This is probably the first and last time you will witness a bible quote from me, however, the ‘good book’ states in 1 Timothy 6:10; ‘For the love of money is the root of all evil’. Now I have no idea who really wrote it, as you have possibly noticed I am not remotely religious, but in all honesty they may have been on to something. Using a more reliable source, namely those great Swedish philosophers ABBA, who sang quite prophetically ‘we are living in a rich man’s world’, were right on the money, excuse the pun. The question is, why do we allow this to happen and on a more basic level is money useful?
This thought occurred to me whilst walking home from the university library in Auckland on route back to my flat. As per usual I was passed by a selection of motor vehicles, some flash and others shall we say functional. When a thought occurred to me; why does all this matter? To be clear this wasn’t an epiphany that would suddenly result in the shedding of my clothes for robes, traipsing off to say Bhutan and giving away the remaining $16.72 of my bank account to the first person I met in the street. However, from a functional, moral, equitable and human perspective; why does all this materiality matter?
From a biological perspective we need food, water and sleep to survive. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs there are other basic activities on the bottom of this pyramid; however, we could all agree that without these 3 listed above we would die sooner rather than later.
So as we look from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, a significant portion of you may have noticed something vital missing, an object so ingrained in our very being that we fail to function without it; you’ve guessed it money, at no point according to Mr Maslow do we need money. There are lots of lovely humane, psychological, practical, philosophical, moral and collective soul building concepts in there, but no money. Surely if we need it so much, if it is so fundamental to our society that we even measure our nation’s success by it, in the form of gross domestic product (GDP), I like to emphasize the ‘gross’ part of this, it should be there right? How could this be? According to Liza Minnelli ‘money makes the world go round’, she sang about it in Cabaret, so surely it must be true. So why this discrepancy, was Maslow wrong? The answer is yes and no.
A group of you at this point are possibly yelling at the screen as you have probably noticed on the second tier the word employment and you could argue strongly that this involves money. Maslow in his wisdom, however, didn’t state money specifically, but the way society is constructed we just assume that money would be exchanged. The problem, is that we did create money; it’s a man-made concept which did not have to be as important as society now views it. Let me clarify, I am not advocating the abolition of money. However, it is obvious to me that the original intended use of currency has morphed into something quite divisive. We are prepared to do almost anything for the pursuit of money; wars, theft, prostitution, even 40 hours a week plus in a soulless office space, doing a job that is quite frankly pointless, whilst we pretend to our boss to be fully engaged. All our varying degrees of sacrifice are because all the basic things we need in this modern world requires cash; water, food, shelter, maybe not air……not yet anyway.
Back in 350BC Aristotle pondered that every object has two uses; the first being the original use for the object and the second was to use the object in a form of barter or exchange. It certainly makes more practical sense having a few coins in your pocket as opposed to carrying half a dozen goats as currency. So on this basic level there is good logic, that instead of trading goods or services we could use a mutually accepted token in exchange for a desired object. In the navy we generally called them ‘beer tokens’ (although I have heard they have other uses apart from the purchase of the magic liquid), on this level it all works out pretty well. I’ll give you ‘x’ amount of ‘ickies’ and you will provide me with ‘y’ volume of beer, sounds fair, so far so good. Sadly things rarely remain this simplistic, as we can all attest to. We continue to develop highly complex systems around what was initially a reasonably basic idea. Some of the more opportunist among us use these ‘ickies’ to buy power and influence, to control vast areas of the globe at the expense of others. Or alternatively we make up so-called objects of desire for sale, whilst we arbitrarily decide what is valuable and what is not. Sometimes our logic is founded on scarcity, but quite often it’s based on total bullshit. Then we rank our fellow human beings on how much power, control and bullshit we have accumulated over our lives. Does this sound nuts, or is it just me?
When we broaden this out and project this globally, something has gone seriously awry. There are people who inhabit our planet with multiple homes, cars, private jets and an unending access to luxury items. We idolize them, we honour them and plaster these demigods on the front of magazines such as Forbes. They then sell books back to the proletariat who they have previously exploited, telling them how they became successful (genius). They flaunt their wealth on television and create private universes where they hide from the minions who made them rich. They concoct semi-faux charities, which supposedly benefit the poor, but in reality espouse their narrow ideologies to effect social change, while they receive wonderful tax breaks (yes I’m talking about you Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg) On the flip side we the masses are chastised if we attempt to question the validity or morality of the plutocracy’s endeavours. We are called envious and jealous, or our work ethic is called into question. We are told that they earned it, that they are worth it, that somehow they are a superior human being and we the peasants must suck it up, because apparently that’s how the world works.
On the other side of the tracks, in a not so exquisite dusty wasteland are people who literally have nothing; no food, water or shelter, they are essentially in Maslow’s rather uncomfortable basement. It is estimated that 1.3 billion people in the world live in poverty, that half the world’s population live on less than $2.50 (US) per day and we as a species have let this happen. As the 80’s rock truth teller Axl Rose once sung; ‘we feed the rich while we bury the poor’. We push them out of the way, hide them from tourists and yet it is our system that has created this inequality. At what point did we think it was a good idea to value a ‘beer token’ above human life, our own flesh and blood, our fellow brothers and sisters. We must have been absolutely out of our collective minds! We comfort ourselves by saying it’s another country’s problem, or they have other crazy beliefs, or they’re from another part of the globe, as if this makes everything alright. That the increased mileage from our cosy homeland or how many shades they differ from our complexion has any bearing on our decision making regarding how much compassion we should commit to.
We have come to value money, worship the people who have collected the most while they arguably add nothing tangible to society, such as stock market traders; except perhaps a broken economy and shattered dreams of affordable housing. We are saddened and angered by poverty, while we continue to support a system that destroys the people we shed tears for when images are beamed into our living rooms a couple of times a year. We bemoan about beggars in the freezing streets whilst we drive past them in our Mercedes, without ever considering the conditions of the world that have contributed to this situation. This is not a plea for you to empty your bank accounts to Oxfam or UNICEF. However, these worthwhile charities only exist because of the systems and structures we have built around money. These convoluted mechanisms have allowed narcissists and psychopaths complicit with power-hungry politicians to syphon off any last remaining cash from the great unwashed up to the 0.1%. It’s common knowledge now that 1% of the population have as much wealth as the remaining 99%, this fact alone represents a kick in the balls for humanity. The conclusion I draw is not that money as a means of trade is amoral, but the people who have manipulated the system to the detriment of society are.