Money & Us – a chronicle by Floor Basten

Our relationship with money seems to be quite problematic. Not just these days, when Capitalism with a big C is put forward as either savior or destroyer of human kind, but from early times onwards our relationship with money has always been rather uneasy and troublesome. We humans struggle with many concepts, like love and treason and possession. But none of these concepts are so materialized that you can actually hold it in your hand like money. Our worrisome relationship with our physical environment is of rather recent years. In contrast, our troublesome relationship with money started from the day we invented it. Why is that?

Money has never been neutral. It has always been and still is a representation of something else. This ‘something else’ is the desired object and where there’s desire, there’s value and… trouble. So money is about value and value is a slippery term, because it’s both hyper subjective and super social. Some of us feel the need to act as judges in the values game, and decide which values matter and should as such be strived for. Who are these people? Well, Greek philosophers, of course. They had an educated opinion just about everything, and so they had ideas about money too. Or to be more precise, about wealth. Wealth is a desirable state of being, but the problem is that it’s scarce once it is narrowed down to materialism. Plato reportedly said, “Money-makers are tiresome company, as they have no standard but cash value.” In around 300 BCE Epicurus created a garden for self-maintenance and sobriety, where he and his fellows could study the world without worldly interruptions.

Even before the Greeks, the classic Chinese text Dao De Jing, dated from the sixth century BC, stated that the three greatest treasures one can have are love, frugality, and generosity. In verse 59, it says

In leading people and serving heaven

it is best to be frugal.

Being frugal is to be prepared from the start.

Being prepared from the start is to build up power.

By building up power nothing is impossible.

If nothing is impossible, then there are no limits.

Those without limits are capable of leading a country.

Those with maternal leadership can long endure.

This is to be deeply rooted in a firm foundation,

the way of long life and eternal vision.

Religions gave money some thought too, as they stress the value of solidarity and helping each other with charity, and as they condemn money as a goal in itself. Greed is a sin. All world religions prescribe rules about how to use money and all world religions also condemn usury, the charging of interest. “He who lives by usury in this world shall not live in the world to come”, warns the Torah. And Jesus advises in the Gospel of Thomas, “If you have money, do not lend it at interest. Rather, give to someone from whom you will not get it back.” Siddharta Gautama Buddha, in his sermon on the Eightfold Path, defines wrong livelihood as “Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, and charging interest.” “Allah does not bless charging interest”, spells the Quran, and in a similar tone Vasishtha says in The Sacred Laws of the Aryas, “A Brâhmana and a Kshatriya shall not lend anything at interest… ‘He who acquiring property cheap, gives it for a high price, is called a usurer and blamed among those who recite the Veda.’”

Usury was universally condemned, but in early sixteenth century Europe, trade and commerce had developed in such a fashion, that Christian theologians began to feel the urge of a revaluation of usury. Why not allow it for lending within the margins of reason? Why not allow it for business or commercial purposes? And why not allow it under the condition of low interest rates? The protestant reformer John Calvin established seven rules under which usury was prohibited, a clear step away from the universal ban it knew before. And in 1545, the English Parliament passed ‘An Act Against Usury’, the first legal statute that allowed usury and provided for an interest rate ceiling.

From old times to the present day, money is a powerful tool for trade and as such it reinforces the social. As ‘the social’ isn’t inherently good or bad, money is used for both and so it can be beneficial and detrimental. The current discourse about social economy and social enterprise, and the many initiatives popping up, are putting money under critical scrutiny once again.