But it got more complicated than that. We then started trading the promises between each other. I receive a promise from someone and before they can come good on it, I promise it to a third party. And it only takes a couple of steps in that process before you're promising 'person A' the property of 'person C' which you yourself have been promised by 'person B'.
And some guy is left holding this picture of a pig which he swapped for a picture of a horse so that he could get some food or stay the night somewhere, but we're many steps away from what 'simple' and 'fair' trade used to be. The objects have become ideas and our promises now have a certain value. (History of Money)
I don't pretend to understand how money works. I know that international currency goes up and down and I know that if you simply print more money then it loses value and you make the situation worse (which is what happened in the great depression and has happened in some African countries recently). But I don't know what affects those changes. I don't know how a whole nation's set of promises can go up or down in value compared with another.
But I like money. I especially like that in London their Pounds say "The Bank Of England; I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of Ten Pounds" or whatever, according to the value of the note. It's a very blatant pairing of money and promises.
And there's something almost exciting in becoming a paperless monetary society. Everything is just down to numbers in electronic accounts. And it's even more exciting and worrying to think that one day everyone could give up on money as a system of value and it would then literally become worthless.
The farmers would reign supreme; as the only people with anything of worth or need to society. If you'd banked all your assets into a concept like money then it would be your loss. It's confusing how volatile money is. Our world runs on money and money runs on an agreed belief in its value. It's almost unstable, if it wasn't so constantly affirmed as valuable.
I walked past a clothing shop and I thought that the same is true of consumerism. I wanted to buy clothes, but I was wearing clothes. I wanted to buy a bag but I had a bag. Retail runs on a similar premise. We all agree that there are more things that we 'need'. Shops cater to a desire dressed-up in a need. And this is seen at every level. The poor need things to get by, the middle-class need just a few more t-shirts or shoes or an up-to-date evening-wear wardrobe. And we all look at the truly wealthy and wonder why they don't give more away, if they have the money, why aren't they more generous? But the same tactics have been used on them as well. They don't just need a suit, it needs to be Armani, they don't just need a car, they need an Aston Martin, they don't need a day off, they need ten days in Fiji.
I walked past the clothing store and thought that we could bring about the demise of consumerism if we had contentment. I thought that it must be a terrifying concept for clothing retailers for people to say "I don't need that". They must fear the spread of the idea that new clothes aren't essential. Because we do all enter clothing stores with clothes on our backs, but somehow it feels justified. We hunt through the clothes in our cupboards and think to ourselves that we have nothing to wear.
At every level of our lives we are subscribing to a belief that we are not satisfied, just like the uniform agreement that our system of financial exchange holds value. It seems to me that advertising companies have succeeded in promising satisfaction but not on delivering it. We all believe that there is some group of people out there somewhere who don't work in jobs and who don't get sick and who don't fight with their friends, but they just wear amazing clothes and visit beautiful locations with the carefree charm of contentment. The rest of us just need to buy a couple more things and we're sure that soon we will arrive there. But we never do.
In a first century Greek manuscript, which we call Philippians, a man who knew Jesus says: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want". Which should make us ask 'how?'. And the disappointing fact is that what follows is not a ten-step guide to contentment, but it is the simple statement: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength". His contentment came from knowing Jesus.
I figure that since contentment is such a big 'issue' in our culture and since our consumerism and possibly capitalism are built on feeding our discontentment; I'm not going to sum this up with a neat verse. But I think that unlike our belief in the promises of money, our agreed discontentment is something we don't need to maintain for society to function. It is something that we don't need, full stop. And whatever else has changed over the past two thousand years, one thing has not. The sum total of all of this is; if you want contentment, Jesus has it. If you want satisfaction, he can give it to you. And unlike the advertisers, he will come good on that promise.
Sam Manchester is a University of Sydney graduate interested in Sociology and Ethnography. He spent a couple of years living and studying in London, but now is home on the North Shore enjoying Sydney's arts and social scene and working in a 'three cup' cafe.