Factors of Accumulation II
There’s a profound saying about Chan (Zen) practice:
Great faith, great doubt, great determination.
The great Chan patriarchs would be aghast to learn that the same can be said about silver (though who knows, as meditation masters in a land that prized silver above all, they must have known these qualities).
We have enormous trust in silver, enough that we are willing to flatten mountains in order to extract a cartful of the precious metal, knowing that it has ready buyers. We doubt people though, and are constantly on the watch about being suckered into investing in a fake mine. And we acquire wealth with a determination that we rarely bring to anything else.
The opposition between God and Mammon is present in some form in all cultures I know, but I wonder if they are really the same thing. How different is the accumulation of wealth from the accumulation of virtue or the accumulation of knowledge? Is the worship of words, numbers & notes essentially the same thing? Aren’t all three sources of enchantment?
Raincheck on the relationship between money, knowledge and religion - it needs undivided attention.
How did silver become so important? The usual answer has to do with its properties: it’s a relatively rare element that can be melted, hammered and woven into intricate shapes that last forever. Gold too. True, but our greed for gold and silver feels way out of proportion to those mechanical properties.
Silver is certainly a catalyst of accumulation, like any other precious stone or metal. I need to read up more, but the origin of their value might lie in generosity, i.e., gift exchange. Like Lapis Lazuli before them, the exchange of precious metals as gifts is a great way to build trust over short and long distances. It doesn’t matter whether I present a gold tiara to my neighbor or the Pharaoh; both will be happy to accept my tribute.
Then comes a cognitive move I find interesting. I call it material metonymy. Metonymy is when a thing or a place is used to denote someone or something else. Like when a waiter says: table five needs water. It’s not the table itself that needs water, but the people sitting at the table. But in the context of the restaurant where all the waitstaff know the floor layout and the patrons are all strangers, the number of the table is an easy shortcut.
Material metonymy is when a material or substance stands for something else. In the case of silver, it is trust. What I really want is to open the doors and the hearts of my interlocutors, but they don’t know me and I don’t know them. Or they know me but they don’t know the extent of my love for them. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had something whose value we can all agree upon, something whose value is connected to its ‘objective preciousness.’
Accumulation absolutely demands trust. There’s only so much I can accumulate on my own, so cooperation (either consensual or under duress) is key to laying more stuff on top of what I already have. Money is the best trust medium there is, even as its meaning has shifted over the millennia.
We have been misreading the UX of trust for too long, thinking it’s about someone who creates warm and fuzzy feelings in your gut. But if trust is like design, it should be primarily judged by: does it work, and if so, how does it work?
Substack now has polls! Here’s one that polls your gut intuitions about trust. Tell me what you think —
If trust is evidenced by our revealed preferences as much as our stated beliefs, consider this: very few people would be willing to leave employer A who shouts at you but pays your salary on the first of the month without fuss for employer B who listens deeply and centers your feelings but the paycheck arrives sporadically. The latter kind of trust is the bedrock of accumulation. It’s the kind of trust that even Adam Smith’s self-interested economic agent depends upon. The great man said:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect to eat our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
Yeah, but dinner gets to our table from their chopping block because of ‘trust that works.’