July 27, 2021

The love of money

What did we do before there was money?    How did we measure value?    How did we agree a fair exchange?    How did we get what we needed?   How did we reward people?   How did we keep track of debts?

Most people will tell you that we bartered.  That we had to wait until someone we knew wanted a chicken before we could have a pair of shoes.

That’s not true.   What we did depended on where we did it.

Inside the tribe, if someone needed something, it was given to them, as a favour or out of communal stores.  Imagine a kind of stationery cupboard, run by grandmothers.   Everything’s there,  you can’t help yourself, you have to prove a real need, but when you do, you get it, no questions asked.  If it was a favour, well, you’d be asked a favour one day, so it will all come out in the wash.

Over time, a web of mutual obligations grows up – often actively maintained in small ways – a cup of sugar here, the loan of a snow-shovel there, as reminders that ‘we’re all in it together’.   Recently, I watched a mini documentary where the young men of a tribe built a new house for a widowed grandmother.  Not because she was their grandmother, but because the old one was falling apart and she needed a new one.  And because ‘people like us do things like this’.

Wealth – social power – is represented using a different mechanisim – cowrie shells, wampum, cattle.   These things are reserved for the priceless exchanges – of people.  So they are given as dowries, or as compensation for death or injury.

Outside the tribe is different.   Strangers are different.   They aren’t part of your web of mutual obligations, so that’s where barter happens.

Money (not necessarily coinage) makes trade between strangers easier.  Just the thing for a people on the move, constantly bumping up against new tribes, as strangers.   States realised this, and took to paying their armies in money.  So that instead of ‘living off the land’ (a.k.a. pillage), they could buy what they needed from the local tribes.    The idea caught on, and soon markets everywhere used money as a means of exchange.

So far so good.

But there’s an unintended consequence.

Money doesn’t just make transactions between strangers easier, it makes transacting people into strangers.   Eventually we lose sight of the web of mutual obligation – the meaning behind the favours – and focus on the money.  As if that is what really matters.

Even worse, money takes over as the representation of social power.  And that’s where the trouble really starts.

‘The love of money is the root of all evil’.

He’s probably not wrong.

On the other hand, we made money work this way.  We can unmake it if we want.




For a much better description, read David Graeber’s Debt: The first 5,000 years.