect. What we are witnessing is a very exciting proof of concept: we can actually create money without need for states or banks!

8. Cryptography (alone) won’t set us free

But, as Bifo importantly stressed in his talk, the principle of automation that lies behind crypto-currencies like Bitcoin hides a great risk: by explicitly rejecting the need for trust among the community of users as a fundamental feature of its technological design (the so-called distributed public ledger), Bitcoin threatens to remove the last residues of our social bonds from the money-form, thus transforming it into the ultimate agent of separation. Precisely because it is decentralized and non-local, Bitcoin cannot operate on the basis of a trust principle as other currencies do. Instead, it is designed on the basis of the same Randian principle that animates bankster culture: fidite nemeni, trust no one! Now that we have been so thoroughly abandoned by God, finance and the state, an anonymous army of cyber-libertarians proposes a new icon to worship: cryptography. And so our faith becomes displaced into the sophisticated source code behind the new forms of digital money.

Money, then, becomes automated. Once programmed and set free, the currency is supposed to live a life of its own. Of course critics can “fork off” from the source code and create their own alternatives, but the principle remains the same: anonymous cryptography replaces trust as the measure of our sociality, thus removing the last-remaining bit of humanity from the equation. Bitcoin therefore does not solve capitalism’s crisis of trust; it merely radicalizes it by insisting that nothing and no one can be trusted — only code. One member on the Bitcoin Talk Forum instructed his fellow enthusiasts thus: “Don’t trust the exchanges, don’t trust online wallet services, don’t trust your anti-virus software, and don’t trust anybody online.” While he was entirely right, it should be clear that this deepened sense of social paranoia is nothing but capitalist schizophrenia on steroids. There is absolutely nothing liberatory about the automation of distrust. A society in which people have completely ceased to trust one another is simply the perfection of Ayn Rand’s egoist dystopia — a nightmarish manifestation of a hyper-individualistic worldview gone haywire.

As my friend Rutger Kaput, a philosopher at Oxford University, pointed out to me after the conference, in times of universal deceit, simply trusting in one another actually becomes a revolutionary act. To be sure, romantic longing for the local communities of old will not derail the inexorable slide into financial dictatorship. But a world without trust is not a world worth living in. As Quinn DuPont convincingly argued in his talk, cryptography may have an important role to play in the struggle against the control state. But if we start fetishizing it, believing it can somehow replace trust as the glue of our social bonds, we will only end up deepening our sense of alienation from our fellow human beings. After all, without trust, what is to become of our sense of common purpose? The fundamental contradiction that Marx observed, between money as the ultimate social bond and the universal agent of separation, will only be further amplified. Bifo was therefore right to argue that, in the automation of distrust through crypto-currencies, neoliberalism finally finds its perfected avatar.

9. Bitcoin is NOT a revolutionary currency

To this, we must add the observation — rightly repeated at MoneyLab — that, aside from the moral problems that come with its amoral technological design, there is also a crucial issue with Bitcoin’s monetary design, which is essentially conservative in nature. In fact, Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious Bitcoin founder, was clearly influenced by orthodox monetary theories and right-libertarian economic ideas, not least those of arch-neoliberal Friedrich Hayek, who was already calling for the “denationalization of money” back in the 1970s. Most importantly, Bitcoin is effectively designed to function like gold: it is created exogenously, through a complex algorithmic process of “mining”, and circulates as a commodity. New coins come into existence at a predetermined rate and with a set cap on the total money supply. This means that, when the amount of users and transactions within the Bitcoin system begin to expand, the money supply won’t be able to keep pace — eventually producing deflation. The fact that Bitcoin are infinitely divisible shows that Nakamoto was acutely aware of this fact and deliberately coded deflation into the system. (Deflation is a decrease in the general price level of goods and services, and was the scourge of the gold standard that destroyed millions of lives during the Great Depression.)

But while ordinary workers suffer from deflation, which aggravates unemployment and reduces salaries, it tends to be a boon for the wealthy. After all, if you hold a large amount of savings, the purchasing power of your money appreciates with every day that the general price level falls. This means that deflation incentivizes hoarding by materially rewarding the accumulation of money. With deflation, the rich get richer by doing absolutely nothing. Rather than throwing their money into circulation, as the worker would do when buying her basic necessities or as the “productive” capitalist would do when procuring machinery, raw material and labor power, the hoarder will hold on to his gold or Bitcoins as long as possible. Deflationary monetary regimes like Bitcoin and the gold standard therefore feed into an ever greater concentration of wealth and power. No surprise, then, that Bitcoin features its very own ultra-wealthy elite. As of July 12, 2011, 97% of Bitcoin accounts contained less than 10 bitcoins, while just 78 entities were hoarding over 10,000 each. Stanislas Jourdan asked the right question in response to this data: how would such a highly concentrated and deflationary form of money ever help the Greeks?

10. Crowdfunding is NOT the “anarchist welfare state”

Hearing some of the speakers at MoneyLab, another danger I think we need to beware of is the romanticization of crowdfunding as a revolutionary revenue model that will somehow set artists and other creatives free from the stifling necessity of grant-applications and private gifts and loans. One speaker, a self-declared “crowdfunding consultant”, kept talking about “crowdfunding your dreams,” while another referred to Kickstarter as “the anarchist welfare state”. The danger here is that we end up idealizing necessities and mistaking them for solutions. In the age of austerity, where grants and subsidies are increasingly being cut and the money that’s still allocated tends to become more and more concentrated in projects with greater perceived market value and name recognition, crowdfunding is often the only option left for creative projects that — despite possible use value — simply do not possess any obvious exchange value, and hence cannot compete for scarce subsidies or investments.

