I have worked long and hard to gather a broad perspective on history. I don’t doubt that there is value in specialization. In fact, I would have great difficulty doing what I do without good specialists.
Nonetheless, my particular set of abilities suits me to play specialist for short, intense periods, and then to integrate my gleanings into a larger whole.
One of my general conclusions has been that if we were to give a name to the last forty years of Western history, we’d have to call it the era of fiat currency capitalism. There is a contradiction built into this term, of course, since fiat currencies and capitalism are oppositional, but such an inherent contradiction is also highly representative of this period.
Having been inside of this contradiction most or all of our lives, it can seem almost permanent and inevitable to us. Nonetheless, it will end, and probably before terribly long. As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote:
Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.
For the last forty years, things which should have crashed and burned have not crashed and burned, and it was fiat currency that permitted the consequences to be scorned. Western culture and millions of minds have been bent in the process.
Fiat versus Reality
Fiat currency is money based upon nothing at all. The Monopoly money shown above has the same actual value as the Dollars, Euros or Pounds in your pocket. For the moment, the paper in your pocket will buy you food and furniture, but not because it has any real value.
Our daily money is created by politically-favored groups who have been granted monopolies on the creation of currency. (They are referred to in polite company as central bankers.) They create our money, from nothing, and all others are forbidden from doing so. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is.
The only people with any authority over these currency monopolists are politicians, and that isn’t terribly strong. (In the case of Great Britain, the monarch has some control as well.)
I won’t bother trying to list the ways this astonishing privilege could be abused. Feel free to play with the possibilities on your own. And do remember that more or less every dirty trick that people could get away with, they have eventually used… and bankers have never been exceptions.
This new era began in 1971, when the previous international monetary arrangements, the Bretton Woods system, fell apart. On May 5th 1971, US dollars flooded the European currency markets and threatened the Deutsche Mark. The central banks of Austria, Belgium, Netherlands and Switzerland stopped all dollar trades. Who was behind this flood of trades is unknown to me but it was apparently someone with inside knowledge. At about the same time, the French were, via complex arrangements, redeeming their dollars for gold from the US Treasury, as Bretton Woods allowed. (It was gold that kept the system honest. If you thought games were being played, you could turn in your paper for actual gold.)
If the US had allowed redemptions to continue, they would have lost all their gold reserves. So, on August 15th 1971, the US pulled out of their monetary agreements and refused to redeem any more dollars for gold. (This was called closing the gold window.) Bretton Woods fell apart and, very shortly, no major currencies were redeemable; everything became fiat currency, based on government edicts alone.
This change from redeemable money to fiat currency has affected Western life immensely. For more than forty years, life in the West has been based on money with no value, which has spawned a lot of other things that have no value.
The chart below is my modernization of a chart used by Carroll Quigley, one of the best generalist historians of the 20th Century. The chart displays his seven primary factors of Western Civilization, and how they have varied over the last thousand years or so. You’ll notice that I’ve circled our era in red and called attention to the form of economic organization with blue.
As I’ll illustrate below, fiat currency has had significant influence, not only within the ‘Economic Organization’ category I have highlighted, but also over ‘Political’, ‘Economic Control’, ‘Dominant Group’, and even ‘Intellectual’. It has more or less defined our era. So, if I am correct that the reign of fiat currencies is ready to end… big, big changes lie in our future.