Frozen Desire: The Psychology of Money

Frozen Desire: The Psychology of Money

by Buchan


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374159092
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/01/1997
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.35(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.15(d)

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Mineral Stones

Money, which we hope to see and hold every day, is diabolically hard to comprehend with words. Throughout history, men and women have identified money with gold, silver, coins and banknotes, or applied to it attributes of weight or colour or feel that belonged properly only to the money they happened to be using. To many generations gold and silver appeared to be money in a very particular sense: Ibn Khaldun, the medieval philosopher of Muslim history, said God had given humanity those 'mineral stones' as ideals to which all earthly treasure could aspire. Yet in time they were revealed as mere substances that derived their prestige not from some inner secret in their metal but from their ancient use as money.

When Stanley set out to find Livingstone in East Africa in 1871, he took with him three types of money -- wire, cloth and beads -- because, at the level of his consciousness where money and Africa had their existence, those seemed to be what Africans would make of the gold, silver and copper of Victorian London and post-bellum New York. As it turned out, he did not use much of this money -- if that's what it was -- lugged by two hundred porters half-way across the continent, but had resort to another nineteenth-century currency, the bullet.

From our vantage, we can see that money is of no particular substance and may be of no substance at all; that whatever money is, it may be embodied in coins or shells, knives, salt, axes, skins, iron, rice mahogany, tobacco, cases of gin; in persons; in a word or gesture, paper, plastic, electronic impulses or the silver ingots raced through the streets on trays at sundown to make up accounts between the foreign banks in my mother's father's days in Hangkow. Over time, money has shed its qualities, as a suitcase caught in the door of a moving train scatters possessions, and the only attribute of a modern piece of money is its quantity, its oneness or fiveness or fiftyness: everything else about it is redundant or tasteless ornament. Adjectives of quality applied to money -- good, bad, sound, cheap, dear, funny -- are nowadays, mere descriptions of quantity: they tell us only how much money there is about.

Over the ages, men and women have racked their brains to understand why things sell for such an amount of money and not for another. Philip VI of France declared that something was worth what he said it was worth, on account of his being the King. The economists sought to pierce the forms of money and things bought for money and extract a permanent reality; but their theories of value turned into one of the great wild-goose chases in the history of thought; and their discoveries -- Value! Labor! Utility! Marginal Utility! -- were probably only synonyms of money. In truth, value can only be a mental attitude, sometimes shared by people, sometimes not: Proust showed that in the first volume of Le Cote de Guermantes, where the sexual favour of an actress in a suburban lane is dear at twenty francs to one man, but has cost the man beside him more than a million. As for utility, if that truly were the counterpart of money in the world, then, as Davanzati put it, men would pray to bellowing, not golden, calves. Dejected, the economists constructed cumbersome functional definitions of money which could barely accommodate Gold Standard sterling; and were helpless when confronted, at the turn of the twentieth century, by leering objects that appeared to be forms of money, such as the immense stone rings displayed or transported by the Yap people of the Caroline Islands.

'It is a natural resource.' De Quincey wrote, 'that whatsoever we find it difficult to investigate as a result, we endeavour to follow as a growth. Failing analytically to probe its nature, historically we seek relief to our perplexities by tracing its origin,' But there was no relief to be found in ancient history. Numismatists cannot agree about the origin of coinage, let alone money. Rebuffed as to money's form, content and origins, we are left merely with its effects, which are overpowering, It seems humanity inhabits a world of whose most important component it is wholly ignorant.

Yet almost all human beings have a vivid sense of what money is, for it arises in their innermost nature: their sense of Self as nurtured by possession. They recognise that modern moneys are disintegrating, often convulsively, and that the promise-to-pay on modern banknotes is just a dreary central banker's witticism: if you present the Bank of England with a five-pound note, it will give you a duplicate or its complement in base-metal change. Yet money itself has untroubled existence in their minds.

For just as a word describes more than its vowels and consonants, is a symbol of a particular existence in the world on which at least two people agree, and will convey a notion of that existence, without the bother of building it or transporting it to view; so money is not just its particular form but a symbol of something else in the world, something desirable. The difference between a word and a piece of money is that money has always and will always symbolise different things to different people: a banknote may describe to one person a drink in a pub, a fairground ride to another, to a third a diamond ring, an act of charity to a fourth, relief from prosecution to a fifth and, to a sixth, simply the sensations of comfort or security.

For money is incarnate desire. Money takes wishes, however vague or trivial or atrocious, and broadcasts them to the world, like the Mayday of a ship in difficulties. Unlike the mayday, it appeals not to sensations of individual benevolence or common humanity (which the philosophers since Machiavelli have anyway attempted to deny); but offers a reward that is not in any sense fixed or finite -- there is no objective or invariable value in money -- but that every person is free to imagine in the realm of his own desires.

That process of wish and imagination, launched or completed a million times every second, is the engine or our civilisation. While barter seeks to match two wishes and annul them, money survives each sale or payment and must be deployed by its new holder or it ceases to be money. In thus mobilising wishes, money sets people and matter in motion, has made great cities, railroads, satellites in the heavens, phantom warehouses of computing power, systems of law and equity, gardens, immense and long-winded corporations, sanguinary wars, monuments of architecture, teeming populations. Edward Gibbon, writing in the eighteenth century, compared the spread of money with the spread of writing and used a sentence of which any writer would be proud:

Money, to use an old-fashioned mechanical metaphor, has become a sort of railway shunting yard which is for ever receiving the wishes and dreams of countless people and despatching them to unimagined destinations.

