A Question at Once Simple, yet Complex (and Potentially Dangerous): Money – What’s Up With That?
This essay takes an abstract notion that we no longer recognise as being abstract, money, and questions what might happen if we choose to stop believing in it as a necessary part of human existence. In choosing to view ‘money’ in this way, there is little need to engage with the economic thoughts and principles of the ‘masters of money’, either old (Smith, Hayek, Keynes, et al) or new (Sharpe, Sachs, Greenspan, et al), because they merely peddle a fallacy – that money is all-important to human life. Instead, we should question the validity of money and the wide ranging effects it leaves in its wake, as we bear in mind the essay’s leading question: Money – what’s up with that? What’s up with selling children and adults into slavery? What’s up with wanting to earn/horde money at the expense of other human beings? What’s up with killing other humans for diamonds, oil, opium, territory, etc.? What’s up with killing animals for their skin, horns/tusks, head, flesh, etc.? What’s up with the endless consumption of ‘goods’ and ‘services’ in the ‘developed’ world, as billions exist in conditions of hunger and poverty? What if we gave up our obsession with, and misguided belief in, money?
A good old-fashioned literary term, the suspension of disbelief, may help when attempting to tackle such questions, but first we must consider the many ways in which the seeming ‘realities’ of life differ from what is actually going on around us on a daily basis. In the face of such contradiction and paradox, we as humans choose to block-out, or ignore certain things altogether in order to carry on with our daily routines. Here are a few non-money related examples to test this thought:
- (Our planet – deity free version) The earth is circa 3.5 billion years old and has passed through cycles where its temperature has fluctuated from extremes of heat to extremes of cold and everything in between, yet we view our attempts at controlling ‘global warming’ as some kind of achievable goal as we hurtle through space at a few hundred thousand miles per hour whilst orbiting a huge thermo-nuclear reactor (our ‘sun’) that will eventually grow so huge that the earth will be burnt to a crisp, allegedly.
- (Our planet – deified version) The earth is around 6,000 years old and is presided over by some sort of beneficent god, and has only ever been blighted by plague, famine, and/or flood at the will of such a god(s) (small ‘g’ because I hope to not favour one denomination/religious belief over another).
- (Imagined boundaries) Those who have flown and have had the chance to look down upon the earth notice that there are no lines surrounding the countries, states, and/or territories they fly over. Countries, states, and/or territories are all part of a collective imagination in which we choose to suspend our disbelief. In a similar vein, and very much still in keeping with the aviation model, the vast bulk of the land one flies over (and here I can only refer to those developed countries that I have seen for myself from the air) whether it be across North America, Europe, or Asia, is ‘countryside’, for want of a better term. It may be farmed for agriculture or other purposes, or it may be ‘wild’, but it is certainly not land that is built upon. Cities, at least from the air, are not all that imposing after all; and in spite of figures warning us that our population of circa 7 billion is likely to reach 10 billion pretty soon, the earth’s population is not all that great when you choose to put it into some sort of context – if all of the planet’s human inhabitants stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder, they would not cover the surface of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands in the South Pacific[i] – but generally, we choose the suspension of disbelief model; or we listen to the people who say that to do so would not be practical because it would be too crowded (it is not a suggestion, merely a hypothesis aimed at gaining perspective on the issue).
The idea here is not to mock those of us who choose to believe or not believe the versions noted above, but to show that there are times in life when we choose to suspend our disbelief in order to function. If we thought of our position as it really is on a daily basis, on a rock (one of the many rocks in our solar system), flying through space at alarming speeds that we are unable to perceive due to gravity’s ability to hold us in place (which sounds bizarre when you stop and think about it), then we might just be forgiven for running around screaming that the sky is about to fall in (sort of Chicken Licken fable-ish); or, if we choose to relinquish our faith in a higher being that we cannot actually see, touch or hear in a bona-fide concrete way, then pretty much the same running and screaming may occur. The suspension of disbelief model is a valuable tool to avoid such a scenario.
