Money talks, and these days it’s just about screaming at us. If the rise and fall of stock exchanges aren’t front and centre on the evening news, then it’s our overheated housing market. It seems like almost every other discussion in our daily lives involves some riff on money or debt. Filthy lucre is both a conversational strange attractor and our social policy yardstick.
Economists tell us human social organization is ultimately based on “exchange relations.” In other words, the market came prior to everything else. The golden calf-or bronze bull if you prefer-demands constant sacrifice.
University of London anthropologist David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 Years, turns this received wisdom on its head. For centuries, there were institutions that put social controls on debt, in recognition of its potential harm to society. Whether it was Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Canon Law or Islamic Sharia, the leaders of society reigned in the debtors. No longer, observes the author. We are now witnessing the rise of the first planetary administrative system designed to protect the interests of creditors over the social contract. The banksters and beancounters rule the world.
The standard story on the beginnings of money goes something like this: way back in prehistory, someone had one goat too many. A neighbour had a flock of chickens. The two met and decided to exchange a goat for an agreed upon number of chickens. Later, barter gave way to coinage. Currency could stand in as a quantifiable measure for goats or chickens, or anything else. After that came credit-promissory notes, bills of exchange etc.
Wrong, says anthropologist Graeber, who argues that “the earliest forms of money were the kind that one finds in stateless societies (Solomon Island feather money, Iroquois wampum) that were mostly used to arrange marriages, resolve blood feuds, and fiddle with other sorts of relations between people, rather than to buy and sell commodities.”
The first economic exchanges, in a tribal setting, were based on networks of mutual support and reciprocity. Early tribal societies were more about giving away than hoarding, because the gift economy strengthened the network of mutual obligations. Graeber’s anthropological point of view supports the ideas of University of Bologna professor of economics Stefano Zamagni, who has long argued that reciprocity runs prior to market relations. (A family governed entirely by market relations would be a nightmare, Zamagni observes.)
Graeber, who approaches money from the discipline of anthropology, insists that currency-gold and silver in particular-emerged in the markets that often followed armies or royal entourages “or formed near palaces or at the fringes of military posts.” Commodity money has long gone hand-in-hand with violence, he contends. In fact, one of the principle uses of money by warring states involved slavery.
War fuelled debt, which demanded taxation, and debt was payable in slaves. No one was safe from this dynamic. If a farmer could not pay his debts, he could lose his property, his wife, his children and his own freedom, which became a commodity to be bought and sold. The debtor could only return to his or her homebase after working for a term set by the creditor. Wisely, Biblical patriarchs instituted the custom of jubilee, where all social debts were cancelled after seven years. (Graeber observes that the first word for “freedom” known in any human language, the Sumerian amarga, literally means, “return to mother.”)
“Debt slavery” is no arbitrary term, either for indentured servants of the past or grad students in the present. To use a Seussian analogy for a complex historical process, social conflict and debt enslavement have been like those agents of chaos, Thing One and Thing Two-and money has been like the Cat in the Hat. Graeber notes that the value of gold and silver rises in times of war, when the social contract crumbles and credit can no longer be relied on.
From the coffee shop to the faculty lounge, we can’t shut up about money and debt. Perhaps with the wide-angle view of Graeber, Zamagni and other intellectual gadflies, we’ll get a better fix on the commodification of our lives-and be less eager to bow down before the golden calf.
The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 19