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The History of Money: From Sandstone to Cyberspace
by JackWeatherford, 1997, Crown Publishers.
Reviewed by John Tarleton
Pull a dollar bill out of your wallet. Almost everyone in the world wants to have more of them. Unfold it and feel how soft and well-worn the green and white-colored paper is. It must have passed through many hands.
On top it reads FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE and just beneath THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. A politician's face is in the middle and the rest of the front of the bill is covered with incomprehensible numbers and letters, the seal of the Department of the Treasury and the signatures of faceless bureaucrats. Written in smaller print in the upper left hand corner is the priestly incantationTHIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATEthat gives this strange piece of paper its almost supernatural power to shape, to guide and to bless the lives and the destinies of both individuals and nations.
The dollar as universal arbiter of value, Jack Weatherford tells us in "The History of Money: From Sandstone to Cyberspace", has humble 16th Century origins that can be traced back to the obscure mining valley of Joachimsthal in what is now the western part of the Czech Republic. Silver was mined in abundance and the coins that were minted for use throughout the Holy Roman Empire were known as Joachimsthalergulden or simply thalers.
This and many other fascinating details about the history of the ubiquitous and increasingly abstracted human invention called money can be found in Weatherford's latest book. The author, however, does more than recite interesting trivia.
Weatherford is a cultural anthropologist with a journalist's eye for the striking detail that illuminates a larger idea. And, he has a historian's understanding of how events in the distant past shape the world we live in today. He has concentrated on indigenous cultures in past works like "Indian Givers" and "Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive?". Now he turns his eye toward the Culture of Money and examines its long and varied history as it prepares to grow by leaps and bounds in the 21st Century.
Weatherford asks far-reaching questions: Where and why did money begin? How did it become the focal point of modern culture? (other cultures, as he points out, have configured themselves around such diverse things as art, myth, ritual, religion, cattle, horses, sheep, reindeer, caribou, pigs, yams, marriage, human sacrifice and pyramid building.) And, where is money headed?
In "The History of Money" we encounter such strange contrasts as the Dogon women of West Africa who walk 11 miles to a weekly market on the edge of the Sahara with their goods balanced on their heads while surrounded by swarms of buzzing flies, and the frantic currency traders in places like Manhattan who operate in a blinking, ephemeral world in which transactions are made at the speed of light.
Likewise, the author guides us through the labyrinth of history from the Kingdom of Lydia, which minted the first coins in the 7th Century B.C., to the vibrant marketplace of Classical Greece, from the Bread and Circuses of Ancient Rome to the harrowing saga of the Knights Templars, from the bogus paper money that successfully financed the American Revolution to the development of the Gold Standard in the 19th Century and its final demise during the Vietnam War, from the rise of plastic credit cards to the electronic money which now pulses unceasingly around the planet.
Weatherford's final conclusion-"We now stand at the dawn of the Age of Money"-is mundane compared to the ambitious sweep of his book. He does not try to envision a world where individuals, if not society as a whole, can live for something more than the grasping and spending of money; that people can search in other directions for happiness.
Weatherford's "Age of Money" is a linear projection of current trends into a static future. Busy celebrating the triumph of finance capital, he does not stop to ask if the increasingly imperious demands of Money are en sync with the realities of Nature. Over the long haul, no economic system can successfully function beyond the natural world's ability to sustain it.
The "Age of Money" may be a particularly self-destructive and short-lived one, as the conclusion of Weatherford's previous work ("Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive?") hinted at: "If we cannot change our course," he wrote, "then our civilization too may become as dead as the stones of Yaxchilan, and one day the descendents of some alien civilization will stare at our ruined cities and wonder why we disappeared."
Money serves as a measure of value and as a stockpile of security. But, is security to be found in quantities of money or in a simpler life that finds its strength in a web of mutually supportive relationships among family and friends? We are all free and unique individuals and we are all mutually dependent. How to reconcile the apparent contradiction?
There are two divergent paths in life. In all times and places we have the choice of following the Spirit of Mutual Aid, embracing a truly human economics based on reciprocal giving and receiving. This is the tribal way and it has flourished in countless cultures on every continent over thousands of years. Or, we can retreat further and further into our privatized realities, each of us accumulating our own separate stash.
Even as learned a scholar as Weatherford would have us believe that there is only one thing we can configure our lives around: Money. But, look again at that soft piece of green and white paper you are holding in your hand. What do you really have?
This is the question that "The History of Money" suggests but does not answer.
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