The Origin of Money 6 – The Roman World

Ancient Rome’s Wall Street as it looks today.

The Roman Empire is a Hellenistic Civilization brutally manhandled by a State apparatus of Italian origin.
–Paul Veyne, A History of Private Life

The Roman Empire expanded the military-coinage-slavery complex to encompass much of the civilized world as David Graeber explains:

In fact, the entire Roman empire, at its height, could be understood as a vast machine for the extraction of precious metals and their coining and distribution to the military-combined with taxation policies designed to encourage conquered populations to adopt coins in their everyday transactions. Even so, for most of its history, use of coins was heavily concentrated in two regions: in Italy and a few major cities, and on the frontiers, where the legions were actually stationed. In areas where there were neither mines nor military operations, older credit systems presumably continued to operate. [1]

The topic of the Roman economy is vast, and too complex for our survey of money. However, some important points can be made.

Ancient Rome was a market economy

One is that the Roman economy was probably the most market-oriented economy at least until the economies of the Age of Exploration in the North Atlantic, and possibly even until the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. Money relationships, especially at the height of the empire, were extensive, and products were moved and traded over long distances, especially over water (land transport would continue to be difficult and expensive until the advent of the railroad). Keith Roberts writes: “Some fifty million people throughout the empire enjoyed a largely peaceful and orderly state, with common languages, currencies, laws, and customs, where a money-based market economy prevailed. Not until the European Union in 1992 did Europe possess a common market of comparable geographic size. [2]”

It is useful to review once again the distinctions between different types of economies made in our study of primitive money: marketless (reciprocity and redistribution prevail); peripheral markets only (markets play only a tangential role with surplus commodities), market-dominated (i.e. peasant) economies (where large amounts of goods are for sale and many people make their living from market sales); and fully-integrated market economies, where all production factors are coordinated by markets and produced for profit.

Peter Temin has argued that the Roman empire should be properly classified as a market economy:

I argue first that many individual actions and interactions are seen best as market transactions. I…argue that there were enough market transactions to constitute a market economy, that is, an economy where many resources are allocated by prices that are free to move in response to changes in underlying conditions. More technically I argue that markets in the early Roman Empire typically were equilibrated by means of prices. P.6

There is no formal test to decide which kind of economy we are observing…for an economy about which we have fewer preconceptions we will need to ask several questions. Do the most important commodities, like food and lodging, have prices that move? Are there many transactions in which price appears to play a large part? Do prices move to clear markets? These questions will be answered affirmatively in the succeeding chapters… P.9

Going from markets to a market economy adds another level of complexity to the discussion. When Hopkins described Rome as a slave society, he did not mean that everybody was a slave. Similarly, not every resource in a market economy is allocated through the market. In both cases, the terms indicate that slaves and markets were important, even dominant, institutions. In twentieth-century America—arguably the purest market economy in history—economists have estimated that one-third of economic activity in the United States takes place within households, that is, in householding. The proportion was even higher in the ancient world, but I argue that the economy of the early Roman Empire was a market economy because of the importance and prevalence of market activity. P. 11 [3]

At one point, even the right to be emperor was auctioned off to the highest bidder:

As the bidding went on, the soldiers reported to each of the two competitors, the one within the fortifications, the other outside the rampart, the sum offered by his rival. Eventually Sulpicianus promised 20,000 sesterces to every soldier; Julianus, fearing that Sulpicianus would gain the throne, then offered 25,000. The guards immediately closed with the offer of Julianus, threw open the gates, saluted him by the name of Caesar, and proclaimed him emperor. Threatened by the military, the senate declared him emperor.

Early Coins

Coinage most likely arrived in the Italian peninsula through the influence of Phoenician and Greek traders and merchants. There is evidence that the Romans used iron and other metals as currency. Rather than circulate as lumps, however, the metals were used in much the same manner as the tally sticks we covered back in part two. That is, they were “struck” from a larger piece to signify debts, and the pieces were matched up to satisfy the debt. Alfred Mitchell-Innes describes the method:

In the treasure hoards of Italy there have been found many pieces of copper generally heavily alloyed with iron. The earliest of these, which date from between 1000 and 2000 years B. C., a thousand years before the introduction of coins, are called aes rude and are either shapeless ingots or are cast into circular discs or oblong cakes.

The later pieces, called aes signdtum, are all cast into cakes or tablets and bear various devices. These pieces of metal are known to have been used as money, and their use was continued some considerable time after the introduction of coins. The characteristic thing about the aes rude and the ags signatum is that, with rare exceptions, all of the pieces have been purposely broken at the time of manufacture while the metal was still hot and brittle or “short,” as it is technically called. A chisel was placed on the metal, and struck a light blow. The chisel was then removed and the metal was easily broken through with a hammer blow, one piece being usually much smaller than the other. There can be no reasonable doubt but that these were ancient tallies, the broken metal affording the debtor the same protection as did the split hazel stick in later days.

The condition of the early Roman coinage shows that the practice of breaking off a piece of the coins – thus amply proving their token character – was common down to the time when the casting of the coins was superseded by the more perfect method of striking them.

In Taranto, the ancient Greek colony of Tarentum, a hoard has lately been found in which were a number of cakes of silver (whether pure or base metal is not stated), stamped with a mark similar to that found on early Greek coins. All of them have a piece purposely broken off. There were also found thin discs with pieces cut or torn off so as to leave an irregularly serrated edge. [4]

Just as with the Greek coins, there seems to have been no consistent metallic standard:

The ancient coins of Rome, unlike these of Greece, had their distinctive marks of value, and the most striking thing about them is the extreme irregularity of their weight. The oldest coins are the As and its fractions, and there has always been a tradition that the As, which was divided into 12 ounces, was originally a pound-weight of copper. But the Roman pound weighed about 327 1/2 grammes and Mommsen, the great historian of the Roman mint, pointed out that not only did none of the extant coins (and there were very many) approach this weight, but that they were besides heavily alloyed with lead; so that even the heaviest of them, which were also the earliest, did not contain more than two-thirds of a pound of copper, while the fractional coins were based on an As still lighter. As early as the third century B.C. the As had fallen to not more than four ounces and by the end of the second century B.C. it weighed no more than half an ounce or less…

An important thing to remember in reference to Roman money is that, while the debased coins were undoubtedly tokens, there is no question of their representing a certain weight of gold or silver. The public had no right to obtain gold or silver in exchange for the coins. They were all equally legal tender, and it was an offense to refuse them; and there is good historical evidence to show that though the government endeavored to fix an official value for gold, it was only obtainable at a premium.

The coins of ancient Gaul and Britain are very various both in types and in composition, and as they were modelled on the coins in circulation in Greece, Sicily and Spain, it may be presumed that they we reissued by foreign, probably Jewish, merchants, though some appear to have been issued by tribal chieftains. Anyhow, there was no metallic standard and though many of the coins are classed by collectors as gold or silver, owing to their being imitated from foreign gold or silver coins, the so-called gold coins more often than not, contain but a small proportion of gold, and the silver coins but little silver. Gold, silver, lead and tin all enter into their composition. None of them bear any mark of value, so that their classification is pure guess-work, and there can be no reasonable doubt but that they were tokens. [5]

Silver mining.

Just as with Athens and its slave-worked mines at Laurium, it was the discovery of vast deposits of silver that allowed Rome to expand its military-coinage-slavery complex. These mines were located in Spain and became part of the empire when Rome defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars and incorporated their territories. The scale of operations at the Rio Tinto mine were vast, so vast, in fact, that nothing like it was seen until comparatively modern times:

…ice-core analysis showed that during the period 366 B.C. to at least A.D. 36, a period when the Roman Empire was at its peak, 70 percent of the global atmospheric lead pollution came from the Roman-operated Rio Tinto mines in what is now southwestern Spain.

The Rio Tinto mining region is known to archeologists as one of the richest sources of silver in the ancient world. Some 6.6 million tons of slag were left by Roman smelting operations there.

The global demand for silver increased dramatically after coinage was introduced in Greece around 650 B.C. But silver was only one of the treasures extracted from its ore. The sulfide ore smelted by the Romans also yielded an enormous harvest of lead.

Because it is easily shaped, melted and molded, lead was widely used by the Romans for plumbing, stapling masonry together, casting statues and manufacturing many kinds of utensils. All these uses presumably contributed to the chronic poisoning of Rome’s peoples.

Adding to the toxic hazard, Romans used lead vessels to boil and concentrate fruit juices and preserves. Fruits contain acetic acid, which reacts with metallic lead to form lead acetate, a compound once known as ”sugar of lead.” Lead acetate adds a pleasant sweet taste to food but causes lead poisoning — an ailment that is often fatal and, even in mild cases, causes debilitation and loss of cognitive ability.

Judging from the Greenland ice core, the smelting of lead-bearing ore declined sharply after the fall of the Roman Empire but gradually increased during the Renaissance. By 1523, the last year for which Dr. Rosman’s group conducted its Greenland ice analysis, atmospheric lead pollution had reached nearly the same level recorded for the year 79 B.C., at the peak of Roman mining pollution.

Ice Cap Shows Ancient Mines Polluted the Globe (NYTimes)

Banking in Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome had a fairly sophisticated banking apparatus. In the city of Rome itself, banking was centered in the Forum, along the Via Sacra (further cementing the link between temples, money and religion). The first “banks” were most likely pawn shops, where items were held as collateral for credit. This was the case in ancient China, for example.

In ancient Rome were two basic forms of banking. One we might compare to the basic moneylending, or “payday loan” stores. This was run by the argentarii, or “silver-men.” These were typically plebeians, or sometimes former slaves. They made short-term loans and money advances with varying rates of interest. They also changed money, and took deposits for safe-keeping. Their behaviors were subject to regulations.

Run-of-the-mill banking was regulated in ancient Rome, and argentarii needed to maintain accounts of their transactions. For Latin jurists, “what characterized a bank [argentaria] was the twofold service that it provided: receiving deposits and advancing credit”. Some deposits were just for safekeeping and yielded no interest (vacua pecunia), while others did earn interest (creditum). The latter could be invested, but not the former. However, most of the loans advanced by the argentarii were apparently short term and local. In essence, the argentarii were your neighborhood bank—that is, banking for the average Joe (or the average Caius).

How Do You Say Wall Street in Latin? (Liberty Street)

High finance was a different story. This was something closer to our modern banking system. Here one could transfer large sums of money to far-flung provinces, or arrange payments and contracts, and even engage in speculation. This was run by members of the upper-class, especially the equites (knight) class. These people already had wealth and estates, but still sought out activities in order to increase their wealth in the market economy.

Aristocratic finance—the faeneratores—was quite a different business, a sort of proto-“shadow banking system.” Elite financiers weren’t subject to any special regulations. They would invest in far-flung places, especially the provinces, and would have intermediaries (societas danistaria) making sure their loans produced a good return. Sometimes they would act as private wealth managers (procuratores) for other patricians who didn’t want or didn’t know how to invest their money (unlike in the Middle Ages, lending with interest was not taboo in Rome, but spending all the time in the Forum was not considered very classy for a senator). Elite financiers had political power and, throughout Roman history, they would exercise it.

The First Financial Crisis – 33 A.D.

We tend to have images of people in ancient times primarily making purchases of vegetables in farmer’s markets with gold and silver coins, yet even by the time of Christ fairly complicated and interlinked banking systems were already commonplace. Money was already virtual, and capital moved long distances with the stroke of a stylus on a wax tablet, or the movements of beads in an abacus.

Looking back, it was easy to see that the crash was coming. There had been too much cheap money. Debt had exploded. Speculation was rife. The gap between rich and poor had widened. Welfare spending had risen. The financial system was so stretched that even a modest tightening of policy was enough to make it impossible for over-borrowed debtors to service their debts.

The US in 2007? No, this was imperial Rome during the reign of Tiberius in AD33. It was not the first documented financial crisis; that dubious accolade goes to the states of the Delian League in ancient Greece, which defaulted on their debts following a naval blockade by Sparta.

But a time traveller would see remarkable similarities between the unfolding of the Roman crisis of almost two millennia ago and the 2007-09 crash. The calling in of loans led to a credit crunch. Debtors went to the wall. Prices fell. The emperor arranged for the most heavily indebted to get interest-free loans for three years. A “bad bank” was set up. Tiberius financed his own version of quantitative easing, not by selling imperial bonds but by confiscating wealthy Romans’ assets.

Banks fiddled while Rome burned: how to predict the next global financial crisis (The Guardian)

Even back in these times, The crisis appears to have been a case of financial contagion.

“The important firm of Seuthes and Son, of Alexandria, was facing difficulties because of the loss of three richly laden ships in a Red Sea storm, followed by a fall in the value of ostrich feather and ivory. About the same time the great house of Malchus and Co. of Tyre with branches at Antioch and Ephesus, suddenly became bankrupt as a result of a strike among their Phoenician workmen and the embezzlements of a freedman manager. These failures affected the Roman banking house, Quintus Maximus and Lucious Vibo…These two firms looked to other bankers for aid, as is done today. Unfortunately, rebellion had occurred among the semi civilized people of North Gaul, where a great deal of Roman capital had been invested, and a moratorium had been declared by the governments on account of the distributed conditions. Other bankers, fearing the suspended conditions, refused to aid the first two houses and this augmented the crisis.”

When Publius Spencer, a wealthy noblemen, requested 30 million sesterces from his banker Balbus Ollius, the firm was unable to fulfill his request and closed its doors. Over the next few days, prominent banks in Corinth, Carthage, Lyons and Byzantium announced they had to “rearrange their accounts,” i.e. they had failed. This led to a bank panic and the closure of several banks along the Via Sacra in Rome. The confluence of these seemingly unrelated events led to a financial panic.

To protect themselves, banks began calling in some of their loans. When debtors could not meet the demands of their creditors, they were forced to sell their homes and possessions, and with money unavailable even at the legal limit of 12%, prices of real estate and other goods collapsed since there were so few buyers. A full scale panic followed. The panic occurred not only in Rome, but throughout the Empire…

Once again, we see that the system of money is really not coins or precious metals, but an underlying system of debits and credits.

The response to this contagion by the Roman state has been compared to the “quantitative easing” done by the Federal Reserve after 2008, except with the Roman state bailing out the banks by expanding the money supply:

100 million sesterces were to be taken from the imperial treasury and distributed among reliable bankers, to be loaned to the neediest debtors. A loaf of bread sold for half a sestertius and soldiers earned around 1000 sesterces annually. So this was about an equivalent of around $2 billion in modern terms considering the lower population at that time. The loans were to be interest free. No interest was to be collected for three years. Security was to be offered at double value in real property. This enabled many people to avoid selling their estates at distress prices, arresting the contraction in prices and ensuring that the lack of liquidity would be addressed. Many banks just never survived.

Financial Panic of 33AD (Armstrong Economics)

This ought to put to rest the idea that there was ever a “pure” market economy that could function indefinitely without any sort of government involvement or “interference” whatsoever, as libertarians claim. If such a thing could not be accomplished in the “primitive” pre-industrial conditions of the ancient Roman economy, how can we be so delusional as to think it would be possible in the fully-integrated international market economies of the Space Age, where money moves around the world at the speed of light and all production factors are coordinated by anarchic markets?

Offshore Banking and Tax Havens

The Classical world developed offshore banking centers similar to modern-day entrepots like the Cayman Islands, Panama and Singapore. These trading areas were “neutral zones” outside of the control of any formal states, and as a result, social protections did not exist. As a result such places developed into places where wealth was traded and hidden beyond the control of governments. Michael Hudson describes the most famous of these havens—the island of Delos.

[Delos’] commercial role was catalyzed in 146 BC when Rome destroyed Corinth and Carthage, and by the general breakdown of authority in the Aegean resulting from the fact that in destroying Rhodian naval power, Rome removed the single major check to piracy. Delos did not take its place in keeping Aegean commerce free from pirates. Indeed, it became their major market!

Matters were greatly aggravated after 142 BC when an ambitious military officer, Diodotus Tryphon, led a revolt to break Cilicia (in what is now southern Turkey) and neighboring Syria away from their Seleucid rulers. He organized the Cilicians into pirate fleets, and his freebooters managed to take over such government as there was in the region.

The pirates quickly monopolized the most lucrative trade of the period — that in slaves. As Strabo described matters: “Prisoners were an easy catch, and the island of Delos provided a large and wealthy market not far away, which was capable of receiving and exporting ten thousand slaves a day . . . The pirates seeing the easy gains to be made, blossomed forth in large numbers, acting simultaneously as pirates and slave traders.” They sold spoils and captives from Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt to the burgeoning southern Italian market to work as slaves on the large agricultural plantations, in handicraft workshops, or simply as household servants.

The temple of Apollo, sun-god of justice, supporting rather than curtailing the activities of the influx of pirates, merchants and usurers, provided a protective screen for the basest commercial speculations. The historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff has described how “the free port of Delos [was] left completely in the hands of bankers, merchants and traders . . . While in the early days of Delos the city was an annex to the temple, now the temple became a kind of appendix to the community, bankers with the corresponding amount of labor, mostly servile.” Each of the island’s ethnic and professional groupings formed its own cult association to represent its mercantile, shipping and banking interests. From southern Italy, for instance, came the cults of Mercury and Maia, Apollo and Poseidon. A Phoenician cult was centered in a temple replete with porticoes to display its members’ merchandise.

Yves Garlan refers to pirate-controlled Cilicia and its emporium on Delos as “counterstates,” and Rostovtzeff calls them “a new phenomenon among the city-states of Greece.” Tarn calls Delos’s relationship with the Cilician pirates an “unholy alliance . . . Delos became the greatest slave-market yet known, and as the eastern governments began to grow weaker their subjects were drained away; Bithynia is said to have been half depopulated.” He concurs that Delos represented “a unique kind of form . . . the foreign business associations became ‘settlers,’ and in their totality constituted ‘Delos,’ seemingly without any city forms at all, but under an Athenian governor; that is, political precedents were subordinated to the requirements of trade.”

The last thing the Delian merchant class wanted was a public authority to regulate its entrepot trade in captured cargoes, slaves or, for that matter, honest goods. “It is evident that the residents of Delos were not very much interested either in the temple or in the city,” concludes Rostovtzeff. “Delos was for them not their home but their business residence. What they cared for most was not the city or the temple but the harbors, the famous sacred harbor, and especially the three adjoining so-called basins with their large and spacious storehouses. It is striking that while these storehouses are open to the sea there is almost no access to them from the city. This shows that very few goods stored in them ever went as far as even the marketplaces of the city. Many of them came to the harbor, spent time in the storehouses, and moved on, leaving considerable sums in the hands of the Delian brokers. In fact in the Athenian period the city of Delos was but an appendix to the harbor. So soon as the activity of the harbor stopped, the city became a heap of ruins and it was again the temple which towered over these in splendid isolation.”

The anti-Roman leader Mithradates of Pontus received support from the Cilician pirates, and in turn gave his support to Delos. An uprising against Rome resulted in the massacre of Italian merchants and creditors throughout Asia Minor and Greece in 88 BC. Some 20,000 Romans and their retinues reportedly were killed on Delos and the neighboring islands. The pirates later turned on Delos and looted it. Rome retaliated, and the accession of Augustus a half-century later finally cleared the Mediterranean of piracy and restored peace. This dried up the sources of the Delian trade in slaves and pirate contraband.

From Sacred Enclave to Temple City (Michael Hudson)

‘Debasing’ the Currency

The causes of Rome’s collapse is a heavily politicized subject. Every political viewpoint has their own pet theory about “the” reason why Rome fell, which they project onto the past. Environmentalists might cite environmental destruction. Conservatives like to point to some sort of “moral rot”. The Alt-right points to the welfare state and breeding rates of the “inferior” poor people, i.e. dysgenics. More leftist political activists might point to extreme inequality and out-of-control military spending.

Advocates of anti-government libertarianism such as Ron Paul and Zero Hedge tirelessly argue for a return to the gold standard and argue that debasing the currency and government spending is what caused Rome to fall. In their telling, wasteful government spending was “out of control” causing the Romans to issue coins with less and less precious metal, thereby causing a loss of faith in the currency and the “free market” economy to fall apart. If only Rome had pursued “sound money” policies, they argue, we would still be building aqueducts and speaking Latin today.

However, there is another explanation for the inflation which plagued the Roman Empire, as Tim Johnson explains, citing the work of Geoffrey Ingham:

Monetarists have long argued that the fall of the Roman Empire was facilitated by an economic collapse caused by a dilution of the currency resulting in inflation. The Monetarist explanation is that the Emperors’ needed more coins to pay their armies and since they had a fixed amount of gold bullion to make coins, the coins had to be debased. Since the ‘gold price’ of goods was fixed, the ‘money (coin) price’ had to rise, because with debasement more coins were needed to deliver a fixed quantity of gold.

Advocate of fiat money theories counter argue that the Emperors raised taxes in the core provinces of Gaul, Spain and the Middle-East, and spent these taxes in Rome (public entertainment) and the frontier provinces (on the army). The core provinces obtained coins, tokens that enabled them to pay taxes, by selling goods to Rome. As long as this circulation was maintained all was well. However a combination of factors, over-reach by the Empire, natural famine and a decline in the supply of slaves — the main means of production— began to disrupt the circulation. Since the state still had to pay the army, coin flowed into the system, but taxes did not drain it out again and more money chased fewer goods, resulting in the inflation.
Fiat money is representative money but not necessarily credit money. In the Roman Empire banks did not exist, and the state could not fund its activity by borrowing from the market, as states started to do in the medieval period. There was a credit-debt type relation in the Roman economy, the state was buying goods with IOUs, in the form of the coin, which it redeemed through the tax system. If you were living on the Danube and felt the presence of the Goths more keenly than the Legions, you might well not bother to trade your produce for Roman tokens, causing scaricty at the centre and disrupting the circulation of currency.

Lady Credit (Magic Maths and Money)


One notable aspect of the Roman Empire is how much of it was built not through the activities of the state, but through private efforts oriented towards profit. Keith Roberts writes, “Yet another Roman difference was the public sector’s heavy use of private business. In the ancient Middle East, the rulers had largely operated the production and distribution of goods and services, leaving private business a marginal role. In Greek and Hellenistic cities, by contrast, the state left virtually all production and distribution to private entities [4]”

Rome pioneered the use of the publicly traded business corporation, where shares were tradeable and fungible, and production was undertaken for profit. Military supply and requisition was done by publican societies, which were essentially private contractors. Rome’s private contractors behaved exactly as the private contractors supplying America’s vast military machine do today: by profiteering and price-gouging to the maximum extent possible. The result was the same: funneling the state’s wealth to a small circle of corrupt and wealthy insiders who use their money to keep the gravy train going. It also undermined the professionalism and competence required to keep Rome’s far-flung military operations viable:

During the [Punic] war, the Roman army, which had previously provided its own food and clothing, needed others to provision, arm, and supply it. Since there were few public employees, the Senate turned to private businesses. The need for public contractors became even greater after the war, when Rome required managers, accountants, and tax collectors to operate its captured mines, quarries, forests, grazing meadows, and fisheries. The army, keeping order, had little capacity to manage these new resources. Its forces consisted only of militias raised for particular expeditions. The governors, who served only a year or so, rarely cared enough to build managerial staffs. Their eyes remained firmly fixed on a future in Rome.

The contracts for managing state resources, ultimately extended to providing public supplies and services, including the collection of customs dues and other levies, were auctioned off around the Ides of March, when an official would solicit bids in the Roman Forum. The bidder, known as the manceps, had to provide guarantees of performance, secured with pledged property. A guarantor’s liability passed to his heirs, and title to the pledged property was held under seal in the temple of Mercury.

Many of these contracts were too large, risky, long lasting, and complex for individuals. Nor could individuals or partnerships risk the open-ended financial liabilities that the contracts could entail. Partnerships, which dissolved when any partner died, were also too unreliable. Roman lawyers instead found and adapted an ancient entity, the societas publicani. Publican societies became the first business corporations in Western history. As public contractors, publican societies could hire employees; own necessary assets like cash, land, buildings, and slaves; and make contracts.

Limited liability and perpetual life allowed them to attract the large investments they needed. They profited not only from contracts, but also seized every business opportunity that their large staff and financial power could turn to profit. They supplied and traded with the Roman legions and their soldiers and often dominated local commerce as well [6]

Perhaps the major task of the publican societies was tax collection for the state. Tax collection in the provinces was “outsourced” to tax farmers, who agreed to deliver a set amount of money to the central government. Anything over and above that amount was pure profit, incentivizing them to squeeze as much profit as they could from the provinces. This tended to cause tax revolts, which needed to put down by the state (with the tax farmers keeping the profits, of course):

Their most valuable public contracts were for tax farming: private tax collection. Roman taxes took many forms. Property taxes were the most important, although the Senate, whose members owned a great deal of Italian land, used the spoils of victory over Macedonia to eliminate property taxes in Italy–an exemption they enjoyed for several centuries. There were also border tolls, customs duties, and sales taxes on slaves. Augustus created the inheritance tax for Roman citizens in 6 C.E. Caligula taxed food, lawsuits, porters’ wages, and prostitutes, and his successor Vespasian added -vegetables and public toilets…

Publican societies became so profitable that virtually the entire Roman elite, including senators who were theoretically prohibited from commerce, avidly invested in them. Shares of ownership, called particuiae (“little parts”), were traded in the Forum, making it perhaps the world’s first stock exchange. Equestrians, who faced no bar to active involvement even if they belonged to senatorial families, often sponsored the societies and managed operations…

The government’s relationship to publicans evolved over time in a way that strikingly resembles the evolution of international business by modern corporations. Initially, the government sold territories to the publicans, who like independent distributors ran their own operations and took a large share of the revenues. These deals were often corrupt and costly to the treasury. Later, when a large imperial staff allowed closer supervision, the publicans merely earned a commission on the revenues collected. By the third century C.E. the imperial staff had taken over collections completely and publican societies disappeared. [7]

The combination of private organizations and the desire for riches and loot from the provinces, were the prime drivers for imperial expansion. But as Rome expanded, conquering new territories brought increasingly diminishing returns. The people at the top of the hierarchy, whether businessmen, equestrians, senators, or generals, got rich. But for the average Roman, however, including the “middle class” in the provinces who bore the brunt of taxation, as well as the troops, these developments only led to more poverty, corruption, and violence:

While generating huge profits the publican societies were causing the military considerable grief in the provinces. Publicans aimed to maximize revenues, and the short term of their five-year contracts made exploitation rather than cultivation the method of choice. With revenue a simple measure of success, their agents had to be ruthless or lose their jobs, whatever their personal sympathies. The managers and financiers back in Rome lived far away, like the upper management of multinationals today, and could easily ignore the hardships they imposed. The result was that the publicans “were often dishonest and probably always cruel. In Spain, where powerful tribes remained hostile to Rome, the publicans provoked such frequent rebellions that the Romans called it the horrida et bellicosa provincia (“horrible and warlike province”).

Uprisings were of little concern to publican management so long as the army suppressed them. Normally, then, publicans reaped the benefits of their ruthlessness while largely escaping its costs. The soldiers, on the other hand, were endangered. They also suffered personally from dishonest publican suppliers.

In one horrible instance, when Rome was on the brink of destruction by Hannibal it hired publicans to gather and deliver urgently needed provisions for Scipio’s army in Spain where it was desperately trying to cut Hannibal’s supply route. Instead, the patriots bought and sank rotting old ships to simulate a natural loss, sold the provisions on the black market, and claimed compensation for the alleged loss.

Governors had difficulty controlling publicans. Short terms and minuscule staffs made supervision difficult. Moreover, they or their families were often investors. Governors also depended on publican societies. Publican couriers carried their mail, and the societies often provided branch funding governors abroad and collecting reimbursement in Rome…many governors … joined the publicans in exploiting the provinces for themselves. So despite enormous military antagonism, the publicans usually had a free hand. [8]

In his book Are We Rome?, Cullen Murphy indicts creeping privatization–the substitution of private interests seeking gain in place of the public good–as a critical factor in the fall of the Rome:

Serious challenges to any society can come from outside forces-environmental catastrophe, foreign invasion. Privatization is fundamentally an internal factor, though it has an impact on the ability to face external threats. [Ramsay MacMullen in his important study Corruption and the Decline of Rome]…asked this question–How does power become powerless–out of dissatisfaction with the many theories put forward to explain Rome’s gradual decline in the West. His answer is privatization–the deflection of public purpose by private interest.

Such deflection of purpose occurs in any number of ways. It occurs whenever official positions are bought and sold. It occurs when people must pay before officials will act, and it occurs if payment also determines how they will act. And it can occur anytime public tasks (the collecting of taxes, the quartering of troops, the management of projects) are lodged in private hands, no matter how honest the intention or efficient the arrangement, because private and public interests tend to diverge over time. Privatization, whether legal or corrupt. is how the gears of government come to break. In Rome. the consequences were felt in every area of society… [9]

Roman Agribusiness

The existence of well-developed and lucrative export markets spurred the development of what we might today call agribusinesses. These were centered around plantations called latifundia which were staffed by gangs of slaves under the supervision of a foreman. These were owned by absentee owners instead of owner-operators and were focused on export commodities. While most other ancient societies attempted to preserve self-sufficiency for their citizens on the land, the Roman world removed systems of self-support for many people, turning them into dependents and eviscerating the agrarian “middle class.” This gave rise to the “bread and circuses” which were designed to pacify the restless urban proletariat.

Roman agribusiness…began with the Second Carthaginian War. As in Greece and Pergamum, war’s slaughter of peasants made it possible. Italian deaths numbered in the hundreds of thousands and even survivors were often absent for seven years or more while Hannibal’s armies ravaged their families and farms. Many peasants lost their land or sold it at distressed prices, and others fared worse, as noted by Sallust: “While the generals and the cliques seized the spoils of war, their soldiers’ parents and children were driven from house and home if they had stronger neigbbors.

Just as this calamity for peasants was allowing those who profited from the war-patricians whose estates supplied the city and the army, officers enriched with Carthage’s booty, and sundry war profiteers–to acquire land at fire-sale prices, the market system that had replaced subsistence farming around Rome was making it feasible to generate profits by raising crops for sale. The value of supplying that market would only increase during the republic’s remaining centuries as more and more Romans got their provisions from it: 60-90 percent of Rome’s residents by the end of the republic in 31 B.C.

Patrician eagerness for profit helped drive this commercialization. Rome enjoyed an explosion of wealth as publican societies won huge new contracts to operate the mines, forests, fisheries, and other facilities captured from the Carthaginians in Spain. Newly prosperous landowners, publican shareholders, and military officers flush with Carthaginian booty financed increasingly extravagant displays of luxury. An intense new interest in money took hold while conservatives like the historian Sallust complained that avarice was “the root of all evil. Greed undermined loyalty, honesty and the other virtues. In their place it taught arrogance, cruelty, disregard for the gods and the view that everything was for sale.

After the war with Hannibal, patricians with access to markets were therefore keen to make farming pay…The greatest innovation…was to use enslaved farm labor. This became feasible where land acquired in the wake of the war came largely free of peasants, clearing the way to use slaves. Slaves were more productive than peasants. Peasants came with hungry families, set their own work schedules, and produced no more than they had to. They participated only marginally in the cash economy, consuming roughly 60 percent of what they produced, using 20 percent for seed, and paying rent and taxes before they could make the occasional purchase. They stoutly resisted change, and as citizens they could not be easily coerced.

Slaves, on the other hand, did what they were told. They were normally single men fed five pounds of mostly cheap gruel per day. It has been estimated that twenty slaves could be fed on what eight peasants and their families consumed. Moreover, in the decades after the war little or nothing was spent to clothe or house field slaves, who were branded in the face, slept in chicken coops, and normally went chained and naked under the overseer’s whips. Although they quickly died, replacements were cheap. In Italy, the use of slaves even cut the one tax landowners had to pay, a head tax on peasants. According to most historians, the Italian slave population, most of them on farms 86 rapidly grew to what contemporaries estimated at two million by the late republic and remained at that level for centuries afterward.[10]


The guild system appears to have been the major way of organizing skilled labor from its beginnings up through the Industrial revolution (outside of household methods of production, that is). While the guild system is associated by most people with the Medieval period, it turns out that guild systems existed as far back as ancient Babylon, and guilds were plentiful in Ancient Roman times. Guilds had a monopoly on the service they provided. At its heart, the guild system provided the following:

  • A way of ensuring high quality standards of workmanship and consistency or goods and services.
  • A way of passing down essential craft skills to future generations (apprenticeship), and a way of ensuring the competence of practitioners (mastery).
  • A way of pooling resources among the guild members for mutual support. Guilds pooled their resources to pay for insurance.

The prime agents of this industrial freedom were the craft guilds: independent self-governing bodies, established typically in equally self-governing cities, which provided for the education, the discipline, and the sustenance of their members, from youth to old age, in sickness and health, and cared for the widows and orphans of their brothers in need. Not least, the guilds set for themselves standards of qualitative performance: quantity production, as such, did not play a part except where the guild system itself had broken down. [11]

Guilds functioned as the ancient world’s licensing bodies, lobbying groups, regulatory standards bodies, and unions, all in one. When they were smashed, many of these functions had to be taken over by the state out of necessity, including the provision of social insurance, which was formerly provided by the guilds.

As the number of crafts and the number of craftsmen…multiplied, the practitioners of the various skills tended to collect in certain quarters of the city or on certain streets for the convenience of customers and suppliers. This congregation of specialists led to one of the most far-reaching and long-lasting socioeconomic innovations of the ancient world: the craft corporation or guild.

In its beginnings the craft association was evidently religious-social in character. Each association had its patron god or goddess, and its members held their own communal religious services, while a mutual-aid function similar to that of modern trade unions included funds for sickness and burial- but in time the guilds came to undertake the regulation of production and fixing of standards. In the Roman Empire the government gave its sanction and reinforcement to the guild movement, out of an interest in assuring continuation of craft production and in regulating it for the benefit of the state. Ultimately the Roman corporations became so closely controlled that they functioned virtually as a part of the state apparatus.

Related to the historical development of craft guilds was the tendency toward occupational heredity, a trend best documented, like the guild movement, in Rome. The naturalness of occupational heredity-a father teaching his son his trade-is evident enough, but in the later Roman Empire it received the powerful sanction of law. The reason lay in the general economic decay that affected various occupations unevenly-rendering some ill paid or debt ridden. Practitioners of these crafts naturally sought to escape into more lucrative or easier work.

Consequently, among the “reforms” of Diocletian were laws compelling sons to follow in their fathers’ footsteps lest trades essential to the state wither. Among these essential occupations were those of the millers and bakers who supplied Rome with bread, the carpenters and masons w ho built and maintained the public buildings, the armorers and ironworkers who equipped the legions, and the transport workers on land and sea. Eventually” as the catastrophic economic decline of Rome continued, the reactionary and harmful system was extended to nearly all crafts and professions, There is little doubt that Diocletian’s laws received support from popular attitudes, which favored people’s staying in “their place” and frowned on upward mobility. [12]

Guilds are depicted by the modern economic priesthood as enemies of progress because they resisted the techniques of mechanized mass production. However, the guild members were independent and self-sufficient, and not property-less workers dependent on wages to survive.


