All that glitters . . .
Most workers find it hard to imagine how man could possibly live without money. Money holds so much power only because in capitalism, for the first time in man’s social evolution, the worker is completely divorced from the product of his labour. It is true that he still produces indirectly for his own needs, but in order to get hold of these needs, he must first have money.
Some argue that we must have money because we have always had money. But by looking at man’s social development we see that in primitive tribal society he had not yet developed an extensive means of exchange. Because the means of life were not substantial enough to support a difference of class within the tribe, that is rich and poor, all property was held in common by the tribe. In the case of the North American Indian, the hunters took what beef was needed for them and their families from the large herds of bison in the hunting grounds. Clothes and shelter were made from the skins of the animals. Little exchange was necessary and money was of no use when all requirements were to be had in the immediate vicinity of the tribe.
In the chattel slave system, the majority of the population owned nothing and indeed were themselves owned by the slaveowners. Because of the increased size of the population, and as the owners were partly divorced from the means of life, a small means of exchange was developed, based on gold, silver and bronze coinage. The great mass of exchange was by barter, although much of what was produced was consumed by the original producer, the surplus going to the slave owner.
Under the feudal system, which reached its peak in Britain after the Norman conquest, the barter method was still the main type of exchange, money only being of any use to the knights and barons who required a greater variety of goods than did the serf. The serf-family was usually almost completely self-sufficient, producing all the necessaries of life, and consuming part of what it produced, the surplus going to the landowner on whose property the serf toiled. Taxation ensured that the serf had little gold to play with.
In the later stages of feudalism, the rising merchant class used the newly discovered lands and routes to make large profits by trading cheap trinkets to the natives in exchange for valuable textiles from the East and precious metals from the West. Often, as in the conquest of Central America, no exchange was needed and the wealth of the peoples there was taken forcibly.
Some of those acts of piracy and plunder conjure up a picture which differs vastly from a quiet game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe, or of a contented old gentleman sitting in front of his fire smoking a pipe, and soaked to the skin by a bucket of water thrown at him by his servant.
These wealthy merchants formed the revolutionary bourgeoisie which became the modern capitalist class. The exceptionally complicated capitalist system required a means of exchange which would be internationally acceptable, and all currencies were based on gold.
Men have therefore become obsessed with money, which has attained the position of a god, since it is money which, in the capitalist system, becomes the real life power. Without it men must starve. It then becomes the power of humanity divorced from man, and therefore what men in themselves are unable to do is made possible by the use of money; Shakespeare realised some of these points. In his Timon of Athens he wrote:
Gold? yellow, glittering, precious gold?
I am no idle votarist: roots, you clear heavens!
Thus much of this will make black white; foul fair;
Wrong right; base noble; old young; coward valiant.
. . . Why this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides;
Pluck stout mens pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions; bless the accursed
Make the hoar leprosy adored; place thieves,
And give them title, knee, and approbation,
With senators on the bench: this is it
That makes the wappened widow wed again
She whom the spittal house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices To the April day again. Come, damned earth, ‘
Thou common whore of mankind, that putt’st odds
Among the rout of nations, I will make thee
Do thy right nature.
But what of money in the next stage of human evolution — Socialism? Why should it not still be required? When men produce for their own needs, and not for the benefit of a handful of exploiters as they have done since primitive times, when national boundaries disappear and the world’s wealth is owned in common, when competition gives way to cooperation, then exchange relationships disappear. And so, as money can only exist in a private society, it must vanish with private property.