While the economic crisis is ravaging Athens and other Greek cities, there are small Greek islands in the Aegean where life goes on, fresh produce is still plentiful and many of the people remain blissfully unaware that there is a financial crisis. Similarly, the disembancados of Mexico lived through the collapse of the peso in 1994 without giving it much notice. They get along without using much money at all, by growing and catching their own food and bartering with their neighbors.
Lack of money makes certain things very difficult. Examples include gambling, loan sharking, extortion, bribery and fraud. It also makes it more difficult to hoard wealth, or to extract it from a community and ship it somewhere else in a conveniently compact form.
When we use money, we cede power to those who create money (by creating debt) and who destroy money (by cancelling debt). We also empower the ranks of people whose expertise lies in the manipulation of arbitrary rules and arithmetic abstractions rather than in engaging directly with the physical world. This veil of metaphor allows them to hide appalling levels of violence, representing it symbolically as a mere paper-shuffling exercise. People, animals, entire ecosystems become mere numbers on a piece of paper. On the other hand, this ability to represent dissimilar object using identical symbols causes a great deal of confusion.
For instance, I have heard rather intelligent people declare that government funds that had been allocated to making failed financial institutions look solvent could have been so much better spent feeding widows and orphans. There is no understanding that astronomical quantities of digits willed into existence and transferred between computers do not directly nourish anyone, because food cannot be willed into existence by a central banker or anyone else and because nature, with its frosts, heat waves, droughts and floods, does not respond to price signals.
The main tools of modern finance are mystification, obfuscation and hypnosis. The great mystery of money, to most people, is the sacrament of money creation. The high priest pushes a button and, ex-nihilo and seemingly effortlessly, generates more of that which we all want to have more of. This is indeed an impressive trick: what we struggle to earn by the sweat of our brow, the high priest blithely summons into existence with the help of a cryptic incantation. It is more advanced than a shaman’s rain dance and far more reliable – to a point.
Obfuscation comes from the use of mathematical formulate that few people understand. Even fewer understand their implications and how they (persistently fail to) map onto the physical world. The key formula of finance – debt raised to the power of time – is the ticking time bomb inside all of our modern financial arrangements.