Roman “business” and politics was conducted through the patronage system, which was at the heart of the Roman social relationships. Patronage was a relationship between a patron and one or more clients. Similar to the feudal system, the patronage system entailed duties and obligations between people, mediated by status (as opposed to contractus–legal contracts).

The patronage system has been compared to the honor bonds between members of the Sicilian Mafia, or the Japanese concept of giri. Giri undergirds Japanese business in a way that is alien to those of in the Western World where business is impersonal, and relationships are just conveniences mediated by cash transactions alone. Keith Roberts writes, “Another Roman innovation was its patronage system, a binding norm of relationships that regulated social and organizational life. This loyalty-based type of relationship so effectively inspired trust that it allowed Roman businesses to transcend the family-based model of earlier times, while ensuring a far more meritocratic and free-flowing distribution of credit.” [13] The patronage system, rather than impersonal legal contracts, is how stuff got done:

By modem standards there were not a great many officials or bureaucrats in Rome until late in the empire; the administration and well-being of the capital and all the other cities and towns depended on the talents and the largesse of the upper classes, and on the patronage networks they controlled.

In the system’s idealized form, the elites and their clients constituted an interlocking force for cohesion. A memorable passage in Jerome Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome describes what happened every morning soon after Romans woke up, when all around the city clients visited their patrons, and each was alert to the other’s needs. …Carcopino writes:

“From the parasite do-nothing up to the great aristocrat there was no man in Rome who did not feel himself bound to someone more powerful above him by the same obligations of respect, or, to use the technical term, the same obsequium, that bound the ex-slave to the master who had manumitted him. The patronus, for his part, was in honour bound to welcome his client to his house, to invite him from time to time to his table, to come to his assistance, and to make him gifts.”

The patron-client relationship was so pervasive that it helps illuminate not only Rome’s social architecture but also, quently, its way of conducting foreign affairs. The term “client state” came into being for a reason… Patronage spilled over into communal adornment; it was in fact inseparable from it. The Roman magnates competed with one another to endow the capital with improvements…

The expectation in Rome, maintained over many centuries, was that affluent citizens, as individuals rather than as taxpayers, should provide for community needs. Did the city require another aqueduct? An emergency supply of wheat? A fountain? New roads? Baths? A stadium? A temple? Repairs to the walls? Some magnate would surely provide it-in return, implicitly, for a measure of public power, and of course for ample public recognition. Inscriptions on countless marble fragments attest to such generosity ….. an early version of “brought to you by . .’ You can’t sit drinking an espresso in front of the Pantheon without noticing that you have M. Agrippa (the name rendered in very big letters) to thank for the original building…[14]

Ancient Rome as Creditor Oligarchy

According to Michael Hudson, Rome eventually developed into what he calls a “creditor oligarchy.” Money relationships allowed a small portion of the population to enslave the majority in debt.

[10:00] What people think is the start of Western civilization was the falling apart of [the] Near Eastern origins of civilization; of this economy that had been put together in a very well-organized [way]. All of a sudden, instead of the public institutions, you had local chieftains occurring, and in Rome, very soon you had the aristocratic families overthrow the kings and the functions that were in the public sector in the Near East all of a sudden were taken over by private families. Let’s call them the mafia, because that’s basically what the Roman oligarchy was.

And there was a complete change in policy from the Near Eastern Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity. When a new ruler would come to the throne in Mesopotamia, the first thing they would do on their first full year on the throne was to proclaim a clean slate, and that’s because a lot of the debts that were denominated in barley couldn’t be paid…there was a general understanding that debts tended to grow faster than the ability to pay…

…What happened by the time of 133 BC was, in Rome, you had basically a Milton Friedman philosophy of free markets by the oligarchy. And what they realized in Rome was exactly what Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger realized in Chile. You can’t have a free market for creditors if you don’t murder everyone who disagrees with you. If you don’t kill everyone who wants to cancel the debts, if you don’t kill everyone who knows history, if you don’t kill the labor leaders, you can’t have a free market oligarchy-style.

So they murdered the Gracchi. They murdered the supporters of the debt cancellation. Essentially there was a hundred-year social war in Rome. And the result was by the time the empire got going, one quarter of the Roman population was in debt bondage or outright slavery.

Michael Hudson: Money & Debt (YouTube)

It is thought that this extreme inequality was a fundamental factor in Rome’s collapse. An impoverished and demoralized population has no investment in the continuance of a society which offers them little but exploitation and immiseration.

Economic Growth

This link gives a good summary of the rise and fall of the Roman economy based on the work of Dr. Phillip Kay: Economic Growth in Ancient Rome (Capitalism’s Cradle)

The Fall

The dispersal of the public good into private hands led to a disintegration of the state. Eventually, there simply was no state anymore; the government’s orders went unheeded and people lost faith in the ability to declare and enforce laws. Private power, often exercised by local chieftains and warlords, filled the void, resulting in in a political fragmentation.

IN THE END, Rome was heading toward something the Romans couldn’t, by definition, have a term for. But we do: it’s the Middle Ages. The precise definition of “feudalism” is one of those things on which medievalists can’t quite agree-the field is divided into warring fiefdoms- but the historian F. L. Ganshof discerned in feudal society one basic quality: a dispersal of political authority amongst a hierarchy of persons who exercise in their own interest powers normally attributed to the state. Public interest had become private.

This isn’t the place for an extended excursion across a thousand years of Western history. In brief, for many centuries power was wielded in Europe by monarchs and vassals as if it were a form of private property. ‘The levying of taxes, the raising of armies. the meting out of justice-these things were done in the name of the ruler, and the fruits of his administration were enjoyed by those who acknowledged the ruler’s personal lordship. The eventual path away from the Middle Ages was marked by the halting emergence of governments defined by communal interest rather than private prerogative…

Whatever the root cause, the result was undisputable: a dissolution of centralized authority, relocalization of the economy, simplification of society, flight from cities and cancelling of debts. Many economies returned to subsistence. Nomadic Tribes settled in many parts of the empire, and traditional tribal arrangements prevailed. Money and markets, for the most part, went away. [15]

Money and markets make a comeback in the Middle Ages, beginning with the great recoinage under Charlemagne. However, while the Roman coins were introduced into a unified monetary space, the new coins would be introduced into a fragmented political landscape. This had profound ramifications that we’ll consider next time.

[1] David Graeber; Debt: The First 5000 Years, pp. 230-231

[2] Keith Roberts; The Origin of Business, Money and Markets, p. 133

[3] Peter Temin; The Roman Market Economy

[4] Wray, Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of Alfred Mitchell-Innes, p.38

[5] Wray, Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of Alfred Mitchell-Innes, p.25

[6] Keith Roberts; The Origin of Business, Money and Markets, p. 149

[7] Keith Roberts; The Origin of Business, Money and Markets, p. 149-151

[8] Keith Roberts; The Origin of Business, Money and Markets, p. 160

[9] Cullen Murphy; Are We Rome?, pp. 97-99

[10] Keith Roberts; The Origin of Business, Money and Markets

[11] Lewis Mumford; The Myth of the Machine, Vol. 1, pp. 133-13

[12] Melvin Kranzberg and Joseph Geis, By the Sweat of Thy Brow: Work in the Western World, pp. 41-41

[13] Keith Roberts; The Origin of Business, Money and Markets, p. 133

[14] Cullen Murphy; Are We Rome? pp. 97-99

[15] Cullen Murphy; Are We Rome? pp. 97-99

Note: some of this materials was cited in my summary of Privatization in the Ancient World. I have removed it from there and placed it here.

The Origin of Money – 5: Money and the Classical World

Depiction of ritual sacrifice from the Parthenon

The First Global Economy

During the Bronze Age trade expanded across the eastern Mediterranean to such an extent that that some historians refer to this as “The first age of globalization.” The ancient palace civilizations achieved maturity—Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Mycenaeans, Persians, Canaanites, and many others developed vast and complex trade and exchange networks with neighboring cultures large and small. Cargo ships plied the seas, rivers and canals, transporting goods from as far afield as India and the British isles. Yet this was still accomplished not through monetary exchange networks or banks, but rather through gift exchange carried out primarily by ruling elites. Rulers attempted to cultivate artificial family ties with other rulers, or sometimes literal ones through intermarriage (the exception being Egypt, which never intermarried), as Eric Cline explains in 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed:

[The Amarna letters]…provide us with insights into trading and international connections in the time of Amenhotep III and Akhenaten during the mid fourteenth century B.C. It is apparent that much of the contract involved “gift giving” conducted at the very highest levels–from one king to another.…Another royal letter, from Akhenaten to Burna-Buriash II, the Kassite king of Babylon, includes a detailed list of the gifts that he has sent…Similar detailed letters with comparable long lists of objects, sometimes sent as part of a dowry accompanying a daughter and sometimes just sent as gifts, come from other kings…We should also note that the “messengers” referred to in these, and other, letters were often ministers, essentially sent as ambassadors, but were frequently also merchants, apparently serving double duty for both themselves and the king.

In these letters, the kings involved often referred to each other was relatives, calling one another “brother” or “father/son,” even though they were usually not actually related, thereby creating “trade partnerships. ” Anthropologists have noted that such efforts to create imaginary family relationships happen most frequently in preindustrial societies, specifically to solve the problem of trading when there are no kinship ties or state-supervised markets. It is not always clear what relationship merits the use of the term “brother,” as opposed to “father’ and ‘son,” but it usually seems to indicate equality in status or in age, with “father/son” being reserved to show respect..[1]

This “global sphere of trading” fell apart during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries B.C., during a period referred to by historians as the “Bronze Age Collapse” Societies all around the Mediterranean region became less complex and decentralized. Many different factors contributed to the collapse; so many that historians tend not to refer to a single cause, but rather a “perfect storm” of events which precipitated the collapse. Among them are:

-Climate change
-Environmental destruction
-Resource depletion (e.g. topsoil, timber)
-Volcanic eruptions
-Disease epidemics
-Military invasions of the so-called “Sea Peoples”

The Palace Economies of the Minoans and Mycenaeans faltered and disappeared. In their place, landed estates, often controlling large herds of livestock, became the new centers of power. The Dorian invaders came down from the north and colonized Greece, ushering in a tribal society ruled by an aristocratic warrior elite. This was an early regime of privatization as Michael Hudson describes:

From 1200 BC to about 750 BC in the Mediterranean you have a Dark Age. Apparently you had not only very bad weather around 1200 BC – maybe a small Ice Age and drought – but the weather and crop failures led to mass migrations and invasions. The palaces of Mycenaean Greece were burned and syllabic writing disappeared for nearly 500 years.

Then, when you have alphabetic writing emerging, the person whose title originally meant “local branch manager” of the palace workshop suddenly appears as the basileus, the ruler. But mostly you have landholding aristocracies holding the population in debt serfdom (like the Athenian hektimoroi, “sixth parters” liberated by Solon in 594 BC). It was much like the post-Soviet kleptocrats when Red Managers gave themselves control of their companies. When central power falls apart, local headmen take over. The dissolution of royal power led to privatization – including the privatization of credit, taking it and its rules out of royal hands. So Clean Slates stopped.[2]

Dark Age Greece

This is the culture that is depicted in the foundational tales of Western Literature—the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greek warrior aristocracy was based around certain key principles:

1.) Absolute loyalty to one’s chief/ruler/king.
3.) Reciprocal gift exchange among aristocrats, especially upon parting.
1.) The sharing out of booty to warriors after the successful sack of a city or the defeat of one’s enemies.
2.) Ritual sacrifice to the gods, especially of oxen, and the partitioning out of roast meat to all adult male members of the tribe.

Greek oligarchs would commonly exchange “prestige goods” such as sacrificial tripods in a form of ceremonial gift exchange. The would also often exchange brides. Bride exchange, reciprocal gift giving among chieftains and distribution of booty to warriors in raids formed the basis for economic life in Dark-Age Greece. In these institutions, we see the same basic mechanisms at work in tribal societies studied by anthropologists today:

These three simple mechanisms for organising society in the absence of money-the interlocking institutions of booty distribution, reciprocal gift-exchange, and the distribution of the sacrifice-are far from unique to Dark Age Greece. Rather, modern research in anthropology and comparative history has shown them to be cypical of the practices of small-scale, tribal societies.

Of course, such pre-monetary social institutions have assumed many forms, reflecting the peculiar circumstances and beliefs of the peoples in question. But the anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry have identified a widespread twofold classification. Comparative studies a similar pattern of two related but separate transactional orders: on the one hand, transactions concerned with the reproduction of the long-term social or cosmic order; on the other, a sphere’ of short-term transactions concerned with the arena of individual competition. The premonetary institutions of the Homeric world conform to the scheme.

On the one hand, there was the primeval institution of the sacrifice and the egalitarian distribution and communal consumption of its roast meat-a ritual expression of tribal solidarity before deity probably inherited from the most distant Indo-European past. This was the institution that governed the long-term transactional order. The other, there were the conventions of reciprocal gift-exchange and of booty distribution. These were the rules that governed the “short-term transactional order,” concerned not with cosmic order and harmony between the classes but with the more mundane matter of ensuring that the everyday business of primitive society-drinking and hunting when at peace; rape and pillage when at war-did not dissolve into chaos.[3]

The ritual sacrificial meal was particularly notable. Unlike the more hierarchical societies of the Near East, the sacrificial meal enforced a more egalitarian social order in which every individual member of the community had value in relation to their status. There was also the notion of debt to the gods and redistributive justice. Such rituals were under the control of the warrior aristocracy and were conducted in their estates, which also functioned as early temples. Meat was distributed on metal spits, called obols, and ownership of the spit was to affirm one’s status as an adult male member of the tribe:

…the most important redistributive activity was…a highly ritualized communal sacrificial meal. Conducted in honor of a commonly-worshiped divinity, the tradition consisted of a public killing, roasting, and eating of sacrificial animals. The objective of the ritual was to establish solidarity and social cohesion among the members of the community.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the communal sacrificial model was its egalitarian emphasis, manifest in “just” and “equal” distribution of roasted bull’s meat among the ritual participants…While the ritual employed the principles of collective participation (koinōnia) and “equal distribution to all”, one’s equal share corresponded to one’s social status…The just shares allocated to ritual participants differed not only in quantity, but in quality as well. The more honored parts of the sacrificial animal, such as the limbs, were customarily allotted to religious officials…

…Purporting to allocate just and equal shares to the members of the not-so-equal community, the all-inclusive rituals of communal sacrificial meals aimed to create an appearance of harmonious and consensual social relations, thus concealing the underlying reality of social hierarchies and economic inequalities…

To service the ritual, sacrificial offerings were made, mostly in oxen, whereby religious officials stipulated the precise quality, type and quantity of cattle to be contributed, thereby establishing the first standardized unit of account guaranteed by the authorities… [4]

This “ox-unit standard” resembled the silver standard used in Mesopotamia insofar as the religious authorities determined the “standard of value” by which everything else was measured. This was the origin of pricing systems – ranking values of disparate things against each other, as David Graeber points out:

Why were cattle so often used as money? The German historian Bernard Laum long ago pointed out that in Homer, when people measure the value of a ship or suit of armor, they always measure it in oxen-even though when they actually exchange things, they never pay for anything in oxen. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was because an ox was what one of­fered the gods in sacrifice. Hence they represented absolute value. From Sumer to Classical Greece, silver and gold were dedicated as offerings in temples. Everywhere, money seems to have emerged from the thing most appropriate for giving to the gods. [5]

Meat-sharing is an ancient concept which goes back to the hunter-gatherer origins of humanity (and earlier). The offering of specially-selected parts of the sacrificial animal to elites is reminiscent of the “thigh-eating chiefs” of the Kachin hill tribes in Burma studied by Edmund Leach, and the role meat distribution played in their society. Such rituals both reaffirmed the tribe’s debts to their ancestral spirits, and reinforced the status hierarchy in the material world. In these cases, the sacrifice indicated a debt was owed to the spiritual world of the gods and ancestors:

The animal sacrifices of the Kachin, called nat galaw, or “spirit making,” were built on the age-old principle of reciprocal gift-giving. One sacrificed to a nat (a nature spirit) to put him in one’s debt, expecting him to return the favor. The nat took only the nsa, “breath or essence,” from the sacrificial animal, leaving the meat to be shared by humans at a feast…When the Kachin were in rank mode, the ritual required an additional step: one hind leg from each animal sacrificed was given to the hereditary chief. This was a form of tribute, justified by the chief’s genealogical relationship to Madai (a highly-ranked nat). The high nat partook of the essence of the animal, while the chief’s family ate the meat. As some Kachin expressed it, they were ruled by “thigh-eating chiefs.” [6]

It’s worth pointing out once again that distinction between religion and the state which is common in our own modern cultures was nonexistent in past societies. Societies were bound by concepts like kinship, tribal affiliation, geographical origin, language, custom, and religion. The impersonal nation-state which binds strangers together through bureaucracy and the rule of law is an imaginary concept which was yet unknown.

Due to the fact that possession of the sacrificial spits–the oboloi–affirmed one’s membership in the tribe, they acquired a certain value as currency. They were commonly placed in tombs and acquired a symbolic value in exchange apart from their metal content:

In contrast to most ancient near-eastern societies, the Greek polis had retained sacrificial ritual that embodied the principle of communal egalitarian distribution. The fact that the Greek word for this distribution (moira) came to mean ‘fate’ indicates the importance of the distributional imperative. Citizenship was marked by participation in communal sacrifice, which also provided a model for the egalitarian distribution of metallic wealth in standardised pieces.

Probably the spits were distributed with meat on them. They were dedicated in sanctuaries and placed in tombs, because they had communal prestige deriving from their role in the communally central ritual of sacrificial distribution. It was because they had this communal prestige that they could work as proto-money. Greek money (in contrast to say Babylonian silver) was not just a generally exchangeable commodity: rather, it had a conventional value that depended on communal confidence (and in that sense was a kind of IOU), and so prefigured modern money, which is merely transferable credit. [7]

From the spits by which sacrificial meat was distributed, it appears that bronze, copper and iron ingots determined by weights were utilized as a form of proto-currency as early as 1100 BC in Greek culture. Sparta maintained its currency in the form of metal ingots and never made the transition to coinage in order to preserve the hierarchical non-monetarized relations of its society: “Plutarch states the Spartans had an iron obol of four coppers. They retained the cumbersome and impractical bars rather than proper coins to discourage the pursuit of wealth.”[8] The use of money would have engendered unacceptable levels of inequality and undermined the esprit d’corps required for Sparta’s distinctive warrior society to function.

The Rise of the Greek Polis

As the Dark Ages waned and the Classical World dawned, a new form of social order emerged: the Greek polis, a self-governing community of landholders centered on a city-state. Victor Davis-Hanson, in his book,The Other Greeks, attributes this development primarily to Greek farming practices.

The Greeks had developed a highly efficient method of mixed farming centered around the cultivation of barley, grapes, and olives, supplemented with gardening and animal husbandry (especially of sheep and goats). Grapes and olives were well-suited to the rocky soil of Greece, and allowed farmers to produce a consistent surplus. While large landowners grew cereals (mainly barley) on level, fertile land using many slaves, the hillsides were terraced and intensively cultivated and irrigated by small landowners in order to grow grapes and olives in small plots of 10 to 20 acres using 1 or 2 slaves.

Over time, this marginal land became highly productive, and the independent small landowners became the center of the political life rather than aristocrats with large estates. This led to a much more egalitarian social structure. Small farms fed by rainfall meant that key resources could not be put under the centralized control of a bureaucratic elite, unlike the irrigation agriculture systems of the Near East. The power of the old warrior aristocracies, with their large herds, landed estates, raiding parties, gift exchange, and ancestral temples, gave way to a different social order–the polis. The relative equality in wealth led these middling yeoman farmers (the ‘Other Greeks’) to create a political structure which protected their common interests–i.e. democracy, where leaders were chosen from among the general (male) population, and key decisions were made by citizens. Rather than justice being meted out by a semi-divine king, justice would be dispensed by an assembly of the people, with fines assessed according to the unit of account and paid with the common currency of the polis:

How would the polis affirm the equal worth of its members? It took the idea of sacrificial meat distribution and extended it, distributing standardized lumps of metal in place of the spits with roast meat on them. These metallic pieces could be used in exchange, much as the handfuls of spits were. As with the spits, the value would derive from the communal confidence of members of the polis, and would circulate as token money with values determined by the civic body.

At first, the pieces of metal distributed were the iron spits utilized for the roasting of the sacrificial animals. The production of such spits began on a large scale during the late eighth century BC (or around 700 BC) leading to their mass production during the entire seventh century BC. The roasting spits continued to circulate, though in smaller quantities, until the first half of the sixth century BC. During this period, the roasting spits (which were destined for communal distribution) came to be standardized in size, reflecting the old sacrificial tradition of “equal portions to all”.

Gradually then, the distribution of roasting spits came to be replaced by the allotment of coinage, which likewise came to be standardized. It is no wonder, then, that obolos, a sixth century BC silver Greek coin, derived its name from obelos meaning an iron spit. Another sixth century BC Greek coin of a larger denomination, drachma, originally meant a handful of six spits…the earliest Greek and Lydian coins did not begin as media of exchange in commerce, but functioned “in the same fashion as the portion of food distributed at the sacred meal”…coinage was distributed by the polis to its male citizens. It has also been established that some of the earliest monetary “transactions” were carried out among unequal social partners, and included sexual “exchange” between men and women…the use of coinage in payment for goods evolved out of its use in payment for personal services.

The administration of distributive justice is…key to understanding the origins and functions of early Greek money and coinage…The unequal distribution of wealth prompted a “decline of faith in the reliability of divine justice”, thereby creating a new social problem of instituting “a political means of payment controlled by humans so that they would not have to rely on the uncertain rewards of the gods”

…Introduced by the city-state as a unit of account for expressing the worth of its male citizens, the purpose of coinage was to resolve the crisis of distributive justice…Rather than facilitate trade, whether foreign or domestic, the initial purpose of coinage was to “(re)establish social justice within the polis”. In contrast to the uncertainty associated with divine justice, coinage could compensate virtue “immediately and precisely”, and payment in “stamped tokens” came to be associated with “just recompense”. Possession of coinage came to signify the acceptance of the civic authority of the polis.

In establishing its own model of distributive justice, the emerging authority of the polis adopted the idealized model of communal egalitarian distribution, but substituted durable metal objects for perishable pieces of meat…The emerging authority of the polis, then, attempted to dismantle the aristocratic model of power by distributing metal pieces to those who accepted the political authority of the polis instead. The distribution of metal pieces into the hands of the citizens would subvert the aristocracy’s monopoly over the use of (precious) metal in the closed sphere of aristocratic gift-giving.[10]

The first coins were issued by civic temples, which functioned as the first treasuries. The public temple usurped the role of the landholder’s private estate and ancestral temple and created a radically new egalitarian social structure which facilitated the use of money. They also reaffirm the link between money and the sacred:

…the temple-state was at the center of the polis and its priests mediated the relationship between subjects and deities. Deities were owed sacrifices and the temples who received these goods and services as sacrifices eventually came to replace the cooked flesh of bulls–which was originally given as a gift for contributing to the temple–with coins made of electrum (a natural gold and silver alloy). Coins essentially represented a receipt that subjects had contributed to the temple…Thus…the origins of money can be found in religious sacrifice and recompense mediated by priestly authorities.[11]

Indeed, contributions to religious societies have been offered as another source of the origins of money, going back to the work of Bernard Laum in the 1920’s:

Bernard Laum…traced money back to the contributions of food and other commodities to guild organisations of a religious character. In his view, their root is to be found in the communal sacrifice. Members of temple brotherhoods were obliged to make ceremonial contributions or kindred payments to the temples or other redistributive households. Laum interpreted these payments as early food money, for whose value the monetary metals later were substituted. But although food contributions bore an administered price in the sense of being standardized in amount, it would be a quantum leap to deem them ‘money.’ Along with injury fines these formalities represent personal liabilities, mainly for restitution or, in time, tax assessment, but not yet the freely negotiated market exchange of commodities.

The media for tax payments would seem to be the bridge concept. The German word for money, Geld, derives from Gothic gild, ‘tax,’ but an early connection to paying fines is indicated by Old Icelandic gjald, ‘recompense, punishment, payment’, and Old English gield, ‘substitute, indemnity, sacrifice’. The idea combines the ethic of mutual aid with the idea of a standardized equality of contributions.

In the first instance religious institutions would have sanctified these contributions and given them the connotation of fixed obligatory payments. Such payments to the community’s corporate bodies appear to have been transformed into tributary taxation when cities were conquered by imperial overlords and turned these institutions into collection agents. This inverted the traditional relationship of voluntary gift givers or sacrificers gaining status by their contributions reflecting openhandedness and wealth. As taxes were coercive levies, their payers lost status by submitting to a tributary position. [12]

The issuance of an official currency stamped with the government’s “seal of approval” (e.g. Lydian lion, Athenian owl, Corinthian horse) was an activity that affirmed the identity and independence of the city. As historians Austin and Vidal-Naquet put it, “In the history of Greek cities coinage was always first and foremost a civic emblem. To strike coins with the badge of the city was to proclaim one’s political independence.”

These coins came to acquire value throughout the Greek world, facilitating trading and markets. Their value derived from the faith placed in the polis, the community of equals. In turn, the issuance of money and the rise of markets came to influence the political development of Greek society:

Besides its egalitarian effects, coined money also promoted individual autonomy, which would tend to dissolve the vertical lines of patronage (based on reciprocity) that we find for instance in Homer (e.g. Odysseus and Eumaios). This was, I suspect, a precondition for democracy, which at Athens arrived a mere generation or so after coinage.

Moreover, control of the central supply of money was (in contrast to now) visible and simple. It was usurped first in various cities by the ‘tyrants’ and then, at Athens, by the people (demos), and remained essential to democracy. Many of the numerous city-states minted their own coinage, and so had this potential for democracy. But Athens was a special case, not least because (almost uniquely) it had its own supplies of silver, and then came in the fifth century to control the money supply of most of the Aegean Sea.

Coinage arrived in Attica later than in the cities of the eastern Aegean, where philosophy originated in the early sixth century BCE. Athens was culturally insignificant until the late sixth century BCE, by which time it finally had coinage en masse and moreover had begun to extract much silver from the mines at Laurium in south-east Attica. In a newly monetised world this silver (together with gold and silver from Thrace) was crucial for the development of festivals and of temples, for the origin and splendour of drama, for the building of a fleet, and eventually for Athens as a cultural center to which (as we see in the dialogues of Plato) philosophers were attracted from various parts of the Greek world.[13]

This strongly affirms the idea that money is a creation of the state, or whatever we wish to term the collective entity to which everyone owes a social obligation which exists in every society over band level (often referred to as the ‘sovereign’ by monetary theorists). Monetary theorists point out, for example, that the prime way for a fledgling political entity such as the Islamic State (IS) to define itself as a “legitimate” government is to issue its own “official” currency which is legal tender in the areas under its control. It then assesses taxes in this unit of account. The unit of account must be established by a supra-market entity before monetization of the economy and internal trading can take place.

Coinage and Metals

It is well-known that the first “official” stamped coins (in the West) were minted in Lydia and Ionia on the coast of present-day Turkey. Metal deposits of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, were under the control of the royal household. This substance was issued in lumps by the government with stamps certifying the government’s authority. It was illegal for any other entity to issue these stamped coins.

It is often stated that what gave the coins their value was the certification by the state of their metal content. Because they were issued by an “official” government mint, it is claimed, a trader or merchant could be assured that he or she was getting the “correct” amount of metal in the coin without the costly and time-consuming process of weighing the coins. He could be assured by the “seal of approval” that coins did indeed contain the quantity of metal that they desired. In this view, issuing standardized “official” lumps of metal greased the wheels of commerce which had existed long before then, but were encumbered by uncertainty. Put another way, “coins were simply the form in which precious metal traveled.”

This fits with the “metallist” doctrine that markets are spontaneous and self-regulating, and that issuing currency is merely a ‘convenience’ on the part of governments. Even without such issuance, the argument goes, “free” markets would muddle along just fine, just with the added inconvenience of having to weigh out the gold and silver everyone is exchanging goods for. Furthermore, changing the “official” metal content in any way is “debasing” the currency, and should never, ever be done, because the amount of metal in the coin is fixed for all time, and it is this metal which gives the coin its value. Furthermore, paper money is just a promise to redeem a certain amount of precious metal in some form.

The problem with this is that throughout history, there has been no consistent metallic standard for coins. While later Lydian coins eventually became standardized in weight and composition, this was more for convenience of manufacture rather than adherence to some sort of standard (defined by whom?). The early coins were amalgams of gold and silver, with no way of determining the proportion of each:

Evidently, the value of the earliest coins could not derive from their metal component: the earliest Lydian coins were made of electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, the internal composition of which is highly variable by nature. This means that a coin’s weight, purity and fineness could not be standardized…the final choice of silver as the minting metal for coinage was a political decision and had little to do with the intrinsic properties of the metal…

Given the association of gold with the old aristocracy, and the crisis of redistribution as manifest by unequal distribution of metallic wealth (most importantly, gold and gold artifacts), the polis chose silver as the minting metal, and silver coinage aimed to represent “the community of citizens” who were all equal as they were made of “the same noble substance”.

Rather, it appears that the nominal exchange value of metal coins was set by governments, and always has been. This value was assessed according to the prevailing unit of account. Coins circulated at a value higher than their commodity value, otherwise they would simply have been melted down. In fact, this has happened throughout history when the commodity value of the coin has risen above its nominal value. The commodity value of the metal functions as a “floor” underneath the value of a coin–a level beneath which it will not fall, encouraging its use.

The reason we tend to think that precious metal is what gave the coins value is because coins are what have survived. They are what sit in museums and what are found by the thousands at archaeological sites. Meanwhile, the systems of credit clearing, taxation, and establishment of monetary value by state authorities have long since vanished. So we mistakenly assume that people were exchanging coins for their metal content, despite the fact coins have a dizzying array of metal quantities and standards throughout history, often even in the same time period and geographic location, as Alfred Mitchell-Innes writes:

…throughout the whole range of history, not only is there no evidence of the existence of a metallic standard of value to which the commercial monetary denomination, the “money of account” as it is usually called, corresponds, but there is overwhelming evidence that there never was a monetary unit which depended on the value of coin or on a weight of metal; that there never was, until quite modern days, any fixed relationship between the monetary unit and any metal; that, in fact, there never was such a thing as a metallic standard of value…

The earliest known coins of the western world are those of ancient Greece, the oldest of which, belonging to the settlements on the coast of Asia Minor, date from the sixth or seventh centuries B. C. Some are of gold, some of silver, others are of bronze, while the oldest of all are of an alloy of the gold and silver, known as electrum. So numerous are the variations in size and weight of these coins that hardly any two are alike, and none bear any indication of value. Many learned writers…have essayed to classify these coins so as to discover the standard of value of the different Greek States; but the system adopted by each is different; the weights given by them are merely the mean weight calculated from a number of coins, the weights of which more or less approximate to that mean; and there are many coins which cannot be made to fit into any of the systems, while the weights of the supposed fractional coins do not correspond to those of the units in the system to which they are held to belong.

As to the electrum coins, which are the oldest coins known to us, their composition varies in the most extraordinary way. While some contain more than 60 per cent of gold, others known to be of the same origin contain more than 60 per cent of silver, and between these extremes, there is every degree of alloy, so that they could not possibly have a fixed intrinsic value. All writers are agreed that the bronze coins of ancient Greece are tokens, the value of which does not depend on their weight. All that is definitely known is that, while the various Greek States used the same money denominations, stater, drachma, etc., the value of these units differed greatly in different States, and their relative value was not constant—in modern parlance the exchange between the different States varied at different periods. There is, in fact, no historical evidence in ancient Greece on which a theory of a metallic standard can be based…[15]

Coinage and Mercenaries

It is thought that minting coins eventually evolved into a way for the “state” (i.e. the  sovereign) to procure the resources it needed, and as a way to transfer private goods and services to itself as required.

One of the biggest requirements was paying for professional soldiers in place of the landholding citizen-soldier to facilitate external military conquest. These soldiers were transient, so a form of portable, anonymous wealth was needed. It furthermore appears that sex was one of the first services on offer using coins—women would work in brothels of Sardis to earn money for their dowry– with other services soon following in its wake (mercenaries and prostitutes may tie as the world’s oldest professions). The earliest “free” markets to spring up in coin appear to be for the slaves produced by such conquest.

The way it worked was this: The ruling class required mercenaries, and since they controlled the metal deposits, they issued lumps of metal stamped with the ruler’s insignia, signifying their “official” capacity. They then demanded these coins back from producers, and the only way to get their hands on them was to sell something to soldiers, allowing the soldiers buy the things they wanted and needed from the conquered population. Tim Johnson writes:

Around 4,000 years ago, people started making ornaments out of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), copper and gold, metals found naturally (i.e. without processing) in nature. Metals have an almost unique, natural, physical property; they reflect light. The only other material that stone-age humans would have come across that reflected light would have been water, so to these people gold would appear to combine the essence of both water and the sun, the basis of life.

Imagine the awe that humans would have felt the first time they spotted a nugget of gold sparkling in a river bed, here was an object that seemed to captured and store life-giving sunlight, the ‘tears of the Sun’ as the Incas said. In the medieval period, European alchemists believed that metals were produced by some mechanism involving rays from different ‘planets’: gold from the Sun, silver from the Moon, mercury from Mercury, copper from Venus, iron from Mars, tin from Jupiter and lead from Saturn.

In ancient Babylon, Egypt and Greece, temples became associated with stores of metals, gold for the Greeks, silver for the Babylonians and copper for the Egyptians. It seems that these metals had developed a religious significance and become important as temple offerings. Consequently followers of the religion would look to acquire the metal, to enable them to make an offering, and so the metal became the commodity in the most universal demand. Athens treasury was in the Temple of Athena, and Jesus cast the money-lenders, exchanging worldly Roman money for divine shekels, out of the Temple.

The earliest tokens used as ‘money’ were not specific weights of a certain metal but roughly cut pieces of metal with an official stamp on them – monopoly money as it were. The emergence of money, in the sense of coins, in Greece coincides with the emergence of mercenary troops, the term ‘soldier’ is derived from the word for a Roman gold coin, solidus. A simple economic model developed, states paid soldiers in gold, who then spent it in the community. The government then recovered the gold by taxing the merchants and innkeepers that the soldiers had paid for food and lodgings.

