Scandanavian Traders in 1555 exchanging goods without money.

The true origins of money

Money is a social technology that, far from emerging spontaneously from barter (as both mainstream and marxist economists claim), is deliberately created by social groups with a preexisting political organization in pursuit of a certain goal (Desan, 2014). Money dates back to a time when the market economy did not yet exist. The first forms of money were introduced in Mesopotamia 2,000 years before the first coins were minted. So, if the first forms of money could not be used to make exchanges, what were they used for?

There is evidence that early societies used money both as a way to measure the size of the life-debt that each member of the community had to pay to the gods (and their representatives on earth) and as a way to establish the penalties owed for the damages done to the community or a member of it (Geoffrey, 2004). Later on, the empires of the ancient world used money to keep a record of the goods produced and stored in their warehouses. In Mesopotamia, for instance, taxes were set in a “money of account” and paid in barley (Graeber, 2011). Money facilitated communities’ political and economic organization.

Nevertheless, there is a mainstream idea that money emerged spontaneously because of  the interaction of atomised agents that tried to overcome the inefficiencies of barter. This idea has been so powerfully embedded in the collective conscience that money is assumed to be as natural as water or air. Money is simply out there. It existed before us and will still exist after we die. Assuming that  social constructs—like money and capitalism—are natural is dangerous. This assumption rules out the possibility of questioning the current state of affairs. Contemporary money incorporates a set of values that emerged from financialization. By accepting its use (do we have any choice?) we automatically become agents of the system, we reproduce its logic and contribute to its perpetuation. Should we feel guilty about this? No. We would rather propose to be proactive and creative to discover new forms and uses for money, a new money that puts our societies into a more sustainable growth path. This is when complementary currencies come into play.


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