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Blumberg, L. (1995). Money and fetishism. Free Associations, 5(4):492-517.

(1995). Free Associations, 5(4):492-517

Money and fetishism

Leslie Blumberg, Ph.D.

On a cold damp day in 1573 Thomas Wilson picked up his quill pen to vent his spleen. He was mad about money, mad in the sense of angry, and this fueled his desire to keep on writing day after day until his lament turned into a book. He called it Discourse on Usury, a cranky contentious case for the prosecution against his fellow Englishmen and their rampant materialism, a scholarly book finally, full of penetrating insights into the new market economy that was taking shape around him and the flourishing spirit of capitalism that was quickening even as he wrote. He published during the same era that Shakespeare wrote Merchant of Venice, that morally puzzling play about money trouble that pivots on 3,000 ducats and a pound of flesh, and at the same time that King Lear was performed, that monumental tragedy about filial love, the collapse of patriarchal authority … and the terrible power of money; and it was during the decade of the decriminalization of usury in England, the event that inspired Wilson's Discourse. So he kept good company. All of the best minds in England were preoccupied with the new economy as they witnessed the last limitations to the expansion of the market being swept away and the circulation and accumulation of capital accelerating without purpose and without pause. These were the terms Aristotle had used centuries earlier to describe the inevitable results of “chematistic exchange” as he called it, or exchange for the sake of exchange, money for money's sake, and appropriate terms for the changing world Wilson watched with a troubled eye. “Money was not first devised for thys ende, to bee marchandize,” he complained, but to bee a measure and a beame betwixte man and man, for the buying and sellinge of weares (Wilson, 1572, pp. 305, 313).


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