This model would survive and drive colonialism until the modern age. A power, such as Alexander’s Greece, Imperial Rome, Napoleonic France or Industrial Britain, would take control of a region through force of arms. They would then demand tax from the conquered nation, which would have to be paid in currency specified by the coloniser. The conquered nation could only obtain the currency by exchanging their produce for the specified currency…

Why magic? ⇔ Why gold? (Magic, Maths and Money)

David Graeber describes this as a “military-coinage-slavery” complex, and sees this as a defining feature of the Axial Age. With coinage, slavery becomes a much greater factor in the economy of the Classical world than it ever was in the ancient Near East (inverting the “conventional” view of history as a contest between the “freedom” of the Classical World versus “Oriental Despotism”).

This strongly fits with the idea that supplanting the traditional relations of reciprocity, redistribution and householding with impersonal markets mediated by money was not a spontaneous development based on human instincts to “truck, barter and exchange,” but a top-down project facilitated by ruling elites. All of this is tied to the emergence of inequality and class-based society rather than freedom and egalitarianism. Markets did not emerge out of simple barter. Rather barter occurs after organic social relations have been dismantled and monetized, and the quantity of money becomes curtailed, such as by economic collapse.

The use of coinage was spread by Greek mercenaries throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Although coinage spread east to the Persian empire, it appears that older credit/debit systems and householding continued to prevail as the dominant economic paradigm. That changed with the conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. Alexander melted down Persian gold and silver and used them to pay his troops. This spread both Hellenic culture and markets throughout the East. Greek silver and coins would find their way as far east as China:

Although silver, by becoming a medium of exchange, must have acquired a value higher than its intrinsic value as a not very useful commodity, the Babylonians did not invent anything like modern coinage, which has…a value in exchange even further above its intrinsic value as metal. Even after the people of Asia Minor had invented coins and they had been adopted by the Greek world, the Babylonians still preferred to measure silver by weight, under the illusion no doubt that that mattered! It was not until Alexander the Great conquered the region that coins were commonly used. It seems quite likely that in the area which was the heartland of the great Persian Empire, documentary credits were used in preference to physical silver.

Was the silver merely stored as a reserve, just as in the modern era gold has been accumulated in the Bank of England and in Fort Knox in the USA? Alexander certainly found vast hoards of gold and silver in the palaces and temples of Persia, and the Greeks thought it was odd it had just been stored…The Greeks probably did not realise that the Babylonians had found a convenient way of monetising precious metals, and had minimised the expensive and risky movement of precious metals by the use of an accounting system.

But with the conquest came no doubt the breakdown of the legal system, together with its religious backing, on which the documentary credits were founded. Alexander coined (monetised) the gold and silver he found, no doubt to pay his soldiers who would have had little use for documentary credits issued by foreign merchants or strange temples. It appears that trade increased dramatically between the nations in the eastern part of Alexander’s empire after the monetisation by coining of the precious metals he found. This and other experience suggests that coins which contain a high proportion of the precious metals did facilitate foreign trade, even though they are unnecessary in a more parochial society. Modern communication systems have made it possible to use documentary credits worldwide, and the case for coins made of precious metals hardly now exists.[16]

This is the “state theory” of money creation. Jack Goody argued that the state made war and war made the state. But we can update that to say that the state made money, and money made markets, and markets are what allowed for the bureaucratic state to form. The state, by issuing currency, could transfer “private” resources to itself via taxation. It could also hire expertise, at first in war, and later in technocratic management. Issuing currency money gave the state the power to transfer resources to itself and pay for armies. This paper describes the process in more detail:

A stylised story based upon the use of stamped metal might go as follows; a ruler might decide what she or he desired, for example, palaces, amphitheatres and an army of conquest. She or he could utilise their monopoly power over the monetary system to obtain what they desired.

They would first define the unit of account and then decide upon the money things acceptable in payment of debts denominated in this unit, say, stamped metal discs clearly marked with her or his head. The disc may contain precious metal. This precious metal content (if any) would be decided upon by the state (the mint standard). The use of precious metal may help prevent counterfeiting and raise the prestige of the issuer but the intrinsic value of the coins provided only a floor value for the currency. The nominal value would be higher and determined by decree.

She or he then imposed a tax on her or his subjects denominated in its chosen standard, payable by the surrender of the stamped discs. The ruler decided the nominal value of the coins and how many each person must pay to satisfy their tax bill. This process gave the coins value. They were tokens showing the holder had a credit on the state. They were really ‘tax credits’.

The ruler could now spend these tokens on whatever she or he wished as long as it was available in her or his own domain –or ‘monetary space.’ The private sector suppliers of goods accepted the tokens, not because they were made of precious metal but rather because the population needed them to pay taxes. The rulers then paid their soldiers with the stamped metal discs and the soldiers, in turn, were able to go to the villages and buy whatever they wished, provided of course it was available! The populace sold the soldiers real goods to obtain the discs to meet tax liabilities. Clearly, the empress or emperor had to spend before she or he could collect. A private agent minting discs with the ruler’s head on without her or his permission would soon be put to the sword. It may appear that the ruler needed to tax before spending but this is an illusion![17]

Money needs to be spent before it can be collected. It is not something “out there” that the government needs to procure from the “private” sector. Rather, it is a social technology which is issued by the government, and given value by collective confidence in the ruling body ,and its ability to make payments, redistribute, and collect taxes and fines. It is then transferred hand-to-hand, facilitating trading among unrelated strangers. How much of this was ‘planned’ and how much accidental is a matter of speculation.

The Emergence of Markets

As Greek society became increasingly monetized, traditional social obligations were transformed into money relationships. The public spaces of the Greek polis, where debate was conducted, started to double as the place where monetary exchanges took place: the market, such as the famous Agora in Athens. Over time, every Greek polis would come to possess its own market along with its own mint. David Graeber describes the transformation:

The world of the Homeric epics is one dominated by heroic warriors who are disdainful of trade. Money existed, but it was not used to buy anything; important men lived their lives in pursuit of honor, which took material form in followers and treasure. Treasures were given as gifts, awarded as prizes, carried off as loot.

All this was to change dramatically when commercial markets began to develop two hundred years later. Greek coinage seem to have been first used mainly to pay soldiers, as well as to pay fines and fees and payments made to and by the government, but by about 6oo BC, just about every Greek city-state was producing its own coins as a mark of civic independence. It did not take long, though, before coins were in common use in everyday transactions. By the fifth century, in Greek cities, the agora, the place of public debate and communal assembly, also doubled as a marketplace.[18]

As city-states minted money, the traditional social obligations of tribal society were now transformed into very different social obligations mediated by the new invention of money:

Everywhere, traditional social obligations were transformed into financial relationships. In Athens, traditional agricultural sharecroppers were converted into contractual tenants paying money rents. The so-called “liturgies”-the ancient, civic obligations of the thousand wealthiest inhabitants of the city to provide public services ranging from choruses for the theatre to ships for the navy-were now assessed in financial terms. By the last quarter of the fifth century BC, not only military stipends, public and private wages, rents and commodity prices, but also social payments such as dowries, regularly appear as sums of cash. The city states of classical Greece had become the first monetary societies. p. 62

Several characteristics of Greek society helped foster the development of money and markets.

As we’ve seen earlier, Greek diversified farming practices ensured that small farmers were relatively equal during the Dark Ages. The mainland of Greece is rocky and mountainous, preventing the large-scale plantations so common in later Roman Italy and North Africa. This is in contrast to the Near Eastern cultures where all land was owned by the gods/potentates, and administered by palaces and temple bureaucracies. Unrelated people had to deal with one another on more-or-less equal terms.

As we saw last time, in Greek culture, writing and numeracy were democratized. The alphabet, transmitted through the Phoenicians, allowed reading and writing to be easily learned and done by the average person, rather than an priesthood which kept such administrative skills to themselves and transmitted them only through esoteric channels. The departure from exclusively oral communication meant that myths gave way to recorded history, causing a questioning of old social forms.

The Greeks were geographically separated, yet there was a shared conception of what it meant to be Greek. The Greek peoples were scattered across hundreds of islands in the Aegean Sea, the Grecian mainland, the coast of Asia minor, and numerous colonies throughout the Mediterranean (“like frogs around a pond,” in Plato’s famous phrase). This alone would require trading. Greek culture was intimately tied with the ability to cultivate olives, and the ability to speak the Greek language (others’ tongues were just gibberish–“bar-bar-bar,” i.e. barbarians).

So we have decentralization, egalitarianism, individualism, and yet shared cultural notions and concepts. This created a need for trade, but without the necessity of mediation by a centralized governing bureaucracy as seen in Near Eastern redistributive economies. Several other distinct aspects of Greek culture and thought also contributed to the development of abstract, impersonal money and markets.

The first was the concept of a universal standard of value derived from the sacrificial feast, as Felix Martin describes:

…the idea of the equal worth of every member of the tribe was a social constant: a standard against which social value could be measured. At the heart of Greek society, in other words, was nothing other than a nascent concept of universal value and a standard against which to measure it, pret-a-porter.

Here was an answer to the question begged by the new perspective on society and the economy. Where the new understanding of physical reality had man, the observer of an objective universe, the new understanding of the social reality had the idea of the self, separate from society, an objective entity consisting of relationships measurable in a standard unit on the universal scale of economic value. It was a critical conceptual development-the missing link, on the intellectual level, in the invention of money. p. 59

Mesopotamia had for millennia possessed one of the three components of money-a system of accounting, based upon its discoveries of writing and numeracy. But the immense sophistiction of Mesopotamia’s bureaucratic, command economy had no need of any universal concept of economic value. It required and had perfected a variety of limited-purpose concepts of value, each with its respective standard. It therefore did not develop the first component of money: a unit of abstract, universally applicable, economic value.

Dark Age Greece, on the other hand, had a primitive concept of universal value and a standard by which to measure it. But the Greek Dark Ages knew neither literacy nor mimeracy, let alone a system of accounting. They had, in nascent form, the first component of money, but lacked the second. Neither civilisation had all the ingredients for money on its own.

But when the ultra-modem technologies of the East-literacy, numeracy, and accounting-were combined with the idea of a universal scale of value incubated in the barbaric West, the conceptual preconditions for money were at last in place…

This spread of money’s first two components-the idea of a universally applicable unit of value and the practice of keeping accounts in it-reinforced the development of the third: the principle of decentralised negotiability. The new idea of universal economic value made possible the offsetting of obligations without reference to a centralised authority. And the new idea of an objective economic space created the confidence that this possibility would exist indefinitely.

Markets require people to be able to negotiate a sale or agree a wage on their own, instead of feeding their preferences into a central authority in order to receive back a directive on how to act. But successful negotiation requires a common language-a shared idea of what words mean. For markets to function there needs to be a shared concept of value and standardised units in which to measure it. Not a shared idea of what particular goods or services are worth-that is where the haggling comes in-but a shared unit of economic value so that the haggling can take place at all. Without general agreement on what a dollar is, we could no more haggle in the marketplace over prices in dollars than we can talk to the birds and the bees. pp. 61-62


Other ideas that were unique to Greek society included the idea that the abstract was more important than the real, derived from philosophy, and the absolute isolation of the individual from one’s close kin, as seen in Greek tragedies such as Oedipus.

There is also evidence that the adoption of money was critical to the development Greek ideas about democratic political governance and scientific thought, as Tim Johnson explains in this excellent blog post (emphasis mine):

Greek culture that emerged around 600 BCE became known for being distinctive in its attitudes to politics and science. Greek science developed a non-mythical cosmology. The central idea emerged in Miletus, in Anatolia, and was apeiron (‘without limit’), something boundless, homogenous, eternal and abstract yet it held and motivated all things. Simultaneously, across the Aegean in Athens, Greek ideas of democracy were codified.

The standard explanations used to argue that the non-mythical cosmology originated in the polis where citizens were equal and ruled by an impersonal law: democracy generates science. This account did not acknowledge the temporal simultaneity of the origins of the ideas but there geographical separation. There needed to be something that preceded democracy and science common to both Athens and Miletus.

A more empirical explanation for origin of the distinctive nature of Greek politics and science lies in the Greek adoption of money in everyday use. Money can be seen as a prototype for the apeiron. Money is ‘fungible’, meaning one money-token is indistinguishable from any other, it is an empty signifier, like a word used in everyday language. The impersonality of money means that it is universal and makes no distinctions; it is used by rich and poor uniting opposites. There is a discrepancy between the value of money and its commodity value because money an abstract concept signified by a concrete token. Because it is abstracted, unlike any substance, money is unlimited. It has the power to transform objects, being able to turn wheat into wine in the market. Together, these properties enable money to perform multiple functions simultaneously. It is used to meet social obligations, such as tribute, legal compensation, and is the dominant means of conducting exchange; it stores value and is the unit of account. Money’s myriad uses means that it becomes a universal aim of all members of the community using it.

Money centralised social power in a single, abstract and impersonal entity. In monetised, Greek, economies personal power arose from the possession of impersonal and non-substantial money. The impersonality of Greek money nurtured the concept of equality, which is the foundation of democracy. The Greek word nomos, associated with ‘law’, is the root of the Greek word for money, nomisma. When combined with ‘auto’ – self – it gives autonomy, the idea that people can govern themselves and out of it, the concept of the individual emerges.

The foundations of Athenian democracy where laid by Solon (c. 638‒558) when he instituted several legal reforms. These sought to address instability created by conflicts in society caused by growing inequality created by the financialisation of society. Solon’s reforms solved the problems by substituting judicial violence with fines, something that was only possible because money was widely used. In the process, justice was depersonalised so that hostility between people was replaced by an impersonal quantification between an injury and its compensation. While money was disruptive of society it was also integral to Solon’s reforms that created a political system in which all citizens were equal.

Greek’s [sic] highlighted how their culture was distinctive from that of their neighbours, notably those in the civilised East…The essential difference was that Greek society was monetised and operated through inter-personal exchange where as that of the neighbouring societies were re-distributive.

In re-distributive societies, power originated in the gods. Priests (or a king, the distinction was often blurred) were the direct servants of the gods who mediated between the population and the divine. All that the community produced was owned, exclusively, by the gods and managed by a hierarchy of priests/kings. Produce was delivered to the temple (or palace) and the priests, from behind closed doors, would re-distribute the aggregate production per their own rules, taking a cut for their own use. In return, the priest/kings were expected to provide material and social security: food stores, walls, law and order. These societies maintained themselves so long as the priest/kings prevented famine and ensured peace and justice. It was passed through the priests/kings into the community through a clear hierarchy. The transference of power was often done through seals (amulets, talisman) that magically carried the power of the god.

Greek religious practice diverged from this standard model. The Greek gods lived on ambrosia and nectar, not on mortal food. When Homeric Greeks, in around 800 BCE, performed an animal sacrifice the smoke ‘honoured’ the gods, who were not located in their icons but ‘somewhere else’, alienated from the people. The sacrificial meat was then shared out amongst the community. The fairness of this sharing was fundamental to Greek culture, with both the Iliad and the Odyssey resting on problems resulting from unfair distribution. Consequently, the wealth of the Greek temples was owned and managed, inclusively, by the community in an egalitarian manner, in contrast to the wealth of temples in re-distributive societies.

There is a relationship between these Greek religious practices and the emergence of money in Greek society. The lowest value Greek coin was the obolos that took its name from the cooking spits (obelos) that were used to distribute sacrificial food and it is almost certain that the word drachma comes from obeliskon drachmai ‒ handfuls of spits.

A Financial Approach to the ‘Clash of Cultures’ (Magic, Maths and Money)

One deleterious result of the money economy was people falling into debt and relinquishing their freedom. This led to steep class divisions, as those who defaulted sold themselves into slavery (debt serfdom). Debt serfdom several times threatened the security of the polis, as debt serfs were unable to maintain military training to help defend the city-state (one reason why Sparta steadfastly refused to use coins). Rather than regular Clean Slates as in the Near East, periodic debt cancellations were legislated under rulers like Solon. The debt serfs would then be shipped off to found colonies across the Mediterranean. This dynamic drove Greek expansion and colonization, as David Graeber explains:

One of the first effects of the arrival of a commercial economy was a series of debt crises, of the sort long familiar from Mesopotamia and Israel. Revolutionary factions emerged, demanding amnesties, and most Greek cities were at least for a while taken over by populist strongmen swept into power partly by the demand for radical debt relief. The solution most cities ultimately found, however, was quite different than it had been in the Near East.

Rather than institutionalize periodic amnesties, Greek cities tended to adopt legislation limiting or abolishing debt peonage altogether, and then, to forestall future crises, they would turn to a policy of expansion, shipping off the children of the poor to found military colonies overseas.
Before long, the entire coast from Crimea to Marseille was dotted with Greek cities, which served, in turn, as conduits for a lively trade in slaves. The sudden abundance of chattel slaves, in turn, completely transformed the nature of Greek society.

First and most famously, it allowed even citizens of modest means to take part in the political and cultural life of the city and have a genuine sense of citizenship. But this, in turn, drove the old aristocratic classes to develop more and more elaborate means of setting themselves off from what they considered the tawdriness and moral corruption of the new democratic state…[20]

The decentralization of economic life and establishment of self-rule had dramatic effects. According to Josiah Ober, at the bottom point of Iron Age circa 1000 B.C., the Greek world was sparsely populated and living near the subsistence level. Almost 700 years later, in the age of Aristotle, the population of the Greek world had increased twentyfold and per capita consumption had doubled, achieving growth rates comparable to those of England or Holland in Early Modern Europe. Ober attributes this growth to low levels of inequality (which Davis-Hanson attributes to farming practices), which led to investments in human capital, economic and political stability, non-authoritarian political structures, and high levels of social trust:

In the 12th century BCE, the palace-centered civilization of Bronze Age Greece collapsed, utterly destroying political and social hierarchies. Surviving Greeks lived in tiny communities, where no one was rich or very powerful.

As Greece slowly recovered, some communities rejected attempts by local elites to install themselves as rulers. Instead, ordinary men established fair rules (fair, that is, for themselves) and governed themselves collectively, as political equals. Women and slaves were, of course, a very different story. But because these emerging citizen-centered states often out-competed elite-dominated rivals, militarily and economically, citizenship proved to be adaptive. Because participatory citizenship was not scalable, Greek states stayed small as they became increasingly democratic. Under conditions of increasingly fair rules, individuals and states rationally invested in human capital, leading to increased specialization and exchange.

The spread of fair rules and a shared culture across an expanding Greek world of independent city-states drove down transaction costs. Meanwhile competition encouraged continuous institutional and technological innovation. The result was 700+ years of world-class efflorescence, marked by exceptional demographic and per capita growth, and by immensely influential ideas, literature, art, and science. But, unlike the more familiar story of ancient empires, no one was in running the show: Greece remained a decentralized ecology of small states. [21]

Greek colonization spreads ideas of democracy, science, religion, money, markets, slavery and debt to other cultures, including the militarized cultures of the Italian peninsula. Eventually, these ideas gave rise to two great powers who fought over control of the Mediterranean: the Latin empire centered in Rome, and the Phoenician-derived colony of Carthage. With the victory of Rome, the entire Mediterranean becomes a giant free-trade zone, and the coinage-mercenary-slave complex expands to an unprecedented degree. We’ll take a brief look at that next time.

[1] Ernest Cline; 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed


[3]Felix Martin; Money: THe Unauthorized Biograhy, p. 38

[4] Semenova and Wray; The Rise of Money and Class Society: The Contributions of John F. Henry. Levy Economics Institute Working papaer no. 832

[5] David Graeber; Debt: The First 5000 Years.

[6] Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus; The Creation of Inequality, pp. 193-195

[7] Radical Anthropology; Interview with Richard Seaford:

[8] Semenova and Wray; The Rise of Money and Class Society: The Contributions of John F. Henry. Levy Economics Institute Working papaer no. 832

[9] Not Used


[11] Tim Di Muzio, Richard H. Robbins; An Anthropology of Money: A Critical Introduction, p. 48

[12] Wray et. al.; The Credit and State Theories of Money, pp. 96-97

[13] Radical Anthropology; Interview with Richard Seaford:

[14] Semenova and Wray; The Rise of Money and Class Society: The Contributions of John F. Henry. Levy Economics Institute Working papaer no. 832

[15] Wray et. al.; The Credit and State Theories of Money, pp. 96-97

[16] hWray et. al.; The Credit and State Theories of Money, p. 138,

[17] Phil Armstrong; Heterodox Views of Money and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

[18] David Graeber; Debt: The First 5000 Years.

[19] Felix Martin; Money: The Unauthorized Biography, p. 60

[20] David Graeber; Debt: The First 5000 Years.


The Origin of Money – 4

2. The First IT Revolution

In order for something like the general-purpose universally-applicable money that we know to form, two critical innovations were needed: numeracy/literacy and standardized measurement.

In order to manage the redistributive economy of ancient Mesopotamia, increasingly sophisticated “information-processing” technologies were invented. We might call this the “First IT Revolution,” and it eventually ushered in writing and mathematics. It is now known that these originally developed in the service of keeping track of goods and labor for this economy– accounting, in other words:

This prehistoric communication revolution began some 9000 Years ago among the early agricultural communities of northern Mesopotamia and Syria. Like the invention of the computer, it involved the creation of an ingenious device which served both to transmit information and to record it for future reference.

In Neolithic Mesopotamia this new device served also to identify property and to ensure its security, and in that sense to signal to us not only that society was becoming more differentiated (that is, that there were those with goods to protect or secure) but that man could no longer trust his fellow man…

…the earliest stage of recording numeracy utilized the geometric token, followed by the use of the complex token and bulla, and still later, with an increasing complexity of communication needs, the cylinder seal was used for securing and identifying property; and finally, the seminal tool of bureaucratic administration, the inscribed tablet.

A theoretical account of this process was developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat beginning in the 1970’s. She realized that the earliest shapes in cuneiform writing were based on the shapes of tokens found on archaeological sites. This led her to formulating the following sequence describing the development of writing:

1. Small clay tokens about 1-3 centimeters in length shaped into simple geometric forms are found scattered throughout Mesopotamian archaeological sites after about 9000 BC. The tokens represented various primary commodities –grain, jars of olive oil, sheep, beer, etc. They came in a variety of sizes and shapes–cones cylinders, spheres, ovoids, disks and tetrahedrons (three dimensional triangles), often covered with various dots and markings.

Simple tokens represented basic items such as grain and cattle, whereas more incised and perforated tokens represented services and manufactured items. One might think of game pieces (which at one point they were believed to be), or animal crackers. This allowed for a much greater control over varied items than just simple notches on tally sticks. The tokens could be matched one-to-one with the various standardized goods and services.

Number was represented by a phenomenon called correspondence (one-to-one) counting. Five ovoids meant five jars of olive oil, three tokens meant three jars, and so on; there was no abstract notion of “fiveness” apart from the thing being counted. The tokens were “non-lingual,” that is, no matter what language you spoke, both parties could understand that that five ovoid tokens meant five jars of olive oil:

The direct antecedent of the Mesopotamian script was a recording device consisting of clay tokens of multiple shapes. The artifacts, mostly of geometric forms such as cones, spheres, disks, cylinders and ovoids, are recovered in archaeological sites dating 8000–3000 BC.

The tokens, used as counters to keep track of goods, were the earliest code—a system of signs for transmitting information. Each token shape was semantic, referring to a particular unit of merchandise. For example, a cone and a sphere stood respectively for a small and a large measure of grain, and ovoids represented jars of oil.

The repertory of some three hundred types of counters made it feasible to manipulate and store information on multiple categories of goods…The token system showed the number of units of merchandize [sic] in one-to-one correspondence, in other words, the number of tokens matched the number of units counted: x jars of oil were represented by x ovoids. Repeating ‘jar of oil’ x times in order to express plurality is unlike spoken language. [1]

2. The economy expanded and became more complex as urbanization proceeded. The clay tokens also began to get more numerous and more elaborate, tracking the various “secondary commodities” of the Mesopotamian economy –wool, clothing, metals, honey, bread, oil, beer, textiles, garments, rope, mats, carpets, furniture, jewelry, tools, hides, perfume, and so on.

The tokens represented the various items stored in the “holy storehouse” of the temple. Standardized tokens could be used for keeping track of inventory, or recording tax payments, and even for establishing future transactions–essentially forming the first economic contracts. Tokens could represent anticipated tax payments, deferred payments, or a provide a record of previous payments. They could also provide for secure transmission of goods between stewards.

In order for this to work, some method needed to be developed to keep the transaction secure, that is, safe from tampering after the fact. Two methods were devised to do this. One was using tokens with perforations in them and stringing them together with a cord like a bracelet or necklace, and binding the ends of the cord with a lump of clay called a bulla. This prevented tokens from being added or removed to the string without breaking the clay “seal.”

The other involved sealing them inside a hollow clay “envelope” about 3-5 cm in diameter also called a bulla. The tokens were placed inside and the opening was pinched shut, and then the envelope was then fired. After it was fired, tokens could not be added or removed without breaking open the bulla.

Officials marked the bullae with clay seals testifying to the authenticity of the transaction. There were two types of seals-stamp seals and cylinder seals, which made impressions by being rolled across the wet clay. The seals were unique to the steward and usually depicted some type of religious imagery. The outer surface of the clay envelopes were often covered with seals, probably to make sure that a hole could not be made to add or remove items from the bulla without an official knowing. If any dispute arose about the contents of the bulla, both parties to the contract could break open the clay envelope and verify what was inside.

For some unknown reason, plain tokens were secured by envelopes, while more complex ones were secured with a cord. Both the seals and the tokens are found in burials, indicating that certain designated individuals were in charge of managing the surplus—a sure sign of burgeoning class inequality. Seals found buried with children indicate the transmission of intergenerational status.

3. Because it was unknown exactly what was inside the clay envelopes once they were fired, scribes made impressions in the outer surface of the wet clay to indicate what was inside. These markings are the first definite signs of writing in the sense of using abstract shapes impressed in clay to represent specific items and quantities. Number was still indicated by correspondence counting rather than abstract numerals.

After four millennia, the token system led to writing. The transition from counters to script took place simultaneously in Sumer and Elam, present-day western Iran when, around 3500 BC, Elam was under Sumerian domination. It occurred when tokens, probably representing a debt, were stored in envelopes until payment. These envelopes made of clay in the shape of a hollow ball had the disadvantage of hiding the tokens held inside. Some accountants, therefore, impressed the tokens on the surface of the envelope before enclosing them inside, so that the shape and number of counters held inside could be verified at all times. These markings were the first signs of writing. [1]

4. By the middle of the fourth millennium, instead of just being recorded on the bullae, impressions of tokens are recorded on flat clay tablets and fired. By 3200 BC, puffy clay tablet “receipts” are found recording various disbursements and transactions in temple archives. The tablets simply list numbers of quantities of items without purpose or context. The level of detail recorded by the tablets varied according to administrative level—more detail was recorded by scribes at higher administrative levels.

About 3200 BC, once the system of impressed signs was understood, clay tablets—solid cushion-shaped clay artifacts bearing the impressions of tokens—replaced the envelopes filled with tokens. The impression of a cone and a sphere token, representing measures of grain, resulted respectively in a wedge and a circular marking which bore the same meaning as the tokens they signified. They were ideograms—signs representing one concept. The impressed tablets continued to be used exclusively to record quantities of goods received or disbursed. They still expressed plurality in one-to-one correspondence. [1]

Eventually the clay tablets alone served to record transactions, taking the place of bullae. The tablets become the primary means of recording past and future transactions, even though both “technologies” continued to be used side-by-side for millennia. For unknown reasons, the clay tablet method was extensively adopted in southern Mesopotamia, whereas tokens continued to be the main method used in northern Mesopotamia. Clay tablet records were stored in temple archives, managing payments, contracts, receipts, loans, debts, and so on.

5. Eventually, when the quantities under consideration become too big for correspondence counting to work, symbols were established to separate quantity from the thing being counted – a symbol for “five” and “sheep” are combined together instead of repeating “sheep” five times. These numerals impressed in clay were derived from the shape of the token itself.

Early numerals were not abstract, but derived their value from association with the items they counted. The Sumerians used 60 different number signs grouped in a dozen or so metrological systems. For example, one system counted discrete objects like sheep, while other systems measured areas or volumes.

At the same time, the clay markings evolved into abstract symbols (pictographs) made with a wedge-shaped stylus rather than impressions of tokens. The wedge-shaped pictographs derived from the object they described:

Pictographs—signs representing tokens traced with a stylus rather than impressed—appeared about 3100 BC. These pictographs referring to goods mark an important step in the evolution of writing because they were never repeated in one-to-one correspondence to express numerosity.

Besides them, numerals—signs representing plurality—indicated the quantity of units recorded. For example, ‘33 jars of oil’ were shown by the incised pictographic sign ‘jar of oil’, preceded by three impressed circles and three wedges, the numerals standing respectively for ‘10’ and ‘1’.

The symbols for numerals were not new. They were the impressions of cones and spheres formerly representing measures of grain, which then had acquired a second, abstract, numerical meaning. The invention of numerals meant a considerable economy of signs since 33 jars of oil could be written with 7 rather then [sic] 33 markings. [1]

Sometime around the end of the third millennium BC during the Ur III period, a sexigecimal (base 60) place value notation system was devised. Each place represents a multiple of sixty (just as in our system, each place represents a multiple of ten. Sixty is the first number that 1,2,3,4,5, and 6 all factor into. It’s thought that counting was done by marking the phalanges of outstretched fingers in each hand with the thumb (three phalanges times four outstretched fingers). This could be repeated five times, using the fingers of the other hand to keep track (5 x 12 = 60). Base-60 actually has quite a few advantages. 60 is highly composite and easily divisible by 12 numbers simplifying fractional/decimal notation.

…the origin of the base 12 and of the related base 60 is an often-recurring question, even to non-mathematicians. The usual arithmetic (based on the divisors of 12) and or astronomical explanations (based on the number of moon-months) both are a posterior…

….a counting technique that considers parts of the fingers to represent the numbers from 1 to 12, is still in use in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indochina, India. The thumb of a hand counts the bones in the fingers of the same hand. Four fingers, with each three little bones, evidently yield 12 as a counting unit. The thumb itself is the counting tool, and its bones are not considered. Also, each dozen is counted by the fingers of the other hand, including the thumb, and the multiple 5 x 12 = 60 provides an additional indication of the often simultaneous occurrence of the duodecimal and sexagesimal base…

This physiological explanation for the duodecimal base is only a hypothesis, but number words as present day tribes in Africa use them, provide further evidence. N. W. Thomas [Tho] reported on such number words in his study of the West-African tribes in the region of the actual Nigeria. Between the rivers Benue and Gurara, which flow into the river Niger more westwards, live the Yasgua, the Koro and the Ham.

This explanation is not posterior like the arithmetical or the astronomical ones. This duodecimal base was indeed a practical one for what these early civilisations wanted to count or to represent. In the matriarchal societies, they could associate the number 1 to the woman, the number 3 to the man, and 4 to the union of woman and man. Or, in after some rather general evolution, they designated the male genitals by the number 3, and the genital symbol of women by 4, making 7 the symbol of their union. The number 4 seems to have been the most widespread of the mystical numbers. It was established by associations with colours, with social organisation, and with various customs among numerous tribes. The use of six as a mystical or sacred number was less extensively distributed through history and throughout the world than the four-cult, but sometimes a mythology past from quarters cult to a six cult. For example, the four cardinal points (such as North, South, East, West) are simply augmented by the addition of two other points (such as the zenith, above and nadir, below). On the other hand, the counting skills they obtained in this way, allowed them to note that there are 13 (moon)-months in one (solar) year, and not 12. [2]

The Babylonian cuneiform was not a true sexagesimal system as in there were not 60 different symbols. They basically represented numbers in a hybrid base-60 of a base-10. For example, thirty was made by repeating the symbol for 10 three times, forty was 10 repeated four times, and so on. Base sixty was likely chosen for ease of time/value calculations based on the length of the Mesopotamian year (a 360-day ‘fiscal year” with 5-and-change days set aside for festivals and debt forgiveness). Our divisions of a circle (degrees) and hours/minutes are also derived from this Mesopotamian base sixty, and are still in use.

…the sexagecimal number system of Mesopotamia in the historical period must have arisen from a fusion of a decimal system and a duodecimal system, and possible of a third element based on twenty. The widespread evidence for the very early duodecimal system, especially in the diffusion of the practice of dividing into twelve parts the wide band of fixed stars through which the sun passes its annual revolution (the zodiac), and the association of this feature with painted pottery gardening would indicate that the duodecimal system was characteristic of the Highland Zone Neolithic peasant cultures. The decimal usage probably came from the Semite peoples within the Fertile Crescent. If a vigecimal system also entered the mixture, it might have come from the south or southeast, for there seem to be, in the substrata of Mesopotamian culture, elements of tropical forest origin from this direction. [3]

We continue to use this counting method for time, which may make it somewhat clearer. Think of the value holders like this: (Hours) : (Minutes) : (seconds).

01:00 = 60
01:01 = 61
02:00 = 120
It takes the 60th count to turn the next value holder 1. So,

Interestingly, there is some evidence that the markings on the Ishango bone are based on a base-12 number system.

A good account of this process is given in this BBC article: How the world’s first accountants counted on cuneiform

6. Eventually, the need for recording proper names in contracts gave rise to the establishment of phonetic alphabets where symbols represented not words, but spoken sounds, typically syllables. This was done by using the word attached to a symbol to represent sounds.

For example, when Coca-Cola first arrived in China, shopkeepers needed a way to represent this new product. There was no pre-existing ideogram for “Coca Cola” in Chinese. They used a combination of Chinese characters which phonetically spelled out the sounds “Ko-ka-ko-la.” Many of these signs used the character pronounced “la” meaning “wax.” This led to all sorts of nonsensical phrases when it was read out loud, such as “female horse fastened with wax,” “wax-flattened mare,” and, most famously, “bite the wax tadpole” (eventually the company provided an ‘official’ transcription meaning, roughly, “to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice”). Nonetheless, clearly phonetic sounds were separated from what the ideograms represented. In such a way one could begin to separate the sound of the word from the pictographic image of what it represented.

In a similar fashion, when the system became adopted by the Akkadian culture, and Akkadian became the lingua franca of commerce during the Bronze Age, the need to transcribe proper names in written contracts led to ideograms being used to represent sounds rather than concepts. Transactions could be described in writing rather than just items and numbers, making them more meaningful:

With state formation, new regulations required that the names of the individuals who generated or received registered merchandise were entered on the tablets.

The personal names were transcribed by the mean of logograms—signs representing a word in a particular tongue. Logograms were easily drawn pictures of words with a sound close to that desired (for example in English the name Neil could be written with a sign showing bent knees ‘kneel’).

