The Money Culture, Part 1

Can you think of five things you did today that were not somehow connected with or influenced by money? As mentioned in my first post, I’ve been itching to delve into the origins and possible alternatives to this thing that Lynne Twist so aptly described as “the Money Culture.” The Money Culture would almost certainly be the culture of anyone reading this post – anyone who regularly encounters money or something like paid work, rent or purchases mediated by money is part of the Money Culture.

Upon hearing Lynne Twist‘s depiction of someone from outside the Money Culture first encountering our culture, I believe (I hope) many of my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology students experience a sudden “paradigm shift,” where they are first asked to face a crucial set of unquestioned assumptions that form the deep structure of their worldview.  I remember this experience myself, 20-some years ago – that thrilling, vertiginous sense that everything you thought you knew about how the world works turns out to be a fanciful story, not unlike Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

The Money Culture is something that is only characteristic of very recent history in terms of human evolution (offhand, I’d say only the last 5,000 or so years, so only about 0.1% of the time since genus Homo and genus Pan diverged, or less than 3% of the time that there has been a species we call Homo sapiens), and only became truly ubiquitous over the last few hundred years.  To an anthropologist, this is a very new phenomenon, that has rapidly spread over the globe, and threatens to drive other cultural forms extinct.

From what we know about a handfull of food foraging (gatherer-hunter) cultures, who were/are the last remaining representatives of the lifeways of all humans until the first appearance of food domestication (about 10,000 years ago), foraging peoples did not use any form of money.  They had no need for such a cultural invention, living in “The Old Way” (read Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘ outstanding 2006 book of this title for a deep exploration of one such foraging culture, the Ju/wasi).

Sometimes, one of my students asks, “So does everyone else just use barter?”  In fact, barter is probably only about twice as old as money.  Most foraging cultures studied by anthropologists do not practice barter – they have food-sharing (especially among members of a hunting party returning with meat from large game) and other forms of gift-exchange, but it never takes the form of “I’ll give you three of these tubers if you give me a basket of berries.”  Such direct barter exchanges probably became more common as people began to rely on more intensive food production (agriculture) and live in larger groups.

In foraging societies, food sharing was essential, because hunting is unreliable and food is not easily stored.  Foraging peoples had to remain mobile, ready to pack up and leave as an area was temporarily or seasonally depleted of good food sources.  Their communities could never get very big (you can’t have more mouths to feed than can be supported on what you can find within about a day’s walk), so they would rapidly get to know who is likely to cheat or be stingy with gifts.  These non-reciprocating individuals would then be shunned by their peers, or at least would be less likely to receive gifts.  The way to win friends was to be generous.  In traveling bands of a few dozen adults, with little privacy and little in the way of possessions, reputations of generosity or stinginess spread quickly and reliably.

Economist Paul Seabright’s book In the Company of Strangers posits that money, and the systems of trade it allowed us to develop, originated as a proxy for trust among people who do not have the opportunity to work and live with one another on a day-to-day basis.  Barter is a simple way of reducing the risk of being cheated because you do the exchange immediately.  Money fills in as societies become larger and more complex, allowing you to exchange something you have (goods and/or services) for an item that you can be fairly confident will subsequently be accepted by someone else – even a stranger – who has something you want.   [BtVS fans: I’m sure you can hear overtones of Anya here.]

So, now that we’re here, with the Money Culture impacting pretty much every ecological and cultural system on the planet, maybe it’s time to rethink this basic structural component of our way of life.   In later posts, I’ll explore some of the ways that the Money Culture operates in more detail, and speculate on how it drives many of the converging crises we are facing as a civilization. I believe someone once said that “Money is the root of all evil.”   If we did without it for 97% of the time we’ve been human, can we find a way to do without it now?  What would take its place?  How can we get there from here?

…End of Part 1 in a series of indeterminate length…


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