Another risk is that, by narrowly emphasizing the crowdfunding success stories, we end up reproducing certain ideological mechanisms that sustain the hegemonic definition of success as an entrepreneurial virtue — obscuring the exploitation intervening in the process. Is the idealized vision of “crowdfunding your dreams” not a brilliant way of reinventing the American Dream for the emerging creative class? A quick glance at the IndieGoGo website reveals the sad reality behind crowdfunding: on the front page, we are presented with numerous successful projects, unwittingly generating a creeping expectation among prospective crowdfunders that “if they can do it, we can do it too.” However, scroll a little further into the different campaign categories and you will see numerous projects that will never even come close to making their target. Insofar as these projects generate any revenue at all, they are effectively raising money for the platform and perk fulfillment agencies. At rock bottom, those who do not possess marketing skills and access to large and wealthy networks are marginalized anew. The “anarchist welfare state”, then, is not really all that egalitarian — and the surplus it generates ultimately ends up in the private pockets of the platform owners.

Besides, it turns out that the “crowd” in crowdfunding often doesn’t really exist. The vast majority of Kickstarter’s revenue comes not from the “big hits” (which merely help draw attention to their platforms, most importantly serving as a marketing ploy) but from the massive amount of smaller projects. These small projects, in turn, depend crucially on family and friends to reach their set targets. What this means is that the so-called “anarchist welfare state” is in fact community support transformed into a source of profit for the crowdfunding platforms. The mutual aid of your family and friends ends up being conscripted into the process of capital accumulation. Crowdfunding, in a word, exploits a necessity (for creatives to find new ways of raising funds in the age of austerity) in order to enclose a common solution (mutual aid) and turn it into a commodity. Where the traditional welfare state retreats, the community steps in, and a private company subsequently manages to wring profit from our altruism.

11. It’s crucial not to fetishize money!

The observations above therefore seem to point in the same direction: while coining alternatives to the capitalist money-form will be key to building autonomy from the state-finance nexus and regaining control over our lives, there is a grave risk that our professed solutions end up being conscripted into the logic of the present monetary and financial system and turned into yet another source of speculation, appropriation and accumulation. It is therefore absolutely crucial not to fetishize alternative currencies and revenue models. Building autonomy and challenging the state-finance nexus requires a multidimensional struggle that targets all levels of capitalist social relations. If we fail to reclaim the means of production, bring democracy into the workplace, organize ourselves at the national and global level, develop new models of decision-making, rebuild trust in our communities and beyond, find ways to defend ourselves from state repression, etc., alternative currencies will ultimately be little more than an impotent expression of an admirable but ultimately harmless desire for social change. Our long-term political project is to break the power of capital and radically democratize society from below. If we lose sight of this broader horizon in which the quest for monetary alternatives is ultimately embedded, we are doomed to fail.

12. The real challenge is to redefine value

While in the coming years the money question is likely to assume central importance in the emerging anti-capitalist movement, we have to be extremely careful not to fall into the messiah syndrome that sometimes characterizes recent “converts” to the cause. Upon first realizing how money is created by private banks, and how interest-bearing debt feeds the need for economic expansion at the heart of the capitalist system, many people have a eureka moment that temporarily blinds them to the other fundamental contradictions of the system (a theme taken on by David Harvey in his forthcoming book). It cannot be emphasized enough that money is just an element (a core element to be sure, but just an element) in a process of valuation and a mode of production and accumulation that is extremely complex and cannot simply be reduced to its constituent parts. For one, a crucial challenge — one that forever lurks behind money’s superficial forms — is the one raised by Max Haiven in his presentation and his new book, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: we now need to start collectively re-imagining and materially re-defining not only what value actually is, but also what it is that we value.

Here, at last, we reach the terrain of politics: How can we arrive at common decisions on what is to be valued? Do we value personal bonds or do we value anonymity? Do we value community or do we value individuality? Is there a way to bridge these apparent opposites or dissolve their inherent contradictions, or will they be forever in conflict? What do we value about ourselves? What do we value about others? What do we value in nature, in work, in leisure? And how can we embed these values — both moral and economic — in our monetary systems? Ultimately, if we are talking about creating a radically different society, the question of value will have to somehow be detached from money. Exchange value is one thing; use value, as Marx pointed out, is quite another (not to even mention the cultural, aesthetic and ecological importance of non-use value). Would it be possible to organize society on the basis of use (and non-use) value, rather than exchange values? What would such a society look like? How do we get there? Would we even be able to trust in each other’s good intentions and our sense of common purpose as we squabble and fight over the possible answers?

At this point, nobody knows — but at least we have finally started asking the right questions. In a thoroughly monetized world in which human beings have ceased to count for anything, that, at least, has got to count for something.

Jerome Roos studied International Political Economy at Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics and is currently a PhD candidate at the European University Institute. He is the founding editor of ROAR Magazine.

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