Because Sumerian was mostly a monosyllabic language, the logograms had a syllabic value. A syllable is a unit of spoken language consisting of one or more vowel sounds, alone, or with one or more consonants. When a name required several phonetic units, they were assembled in a rebus fashion. A typical Sumerian name ‘An Gives Life’ combined a star, the logogram for An, god of heaven, and an arrow, because the words for ‘arrow’ and ‘life’ were homonyms. The verb was not transcribed, but inferred, which was easy because the name was common. Phonetic signs allowed writing to break away from accounting…

After 2600–2500 BC, the Sumerian script became a complex system of ideograms mixed more and more frequently with phonetic signs. The resulting syllabary—system of phonetic signs expressing syllables—further modeled writing on to spoken language. With a repertory of about 400 signs, the script could express any topic of human endeavor. Some of the earliest syllabic texts were royal inscriptions, and religious, magic and literary texts. [1]

Far away in Egypt, totemic symbols were adapted to represent these sounds, resulting in the creation of hieroglyphic script. Proper names were recorded, and eventually the sounds of Egyptian speech were written down to transcribe the entire spoken language. Hieroglyphs are found on buildings such as tombs and temples. Early transactions were recorded on pottery shards. Later, the invention of papyrus from sedges growing along the Nile lead to the first written paper scripts.

Phonetic signs to transcribe personal names…created an avenue for writing to spread outside of Mesopotamia…The first Egyptian inscriptions…consisted of ivory labels and ceremonial artifacts such as maces and palettes bearing personal names, written phonetically as a rebus, visibly imitating Sumer…This explains why the Egyptian script was instantaneously phonetic. It also explains why the Egyptians never borrowed Sumerian signs. Their repertory consisted of hieroglyphs representing items familiar in the Egyptian culture that evoked sounds in their own tongue.

The phonetic transcription of personal names also played an important role in the dissemination of writing to the Indus Valley where, during a period of increased contact with Mesopotamia, c. 2500 BC, writing appears on seals featuring individuals’ names and titles. In turn, the Sumerian cuneiform syllabic script was adopted by many Near Eastern cultures who adapted it to their different linguistic families and in particular, Semitic (Akkadians and Eblaites); Indo-European (Mitanni, Hittites, and Persians); Caucasian (Hurriansand Urartians); and finally, Elamite and Kassite. It is likely that Linear A and B, the phonetic scripts of Crete and mainland Greece, c. 1400–1200 BC, were also influenced by the Near East. [1]

7. This system transformed from syllables to the letters as we know them today and spread via the activities of Semitic merchants and traders operating in the eastern Mediterranean. These traders would been familiar with the accounting techniques of the Near East, and their business was conducted with strangers. Since these were strangers, you needed contracts, and so you needed ways to write names and forms of speech. This allowed writing and numbers to grow beyond their original roots in managing centralized economies.

Semitic traders simplified the system into easily written “scratches” to represent distinct consonant sounds. A small repeating number of these “letters” could represent any language the Phoenician traders encountered.

Most vowels were not written in this system, a tradition which persists to this day in the Semitic alphabets of Hebrew and Arabic (although vowel marks are sometimes added). This may seem odd, but it works: I bt y cn rd ths sntnc evn wtht vwls.

The invention of the alphabet about 1500 BC ushered in the third phase in the evolution of writing in the ancient Near East. The first, so-called Proto-Sinaitic or Proto-Canaanite alphabet, which originated in the region of present-day Lebanon, took advantage of the fact that the sounds of any language are few. It consisted of a set of 22 letters, each standing for a single sound of voice, which, combined in countless ways, allowed for an unprecedented flexibility for transcribing speech.

This earliest alphabet was a complete departure from the previous syllabaries. First, the system was based on acrophony—signs to represent the first letter of the word they stood for—for example an ox head (alpu) was ‘a,’ a house (betu) was b. Second, it was consonantal—it dealt only with speech sounds characterized by constriction or closure at one or more points in the breath channel, like b, d, l, m, n, p, etc. Third, it streamlined the system to 22 signs, instead of several hundred. [1]

In the decentralized world after the Bronze Age collapse, this new system took the place of the Linear A and B recording systems of the earlier palace economies.

Alphabets appear to have arisen in only a few places and diffused from there, as this Reddit comment points out:

The cuneiform alphabets of the Middle East were ledgers first, then evolved into words. Egyptian hieroglyphs were totemic first, then evolved numbers and words. Chinese Han characters started as divination marks on turtle shells and ox bones. The Mayans started recording calendar days, and that evolved into a syllabic alphabet. My guess is that recording abstract information is a natural product of structured civilisation, which grows around cereal-based agriculture. That’s the common theme between all of them. Simple writing systems and totemic pictographs are a common theme all round the world. Where they really come into their own is in a trade-based central civilisation.

The “democratization” of script was to have a profound influence on Greek culture. Rather than just remaining in the hands of temple scribes and priests, many more people could use letters and numbers up and down the social ladder. They were not under the exclusive control of one particular social class. Due to the democratization of words and numbers, economic planning passed out of the hands of temple scribes and priests and engendered a radically decentralized approach to economic life. This eventually lead to markets and metallic coinage similar to our own system, as we’ll see.

2. Systems of Measurement

The other crucial innovation of accounting was metrology: partitioning items into discrete units that are divisible by one another. Although we take such measurement for granted today, the creation of standardized weights and measures continued until well into the nineteenth century with the establishment of the system international (SI) units of meter (distance), second (time), kilogram (mass), kelvin (temperature), pascal (pressure), and others. Standard weights and measures are as critical to bureaucracy as are writing and numerals.

Standardization is a fundamental aspect of state formation that is often overlooked. In this review of James C. Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, Scott Alexander quotes Scott describing the difficulties faced by regional tax collectors in medieval Europe:

A hypothetical case of customary land tenure practices may help demonstrate how difficult it is to assimilate such practices to the barebones scheme of a modern cadastral map [land survey suitable for tax assessment][…]

Let us imagine a community in which families have usufruct rights to parcels of cropland during the main growing season. Only certain crops, however, may be planted, and every seven years the usufruct land is distributed among resident families according to each family’s size and its number of able-bodied adults. After the harvest of the main-season crop, all cropland reverts to common land where any family may glean, graze their fowl and livestock, and even plant quickly maturing, dry-season crops. Rights to graze fowl and livestock on pasture-land held in common by the village is extended to all local families, but the number of animals that can be grazed is restricted according to family size, especially in dry years when forage is scarce. Families not using their grazing rights can give them to other villagers but not to outsiders. Everyone has the right to gather firewood for normal family needs, and the village blacksmith and baker are given larger allotments. No commercial sale from village woodlands is permitted.

Trees that have been planted and any fruit they may bear are the property of the family who planted them, no matter where they are now growing. Fruit fallen from such tree, however, is the property of anyone who gathers it. When a family fells one of its trees or a tree is felled by a storm, the trunk belongs to the family, the branches to the immediate neighbors, and the “tops” (leaves and twigs) to any poorer villager who carries them off. Land is set aside for use or leasing out by widows with children and dependents of conscripted males. Usufruct rights to land and trees may be let to anyone in the village; the only time they may be let to someone outside the village is if no one in the community wishes to claim them. After a crop failure leading to a food shortage, many of these arrangements are readjusted.

Book Review: Seeing Like a State (Slate Star Codex)

Scott’s book reminds us just how much measurement and taxation are the harbingers of the coming of the state, even though these early states were not the impersonal professional bureaucracies that we associate with states today (China appears to have been the first to develop this). The creation of money and markets is what allowed for the state’s ability to channel resources to itself  to pay for soldiers and bureaucratic expertise, as we’ll see.

By the Babylonian period, complex time and material calculations were undertaken in the temples by officials in order to allow for mass production on a much larger scale than cottage industries. These activities, centered in the temples, were the first intentional surplus-generating activities to be undertaken by society. Such activities are not commonplace in traditional societies: production is mainly undertaken for subsistence and hoarding is explicitly discouraged.

Some tablets from the later Old Sumerian period detail bread baking, where a specific amount of bread is listed against the specification of its cereal ingredients, depending on quality as reflected in a production rate for a given type of bread. Other tablets included entries for bread and beer rations and the ingredients required to make them.

These tablets began by listing the names of individuals with the largest rations followed by those with smaller rations. At the end of the tablet, the amounts of bread and beer are totalled by type and the grand total for the flour and barley used was also recorded. The tablets were dated daily, and the scribes showed how the amount of flour corresponded exactly to the amount actually used in baking the bread, and the same applied to barley and beer…

…this checking of actual against theoretical amounts was “Perhaps the most important accounting operation introduced during the third millennium B.C.”…Deficits in one year, arising from shortage of actual amounts compared to theoretical amounts, were carried forward to the following year and were liable to later reimbursement…

…the entries record labour performance, along with theoretical credits and duties. The balancing of expected and actual labour performance was recorded at regular intervals for the foremen of the state-controlled labour force, using an accounting period of a 12-month-year, with each month being 30 days long, a time conception that corresponds exactly to that of ancient Egypt. Balances were carried forward to next periods; most frequently the balances were deficits (overdrawn) as the expected performances seem to have been “fixed as the maximum of what a foreman could reasonably demand of his workers”. Such balancing periodic entries were underpinned by some measure of standardisation of performance and a value equivalence system…[4]

In fact, the entire concept of leadership in these ancient societies appears to have been centered around concepts of fair and accurate standards of measurement, as Michael Hudson describes:

With writing and account-keeping came weights, measures, and standardizarion…Politically, the ideology of Mesopotamian cities was to create an evenly measured and “straight” cosmology of economic and social relations. Sumerian and Babylonian iconography represents rulers characteristically holding the measuring stick and coiled measuring rope to layout temple precincts. This defining royal task is illustrated on Gudea’s statues F and B in Lagash at the end of the third millennium. Such orientation aimed at grounding cities and their rule symbolically in the eternal regularities of natural order, as reflected in the celestial movements of the heavens.[5]

This “natural order” extended to the levies which were collected by the temples. This likely grew out of their role in coordinating the labor required to maintain the canal system which agriculture depended on. Their ability to accurately measure and plan future activities was a logical extension of their ability to scan the heavens and predict future floods and eclipses. From astronomy came the rest of their abilities.

These institutions were not dependent upon “taxpayer funds” unlike governments today; rather they were self-supporting enterprises, with prebends and dependent staff who were paid stipends (salaries) for their work. Because of their pro-social nature (they regularly aided widows and orphans), religious justification, and role in expanding the economy (they regularly produced goods for export), they were allowed to undertake activities such as charging rent and interest–the first written examples of this behavior. We might consider them to be the first antecedents of the modern business corporation (see future chapter).

What gave the ancient Sumerians the idea of charging one another interest? Linguistic evidence provides a clue. In the Sumerian language, the word for interest, mash, was also the term for calves. In ancient Greek, the word for interest, tokos, also refers to the offspring of cattle. The Latin term tecus, or flock, is the root of our word “pecuniary.” The Egyptian word for interest, like the Sumerian word, is ms, and means “to give birth.” All these terms point to the derivation of interest rates from the natural multiplication of livestock. If you lend someone a herd of thirty cattle for one year, you expect to be repaid with more than thirty cattle. The herd multiplies-the herder’s wealth has a natural rate of increase equal to the rate of reproduction of the livestock. If cattle were the standard currency, then loans in all comparable commodities would be expected to “give birth” as well. The idea of interest seems to be a natural one for an agricultural or pastoral society, but not so for hunter-gatherers. [6]

Just as with the scribes and viziers of ancient Egypt, a method had to be devised to standardize various tax, tithe, tribute, fines, and other payments owed to the central institutions from various entities. They also needed a way to evaluate how much was needed for time and material calculations. The way they accomplished this was to create a measurement unit, and to then use that unit to standardize the various goods and services produced by the diversifying Sumerian economy. In other words, a “unit of account.”

The earliest unit of account appears to have been a standard weight of a basket of barley, barley being the staple crop of the Sumerian economy. However, a more stable method was developed based on various weights of silver. This seems to have been related to silver’s role as a sacred substance whose storage and trade was controlled and manipulated by centralized institutions, that is, the temples and their high priests (what anthologists might call ‘prestige goods’):

…At about the same time as cities began to appear people started making ornaments out of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), copper and gold, metals found naturally in nature. Metals have an almost unique, natural, physical property; they reflect light. The only other material that stone-age humans would have come across that reflected light would have been water, which along with sunlight is the basis of life. The first time a human spotted a nugget of gold sparkling in a river bed they must have experienced a sense of awe, here was an object that seemed to capture life-giving sunlight and water.

Religiously significant metals became important as temple offerings and temples began accumulate large reserves. Followers of the religion would look to acquire the metal, to enable them to make an offering to the gods, and so the metal became the commodity in the most demand.

The Ancient Egyptians, who had easy access to gold, used Cypriot copper for their religious offerings while the Cypriots used Egyptian gold. In Mesopotamia, the metal of choice was silver. When ‘Currency Cranks’ or ‘Bullionists’ argue that the economy would be improved by reverting to a Gold Standard because gold has an ‘inherent value’ they need to explain where is the value in gold, apart from its inherent symbolic, representative, value.

We don’t know much about economics in the ancient cities apart from for Mesopotamia, which has left hordes of clay tablets describing financial transactions. The economy was dominated by the temples who received rents and tribute, provided religious services and loans. The cuneiform tablets recorded the debits and credits associated with these activities. The transactions were denominated in shekels, crude bars of silver. Coins, metal tokens, rarely, if ever, actually changed hands.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

Another theory behind the use of silver bullion is derived from the fact that Mesopotamian city-states were not self-sufficient and needed to trade with each other on a regular basis. Silver was a universal standard of value, since the same religious ideas predominated across the Tigris/Euphrates valley, and this is what allowed is what allowed inter-city trading to take place. The value of silver percolated down through the rest of the society in “private” economic transactions by osmosis from temple activities (debt collection, tithes, trade, etc.)

In either case, money is a creation of the state through writing and measurement; it is not a spontaneous development arising out of countless market transactions. Silver derived from its ability to be accepted as payment to centralized institutions, and not from any intrinsic value. Impersonal economic transactions, to the extent that they existed, used this standard of value long before the emergence of coins or markets. As G.F. Knapp put it, “Within a state the validity of the kinds of money is not a trade phenomenon but rests on authority.”

Michael Hudson summarizes the creation of money in ancient Mesopotamia:

The kind of general-purpose money our civilisation has come to use commercially was developed by the temples and palaces of Sumer (southern Mesopotamia) in the third millennium BC…Their large scale and specialisation of economic functions required an integrated system of weights, measures and price equivalencies to track the crops, wool and other raw materials distributed to their dependent labour force, and to schedule and calculate the flow of rents, debts and interest owed to them. The most important such debts were those owed for consigning handicrafts to merchants for long-distance trade, and land, workshops, ale houses and professional tools of trade to ‘entrepreneurs’ acting as subcontractors.

Accounting prices were assigned to the resources of these large institutions, expressed in silver weight-equivalency, as were public fees and obligations. Setting the value of a unit of silver as equal to the monthly barley ration and land-unit crop yield enabled it to become the standard measure of value and means of payment…Under normal conditions these official proportions were reflected in transactions with the rest of the economy.

…The use of silver in their transactions was economized by the system functioning largely on the basis of debts mounting up as unpaid balances due. For small retail sales…the common practice for consumers was not to pay on the spot but to ‘run up a tab,’ much as is done in bars today[114]…such balances typically were cleared at harvest time, the New Year, the seasonal return of commercial voyages or similar periodic occasions. The most important debts were owed to the chiefs in tribal communities or to the public institutions in redistributive economies…[102]… and their official ‘collectors.’ …it also was through the commercial role of these institutions in long-distance trade that the monetary metals were imported and put into circulation.

The major way most families obtained silver evidently was to sell surplus crops produced on their own land or land leased from these institutions on a sharecropping basis. The palace also may have distributed silver to fighters after military victories, or perhaps on the occasion of the New Year or royal coronation…[115]

Silver’s use in exchange derived from its role as a unit of account. This is what gave it a general character beyond that of just another commodity… these public institutions were the ultimate guarantors of the value of silver, by accepting it in payment of obligations owed to them…

The units of measurement–the shekel in Babylonia and the deben in Egypt, and their various partitions– were the standard by which value was measured in these ancient societies. Yet all the evidence indicates that these standardized units were established and used thousands of years before “free” markets and profits played any significant role in daily economic life. While individual transactions in silver are recorded, it appears that most “commercial” transactions were written contracts – credit/debit relations. There were no coins. Daily transactions were likely undertaken through the traditional methods of redistribution, reciprocity and householding, as well as credit. As Henry summarizes in the case of Egypt:

…goods were…valued in terms of the deben (and labour services in the pyramid cities determined by the deben value of consumption goods), but no debens ever changed hands…In other words, money does not originate as a medium of exchange but as a unit of account (and something of a store of value with regard to the king’s treasury), where the measure of value is arbitrarily specified by decree, and goods and services of various qualities and quantities can then be assigned a monetary value to allow a reasonable form of bookkeeping to keep track of tax obligations and payments and to maintain the separate accounts of the king. It should also be noted that the deben did not serve as means of payment (as with modern money), but did function as the means (or measure) through which payment was made.

He quotes Alfred Mitchell-Innes, who came to the same conclusion from his survey of economic history in his pathbreaking article for the Banking Law Journal:

The theory of an abstract standard is not so extraordinary as it at first appears…All our measures are the same. No one has ever seen an ounce or a foot or an hour .. . We divide, as it were, infinite distance or space into arbitrary parts, and devise more or less accurate implements for measuring such parts when applied to things having a corporeal existence …

Credit and debt are abstract ideas, and we could not, if we would, measure them by the standard of any tangible thing. We divide, as it were, infinite credit and debt into arbitrary parts called a dollar or a pound, and long habit makes us think of these measures as something fixed and accurate; whereas, as a matter of fact, they are peculiarly liable to fluctuations (Innes, 1914, p. 155).

Essentially, the privileging of the “medium of exchange” aspect of money is not rooted in historical fact, but is based on economists’ desire to set up “free markets” and “private enterprise” as primordial and all state activity as an unnecessary and parasitical appendage. They need this in order to make their philosophical assumptions valid. In other words, this ahistorical view stems from the libertarian bias of modern economic “science” and not from true historical reality.

It is important to note that in Egypt (and this would accord with Mesopotamia and other areas) money was developed in a non-market, non-exchange economy. While some economic historians and anthropologists of a neoclassical persuasion diligently speculate that the Egyptian economy must have paralleled that with which we are now familiar, there is no evidence for exchange in the Old Kingdom. The Egyptians had no vocabulary for buying, selling, or even money; there was no conception of trading at a profit. It is very clear that there was no market in grains. A market economy (of a sort) and the monetization of the economy, including the production of coins, had to wait until Greek domination…

When these concepts become imported into Greek culture by Middle-Eastern traders after the Bronze Age collapse, they will become transmogrified into something closer to the kind of money and markets we know of today. This is the next crucial step in the evolution of money. We’ll consider that history next time.


[2] Vladimir Pletser: Does the Ishango Bone Indicate Knowledge of the base 12? An Interpretation of a Prehistoric Discovery.

[3] Carroll Quigley: The Evolution of Civilizations, pp. 213-214

[4] Carmona and Ezzamel: Accounting and Forms of Accountability in Ancient Civilizations: Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. IE Working Paper WP05-21

[5] Urbanization and land ownership summary review

[6] William Goetzmann: Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible.

[7] Wray, et. al.: Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of Alfred Mitchell-Innes

The Origin of Money 3 – Two Paths to Money

1. Class and Religion

As the very first proto-states began to form in the great alluvial river valleys of the world some time around 8000 years ago, social relations were profoundly transformed. The switch from shifting cultivation to permanent holdings must have called for some sort of land distribution method. The resulting increase in population density created the need for some sort of authority which could allocate resources which were now becoming scarce—things like land and water. New and specialized tasks were called for, from creating bricks, timber and plaster for now-permanent dwellings, to creating storage vessels for grain (granaries, pottery), to digging drainage ditches, irrigation channels and water wells for cereal cultivation (as well as the need to manage all these activities).

Evidence indicates that at this time, class stratification emerged. Increasingly elaborate burials signify that some individuals had gained a measure of control over surplus resources. It is this development which is key to the development of money, not market transactions.

Egyptologist John Henry argues that the origin of money is intrinsically bound up with the transformation from egalitarian tribal societies to class-based societies. It is the ability of one class to impose non-reciprocal obligations on another, he argues, that is the basis of money, not voluntary self-interested transactions among equals. In other words, “…the rise of class society and inequality took place alongside the emergence of money, whereby money played a key role in establishing, maintaining and exacerbating inequality and class division in societies” [1]

Henry points out that traditional societies are egalitarian and have no need for money. They practice the “rule of hospitality” such that everyone is assured access to basic subsistence. Critical resources are owned and managed collectively. Everyone must contribute to the survival of the collective, but such obligations are reciprocal and not top-down. As the tribes made political decisions on a consensus basis, there was no way for one group to impose its will on the majority and gain control over all the surplus resources.

He argues that the uneven nature of creditor-debtor relationships would have precluded money from emerging under such conditions, since money presupposes a credit/debt relationship, and debtors are under one-way obligations to creditors (although this is not entirely correct–as we have seen, feasting is often used to create such unequal arrangements, albeit without formalized “money”).

In this society, there could be no debt. For every debtor there must be a creditor, and such a relationship is one of inequality with creditors having economic power over debtors. Such an arrangement runs counter to the rule of hospitality, violating the right of some – debtors – to subsistence. True, tribal members were placed under various obligations – they must contribute to production, provide for the well-being of their members, etc. – and debt is an obligation. But, such obligations were internal to the collective itself and of a reciprocal nature: all had obligations to all. There was no arrangement in which some would owe obligations to others in a non-egalitarian relationship [2]

Evidence indicates increasing cultural unification among villages along the Nile during the Naqada (pre-dynastic) period. Cereal farming practices spread southward from the delta during Naqada IA-IIB, and southern pottery depicts images of paddled boats which likely unified north and south. During Naqada IIC-D, we see a “cultural unification of Egypt” as funerary practices spread as well. More elaborate burial goods and segregated cemeteries indicate the presence of hierarchy at this time. During Naqada IIIA-B, it is thought that rule by hereditary kings was established (Dynasty 0), and by Naqada IIIC the first dynasty was founded, ushering in “official” Egyptian history. As Henry sums up: “Up to about 4400 BC, the evidence is that Egyptian populations lived in egalitarian, tribal arrangements. By the period 3200-3000, tribal society had been transformed into class society, and over the next 500 years the class structures became solidified around a semi-divine kingship.”

As class stratification emerged, reciprocal tribal obligations would have gradually been transformed into non-reciprocal obligations levied on the majority by a minority–a managerial class who controlled and managed surplus economic production. But how could a small subgroup gain control over the resources produced by the whole tribe? Such a transformation would not have been simply acquiesced to by the majority. As Henry states, “A segment of an egalitarian society cannot (and would not) simply set itself up as a separate and unequal class de novathe practice of inequality…would have to develop as a consequence of historical accident rather than conscious plan…

Henry’s hypothesizes that taxes began when reciprocal tribal levies became concentrated in the hands of administrator elites operating out of the Pharaoh’s household who were tasked with creation and maintenance of the hydraulic system. Through their role as managers of the Nile river, the hydraulic engineers would come to play an increasingly important role in the expansion of the Egyptian economy.

The need for material support for their efforts gave rise to levies to support these activities. While all members of society would benefit from such efforts, the hydraulic engineers would benefit more. Even a small degree of wealth differential would add up over time. At the same time, the engineers would have also garnered control over the trade in the goods moving up and down the Nile. Henry writes:

Given the traditional arrangements of tribal society, it is probable that members of a particular clan (or kinship group) were designated as hydraulic engineers. Such a group would organize the labour which was rotated out of other clans to construct the dykes, levees, and canals. They would also be in charge of the distribution of food, clothing, tools, etc. produced in the tribal villages and regularly sent to wherever the hydraulic system was being worked. And, they would gradually organize the increasingly regularized trade relations that the expansion of the hydraulic system required as the engineers would have the requisite knowledge of those requirements. This would also place them in the position of organizing the goods that served as exportables. In other words, these full-time engineers learned administrative skills beyond those required in the small communities of which tribal society consisted.

…As full-time specialists, they would develop skills and, in particular, knowledge that was not shared by all members of the community. And, as these populations became increasingly dependent on agriculture, they also become increasingly dependent on the specialized knowledge of the engineers…They were now full-time specialists who controlled a significant flow of goods and labour and upon whom the majority of the population were dependent. The old collective rights and obligations of tribal society were being abridged and one group – the majority – was increasingly obligated to another. Inequality was growing and now becoming marked…

As this process unfolded, the appearance of tribal society remained intact, while the substance was transformed.This prevented rival institutions from forming.

Egyptian society was traditionally organized on the basis of phyles. It is thought that these originated in prehistoric times as “totemic clans.” Members of various clans would rotate in and out of service in the king’s household. Increasingly, the king’s administrators usurped the roles formerly played by clan leaders:

The temple staff was organized into groups for which the conventional modern term is phyle (a Greek term meaning company, tribe). This was the common form of temple organization, with five phyles in the Old Kingdom, each one subdivided into two divisions, which apparently worked at different times. Each subdivision, of around twenty men, served for only one month in ten.

Presumably for the extended leave periods they reverted to agricultural or other work in their villages, so that the undoubted benefits of temple service—payments as well as prestige—were widely spread. Whatever ancient reasoning lay behind the system, the practical consequence was a sharing out of jobs by the state. The number of employees required was multiplied by many times, hugely increasing the numbers of people receiving partial support from the state.

Thus, it was a transformation of existing structures, rather than the creation of new ones, that ushered in class society. The same process took place roughly at the same time in Mesopotamia, where the household model remained intact while becoming “institutionalized:”

Johannes Renger (1995) succinctly states: “The records, both written and archaeological, indicate that large institutional households decisively determined the social and economic reality in southern Mesopotamia, i.e., Babylonia, at least since the latter part of the fourth and the beginning of the third millennium.” Kinship was neither marginalized nor replaced by a meritocracy of individualism, rather, an increasing managerial bureaucracy emerged that was controlled by kin-related individuals. Written records and archaeology provide evidence for the existence of large institutional households (oikoi) by the end of the fourth millennium. These institutional households were self-sustaining and autarchic economic units. The household (oikos) constituted the center of the productive economic activities we now handle through the market…[4]

The interdependence of villages up and down the river (and across the canal system in Mesopotamia) would have called for the engineers to apply their skills in a broader context than that of a single village. They would have formed a supra-regional authority to manage the entire watershed, since the agricultural activities one village affected all the others downstream. This would have expanded their reach beyond that of a single village, and far beyond that of the simple territorial clan leaders:

During years of low inundation, one village taking too much of the available water would endanger the production process of villages downstream. During periods of high inundation, failure to attend to needed repairs to the levees in one region would obviously affect not only that area but the whole valley beyond the breach. We also know that in this period, there was a significant shift in the ecology of this region resulting in greater aridity, thus a reduced water flow. Such a development would promote the need for control superseding any particular tribe’s needs or abilities.

Thus, the engineer-administrators, originally based in one tribal organization and practising egalitarian relations with other members of their tribe, would now be called upon to use their knowledge and skills to administer an extended physical area that would include any number of tribes. That is, the engineers increasingly saw themselves as independent of any particular tribe and were now responsible for the well-being of a large population, independent of tribal status…

To keep resources flowing in their direction, the old reciprocal back-and-forth tribal obligations had to be transformed into one-way, non-reciprocal ones. Henry speculates that this was accomplished by religious ideology. The hydraulic engineers became a full-time priesthood. “The older tribal obligations to provide the resources to construct and maintain the hydraulic system were now converted – in part – to maintain a privileged section of the population that no longer functioned, except in a ceremonial fashion, as specialized labour in the production process.”

Tribal societies practice totemic magic; where communication with long-deceased ancestors by the living is used to gain control over the invisible world underlying complex natural phenomena, such as the change of seasons and movements of stars, which were not understood by pre-scientific populations.

Totemism became supplanted by a specialized priesthood practicing “magic” which could intercede with the gods on behalf of humanity. The old tribal totems were converted to a pantheon of animal-headed gods(Horus, Thoth, Anubis, The pharaoh became a divine entity who could intercede with the gods on behalf of humanity. An elaborate funerary architecture and death cult was established to justify these practices. Cosmological symbolism, reaching back to the herding origin of Egyptian culture, was appropriated to create a rich and complex mythology centered around the afterlife. The temples played an increasing role in both the spiritual and also the material management of Egyptian culture. But then again, magic has always really been about manipulating people’s psychology rather than any so-called invisible forces:

“The king had been chosen and approved by the gods and after his death he retired into their company. Contact with the gods, achieved through ritual, was his prerogative, although for practical purposes the more mundane elements were delegated to priests. For the people of Egypt, their king was a guarantor of the continued orderly running of their world: the regular change of seasons, the return of the annual inundation of the Nile, and the predictable movements of the heavenly bodies, but also safety from the threatening forces of nature as well as enemies outside Egypt’s borders.”


Essentially, the spirit world was converted to one of gods, and the control of nature, previously seen as a generally sympathetic force, was now in the hands of the priests. Nature itself became hostile and its forces, controlled by gods, required pacification through offerings. The king -the ‘one true priest’ – and the priests placed themselves as the central unifying force around which continued economic success depended. In so doing, they could maintain the flow of resources that provided their enormously high levels of conspicuous consumption and wasteful expenditures that certified their status as envoys to the natural world.

This encoding of celestial movements in the very earliest monoliths indicates that studying the movements of the stars, planets, sun and moon was associated with management of mass labor and religious concepts from the start. This association can be seen encoded in the form of the earliest cities. Every major priesthood in both the Old world and the New was obsessed with observing the heavens. The bones found with calendrical markings indicate that this probably dated back to the Ice Age with certain “sky chiefs” or shamans.

This ability to mark time and track the movements of the heavens was probably just as responsible for the establishment of the priesthood as was hydraulic engineering, as Carroll Quigley  observes:

…we might infer that, at some remote date, some unsung genius or, better, some observant family, saw a connection between the advent of the flood and the movements of the sun–two events that had not previously seemed connected. This individual or family noted that the rising sun appeared at a slightly different point on the horizon each morning, finally reaching a limit where it hesitated for a few days before it began to return…Thus was born a rudimentary idea of the solar year, the full duration of the sun’s movement back to its starting point. With this information the observer was able to estimate roughly the day on which the flood would arrive each year. This calculation the discoverers kept secret, for their own profit, using the knowledge to work on the fears and superstitions of their neighbors, trying to convince others that they possessed magical powers enabling them to foretell the arrival of the flood, or even the power to make it arrive.

The original discoverers of this information could hardly have told the arrival of the flood within a span of time much less than ten days. However, the fear engendered by the flood was so great, increased by the realization that the crops would fail if it did not arrive, that some, at least, accepted the discoverers’ claims and yielded to their demands for tribute. The discoverers probably offered to reveal the time of the flood in advance to those who would contribute a share of their crops, or perhaps they even threatened to bring the flood or to keep it away if they failed to obtain promises of tithes from the crops of their neighbors. However skeptical these neighbors might be of such claims the first year, no more than one lucky forecast was needed for most of them to become willing givers…The ignorance of the majority made it easy for the possessors of this specialized knowledge to use it as proof that they had supernatural powers.

Moreover, it was not necessary to convince a majority or even many of their neighbors. If any small number contributed, a surplus would accumulate which could be used, in the form of flood protection embankments or irrigation ditches, to provide very concrete evidence that it was worthwhile to belong to the new organization. Thus came into existence the central institution of ancient Mesopotamia–the Sumerian priesthood.

This priesthood became a closed group, able to control enormous wealth and incomes, and concentrated very largely within the study of solar and astronomical periodicities on which their influence was originally based. With the surplus thus created, the priesthood was able to command human labor in large amounts and to direct this labor from the simple tillage of the peasant peoples to the diversified and specialized activities that constitute civilized living. Above all, this centralized direction provided the system of flood control and irrigation on which all subsequent progress was founded. Similarly, these priest-controlled surpluses provided the capital for the many inventions of the age of expansion of Mesopotamian civilization. [5]

Mass labor was channeled to building the elaborate funerary architecture and temples of the Egyptian state religion. In the days before mass media, the prevailing cultural ideology had to be encoded and reinforced by brick and stone. This labor was also organized by phyle. The priestly caste, rather than the tribal leaders, were now perforce the ruling class:

Under the new social organization, tribal obligations were converted into levies (or taxes, if one views this term broadly enough). The economic unit taxed was not the individual but the village. As well, the king and priests did not arbitrarily assign a tax level on the village, but tax assessors and collectors (scribes) met with the village chief who would assemble the village council to negotiate the tax. This appears to have been done on a biennial basis known as ‘counting of cattle’, a census that also served as the dating for the various reigns of the king. Should a village renege on its obligation (default), the chief responsible for the collection of taxes could be flogged by the scribes.

Note that such a punishment makes the chief responsible to the priests rather than to the clan, further eroding the substance of tribal relations. Supervising all the local or regional scribes, and assuring both competence and honesty in this process, was a vizier who exercised central authority in the name of the king.

The central authority used their control over society’s resources to establish a redistributive economy, run through pharaoh’s household. The redistributive economy reinforced the need for levies-cum-taxes from the general population, which were channeled through the Pharaoh’s household and back through all strata of the Egyptian economy:

Tribal reciprocity, though not totally abrogated, was no longer the universal standard among the Egyptian populations, and was replaced by an economy of limited redistribution...while the substance of tribal society was increasingly gutted, the emerging class had to maintain the forms of that organization. This was necessary in order to present the veneer that nothing fundamental had changed when, in fact, everything of substance had been altered…

The economic surplus collected in the form of taxes was directed toward the priests who then redistributed some portion through the various levels of the bureaucracy, the temple artisans, and the workers who laboured on the various religious and hydraulic projects. Hence, Egyptian society (along with others of this type) can be labelled an economy based on ‘redistribution’.

However, it is important not to misunderstand the nature of this term. Such economies did not engage in full redistribution as it would defeat the whole purpose of such an economy if all production were to be first directed to the centre, then flow back through all segments of society in some elaborate redistribution system. Not only would such a system be markedly inefficient, but what would be the point?

Rather, only a portion of the economic surplus, produced by the majority of the population, would flow to the centre, and this share of output would then be apportioned among the minority segments of society as stated above. The priests, of course, would claim the lion’s share.

Simple redistribution would not be enough to secure coercive power, however. In that case, you would be just an intermediary, collecting everything and giving it away. Instead, many of the resources thus collected would be channeled into image building activities: construction projects, hiring specialized craftsmen, acquiring a retinue of retainers and advisors, engaging in overseas trading missions, infrastructure improvements, military campaigns, religious rituals, and other such activities. It is through these activities that redistributive economies, made possible through taxation, became centralized institutions of power cemented in the hands of a hereditary elite.

As long as a chief merely returns everything he has been handed, he gains nothing in wealth or power. Only when he begins to keep a large part of it, sharing it with his retainers and supporters but not beyond that, does power begin to augment…the power of a chief to appropriate and retain food does not flow automatically from his right to collect and redistribute it. Villagers freely allow a chief to equalize each family’s share of meat or crops through redistribution because they benefit from it. But they will not willingly suffer the same chief to keep the lion’s share of food for himself. Before doing this, he must acquire additional power, and that power must come from another source.

