Caveman and Capitalism

Stocks and gold were calm on Friday. Nothing much to report.

So, we’ll return to a subject we’ve been working on: the real difference between civilisation and barbarism.

Why does this matter to you? Because it is critical to understanding what money is…and why the Fed will fail…why the dollar will disappear…and why you should own gold.

Is that enough? Hope so, ’cause that’s all we got!

It is becoming clearer and clearer to us. Perhaps we have been drinking too much. Or maybe we have had a stroke. But we see two major phases of human life. The first…’mean, brutish and short,‘ to use the phrase of Thomas Hobbes.

The second, today’s world…a basically civilised world, with frequent relapses into barbarity.

Look, what happened in all those many thousands of years before ‘civilisation’ first appeared in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China? We don’t really know. We weren’t there. But let’s take a guess.

Everybody wants to get ahead – by getting more money, more power, or more status than his neighbours. How do you do that today? You invent a killer app! Or you set up a hedge fund. Or, you write a bestselling novel. You can compete by trying to achieve something important.

Or, you can run for Congress.

But how could you get ahead in the days before moveable type, agriculture, or Facebook?  What could you invent? Nothing. There was so little old technology in use there was almost no room for new technology. No wheels. No power. No electronics or mechanics. What about success in business or investment? Forget it; capitalism hadn’t evolved yet. Art? Music?

From what we’ve seen on the walls of caves, art was very…well…primitive. For all of our time on earth – about 200,000 years – humans lived so near to the edge of survival, there was little surplus available to support art or an elaborate culture. Until about 5,000 years ago, there were no musical instruments, no writing of any sort, no sophisticated tools.

How then did men compete? How did they show each other who was boss? Again, we don’t know, but it seems most likely that they competed at hunting…and fighting. A primitive man could really only gain an advantage by killing something, just like other predators in the animal kingdom. Rousseau’s idea of the ‘noble savage’ was an illusion.

Studies of pre-civilised tribes suggest that he gained most status by killing another human. Tribes living on the American plains continued this custom until only about 150 years ago, taking the scalps of their slain enemies to prove that they had killed them.

Even in the time of the Roman Empire, the highest honour a Roman general could receive was only awarded twice in all of Roman history. It is an award you can only get by killing an opposing general in personal combat.

With some important exceptions, there was no way to get rich in the ancient world, except by taking someone else’s property. This is what people did…or tried to do. Until the advent of capitalism, it was the only way to get ahead.

You took someone else’s land, his wives, and his family – turning as many as possible into slaves. In both North and South America, for example, until deep into the 19th century, native tribes typically killed men…and took women and children into captivity.

In supposedly civilised communities, too, slavery was popular. Owning slaves was not only acceptable, it was a marker of superiority. The more slaves, the higher the social rank of the owner.

Slaveholding was so much a part of life, that even Christ, who preached ‘Love Thy Neighbour,’ made no mention of it. And the US Constitution, which was a blueprint for the most civilised political system yet designed, nevertheless tolerated slavery (at least by omission).

Today, the pay-off from slavery and murder is less sure. We still put elk heads on our walls. We still award medals to particularly good soldiers. But we live in a society that is basically civilised. And in civilised life, killing other people is generally frowned upon, if not censured and proscribed. Slavery has been abolished in most of the world. We still have wage slaves…and tax slaves. But chattel slavery has largely disappeared.

Today, we channel our competitive urges into many different activities. Some people drive expensive cars. Some build mega-mansions. We have team sports – including American football, where one team acts as though it were trying to kill the other. But it is in business, careers and investment that people find competition most rewarding.

Traders on Wall Street talk about ‘ripping the faces off’ their rivals. Entrepreneurs read Sun Tzu and Clausewitz for hints on how to win their next campaign! And now, thanks to modern capitalism, you can get wealthy without taking anything away from others.

Wealth is no longer a zero-sum game. The world’s wealth can be increased by hard work, saving, innovation and investment. People who succeed at capitalism gain wealth, and in America, status. They make themselves rich…and other people too.

It’s not a perfect system. But it works remarkably well… if left alone.

To be continued.


Bill Bonner
for Markets and Money

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Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.

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