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Blood and Money

We need to do better than might is right

I'm reading a book called Blood and Money by David McNally. It's an excellent book, well written and chock full of information. It talks about the origins and subsequent development of money.

The first chapter opens with Cicero boasting in a letter to a friend that he had "about 120000 sesterces" on the platform before him. Sesterces were a unit of money, but Cicero was talking about many slaves captured in war standing before him and of course he was talking of their value as a commodity to be sold. The slaves weren't really people in Cicero's eyes. In contemporary terms, the slaves had no human rights and could be bought and sold like fish or iron or horses.

Cicero got his slaves by conquest and conquest requires armies and armies are expensive to feed and equip and transport. Slaves and armies had a kind of symbiosis. The slaves produced the food and raw materials the armies needed and the armies increased the number of slaves.

Bloodshed was completely normal in that scheme.
One way or another slaves have to be beaten into submission and that is a bloody process.
Soldiers fight and die in the quest to conquer new territory and slaves.
And money was central to the system working.

Money seems to have started as a system of IOU's A poor peasant would give a seed merchant an IOU in the spring to pay for seed with the understanding that the merchant would be repaid from the future harvest. Those IOU's could be circulated among merchants like money to buy things or pay off debts. The system works well unless the harvest fails. And in one form or another the system still prevails in agriculture all over the world.

But what happens if the harvest fails?
NP says the merchant. No harvest? I'll take other things of value instead; like your land, or your cow or your wife or your kids. That is, the IOU was a general store of value as well as a promise to pay - the promise to pay creates the value that can be exchanged as money.

Kings turned a neat two pronged trick with that. One prong was paying for armies with coins they minted. Another prong was imposing taxes on the population that could only be paid in those coins.

This kind of system, as we now well know, is prone to booms and busts.
When all goes well the enlarged army procures an enlarged territory that can then support a bigger army which can conquer still more territory. A boom. An empire grows.

The reverse can occur too. A crop failure might lead to military defeat which crushes the king's ability to raise the resources to support the army. An empire dies.

So McNally's point is that the institutions of war and slavery involved, inevitably, a lot of bloodshed. This can't be doubted.

Closer to our own time, when the Americas were colonized it was normal for the local ruler to seize land from the aboriginal people and then sell the land to finance government. My personal view is that the zionist landgrab may be, hopefully, the last time that is tried but we see the misery it causes.

Gotta say though, I think the story about blood is somewhat misleading.

Money gives people power. What money does is let the money holders force their will on others. This force is pretty obvious when a king pays an army to conquer territory. It's less obvious when people are forced to repay debts - after all - the debtor agree of their own free will to repay. And it does shade into voluntary transactions too. Say I want a chocolate bar. I pay the vendor. The vendor is then obligated to give me the chocolate bar - no choice. Symmetrically, say I pick up the bar from shelf; I'm then obligated to pay for it before leaving the store.

When I pay for a chocolate bar I don't think I have blood on my hands.

I do think that Canadian mining companies have blood on their hands but that's another story.

I'm not in favor of eliminating money; I don't think it's possible. But if we look at money as a force then maybe we can detach it from bloodshed. For instance, one of the things now that makes money into a force is that some people don't have enough. They, of course, are vulnerable to having their behavior forced to reduce their suffering. So solutions like the UBI are an obvious solution; just make it so that everyone has the income needed to live a good life. And public ownership of the means of production would mean that we'd have far fewer billionaires trying to use their money to force society to act in their interests..

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.