The word “redistribution” is often used very loosely. Whenever the word is applied in describing the activity of a chief we should ask two questions (1) “What percentage of the food or goods taken in by the chief is actually redistributed?” (2) “To what percentage of the population are they redistributed?” For chiefly disbursement to be genuine redistribution, both percentages should be high. If the percentages are small, what we have is not real redistribution at all, but something more akin to taxation. And it is in taxation that the sinews of government really lie. When a chief can compel the population to turn food and goods over to him, which he can then apply at will, he is at last manifesting power.

By the selective distribution of food, goods, booty, women and the like the chief rewards those who have rendered him service. Thus he builds up a core of officials, warriors, henchmen, retainers, and the like who will be personally loyal to him and through whom he can issue orders and be obeyed. In short, it is through shrewd and self-interested disbursement of taxes that the administrative machinery of the chiefdom (and the state) is built up. However, the chief who does this is no longer a redistributor, he is an appropriator and a concentrator… Summarizing his findings for chiefdoms generally, Steponaitis noted: “What formally appears to be a redistribution in complex chiefdoms is functionally more akin to the collection of tribute than the institutionalized sharing of surplus.” [6]

This process probably came about through military conquest.

By the fourth millennium BC, three proto-states emerged along the Nile River: This, Naqada, and Heirakonopolis, each centered on a capital city. These shared a common culture, but competed politically. These polities came to be dominated by Heirakonoplis (Nekhen), which went on to unify Upper (southern) Egypt. Upper Egypt conquered the chiefdoms of Lower Egypt (the Nile Delta), creating the Egyptian state and the first dynasty, as depicted on the Narmer Palette. Depictions of martial conquest remained in royal iconography through Egyptian history.

A military needs supplies–food, weapons, and so forth, to wage war. In cases of attack by outsiders, everyone is expected to contribute to common defense. Military operations would also have required levies from the general population. Armies need to be provisioned and fed, and this can only be done with forward planning and large storehouses. But it’s not fair to just requisition supplies from producers who make things directly related to military use. It would have violated egalitarian norms of shared sacrifice in wartime. The answer for this situation was to raise a general levy across the population to support military efforts, even from who produced items not directly related to military use like coppersmiths and chariot-makers.

These contributions would have been paid to those who could organize the surplus in collective defense of the territory, mobilize labor in the form of troops, and engage in successful territorial expansion. The resources of the conquered territories would then flow into the same bureaucratic structure. This process continued apace, as the villages along the Nile became assimilated into a single culture under the reign of a single ruler.

No state is known to have arisen directly from the fusion of autonomous villages. all seem to have been formed through the coalescing of groups already aggregated into supravillage units. Such units were, by my definition, chiefdoms. Moreover, because the aggregation of villages occurs only through war, or the threat of it, any theory of the origin of chiefdoms that foregoes this mechanism is severely handicapped…Once chiefdoms begin to form in a region, the process proceeds rapidly. The military advantage that size alone confers on a society means that even a minimal chiefdom will have a significant edge over its neighbors if they are still independent villages. as a result, it will not be long before autonomous villages as such will cease to exist. Either they will be defeated by and incorporated into one of the existing chiefdoms or they will join forces with other such villages in a defensive alliance, which will itself tend to become a chiefdom. [7]

Eventually, foreigners would become subjugated as well. When populations were overrun, they became subject populations where wealth was regularly extracted from them in the form of tribute. Tribute is essentially an extortion payment from a militarily weak population to a stronger one in order to leave them alone. To collect this tribute, a top-down political apparatus was established which funneled resources from the periphery to a core.

In addition to the portion of the surplus collected now as taxes, the king also collected royal gifts as a form of tribute from foreign populations. As the goods that formed this income could be in the same form as the income that flowed from the internal population, but was the property of the king proper, it had to be kept apart from the internally generated income…

The later Haxamanishya-Akhaemenid-dynasty Persian emperors of 550 to 330 BC, who ended up controlling much of the Near East, perfected this technique. Rather than killing or enslaving defeated populations, they kept them alive and allowed them to live in peace under the rule and laws of the imperial power. In exchange, they set up a tax system which funneled a portion of their economic output into the imperial treasuries. They became, in essence, farmers who kept peasants instead of livestock. This goes to prove Stanley Diamond’s observation that “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” [8]

The necessity of managing these diverse resource flows called for the creation of a bureaucratic structure. Taxes and tribute were assessed in a unit of account, usually a reference to a certain set measure of weight. It was this standard, that is the origin of money, not some sort of intermediate good chosen to reduce barter costs. On this point, the evidence is unambiguous:

At some early point in the Old Kingdom, the growing complexities of the new economic arrangements required the introduction of a unit of account in which taxes and their payment could be reckoned and the various accounts in the treasury could be kept separate and maintained. This unit was the deben (and its fractional denomination, the shdt- 1/12 of a deben)…The fact that the deben bore no relation to any specific object, but referred to an arbitrary unit of weight only, is a certain indication that Egyptian money was decidedly not based on some ‘intrinsic value.’…In other words, money does not originate as a medium of exchange but as a unit of account (and something of a store of value with regard to the king’s treasury), where the measure of value is arbitrarily specified by decree, and goods and services of various qualities and quantities can then be assigned a monetary value to allow a reasonable form of bookkeeping to keep track of tax obligations and payments and to maintain the separate accounts of the king.

It should also be noted that the deben did not serve as means of payment (as with modern money), but did function as the means (or measure) through which payment was made….money as simply a non-tangible abstract unit in which obligations are created and discharged, while it may appear obtuse to a modern economist, should not be all that difficult to comprehend….

2. Tribal obligations and Weregild

A second route to money stems from ancient penal systems set up by tribal societies.

In tribal societies, when a crime is committed, the transgressor is required to make restitution payments to the victim and/or the victim’s family/clan/tribe. The transgressor is considered to be “indebted” or “liable” to the victim(s) until such payment is made. In many languages, the word for “debt” is analogous to the words designating “sin” or “transgression.” Also, the verb “to pay” has its roots in words meaning “to pacify, “to appease” or “to satisfy.” This indebtedness continues until such time as restitution is paid to the victim and balance is restored.

Many Indo-European cultures practice the notion of “blood-wealth,” or Weregild. The term derives from wair meaning man, and gildan meaning “to pay” or “to render.” These were fines assessed by tribal councils and public assemblies and paid directly to the victims or their families in order to prevent blood feuds from escalating out of control. “A long list fines for each possible transgression was developed, and a designated “rememberer” would be responsible for passing it down to the next generation. Note that each fine was levied in terms of a particular good that was both useful to the victim and more-or-less easily obtained by the perpetrator.”

Often, violations were associated with a specific fine based on the severity of the offense. The Code of Hammurabi and the Salic law both specified very specific compensation payments for various offenses (such as gouging out an eye, or cutting off a nose, or manslaughter—must have been fun times back then!). In tribal societies, these could be assessed in terms of cattle, grain, goats, chickens, and even (in ancient Ireland, for example) slave girls!

These payments were originally assessed on a case-by-case basis rather than a regular unit of account. However, over time the idea of weregild gave rise to the idea of general monetary debts owed to authorities, including fees, tithes, taxes, and tribute. “The key innovation, then, lay in the transformation of what had been the transgressor’s debt to the victim to a universal “debt” or tax obligation imposed by and payable to the authority.”

It is almost certain that weregild fines were gradually converted to payments made to an authority. This could not occur in an egalitarian tribal society, but had to await the rise of some sort of ruling class. As Henry argues for the case of Egypt, the earliest ruling classes were probably religious officials, who demanded tithes (ostensibly, to keep the gods happy). Alternatively, conquerors require payments of tribute by a subject population. Tithes and tribute thus came to replace weregild fines, and fines for “transgressions against society”, paid to the rightful ruler, could be levied for almost any conceivable activity. Eventually, taxes would replace most fees, fines and tribute.

Once debts are paid to a central authority, it is unwieldy to juggle all the various types of objects that can be paid. “When all payments are made to the single authority…this wergild sort of system becomes cumbersome. Unless well-developed markets exist, those with liabilities denominated in specific goods or services could find it difficult to make such payments. Or, the authority could find itself blessed with an overabundance of one type of good while short of others.” [9]

For example, tribal payments in ancient Ireland were made in slave girls called kumals. But over time, this became cumbersome, and kumals became simply an abstract unit of account:

Probably the second century a.d. saw the kumal transformed into an abstract unit of account. The laws under King Fegus, king of Uldah, required a blood money payment of “seven kumals of silver” and “seven kumals of land” for the murder of anyone under the king’s protection. These laws clearly show that land and silver were mediums of exchange, and kumals were only a unit of account. These laws were set forth in two legal texts, the Senchus Mor and the Book of Aicill, both of which contained a table legally sanctioning the kumal standard. According to this table:

8 wheat-grains = 1 pinginn of silver
3 pinginns = 1 screpall
3 screpalls = 1 sheep
4 sheep = 1 heifer
6 heifers = 1 cow
3 cows = 1 kumal

The example of slave-girl money in Ireland brings to the forefront four separate functions of money. Money serves as a medium of exchange, a store of wealth, a unit of account or measure of value, and a standard of deferred payment. The slave-girl money evolved into a unit of account only, while the other roles of money were filled by various commodities, land, and precious metals.

Slave Currency of Ancient Ireland (Encyclopedia of Money)

Once again, money arises out of the ability to extinguish a debt, in this case one’s “debt to society”:

According to this view, money is essentially an instrument that denominates and extinguishes social debt obligation. It first quantifies debt obligation between individuals. For example, Joshua has conducted wrongdoing to Henry; hence the public authority determines that Joshua owes to Henry one cattle. In this case, that cattle is the “money” that effectively extinguishes Joshua’s liability/debt to Henry. …Money of account might be a cattle between Joshua and Henry, and then ten watermelons between Helen and Linda, etc.

However, when there emerges the need to denominate debt obligation between individuals and the “society”/central authority in various forms (such as fines, fees, taxes, etc.), a standard unit of account for money was needed to serve as the standard measure of value. By choosing a unit of account as the only means for individuals to extinguish his/her liabilities to themselves, the central authorities “write the dictionary” (Keynes, 1930). Hence, the power of the central authority (state, temple, tribe, etc.) to impose a debt liability (fines, fees, taxes, etc.) on its population gives the former the unique right to choose a particular unit of account as the only means of payment to the central authority.

3. Conclusion

Although these paths to money differ, they are fundamentally similar and provide a historically supported and logically consistent account of the transformation from primitive money to more modern forms.

In both of these scenarios, payments are made to some sort of institutional authority tasked with social maintenance, whether adjudication of disputes, execution of justice, military operations, communal redistribution and welfare, or maintenance of critical infrastructure. As Wray states, “The unit of account is the numeraire in which credits and debts are measured.” Only when this “unit of account” is established can markets form. Thus, both money and markets are creations of the state and are rooted in social hierarchy and inequality.

Two further critical inventions are required to create such a numeraire: accounting and measurement. We’ll discuss how those innovations came about next time.

[1] Semenova and Wray. The Rise of Money and Class Society: The Contributions of John F. Henry (WP 832) (2)

[2] John Henry: The Social Origins of Money: The Case of Egypt. In Credit and State Theories of Money: The Contributions of Alfred Mitchell-Innes. Randall Wray and Edward Elgar, editors. Subsequent passages from Henry are also taken from this work unless noted otherwise.

[3] Barry Kemp: Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, pp. 166-168

[4] C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky: Households, Land tenure, and Communication Systems in the 6th-4th Millennia of Greater Mesopotamia. In Urbanization and Land Ownership in the Ancient Near East. Michael Hudson and Baruch Levine, editors.

[5] Carroll Quigley: The Evolution of Civilizations, pp. 211-213

[6] The Transition to Statehood in the New World. edited by Grant D. Jones, Robert R. Kautz, Cambridge University Press

[7] ibid.

[8] Stanley Diamond: In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization

[9] L. Randall Wray: The Credit Money and State Money Approaches (Working Paper 32)

The Origin of Money – 2

1. Tally sticks – The First Credits.

A number of notched bones have survived from the Ice Age. The notches and marks made on these bones were clearly made by humans for some sort of intentional purpose.

The interpretation of these bones is, or course, highly speculative. However, a convincing argument has been put forward by studying the patterns inscribed on them that these bones were used as a form of primitive record-keeping. The patterns on them indicate a careful tracking of the lunar waxing and waning as a way of marking off time. Lunar cycles would have been used to track the migrations of herds, the reproductive and moulting patterns of animals, the growth of plants, and even the menstrual cycles of fertile females. In this latter role, they may be related to the enigmatic so-called “Venus figurines,” found throughout Ice-Age Europe, which appear to be pregnant females.

These calendrical rhythms were also used to order the ritual life of Ice Age peoples, indicating that even at this distant phase of history, humans were extremely social and not just isolated bands roaming peripatetically across the landscape:

Calendrical rhythms determined the times when sparse populations came together in the seasonal gatherings that were the occasions for exchange – of family members as well as gifts. These ritual sites typically were on rivers, often near distinguishing natural features such as caves. The most famous sites were orientated to the rising or setting of the sun at the four major points of the year, the solstices and equinoxes….

After the Ice Age (Michael Hudson)

The Lembobo bone is a fibula of a baboon with artificial notches on it which was found in a cave in Swaziland which dates from the Paleolithic period-about 45,000 years ago. The notches are thought to represent some sort of calendrical counting system, probably based on the phases of the moon. The Ishango bone is another baboon fibula bone from about 20,000 years ago bearing similar markings. This is thought to also have a possible lunar calendrical function, but it has also been speculated that it may represent a tally stick. The Wolf Bone, found in Europe and dated from about 30,000 years ago, is another example.

These tally sticks may have been single tally, in which an object is notched as a mnemonic device. Examples include the messenger sticks of the Inuit people, and the knotted strings used many native American tribes. In Peru, these evolved into the khipu: the bundles of strings used to manage the inventory of the Inka redistributive economy.

The other tally stick “technology” was the split tally, in which both parties to a transaction retained a copy of the transaction record as a means of verification. One half would go to the debtor, and the other half to the creditor. Some unique item which could be split apart was chosen, such as stick or a bone. The natural variability of the split and of the material itself prevented forgery. The ancient Chinese used bamboo sticks about the size of two chopsticks for this purpose.

In Medieval England, tally sticks were made of hazelwood harvested from the banks of the Thames near parliament. Such wood had a distinct feel and grain to prevent counterfeiting. Each tally stick would be squared off and marked–V-shaped notches would represent pounds, broad grooves would indicate shillings, and sharp notches would indicate pence. A debtor’s name and a short description of the transaction would be inscribed, and the stick would be split vertically in two down the center. The debtor would retain one piece, called the “foil,” while the creditor would receive the other piece, called the “stock.”

The portion of the stick retained by the creditor retained the entirety of the original base where the stick was cut from the tree or branch to prevent counterfeiting. If marks were altered by one party, the discrepancy would be obvious to the other, making sure the transaction was secure. In fact, the term “stock” used in tallies is the origin of our term today:

Curiously, our modern use of the term “stock” to represent a share in a corporation may derive from the stock and foil technology. Almost certainly the British term for fixed income obligations–stocks–comes directly from the use of stocks and foils up to the early nineteenth century to record loans to the Bank of England. For generations, to have “stock” in the Bank of England literally meant that one held a creditor’s wooden stock, and dividends were presumably collected by presentation of the stock at the bank.

The Origins of Value, p. 110

The tally system survived in England and was a major means for raising funds by the Exchequer for at least six centuries. Often times the credit portion might be transferred to someone else as a form of “payment.” That is tally sticks circulated as money–transferable credit. If the king needed money, he would “raise a tally” by issuing tally sticks addressed to the local tax collector in place of cash. These sticks would then circulate: their value came from the fact that they could be used to pay the tax obligation. The sticks would be presented at the time of tax collection (“I already paid”). In this way, they circulated as bills of exchange.

Geoffrey Gardiner imagines what such a system might look like in a pre-literate society:

Let us assume that the huntsman is in need of a supply of arrows, but until he can hunt he has nothing to give in exchange. So he promises the fletcher ten haunches of venison in exchange for a supply of arrows. In modern terminology he is asking for ‘trade credit.’ In evidence of his promise he notches ten bones and gives them to the fletcher. These are his ‘markers.’ The fletcher needs wood, so he asks the woodsman for trade credit, promising haunches of venison when the hunter has been successful. He could hand over some of the markers of the huntsman as evidence of his promise. The various deals might be notified to the headman, who, we may confidently assume, will also require a reward of venison in return for a promise to enforce the deals. The huntsman gets his arrows, and goes off to the hunt. Having been successful, he pays off his debts to the holders of his markers. The chief gets his reward too.

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money, p. 119

In reality, the above scenario is not very likely. We know from anthropological studies that In small-scale tribal societies, cooperation is given open-handedly, without the need to have some sort of formal record of who owes what to whom.

But perhaps the notched bones above indicate some sort of dealing with outsiders, perhaps from another tribe. We know that rituals took place at certain specified portions of the year, and during these rituals, exchanges took place. In fact, we know that ritual reciprocal exchange was explicitly designed to establish and maintain social bonds in disparate groups, as in the Kula trade.

Such rituals and exchanges probably took place long before the advent of domesticated agriculture, far back into the Ice Age. The presence of seashell ornaments hundreds of miles inland indicates that such trade routes existed as far back as the Ice Age. We also know, for example, that the ochre used to decorate the painted cave walls at Lascaux did not come from the same region, or nearby, but instead came from hundreds of miles away from deep beneath the earth’s surface, probably changing hands along the way. This ocher indicates that already in the Ice Age there must have already been some sort of primitive “mining” industry.

The aboriginal natives of Australia lived a Stone-Age existence and yet had complex trade routes between various tribes, exchanging stones, ochres, tools, hides, ceremonial items and other resources. Tribes would come together at certain specified portions of the year for rituals involving music and dancing. At these rituals, ceremonial trade would take place.

On the Daly River, south of Darwin, trade took place at occasions when neighbouring tribes gathered for other reasons such as initiation or sacred ceremonies…each man and woman had a special trading partner in a complex network of gift exchange. A vast network of trade routes criss-crossed the Australian continent prior to white settlement, after which the trade contacts were soon broken. Pearl shell was traded from tribe to tribe to the Nullarbor Plain. Native tobacco moved from the central ranges to the south of the continent, while wombat fur for twine making moved from the south to the north. Stone spear heads were traded from the central Australian quarries to the tribes of Arnhem Land.

It’s possible that the tally sicks, whether single or split, were the earliest permanent records of economic transactions that we know of. Such items indicate that money is not a “thing” but transferable credits (neither the bones nor sticks themselves had any intrinsic value). Their simplicity is deceptive. In fact, they are surprisingly effective financial instruments, which is attested to by the longevity. The Napoleonic Code recognized them as valid financial instruments, and some were still in use in part of Central Europe into the Twentieth Century. When the Bank of England retired them from circulation in favor of coins and paper money in the nineteenth century, the tally sticks were burned en masse in a bonfire. The resulting fire burned down the Houses of Parliament; today’s iconic Gothic Revival building alongside the Thames is its replacement.

We cannot be sure that such arrangements ever happened exactly as thus surmised, but notched bones do survive from hunter-gatherer settlements of the Stone Age. Indeed, some are very elaborately notched, suggesting to some scholars quite sophisticated accounting. Others claim that the earliest notched bones are calendrical in character. This scholarly dispute may be of no great significance as accounting techniques must at some stage absorb calendrical technology, as time is an important factor in accounting, and the transition from astronomical notation to a notation of obligations is, we are informed, documented by c. 9000 BC.

Sticks are easier to notch than bones, and the notched stick was the main method of keeping permanent accounts in places with ample supplies of wood until the end of the 18th century. In Chapter 5 of The Universal History of Numbers (1994) Georges Ifrah introduces his readers to the mode of using notched sticks. In the first sentence of the English edition of this comprehensive work of impressive scholarship he tells his readers that notched sticks – tally sticks – were first used at least 40,000 years ago. He states that as a method of accounting the notched stick has stood the test of time. He suggests that only the invention of fire is older technology than the accounting tally.

In the first part of the chapter Georges Ifrah describes notched sticks merely as a means of counting, but on the second page he explains how the tally can be used as a form of bill and receipt, and then likens it to a wooden credit card, nearly as efficient and reliable as the plastic ones with magnetic stripes and microchips with which people today are so familiar.

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money, pp. 119-120

The next archaeological indicators of formal economic arrangements are small clay tokens found throughout archaeological sites in the ancient Near East after 9000 BC. But to understand their role, we must first understand the changing nature of social relations are we moved into the Neolithic (farming) period of history. The changing nature of social relations due to farming, especially irrigated farming, is necessary to understanding the origin of money.

The Origin of Money – 1

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”
–J.M Keynes

Last time we saw that the “conventional” definition of money does not hold in an anthropological context. We saw that different “money-things” functioned in different and often distinct spheres of exchange. We also saw that “money” was used primarily to discharge social obligations, rather than being used in closed-ended spot transactions. Often times, money used in market exchanges was kept distinct and separate from what was used in reciprocal social obligations, often to protect social relationships from monetization, as Karl Polanyi pointed out.

These facts are important to keep in mind when discussing the history of money.

1. The conventional theory is wrong

The conventional view is that money evolved to reduce transaction costs in an imaginary barter society. An intermediate commodity that would serve as a “medium of exchange” would be chosen by all members of the community through a process of trial-and-error. Not just any item would do, however. It had to be durable. It had to portable. It had to be divisible. And it couldn’t be too common, otherwise money would lost its value.

Gold (and silver), being all of these things, gradually emerged as the most logical choice. It does not oxidize or decay. It is malleable into different shapes. It is portable. It is reasonably rare:

Karl Menger, an Austrian economist, set out one school of thought as long ago as 1892. In his version of events, the monetisation of an economy starts when agricultural communities move away from subsistence farming and start to specialise. This brings efficiency gains but means that trade with others becomes necessary. The problem is that operating markets on the basis of barter is a pain: you have to scout around looking for the rare person who wants what you have and has what you want.

Money evolves to reduce barter costs, with some things working better than others. The commodity used as money should not lose value when it is bought and sold. So clothing is a bad money, since no one places the same value on second-hand clothes as new ones. Instead, something that is portable, durable (fruit and vegetables are out) and divisible into smaller pieces is needed. Menger called this property “saleableness”. Spices and shells are highly saleable, explaining their use as money. Government plays no role here. The origin of money is a market-led response to barter costs, in which the best money is that which minimises the costs of trade. Menger’s is a good description of how informal monies, such as those used by prisoners, originate.

On the origin of specie (The Economist)

Alfred Mitchell-Innes, the author of a groundbreaking paper on the true origins of money, laid out the conventional theory this way:

…under primitive conditions men lived and live by barter…as life becomes more complex barter no longer suffices as a method of exchanging commodities, and by common consent one particular commodity is fixed on which is generally acceptable; and which therefore, everyone will take in exchange for the things he produces or the services he renders and which each in turn can equally pass on to others in exchange for whatever he may want…this commodity thus becomes a “medium of exchange and measure of value.”

…a sale is the exchange of a commodity for this intermediate commodity which is called “money;”…many different commodities have at various times and places served as this medium, of exchange, – cattle, iron, salt, shells, dried cod, tobacco, sugar, nails, etc.;

…gradually the metals, gold, silver, copper, and more especially the first two, came to be regarded as being by their inherent qualities more suitable for this purpose than any other commodities and these metals early became by common consent the only medium of exchange…

What the Classical and Austrian economists did, in essence, was to try and imagine the origin of money by envisioning a society much like their own–Western European market societies, complete with dense populations of strangers, centralized governments and banks, and occupational specialization–and then take money away. How would people cope? They would have to barter for things, of course! And then they constructed the rest of the narrative from there.

However, this is bad anthropology, and bad science. Ancient societies were very different from their own market-oriented societies. Market societies are a historical contingency based on a great variety of factors, many which were not known to classical economists. You cannot simply imagine one’s own society, complete with all its various complex political and socioeconomic arrangements, and then take away one variable to construct the history of that variable.

Rather than using empirical reasoning to arrive at their conclusions, they used deductivist reasoning not rooted in actual data. Their conclusions were also predicated on the aggregate actions of isolated individuals who had no pre-existing social relationships with each other, something also not found in actual societies.

Several problems emerged almost immediately with this narrative. One is the extreme unlikelihood of a single standard emerging without recourse to some sort of established central authority, as Randy Wray notes:

Orthodoxy has never been able to explain how individual utility maximizers settled on a single numeraire. While the use of a single unit of account results in efficiencies, it is not clear what evolutionary process would have generated the single unit. Further, the higgling and haggling of the market is supposed to produce the equilibrium vector of relative prices, all of which can be denominated in the single numeraire. However, this presupposes a fairly high degree of specialization of labor and/or resource ownership–but this pre-market specialization, itself, is hard to explain.

Once markets are reasonably well-developed, specialization increases welfare; however, without well-developed markets, specialization is exceedingly risky, while diversification of skills and resources would be prudent. It seems exceedingly unlikely that either markets or a money of account could have evolved out of individual utility maximizing behavior.

Geoffrey Ingham argues that the typical sequence has it backwards: money had to be established first, before markets could form. Otherwise, how could anonymous market exchanges take place? In other words, money is historically anterior to markets, and therefore could not have emerged out of innumerable market transactions:

‘In the first place, without making a number of implausible assumptions, it is difficult to envisage that an agreed money of account could emerge from myriad bilateral barter exchange ratios, as the Mengerian commodity theory implies. How could discrete barter exchange of, say, 3 chickens to 1 duck or 6 ducks to 1 chicken, and so on, produce a universally recognised unit of account? The conventional answer that a ‘duck standard’ would emerge ‘spontaneously’ involves a circular argument. A single ‘duck standard’ cannot be the equilibrium price of ducks established by supply and demand because, in the absence of a money of account, ducks would continue to have a range of unstable exchange ratios.

As opposed to discrete truck and barter, which produces myriad bilateral exchange ratios, a true market, which produces a single price for ducks requires first and foremost a stable unit of account’.

As we have seen, most specialization took place within the context of a redistributive economy, whereby specialized products would be collected and redistributed by some sort of central authority such a tribal chief, religious authority, or palace, rather than a market-oriented one. Other economies functioned on a household basis where craft specialists were members of the same household and produced items for internal use of the group rather than external market exchange. Although some specialists might sell their surplus goods outside of the household context, and households exchanged surplus commodities with each other, this likely was not done through barter exchanges. Instead, merchant intermediaries would likely acquire surplus commodities from various households and store them for later use. These merchants would then match up goods with buyers over time in their shops. In other words, the producer was usually not also a seller. This was just as likely conducted through credit/debit relationships rather than though barter. This is how many small village markets operate even today in developing countries.

Another flaw in this theory is that very often specialist producers would have nothing to barter with until they first procured the the land or raw materials they needed in order to create their item. This means exchanges are often spaced out in time as well as space, requiring not spot transactions but, once again, credit.

For example, a farmer needs to acquire land and seeds long before she has any crop to sell. A herdsman needs to first procure the cattle for breeding before he can sell the calves. A smith needs to first procure metal before he can forge a tool. All of these exchanges require not spot trades, but rather credit. This means that barter was an unlikely basis for an economy even in more complex, specialized Neolithic economies:

The idea that barter, that is the direct free exchange of goods and services, was a viable basis for an economy is unrealistic for two reasons. First, due to the seasonal nature of many products, the things which people need to exchange may not be produced at the same time of the year.

Second, and even more important, is the fact that most productive activities involve a sequence of stages from the production of the primary raw material to the sale of the finished product. The perfecter of the finished article has nothing to exchange with the producer of the raw material: the latter has to supply on credit terms, that is on trust that at some future time he will be reimbursed in some way.

Wray, Credit and State Theory of Money pp. 118-119

There are other problems as well. The historical evidence indicates that in ancient times, precious metals were far too valuable to be used in everyday transactions:

it should not be accepted on faith that using monetary metal was simpler than barter. To begin with, the high value of silver and gold implied that they would be used only for large transactions. In the Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BC), notes Marvin Powell, a shekel ‘represented a month’s pay’, thereby limiting the ability of most people to pay on the spot for consumer transactions. Measuring smaller quantities of monetary metal became more error-prone, with deviations rising to about 3 per cent for small weights.

Wray, Credit and State Theories of Money p. 101

This “stable unit of account” is what allowed markets to form and market trading to take place. It was a schedule of price equivalencies evaluated against a common standard which allowed market trading to take place. All historical and anthropological evidence indicates that this stable unit of account was established through the actions some sort of central governing authority, whether political or religious, in every society. In other words, money was first and foremost a social technology which facilitated cooperation and trade; it was not generated spontaneously through the gain-seeking actions of numerous “rugged individualists” by osmosis. It was a way of recording debts and credits, and was never an intrinsically valuable “thing.” The fact that precious metals were used to keep track of these is a historical contingency which masks the true nature of money.

In addition, coins are what have survived. The systems of credit clearing which underlay these items do not preserve in the archaeological record. This gives the mistaken impression that the precious metals contained in coins were what was being traded for, and credit was just a substitute–a promise to pay gold and silver later because the former were just to hard to carry around.

The flaws of the conventional theory are summed up by Tim Johnson:

The narrative that money emerges out of barter has become part of received wisdom and as with most ‘common sense’, it has no basis in fact. Just as astrophysicists use telescopes to look back in time, anthropologists visit isolated communities to see how society evolved, and the evidence of this research is summarised by Caroline Humphrey (a.k.a. Lady Rees of Ludlow):

“Barter is at once a cornerstone of modern economic theory and an ancient subject of debate about political justice, from Plato and Aristotle onwards. In both discourses, which are distinct though related, barter provides the imagined preconditions for the emergence of money …[however] No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.” [Humphrey, 1985, p 48]

What actually happens in practice is that when individuals knew each other, exchange was based on reciprocity; a gift would be given in the anticipation of it being reciprocated in the future (when they don’t know each other there is barter, but in such situations money cannot emerge because cowrie shells might be important in one society, and gold in another).

One of the most famous stories illustrating the role of reciprocal exchange has concerns an anthropologist who after spending some time with bushmen, gave one of them his knife. When visiting the group some years later, anthropologists discovered that the knife had been owned, at some point in time, by every member of the community. The knife had not been communally owned, its ownership had passed from one person to the next and its passage was evidence of a social network in the community, just as the motion of planets is evidence of an, otherwise invisible, gravitational field.

Lady Credit (Magic, Maths and Money)

So how did money really come about? That’s what we’ll start to look at next time.

What Is Money?

1. Money is what money does.

What is money? It seems like a such simple question, but is anything but. For most of us, money is anything we can use to pay for stuff. It is the thing we earn at our jobs, which we then use to buy everything we need.

But in traditional societies, there are no “jobs” and no “markets.” So did they have money? If not, did they have “wealth?”

The usual way to define what constitutes “money” is to use the customary tripartite division given in economics textbooks: money is a means of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account. For example, this Web site gives the “conventional” definition of money:

The item serves as a medium of exchange. In order for an item to be considered money, it must be widely accepted as payment for goods and services. In this way, money creates efficiency because it eliminates uncertainty regarding what is going to be accepted as payment by various businesses.

The item serves as a unit of account. In order for an item to be considered money, it must be the unit that prices, bank balances, etc. are reported in. Having a consistent unit of account creates efficiency since it would be pretty confusing to have the price of bread quoted as a number of fish, the price of fish quoted in terms of t-shirts, and so on.

The item serves as a store of value. In order for an item to be considered money, it has to (to a reasonable degree) hold its purchasing power over time. This feature of money adds to efficiency because it gives producers and consumers flexibility in the timing of purchases and sales, eliminating the need to immediately trade one’s income for goods and services.

As these properties suggest, money was introduced to societies as a means of making economic transactions simpler and more efficient, and it mostly succeeds in that regard. In some situations, items other than officially designated currency have been used as money in various economies.

For example, it used to be somewhat common in countries with unstable governments (and also in prisons) to use cigarettes as money, even though there was no official decree that cigarettes served that function.

But it turns out that this definition of money is highly misleading. By using the customary tripartite definition of money, we define what money is. That is, anything that fulfills all of the above criteria is “true” money, and by extension, anything that does not meet all of the these criteria is not “true” money” or maybe, “partial” money, or “money-like”.

But this is a mistake, argues anthropologist George Dalton, in his essay, Primitive Money (PDF). It is incorrect to determine what constitutes “true” money by comparing it to the Dollars, Yen, Pounds, Euros, Francs, Yuan, Pesos, Dinars, and so on, that we use in our market-oriented, capitalist economies. In our societies, these functions are all carried out by a single object that we call “money.”

In traditional societies, however, these purposes may be accomplished by a whole host of other “money-things.” When we see such items used in exchanges, we call these “money-things” primitive money:

…if one asks what is “primitive” about a particular money, one may come away with two answers: the money-stuff-woodpecker scalps, sea shells, goats, dog teeth-is primitive (i.e., different from our own); and the uses to which the money-stuff is sometimes put-mortuary payments, bloodwealth, bridewealth—are primitive (i.e., different from our own).

Dalton summarizes the ways in which primitive money differs from the type of money used in modern market-based industrial economies:

Primitive money performs some of the functions of our own money, but rarely all; the conditions under which supplies are forthcoming are usually different; primitive money is used in some ways ours is not; our money is impersonal and commercial, while primitive money frequently has pedigree and personality, sacred uses, or moral and emotional connections. Our governmental authorities control the quantity of money, but this is rarely so in primitive economies.

The problem with the customary tripartite definition of money is that the distinctive features of what we call “money” all derive from us living in Western-style market-oriented economies with centralized governments and banking systems. As a result, they simply do not apply to primitive economies! For this reason, Dalton argues, judging what constitutes “primitive money” by comparing it with our own is fundamentally wrong. As Dalton points out, we would never do that in other areas of life when trying to understand other cultures:

[Anthropologists]…use the bundle of attributes money has in Western market economy to comprise a model of true money. They then judge whether or not money-like stuff in primitive economies is really money by how closely the uses of the primitive stuff resemble our own-a strange procedure for anthropologists who would never use the bundle of attributes of the Western family, religion, or political organization in such a way… Anthropologists do not hesitate to contrive special terms for special actions and institutions when to use terms from their own society would be misleading. They do not talk about the family, but about nuclear, extended, and matrilineal families. The same should be done with economic matters…

Other societies have very different social and economic arrangements than our own. In cultures where markets are absent or peripheral, and where banking systems are nonexistent, the type of anonymous, all-purpose “money-stuff” that we use in daily life is unknown. Many items in traditional cultures serve as “money-stuff,” but do not fulfill all of the criteria listed above, causing anthropologists and economists to erroneously dismiss them as not being “true” money.

