This will be the last post reflecting on our recent trip to England. Fitting, as it is about the end of the world.
On our hot walk from the room to the station in Cambridge, my wife suggested we stop off at the Scott Museum of Polar Exploration. So like her, to actually look things up to know what is in town. WE took the museum in shifts, to guard our luggage. I didn’t regret it, as they had a lot of amazing artifacts and stories to tell about the former folly of exploring the world’s end. As of the 1800s, this was deadly business. Whole crews and ships were lost in the quest to reach the North and South Poles. Everything we know about protection for space exploration and endurance was learned in places like this.
One exhibit that struck me was what they traded to the I hit for help along the way to the North Pole. Not money, not gold, not even canned food, but tools. Currency had no meaning to cultures based on family and friend associations and commitments. But useful things were inherently valuable. I read* that the mania for steel tools in the Amazon rain forest was more intense than the western search for gold in its time. Try cutting a vine or a tree with a stone, bone, or even charcoal tool, and the utility of steel is immediately apparent.
The whole trip was about the portability and ease of money, because we had credit cards. I held a UK bill once, and had perhaps 50 pence in my pocket at any time. Everyplace we visited accepted credit cards, because the value of us spending money there was worth more than the nominal charge by the credit card companies. I’m sure our bill is astronomical, but we did not care nearly as much as we would have it we have to use cash pound-by-pound
I’m reading a great book about the history of Money, by Felix Martin. Money is a specific token of trust and obligation, but it must be mutually understood by all to work. In cultures without money, that trust is reputation and shared obligation. Those things still exist, but money makes the truncation impersonal and fungible. I can get money from people I’ll never meet and give it to people I just met, and we will receive each other warmly. We have money, after all.
The march of civilization with money has been the erosion of personal reputation and fixed groups to the flexible and open transaction of “tokens of respect”. This is at once anarchic and restrictive. Anarchic because money is more powerful than leaders. Daniel Radcliffe had more money than the Royal family at one point in the Harry Potter film series. Restrictive because its judgment is total. A virtuous person is worthless unless they can afford to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. When we traded in reputation only, we were taken care of as part of the group, but we knew our place in the group. Money breaks all that down. We are free to amass as much as we’d like and others will let us, but there is no floor to fall upon. Without money, we are nothing.
* Routes of Man, Ted Conover, I believe