And, why are we so beholden to it?
In my prior essay, Money Love, Money Lust, I ended the essay by asking, What’s the Point of Money?
We put money on a pedestal, as if it should be the central focus of our lives. And unfortunately it is, as most people are either stressing that they don’t have enough, or stressing because they have too much and are afraid someone’s going to take it from them.
Has it always been this way? Has money always been this thing? Was there ever a time when there was no money? And could it be possible to live in a world without it?
Let me give you the blunt truth: money is a fiction that we give meaning to. In other words, it’s a made up thing. Some know this—bankers for example—and they use this knowledge to play God.
Let’s dig deeper.
Now, there’s no mistaking: money is how we do our exchanges. You work, you get paid. You then use that money to pay for your basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter. If you have extra money, you might spend it on stuff, along with socializing, taking care of family, taking a vacation, investing, doing something for the good of humanity, etc. And of course, a segment of your money pays taxes.
You might go to school to learn skills and/or a trade to make better money. To do so, you go into debt—sometimes a lot of debt. You use that better money you’re making to buy more things—a nicer house, a fancier car, more stuff, going out to eat more often, fancier vacations, and so on. And in the process, you end up accruing more debt.
Is this the way it’s always been since the beginning of time? Money begetting more money and also begetting debt?
No. First off, definitely not since the beginning of time, since civilization as we know it only dates back around 5,000 years, to the time of Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq). Back then, the mode of exchange was gift giving and reciprocity. But then at some point, people started devising more elaborate means of keeping score, by way of sealing clay tokens inside hollow clay balls to represent debts.
A little cone stood for a measure of barley, whereas a disc stood for a sheep. So if you were given a ball with six discs inside it, that meant you were owed six sheep. That was the monetary system.
Twenty-five hundred years ago in Greece, they started mining for silver and started using silver coins as the form of trade. The ancient Greek philosophers weren’t fond of the coinage; Aristotle complained about Greeks who thought of the use of coins to become wealthy as “only a quantity of coin,” and called getting rich in retail trade “unnatural.”
Aristotle came up with the phrase, creatio ex nihilio, which meant the divine power to create something out of nothing—that perfectly sums up what money was then, and still is now. It’s something created out of nothing, and that nothing is something we give meaning to.
John Lennon’s song God begins with the lyrics “God is a concept, by which we measure our pain.” You can say the same about money—it’s a concept by which we measure our pain.
And it’s a made-up concept, something that’s created out of nothing, as Aristotle phrased it.
In the year 1000 A.D., the Chinese invented paper money, and by doing so had an economic revolution on their hands. The invention of money created an innovative epoch for the Chinese: movable type was conceived, leading to books being printed, farmers developed new agricultural techniques that allowed them to grow more food in the same amount of space, and numerous other transformational approaches were devised. The economy moved from a feudal state into more of a market economy that ran on money.
Chinese society and its people prospered, and as that occurred, the citizenry began to congregate in cities, which was where the money was—two Chinese cities each had a population of one million, whereas the two most well known cities in the world at the time, London and Paris, only had 100,000 residents.
By 1200, China was the richest and most technologically advanced civilization in the world. And all because of their creation of paper money.
But then something happened—China got rid of its paper money. People went back to a simpler system, of using lumps of silver or copper as money, or often not using money at all. And just like that, the economic revolution that drove China was over.
What happened? In the 14th century, the Ming dynasty, which would last 300 years, was founded, started by an emperor who was the child of poor farmers. This emperor entered a Buddhist monastery for a time, then became a rebel against the Mongol forces that ruled China. When the Mongols were pushed out of China, he became emperor.
As emperor, and as a person imbued with a Buddhist philosophy, he looked at what was taking place in China and surmised that the people had lost the way. Money had changed them; while money led them to a new path of prosperity, at the same time, the people had become jaded. The emperor saw that they centered their lives around money and in the process, had lost sight of the importance of maintaining spiritual values. This observation led him to see money as more of an impediment than a benefit, and he got rid of it.
But that wasn’t the end of paper money. It returned to Europe a few hundred years later, first in Venice, Italy.
In Venice, the financial system took off when goldsmiths began to accumulate gold and silver and then lend it out to others. They would do their money lending on benches on a busy bridge over the Grand Canal of Venice, which led them to being called banchieri, which translates as “bench sitters”—this is the root of the word banker and bank.
And that’s how modern banking began, from the bench sitters of Venice. From Venice the domain of the banker spread to other cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and so on.
At first, money was backed by something—metals. But then, as paper came back on the scene, once again it was creatio ex nihilio, something created out of nothing.
From there, things accelerated. The first stock market exchange appeared in 1602, and with it, the first stock market manipulation schemes showed up: first the Tulip Bubble of 1637, and then the South Seas Bubble of 1720. Both bubbles were fraudulent endeavors; many investors lost their life savings in the rush to what they believed would be the road to untold riches. One such investor who lost his life savings in the South Seas Bubble was none other than Sir Isaac Newton.