In order to truly understand what constitutes “primitive” money, Dalton argues, we need to know how it is used, what it is used for, and who is using it. We typically do not make such distinctions when talking about Western capitalist market economies because it is assumed that all exchange is mediated by impersonal market transactions. Also, most exchanges are essentially commercial in nature, with other money uses being subsidiary. However, this is not the case in traditional cultures where markets play only a tangential role in social affairs:

Dollars have that set of uses called medium of exchange, means of payment, standard of value, etc., precisely because our economy is commercially organized. Where economies are organized differently, non-commercial uses of monetary objects become important, and ‘‘money” takes on different characteristics.

The question is not-as it is conventionally put-are shells, woodpecker scalps, cattle, goats, dog teeth, or Kula valuables “really” “money?” It is, rather, how are the similarities and the differences between such items and dollars related to similarities and differences in socio-economic structure?

To concentrate attention on money traits independently of underlying [social] organization leads writers to use the traits of Western money as a model of the real thing (while ignoring the structure of Western economy which accounts for the money traits). Then any primitive money which does not have all the traits of the Western model money is simply ruled out by definition-it is not money. This does not get us very far towards understanding primitive and peasant economies…

Dalton identifies three major types of economic arrangements distinct from the types of cosmopolitan, commercially-oriented market-based societies that we live in in the West. The uses and definitions of money are subsequently determined by these socio-economic arrangements. It should be noted that most economies prior to the advent of modern Western industrial capitalism fall into one of these three major categories:

Type I: Marketless – In marketless communities, land and labor are not transacted by purchase and sale but are allocated as expressions of kinship right or tribal affiliation. There are no formal market-place sites where indigenously produced items are bought and sold. These are “subsistence” economies in the sense that livelihood does not depend on production for sale. The transactional modes to allocate resources and labor as well as produced items and services are reciprocity and redistribution…

Type II: Peripheral Markets Only – Everything said above about marketless economies holds true for those with only peripheral markets, with one exception: market-place sites exist in which a narrow range of produce is bought and sold, either with some moneystuff used as medium of (commercial) exchange, or via barter in the economist’s sense (moneyless market exchange). We call these market exchanges “peripheral” because land and labor are not bought and sold and because most people do not get the bulk of their income from market sales…

Type III: Market-Dominated (Peasant) Economies – Small-scale market-dominated communities share with our own nationally integrated market economy the following features: (i) a large proportion of land and labor as well as goods and services are transacted by market purchase and sale; (ii) most people depend upon market sale of labor or products for livelihood; (iii) market prices integrate production. Labor and land move into and out of different production lines in response to profit (and other income) alternatives, as indicated by market prices. In such economies, the medium of (commercial) exchange function of money is the most important; the other commercial uses of money facilitate market transactions, and the same money is used for non-commercial transactions.

Peasant economies differ from primitive (subsistence) economies in that peasant producers depend upon production for sale. However, both peasant and primitive communities differ from large-scale, developed, nationally integrated Western economies on two counts: modern machine technology is largely absent, and traditional social organization and cultural practices are largely retained.

Rather than trying to define what money is in traditional economies, we should be looking at what money does. What may function as money in one context (e.g. the settling of debts), may not function in another (e.g. a means of exchange), and still again not in another (e.g. a store of value). It is also determined by the social relations between parties to the exchange. Different types of money are used in different types of transactions. For example, market exchange is very different from reciprocal gift exchange, which might be again different than redistribution carried out by centralized authorities such as chiefs or village elders.

For example, no one would head off to the marketplace with a herd of cattle in order to purchase things on sale from the vendors there. But cattle are often described as “money” in primitive societies because they are used for payments such as dowries. Cowrie shells might serve for impersonal market exchange with strangers, but would be inappropriate for bride exchange, restitution payments, or payments to authorities. In addition, the units used to denominate the exchange might be completely different from the objects used to settle the transaction. Debts denominated in a unit of account might be settled with any number of items— livestock, sea shells, tobacco, salt, bags of valuables, semi-precious stones, etc. Thus, it is very different from the type of general-purpose money that we are used to.

For example, payments to centralized political institutions in many ancient cultures were  extracted in the form of labor (corvée). This appears to have been the earliest known form of “taxation.” So is labor “money?” In ancient Mesopotamia, labor for large institutions was often remunerated with goods such as oil, salt, barley and beer. Does that make things like barley and beer “money?”

Not only does our definition of money distort our view of other cultures, but of historical economies as well. Many economic historians try and jam previous social relations into the Procrustean bed of “market” exchange by looking at the similarities, without acknowledging the differences. This allows them to claim that markets are timeless and universal—a natural feature of the human species stemming from our alleged innate desire for profit. But our modern economic arrangements, centered as they are around market exchange, may not be appropriate for analyzing past societies:

If we have a hard time applying modern economic theory to ancient societies, it is straightforward to see that we cannot get too exercised about the instruments that they used as money. For us, the notion of money is intertwined with the existence of a banking system. Modern banking system[s] developed over centuries, and they are far more complex entities than their equivalents in earlier eras. We will have a hard time relating our notions of money to the views of ancients…

Our exclusive focus on commercial exchange obscures the multiple roles that various “money-things” played in traditional societies. We tend to define money solely by market purchases (a medium of exchange).

In traditional societies, however, most exchanges are not impersonal commercial transactions, but instead are based on the discharging of reciprocal social obligations–for example, dowries, bridewealth, restitution for crimes to aggrieved parties (i.e. bloodwealth, weregeld), offerings to the gods/ancestors, initiation fees, child growth payments, military compensation, mortuary payments, tribute, and so on. Many things fulfill the functions of “money” in these contexts, but are very different from the type of general-purpose money we use in market transactions. As Marcel Mauss noted in The Gift, most exchanges in traditional, small-scale, societies are based around reciprocal gift-giving, and not market exchange for profit.

By contrast, the money that we use is a product of centralized institutions such as governments and banks in order to facilitate commercial (i.e. Impersonal market) transactions in fully-integrated, price-fixing markets:

The medium of (commercial) exchange function of money in our economy is its dominant function, and all other commercial uses of money are dependently linked-derived from-the use of dollars as media of (commercial) exchange.

For example, dollars are also used as a means of (commercial) payment of debt arising from market transactions. It is purchase and sale of resources, goods, and services which create the money functions of means of (commercial) payment and standard for deferred (commercial) payment. All the commercial uses of money are consequences of market integration, simply reflecting the highly organized credit and accounting arrangements that facilitate market purchases.

This is why economists in writing about our economy need not attach the qualifier “commercial” to the money uses. Indeed, we in our market-integrated national economy sometimes regard the terms “money” and “medium of exchange” as interchangeable. But for primitive communities where market transactions are absent or infrequent, it would be distorting to identify money with medium of (commercial) exchange…

In market-oriented societies, most items are for sale (alienable) and this is coordinated by prices, which assumes a concept of universal economic value which is often lacking from non-market societies. Furthermore, selling and producing for the market is absolutely essential for survival for most people, unlike traditional (i.e. subsistence) economies. Market transactions are usually impersonal and anonymous, and do not depend on status relations between the buyer and seller. In traditional societies, however, the social relations between giver and receiver are paramount. Thus, primitive money is often neither impersonal nor fungible:

…our market economy [is] based on contract rather than status…having the money price is a sufficient condition for buying most goods. Not only is Western money anonymous, so to speak, but money users are also anonymous: the market sells to whoever has the purchase price and only rarely imposes status prerequisites on the use of money as medium of (commercial) exchange.

In contrast, there usually are status prerequisites in non-commercial uses of primitive money. For example, in the use of cattle as means of (reciprocal) payment of bridewealth, status requisites such as lineage, age, rank of the persons, must be complied with. The money users are not anonymous, and a special kind of limited purpose money is necessary to the transaction.

In addition to not being fungible, primitive money is often not divisible. Certain “monies” can only be used for certain types of transactions, and “lower” money is not necessarily convertible into “higher” forms, like we are used to with our cents adding up to quarters adding up to dollars. Seeing money through our own system leads to mistakes and distortions, as Dalton points out using the example of papers written about the shell money used on Rossel Island in the Pacific by an economist named W.E. Armstrong in the 1920’s:

Armstrong asserts that Rossel Island money is a rough equivalent of our own: that it is a medium of exchange used to purchase a wide range of goods and services, and that it is a standard of value for stating prices…The Rossel Islanders use two types of shell money, ndap and nko. Ndap money consists of individual shells (Armstrong calls them coins), each of which belongs to one of 22 named classes or denominations, which Armstrong ranks from 1-22, a higher numbered class indicating a higher valued shell…

By ranking [Rossel island shell monies] 1-22 Armstrong implies that the differences between ndap shell classes are cardinal differences: that a No. 22 is 22 times more valuable than a No. 1, in the sense that a $20 bill is 20 times more valuable than a $1 bill. There are no such cardinal differences among ndap shells. To number them 1-22 is to give a false impression of similarity between ndap shell classes and Western money denominations and a false impression about the commensurability or the “purchasing power” relationship between lower and higher numbered ndap shells … the shells are not quite like dollar bills numbered 1-22 with a No. 20 (say), bearing twice the value of a No. 10, or an item priced at No. 20 purchasable with two shells of No. 10 variety… something priced at No. 20 must be paid for with a No. 20 shell, rather than with lower denomination pieces adding up to 20. ..Nos. 18-22 cannot be acquired by any amount of lower class shells, and there is no way of gauging how many times more valuable a No. 18 is compared to a No. 6 because they enter entirely different transactions.

Without exception, Nos. 18-22 enter non-commercial transactions exclusively: they are used as means of (reciprocal or redistributive) payment or exchange in transactions induced by social obligation. Payments of a No. 18 are a necessary part of ordinary bridewealth, as well as necessary payment for shared wives, and for sponsoring a pig or dog feast, or a feast initiating the use of a special kind of canoe. No. 20 is a necessary indemnity payment to the relatives of a man ritually murdered and eaten, a transaction which is part of mortuary rites for the death of a chief. Moreover, there is a connection between shells 18-22 and lineage affiliation which Armstrong notes but makes nothing of. “. . . Nos. 18 to 22 are regarded as property peculiar to chiefs, though continually lent by the latter to their subjects.”

Primitive money is often not general purpose. As seen above, very different “money-things” may be used for different (and distinct) purposes–reciprocal gift exchange, centralized redistribution, the settling of debts, payments to collective institutions (i.e. taxes), restitution, and so on:

In primitive economies-i.e., small-scale economies not integrated by market exchange-different uses of money may be institutionalized separately in different monetary objects to carry out reciprocal and redistributive transactions. These money objects used in non-commercial ways are usually distinct from any that enter market place transactions. And the items which perform non-commercial money uses need not be full-time money, so to speak; they have uses and characteristics apart from their ability to serve as a special kind of money.

In contrast, the dollars that we use are general-purpose, and can be used by both private and public entities for anything-the settlement of debts, the payment of taxes and fines, redistribution, gift exchange, etc.

Primitive money is often non-commercial. Many exchanges take place outside of the market:

…anthropologists use Western monetary terms ambiguously whenever they fail to distinguish between the market and the non-commercial modes of transaction. [Conrad] Reining, for example, states: “There seems to have been little exchange among households although iron tools and spears made from locally smelted ore had a limited application as a medium of exchange, being used primarily for marriage payments”

…Since brides are not acquired through impersonal market transactions by random buyers and sellers, the iron tools are not used as media of (market) exchange, but as media of (reciprocal) exchange: as part of a non-commercial transaction in which a man acquires a bundle of rights in a woman and her children in return for iron tools and other indemnification payments to her kin…

It seems useful to regard the bridewealth items as special purpose “money” because the iron tools and spears-or in other societies, cows or goats-are the required items, and because they carry out money uses which do have counterparts in our own society. Whether one calls them special purpose monies or highly ranked treasure items necessary to the transaction…only matters when the subject of money uses in primitive compared to Western economies is raised. Then we can show that cows and armbands of shells do perform some of the uses of dollars but in noncommercial situations…

Those aspects of primitive economy which are unrelated to market exchange can only be understood by employing socio-economic terms: ceremonial prestige and subsistence goods; reciprocity and redistribution; spheres and conversions; limited purpose money. Such terms contain a social dimension and so allow us to relate economic matters to social organization, and to express the folk-view toward the items, services, persons, and situations involved.

The economist dealing with monetary transactions in Western economy need not concern himself with personal roles and social situations because of the peculiarly impersonal nature of market exchange. The anthropologist dealing with marketless transactions cannot ignore personal roles and social situations and still make sense of what transpires.

…When we consider money in communities not integrated by market exchange-the Nuer, the Trobriands, the Tiv-it becomes essential to distinguish among the several transactional modes and among the several money uses: primitive money-stuff does not have that bundle of related uses which in our economy is conferred on dollars by market integration and by the use of dollars in both commercial and non-commercial transactions. The differences between cattle-money or shell-money and dollars are traceable to the differences in the transactional modes which call forth money uses. When [anthropologist Bronislav] Malinowski says that kula valuables are different from Western currency, he is really pointing out that reciprocal gift-giving is different from market purchase and sale…

Kula armbands, potlatch coppers, cows, pig tusks, Yap stones, etc., are variously described as money of renown, treasure items, wealth, valuables, and heirlooms. Malinowski says kula valuables are regarded like crown jewels or sports trophies in Western societies. Writers on East Africa say that cows are regarded like revered pets. Such treasures can take on special roles as non-commercial money: their acquisition and disposition are carefully structured and regarded as extremely important events; they change hands in specified ways, in transactions which have strong moral implications. Often they are used to create social relationships (marriage; entrance into secret societies), prevent a break in social relationships (bloodwealth, mortuary payments), or to keep or elevate one’s social position (potlatch). Their “money-ness” consists in their being required means of (reciprocal or redistributive) payment.

Anthropologists have developed a concept called spheres of exchange to explain this phenomenon. Exchanges can only take place between specific individuals in specific contexts. This is done to protect the underlying social relations of a particular culture.

The concept of spheres of exchange was introduced by Paul Bohannan and Laura Bohannan in analyzing their field work with the Tiv in Nigeria. The Bohannan’s discuss three types of ranked exchange objects, each restricted to its own separate exchange sphere; ideally, objects do not flow between spheres.

The subsistence sphere included food such as yams, grains, vegetables, and small livestock, as well as eating utensils, farming tools and tools for food-preparation. The second sphere of wealth included brass rods, cattle, white cloth, and slaves. A third and most prestigious sphere was marriageable female relatives.

“In calling these different areas of exchange spheres, we imply that each includes commodities that are not regarded as equivalent to those commodities in other spheres and hence in ordinary situations are not exchangeable. Each sphere is a different universe of objects. A different set of moral values and different behavior are to be found in each sphere.” As a result, it is considered immoral to use prestige objects to purchase goods from a lower sphere. Similar examples of exchange spheres have been noted by Frederik Barth among the Fur of Sudan; by Raymond Firth among the Tikopia in the south Pacific; by Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea amongst others.

In traditional economies, many resources are communally available and the artificial scarcity that market production requires is not present. As a result, primitive money is usually not under the control of a centralized authority which determines its quantity and value:

It has often been noted that in primitive societies there is seldom any conscious control by political authority over money objects. Such is not merely a difference between primitive monetary systems and our own, but one that reflects differences between their economic systems and ours.

In economies not integrated by market exchange, non-commercial monetary transactions are only occasional events (e.g., bloodwealth, bridewealth), and non-commercial money is not usually connected with production and daily livelihood. That the non-commercial money-stuff may be fixed in quantity for all time (Yap stones), or increase in quantity only through natural growth (cows, pig tusks) does not affect production and daily livelihood (as would be the case with us if dollars were fixed in quantity).

Market economies, on the other hand, rely upon the issuance of general-purpose money by a centralized authority. The quantity of this “official” money must be carefully managed by the authorities, since everyone is dependent upon production for the market in order to survive:

In national market economies, governments deliberately control the quantity of general purpose money because dollars (francs, sterling) carry out market sales which the populace depends on for livelihood. Roughly speaking, if the authorities allow too much money to come into use as medium of (market) purchase, the result is inflation. If the authorities allow too little money to come into use, the result is deflation and unemployment (a contraction in the rate of market purchasing below the full employment capacity rate of production). The need to deliberately vary the quantity of money is a direct result of economy-wide market integration.

This sort of money comes into being specifically to facilitate markets. As we shall see, all the evidence indicates that fully-integrated Western-style markets were brought into being by the issuance of the “money-thing” by centralized authorities, and did not spontaneously arise by higgling and haggling amongst numerous unrelated strangers. This “money-thing” differs in various cultures, but pieces of (durable) metal became the most common thing to use in the large agrarian states of Eurasia, although other things also served this purpose. As Ingham put it; “money is logically anterior to and historically prior to the market.”

Moreover, we tend to make a distinction between general-purpose “money” which is issued by a central authority (such as a mint or bank) for commercial purposes, and other forms of wealth—a distinction which is arbitrary and may not hold for other cultures.

Even in our modern industrial societies, what constitutes “money” is not so clear-cut. For example, government bonds are considered to be a store of wealth, yet they are not typically used for commercial transactions. Bonds are denominated in dollars (or whatever the bond-issuing government’s currency is), as is a checking account, yet the checking account can be drawn upon to pay for goods and services, while the bond cannot. Thus, bonds are not considered “money,” even though both bonds and checking accounts are theoretically stores of value denominated in the same unit of account.

Even in industrial economies, there are often parallel, local, community-oriented, and private currencies that exist alongside the “national” currency. One example of this is frequent-flier miles, which can be redeemed for any number of items besides flights. Another example might be gift cards. These are issued by vendors and typically used for gift exchange, such as holidays, birthdays, and wedding/baby showers. They can be exchanged for any items for sale at the vendor’s store. Are gift cards “money?” They are denominated in dollars, and can be used as a medium of exchange and a store of value, but they cannot be used in payment of taxes or to purchase goods from other retailers.

In U. S. economy, objects such as jewelry, stocks, and bonds are not thought of as money because (like cattle among the Bantu) these come into existence for reasons other than their “money-ness.” Each is capable of one or two money uses, but not the full range which distinguishes dollars, and particularly not the medium of (commercial) exchange use of dollars…Dollars serve as a store of (commercial and non-commercial) value because dollars can be held idle for future use. But this is true also for jewelry, stocks and bonds, and other marketable assets. However, in U. S. economy jewelry is not a medium of (commercial) exchange because one cannot spend it directly, and it is not a means of (commercial or non-commercial) payment because it is not acceptable in payment of debt or taxes…

In our society, all these different types of exchanges, both public and private, are mediated by the existence of integrated, universal, price-fixing markets. The money used for everyday commercial transactions is the same as that used to pay taxes, fees, and fines. The government, which issues the currency, purchases what it needs using these same markets, including labor and military support. The unit of account (dollars) in which prices are denominated bears the same name and 1:1 equivalency with the currency issued by the government (also called dollars). Debts are denominated in dollars, and dollars “can be used to settle all debts, both public and private” as it says right on the bill itself. The government issues the currency and manages its supply to prevent excessive inflation and deflation, which would adversely impact the markets. This makes our “universal” definition of money only really applicable to centralized bank money in market economies such as of our own:

In the economies for which the English monetary vocabulary was created, there is one dominant transactional mode, market exchange, to which all money uses relate…Economists do not find it necessary to distinguish among the transactional modes of market exchange, reciprocity, and redistribution, because market exchange is so overwhelmingly important. For the same reason economists do not find it necessary to describe at length the different uses of money in our own economy: with only a few exceptions they all express market exchange transactions.

U. S. dollars may be called general purpose money. They are a single monetary instrument to perform all the money uses. Moreover, the same dollars enter modes of transaction to be called redistribution and reciprocity, as enter into market exchange. These features of U.S. money are consequences of economy-wide market integration…In U. S. economy the government makes use of the market in the process of redistribution: medium of (commercial) exchange money earned as private income is used by households and firms as means of (redistributive) payment of politically incurred obligation (taxes). The government then buys on the market the services and products it requires-civil servants, guns, roads-to provide community services.

In our system, the same can be said for another mode of transaction, reciprocity, or gift-giving between kin and friends. The same money serves the different transactional modes: in purchasing a gift, the money paid is used as medium of (commercial) exchange; giving the gift is part of a reciprocal transaction (a material or service transfer induced by social obligation between the gift partners). If cash is given as a gift, it is means of (reciprocal) payment of the social obligation discharged by the gift-giving…redistribution and reciprocity make use of market exchange and make use of the same money used in market exchange. In Western economy, therefore, tax and gift transactions appear as simple variations from the private market norm-special types of expenditure or outlay-which present no theoretical difficulties.

American reliance upon market sale for livelihood and upon the price mechanism for allocating resources to production lines does the following: it makes the medium of (commercial) exchange use of money its dominant attribute, it makes other money uses serve market transactions, and it confers that peculiar bundle of traits on our general purpose money which mark off dollars from non-monetary objects. It is our market integration which makes it necessary to institutionalize all uses of money in the same money instrument.

In summary, Dalton argues that by viewing all societies through the lens of our disembedded market-centric economy, we cannot truly understand primitive money, which remains embedded in the underlying social relationships and extra-market transactions.

Two distinctions which allow us to contrast primitive and Western money are the distinctions between commercial and non-commercial uses of money, and between marketless economies, those with peripheral markets only, and market-integrated economies. In sum, money has no definable essence apart from the uses money objects serve, and these depend upon the transactional modes that characterize each economy: as tangible item as well as abstract measure, “money is what money does.”

2. A traditional example: Yap stone money

The “stone money” used on the Micronesian island of Yap is one of the most famous examples of “primitive” money. This system was described extensively by an American physician-turned-anthropologist William Henry Furness, who visited the island in 1903.

On Yap, stones called fei were used as currency. These consisted of limestone rocks of argonite quarried on the nearby island of Palau and transported to Yap by boat (Yap itself had no metal deposits). They had a hole in center to facilitate transport. These stone wheels ranged enormously in size, from small enough to carry, to several tons apiece, but in reality they were rarely moved. Neither were they exchanged hand-to-hand in spot transactions.

Rather, ownership of the stones was transferred by mutual agreement among islanders to settle outstanding debts. These were typically “exchanged” by oral agreement, usually for large-ticket purchases such as dowries. In fact, in one famous incident, a large fei stone ended up on the bottom of the ocean during transport. It was decided that, since such items were rarely moved anyway, this stone could still be used as currency, as Furness explains:

“[I]t was universally conceded…that the mere accident of its loss overboard was too trifling to mention, and that a few hundred feet of water off shore ought not to affect its marketable value … The purchasing power of that stone remains, therefore, as valid as if it were leaning visibly against the side of the owner’s house, and represents wealth as potentially as the hoarded inactive gold of a miser in the Middle Ages, or as our silver dollars stacked in the Treasury in Washington, which we never see or touch, but trade with on the strength of a printed certificate that they are there.”

In this case, primitive money was in no way used a medium of exchange. The island’s economy had few tradeable commodities anyway besides fish, coconuts and sea cucumber. Stone money certainly did not facilitate barter or trading in markets. Rather, these were records of debt and credit relationships, mainly centered around reciprocal social obligations. The fei stones were the denominations. This was the origin of money, not barter for sale, as Felix Martin notes:

The story of Yap does not just present a challenge to the conventional theory’s account of money’s origins…[i]t also raises serious doubts about its conception of what money actually is. The conventional theory holds that money is a “thing”–a commodity chosen from amongst the universe of commodities to serve as a medium of exchange–and that the essence of monetary exchanges is the swapping of goods and services for this commodity medium of exchange. But the stone money of Yap doesn’t fit this scheme.

In the first place, it is difficult to believe that anyone could have chosen “large, solid, thick stone wheels ranging in diameter from a foot to twelve feet” as a medium of exchange–since in most cases, they would be a good deal harder to move than the things being traded…it was clear that fei were not a medium of exchange in the sense of a commodity that could be exchanged for any other–since most of the time, they were not exchanged at all…in the case of the infamous shipwrecked fei, no one had ever seen the coin in question, let alone passed it around as a medium of exchange. No, there could be no doubt: the inhabitants of Yap were curiously indifferent to the fate of the fei themselves.

The essence of their monetary system was not stone coins used as a medium of exchange, but…the underlying system of credit accounts and clearing of which they helped to keep track…the inhabitants of Yap would accumulate credits and debts in the course of their trading in fish, coconuts, pigs, and sea cucumber. These would be offset against one another to settle payments. Any outstanding balances carried forward at the end of a single exchange, or a day, or a week, might, if the counterparties so wished, be settled by the exchange of currency–a fei–to the appropriate value; this being a tangible and visible record of the outstanding credit that the seller enjoyed with the rest of Yap.

Coins and currency, in other words, are useful tokens to record the underlying process of clearing. They may even be necessary in an economy larger than Yap, where coins could drop to the bottom of the sea and yet no one would think to question the wealth of their owner. But currency is not in itself money. Money is the system of credit accounts and their clearing that currency represents.

3. So, what is money really???

As we saw above, the customary tripartite definition of money simply does not work in trying to understand what money really is. It gives us little insight into economies not based around fully-integrated price-fixing markets.

A better way might be to define the essential nature of money, rather than its particular contextual uses:

In discussions about money, its three functions are often mentioned: “store of value, medium of exchange, and unit of account” — the order of these may vary. This is usually said in a peremptory tone, as being self-evident and not really worth discussing. These three functions of money constitute the tripod on which the accepted wisdom about money rests.

Let us start by noting that the usual approach is to try and define the nature of a thing, before describing its functions and features. It is therefore curious that money would be defined by its functions. The reason is that, since the beginning of modern economics, there has been great confusion about the nature of money — a confusion that has not been definitely resolved until today…

Debunking the “three functions of money” (Medium)

According to Alfred Mitchell-Innes, the nature of money is credit, or more specifically a credit/debit relationship:

“Credit is the purchasing power so often mentioned in economics works as being one of the principle attributes of money, and, as I shall try to show, credit and credit alone is money. Credit, and not gold or silver [or cattle, or pigs tusks, or iron bars or cowrie shells…] is the one property which all men seek, the acquisition of which is the aim and object of all commerce.”

By understanding that money is credit, we may get closer to understanding primitive money than by trying to use the customary three-part definition given in economics textbooks. From this essential nature, the various functions of money arise, although they may not all be subsumed in a single instrument.

For example, it’s clear in the above examples that there is a debit/credit relationship based in the reciprocal social obligations of a particular society. If I acquire a bride from you, I owe you compensation for her “loss” from your household. If I have wounded you, I owe you for the bodily injury. In peace treaties, villages are often compensated for the loss of warriors from their tribe–essentially the loss their productive capacity. The same concept is used for killings—the aggrieved family is owed for the loss of their family member and his/her future productive capacity. Pigs may be exchanged to settle this “debt” as, for example, in New Guinea. In fact, the words for “debt” and “sin” or “transgression” are the same in many languages. If I make offerings to the gods or ancestors, I owe the gods/ancestors for their continued intercession and favor. To a large extent, every one of us is in “debt” to our ancestors.

These debts may be settled immediately, or they may be deferred.

The store of value function of money comes from its ability to settle outstanding debts. I can store up value by holding onto claims on other people’s labor or assets. I can then redeem these at a later date. The value comes from what it is redeemable for (along with how reliable the claims are, which, in turn, depends on the social conditions). The total amount of money circulating in such cases has little impact, which is why it is not centrally controlled in primitive societies.

More than 97% of all money is created when banks provide loans to governments, businesses or individuals. “National” money is really bank-debt money–outstanding IOUs from banks. The money issuer is in debt to the bearer. Money is created when banks extend loans. When money is created on the bank’s liability side, a loan is facing it on the asset side. These assets (including bonds, includes bonds, which are securitized loans) are what give the bank’s money its value.

The unit of account function becomes more important when writing and numbers are introduced into a society, the society becomes larger, and markets are introduced (Types II and III). In gift economies, credits and debits are informal and are known by both parties. In larger societies, more formal means are required. Debts are denominated in a unit of account, which engenders the concept of equivalent value for unrelated items—i.e. prices. This may, in turn, develop into the idea of universal economic value. These units are usually introduced by political leaders, for example, to determine tax or restitution payments.

The unit of account may be separate from the medium of exchange, however. For example, I may owe someone fifty quatloos for a bride, but that debt may be paid with any number of items – cows, grain, beer, pigs, axes, gold, jewels, etc. Thus, in considering what “money” is, it’s important to make this distinction. For us, they are one in the same (i.e. dollars), but in the past and in other cultures, these were often different. Even in late medieval Europe prices were often listed in an “official” unit of account but paid for with a wide variety of different coins (leading to a brisk money-changing business that tracked equivalencies between the various types of circulating coins).

The medium of exchange aspect of money, so emphasized by anthropologists and economists, is relatively minor. You can have an economy—even a market-based one–without it, so long as you have a way to clear credits and debits, as the case of Yap showed.

The “medium of exchange” aspect has clouded our definitions of money going back to the very founding of economics. Adam Smith argued that all sorts of commodities functioned as mediums of exchange in primitive cultures. If you go to a museum today, for example, you’ll see all sort of things that were supposedly used as “money,” from quetzal feathers to wampum beads, to cowrie shells. This gave rise to the idea that money was always some sort of “thing” that was used as an intermediate good for people to trade for the things they really did want.

Smith used the example of cod in Newfoundland. In his view, cod was a convenient “medium of exchange” used because there was no metal available. People would just swap cod, even if they didn’t want it, knowing that cod could be exchanged for whatever they did want. Smith argues that some commodity would always be chosen based on the prevailing local conditions: dried cod in Newfoundland, tobacco in Virginia, sugar in the West Indies, cacao shells and quetzal feathers in Mesoamerica, wampum beads in North America, and even iron nails in Scotland.

The problem is, it’s very difficult to get from this type of barter trading to the creation of “money.” If I hold to on to various items not because I want them, but because others do, this is not a sufficient condition for one single thing to become institutionalized as money. People do this all the time with all sorts of different items in traditional societies. However, there is no evidence that the kind of universal, all-purpose “money” that we use ever arose out of this sort of behavior. Exchanges were likely done “open-handedly” or through credits, just like at bars today: “I owe you one.”

It turns out that the “father of economics” had gotten it wrong. Almost immediately, other economics writers noticed problems with this story. In the cases Smith cited, trade was actually accounted for in some sort of unit of account. Outstanding balances were settled in commodities, but that did not make such commodities into “money”:

In every case, these were examples of trade that were accounted for in pounds, shillings, and pence, just as it was in modern England. Sellers would accumulate credit on their books, and buyers debts, all denominated in monetary units. The fact that any net balances that remained between them might be discharged by payment of some commodity or other to the value of the debt did not mean that the commodity was ‘money.’ To focus on the commodity payment rather than the system of credit and clearing behind it was to get things completely the wrong way round. And to take the view that it was the commodity itself that was money, as Smith did, might start out seeming logical, but would end in nonsense. As Alfred Mitchel Innes…summed up the problem with Smith’s report of cod-money:

“A moment’s reflection shows that a staple commodity could not be used as money, because ex hypothesi the medium of exchange is equally receivable by all members of the community. Thus, if the fishers paid for their supplies in cod, the traders would equally have to pay for their cod in cod, an obvious absurdity.”

Cowrie shells, for example, can really be seen as debt markers (i.e. tokens). They simply allow the easy quantification and tracking of outstanding debt. Money is just an IOU, evidence that the issuer is in debt to the bearer. Even in spot transactions in markets, we can see that money is simply debt.

If I buy a chicken from a market vendor for 5 quatloos, the seller functionally “gives” me a chicken and I’m in debt for 5 seconds until I hand over the “money-thing,” which immediately extinguishes that debt. Or if I happen to hand over the “money-thing” first, they are in debt to me by 1 chicken until they settle that debt moments later by handing the chicken over to me. The “money-thing” can be anything–what matters is the debt. That debt may be settled on the spot or later. The price unit and the “money-thing” may be equivalent, or they may be different.

In many cases, the real distinction between “primitive” money and “true” money is that true money is transferable credit. This allows debts to circulate in the economy as third-party IOUs. This allows business to be transacted among unrelated people. What matters is the trustworthiness of the issuer of IOU’s. As Felix Martin writes:

Money is not a commodity medium of exchange, but a social technology composed of three fundamental elements:

– The first is an abstract unit of value in which money is denominated.

– The second is a system of accounts, which keeps track of the individuals’ or the institutions’ credit or debt balances as they engage in trade with one another.

– The third is the possibility that the original creditor in a relationship can transfer their debtor’s obligation to a third party in settlement of some unrelated debts.

This third element is vital. Whilst all money is credit, not all credit is money: and it is the possibility of transfer that makes the difference. An IOU which remains for ever a contract between just two parties is nothing more than a loan. It is credit, but it is not money. It is when that IOU can be passed on to a third party-when it is able to be “negotiated” or “endorsed, comes to life and starts to serve as money. Money, in other words, is not just credit-but transferable credit. As the nineteenth-century economist and lawyer Henry Dunning Macleod put it:

“These simple considerations at once shew the fundamental nature of a Currency. It is quite clear that its primary use is to measure and record debts, and to facilitate their transfer from one person to another; and whatever means be adopted for this purpose, whether it be gold, silver, paper, or anything else, is a currency. We may therefore lay down our fundamental Conception that Currency and Transferable Debt are convertible terms; whatever represents transferable debt of any sort is Currency; and whatever material the Currency may consist of, it represents Transferable Debt, and nothing else.”

As we shall see, this innovation of the transferability of debts was a critical development in the history of money. It is this, rather than the graduation from a mythical barter economy, which has historically revolutionised societies and economies. In fact, it is barely an exaggeration-if we make allowance for the unmistakable overtone of Victorian melodrama-to say, as Macleod did:

“If we were asked-Who made the discovery which has most deeply affected the fortunes of the human race?’ We think, after full consideration, we might safely answer-The man who first discovered that a Debt is a Saleable Commodity.”

So, then, the difference between “primitive” money and “real” money might be stated as the transferability of debt, or “debt as a saleable commodity”. Primitive money is simply whatever is used for interpersonal transactions based on the prevailing social conditions. These transactions can (and usually do) take place outside of markets, and profit is seldom involved.

But true “money” as we know it emerges once the “money-stuff” becomes transferable credit between various third parties, denominated in some sort of abstract, commonly agreed-upon unit of account. These credits and debts can then circulate, facilitating economic coordination between unrelated people. Typically debts owed to some sort of powerful political entity—whether it be chief, king, temple, palace, emperor, sovereign, or democratic government, are what typically circulate as money universally throughout an economy.

…even though [money] is nothing but credit, cannot just be created at will by anyone. For sellers to accept buyers’ IOUs in payment, they must be convinced of two things. They must have reason to believe that the debtor whose obligation they are about to accept will, if it comes to it, be able to satisfy their claim: they must believe, in other words, that the money’s issuer is creditworthy. This much would be enough to sustain the existence of bilateral credit.

