Since Introduction to Macroeconomics with Professor Michael Claudon in my Freshman year, I have been passionately infatuated with the study of money and its profound effects on every aspect of our civilization and society. It is one of life’s greatest marvels that something so ephemeral, dependent completely on a communal belief in its power, could be responsible for almost everything that man has ever made. How could we be so motivated by scraps of metal and paper that we would organize our entire lifestyle and human existence around it? I have always been both fascinated and repulsed by our obsession with wealth; while money can motivate incredible and beneficial projects, it can also serve death and destruction. Two of the most fundamental concepts from that Econ 101 course involved the origin of money as a substitute for the inconvenience of direct barter and the writings of Adam Smith and “the invisible hand” of the benevolent capitalist market in which everyone pursuing their own self-interest leads to the greater good of competition.
This was the bedrock on which all Economic study in my major was based, but in Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber challenges this very foundation as he traces the roots of our modern financial system to a time before money, when people conceived of debt, exchange and ownership in completely different ways. He is an anthropologist approaching this topic from people’s perspective rather than money’s, while linking spirituality, war, commerce and family to their common elements and role in societies through the ages. Before cash and precious metals, people believed they were born into debt, both to their mothers, who bore and fed them in a way that could never possibly be paid back in any equivalence, and to the community that created the language and tools with which they would make their own contributions. It was a spiritual connection to their ancestors and community that gave their life meaning and purpose. As it would be impossible to directly pay back those who had contributed to their life, they were compelled to pay it forward to the next generation in an eternal societal debt circle. He describes early social life as “human economies” because they traded people: wives were given and received with token and ceremonial gifts of feathers or shells which represented the transactions while acknowledging that humans are priceless and any compensation is simply a symbol of debt. Unfortunately, force and violence have always been a part of human history and can remove any semblance of exchange from a transaction, making war and slavery a logical choice for those with the means. Graeber claims that the first markets to use currency were established by invading armies and done simply by requiring conquered citizens to pay a tax in the established scrip, forcing them to sell items and services to earn the money paid to the expatriate soldiers by the king, thus providing the army’s needs and creating the foundations of a market economy. When Adam Smith wrote about capitalism in the 18th Century, he described it as a populist free market, where no intervention was necessary to find equilibrium and competition would benefit all. But can there actually be a truly FREE market where the threat of government violence or prison influences every transaction we make, and would we actually want an economy that wasn’t regulated with some consequences? In addition, Graeber notes that Smith’s simplified example of inconvenient barter economy never actually existed on any relevant scale in his lifetime, with a limited supply of small change, most daily transactions were local and based solely on credit, with occasional reckonings where a community would gather and cancel debts to one another in a circle. The concept of interest and usury is central to modern finance, but was forbidden by almost all of the world’s religions until logic and law made it permissible over the last few hundred years and obviously only because those who held the power also controlled the money supply. Today, we live in a financial world dominated by instruments and tools designed almost exclusively to grow the money supply through debt and increase production but, as we are starting to realize, infinite growth on a finite planet may not be sustainable and could produce disastrous results for our wealth and heath if we aren’t careful.
I went to the Brooklyn Museum today to see an exhibition by the West African artist El Anatsui, who uses scavenged tin cans and bottle caps to create enormous striking and shiny patchworks. The art is powerful aesthetically and conceptually, taking human detritus and making something beautiful with our waste. I wondered about the motivations for these creations, and while he is an internationally renowned artist who is surely compensated well for his works, I’m sure he is working for a greater purpose than cash. Wandering through the other exhibits in the museum and seeing eternal artifacts from different historical civilizations, from ancient Egypt to contemporary Brooklyn, I am reminded and reassured that money is not the only reason for creation and that, in our humbled awe of human existence, we can freely pay homage and worship it through art and abstraction. Our culture is built on all that came before it and this unpayable debt can define our purpose infinitely more than a lifetime of earnings.