Monetary System Has Changed Society's Meaning of Poverty

by Don Malcolm

The world’s most powerful governments are proud to declare that they are fi ghting a global war on poverty. They back their rhetoric with foreign aid in the form of massive expenditures of public money, surplus goods, and often, military assistance, commonly known as peacekeeping. 

Almost daily, throughout the world, newspapers and television screens are fi lled with graphic images of poverty- stricken and starving populations. And people reach into their meager savings or fat bank accounts to send money to ease the suffering. For a brief time the hunger and deprivations are eased in a targeted area. But the poverty marches on, to overtake another population somewhere else on its global migration, as it has throughout recorded history. 

Historically, populations have experienced poverty from such incidents as fi res, fl oods, drought, swarms of insects or invading armies, any of which could seriously affect the livelihood of communities or whole populations. But in the distant past, recovery from impoverishment may have been a much simpler matter than in present times. To some degree, populations were communal and had their time-tested methods of coping with adversity. In many by Don Malcolm cases they could simply re-establish their methods and systems on their own familiar territories. 

A signifi cant historical event would change the dimension of poverty. 

In 650 BC, Lydia (Asia Minor) began minting coins, followed by Greece in 600 BC. Coins were, in their beginning, minted and owned by kings and emperors who handed them off to their minions as payment for special services. Soon kings and emperors no longer found it necessary to lead their armies into battle to expand their territories. They could stay at home with clean hands while minions marched off to war with the promise of the king’s coin as incentive. 

Money would become, to humanity, the equivalent of the sword hanging by a single hair above the head of Damocles. 

Gradually, money worked its way into and throughout populations until it became a common medium of exchange. It was an easily portable purchasing-power, freeing people from the cumbersome necessity of herding live sheep or goats to pay for pottery, fabrics or other goods in areas where those items were produced. Wool could be shorn from sheep when it was at prime value and exchanged for money, which could be used to purchase items long after the contributing sheep were eaten. People began to trade labour for money. They began to save money, hidden away in secret places. They began to dream of, and reach for, personal independence. The security of communal systems was lost. The door to personal wealth opened ever so slightly and the seeds of a new form of poverty blew in on the winds of change. 

Some, by skill, manipulation, or the use of weapons were able to fi nd success in the blossoming monetary system and the greater portion of the money supply ended up in their hands. The seeds of the new poverty sprouted and took root. 

Although meager amounts of money trickled down to those on the lower rungs of the social ladder, it never allowed those on the bottom to gain even a toe-hold on the lowest rung. In fact, serfdom, a system existing in Europe in the Middle Ages right up to the 19th century, held people in virtual bondage. Serfs worked on feudal estates and passed with the land from one owner to another. 

In succeeding centuries since its beginning, money would fi nance the building of great castles, estates, cities and empires. Ships from the more powerful maritime countries prowled the oceans, authorized by letters of marque, attacking ships of neighbouring kingdoms, plundering their cargos and carrying the booty home to enrich the coffers of their respective sovereigns. Teen-aged boys were kidnapped off the streets of major seaports to form working crews for the ships. They received no pay, were fed only enough to keep them functional, and only the very lucky survived to return home. 

Booty could include spices, foods, precious metals, jewels, and even the ships that came off second best in the encounters. 

Countries of Western Europe engaged heavily in ship-building. England, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal severely depleted their timber supply in order to increase their presence on the world’s oceans. Ships went out under the guise of voyages of discovery, their captains claiming, in the names of their sovereigns and countries, all the newly discovered lands, whether or not they already contained existing populations. 

The indigenous peoples of (present day) Africa, North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand suffered greatly under the European land grab. Their communal systems were crushed. Newcomers appropriated their traditional homelands. People who had occupied the lands for uncounted generations were marginalized. 

Recognizing the potential wealth that could be gained from the newly “discovered” lands, the sea-going nations of the world engaged in a frantic competitive rush of exploitation. 

Colonies were established to facilitate exploitation. Immigration would bring permanent settlement. Farms and villages claimed the virgin wilderness and changed forever the lives of the original inhabitants. 

The lust for money would usher in one of the blackest, most shameful periods in the history of the last fi ve hundred years. 

Following closely the disruption of the lives of the native peoples in all of the “new found” lands of the discovery period, came the slave trade. Ships outbound from European countries stopped on the west coast of Africa where slavers held captive Africans in confi nement. There the captives, torn away from home and loved ones with no chance of ever seeing them again, were loaded into the holds of the ships and carried away to be sold into slavery in North and South America. 

From Europe to the Americas, the Atlantic Ocean became a circular trade route. Ships sailing out from Europe proceeded down the African coast where they loaded slaves to be sold in the Americas. On the return trip to Europe they carried spices, exotic foods, cotton, rum, sugar and anything else that could be sold in the home market. The circular trade route greatly increased the wealth of many Europeans. 

Since the minting of those fi rst coins more than twenty-six centuries ago, the world’s monetary wealth has increased to an amount that leaves our imagination staggering to comprehend. Yet it appears world poverty is increasing exponentially and no matter how much money we spend the problem gets worse. Perhaps we will be forced to conclude that money itself is the problem. Money we spend to fi ght poverty works its way up the ladder to the top of the money pile while poverty stays on the ground. The very nature of a monetary system demands and guarantees that. 

The single hair that suspends the sword of Damocles above the head of humanity grows weak. We are drilling to the bowels of the earth for the last drop of oil. We are ravaging our forests with over-cutting, polluting our fi shspawning streams with mine tailings, and our food producing farms with poisonous chemicals. We work in frenzy to convert the world’s common wealth to personal wealth. 

The monetary system demands exponential growth. That growth is fueled by a fi nite environment. We should do the arithmetic on that. 

Let’s suppose that as we sleep tonight, a miracle occurs. We all wake up millionaires tomorrow. How much will it cost for breakfast?


[From WS May/July 2005]

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