The test for money is more stringent. For credit to become money, sellers must also trust that third parties will be willing to accept the debtor’s IOU in payment as well. They must believe that it is, and will remain indefinitely, transferable-that the market for this money is liquid. Depending on how powerful are the reasons to believe these two things, it will be easier or harder for an issuer’s IOUs to circulate as money. It is because of this third critical element of transferability that money issued by governments, or by the banks which governments endorse and backstop, is thought to be special…

While it may seem like a discussion of “primitive” money is merely of academic interest to anthropologists, it is, in fact, critical to understanding the history and the essential nature of money–“whence it came, where it went,” as John Kenneth Galbraith put it.

How did “primitive” money become modern? We’ll start telling that story next time.

A Skeleton Key to the Alt Left

Last time we looked at the differences between the “Left” as manifested in the mainstream political discourse and those of a number of authors, blogger and thinkers that I’ve (somewhat arbitrarily) lumped under the umbrella of the Alt-Left. We listed a lot of their views, but what lies at the heart of the Alt-Left’s critique?

I think an answer to that question might be illuminated by this article: Kanth: A 400-Year Program of Modernist Thinking is Exploding (Institute for New Economic Thinking)

The article describes the ideas of a thinker named Rajani Kanth. Like some on the Alt-Right, Kanth is highly critical of many of the ideas which came out of the European Enlightenment. Kanth’s critique, thought, centers around what he calls Eurocentric Modernism, which he feels had come to define the current world order, pushing out any alternatives:

We’re taught to think of the Enlightenment as the blessed end to the Dark Ages, a splendid blossoming of human reason. But what if instead of bringing us to a better world, some of this period’s key ideas ended up producing something even darker?

In [author Rajani Kanth’s] view, what’s throwing most of us off kilter…was…a set of assumptions, a particular way of looking at the world that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form…Kanth argues that this framework, which he calls Eurocentric modernism, is collapsing….

Many of the authors previously mentioned are critical of Eurocentric Modernism, even if they are not familiar with that concept. What is Eurocentric Modernism?

The Eurocentric modernist program, according to Kanth, has four planks: a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.

Eurocentric Modernism is also intrinsically tied up with the concept of the One Big Global Market put into place by European economic liberals using strong centralized states and top-down state violence. The Market itself is the greatest “social engineering” project ever conceived, and is currently showing signs of fraying around the edges (or even collapsing outright):

Eurocentric modernism…delivered a society which is essentially asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody else as a means to their own private ends…[and] consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we found our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we received, there came a new way to pit us against each other…[P]eople are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith…turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.

In fact, economics has been called the “crown jewel” of the Eurocentric Modernist project. Rather than any sort of actual “science,” it is a code of ethics and philosophical justification for the world as it is under Eurocentric Modernism. It prevents any challenge to it, depicting the current order as “scientific,” “natural” and “inevitable.” (i.e. “There is no alternative”). According to its adherents, any criticism of it is contrary to “human nature.” Every day, millions of people in every corner of the globe are indoctrinated in its tenets, like a modern-day religion. You can’t understand the political regime of Eurocentric Modernism without its philosophical handmaiden—Economics.

Modern orthodox economists frequently theorize and propose their models wrapped in algebraic expressions and econometrics symbols that make their theories incomprehensible to anyone without a significant training in mathematics. These complicated mathematical models rely on sets of assumptions about human behavior, institutional frameworks, and the way society works as whole; i.e. theoretical underpinnings developed through history. Yet, more frequently than not, their assumptions go to such great lengths that the models turn out utterly detached from reality.

This approach was promoted during the 1870s, in an effort to emulate the success of the natural sciences in explaining the world around us, and so transform Political Economy into the “exact” science of Economics. The new discipline, born with a scientific aura, would provide a legitimate doctrine to rationalize the existing system and state of affairs as universal, natural, and harmonious.

It is understandable that economists wanted their field to be more like the natural sciences. At the time, great advances in physics, biology, chemistry, and astronomy had unraveled many mysteries of the universe. Those discoveries had yielded rapid development around the world. The Second Industrial Revolution was well underway, causing a transition from rudimentary techniques of production to the extensive uses of machines. Physics and mathematics were validated to a great extent with the construction of large bridges, transcontinental railroads, and the telephone. There exists extensive evidence to establish that this success of the natural sciences and the scientific method had a big influence on the mathematization of what had been the field of Political Economy. Early neoclassical theorists misappropriated the mathematical formalism of physics, boldly copied their models, and mostly admitted so. Particularly guilty of this method were W.S. Jevons and Léon Walras; credited with having arrived at the principle of marginal utility independently…

The Borrowed Science of Neoclassical Economics (The Minskys)

Not only did it borrow the language of science, at around the same time it eliminated all class/institutional power relations from consideration, instead depicting us all as “equals” making mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges.

…Power was originally recognised as important by the Classical economists like Adam Smith. However this changed with the rise of socialism. Wealthy industrialists and rulers feared this threat and sought to find an economic theory that would debunk socialism and protect themselves. It was for this reason that economics began to downplay issues like inequality and poverty. It also de-emphasised production and therefore any resulting questions about social relations. Instead economics switched to discussing marginal utility of hypothetical individuals where none had power over the other. There was no boss or servant, but rather groups of individuals voluntarily interacting in mutually beneficial arrangements.

Crucially, economics became depersonalised and it was no longer possible to make value judgements. A dollar spent by a rich person on a loaf of bread was the same as a dollar spent by a poor person on the same loaf. It was no longer argued that one person may need the dollar more or that the starving may need the loaf more than the fat. Economics abandoned the idea that people have needs and assumed we only have desires. This change in focus did not happen by chance or due to superior argument but due to the politics of the time…

Economists and the Powerful (Whistling in the Wind)

Rather than the pseudoscience of Economics, Kanth suggests we take our social inspiration from a different source—human anthropology:

Utopian dreamers have often longed for a more hospitable way of living. But Kanth believes that when they look to politics, economics or philosophy for answers, they are missing the best inspiration: human anthropology…without which our forays into economics, psychology, sociology, and pretty much everything are hopelessly skewed…the Eurocentric modernist tradition, influenced by the Judeo-Christian idea that we are distinct from the world of nature, seeks to separate us from the animal world. We are supposed to be above it, immortal, transcending our bodies and the Earth…

As Kanth sees it, most of our utopian visions carry on the errors and limitations born of a misguided view of human nature. That’s why communism, as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, projected a materialist perspective on progress while ignoring the natural human instinct for autonomy— the ability to decide for ourselves where to go and what to say and create. On flip side, capitalism runs against our instinct to trust and take care of each other.

[D]idn’t Eurocentric modernism…give us our great democratic ideals of equality and liberty to elevate and protect us?…Kanth…notes that when we replace the vital ties of kinship and community with abstract contractual relations, or when we find that the only sanctioned paths in life are that of consumer or producer, we become alienated and depressed in spirit. Abstract rights like liberty and equality turn out to be rather cold comfort. These ideas, however lofty, may not get at the most basic human wants and needs.

The key is not to project ourselves into the future, but to learn from the practical, beneficial ways humans have lived in the past and still do, in some cases, in the present…

Now let’s introduce a related concept here called High Modernism. This concept was developed by James Scott in his book Seeing Like A State. It has some similarities and overlaps with Eurocentric Modernism, but is distinct from it.

Seeing Like a State (The Easiest Person to Fool)

Book Review: Seeing Like A State (Slate Star Codex)

High Modernism is associated with the project of state-building. To this end, it is intrinsically tied up with many elements of the mainstream Left/Right view–democracy, meritocracy, top-down technocratic management, rationalism, materialism, educational attainment, laissez-faire capitalist markets, centralized power, standardization, multiculturalism and globalism.

High Modernism is the attempt to standardize and regularize the world so as to make it legible for rational management and top-down planning by centralized bureaucracies. It places a premium on maximizing “efficiency.” The ultimate purpose is taxation–the funneling of resources from a periphery to a core. In Scott’s view, this process defines the creation of what we normally term “the State.” However, this process often has unforeseen consequences.

[James] Scott defines [High Modernism] as[:]

“A strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

…which is just a bit academic-ese for me. An extensional definition might work better: standardization, Henry Ford, the factory as metaphor for the best way to run everything, conquest of nature, New Soviet Man, people with college degrees knowing better than you, wiping away the foolish irrational traditions of the past, Brave New World, everyone living in dormitories and eating exactly 2000 calories of Standardized Food Product (TM) per day, anything that is For Your Own Good, gleaming modernist skyscrapers, The X Of The Future, complaints that the unenlightened masses are resisting The X Of The Future, demands that if the unenlightened masses reject The X Of The Future they must be re-educated For Their Own Good, and (of course) evenly-spaced rectangular grids (maybe the best definition would be “everything G. K. Chesterton didn’t like.”).

Clearly both the Mainstream Left and Right are adherents of High Modernism. But more importantly, even the major so-called “Leftist” or “collectivist” movements of the Twentieth Century, such as Soviet Communism, were just as wedded to ideas of “progress” and High Modernism as was Western “libertarian” capitalism. The distinction between Left and Right breaks down here.

Many adherents of Communism were moved by Marx’s descriptions of Capitalism’s flaws and shortcomings, but they attempted to construct a “new and improved” top-down hierarchical system in its place which was just as much based on a flawed conception of human nature (the Soviet “new man;” a “classless society”). To keep this utopian project going also required state violence and oppression. Yet we forget that our Capitalist Systems rely just as much on state violence and social control. Note that the “free” societies of the West have now become just as much carceral/surveillance states as the fallen regimes of Eastern Europe, if not more so. As John Gray commented, “The Cold War was a family quarrel among Western ideologies. “

Both ostensibly “Left” and “Right” movements were obsessed with an idea of “progress” that left millions of dead bodies in its wake. As I’ve written before, we are taught to believe that One Big Capitalist Market came about organically through the “scaling up” of primordial farmer’s markets due to our “natural” instincts to “truck barter and exchange.” Yet this is horribly wrong. It’s another part of economics indoctrination.

As Karl Polanyi demonstrated, the One Big Global Market was an artificially constructed by aggressive top-down state violence. The Enclosure Movement, the Highland Clearances, the Poor Laws, Speenhamland, Work Houses, Debtor’s Prisons, the Luddite Revolts, the Corn Laws, Game Laws, Colonialism, the Gold Standard, state-granted corporate charters (e.g. the East India Companies), national banks (the Bank of England), and many other historical changes brought it about.

Millions of people perished in the construction of the Market, from Native Americans, to English peasants, to Irish subsistence farmers, to Indian and African villagers (to the unemployed coal miners overdosing in rural Appalachia today). Many institutions we take for granted in the modern world are band-aids put into place as a result of popular demands for some sort of protection from the destructiveness of this project (e.g. popular democracy, the Welfare State, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, environmental protections, etc.). These people were victims of Modernism just as much as the victims of the Holdomor, yet they have been erased from history. The top-down creation of the Market by central governments is what allowed Capitalism to form in Northern Europe and to project itself around the world.

It may be hard to believe given how much we’ve become inured to it, but the social dysfunction we take for granted today, with its rampant homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, abused children and elderly, beggars on the street, and so forth, would have been unthinkable to traditional societies. What was once shocking has become normal.

Scott describes in detail the processes by which local knowledge is supplanted by regularized systems. Some examples he gives are: the replacement of small-plot peasant agriculture with large-scale, “efficient” mechanized farms of monocrops, assigning people permanent last names (and later ID numbers), bulldozing neighborhoods of crooked streets and replacing them with planned, rectangular grids of wide-open streets, replacing vernacular architecture with cookie-cutter high-rise housing projects, the supplanting of regional dialects with a single “national” language, universal childhood education, and the standardization of money, weights and measures. For example:

…Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants [in 18th century Prussia] were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones…

With the advent of globalism, the High Modernist concept now has the entire world in its grip, and is driving us off a cliff. From the countless environmental catastrophes, to the breakdown of entire nations like Syria and Afghanistan, to the ultimate High Modernist project of China, it seems like this project has run its course and is leaving us with a destabilized climate and social situation.

Unemployment, violent crime, war, violence, depression, obesity, environmental catastrophe, social chaos, extreme inequality, mass incarceration–all are getting worse, and our leaders have no answers besides enriching themselves! No wonder we’re desperately searching for alternatives.

I see a lot of the criticism of the Alt-left stemming from a critical view of both Eurocentric modernism and High Modernism. The similarities between them are that both are fundamentally a Procrustean bed for humans, as opposed to the anthropology-centered approach advocated by Kanth.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we, the human beings inhabiting this planet, try to solve problems of great significance and complexity with the…Procrustean method. Instead of making the bed fit the travelers, we stretch and cut off limbs to do the inverse.

One example Taleb points out are schoolchildren who we pump full of medication so that they adapt to the unbelievably flawed education system, instead of altering the curriculum to suit the children. It couldn’t be that the 10-year-old boy is not meant to sit in the same chair inside the dull classroom for hours on end every day, and when he starts to fidget he’s diagnosed with ADHD, considered hyperactive and has a learning disability, which of course needs to be corrected by tinkering with his brain chemistry.

Situations like this are everywhere around us and they often bear grave consequences…[The Bed of Procrustes] represents Taleb’s view of modern civilization’s hubristic side effects:

  • Modifying humans to satisfy technology
  • Blaming reality for not fitting economic models
  • Inventing diseases to sell drugs
  • Defining intelligence as what can be tested in a classroom
  • Convincing people that employment is not slavery

Philosopher John Gray writes in Straw Dogs:

The chief effect of the Industrial Revolution was to engender the working class. It did this not so much by forcing a shift from the country to towns as by enabling a massive growth in population. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new phase of the Industrial Revolution is under way that promises to make much of that population superfluous.

Today the Industrial Revolution that began in the towns of northern England has become worldwide. The result is the global expansion in population we are presently witnessing. At the same time, new technologies are steadily stripping away the functions of the labour force that the Industrial Revolution has created.

An economy whose core tasks are done by machines will value human labour only in so far as it cannot be replaced. [Hans] Moravec writes: ‘Many trends in industrialized societies lead to a future where humans are supported by machines, as our ancestors were by wildlife.’ That, according to Jeremy Rifkin, does not mean mass unemployment. Rather, we are approaching a time when, in Moravec’s words, ‘almost all humans work to amuse other humans’.

In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before secretly suspects that it is useless.

Industrialisation created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete. Unless it is cut short by ecological collapse, it will eventually do the same to nearly everyone. ..Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career – a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professions and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times.

Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will bring. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions are high-level punts. The few who are seriously rich hedge their bets. The proles – the rest of us – live from day to day.

In Europe and Japan, bourgeois life lingers on. In Britain and America it has become the stuff of theme parks. The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.

What is Kanth’s alternative?

Kanth thinks what we’d much prefer is to live in what he calls a “social economy of affections,” or, put more simply, a moral economy. He points out that the simple societies Europeans were so moved by when they first began to study them, conjuring images of the “noble savage,” tended toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasized feeling and mutual affection. Karl Marx got his idea of communism from looking at the early anthropological studies of simple societies, where he was inspired by the way humans tended to relate to each other.

“Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living,” says Kanth. “Well, in simple societies they felt the exact opposite. Everybody owed everybody else. There were mutual ties. People didn’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they had a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it because it nurtures you. That’s very different from a Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to zap each other.”

Note that this is very different from the Alt-Right, who celebrate capitalist Markets as Social Darwinist winnowing mechanisms eliminating the “weak” and “unfit” and argue that one’s intrinsic value as human being is solely a function of one’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and money-earning power. They celebrate a society of constant, unremitting conflict, where all one is entitled to is what he or she can claw free from the impersonal market, nothing more and nothing less.

The Alt-Right is, as one commenter observed, obsessed with the idea of inequality–between people, nations, and various “races.” They believe that the strong are entitled to rule, and that the weak must yield. They believe in a society where the “best” climb to the top, and anything that retards this, like “democracy” or “collectivism” is bad and leads to dysgenics or some sort of ill-defined cultural rot. The Alt-Right wants an “every man for himself” predatory world of relentless individualism, where society owes you nothing and you owe nothing to society, and the strong are free to prey upon the weak at every turn (“There is no such thing as society…there are individuals, and there are families…”).

In my view, one of the major mistakes of the Alt-Right is their refusal to accept that modern globalized libertarian capitalism is a project of the High Modernism of the Enlightenment, rather than a permanent feature of the human condition stemming from our “natural instincts” to “exchange value.” Note that “exchanging value” is not the same thing as maximizing profits. Most ancient thinkers saw profiting at the expense of others as unnatural, since by definition it implies an unequal exchange of value (which it must be). Furthermore, they made no distinction between “the economy” and the rest of society. This was a creation of economic liberals of eighteenth century Britain.

While there’s always been an elite with a lust for power, the desire to hoard and accumulate possessions was not a major factor until fairly recently. Neither was acquiring large amounts of money. The Alt-Right accepts the economics creed as gospel—that markets are “natural”, that we are instinctively inclined to maximize our own self-interest, and that anything that restricts this behavior is an affront to “freedom.” However, most societies before the present day recognized that runaway greed and self-interest would tear society apart and lead to collapse, not to “higher” states of civilization. They put certain limits on self-seeking behavior. It was the centuries-long process of breaking down communitarian values and privatizing the commons that led to market-based capitalism (along with mechanization). Capitalism is simply impossible without strong centralized states (meaning that “anarcho-capitalism” is an oxymoron).

The Alt-Right looks to the Victorian Era (and perhaps the Roman Empire) as their ideal society. Men rule, and women’s sexual behavior is extremely regulated. Constraints on social behavior are strictly enforced by restrictive social norms. Political control is restricted to the “best” people (the wealthy and property-holders) rather than the “rabble.” Monarchy is still a valid system of government, and power is often hereditary. The gap between rich and poor is extreme, and there is no “welfare state” to support the useless eaters. In this Dickensian economy, people are forced to struggle just to survive, and this breeds “achievement culture.” The winners (usually white males) are rewarded with higher reproductive success, driving Darwinian evolution to “superior” lifeforms. Without being able to satisfy their carnal urges, people instead channel their efforts into work and duty to empire. Europe is not on its back foot, but ruling over much of the globe (including Africans and Muslims) with no apologies, as it should be. The Market dominates the globe without all the pesky rules and regulations imposed by nanny states to protect the weak and unfit. Large-scale heroic engineering projects are launched on a weekly basis, from bridges to canals to railroads. Anything that departs from this ideal society is “decline”–an obsession with the alt-right.

Personally, I don’t think that most people want to live this way.

We may be able to perform dazzling technical feats, like putting a colony on Mars, but we will pay for it by working even harder and longer hours so that a few may get the benefit. A whole lot of lost time and suffering, and for what? Kanth points out that the Bushmen do not have a Mars rocket, but they do have a two-and-a-half-day workweek — something that most modern humans can only dream of. What’s more significant to the lives of most of us?

“We have become unhinged from our own human nature as heat-seeking mammals,” says Kanth. “What we really crave is warmth, security, and care — the kinds of things we get at home and in close social units.” Our greatest human need, he says, is something far more humble than launching rockets: we want to huddle.

The Alt-Left, from what I can tell, is much more focused on creating a well-functioning society where the rapacity of the elites is held in check. They believe in communitarian values–things like common ownership and worker self-determination. To this end, they oppose authoritarianism, institutionalized hierarchy, slavery, gender inequality, racism, bigotry, and conflict. They advocate that the needs of business and the market be subordinated to the needs of a healthy society, rather than society arranging itself according to the requirements of the global marketplace. They advocate environmental stewardship and living in harmony with the natural world (e.g. Permaculture in place of the industrial food system).

If there’s once commonality I see in many of the Alt-Left’s arguments, it is the replacement of large-scale, depersonalized, centralized, high-tech, authoritarian systems with communal, locally-based, more informal ones based in face-to-face relationships and intrinsic social ties such as family, friendship and community. This does not advocate isolationism; only that one’s local community is intact and more important than abstract notions of globalism. It is a vision of a convivial society. There is often more than a hint of nostalgia in their writings.

Thus, for example, James Howard Kunstler argues that we need to downsize and downscale, abandon suburban sprawl, move back to small and medium-sized towns, grow our own food in local farms and gardens, get the old train system up and running again (NOT build new high-speed rail) and reactivate downtown main streets in place of Wal mart. He sees much ill in the alienating suburban infrastructure America has built around automobiles (“Happy Motoring”) and big-box consumerism.

His fictional World Made by Hand series of books depicts a future America where we live essentially like modern-day Amish–with pre-Civil war technology in small towns connected by horses, canals and railroads, growing food locally and living in line with the seasons. Computer scientists, business executives and telemarketers have been replaced by dirt farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths. But the key is, he depicts this way of life, harsh as it is–as far more meaningful and emotionally satisfying than life in modern-day America, which is increasingly resembling the hellish dystopias envisioned by cyberpunk authors in the 1980’s.

When I go around the country, there’s a great clamor for ‘solutions.’ Whenever I hear that world solutions, it’s always invariably in connection with the wish to keep all our stuff running. The amount of delusional thinking that’s being generated by this set of very vexing problems is staggering. There’s understandably a wish to keep all the stuff running that we’ve got up running. That’s the psychology of previous investment. The only conversation they want to have at the Aspen Environmental Institute is all the nifty new ways we’re going to run our cars.

The most impressive part of the situation at the moment is our failure to construct a coherent consensus about what’s happening to us, and what we’re going to do about it…I think the young people especially are going to have to discover that hope is not something that is given to them by a politician or a corporation or by anybody else. Hope is something that you generate inside yourself by demonstrating to yourself that you’re competent–that you understand the signals that are coming to you from the universe…Life is tragic, and history doesn’t care if we pound our civilization down a rathole…

John Michael Greer advises us to “collapse now and avoid the rush.” He argues that we will increasingly be unable to sustain our extravagant ways of life due to decreasing net energy available to industrial civilization. This means that more and more people will inevitably be thrown into what is considered poverty by modern American standards, and we had best learn to live with it. He looks to the past to find inspiration about different and less resource-intense ways to live. He is highly skeptical of new technology, seeing them as “solutions in search of problems.”

His recent fiction work imagines a world where modern cutting-edge high technology has been replaced with older, simpler, more resilient technologies (Retropia). The imaginary country has “fallen back” to earlier levels of development, but these are far more stable and politically functional that the world depicted “outside” where the status-quo is failing and a slavish devotion to technology and “innovation” is increasingly becoming a burden for most people rather than a blessing.

First, industrial society was only possible because our species briefly had access to an immense supply of cheap, highly concentrated fuel with a very high net energy—that is, the amount of energy needed to extract the fuel was only a very small fraction of the energy the fuel itself provided…Second, while it’s easy to suggest that we can simply replace fossil fuels with some other energy source and keep industrial civilization running along its present course, putting that comfortable notion into practice has turned out to be effectively impossible. No other energy source available to our species combines the high net energy, high concentration, and great abundance that a replacement for fossil fuel would need…Third, these problems leave only one viable alternative, which is to decrease our energy use, per capita and absolutely, to get our energy needs down to levels that could be maintained over the long term on renewable sources. The first steps in this process were begun in the 1970s, with good results, and might have made it possible to descend from the extravagant heights of industrialism in a gradual way, keeping a great many of the benefits of the industrial age intact as a gift for the future. Politics closed off that option in the decade that followed, however, and the world’s industrial nations went hurtling down a different path, burning through the earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves at an accelerating pace and trusting that economic abstractions such as the free market would suspend the laws of physics and geology for their benefit…

Fourth, while it’s fashionable these days to imagine that this process will take the form of a sudden cataclysm that will obliterate today’s world overnight, all the testimony of history and a great many lines of evidence from other sources suggests that this is the least likely outcome of our predicament. Across a wide range of geographical scales and technological levels, civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall, and there is no valid reason to assume that ours will be any exception…Fifth, individuals, families, and communities faced with this predicament still have choices left. The most important of those choices parallels the one faced, or more precisely not faced, at the end of the 1970s: to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to their current lifestyles until the system that currently supports those lifestyles falls away from beneath their feet…

Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush (Archdruid Report)

Dmitry Orlov advises us to disengage from the money economy and formal work arrangements, and instead develop informal, face-to-face relationships based on shared commonalities. He advises “investing” in practical skills and land rather than opaque financial instruments. He himself lives a peripatetic life based on sailing.

His book “Communities that Abide” looks at what are considered minority “out-group” cultures that nonetheless have managed to sustain themselves even as big, top-down hierarchical political systems have collapsed around them (like the Soviet Union, the original focus of his writings). These groups all have durable, time-tested ways of living that have largely resisted Scott’s “High Modernism” and retained earlier lifeways, for example, the Roma (Gypsies), The Old Order Mennonites (Amish), the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan, and others. His latest book, “Shrinking the Technosphere” describes how our dependence on centralized high technology is increasingly antagonistic to genuine freedom and autonomy, and describes ways to minimize dependence on such technologies in our daily lives.

He cynically believes that large-scale institutions, including state, national, and local governments, are irreformable, and that any attempts to “fix” them are doomed to fail. Politics is nothing more than show business. Instead, he argues, we should actively disengage from them to the greatest extent possible, refuse to participate, and tend to our own business by forming ways to attend to our daily needs which do not rely on the existence of any large-scale institutions, whether public or private.

I would argue that all of the above authors are all “Small-C” conservatives, in the true sense of the word. They are highly suspicious of anarchic capitalist markets and banks and skeptical of all the new technology being foisted upon us. They see “innovation” as more often than not a dirty word. They all advocate less dependence on top-down hierarchical systems, an emphasis on local community, self-reliance for one’s daily needs, and a slower/simpler way of living.

According to Ran Prieur:

If I defined an alt-left, it would explicitly take no position on race, or on racially charged subjects like immigration. The core of my alt-left definition would be economics. Libertarians want a “level playing field” but I want a playing field slanted so hard that trying to turn a lot of money into more money would be like climbing a mountain, and being content with just enough money for basic dignity and comfort would be like coasting downhill on a bicycle.

Rather than the Victorian Era, the Alt-Left looks back much farther—to the hunter-gatherer past—in search of answers. It was a world of equality, sexual openness, freedom, spontaneity, abundance, and leisure. They are likely to see our decline as starting with the transition to sedentary agriculture where elites gained control of the political system, women’s reproductive behavior began to be strictly regulated, war became endemic, slavery was established, yawning gaps between rich and poor emerged, we destroyed our natural habitats, population exploded, people got sicker had to work far longer and harder to support the ruling class.

Or, perhaps they might look for inspiration to the European High Middle Ages, with the dissolution of the centralized Roman State and the re-emphasis on small-scale local economies. While the mainstream Left sees this as a time of backwardness caused by adherence to religion, the Alt-Left sees much to admire in societies not based on acquisition and overproduction, but instead focused on humanism and spiritual values (even if the behavior of the Catholic Church was less then admirable):

The Alt-Left has many antecedents, what Morris Berman calls the “alternative tradition.” This ranges from the old-school communist/anarchist thinkers such as Marx, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Owen, and others, to the American Transcendentalists like Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson, to voices from the 1960’s–Lewis Mumford, E.F. Schumacher, Richard Theobald, Kenneth Boulding, Jane Jacobs, Barry Commoner, and others. These views have always been suppressed by the dominant culture, which is dedicated to the religion of progress.

However, the religion of progress seems to be breaking down. It’s telling that many of the above writers are put in the “collapse” camp. Perhaps when Eurocentric Modernism has run its course and consigned to the dustbin of history, we can rebuild something more healthy and durable. Assuming there are any of us left, that is.

Kanth…senses that a global financial crisis, or some other equivalent catastrophe, like war or natural disaster, may soon produce painful and seismic economic and political disruptions. Perhaps only then will human nature reassert itself as we come to rediscover the crucial nexus of reciprocities that is our real heritage. That’s what will enable us to survive.

Hopefully it won’t come to that, but right now, we can learn to “step out and breathe again,” says Kanth. We can “reclaim our natural social heritage, which is our instincts for care, consideration, and conviviality.” Even in large cities, he observes, we naturally tend to function within small groups of reference even though we are forced into larger entities in the workplace and other arenas. There, we can build and enrich our social ties, and seek to act according to our moral instincts. We can also resist and defy the institutions that deny our real humanity. Rather than violence or revolution, we can engage in “evasion and disobedience and exile.”

We had better get to it, he warns. To put it bluntly, Eurocentric modernism is not compatible with human civilization. One of them has got to go.

What Is the Alt-Left?

First, let’s state the obvious: people are turning to alternative narratives, whether Alt-Right or Alt-Left, because the mainstream narrative is increasingly falling apart. There is a very narrow range of “acceptable” opinions anymore, which is why so many things are increasingly falling under the “Alt” label.

There is a pervasive sense out there that society is spiraling out of control, and that our leaders have no answers. Their “solutions” seem useless and ineffectual; their proscriptions seem counterproductive; and their “leadership” seems craven and self-serving.

It seems like elites and the media live in a different world entirely from the rest of us, whether it’s the enclaves of Manhattan, Silicon Valley, the City of London, “Versailles on the Potomac,” or the “Acela Corridor.” They seem to have no clue as to what 90+ percent of us are experiencing “out here” in the rapidly decaying societies of America and Western Europe.

I first began to think about the existence of an alt-left while contemplating several bloggers and authors/speakers whom you are probably already familiar: James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, as well as bloggers like Ran Prieur, Nicole Foss, the late Michael Ruppert, Charles Hugh Smith, and many others. I’m also thinking of a lot of the people regularly published on, for example– Gail Tverberg, Ugo Bardi, Chris Martenson, Richard Heinberg, Albert Bates, Nate Hagens, Charles Eisenstein and many others too numerous to mention.

A lot of similar critiques can be found in the Deep Green/Transition Town/Permaculture/Neo-Luddite/Slow ‘X’ movements as well. These are also well outside of the mainstream Left critique. I’m thinking of people like Derrick Jensen, Kirkpatrick Sale, John Zerzan, Rob Hopkins, Chris Smaje, among numerous others.

Now, I don’t think anyone would lump these people together with the Alt-Right as commonly understood. Typically, in today’s climate they are placed on the “leftward” end of the political spectrum. However, Their views diverge pretty dramatically from those of the Mainstream Left as currently constituted, even people considered to be at the “far” end like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They certainly diverge from the narratives put forward in the current “Left” media, which seems to have degenerated into little more than a non-stop Trump hate-fest (e.g. The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, The Nation, MoJo, The Atlantic, etc.).

Many of these writers came out of what was known as the “Doomer,” “Collapse” or “Peak Oil” community. While their analyses did include Peak Oil/collapse concepts, their critiques went far beyond that.

A lot of writers have subsequently tried to distance themselves from the “Doomer” label, for example, Ran Prieur, who describes a couple of the alt-left’s key points:

April 12. …Today I want to distance myself from doomers…it’s tricky to say where I disagree with the normal collapse idelology [sic]. I agree with a lot of the details, for example that economic growth can’t continue on a finite planet, and that modern life is a worse fit for human nature than most of the ways we lived in the past. But I don’t think the human response to these crises is limited by my own imagination, that just because I can’t see a way through, billions of people at the edge of survival will just roll over. I have a lot of respect for unknown unknowns.

So who are these people? Maybe they constitute an alt-left? By coincidence, after I began thinking about this, an event was held grouping three of the above writers together on stage. You’ve probably already seen the panel discussion:

John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, Chris Martenson, Frank Morris, and Dmitry Orlov Discuss Trump, the Inequality Taboo and Other Hot Topics (Naked Capitalism)

So, by having these thinkers together on one stage, I think it’s safe to say that there is some sort of coherent enough philosophy that we might be able to outline its key principles and define it as something we can term an “Alt-Left.” But what are those principles?

The Mainstream Narrative

I’ve already discussed the mainstream Left’s views on multiculturalism and diversity in my previous entry. Now, let’s focus on some other aspects of the mainstream left. From a recent post by Peter Turchin:

One of the most interesting passages in [the book] Listen, Liberal is [Thomas] Frank’s characterization of the Republicans as the party of 1 percent—nothing new here—and the Democrats as the party of the 10 percent—which is the interesting part, and a new idea, at least to me.

What does he mean by “the party of the 10 percent”? It is generally agreed that back in the days of FDR, Truman, and Johnson the Democrats were the party of the Working America (even if the leaders were often recruited from the “aristocracy”, like FDR). Today, however, they are the party of “professionals”: “doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects, and engineers—the core professional groups—the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even people who write books like this one.” And college professors. (Parenthetically, although I and my university colleagues would surely object to be called the “elite”, that’s how the fly-over America thinks of us. We are branded as the “East Coast Liberal Elite.”)

Returning to Frank’s point, the 10 percent are the technocracy, the credential class, the meritocracy (“meritocracy is the official professional credo—the conviction that the successful deserve their rewards, that the people on top are there because they are the best”). They believe in the power of education. “To the liberal class, every economic problem is really an education problem, a failure by the losers to learn the right skills and get the credentials everyone knows you’ll need in the society of the future.”

Listen, Liberal – Part II (Cliodynamica)

Now, Frank is ostensibly writing about the “New” Left, but I think he successfully defines the world view of both the Mainstream Left and Right today. The Mainstream Left and Right have, to a great extent, merged–and abandoned the vast majority of citizens in countries around the world in the process. Although Frank is writing of America specifically, his analysis can extend to elites in Europe and Asia as well. They have become a transnational globalized “merit-based” elite, occupying a handful of global cities while the rest of the planet has been converted into basically a heavily-policed colony for resource extraction to support them.

The idea that “more education” is the solution to each and every problem we face, which Frank notes above, extends to both the Mainstream Left and the Right, I think. This has given rise, for example, to the “education-industrial complex” in the U.S. Yet, despite already historically unprecedented levels of educational attainment, problems with joblessness and social decay persist and are getting worse.

The idea that “more education” cannot solve our current problems is alien to the mainstream narrative. The Left wants to make education “more affordable” by extending cheap loans, while the Right clamors for ineffective “market-based” solutions and offers tax shelters (which only benefit children of the already wealthy), but neither is willing to accept that the need for educated workers is dropping, and more schooling alone does not equal a more educated and capable population.

Related to this is the idea that the System is working just fine, and only needs a few tweaks to resolve all of our current issues. The top-down technocratic management of society by the union of Big Government, Big Transnational Corporations, and the Banking Cartel is fundamentally sound. In other words, we’ve hit a temporary hiccup in our progress, but soon the kinks will be worked out and we’ll be back on our regularly scheduled trip to Utopia. Perhaps a TED Talk will have the answer!

Another is a belief in social engineering. “Nudge theory” is only the latest manifestation of this. We are bombarded every day with messages that tell us how we “should” behave (or how elites think we should). The mainstream Right likes to denounce social engineering but engages in it just as much as the Left; they just want different outcomes (docile, obedient cubicle serfs quietly serving their corporate masters and paying taxes). Advertising/marketing/PR itself is just social engineering on a large scale.