So how does a suspension of disbelief model apply where money is concerned? Let us consider our history and our relationship to money. It is commonplace to attach value to ‘things’, whether they are the things of modern life (smart phone, data plan, false tan, etc.) or things that have existed since humans first walked the earth (clothing, food, shelter, etc.). The main difference between the things of modern life and those of the first humans is that the concept of value and its measurement are now regulated, recognisable, and beyond the control of the bulk of the earth’s population: i.e. in the production of ‘money’. The perceived value of things, and indeed the ‘need’ for such things, has become abstracted from us by this very regulation and control. For example, imagine I am one of the first humans to walk the earth and I have had a successful hunting/gathering trip, but I have not the skills to build a shelter for myself. Yet I am able to recognise that there are others better equipped at building shelters and who may be interested in sharing my spoils, and in exchange they may provide me with shelter. In such an instance I am an influencing factor, along with those I deal with, in the process of ascribing value to a) the spoils hunted and gathered, and b) the shelter I require – now, would we describe the spoils as money, or the shelter as money, or both, or neither? Ask yourself why, or why not?
Leap forward a number of millennia and the ability to hunt and/or gather has diminished because we as a species have ‘evolved’, and not only that but the access to land to hunt/gather on is limited as we live in a society where private property is a key factor in the accumulation of wealth. So, instead, I take my actual money (paper, cotton, or metal) or plastic card, the value of the currency I use being set/managed by others, and head for a shop where a price is set/given by those running the store. I hand my money over in exchange for such goods, either physically or electronically. Neither the value of the goods (the prices vary on a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly basis) nor the value of the currency is stable, yet we all think we have a good understanding of what we refer to as ‘money’ – it is the paper, cotton, metal, or plastic I/we use to ‘buy’ said goods. But in this example, and in the one above, how is it that money, which really only stems from the regulation and control of value, is seen as so stable and so unquestionably ‘real’?
The reality of money is now such a motivating factor that humans will go to great lengths to acquire it. But what can our walk through history tell us about this kind of acquisition? Take the poor old cow, for instance. A beautiful and intelligent animal, revered by many, but one that is exploited beyond all reason – for its milk, meat, and skin. The cow is believed to be the oldest form of ‘money’ used by humans, but I doubt any of us would consider walking into a shop to purchase goods in exchange for a cow. And what about cowrie shells (is the ‘cow’ of cowrie just a happy coincidence)? How would we feel walking into a shop with a pocket full of shells as our currency, or tulip bulbs for that matter? The point being made here is that money is not stable. Things have value ascribed to them and those values change over time – sometimes things that were once so valuable and sought after are now just commonplace and value-less.[ii]
Now this all seems pretty simple, and I imagine the reader to be asking the question: So what? Well, what I am moving towards is a question that follows on from that of the title (Money – what’s up with that?), and asks instead: Do we need money? Many will see this as a stupid question and will choose to answer ‘yes’ without actually spending any time thinking about it. What I ask is that the reader suspend their disbelief (at the thought of considering such a stupid question) for a little while longer.
There will be those who choose to object to even considering such a question:
- Those in positions of ‘power’, such as heads of state, monarchies, oligarchs, dictators, business moguls, crime-lords/ladies, etc., will object because money to them is as important as life itself, which is why they protect their money with ferocity and aim not to allow all but a minority to possess it in great quantities. Likewise, and for much the same reasons as the above, there will be those who are not in positions of power but with ambitions that aspire to achieve such positions of power. For both of these groups, such a question is tantamount to a threat and they will go to extremes to counter such ideas, stopping at nothing until such a threat is eliminated.[iii]
- Then there are the masses that work for a living and choose the suspension of disbelief model unthinkingly on a daily basis – must work, must earn money, must raise children to believe the same, must do so until death brings relief (and a hefty inheritance/death tax bill), etc. This group is generally too busy consuming to consider doing anything else other than what it does best – move (unthinkingly) through life with respect to money as a central and necessary aspect of said life. This is the group that amasses debt throughout its lifetime, ensuring the continuation of the work/pay habit.
- Then there are those who have never had money in sufficient quantity to truly consider themselves to be living the life they wish for. This group may object because they have not yet had the chance to experience the ‘benefits’ of money, and may view such talk as spoiling the party before it is their time to arrive.
- Below this group is the world’s poor, people who value food, shelter, and protective clothing in much the same way as I imagine the first humans did – as some of the most important things in their lives. Money for this group is still very much an abstract notion.
So, who will persist with such a stupid thought? By devaluing (no pun) my own thoughts here, am I suggesting that to read on implies that you are stupid? No. To discuss the concept of money as something which is open to debate, and eventual eradication, requires a mind-set that is open and inventive. So please read on without fear.
