Humans create economic value through labor and the production/distribution of goods and services, and then attempt to quantify that value using money. At the dawn of recorded history, we used commodity money like cows or jewelry to pay for stuff. Economic constraints are placed on commodity money by the fact that there is a limited supply naturally occurring on the Earth, which itself gives the physical money value. This is a different kind of value than what’s provided by the dollar in your pocket. You cannot use dollars for anything other than spending them somewhere that will accept them, whereas commodity money like gold can both be accepted as payment and used in various disciplines.
The money that sustains everything that you are reading this on right now has value only because the United States Federal Reserve says it does. If the Fed were to disappear tomorrow, the sole thing that would give the dollar in your pocket any value is whatever value people place on it in a post-Fed world.
Which brings me to my point: money isn’t a 100% accurate expression of economic value, and this Fortnite scam is proof. Per The Independent:
Stolen credit card details are being used to purchase V-bucks — the virtual currency used to buy items in the game — from the official Fortnite store. By selling V-bucks at a discounted rate to players, the criminals are effectively able to “clean” the money.
The problem of money laundering is a simple one to understand. Criminals obtained money via illegal means, and they cannot spend it because it is being tracked by the cops. In order to free the money up, they need to “launder” it. They do this by exchanging criminal money for virtual money in Fortnite, then selling the virtual money to people paying with real money. Because there is pressure to dump the money being tracked by the cops, the criminals are willing to take a loss on their initial score to get enough money to safety. This entire progression is an example of the different ways these criminals valued the same amount of money at various stages of the same operation.
P.S. For more on what a money laundering enterprise looks like, check out my deep dive into President Trump’s businesses.
This workaround through Fortnite is an example of how money is just a compromise—the best inadequate option to take on the gargantuan task of quantifying value created by humans. If a kid buys a Fortnite character with V-bucks, and had to spend dollars to get those V-bucks, which one is the real money?
You don’t always have to pay for stuff with money, and the fact that we see the barter system return in all kinds of different economic crashes should reveal some basic truths about human economic activity. The godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, was wrong—a broad barter economy did not precede money—but rose from its ashes, as Ilana Strauss wrote in The Atlantic:
When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.
Money should not be the end-all be-all of quantifying economic value. If anything, time is the purest value expression that humans can provide given our own inherent restrictions on that specific asset. Thanks to our limited amount of time on this Earth, any economic activity which pushes the populace closer to death should not be considered valuable, no matter how much money it makes (*looks directly at the oil companies*).
The economic structure of Fortnite is itself a demonstration of the fungibility of how humans quantify value. Most videogames make you pay sixty bucks up front to play the entire game. There may be add-ons within the game that you can pay for, but the underlying model is the same: no pay, no play. Fortnite isn’t like this. You can download the game and play it for free forever. Where you spend money is in the customization of your character, and before you laugh at the notion of giving away your core product for free, Fortnite is making $1.5 million per day just on iOS. Fortnite’s success proves that the standard monetary model in videogames is not the only way that gamers ascribe value.
And it’s not just gamers, but people. Capitalism is typically lauded as the driving force behind individuality, but that takes credit for a natural dynamic of supply and demand that automatically takes root in markets—which have existed as long as goods, services and labor have. Capitalism is a relatively new invention (it’s not a coincidence that it rose in tandem with the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 16th century), and while money is a much more time-tested and efficient way to assign value at scale than capitalism is, it is and always has been a complete and utter invention that can only be at best, an approximation. Capitalism’s main folly is centering its entire economic system around the notion of private entities controlling the means of the production for the express purpose of profit—assuming that more money automatically equals more value created.
I am not suggesting that we enter some post-capitalist world without money (although I am suggesting that we enter a post-capitalist world), but the problem we are running into in our late-capitalist hellscape is that the pursuit of money is not at all tied to overall value creation. Sure, dumping chemicals in the water may save an energy company money on cleanup costs—thus doing good capitalism by increasing profits—but it sure as hell doesn’t create value for any towns downstream of that water. This is the story of climate change (which scientists say in addition to cataclysmically altering the planet, will cost far more to deal with than to try to prevent), and it should force us all to reconsider what is and is not “economic value.” If profit is the only way to express value creation, then things should be great. Profits are at all time highs and the economy is growing. So why don’t things seem so great?
Because we have prioritized the accumulation of money over value creation.
If an economy is not producing value for the populace, then what’s the point of that economy? That’s what all these capitalist critiques are getting at. “Socialism” became a boogeyman to older generations thanks to the McCarthyite environment that surrounded their adolescence, but for slightly older generations than that, they think of “Social Security” when people say “socialism.” Millennials favor socialism over capitalism because all we know is the expensive and expansive misery of late-stage capitalism, and the supposed red menace has no place in our ideological framework. You say Venezuela. We say Norway.
Forever and ever, those with power have used that power to accumulate more power, while the arc of the moral universe slowly bends towards justice. Throughout the entirety of recorded history, humans have squabbled over ideology while every economic system is basically defined by a battle of the populace against the oligarchs. The truth is that humans have dressed up oligarchy in plenty of different “isms” throughout the years while telling ourselves that we had a handle on what was going on, and that sentence is the short story of the Democratic Party of the last 40 years. Democratic institutions invented in the last century like Social Security and Medicare were galactic achievements to help some of those left most vulnerable by the whims of the market, but we still have much work to do in order to bring the prosperity to more people this century.
This is why you’re seeing majorities of Americans saying they support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s very modest proposal to tax income over $10 million at 70% (raging communist, *checks notes* two-term Republican President Dwight Eisenhower taxed the rich at 91%). Americans largely know what needs to be done.
People are not happy with the status quo, and you simply cannot argue that what we are all currently experiencing is the best that America could offer its people. Most of us do not believe that money is a direct expression of our values, and we are more than willing to sacrifice additional almighty dollars at the altar of social progress. That speaks to how we view money, and it’s a more honest reflection of our values than anything that our economy is presently producing.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.