The Ascent Of Money is an older 4 hour documentary that ran on PBS, which you can now take out at the public library.
The first hour to me is the most interesting portion, before the production wades slowly into the vast contemporary financial system. What is the most interesting is ‘how’ money and credit, two ideas that weren’t originally global, were used to take advantage of less financially savvy cultures (indigenous cultures).
Money is really a media, like this webpage is a media, except what is printed on it has purchasing power — the way precious materials have purchasing power (‘real’ value for trade). Some cultures existed fine without this idea of printed currency, like the Aztecs in Mexico, because they did not know ‘lack’. The Aztecs existed on a labour-value system, trading labour (of one skill) for labour (of another skill). When the Spanish landed in Mexico, they brought non-indigenous materials that were immediately rare because they weren’t native to those lands, like things that grew and found on other continents. So no matter how hard you tried using your labour skills, only the Spanish possessed these things. These ‘rare’ items caught the fancy of the ruling Aztec elites who readily exchanged an imbalance of labour. In modern economics, they call it arbitrage which is charging a high price for goods that can not be found here, like those Nike boots with the limited colours that aren’t sold in Canada. Gold and silver had no exchange value on their own in the Aztec economy before being transformed by skilled handiwork, so they readily mined it in exchange for rare non-indigenous products. It is interesting this connection between money and labour, which still exists today.
In the end though, the Spaniards got their due because they mined so much silver that it devalued their currency, which was minted in silver, causing rising inflation in Europe.
The second hour covered the rise of credit and lending — how Christian lenders went into business skirting the idea that interest on loans are a sin. Initially only Jews, who weren’t Christian brothers, were excempted in the Bible from charging for money. But when the Venetian government sold ‘municipal bonds’ for the first time, Christians were able go into the business of lending if the lender were an entity, not a person, more like a bank instead of a loan-shark. Up to today, loan-sharking is still a sin and also illegal.
That documentary, posted on YouTube, is below…