Read Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. This book got a lot of attention a while back. An anthropologist looks at the history of debt and currency from the start of history to the present.
Definitely has some fascinating aspects. He comprehensively demolishes the "barter myth" that currency originated when people used to barter for things with their neighbours, but had the problem that you needed a dual coincidence of wants for it to work. (E.g. if you needed shoes you might trade them for a bag of grain, but you needed to find someone who had shoes but no grain.) As an anthropologist, he has a lot of information about how this actually works in different societies, and goes into some detail.
In an Iroquois longhouse for instance, common property is stored in a longhouse and controlled by a committee of women: if a man needs some shoes, he asks his wife who will get some for him. Other societies have elaborate systems of gift exchange. Some societies allow you to just ask for anything you like, or have a tradition of giving away anything a stranger admires. Often you will just ask your neighbour for the shoes as a favour, with the implicit understanding that you'll do similar favours in future.
Barter tends to happen with strangers you encounter. Generally with your neighbours, barter is very rare.
A crucial point though is that these favours to neighbours do not exactly match. In the Lele culture for instance, it's considered grossly improper to return one favour for an identical favour: it has to be something more or less. The imbalance of favours is what creates an ongoing relationship. To exactly return equal value suggests that you want the relationship to end.
Now, many economists don't necessarily believe the barter myth is a historical fact. In some ways the barter myth serves the same purpose as the social contract in social contract theory. You're not expected to believe that your distant ancestors actually sat down, negotiated and agreed to a particular social contract. Rather, it's a thought experiment: we consider life without the contract, then life with the contract, then decide whether it's better if the contract exists.
Similarly, the barter myth can be used to explain the usefulness of currency. You're not necessarily expected to believe that your ancestors ever did trade bags of grain for pairs of shoes. Instead it shows how currency is useful. However, by omitting the other possibilities like favours, gift economies, common ownership Graeber thinks that the barter myth serves an ideological function. It encourages us to think of ourselves as isolated individuals pursuing ou self-interest, rather than social beings embedded in a community.
Having spent time on the barter myth, Graeber moves on to an ambitiously broad history of money and debt across human history. He discerns several broad patterns. Most notable is "a broad alternation between periods dominated by credit money and periods in which gold and silver come to dominate".
Isolated cultures have diverse patterns of exchange as above. When they have a concept of money, such as cowrie shells or oxen, this is often used as a way of maintaining social relationships: for instance blood prices, bridewealth or dowries, tribute. An example is Ireland's early system of "honor prices", reckoning up the worth of an important person in units of notional cumal slave-girls. It's not often used for everyday transactions: it might be seen as sacrilegious to do so.
Empires, ancient and modern, sometimes use taxes as a way of establishing markets when they expand into these areas. Once you levy taxes, farmers and others have to go to a market to raise the currency to pay their taxes. There's thus a kind of market/taxes/currency conjunction where they go together.
Slavery tends to be tied to money as well. Debt obligations are a major way for people to enter slavery: indebted farmers or workers are forced to sell themselves or their family into slavery. Some cultures seem to have a cycle of increasing debt-slavery which is sometimes broken by periodic Jubiliees when all debt is forgiven, or revolutions when the indebted finally rebel. Canny rulers often head off revolution by enforcing jubilees.
Stable societies often tend towards complex networks of debt rather than currency exchange. In times of crisis metal currency tends to take over, as people lose confidence that debts can be honored.
Graeber points out that metal-backed currencies that were theoretically debased often actually had value because the government insisted that taxes be paid in it at the fqace value, meaning that people foundit handy to have this money around.
During the dark ages when the economy allegedly "reverted to barter" with a shortage of currency, there was apparently little evidence of barter. Rather, the economy reverted to a pattern of networks of debts instead. Interestingly, these debts were usually reckoned in long-obsolete units, such as Roman money or Charlemagne's currency, which functioned as units of account long after the physical coins disappeared.
Graeber has a positive view of this period, pointing out that this is when slavery disappeared. In the absence of a state enforced cycle of debt-slavery, freedom has more chance to emerge.
As with many books that detect overall patterns of history, Graeber's observations are striking, but not entirely convincing. He does seem to admit some examples of what the traditional economists see as the origins of currency, with private goldsmiths or bankers or shopkeepers setting up their own currency tokens for exchange between peers. He does make very good points though about the origins of money lying as much to do with slavery, exploitation and fear rather than the wholesome story of happy farmers finding a handy way to get rid of corn and get shoes.
The last few chapters, where he detects a huge change since 1971 and the abandonment of the gold standard by the US, doesn't seem very plausible, especially since the recessions and banking crises of the 21st century don't seem that dissimilar to the 19th. Also there seems to be something very similar to the modern Marx-anarchists in his call for something or other radically different to be invented instead of capitalism. I'm not a big fan of this, since nobody seems to have any specifics on a better alternative to capitalism, and an awful lot of moderately-radical reform proposals exist that aren't being tried (citizens basic income, guaranteed minimum income, land value tax etc.)
Overall though, a fascinating and thought-provoking book. Well worth reading even if you're skeptical of the conclusions for the volume of examples he provides from so many different cultures, countries and periods of history.
What I'm Reading
Kill the Dead. Second in the Sandman Slim series of books about a magician released from Hell into LA. This one is a bit slow-starting, with the self-pity getting a bit grating. However the action gets into gear in the second half with a release of zombies amongst other enemies. Good fun, but I think the series has to be read in order as there's a fair amount of plot development.
Do wish one set of baddies wasn't called the Kissi though. It's apparently pronounced "kishi", but it does make you wonder if once they've vanished he's going to be faced with the Huggi or the Touchi-Feeli instead.
What I'm Watching
Saw The Bridge, a documentary about people who attempt to commit suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. It's apparently controversial, having footage of people actually jumping.
Fairly sensitively done, mostly consisting of interviews with relatives of jumpers, someone who survived the fall, and someone who rescued a jumper.
As with many modern documentaries, there was no voiceover. I did find it a bit frustrating that there was a lack of actual information. There were references to officials like police who try to stop suicides, but no interviews with them, no explanation of how it works, no discussion of if and how attempts have been made to make suicide prevention there better.
There are lots of myths about suicide: this does indirectly challenge the myths of "people who talk about it never do it" and "there's no point stopping them as they'll just do it later", but I think the movie would have been more useful if they'd spent a few minutes giving actual facts or expert talking head explaining the myth. The documentary seemed more about atmosphere and emotion than information.
Overall, some interesting aspects but not unmissable.
Video. Stop motion graffiti animation.
Politics. Vulnerable man starves to death after benefits cut. Hitler wasn't a socialist. Richest MP in Britain slams welfare state but makes £625k a year in housing benefit. Twilight of the Right. US Deep State.
Fiction. Smart fridge.
Pics. Animals and people grow up.
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