Money Makes The World Go Round

In my previous blog You Don’t Own Me I cited the work of anthropologist David Graeber and his very big book Debt: The First 5000 Years. It’s not quite 5000 pages long but in his tome he explores the origins of money in debt, war and slavery. He suggests that debt existed before money and human societies have been divided between debtors and creditors for a long time. Debt peonage is when someone has to pay off their debts by working for someone else (i.e. if they can’t afford to pay off their debt with cash). It’s also known as debt slavery and people have been doing it throughout history – the priests of Sumerian temples would make peasants work the land and pay with produce in return for being able to live on the land and the Romans would often enslave those they captured and make them work in their houses. Slavery is the ultimate form of ‘ownership’ whereby someone has complete power over someone else’s life (the slave ‘owes’ their life to the their master). However, slavery wasn’t the only way to increase one’s power, money was also a good mechanism.

Let’s say the Roman Empire is expanding and they’ve just conquered Britain, the Roman Emperor won’t want to kill all the Britons because not only will many of them make good house slaves but they can also be used to ensure the British economy keeps going. Of course, that’s a British economy that now serves Rome. What the Emperor does is issue all his soldiers with Roman coins which he can let them spend in Britain. The soldiers will be expected to pay tax and they have to do that with Roman coins, so coinage in this regards is a good way of ensuring the soldier’s money goes back into the Roman Empire’s economy. Meanwhile, the Britons that haven’t been enslaved will want to attract the custom of the soldiers so they’ll get busy making and selling stuff for the soldiers, which will be paid for with Roman coins. Furthermore, the Emperor might also wish to impose a debt on Britain – the war machine costs a lot of money and invading Britain proved quite expensive, so he’ll make them pay it back. Yup, the conqueror is enforcing a debt on the people he just conquered. He can do this because he’s the winner and he’s got all the power in terms of brute military strength (the soldiers) and economically (in terms of all the Roman coins). So this is how you grow an Empire – conquer people, expand your currency and force your conquests into debt. It adds a twist to the famous phrase “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”…or in debt perhaps.

And so on and so on for thousands of years argues Graeber. Even now we still live in a time of debt – whether it’s the banks offering giant loans to help people buy houses or it’s the World Bank loaning money to developing nations to help them get on their feet whilst ensuring they’ll be in debt for years. However, things are different now because the value of a currency is no longer defined in terms of some underlying precious material (i.e. gold) for which it could be exchanged. It’s not as if for every £5 we have there’s a £5 amount of gold hidden in a vault somewhere. We don’t have real money anymore, instead we have virtual money that exists as numbers on a screen. Sure, we still use coins and notes but those things themselves are worthless, it’s what they stand for that counts. However, as money is virtual it theoretically means there is no limit to how much money we can have – numbers on a screen are limitless after all. So we can keep spending more and more and getting in bigger and bigger amounts of debt for longer and longer, hurrah!

But why this brief history of money? Because money has been and continues to be a big deal – it makes the world go round, or so Liza Minelli sings in Cabaret. Currently, the US dollar is the most powerful currency in the world and the States put a lot of effort into ensuring it remains so (read that as military force, foreign policy and diplomatic effort). Money is one of the most important numbers we’ve got – it’s how we value almost everything, from the price of a lemon through to the price of an hour of someone’s labour. And because money has been such a big part of our societies for so long its effects have reached far beyond the economic realm into the political and personal realms as well. To be continued…

Was Agatha Christie An Anarchist?

A toffish cad. A louche adventurer. A religious spinster. A pompous war general. A Harley Street doctor. A private investigator. A self-important judge. A teacher at a private girls’ school. A supercilious butler. A jittery maid. Yup, it’s the characters of And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie’s most successful murder mystery novel. Now, many of us will know Agatha Christie not only for her ingenious twists but also her racism, homophobia and sexism. She might have been ahead of her time in terms of plot devices but she certainly wasn’t when it came to values. However, it’s always the ones we least suspect and I think that behind all the casual bigotry lay an undercover anarchist. Here’s why (with big spoilers but I certainly won’t reveal whodunnit).

It starts with that cast of ten characters – between them they represent the British establishment: there’s inherited wealth, colonialism, imperialism, religion, the military, the justice system, private school, wilful/enforced servitude, the class divide and the law (perhaps there should be an MP there too but inherited wealth and private school pretty much cover that one). They are also predominantly male and all are white. So they’re everyone wrong with elitism and all are incredibly nasty people – not least in personality but also because each one of them is guilty of murder. Yup, as if being bigoted snobs weren’t enough they’re also killers and many of them show no remorse for it – turns out there’s such a thing as daylight murder as well as daylight robbery.

So this just basically sounds like yet another homage to posh, British people a la Downton Abbey, Brideshead Revisited and any Tom Stoppard/Noel Coward play. But because it’s Christie and because she really couldn’t let ten terrible people get away with murder she does something your typical English-aristocracy-tribute doesn’t do – she kills them all. That’s right, one by one they get picked off, in increasingly brutal fashion, by an unknown killer on some sort of deranged vendetta. So that’s how Christie treats her posh people and for me nothing could scream undercover anarchist more loudly. Of course, anarchists don’t condone murder but they do condone a complete overhaul of the establishment and what better way to do that than metaphorically bump off all the usual, elitist suspects – the ones with the vested interests that keep society unfairly rigged in the favour of the 1%.

Convinced? Probably not. But post-colonial, feminist revisions are always fun, next time I’ll apply the queer gaze. Although before I do that I should probably lay my cards on the table and confess to being a huge Christie fan – whilst I can’t help but feel she had similar views to her characters (but perhaps not, Hercule Poirot was a refugee after all and made a habit out of standing over the dead bodies of rich Brits) she was the mistress of the red herring and surprise ending. The trick now is to take those plot devices and place them firmly in the 21st century, to ensure curtains for bigotry as well as all those nasty, murderous elites. Oh, and the BBC are showing this Christie classic at the moment, it even stars Poldark!

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/5d1f01b367318717fa96fb7d18d6ec5e6568d0d3/0_0_4284_2856/master/4284.jpg?w=620&q=85&auto=format&sharp=10&s=3edcc85717f2d2d6ac96224642c880f4
When Brits go abroad they don’t come back…