What makes the world go round?

Well, it ain’t love, that’s for sure. That much physicists and economists agree upon.

When I entered Tartu University in my young and tender years to be taught the intricacies of finance it was the first fundamental point to learn and remember that without money the world would grind to a halt. The whole world, as we were supposed to see, was a giant market, brimming with proverbial hungry cobblers and barefoot bakers who would be reduced to barter their way around lest there be a wonderful invention known as money. For us future bankers, investors and other assorted financiers, this was an undisputed and universal fact about the world, it was the way how the world is, a fundamental category like “energy” must be for students of physics. And indeed, in finance — and perhaps in economics at large — the universal existence of money is something most people simply assume. If pressed, they would probably concede that there must have been times and places where money did not exist, but this was only because it was not yet discovered. This way money is seen much like electricity (which is a fundamental, primordial form of energy, waiting to be harnessed), rather than, say, an internet (which is a particular human creation).

This view of affairs has gone nowhere from the economics departments of the universities and is well alive and kicking also in the public discourse, as exemplified by books such as Niall Ferguson’s 2008 book The Ascent of Money. Suffice to say that I am personally less than convinced about Ferguson’s bold claim that “the ascent of money has been essential to the ascent of man,” at least in the rather narrow sense of money as a medium, measure, standard and store of the underlying financial value of everything. In fact I have now already for a few years thought of teaching a sort of deconstructivist and comparative course on money as a broad social phenomenon, but recently a book came out that appears to have pretty much beat me to it. There’s a teaser interview with David Graeber on nakedcapitalism.com where he discusses some of the principal points of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I think I can now just skip the idea of course and point people towards the book.

As an interesting follow-up note on this — the above interview apparently caught the attention of Robert P. Murphy at the von Mises Institute who, quite predictably, felt inclined to rush in all guns blazing, and this in turn elicited this highly amusing response by Graeber. It is not short, but very much worth it even for the ethnographic material alone.


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