Thus modern money's lack of content, however repugnant to the scientific, is the key to its employment. If a money has a use other than as money, as a cow and a hoe and a piece of gold have other uses, it cannot carry the impression of such uncountable and varied wishes: its boorish or ornamental nature will in time get in the way. Likewise if a money is felt to have a solemn purpose, such as the Maundy Money of the English monarch or the cases of gin given to the parents of a bride in the Nigeria of the 1920s. For the objects of human desire are limitless, or rather limited only by the imagination, which amounts to the same thing. Money has expanded over history to accommodate not only larger possession but ever bolder flights of imaginative desire. In the process, it unites society more effectively than tyranny or blood; for in taking money, you deliver yourself up to the other users of money, accept their freedom to choose, their frivolity and selfishness, their universal subjection to desire, their humanity. When Crusoe returns to the wreck and picks up his money, his creator lets all the air out of the story: the reader now knows that the island cannot be deserted.

In Cambodia in the 1970s, a group of revolutionaries of Maoist vintage abolished every symbol of civilian life, including cities and money. In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded their neighbour and scattered the Khmer Rouge. Money flowed back in like the tide up a creek. Someth May, who had survived abominable years in the Khmer Rouge labour camps, recorded the moment:

Here, money is not simply a commercial appearance. The actual delectation, utility, value or convenience of the objects bought for money -- those old chains, Hondas, jeans, fags -- are, as Someth makes admirably clear, quite accidental. In his bewilderment and overwhelming relief, he recognises pretty women and sapphires as simply aspects of a metaphysical identity which is nothing less than the Self: the reality of the will, dominion over phenomena, and selection out of the eeire, silent, starving, black-pyjama-clad crowd.

Of such things is money made.

The most enduring theories of the origin of money, in the West, the Muslim world and China, found themselves on what Adam Smith called the division of labour. Sheikh Abu al-Fadl Jaafar al-Dimishqi, who wrote an Arabic treatise on commerce that can be dated after A.D. 860 and before A.D. 1174 from the coins he talks about, said money was invented by a super-race of early men, whom he calls in Arabic the awail, the first ones, to create a system of equivalences. Life is too short, he writes, for a man to master all the occupations of civil existence and therefore:

That view of money's invention, as spontaneous, careful and rational, probably derives from classical antiquity. In the essay called The Politics, which Aristotle composed about 330 B.C. or just at the moment when the liberties he was celebrating were about to be destroyed by Alexander the Great, Aristotle asked the question -- Why did humanity invent money? -- and came up with the answer: Men invented money, and then coinage, to make possible an international division of labour:

Like his master, Plato, and like Dimishqi and Adam Smith later, Aristotle assumed that men did things for good reason: there had to be money, just as there had to be a state, because of the division of tasks among men and women according to their different aptitudes. Aristotle, of course, didn't know the history of money any better than his successors. He knew no archaeology, but he knew logic, which he uses as the archaeologist uses his trowel: he gives logical reasons why money might have appeared useful to the men and women of earlier generations. Likewise Sima Qian, writing in China in the early first century B.C., argued that money had come into being 'long ago and far away' once commerce had been established between the country and the town." All those writers assume a high degree of civility in early society: they project back their civilisations -- Glasgow of the 1770s, the medieval Levant, fourth-century B.C. Athens, Han China -- onto the remote past.

Money may be older than writing but we will never know: an archaeologist may think an object he finds is an old money, but he cannot know it is without an inscription to tell him so. Cuneiform inscriptions from Mesopotamia, dated to the third millennium B.C., record the weighing-out of barley for taxes, rents and compensations; the Chinese writing system, developed in the next millennium, uses the symbol of a cowrie shell in characters relating to the notions of treasure, giving and payment. The Old Testament has many references to payments of silver, for example the twenty shekels' weight for which Joseph was sold by his brothers to Midianite merchants."

The earliest European written records make no mention of money. Great numbers of clay tablets unearthed at the beginning of this century in the Greek Peloponnese and in Crete, and inscribed with a script the archaeologists called Linear B. were partially deciphered in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick and revealed as inventories. Chadwick called them 'the account-books of a long-forgotten people': lists of women, children, tradesmen, rowers, troops, flocks of sheep and goats, grain, oil, spices, land leases and yields, tribute, ritual offerings, cloth, vessels, furniture, bronze, chariots, helmets. But there was evidently no money. We have not, said Ventris, 'been able to identify payment in silver and gold for services rendered.' There was no evidence 'of anything approaching currency. Every commodity is listed separately, and there is never any sign of equivalence between one unit and another.' The tablets seem to reflect some sort of feudal system of land tenure and service, but we cannot be more precise.

In Homer, there does seem to be money of a sort. Classical scholars agree -- usually a dangerous thing, but perhaps not here -- that the Iliad is a poem or song; that it was not written down at the moment of composition, like the verses Goethe scratched one evening with his diamond ring on the pane of a forester's hut; but evolved over time and was first given its physical form as late as five centuries after it first took shape in memory. In the Iliad, in whose crepuscular splendour we seem to see reflected the technical glory of the Greek Bronze Age, possessions and slaves are transferred according to a standard of quantity, cattle; but there is no passage where cattle are actually used for payment, as by the modern Masai: the Greeks always give something 'worth so many head of cattle' in exchange, not 'so many head of cattle.'

Table of Contents

1. Mineral Stones17
2. Thirty Pieces of Silver36
3. An Idea of Order in Borgo Sansepolero50
4. A Disease of the Heart73
5. The Floating World96
6. Mississippi dreaming: On the Fame of John Law127
7. Coined Liberty: His and Hers152
8. Death in Dean St184
9. The Sheet of Glass208
10. Mississippi Dreaming: Reprise220
11. The Sinews of War244
12. Money: A Valedictorian268

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