What do we mean by barbarism?
And what do we mean by civilisation?
The answer is easy: the difference between barbarism and civilisation can be expressed by one word: money.
Money has two big advantages: in the first place it is much more efficient than the systems that came before. Money brings about a great leap forward in productivity.
But the second reason is much more important. Money brings liberty. Money gives us the ability to choose. Once we begin to use money, we can choose how we spend it – on food or housing, on travel, or even (and I will not say, Heaven forbid!) on wine, women and song.
Money makes us free — and that is the secret of its power. Money, it is said, is the root of all evil, but that is merely because evil depends on choice. By the same token, money is the root of all good. But it is this freedom to choose that marks the distinction between barbarism and civilisation.
This is rather different from the usual studies of civilisation by archaeologists. In the usual studies, the root meaning of the word civilisation is that of living in cities, and the origins of city life is taken to mark the origins of civilisation. But this is not how the word is used in general conversation: we believe a ‘civilised’ society to be one in which we can ‘do our own thing’, to live our own lives in our own way. A barbarian society on the other hand, — and here one thinks of Soviet Russia or North Korea or perhaps the theocratic societies of the Middle East , are societies where the way of life is dictated by the rulers, whether they be dictators or whether they be priests or imams. And it is this distinction that I wish to pursue.
Freedom is basically an economic term; it is basically the ability to ‘do your own thing’ and this in its turn us depends on, or is greatly facilitated by, the advent of money. Money enables you to exercise your choice in the most fundamental way: it even gives you the freedom not to be wealthy: providing you have the basic necessities of life, you can bury yourself in a cottage in the country and write poetry. But on this fundamental economic basis the superstructure of the more elevated forms of freedom can be erected. a new form of society can arise.
Thus freedom comes with the origins of money, and the origin of money comes with the Greeks and the Romans. Many of us feel instinctively that the Greeks and the Romans introduced a new form of society. Literature takes on a new form. History as we know it comes to be written for the first time, a conscious attempt to tell the past as it really happened from both points of view, rather than merely recording the achievement of kings or priests. The arts take on new forms when they no longer depend on the demands of kings or of tribal traditions, but can appeal to a far wider market, for ordinary citizens who are choosing the art that will decorate their homes, or for wealthy patrons who wish to advertise their prestige and their power. The very structure of cities is changed when palaces are replaced by market places, by the agoras of the Greeks or the forums of the Romans.
It is fashionable today to talk of ‘killer apps’, of the new ideas that brought the modern world into existence, ideas of competition, of science and property. But in the ancient world money was the biggest killer app of all. It not only made societies bigger and more efficient, it also normally (and yes, I know that China is a special case) it made societies more free. And it is this that marks the boundary between barbarism and civilisation.
And now my introduction is over. Now is the time to plunge in to the main argument and read all about the workings of a pre-market economy in the Trobriand islands