Thursday, February 28, 2013

How Money Became the Root of All Evil

When agricultural civilization first crystallized, those at its center imposing order on the newly concentrated population needed tools to organize the distribution of the fruits of the newly intensive agriculture, itself the necessary antecedent to the population concentration, to civilization itself. The benefit of concentration was emergent in the numerous technologies the now concentrated population invented in time freed from the burdens of agriculture. While a fairly thin slice of society overall, the urban cores became diverse, creative and protean. This is not because that is what they set out to do, but the result of the opportunities density afforded unplanned. This protean creativity yielded up disparate and unanticipated new artifacts and operations that the central administrators of the harvest had to figure out how to manage to coordinate benefits ensuring sustainability of the whole. Money was invented to solve this coordination problem. By setting a measure of value, initially based on a survival ration of the harvest, a standard unit of value was agreed against which other economic values could be measured.

This innovation, the invention of the system we call "money", allowed the central authorities to monitor and regulate the distribution of grain while at the same time establishing the relative value of other economic activity against the yardstick of the survival ration. So long as the survival ration remained at the center of the system the essential and primary distributive function of a money system was manifestly obvious: lack of money was in a fact of life identical to lack of food and starvation. For central authorities to allow this was an obvious breech of trust within society at large: where money was food the moral obligation of distribution was impossible to ignore. Power to plan that distribution, essential to the survival of both individuals and society was the legitimizing activity of central authorities and failure on this count was morally obvious and equally obviously destructive to the interests of society at large. Money is a central tool of power and properly used the legitimizing force behind concentrated power. But the further we have moved from this initial civilized application of the system the easier it has become to loose sight of the essential distributive function that legitimizes the power and attendant coercions that come with the system.

So long as the unit of grain is itself the "money thing" around which the money system revolves a certain clarity of values is self evident. Once a gold shekel displaces a shekel of wheat metonymy sets in and the represented value in the gold displaces from consciousness the actual value in grain and money quickly becomes an end in itself. This value shift occludes behind sparkling metal the humane and legitimizing distributive function the system was invented for and tempts power to the now abstracted value of money as an idea divorced from morality or the legitimacy of centralized power. By the time this happened centralized power was established enough it could without fear default on its distributive function by enslaving those deprived of money simply by forcing them to labor for food, otherwise unobtainable once the monetary unit no longer contained it and central stockpiling of grain was replaced by the stockpiling of gold. It is much easier to justify impaling someone stealing your precious metal than someone stealing food from a stockpile who's existence is starving them. This is the moment when the love of money became, as Jesus said, the root of all evil.

Make no mistake, money is a system, no mere thing. It is a very powerfull system that can be used to concentrate coercive power or distribute economic benefits depending on the motives of those who control the system. It is their choices that give our abstract money what moral meaning it has and with their decisions those who control it can do great good or harm. At the moment in the Western world they choose to do great harm and their love of money lives up to its New Testament billing.

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