The rareness of a gift is the simplicity of its intention, which requires nothing in return, except perhaps gratitude or good feelings. When the transfer of something comes with the expectation of reciprocity, whether immediate or delayed, it exits the realm of the gift and becomes an act of exchange. Though sharing the same prefix as extraction, exchange involves movement in at least two directions rather than just one. Giving and Receiving.

The most basic levels of human social organisation involve acts of exchange. Mutual cooperation for survival and a better quality of life entails shared activity and the distribution of resources. This is simple enough when the act of giving and receiving involves basic things that are valued in straightforward and commensurate ways: bartering to exchange grain for grain, stone for stone, or tool for tool. Yet, the idea of value quickly complicates as things become layered in complexity, requiring different combinations of material, labour, and time to make. Then there’s the question of judgement. How do preference and taste factor into something’s value? What is deemed beautiful or useful by one person might be deemed worthless by another.

In Book 1 of Politics, Aristotle describes the relationships within a community outside of the household as the basis of a body politic, which includes exchange and the production of wealth. He describes the ‘art of exchange’ as a necessity to maintain a community, forming the basis of his articulation of politics. Aristotle distinguishes between the material utility of an object – its use value – and the secondary form equal to its worth as currency – its exchange value. In other words, a shoe has value as both a shoe and as an object worth a sum of money. What Aristotle describes roughly 2,400 years ago as the art of exchange includes a process of abstracting concrete reality into the signifier of money, which is represented by a currency.

From this perspective, the invention of currency around the 7th century BCE as a medium of exchange seems like an inevitability. As human communities grew larger and more complex, it made sense to agree on a small object to stand in as an abstract signification of value agreed upon by those involved in trade. This turning point birthed the imaginative power of money. Like language, it was made to represent something beyond itself.

Yet, if currency is a historically recurring inevitability, how exchange value has been determined is not. Value is not an inherent property of the world, it’s a historically contingent social abstraction. In 17th century Europe, the invention of a universal concept of the human endowed with reason coincided with a demand for individual property rights. Property, political rights, and subjectivity became entangled in a new political theory of freedom. Under this logic of Liberal modernity, what is to be made of the value of a human body abstracted by slavery into property, negated of its subjectivity? The value of a life is only recognised as the property of another person who holds power over it. In this instance, exchange is transformed from its original purpose intended as a medium to serve human well-being into a primary motivation for maximising wealth and legitimising animus.

And to the extent that wealth increasingly determines sovereignty in our modern epoch, it demonstrates a new form of power that has turned it into an end in itself. This has marked the genesis of proliferating mechanisms, laws, actors, and institutions created to verify and regulate exchange, and increasingly, to protect the wealth of the wealthy.

Under capitalism, modernity has been organised by the idea of the market as a mechanism that turns a large number of inputs into outputs such as price, another word for exchange value. This metaphysical market is conceptualised as a giant sensing organ capable of allocating everything efficiently. When faced with crises such as a burning planet or a dispossessed people, the extension of this logic suggests granting them a stake in the market as the remedy. Trees should have property rights and Palestinians should establish a state and start more businesses to get free. Meanwhile “bad actors” are barred from entry into the market as punishment. Cubans are embargoed, Iranians are banned from sending Venmo’s, and Venezuelans can’t access U.S. debt and equity markets. Exchange value and wealth dictate subjectivity.

As exchange is remediated into computational form, the question is whether new pathways are possible that enable more decentralisation and distribution of access. Blockchain encryption offers the potential to authenticate exchange through crowd-sourced mathematical computation, removing the need for third-party vendors like states or banks. In contemporary bourgeois finance, currency no longer mediates exchange via coins that carry some intrinsic value the way gold and silver once did. Instead, the intensification of abstraction has transformed currency into nearly invisible digital information that can be transferred almost anywhere instantaneously, totally obfuscating the concrete, social processes that produce its value.

The dual good and bad outcomes of digital exchange might suggest the conclusion that human good and human greed are both always inevitable. This is an unhelpful conclusion. History tells us that the form of exchange itself, and the rules and logic we agree to apply to it, is a crucial variable for determining how we interact together, define ourselves, and value each other. Perhaps this means that we should place as much importance on how we define exchange as we do with the technical infrastructure that enables it.