Grace, the Australian singer, recently covered Lesley Gore’s ace 1963 single You Don’t Own Me and it sure gets the feminist feet stomping. Each inspiring verse is interspersed with some sexist thoughts from rapper G-Eazy (Sl-Eazy more like it) as he tries to assert his male dominance over the woman he “would love to flaunt” as she’s not one of your average “basic bitches”. Indeed, she’s the “baddest ever…Never borrow, she ain’t ever loan, That’s when she told me she ain’t ever ever ever gonna be owned.” Then Grace blasts back with a booming chorus and puts Mr Misogynist back in his place. But all this singing of possession makes me wonder exactly what ownership actually is?
Why is it that Grace needs to assert that someone else does not own her? How could the scenario even have arisen in which people come to think that they actually own others? Part of the answer (and I reckon quite a big part) is, unsurprisingly, to do with money. As a brief scan of anthropologist David Graeber’s 500+ page book called Debt reveals, money has played an integral part of human society for hundreds of years. Economists tend to tell us that money came into being when barter systems got too confusing – if I give you ten oranges, three pigeons and a mug in return for a pair of shoes, two bananas and a kitten…but instead of all that faffing about with oranges and bananas a different system of exchange was introduced whereby something came to act as a store of value. It could be a coin, a rod of iron or a piece of paper, as long as everyone agreed that the values remained consistent and commensurate over time.
But, argues Graeber, that fictional land of peaceful and friendly barter didn’t exist, as least not on a large-scale. Instead, he argues that money grew out of debt. Take the Roman Empire for example – when they invaded a new territory they would often turn their captives into slaves. Slavery is the ultimate form of ownership as it rips someone from their social context and ties them to someone else. The alternative to being enslaved was basically death or slowly, slowly buying back one’s freedom by working long and hard enough. A slave owed their life to their master but only because the master had the power. Money itself is also debt. On a £10 note it says: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the some of ten pounds.” The actual piece of paper is worthless but it’s what it stands for – i.e. that these items or services are all worth £10. Money is one giant system of IOUs. However, it’s clearly not an arbitrary system because there’s a whole system of banking, policing and law-making to ensure that people pay their debts.
So, concludes Graeber, behind money is debt and behind debt is power, and the history accords with this – the economic power of the Roman Empire depended on its military strength because it had to have a way of enforcing its debts, having a giant army helped with this. And something similar is true today, only those with power can call in their debts and this power usually involves violence or the threat of it. G-Eazy says that Grace is an independent woman “All because she got her own dough, Boss bossed if you don’t know, She could never ever be a broke ho”. And that certainly is one way of getting out of slavery, by making lots of money, but humans existed long before money and whilst we do put a price on freedom and maintain that price with force it’s still just a system of belief, albeit a very powerful and tragic one. But maybe there’s a different way. More ideas to come, in the meantime here’s the original, without G-Eazy offering us his sexist thoughts in between the good bits.