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Aux origines de la monnaie
[The Origins of Money]
(Under the supervision of Alain Testart), 2001, Paris : Errance
This summary only deals with the part written by A. Testart : Moyen d'échange / moyen de paiement : Des monnaies en général et plus particulièrement des primitives (Means of Exchange/Means of Payment: Currencies in General, with Emphasis on Primitive Communities, pp. 11-60).
This short essay is neatly divided into two parts. The first (pp. 11-34) is a reappraisal of common theories in the field of political economy, and is followed by a critical commentary on the usual definition of currency/money; a new definition is suggested thereafter. The second part (pp. 34-60) applies this definition to primitive societies, gives precisions on its specificity, and concludes with evolutionary considerations on money and currency.
At the beginning of the paper the author starts by dismissing the idea of a solely anthropological definition of money. Economists, anthropologists, historians and other scholars in social sciences must refer to the same reality, use the same concepts and quote the same definitions if they indeed want to understand each other and exchange opinions.
The accuracy and appropriateness of the traditional definition of money/currency in political economics, through its supposed “function”, is put to question. Before possessing any function, money must be seen as a good, a source of wealth, and even a precious object that one can own.
The author criticizes two conservative theories on money: the first mistaken idea is that currency is a merchandise like any other. Money is truly a good, a merchandise in the trading world of modern economics, yet it is unlike any other. The second idea, that of money as a sign, is also dismissed: this hypothesis appears in the thesis written by Georg Simmel, one its most important defendants, and is opposed by the author.
Contrary to what has generally been thought, the definition of money in terms of function does not antedate the nineteenth century. The exact list of traditional functions attributed to currency (a means of exchange and of treasuring goods, a unit used in counting) was only accepted with scepticism in the field of political economics. The main ambiguity derives from the confusion between means of exchange and means of payment, as these two notions have been erroneously assimilated. Yet to pay is quite different from exchanging goods: when one pays taxes, money is used as means of payment, but nothing is exchanged at all.
The notion of means of payment is more general and accurate than that of means of exchange. Once a good has been accepted as means of payment, other functions (including that of means of exchange) logically appear.
Following these critical considerations (entirely relevant and internal to political economy) the author suggests the following definition :
"We consider as money or currency :
  • one or several kinds of goods, the quantity of these being limited,
  • whose transfer in determined quantities within a paying community is prescribed or preferred in the case of most payments and possesses discharging value.
"A definition that must follow economic principles does not have to list either all or the main properties of the object being defined; it only has to expose the minimal properties from which others can be induced. From the previous definition one can infer without any problems that: money is either the good par excellence or a supreme form of wealth; the general acceptance of money as means of payment; its subsequent functions as a means of exchange, of storage and a value standard."
This new definition is essential in order to understand to what extent one can speak of money and currency in primitive economies: it is clear that what can be termed “money” in this field does not principally fulfil the function of means of exchange. This aspect was discovered by both Max Weber at the beginning of the twentieth century and the authors of the two most remarkable works on primitive currency (these studies were both published in 1949) : Paul Einzig and Hingston Quiggin, who were subsequently almost entirely ignored by social anthropologists. These scholars understood perfectly that primitive currencies were rarely used for exchange but were mainly meant as payment in order to face social obligations: paying for the price of blood (the widespread tradition called wergeld in the Germanic mediaeval world) ; paying for a bride, an even more common custom implying payments essential for marriage.
It is still necessary to ask why these goods are not used for exchanging purposes (or are only used to this end in a subsidiary manner). The reasons are manifold. The first one is poor social division of labour. The second reason lies in the importance of credit in primitive societies. The third explanation, probably the most important one, is linked to the previous one: material exchange does not take place according to trading terms, i.e. anonymously and between people that take decisions following only considerations of quantity and value: exchange happens between individuals that know each other and who are linked to each other by friendship (these relationships should be described as “exchange friendships”). Personal relationships explain why credit frequently happens, entirely eliminating the need for money as a means of exchange.
The last part of the paper draws a number of conclusions on the evolution of the monetary phenomenon. As noted by many economists, the unlimited development of credit could totally suppress the need for a currency. This is more or less what happens in primitive societies. Moreover, credit is by definition entirely personal. Money means the invention of anonymity. Primitive societies hardly need money because they are mostly structured by personal relationships. When they do invent money or establish a currency (communities without money unquestionably exist), it is in order to face social obligations, because these currencies will first of all concern people or rights over these people. It is only subsequently that money, objects in themselves (and anonymous objects at that) will be used to exchange things.

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