Dreams of Avarice

Imagine a world with no money. For over a hundred years, Communists and anarchists – not to mention some extreme reactionaries, religious fundamentalists and hippies – have dreamt of just that. According to Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, money was merely an instrument of capitalist exploitation, replacing all human relationships, even those within the family, with the callous `cash nexus`. As Marx later sought to demonstrate in Capital, money was commoditized labour, the surplus generated by honest toil, appropriated and then `reified` in order to satisfy the capitalist class`s insatiable lust for accumulation. Such notions die hard. As recently as the 1970s, some European Communists were still yearning for a moneyless world, as in this Utopian effusion from the Socialist Standard:

Money will disappear… Gold can be reserved in accordance with Lenin`s wish, for the construction of public lavatories… In communist societies goods will be freely available and free of charge. The organization of society to its very foundations will be without money… The frantic and neurotic desire to consume and hoard will disappear. It will be absurd to want to accumulate things: there will no longer be money to be pocketed nor wage-earners to be hired… The new people will resemble their hunting and gathering ancestors who trusted in a nature which supplied them freely and often abundantly with what they needed to live, and who had no worry for the morrow…(A World without Money`, Socialist Standard (July (1979))

Yet no Communist state – not even North Korea – has found it practical to dispense with money. And even a passing acquaintance with real hunter-gatherer societies suggests there are considerable disadvantages to the cash-free life.

Five years ago, members of the Nukak-Maku unexpectedly wandered out of the Amazonian rainforest at San Jose del Guaviare in Colombia. The Nukak were a tribe that time forgot, cut off from the rest of humanity until this sudden emergence. Subsisting solely on the monkeys they could hunt and the fruit they could gather, they had no concept of money. Revealingly, they had no concept of the future either. These days they live in a clearing near the city, reliant for their subsistence on state handouts. Asked if they miss the jungle, they laugh. After lifetimes of trudging all day in search of food, they are amazed that perfect strangers now give them all they need and ask nothing from them in return.

The life of a hunter-gatherer is indeed, as Thomas Hobbes said of the state of nature, `solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short`. In some respects, to be sure, wandering through the jungle bagging monkeys may be preferable to the hard slog of subsistence agriculture. But anthropologists have shown that many of the hunter-gatherer tribes who survived into modern times were less placid than the Nukak. Among the Jivaro of Ecuador, for example, nearly 60 percent of male deaths were due to violence. The figure for the Brazilian Yanomamo was nearly 40 per cent. When two groups of such primitive peoples chanced upon each other, it seems, they were more likely to fight over scarce resources (food and fertile women) than to engage in commercial exchange. Hunter-gatherers do not trade. They raid. Nor do they save, consuming their food as and when they find it. They therefore have no need of money.

written by Niall Ferguson


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