January 03, 2009

Money and Civic Instability


There are certain types of crises that you can only have with money. One of the interesting things about Roman history is that soon after the Gallic invasion we have one of these crises. Livy attributes the crisis to the ambition of the centurion Marcus Manlius. The crisis concerned a centurion who was prosecuted for debt, 'as he was led off to prison Manlius saw him, hurried up in mid forum with a party of his supporters and held forth about the arrogance of the senators, the cruelty of the moneylenders, the miseries of the people, the merits and misfortune of the man.' (VI 14) Manlius does something here which I consider interesting- he contrasts the visible misfortunes of the people and bravery of the man against the invisible power of money. The injustice of the way that money operates- seemingly without any relation to the merit or demerit of the person involved- is for Manlius a political driver.

It is that operation that Manlius is focussed upon- how can someone who was a brave soldier end up in debt. In a sense the invisibility and incomprehensibility of the situation is something that creates a political opportunity. Money also creates inequality- further inequality because it allows people to store resources in a way that is not possible in a barter economy in perishable goods. You have a medium for the storage of wealth- but also a medium for the storage of debt because it is easier to create a concept of interest as well as to ennumerate a universal concept of what someone owes. What Manlius does is to create a political opportunity out of the latter issue. He uses the first development though to imply that the whole situation is the responsibility of a senatorial conspiracy: 'he declared amongst other things that the patricians were concealing treasure hoards of gallic gold and were no longer content with possessing State lands unless they could also appropriate State money; if the facts were made public the people could be freed from debt'.

Manlius's explanation for Rome's situation is clever but inaccurate- there are many reasons why debt would grow after a war, and increasing monetisation would definitely create increased inequality- but this is an interesting episode in Roman history. It is interesting because it reflects something about the way that money affects politics: it allows for further developments in the quantification of debt, allows for increased inequality and also it moves the value society puts on something from the intrinsic value of an item. Instead of a rabbit being worth seven candlesticks, both rabbits and candlesticks are translated into a conventional measure of value. Money ultimately is a civic abstraction. These developments- debt, inequality and abstraction all create a new type of politics- something I think we see in Livy's account of Manlius's debtor's revolt. Simply put, the Manlian moment could not have occured without a monetary moment preceding it.

7 comments:

mutleythedog said...

May I borrow a fiver? I am becoming a little unstable....

Gracchi said...

I've only got a denarius unfortunately!

James Hamilton said...

A denarius will do splendidly

Gracchi said...

I've given you a picture James, you can borrow that!

Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Sarah

http://www.thetreadmillguide.com

Gracchi said...

Thank you Sarah.

goodbanker said...

First of all, I'd echo what Sarah says! And specifically on this post, thanks for drawing out further links in Livy that help us to understand monetary issues.

But isn't the argument linking money and inequality more complex than you present? One counter-argument would be that, with its store of value role, money provides not just political opportunities (as you suggest), but also opportunities for individuals to break out of the very constraints that you identify as existing in a basic barter economy with a predominance of perishable goods. An alternative counter would be to point to monetary crises as occasions when relative inequalities in wealth can be narrowed: in the current economic crisis, for instance, all those fat cats sitting on paper gains during the boom years have seen significant amounts of their wealth wiped out over the past year or so - proportionately much more so than those at the poorer end of the social spectrum (I suspect - though I don't have the stats to show this).

Also, one though on your comment that money is ultimately a civic abstraction. This may be true of contemporary moneys; but it needn't be: and some economists posit a return in future to a commodity standard as a (better?) means of achieving broad stability in the price level.