If we forgot all about money, like an overnight amnesia of the fiscal kind, how would life be different? The short answer: it would not. Everything that exists in the world exists regardless of whether money is present or not. Value must be put to one side because it is too abstract a notion – I mean, I value an old, beat-up copy of a paperback book, but it is not worth more than a few pennies – so how can value be measured in this instance? It cannot, so do not try. Instead, think of what I am about to say as something that is credible and possible – go on, suspend that disbelief.
Overnight amnesia model with respect to money (a starter model, if you will):
Money disappears and we are faced with the world as it is today. There is still war, famine, and things that are not very nice. Those of us living in countries that are thought of as ‘developed’, with infrastructures such as schooling, medicine, transport, sanitation, etc., will see very little change to our daily routine, except for the fact that the control of our respective governments begins to dissolve as money becomes a distant memory – no need for taxation when money does not exist.
The tasks and routines of daily life will not disappear, at least not initially, because we still need food, shelter, and clothing. Progress, in terms of things changing, developing, improving, etc., is still possible because we do not lose skills overnight and it would appear that humans like to deal with change and modification. What would have to change to enable this is our mind-set with respect to how we view what we do. If I choose to work, doing what I know best, then I would choose either a role as educator (knowledge is valid as a source of comfort and joy, and an essential aspect of the human experience), or as a skilled worker (my ‘trade’, as it were). Instead of working for money, I work for the benefit of others – people just like me. They may choose to work doing something that does not benefit me directly, but I imagine somewhere down the line they will be of benefit to someone whose work impacts on my life in some way, therefore we are looking at a more advanced ‘relational’ model of living and working.
Of course, the countries ravaged by war, famine, and the like, will take their own time to readjust as they see fit, but without external influence governed by monetary gain (arms deals, oil deals, human slavery/trafficking, etc.) there will be little incentive to live a violent life, hell-bent on amassing great wealth when those around you do not value the wealth you yourself perceive. Think of me with my Lira, Drachma, and Deutschemark again – do you give a shit? Will you slit my throat to possess these for yourself? Of course not, they are worthless. Diamonds will just become shiny bits from the earth, as will gold, silver, and platinum – pretty to look at, but fucking pointless in terms of possessions.
Then there will be those who do not wish to work. Fair enough. Give it time. Life is pretty boring when you have nothing to do, and crime is no longer a valid option because money is no longer an end in itself. When you can have what you want, in terms of food, shelter, clothing, and time to spend with family and friends, why would you commit a crime? You would not. As for physical crimes of violence against fellow humans, well perhaps that is for another essay. And what of the progress I alluded to before? If money does not exist then it is no longer a barrier to making sensible decisions that will affect humankind both in the present and in the years to come.[iv] Invention and innovation will thrive now that the restrictions placed on them by money are removed. Everything on, and of the earth has no monetary value. We eat, sleep, develop, thrive, change, adapt, and innovate without money.
Lots of criticism and balking about how impossible the eradication of money is may ensue. Or it may not. Perhaps this will just be ignored as some sort of whacko-nut-job rant. But what if it were considered as a serious option? Stealing children to later sell them will cease as a practice. Exploiting people as sex slaves for money will cease. Murdering animals for horn and/or skin will cease. Killing other humans for diamonds, oil, opium, territory, etc., will eventually cease. Hunger and poverty will eventually cease to afflict billions around the world. Committing petty crimes to feed habits will cease. Ask yourself – who would object? How dangerous could such a thought be?
[ii] In fact, I keep a tin filled with old notes and coins of various currencies in a drawer at home: Drachma, Lira, Deutschemark, Franc, and Peseta – what are they worth now, these once regulated currencies?
[iii] Here is a contemporary tale that speaks of the lengths those in power will go to in order to silence such threats to their status quo of being in, and of having ‘money’ and ‘power’: (French version) http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2009/12/18/julien-coupat-la-prolongation-de-ma-detention-est-une-petite-vengeance_1197456_3224.html; (English translation found here) http://www.sikharchives.com/?p=4275
[iv] I recently had the roof of my house surveyed because companies keen to install solar panels under the government’s latest bout of funding (funding to assist with nullifying the effects of climate change, allegedly) targeted me. My house was rejected from the scheme because it wouldn’t produce enough energy, therefore, the investment banks accessing government funds to install solar panels wouldn’t make a huge enough profit on their initial investment. So, what was the motivating factor – profit or climate? (Solar panels are way inefficient anyway, some converting as little as 17% of the sun’s energy into power – even the most advanced attempts are struggling to reach a 50% target http://www.soitec.com/en/news/press-releases/world-record-solar-cell-1373/)