I would also posit that an important link between the mainstream Right and Left is the idea that globalized Markets are fundamentally superior and the only valid way to organize society (a.k.a. Neoliberalism). The Left and Right may differ, of course, on how much regulation of the Market they feel is required, or how generous the social safety net should be, but neither of them differ on that fundamental point. The Left may prefer a bit less inequality, the Right a little more, but they all agree on the fundamental points of Neoliberalism and Austerity.

It’s the “end of history” hypothesis. For the mainstream Left and Right There truly Is No Alternative—Globalized Markets and Liberal Democracies have triumphed. Any alternative is unthinkable; there is no going back. We just need a social program or two, maybe fiddle with the tax rates or add a few regulations here and there, and everything will work out just fine.

Another is an almost theological belief in technological innovation as the solution to problems. This attitude was described by Vaclav Smil in an interview with WIRED Magazine:

Today, as you know, everything is “innovation.” We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions—innovation like manna from heaven falling on the Israelites and saving them from the desert. It’s like, “Let’s not reform the education system, the tax system. Let’s not improve our dysfunctional government. Just wait for this innovation manna from a little group of people in Silicon Valley, preferably of Indian origin.” You people at WIRED—you’re the guilty ones! You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover! You really messed it up. I tell you, you pushed this on the American public, right? And people believe it now.

Both mainstream Left and Right are wedded to the notion of eternal Progress–the idea that things are perpetually getting better and better for everyone. They love to deploy statistics compiled by, for example, the late Dr. Hans Rosling and Stephen Pinker, demonstrating how much richer and safer the world has gotten over the past hundred years under their “enlightened leadership,” and how much wealthier the “poor” nations of the world have become. This is their justification for moving forward with the Neoliberal project. To that end, any dissent from the status quo amounts to a return to barbarism! The “sacrifice zones” of the industrial heartlands of America and Europe are simply the price to pay for global progress. I call it “omelette ethics”—the idea that “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs…”

Neither side deals with the idea that there are fundamental limits to growth, or that we have lost a great deal in our relentless push to modernize. None of them deal with the crises of unemployment, obesity, mental illness, or pollution, for example. To them, every problem we face can be solved with either more education, more economic growth, more markets, more migration, more regulations, or more technology, full stop.

Expanding and growing the economy is imperative for both the mainstream Right and Left; on this issue, there is no difference. Neither of them question the basic assumptions of our current society on a deeper level. I summarized them last time: productivism (growthism); top-down technocratic management; centralization of power; educational meritocracy; multiculturalism; cosmopolitanism; globalism; corporatism; consumerism; financialization; technological progress, laissez-faire capitalism; natalism, meliorism, scientific rationalism, materialism, the belief in “progress,” and so forth.

For a good overview of “mainstream” Left thinking, you would be hard-pressed to do better than this “Big Idea” VOX article: 7 reasons why today’s left should be optimistic. Among the highlights:

Science and Technology are our friends—Presenting an almost giddy techno-optimism straight out of the movie Tomorrowland:

From smart phones, flat screen TVs, and the internet to air and auto travel to central heating and air conditioning to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet — the list is endless — technology has made people’s lives both much better and much longer than ever before. The average person today is far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, the so-called good old days were old but they were not good.

And what do we have to thank for all these spectacular advances? It’s technology that has made possible the new goods, machines, medicine and so on that we consume, and that has fueled the economic growth that allows us to consume at such a high level. One would think, therefore, that the left would embrace techno-optimism: After all, if the goal is to improve people’s lives, rapid technological advance is surely something to promote enthusiastically.

Yet many on the left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs, especially for manual workers, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens and destroying the planet in the process. We are far, far away from the traditional left attitude that welcomed technological change as the handmaiden of abundance and increased leisure — or, for that matter, from the liberal optimism that permeated the culture of the 1950s and ’60s, the optimism that offered up tantalizing visions of flying cars and obedient robots.

The mainstream Left and Right embrace a muscular techno-optimism, and decry those who don’t as ignorant Luddite “pessimists” standing in the way of even greater progress. Oh, and in case you’re worried about the millions of people already unemployed under the current regime of technology:

Continuing technological advance is unlikely to produce a future of no jobs. It will lead instead to a future of different and more highly skilled jobs… the history of technological advance is full of transformations that put workers out of jobs in one sector only to have more jobs created in others as demand for new products and services grow.

Jobs for the already wealthy and well-connected 10 percent, perhaps. For the rest of us, not so much. According to the mainstream Left, we can just teach everyone to code and problem solved! (c.f. Frank’s comments above). After all, look how well “more education” has worked out thus far. Gee, I can’t imagine why people are abandoning the Mainstream left narrative in droves.

Globalization is a force for Good: – Basically the old “The Chinese are Getting Richer” argument:

Many on the American left seem to miss this, but the world is getting to be a much better place. Since 1950, the proportion of the world’s citizens living in extreme poverty has declined from 72 percent to under 10 percent, while world life expectancy has increased from 48 years to 71. These remarkably positive changes have actually accelerated in the past 25 years, as globalization has intensified.

And they’ve gotten much richer by making all our stuff (although some have argued that subtracting China would make all these alleged global gains disappear). And what about those poor, unfortunate, losers out in the Rust Belt? Just a minor wrinkle; nothing to trouble yourself with:

Of course, it is true that globalization has had some negative effects — for example, on manufacturing jobs in developed countries — but these are exaggerated. The decline of industrial employment is a very long-run trend that predates the sharp rise in globalization toward the end of the last century. If you plot the share of manufacturing jobs in overall US employment since 1948, there has been a steady decline from a high of about 35 percent to less than 9 percent today. This decline can be traced to rapidly rising productivity in the manufacturing sector — the same output could be produced with fewer workers — combined with shifts in demand toward services, reflecting a rise in consumer affluence.

Affluence (even of the American middle-class variety, not the Jeff Bezos variety) leaves more room in family budgets for non-necessities: 46 percent of consumption spending was on the basic necessities of food and clothing in 1947 compared with less than 18 percent today.

A rise in consumer affluence? Wait a minute, in 1947, most families could sustain themselves comfortably on a single income, even without a college degree. I know because my grandparents (and everyone they knew) did it. What’s going on here? From the Turchin post cited above:

…American workers are not stupid and they know that they are fed bullshit. When you go to a meeting with your company’s CEO and other corporate officers and they tell you that you either accept a pay cut, or they will move the factory to Mexico—who are you going to believe, your own experience or the Theory of Comparative Advantage? And then, a couple of years later, despite you having agreed to a wage cut, they still move the factory to Mexico.

Yet both the mainstream Left and Right support unfettered globalism and “free trade,” and denounce anyone who doesn’t as a xenophobic racist.

So, I guess, never mind that opioid deaths are reaching AIDS-epidemic crisis levels in Middle America, the Unnecessariat has plenty of money to spend on McDonalds and iPhones. What are you liberals whining about, anyway? Just ignore those tent cities springing up all over the country.

Besides, the mainstream Left argues, that White demographic is rapidly dying off anyway, and that’s a good thing! All we have to do is sit and wait it out for a few more election cycles:

Consider how strong Democratic growth will be. The share of white non-college voters is dropping 3 points every presidential cycle, replaced by ever more minorities and college-educated voters. The growth of minorities is particularly striking. Right now, there are only four majority-minority states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. But the next two majority-minority states, Maryland and Nevada, should arrive in the next three years. After that, there should be four more in the 2020s: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey. In the 2030s, these states should be joined by Alaska, Louisiana, and New York — and in the 2040s by Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

And if White people don’t die off fast enough, hopefully the elderly will:

Together, millennials and Gen X-ers accounted for 57 percent of eligible voters in 2016, an advantage that was tamped down by the relatively higher turnout of older generations. But by 2024, millennials and Gen X-ers, plus the emerging post-millennial generation, will constitute fully 68 percent of eligible voters. What’s more, the millennials and Gen X-ers will have aged into much higher turnout years. Silents, the most conservative generation by far, will be down to a mere 7 percent of eligibles.

Gee, I can’t imagine why White Heartland voters aren’t turning out for the Democrats in droves, can you? Maybe it’s because the Democratic party can barely conceal their glee over the extinction of this demographic, rather than, you know, actively trying to engage with their concerns. Reading stuff like this, you can really understand where the idea that the Democratic party actively hates white people comes from.

The clean energy revolution is underway – Electric cars/Elon Musk to the rescue!!!

In the past few years, even as fossil fuel prices have declined, world investments in clean energy, chiefly wind and solar, have reached levels that are double those for fossil fuel. Renewables now provide half of all new electric capacity worldwide. (And two-thirds in China, which has drastically cut its plans for new coal plants.) It’s increasingly common, at least in some countries and some regions of the United States, for clean energy to be cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

The rapidity with which clean energy is becoming cheaper and more available is underappreciated. The cost of solar has fallen to 1/150th of its 1970s level, and the amount of installed solar capacity worldwide has increased a staggering 115,000 times. These exponential trends are hard to properly assess, even for those whose business it is to do so. For example, Ramez Naam, a US technologist and proponent of clean energy, posited in 2011 that solar power was following a kind of Moore’s Law for energy. (Moore’s Law projected that microchips would double in efficiency every two years.) Such efficiency gains would allow solar energy systems, which had by then fallen to about $3 a watt, to drop to only 50 cents a watt by 2030. However, Naam noted in the spring of 2015 that he had been way too conservative: Solar power systems by early 2015 had already hit the 50 cent mark.

Another variation on the “innovation will save us” argument (c.f. Vaclav Smil, above).

Naam, who was a former VP at Microsoft, is emblematic of the kind of rootless, cosmopolitan elites hovering above us that Frank describes as the being the core of the new mainstream Left:

Ramez Naam was born in Cairo, Egypt, and came to the US at the age of 3. He’s a computer scientist, futurist, angel investor, and award-winning author…Between stints at Microsoft, Ramez founded and ran Apex NanoTechnologies, the world’s first company devoted entirely to software tools to accelerate molecular design. He holds 19 patents related to search engines, information retrieval, web browsing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.

No wonder he’s so stoked for the future!

Implicit in this view is that renewable energy will simply plug in to where fossil fuels were with no changes whatsoever to our living standards or economic arrangements. We will not have to change our extravagant lifestyles–or at least the upper 10 percent will not.

The idea that we have to fundamentally alter our living arrangements—along with our blind dependence on growth at all costs—will never enter the mainstream left narrative. And speaking of growth:

Trump can’t solve people’s problems. The left can. How? Through more economic growth, of course!!!

Nowhere is that opening greater than on the issue of growth that leads to better jobs and higher living standards. The Democratic Party is more or less united around a programmatic approach to the economy that could actually produce such growth — an approach some of us call “equitable growth.” It pushes back on inequality, seeing current high levels as an active detriment to growth, and seeks to combine support and opportunity for the broad middle class with investments to make the economy more productive.

This includes universal pre-K, free access to two years and some four-year colleges, paid family leave, subsidized child care, higher minimum wages, a commitment to full employment, and robust investments in infrastructure and scientific research, especially around clean energy.

How strong growth can be with a better approach is a matter of debate. Certainly, the 4 percent annual rate bandied about the Trump administration is fanciful. But, as Jason Furman, chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, recently pointed out in Vox, we should “do everything that [we] can for growth, because over time a few tenths of a percent really do matter” And of course, the point is not just to grow faster but to better distribute that growth. The left’s approach will do both.

Yes, according to the mainstream Left, growth will solve all our problems, won’t it?

The idea that we can have some sort of magical “equitable growth” not based upon trickle-down seems like a pipe dream given the current political climate, as is the idea that we will have either the political will or the resources to establish the laundry list of big government programs listed above. Our government is entirely captured by special interests. Also, notice how many of those government programs boil down to “more education.”

And, of course, unlike the gloomy realism pessimism of the Alt-Left, the Mainstream Left presents a sunny view of our future, where things are getting better and better for everyone all the time (e.g. “America is Already Great!”):

It’s time for the left to realize that pessimism is an absolutely terrible selling point — and to downplay that aspect of left self-presentation. If things were terrible yesterday, are worse today, and are likely to get even worse tomorrow, this does not motivate the typical person to engage in heroic struggle to change the world. It is more likely to make them cautious, guarded, and determined to hold onto what little they have. To the extent the left wallows in a slough of despond [sic] about the state of the world, it only manages to undercut its ability to mobilize ordinary people. Optimism, by contrast, mobilizes people…Leftists and liberals should promote … a sense that positive change has been, is, and will continue to be possible. That will make it far easier to mobilize their fellow citizens.

Maybe a “heroic struggle” to “change the world” is what got us into this predicament in the first place. Gee, I wonder who could possibly be this clueless and delusional:

Ruy Teixeira’s new book is The Optimistic Leftist: Why the 21st Century Will Be Better Than You Think. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Ah, yes, the mainstream Left’s think tanks are all about “Progress,” aren’t they, while the Right’s are all about “Freedom.” Neither offers much in the way of progress or freedom to anyone besides a small technocratic elite.

Techno-optimism, perpetual economic growth, multiculturalism, globalism, more education, “just desserts” meritocracy—there is really not much difference between the mainstream Left and Right anymore, is there? No wonder people are increasingly flocking to alternatives, including some very toxic ones.


By contrast, the Alt-Left have very different ideas. We can summarize some of the major points as:

– Infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible.

– There are limits to the growth of both resources and population.

– Economic expansion has been enabled by the exploitation of fossil fuels over the last 200 years: coal, oil, natural gas, shale, tar sands, etc.—energy resources which are finite in supply and will eventually be exhausted. Other resources like fresh water, topsoil, fertilizer, and rare earth metals are also critical to our continued economic expansion are also finite in supply and are rapidly being depleted.

– The massive release of these fossil fuels is destabilizing the relatively stable Holocene climate on which human civilization depends.

– Our relentless economic growth has engendered countless environmental catastrophes: the erosion of topsoil, species extinction, algae blooms, the Pacific Garbage Patch, polluted water, air saturated with soot, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, felled rain forests, desertification, depleted aquifers, bleached coral reefs, ocean acidification, melting glaciers, ozone holes, and on and on and on. Our economic system is basically committing ecocide.

– Capitalism and the Market only work in conditions of growing surpluses. They cannot achieve a steady state; only growth or collapse. Issues like extreme inequality and the unfair distribution of resources are ignored by society’s leaders by focusing only on perpetual growth.

– More and more technology is not inherently better. Increasingly, technology is being deployed to solve problems caused by previous technologies, and often ends up causing more problems than it solves. Technology is increasingly delivering diminishing returns. Not every problem has a technological solution.

– The notion of eternal progress is a myth. History is cyclical—periods of growth are always followed by periods of dissolution and collapse.

– Markets are not the idealized, perfectly-calibrated information-processors headed towards equilibrium described in economic textbooks, but rather come about through the interaction of flawed, irrational, ignorant and greedy human beings. They do not lead to the ideal distribution of resources, but rather extreme inequality and instability. They are prone to regular speculative bubbles, manias, panics and crashes. Economic systems are built around things like trust as much as anything else, which are ephemeral, unmeasurable and unpredictable.

– Corporations’ only goal is to maximize profits by any means necessary. To this end they privatize profits and socialize losses to the greatest extent possible. For this reason, they have become threats to human freedom and the natural world. Trusting them to provide for all our needs is dangerous and delusional.

– Money has utterly corrupted representative democracy. We live in a plutocratic kleptocracy. Bankers and financiers—not voters—call the shots.

– Debts always grow faster than the ability to repay them. Building an economy around usury is unsustainable. Without some sort of debt forgiveness, the majority will end up in hock to a tiny minority, hollowing out society.

– Financialization does not produce real wealth, only the illusion of wealth. Speculation is out of control. Banking should be a public utility.

– Extreme inequality has historically torn societies apart, not pushed them to “higher” levels of development.

-The media exists primarily to distract, not inform. Much of it is propaganda put forward to further the agenda of wealthy elites.

– The economic system we have built is inherently fragile. Having us all be dependent on vast supply chains extending across the globe even for our daily needs is a recipe for disaster. We are all roped together like mountain-climbers–any problem anywhere in the system can bring everything crashing down quickly.

– Small, scale, local, regional solutions are more responsive and resilient than large-scale, top-down, centralized solutions. People should have agency to make their own decisions about their own communities. Top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions often do not work.

– Local economies work because money circulates through them. Large corporation suck wealth out of communities and deposit it on Wall Street and other remote financial centers.

– People should be able to meet their daily needs using local resources, including their food needs.

– The idea that we can create enough jobs for everyone, or send everyone to school, and that this will solve all our problems, is delusional.

– The profit motive leads to things like rent-seeking, monopolies, planned obsolescence, lower-quality goods, frivolous patents, etc. It also leads to the wholesale plundering of the natural world.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

There are also a number of social concepts that arise from the above notions:

– We are social creatures. Our way of life is fundamentally at odds with the kinds of close-knit tribal communities we evolved in for hundreds of thousands of years.

– No man is an island. We are not isolated “rugged individuals,” but part of a broader social fabric, with basic obligations to one other.

– An environment centered around work, the acquisition of material goods, and status seeking, has left us feeling empty and sad.

“Our archaic firmware just can’t keep up in this evolutionarily novel socially networked environment.”

– Depression and mental illness are epidemic because we are living in environments that are highly toxic and unsuited to basic human psychological needs. Advertising stokes our feelings of dissatisfaction and inadequacy in order to get us to buy things we don’t really want or need.

-Our work today is increasingly boring and alienating. Our jobs are precarious. Our need to move around for the economy’s needs prevents developing any sense of community. We are cogs in a machine. Our dependence on “jobs” where we get paid a salary by some big institution, often to do socially useless work, is a historical anomaly.

– We incorrectly believe that economic expansion will somehow solve all of our social problems. In fact, the social sphere is often in conflict with the imperatives of economic expansion.

– The impersonal capitalist Market turns us all into cutthroat competitors, undermining social cohesion. A “dog-eat dog” mentality leads to an environment where sociopaths climb to the top.

– Progress for the few leads to immiseration for the many. Extreme inequality is detrimental to the health and well-being of both the rich AND the poor on multiple levels.

– There IS such a thing as culture, and we abandon it at our peril. The amoral relativism of modernism where “everything goes and nothing matters,” leaves people unmoored, isolated and confused. People inherently want to belong, and they want to be part of something larger than themselves.

Again, I could go on, but that gives a good summary of some of the major points.

If you believe in the above propositions, well, then, you may be part of the Alt-Left. I suspect many people who might identify as part of the Alt-Right will agree with quite a few of these sentiments as well. The differences, as I see it, are in the Alt-Right’s embrace of extreme inequality, individualism, anti-collectivism, anti-democracy, laissez-faire libertarian capitalism, unlimited wealth accumulation, white supremacy, racism, misogyny, hereditarianism and Social Darwinism.

Next time, we’ll take a look at what lies at the heart of the Alt-Left critique.

Diversity and the Alt-Left

In this post by Matt Breunig at Medium, he makes the case that many on the nominal Left are slowly and reluctantly coming around to the idea that diversity makes social safety nets difficult or impossible for societies to create and sustain through undermining social cohesion, and that this realization is fairly recent. The argument is that people do not wish to contribute to the collective social good when they believe it primarily benefits people who are unlike them. In addition, divide-and-rule strategies are easier to deploy by elites of diverse societies to keep the people fighting amongst one another and enable kleptocracies.

I think this realization largely comes from the political climate of the last few decades. Since Civil Rights, the Left has stood by and watched helplessly as pro-corporate forces have used white racial grievance and hot-button “wedge” issues to dismantle the social safety net piece-by-piece, roll back worker protections, and return wealth disparity back to Guided Age levels. The white working class has consistently voted against their own interests since Reagan, and it’s pretty hard to explain by the myth of the “rational voter.” Phenomena like “white flight” in response to well-meaning attempts at social engineering have also contributed to this resignation.

At the same time in Europe, areas hollowed out by deindustrilization have been filled by ethnic migrants from poorer parts of the world (places which, not coincidentally, were impoverished by the imposition of corporate globalism). These enclaves have in many cases, failed to integrate into society, especially with the mass migration of recent times, causing a lot of consternation among Europeans, even those who would never consider themselves racist. The resurgence of domestic terrorism centered around Islam has exacerbated this unease.

This has led to a change in views among the many on the Left that people simply will not contribute as much to a diverse society where people are perceived as being not like them. A social safety net will not work if it applies to all comers, that is, if it is without bounds. And, in turn, attempts to dictate social policy without taking this into account are doomed to fail. Breunig argues that this has been the traditional conservative position all along:

The argument…is that diversity leads to racism, which leads to lower support for the welfare state, and thus creates widespread economic immiseration at the bottom of society. [VOX writer Zack] Beauchamp does not explain why exactly he thinks this is, but other liberal commentators, such as Ned Resnikoff, have attributed it to the “ancient, tribal section of the human brain.”

What follows from this particular argument is pretty clear: you can have diversity or you can have economic justice, but you can’t have both.

Traditionally, this has been the arch-conservative position, especially when you bring in the biotruth of the human lizard brain. It is conservatives who say that we cannot mix different kinds of people, lest we increase social distrust, disharmony, and distance. It is conservatives who say that we need to monitor diversity levels in immigration to ensure that the immigrant share of the population does not get too high and to ensure that the immigrants who do come in are aggressively assimilated so as to erase the differences they initially bring with them.

Not keeping diversity down and different groups separated from one another, conservatives maintain, will destabilize society, turn politics into a dangerous racialized contest for political power, and immiserate people in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And it’s not just white conservatives who say this either. The black nationalist/separatist movements also hold these views…

Liberals and diversity (Medium)

That may have been the traditional arch-conservative position historically, but I think it’s been embraced by many on the nominal Left now, especially based on the political observations during last fifty years in the United States. In their opinion, diversity for its own sake just doesn’t work. The ongoing conflicts between Muslim/North African immigrants and natives in Europe has led many there to the same conclusion. We can consider this as one position which overlaps between the alt-right and what I’m classifying as the alt-left.

Breunig finds this disturbing. He contrasts it with the “traditional” leftist view:

When I was coming up back in the day, this was not the liberal view on diversity…The view then was that racism is a historical development, not an impenetrable feature of the tribal human brain. On this view, human beings are fundamentally the same and socially constructed categories used to divide them… can be overcome by uniting around what human beings have in common.

On this view (which I share) there are obviously frictions caused by difference, especially when a particular difference has been historically weaponized to subordinate people, but those frictions can be overcome by organizing along lines that cut across those differences. The clearest candidate for that is organizing along economic lines that aim to unite working class people of all stripes into political and civil institutions together. But it is also conceivable to organize people along ideological or subcultural lines as well.

If you think that view is wrong, then you should actually explain what you think the consequences of it being wrong are. If diversity and justice really are at odds with one another, then which one should you pick and why? For myself I strongly support both, do not believe they are mutually exclusive, and understand this to be the standard left position.

Breunig may believe what he states above, but I think departing from this “standard left position” is one of the distinguishing features of the alt-left. They might not believe in the strident racism and white supremacy peddled by the alt-right with its questionable science, but they do acknowledge that humans are hard-wired to like cooperate with people like them on some basic level.

Breunig points out the incoherence of the standard liberal position. If the left truly believes that diversity undermines support for the welfare state and social justice, how,then, can they continue to support things like open borders, birthright citizenship and sanctuary cities?

More and more, it seems like liberals in The Discourse agree with this basic conservative assessment of how diversity affects society. But, despite that underlying agreement, they somewhat bizarrely resist the conservative conclusion. Despite telling you that they think increasing diversity will result in children going hungry, as well as the mass incarceration and widespread discrimination of minority groups, they nonetheless support it.

If liberals are going to adopt the conservative view on how diversity operates in society, then they really do need to also work out what they think the implication of it is. Conservatives are very clear: diversity has all these problems and so it should be restricted. But the liberal view — that diversity has all these problems and yet it should be expanded without restraint — is just incoherent on its face.

The Alt-Left has no such contradictions. They do question multiculturalism and diversity, not because of white supremacy or genetic determinism, but because they realize how it undermines social justice and social cohesion when handled poorly (as, indeed, it had been). What makes the alt-left different is that, unlike the alt-right, they really do want a healthier society and less inequality, rather than Social Darwinism. Concerning the question above that Breunig poses, the alt-left does believe that diversity and justice are at odds. And unlike the “mainstream” left, they have made their choice: justice.

Both the mainstream Left and mainstream Right are firmly in the open-borders/diversity camp. I think it breaks down something like this:

Mainstream Left: Humans are all fundamentally the same, and differences are only skin-deep. The trend since the dawn of time has been for larger and larger group connections; for widening “spheres of affiliation.” We went from tribes to nations, to states, to transnational, global networks—it’s a general pattern of history that is inevitable and cannot be reversed. Only ignorance stands in the way, and that ignorance can be defeated by teaching education and tolerance. The elite “thought leaders” of society need to fight back against these attitudes by whatever means are at their disposal. Opposition is solely based on troglodyte racist attitudes by a small fringe and should be ignored. Eventually, these racist attitudes will naturally change as they have in the past—after all, even Southern Europeans, Jews, and Irish were once considered out-groups and they have now successfully integrated into mainstream “white” society. We just need to educate and wait it out. Using the power of the state to make disparate peoples live together is morally acceptable. Besides, we need immigration to maintain economic growth rates and provide for retirement funds in the face of low native birth rates.

Mainstream Right: We are dedicated to smashing labor and maximizing returns to capital and the wealthy, regardless of the effects on the social fabric. From that standpoint, open-door policies bring two simultaneous major benefits: 1.) Bringing in the poorest and most desperate workers from around the world to compete against native-born workers keeps wages low and workers fearful and desperate (and has been SOP in America since its inception), and 2.) We can then then use “divide and rule” strategies to play the workers against each another for the scraps we throw them from the table. They will too busy fighting one another to demand things like decent pay, protective regulations, or social safety nets, or to recognize the true source of their misery: the wealthy and globalized corporate monopolies. As Jay Gould once said, “I can always hire half the poor to kill the other half.”

Now, it’s worth noting that one of the tactics of the mainstream Left is promoting the kumbaya platitudes of the first position, while secretly being motivated by the second. I’m looking especially at Silicon Valley and its enthusiasm for H1-B visas here. A common tactic is to play the “racist” card against anyone who questions these motives.

The Right, by contrast, happily militates against open borders and scapegoats various out-groups, even while secretly supporting policies that ensure continued mass immigration without limit. They distract their followers from this obvious contradiction by using classic misdirection: reliable hot-button emotional issues like guns and abortion (e.g. it’s the “Hollywood liberals’ fault!!!), and a tightly-controlled information-dissemination apparatus (FOX News, etc.). Trump was a rather uncomfortable wrinkle in this tactic.

Both positions boil down to the same thing: continued economic growth at all costs, society be damned. Both support large-scale globalized corporate structures over small-scale, local, communal ones.

Both the mainstream Left and Right are united behind “mainstream” economic theory. They may have their preferred economists–Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty on the Left; Greg Mankiw and Tyler Cowen on the Right, for example; but they are solidly behind the current economic paradigm of infinite growth, productivism, corporatism, globalism, cosmopolitanism, meritocracy, technocracy, financialism, and so forth. They just differ on some of the details. They agree, in principle, with economists that we are homo economicus transacting through impersonal markets to exchange value rather than what we really are–tribal and social creatures who have needs beyond what the Market can provide.

What I hear very often from commeters is that the stable, prosperous societies of places like Scandinavia and Japan are only possible due to ethnic homogeneity. For people who truly believe that, and who support these types of societies in principle, it makes sense to be skeptical of unlimited immigration and open-door policies.

It also makes sense if you want something to bind people together besides tenuous market relations and formalized contracts. Prior to the One Big Market, people related to one another through various extra-market relationships. They related through family and blood ties; through village affiliation (Neopolitians); through ethnic affiliation (Italians), through religious affiliation (Catholics), through status (Prince and peasant), through occupation (wool merchant), through secret societies (Masons, Jesuits) and numerous other sources. Anthropologists generally designate kinship as the glue which held traditional societies together. Kinship is biological, but transcends biology; marriage is part of it, as is “fictive” kinship. Ibn Khaldun used the term assibiyah to designate a shared communal sense of social identity and the ability for members of a society to act cohesively.

Now, as I described earlier, the alt-right believes that certain people and cultures are inherently “superior” and “inferior” to others. They believe that culture—everything really—flows primarily from genes. They believe that all human cultures are locked in a “winner take all” Darwinian struggle to the death. I don’t think what I would consider the alt-left believes that; at least I hope not. I certainly don’t. In other words, I don’t think the alt-left hates anyone.

No, I think the alt-left simply opposes the rootless globalism and top-down social engineering engaged in by the technocratic elites of both parties to make “globalism” work for a tiny handful of transnational, cosmopolitan elites, while leaving devastated and hollowed-out societies for the remaining 90 percent of us. And , of course, many of the current “mainstream” opinion shapers, both on the Left and the Right, are included in that 10 percent.

They also recognize the cultural devastation that takes place in order to make this cosmopolitan globalism happen. It’s not a natural process. Long-standing, durable ways of life are shoved aside to produce a deracinated class of precarious economic migrants that can be plugged in to the global economy at will and milked for profits. Again, who benefits from this arrangement? Neither native-born nor migrants. As Dmitry Orlov put it:

National borders are very inconvenient from the corporate point of view. Corporations like to treat labor as a fungible commodity, basically shipping it to whereever it’s required and then shipping it out again when it’s no longer required. It creates this homogeneous, cosmopolitan society where nobody is invested in any paricular place, and that makes them very easy to manipulate and control, and destroys any sense of place that they might have had.

The alt-left wants to preserve traditional lifeways and sense of place because these things are often more respectful of fundmental (Maslovian) human needs and much more resilient. They need much less top-down government and social engineering to function. They are not dependent on the vagaries of transnational markets and the impersonal machinations of finance and money, which routinely tend toward bubbles, manias, panics and crashes. To this end, I would say the alt-left is much more suspicious of libertarian capitalism than the alt-right, which sees libertarian capitalism, even in its current globalized form, as something “natural” and independent of government action (e.g. capitalism works better without government, just like baseball works better without rulebooks or umpires/s)

They also realize that beneath all the happy talk of multiculturalism and spurious accusations of racism by technocratic elites, what’s really going on is breaking the back of labor to maintain the privileged lifestyles of those technocratic elites.

The alt-left believes that the mainstream Left obstinately refuses to acknowledge the reality of tribalism and the fact that we are hard-wired to some extent to naturally want to be with our own kind. Unlike the alt-right, they don’t believe this tendency is a GOOD thing; far from it. Nonetheless, it is still there. We evolved in small-scale tribal societies for millions of years, and that legacy is still with us still. Yes, we’ve managed to overcome that to a great extent, constructing past cosmopolitan societies (for example, The Roman Empire, and even parts of Islamic empires-e.g. Muslim Spain), and on a scale never-before seen in modern times. But, in their view, that’s not a justification for constantly doubling-down and attempting to construct a global society by steamrolling any sense of locality or place, consequences be damned. As this comment puts it:

I’ll tell you what I think, and I fully expect to get flamed to hell and back. We could argue genetic racial differences all day, but regardless you’re never going to get past the fact that humans are tribal. Ran [Prieur] has said on this blog… multiple times… that it’s something we need to learn to get past (I think he called it shit-flinging money tribe war consciousness), but my opinion is that we WON’T get past it so long as the average human has an IQ of 100. You have to get it through your head that most people don’t think about anything, EVER.

Now, some final points I feel are necessary.

1.) I do think diversity is a good thing, in principle. I live in a diverse neighborhood in a diverse city, and I don’t have to– that is by choice. I’m fascinated by different cultures, I love to travel, and I have friends who come from all different parts of the world and from different backgrounds. I would not want it any other way. I think the sharing of cultures contributes immensely to your experience of life. In fact, I ofen tend to get along better with non-Americans than with my own people (who tend to be narcissistic careerists focused on little else besides climbing the status ladder, accumulating goods, and watching spectator sports.)

However, I know that everyone is like me (sadly). I’ve studied enough psychology and anthropology to know that, tragic as it is, the tendency toward nationalism and tribalism is there, as well as the urge to trust one’s own kind, and pretending its not is wishful thinking. Now, we have managed to mitigate it to an extent that was impossible in the past, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But the thing is, this happens slowly, over time, by natural means; it cannot be imposed from above or socially engineered by well-meaning bureaucrats.

In short, diversity is a good thing, but like anything else, you can have too much of a good thing.

2.) America is a diverse society and always has been since its inception into the Eurocentric world order. We cannot hope or wish that away, so we’d better just stop whining and find a way to deal with it. We’re not going to be Denmark, so let’s stop trying to pretend we can be.

From day one we’ve had native inhabitants who were shoved aside by invaders from Western Europe. Slaves by the millions were imported from Africa to work in the cotton and tobacco fields. Coolies from all over the world were brought in to keep labor costs low and build infrastructure, such as from Asia. The Southwest is culturally Hispanic and was taken through conflicts with Mexico. Central European peasants flooded in to cities after the Civil War. All these groups are here now to stay, and they’re not going anywhere.

We’re never going to be Japan or Scandinavia, so should we just throw up our hands and give up all hope? We Americans need to find some way to make a functional society despite this legacy. Yes, it makes it harder, but just because something is more difficult does not mean you should not attempt it. You just have to work harder. I’m not a fan of defeatism. Obviously, the situation in Europe is somewhat different.

Or else, we can just wait a few centuries while everyone mates with everyone else and such distinctions disappear as they have in Europe (anyone remember the Goths or the Vandals?). Hopefully we won’t go extinct in the meantime.

3.) I think much of the current ethnic/racial/gender hostility is not caused by diversity per se, but from the zero-sum, musical chairs completion for jobs under globalized corporate monopoly capitalism. That is a problem with our economic arrangement, not with the human “lizard brain.” The Social Darwinism promoted by the alt-right would ensure that this trend becomes ever worse, thereby causing it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy (“see, we’re ‘hard-wired’ to compete against and hate each other!”). They can then claim that such conflict is “natural” and inherent to the human species (instead of being imposed by artificial circumstances, which it is)

If someone’s living comes at your expense, then of course you’re going to hate that person. If it doesn’t, you are much less likely to do so. Capitalists have been using this feature of the Market to their advantage wherever it has been imposed on traditional cultures. It’s led to many flare-ups of ethnic conflict over the years which are subsequently blamed on “fundamental human nature,” or (in the alt-right’s case,) “Low I.Q.”.

Would there be as much resentment and hostility against Hispanics if jobs were plentiful? Against women being economically independent? Against hiring quotas? I think not. These are exacerbated by economic conditions, but we’re told never to think about that. Is it a coincidence that these divisions are flaring up at the same time as jobs are being consolidated and automated away at an increasing rate? Again, I think not.

We’ll explore some other aspects of what I’m calling the alt-left next time.