Money is a Memory

Last night we were talking about the tin mine at Warbeth. That and the problem geology posed to religion in the 19th century. I thought I ought to have included the mining operation in my Bronze Age spiel for the General Knowledge video series I’m embarking on. One day I’ll do some smelting. I’ve got a blacksmith cousin, so there’s a start.

Big Alex: famous for “mining and conquest”

This past week I’ve been revisiting Adam Smith. Neither the Wealth of Nations nor Theory of Moral Sentiments directly, but through the lens of podcasts and David Graeber’s reading of his works in Debt: the first 5000 years. I’ve reversed into prehistory as far as the video series is concerned and I devoted the final part of three to the origin of money.

My video on money, credit and coinage.

This was a subject that Smith was one of the first to theorise, and his hypothesis resulted in the perpetuation of a myth that money arose from the need to standardise exchange between individuals that had formerly taken place through barter i.e. direct swapping of commodities. Graeber tells us that money, in fact, came into being to keep an account of who owed what to whom (that “whom” often being a central authority and the “what” being tribute). The tribute owed was not goods, but a precise monetary value of however many units – it was just paid in goods equivalent to this.

This is just one example of how challenging these old conceptions can totally derail our understanding of the world. My Early Humanity series looks at a lot of these long-held but entirely unjustified assumptions and tries to show how modern anthropology, archaeology and evolutionary biology has attempted to give us more accurate answers to fundamental questions of our nature.

Are we naturally belligerent?

That’s how I started off when I asked whether warfare was endemic to humanity. I felt it was important to note the major trends of thought on the topic, both religious and secular before I sought scientific answers. Both Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions approached the dilemma of war in quite similar ways – it was something passed down to humanity from God/the gods. We got caught up in it (Trojan War) or were commanded to do it (the Fall of Jericho). The philosophers Hobbes and Rousseau looked at warfare from an innate behavioural perspective and cast back to a distant past without states, borders or laws. They reached opposite conclusions. Hobbes envisaged an every-man-for-himself type situation whereas Rousseau considered “unaccommodated man” to be essentially peaceful.

Science’s answer to humanity’s natural propensity/disinclination to war is murkier. Chimps, our closest primate relative, make war if we count intraspecies coalitionary killing for the sake of territory and resources to constitute warfare. However, among homo sapiens, when resources are plentiful there is substantial evidence for human kindness and harmony. Prehistoric people cared for vulnerable members of society, tended the sick and valued the disabled enough to include and cater for their additional needs, as evidenced by archaeology.

I take a look at humanity’s dispersal, the spread of farming and the first cities.

My second video in the series talks about human migration from Africa and the diffusion of agriculture across the world. It draws heavily from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which explains how geographical factors and not genetics account for the vast differences in technological progress and propensity to colonise among the different peoples of the globe throughout history. I would recommend this to anyone curious about geopolitics. However, I think where it falls flat is in its attempt to apply that logic to history more broadly – where cultural and economic factors are much more prominent than the lottery of geography. A scientific view of history that puts dialectics, class struggle and material relations at its heart is what Marxism has tried to construct, I believe, quite successfully. Class consciousness cannot really be studied without a literate culture thinking and writing about itself. This came with the Axial Age.

According to Marxist theory, between primitive communism and feudalism is a slave society, which, broadly speaking, corresponds to antiquity. The producing class were slaves and the wealth generated by agriculture from the surrounding countryside of a city was distributed among the citizens and, by proxy, the plebs. There existed, however, a proto-capitalist element in ancient societies in addition to the primary “production for use” economy: merchants and foreign trade. It was this external class, destabilising to the closed system of the ancient city-state on whom the great philosophers poured their vitriol.

Another problem that the religious and moral thinkers of the time attempted to tackle was that of money; specifically, a newly invented medium of exchange: coinage. David Graeber explicitly links the novelty of physical metal money to the great intellectual flourishing of this era. His first insight is that the market, arbiter of rich and poor, was a creation of the state and not, as traditionally conceived, in direct opposition to it.

Essentially, cash money came about because rulers needed a way to pay their soldiers. The first priority, once new territory had been conquered, was to seize the mines and begin to stamp metal with the ruler’s seal, which gave it a fixed monetary value. This was then paid out to troops who were told to exchange this with the locals for food. After the conquered population accumulated this coinage, a tribute was levied i.e. taxes, and so the cycle could begin again ad infinitum.

This seems quite unfair to us and it also seemed that way to a lot of philosophers. Hence our major world religions (except Islam) or “intellectual popular peace movements” were born i.e. Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity. This was, however, essentially a drop-out culture. Reward and retribution were deferred to the next world. The material was rejected for the spiritual.

About alasdairflett

German & English Literature graduate. From Orkney. Interested in alternative and indie music, language, writing and politics.
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