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A Few Words About Money

Writers want to make money from what they do. We all want to make money from what we do.


That might sound like a silly question, but here’s a train of thought which you might find interesting in relation to the topic of money.

In the days before money, when human beings lived in small agricultural communities, individuals worked with their families and other members of the group to serve each others’ needs. Some hunted for food, some grew food, some were in charge of protecting, others of caring, and so on. Needs were largely communal: food was shared with all, shelter was built for all, by the group as a whole. If anything was needed that the community couldn’t provide for itself, goods were traded with other communities for it. This arrangement had advantages and disadvantages: on the one hand, members of the community were able to eat, to remain sheltered, and to be protected; on the other hand, their options in life were somewhat limited. Necessity ruled over all. Each person would have been expected to contribute in some way - even the physically weak would have had duties to do.

When it came to exchanging one set of goods for another, there was nothing for it but engagement, negotiation, observation, judgement and decision. If you had a basket of eggs and wanted to trade them for an urn of milk, you had to talk to the owner of the urn, perhaps to taste and smell the milk, and to arrive at some kind of individual determination as to whether your trade was equivalent. Transactions would have been individual, each one unique, each one based on its own set of observations and judgements. Trust and affinity would of necessity have had to be high for this to work - if you later discover the milk was off, the whole relationship was soured, literally. Authenticity, genuine products, close dealings and knowing the other person would have been crucial.

Now enter into that equation the item called money. Money isn’t a basket of eggs or an urn of milk but a symbolic replacement for each. You had in your hand a circle of metal which may have some worth in itself - gold, silver or bronze, perhaps - which was asserted to be the equivalent of an actual item. One result of this would have been that trade with strangers became more feasible: if one trusted the symbol, one didn’t need quite so much to know or trust the seller. Another result would be that the scope of possibilities widens: you sell your basket of eggs and gain not just an urn of milk but a symbol which can be traded for anything. Instead of focusing on the necessities of the day or even the hour, money empowered the possessor to think in different ways - what of the future? What of other needs, less immediate? What of changes to one’s life, new directions, new career paths? A few coins in one’s hand opened the door to freedom from Time: one didn’t have to buy an urn of milk right now, one could save the coins until tomorrow; one wouldn’t have to buy an urn of milk at all, perhaps, one could buy a pair of shoes; one didn’t have to keep chickens any more in order to trade for other needs, one could save up coins and buy a passage elsewhere to a new life.

Quite apart from the industry which grew up around money itself - banking, money-lending, speculation and so forth - the small community which depended on its own production and servicing its own members was fundamentally changed. People became freer. They also became less compelled to know one another. Trust had migrated into the symbolic world of money.

The symbol that is money is both a device to empower rapid and wide trade in all kinds of things, and a veil between buyer and seller. I don’t have to engage, negotiate, observe, judge or decide in the same way, now that this thing called money can flow between me and the world: I go to the shops and buy things without knowing who made them, how they were made, perhaps not even whether or not they are of good quality, based on a collective assessment that ‘these items are worth so many coins’. Value is determined not by me after a bit of haggling and a close communication with the purveyor, but by a generality called ‘the market’, which ironically isn’t like the social engagement centre that markets used to be but a vague, relentless, unfeeling entity with which I can never have affinity, even though it demands from me my trust. The society that someone called ‘capitalist’ has grown up with tremendous energy and inventiveness, creating new products, new methods of doing things, new ways of interacting - but it has also almost entirely dissolved the very real and tangible bonds which used to be paramount between one living, breathing individual and another. We have shrunk back into our suburban homes, knowing only our immediate family members, interacting very little with our communities, perhaps not even recognising, much less sharing things with, our neighbours.

In a sense, money is like language. Human beings invented letters, and put them together into words, then words into sentences, so that symbols could serve to speed up and energise human relationships. Without language, we operated, no doubt, something like the bulk of the animal world, on a mixture of rituals, pheromones, gruntings and tactile communication. The invention of symbols, both vocal and written, meant that the scope of what could be done was blown wide open. As with money, language opened up the future; one could discuss and record ideas about other needs, less immediate than the tactile interactions of the day; huge changes, new directions, new paths became possible. What we lost, arguably, was the innocence of the moment, the tactile, olfactory, visual and auditory immediacy of the language-less.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon money, in the same way that I’m not suggesting that we abandon language. But I think it’s important to recognise what both were for and the risks associated with them. Language freed humanity from the Now; money freed humanity from the Now. If the Now is a kind of anchor point, a harbour to which we need to periodically return, then we need to be wary of anything which takes us too far out onto the High Seas.

By all means, seek the freedom which money may bring, just as words empower you to seek limitless adventure. But don’t lose track of home.

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