In her new book On Corruption in America, Sarah Chayes posits a theory on the long development of monetary capitalism from our first meat-eating ancestors.
This is an excerpt from her interview with Bill Moyers. It has been edited for length and clarity.
BILL MOYERS: I never thought I would begin a book about money sitting around a primal campfire with my long ago ancestors turning a spit of meat. And yet that’s exactly how you open your book. Why did you choose that moment in the deep dark past to take us to a discussion of corruption?
SARAH CHAYES: It was so fascinating to me to move from how we as a species committed this, this huge social revolution on our order, the primate order. We did it through sharing meat. What’s so fascinating is what changes us from chimpanzees, who are our closest relatives is we began eating meat as a staple.
Now we’re talking wooly mammoths here. You or I are not going to go bring down a wooly mammoth by ourselves. Right? So once you start that shift it means hunting in groups. We were already a social species, but it means hunting in groups. How do you keep the group together? And how do you get the really brilliant stone chipper, you know, to make your spearhead that the, that you who are a great hunter can throw?
Right. You need that kind of cooperation and you need to hunt in a group and the way you hold the group together, is share meat. And that’s really the basis of the egalitarianism. So when I discovered that, I mean, again, I didn’t discover this in a row. I discussed, I was looking at the origins of money and I found, you know, I knew that it had originated in Anatolia. Then I find it’s connected to sharing meat and then my head explodes — you gotta be kidding me. What’s so fascinating about that thesis is that, while gold and silver had been used to store value in the past, the revolution of money is that the value is separate from the intrinsic value of let’s say the metal used.
I mean, we took a look at a quarter and half of it’s copper and half of it, you know, I mean, it doesn’t have the intrinsic value of a quarter and now even less. So right now, electronic signals are how we store value. The origin of that is in the skewers that were used to roast the meat that was divided equally among the Greek community, the ancient Greek community.
And the point is. When you got your skewer, you had an equal portion of meat. It didn’t quite matter how long the skewer was or whether it weighed a gram or two more than somebody else’s skewer. You had the equivalent share in your communities’ commonwealth. And so that leads us to a huge paradox about money.
Is that when it first appears, it’s a democratizing — it’s connected with democratizing and, and this sort of, um, egalitarian ceremony of equally sharing meat in a very egalitarian society. I mean, again, women couldn’t participate in political life in ancient Greece, but it was not a monarchy. It was a, I mean, it’s, that’s the roots of, of modern democracy is in this very culture.
And the roots of democracy in Greece are in this meat sharing ceremony, which is also the origin of money, which blew my mind because right. It is when it first appears democratizing because it gives you access to the community regardless of your bloodlines. But simultaneously it does exactly what you just said about what the money changers were doing in the temple.
It reduces sacred values to money.