Money makes the world go around — or so they say. We certainly like to get our hands on money, as it is so useful for obtaining a vast array of goods and services, without any other effort or contribution to the provision of those goods and services. But how does money come into existence, who issues it, in what form and with what conditions? If we earn some money, or we take out a loan, where does the money come from?
Money allows us to buy goods and services, it is a means of exchange, and facilitates exchanges between people or organisations that cannot directly trade goods and services that both parties to the transaction want. It allows a complex economy to develop, beyond the constraints of direct barter and one-to-one exchange. It has been around for a long time, as tokens, pieces of gold or silver and notes that represented an amount of gold or other valuable resource. It can be a ledger entry of debits and credits, which record trades, as in local bookkeeping systems of Green Dollar exchanges. Mostly these days it is ledger entries on the computers of banks, which allow the account holder to make transactions by debiting their account.
An economy basically facilitates the production and transfer of modified resources or information services, and this requires a means of exchange and some rules of ownership. Ownership defines rights to natural resources and the products of economic modification, while a means of exchange allows multiple party transfers to take place across a social group or with other social groups. When ownership is not held in common it gives rise to privileged positions, with an exclusiveness of access to or utilisation of resources, such as land, forests, water or minerals, while preferential access to money or loans also bestows privileges.
When we were hunter/gatherers obtaining our needs from the local environment without significant modification there would have been little trade, and no need for any formal money system. Once we lived in settlements where there was an agricultural modification of the natural environment to obtain our food and other requirements of life, then rights of ownership developed, and trade became a significant part of an organised economy. Civilisation gave rise to a privileged class that extracted production through rights, enforced by laws or force of arms. Tokens that represented a bundle of goods or an amount of precious metal then allowed products to be purchased and exchanged for different products or services. Warriors who enforced the laws and rights of the privileged could be paid in these tokens, as could other professionals who provided services valued within a given social group.
Over time money has taken on a life of its own, but there has generally been some constraint on the issuing of money or loans. When money (as tokens, notes or bookkeeping entries) is backed by gold, then the people who have gold resources are in a privileged position, but the supply of money is limited by the amount of gold in circulation or stored in vaults. Today there is no limit on the issuing of money, and governments (as low risk borrowers, given their rights to raise taxes from their citizens) can borrow more and more, as treasury bonds, without any direct constraint.
Over the last couple of hundred years, in the capitalist world, there has been an increasing privatisation of ownership and progressive extension of the market (of monetary exchanges), allowing money (as capital) to buy ownership and extract a surplus from more and more resources and services. First land, then water rights have been privatised, and now air rights are to be privatised through carbon trading schemes. Everything it seems has to be tradable and have a monetary value — and if not, then it has no value.
At the same time there has been, first, a separation of finance from entrepreneurship or company ownership, with investment loans being provided at a fixed interest rate. Then there has been a separation of ownership and managerial control in large shareholder companies or corporations. The return to financiers arises from the interest payments they receive, and they have no (economic) reason to be concerned about the nature or impacts of the activities of the companies they lend to. Similarly shareholder returns arise from dividends, and they invest for the highest possible dividend or monetary return. They often have little say about company activities. There is then a profound disconnect between both finance and shareholding owners and the activities of these economic organisations. The quality of their goods and services, and the social and environmental impacts are of no direct concern, their only economic interest is the return on their (monetary) investment.
Money has become paramount, and a commodity where money earns money. The way to make money is through the mechanisms of money and ownership, as unearned income. Payments for the investment of past earnings, or is it?
When a bank issues a loan it does not transfer the savings of other people into the loan account. On the contrary, it creates the loan out of thin air, and then has the cheek to charge interest on that created money. It’s called fractional reserve banking, which just means that the bank only has to have a fraction of the money it lends. This loan then has to be repaid with interest, which for longer term loans may be as much or even more than the original loan or principal. Where does this extra money come from? To obtain it, further money has to be issued, which under current banking arrangements means more loans. But those loans also have an interest charge. In this way there is a spiralling expansion of the money supply, as further loans allow past interest liabilities to be paid off, but in doing so generate even more interest liability and debt. The overall debt expands, and this expansion is cumulative, driving an ever-increasing supply of money.
The overall level of debt can be reduced by monetary inflation or through bankruptcy discharge or cancellation. But if the money supply begins to decline, the capitalist world economy goes into recession. In the end, the choice is depression or hyperinflation!
This debt issue of money then drives economic growth — regardless of sense or need, everyone must work harder (or longer) and consume more. Technology is used to continually find new gadgets or high-tech services to match the additional money of this expansionary system. Population and consumption growth allows the financial system to continue to operate and bleed off its interest and dividend returns. A very small minority of people, the financial elite, then gain most of the money, and hence exchange power and access to resources.
We live in a financial empire, where control and privilege is exercised though the financial and banking system. There is no need for armed forces, just the upholding of the law by the local police, then we can all be exploited like peasants or economic slaves. We work in an economy based on hierarchy and dominance. It is a dictatorship model, and any political democracy is sidelined by the power of money.
We need to rebuild a more diverse and community centred ownership structure, based on common, public and private forms, with a diversity of means of exchange, including gift and obligations, barter and local bookkeeping or note currencies, as well as wider state and international means of exchange. The money system has no power except through our acceptance of it, and we can issue our own money for our own purposes. Let us do just that, and turn our backs on the banks and their financial empire.