That text from the apostle Paul is I Timothy 6:10. The King James translation gives it as ‘The love of money is the root of all evil’, but modern translations say ‘all kinds of evil’, i.e. less of an absolute categorical pronouncement and more of a simple observation.
Our assignment as I understand it was to look for attitudes towards money, particularly in non-White cultures. This subject is dealt with in great detail in David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years. I’ll just focus here on a small part of what Graeber uncovers in this wide-ranging anthropological study. First, he takes aim at mainstream economists’ story on the origin of money. That is, in ‘primitive’ societies all exchange was by barter, but this was inconvenient, because barter depends on the ‘double coincidence of needs’. A shoemaker can barter with a potato farmer just in case the shoemaker happens to need potatoes and the farmer happens to need shoes, otherwise no exchange is possible. To get around this problem, money was invented. But this story is demonstrably false. The overwhelming consensus of anthropological research shows that in pre-modern local economies, people exchanged goods and services on a quasi-gift basis – no explicit quid pro quo, but a general understanding that if my neighbour does me a favour today, I vaguely ‘owe them one’ at some future occasion. The point is not to exact repayment: indeed, lots of neighbours ‘owing you one’ is a very desirable social position to be in. In such a world, people basically stay put; the debt is ‘secured’, so to speak, by the web of ongoing relationships that comprise village society.
Coinage was first introduced in the kingdoms of Asia Minor around 600-500 BCE, and thence spread throughout the ancient Near East. Graeber asks, if a king wants precious metals, why would he bother minting coins, why not just use his army to seize the mines and own it all outright? The answer is that coinage solves the administrative problem of provisioning the king’s army. Although villagers exchange things amongst themselves on a quasi-gift basis, they are unlikely to do so with untrusted transients like soldiers. Soldiers are paid by the king in coins, and villagers have to pay taxes in coins to the king, so the villagers must accept coins from the soldiers in return for provisions.
This development was recapitulated in recent centuries in the context of European capitalist colonization. Indigenous populations had to be induced to work in White-owned mines, plantations, etc. Outright enslavement was costly to maintain. So colonial administrators levied taxes on the indigenous populations, which had to be paid in currency. This forced indigenous populations into the money economy, serving as labour for colonial overlords and markets for European-manufactured goods.
This is not to say that pre-modern societies uniformly lacked any notion of money, or sophisticated economies. Graeber scours world history, examining, for example, traditional economies of ‘honour’, where wealth is closely tied to men’s ability to sexually subjugate women. In ancient Ireland, for example, female slaves were used almost as an abstract unit of currency for the reckoning of debts and the quantification of wealth. Graeber has a lot more to say on a wide range of related topics, but I can’t summarize it all here. Basically he’s arguing against the idea of money as a commodity (i.e. that it has to be backed by precious objects like gold or silver), instead maintaining that it is simply the reification of a relation of debt. Like other social relations, debt can and should therefore be cancelled when it becomes harmful to the society.