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Money (Part 2)
Freedom or bondage?
Money has been part of our existence for so long that its origins are unknown. But no matter how far back into history you go, one thing is clear. Those who own or control the money have lorded it over those who don’t, as two examples from the distant past illustrate.
Thousands of years before Christ, the ancient civilisation of Sumer comprised the familiar-to-us societal divisions between the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor. We are told that someone who could not afford to eat “had to dig into his savings”.
As the Sumerian proverb-writer puts it, “The poor man nibbles away at his silver.” When his savings gave out, he had to borrow from the ancient counterparts of our own loan sharks. Hence the saying: “The poor man borrows and worries.”
Money was no less important in later societies. During one of their periodic famines, the Egyptians of the pre-Christian era bewailed their inability to feed themselves “for our money is gone”. So, according to the Bible, they sold themselves into bondage to the Pharaoh in order to avoid starvation.
Anyone without money in ancient times faced anxiety and stress at the prospect of indebtedness or poverty. It is no different today. For those in need of the things they cannot afford to buy, there are the modern equivalents of the Pharaoh and those ancient loan sharks. They will provide money to those who don’t have it – but at a price.
If it is a lender that price may be counted in additional interest or surcharge payments, sometimes outrageously punitive. But the state also exacts a price from those to whom it provides financial help. That price is psychological rather than physical or financial - but it is none the less real.
Apart from food and clothing, one of the necessities of life is shelter. During the 1930s writer George Orwell investigated the accommodation available to the English poor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he described in considerable detail the stink and the squalor of the privately-owned inner-city slums in which thousands lived in barely-imaginable conditions.
The state tried to alleviate those conditions by building new housing estates, and Orwell wrote about them too. For the slum-dwellers they were a big step up from the grim back streets and alleyways they had been inhabiting. The new houses were a lot roomier and had amenities like hot-and-cold running water and indoor toilets. However, as Orwell noted, there were also drawbacks.
The corporation estates were often built on the outskirts of a town or city. This made it more difficult and expensive for the breadwinner to get to work. There were fewer shops and pubs around and prices tended to be higher than in their inner-city equivalents. Councils imposed restrictions which seemed petty to residents, such as a ban on keeping pigeons or chickens on the property. Some local authorities insisted that their new tenants be deloused or fumigated before being allowed into their new homes – “dipped like sheep” is how Orwell described the process.
But surely these disadvantages were trivial compared to the much better conditions in which residents now lived? Shouldn’t they have shut up complaining and just been grateful to the state for its beneficence?
George Orwell did not think so. His conclusion that “On balance, the Corporation estates are better than the slums, but only by a small margin”, revealed his reservations. These reservations were difficult to quantify but they reflected the strong feeling he developed during his research that the state’s new tenants had been robbed of “the last vestiges of their liberty”. This was because of what he described as the “uncomfortable, almost prisonlike atmosphere” of the new Corporation estates.
Orwell did not argue that residents of these estates should go back to the filth and damp of the slums. He was pointing out that their desire to live in better conditions had somehow reduced their personal freedom, a freedom already diminished by their poverty.
We may imagine that things have improved since Orwell’s day. But have they?
Without enough money of one’s own, it is impossible to be fully part of society. A pauper has very few options. He can either eschew the comforts of modern life and live rough on the streets, or he can cling to the bottom rung of the social ladder by accepting state aid - along with the myriad rules and regulations that accompany such aid.
For the poor, life is presented as a stark choice between a freedom that is inevitably harsh and brutal, and a submission to the state that may be demeaning but is undoubtedly more comfortable than the alternative. The rest of us are not off the hook either. In all likelihood we must sell our labour to an employer in order to earn enough money to participate in society.
Unless one has inherited a fortune, an alternative (legal) route to riches is gambling or playing the lottery. While the chances of winning the top prize are almost non-existent, millions take a punt because in our world money equals freedom.
But is it possible to be free - and also thrive as a human being? Why do we live in a culture that practically worships money? That regards every human interaction as a potential plus or minus on the balance sheet? How did we get here?
Although money has been around for millennia, it is only in the last 250 years or so that it has become central to the functioning of society. If any one person is responsible for this state of affairs, it is the “father of economics”, Adam Smith (1723-1790).
Smith was an advocate of the rationalist approach to advancing the lot of man and society. He and his Enlightenment counterparts, such as Voltaire and John Locke, promulgated ideas that have so shaped the modern world that it is hard to imagine anything else.
Smith collected his thoughts in The Wealth of Nations published in 1776, a book described by one commentator as the “bible [of] economic liberalism”.In this influential work, the author contrasted the economic efficiency possible in a modern industrialised society with the lot of primitive hunter/gatherer tribes, who, he claimed:
are so miserably poor, that from mere want, they are frequently reduced… to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying, and sometimes of abandoning their infants, their old people, and those afflicted with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger, or to be devoured by wild beasts.
In Smith’s ideal world, however, even the poorest member of society could avoid such barbarism, because
if he is frugal and industrious, [he] may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniences of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire.
Smith’s thesis was that society could become prosperous if it adopted and standardised the practices then being implemented by private entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of the industrial revolution. Through a combination of the latest technology and a division of labour, these businesses were able to produce far more goods than would be possible for individuals working alone.
Smith offered the example of a pin manufacturer. The straight pin was a small, pointy piece of metal widely used as a fastening device for paper and clothing. Smith reckoned that one skilled person could make no more than one or two pins a day. However, if the manufacturing process were divided up between a number of operatives, with one cutting the metal, another sharpening the point, etc., then a team of only 10 people could produce a massive 48,000 pins in a single day.
In The Wealth of Nations, Smith offered his template for a new industrialised society that would bring prosperity to all those willing to abide by its rules. Those rules required a different approach to work. The single craftsman would be replaced by an assembly line at which each worker performed one component task repeatedly. Smith envisaged that such tasks might even be undertaken by a machine of some sort.
So our consumer society was born. As long as there were enough customers to buy the profusion of cheaper goods coming out of the factories, the resulting surge in economic activity would boost the material well-being of everyone. Smith’s “industrious and frugal peasant” would, he contended, enjoy a degree of luxury “exceed[ing] that of many an African king, the absolute masters of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages”.
However, as George Orwell found, the reality for many of Adam Smith’s “peasants” turned out to be very different. Indeed that is the problem in sustaining any civilisation based around money, as our culture is. Money (and its proponents like Adam Smith) promises a lot more than it can ever deliver. It is, as D.H. Lawrence wrote, “our vast collective madness”.
Lawrence was not the only one to see this. Long before his time someone else tried to alert us to the illusory power of money.
I will tell that story in Part 3.
Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer (New York 1959), pp. 121-2.
George Orwell, The Non-Fiction of George Orwell (Oxford, 2021), pp. 152-62.
‘Smith, Adam’ in Chambers Encyclopaedia, vol. XII (London 1950), pp. 611-3.
Adam Smith, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations (2 vols., London 1776), i. p. 2.
Ibid., i. pp. 6-7.
Ibid., i. p. 15.
‘Money-madness’, in D. H. Lawrence, The complete poems of D. H. Lawrence (New York 1977), pp. 486-7.