Financial bubbles are predicated on assets or goods always going up, contrary to the laws of gravity. Newton should have known this, since he wrote the book on the laws of gravity. After learning his lesson the hard way and losing his shirt, Sir Isaac said, “I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men.”
But bubbles continued, in tandem with the blind pursuit of that something that Aristotle understood to have been created out of nothing.
Once the 18th century began transitioning to the 19th century, seismic changes began taking place. Revolutions occurred in America and France; along with that, there was an economic revolution taking place—known as the Industrial Revolution.
The landscape changed entirely because of the Industrial Revolution. Peasants lost their land and livelihoods and moved to cities, where jobs were aplenty in factories. Now they could be compensated in paper money, bringing forth the new era of wage-labor, which some derisively called slave-labor.
As one century turned into another, two books were written—one in the latter part of the 18th century, one in the second half of the 19th century, that attempted to codify this economic revolution.
The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 and written by Adam Smith, was the first book to explain the laws of capitalism, although Smith never used that term. And Das Kapital, published in 1867 and written by Karl Marx, was the first book to look at an alternative to capitalism, what Marx called socialism.
Through it all, paper money now was king. In the decades preceding the Civil War in the U.S., money was being printed by everyone and their mother, leading to over 8,000 different currencies existing in the nation. As expected, pure financial chaos ensued: imagine traveling from Toledo, Ohio with a pocketful of Toledo money and landing in Chicago, where your cash was no good, because Chicago ran on Chicago money.
After the Civil War, this insanity ended with the issuance of money consolidated into one, and only one, national currency.
A new era in the U.S. began post-Civil War, one that allowed a small minority to pursue and garner enormous fortunes. Unfortunately, while a small minority grew obscenely wealthy, the great majority of people starved; meanwhile, politicians were happy to take bribes and pass laws that favored the few over the many.
No one was immune to being captive to money. It was burning a hole in everyone’s soul.
The Chinese knew what money could do to a person, when they decided to eliminate it in the 14th century. The Incas of South America, during their time in the 15th and 16th centuries, also grasped what money could and couldn’t do and created a money-less society, one that has been said to be one of the most successful economies in history. Key to their civilization was that all basic needs were met—people received free clothes, food, housing, health care, and schooling.
But nowadays, everything is subordinate to money: if you want your basic needs met, you have to come up with the dough. And if you can’t, then you may just end up on the streets.
While in contemporary times most people are slaves to money, there are the privileged few who have conquered it. They are the money people, the financiers and captains of industry; they know perfectly well the laws of creatio ex nihilio, that something can be created out of nothing. Because they do it day in and day out.
To these victors go the spoils. They know that whatever they can imagine, they can manifest, and whatever they can manifest, they can monetize, and whatever they can monetize, they can bank.
Those who have conquered money control it. And those who control money control the world. They are not scientists or economists or bankers or businessmen or financiers. They are shamans, people who have tricked us and convinced us of their fiction, that money is king and they run the show.
But they do not. We are not their pawns. Money is a fiction. It is not how we define ourselves, no matter what the money conquerors want you to believe.
Why should we be slaves to something that is a fiction? We are the masters of our own destiny.
Money is not the root of all evil, it is just a tool. As are so many other things that can help us on the path to self-mastery. The money shamans can create and destroy the world a thousand times over, but they will never own you. Or me.
And this is what the Chinese of the 14th century knew, as did the Incas of the 15th and 16th centuries.
The Inca empire ended when the Spanish conquistadors came. The conquistadors were amazed by what they saw and how the Inca people conducted themselves and ran their economy—it was based on sharing, caring, collaborating, and cooperating. The conquistadors wanted to be a part of that and share in it too. But they were blinded by the riches, the gold. They just couldn’t let go of their hubris and greed and took all they could pillage for themselves.
The conquistadors were slaves to money. And the same goes for the money conquerors of today. They are not masters of the universe; instead they are the slaves. They are the miserable ones who cannot see beyond their fiction. They have created a world that makes no sense, one in which to them, money is prime.
They are the ones who have sacrificed their souls to the fiction of a made up thing, something that’s been created out of nothing.
Can we live without money in this day and age? At some point in the future, perhaps we will: in science fiction lore, in the 24th century, the Star Trek Federation had a money-less society.
In the interim, while we wait to evolve to the Star Trek ideal, there is a way forward in our current age: we make money more egalitarian in nature by treating people as part of the public trust. What this means is that all aspects of society that serve people’s basic needs—clothes, food, housing, health care, schooling, and more—are available for everyone without any intermediary financial transaction.
This will entail a new paradigm and a new economic model. But it’s actually an old economic model, one that has been considered one of the most successful economies in history.
This model was the manner in which the Incas practiced the art of living. It may be time to study and understand that way more fully, and to make it a reality.