Overview of gold’s perpetual dominance over modern and past societies, focused on historical and economic issues.
Characterizing the preceding millennium’s obsession with gold as “a murderous, cruel, intoxicating, brutal adventure,” Hart (The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art, 2004, etc.) moves swiftly from discussing current armed conflicts in South African mines to Francisco Pizarro’s 16th-century assault on the Incan people, which filled Spain’s imperial coffers and accelerated Europe’s gold-based economy. The author’s general approach is to flit between multiple elements pertaining to the topic. Several chapters examine the controversial concept of economies based on the “gold standard” of direct exchange: “The strict operation of the gold standard sent regular waves of misery through the world, as the vagaries of trade would drain a gold supply and lacerate an economy.” This resulted in regular convulsions within the United States, providing grist for conspiracy theorists. Hart focuses on watersheds like the 1892 run on gold, Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order barring gold hoarding, and the lesser-known account of Richard Nixon’s suspension of gold convertability in a startling prime-time speech. Today, the author argues that shadowy gold trading groups like the British “Spider” (from SPDR Gold Shares) establish the market value of gold using complex methodologies not unlike those that precipitated the Great Recession. He also looks at how gold fever has seized post-reform China, the eccentric geologists whose innovations led to enormous strikes beginning in the 1950s, and pulpy tales of stolen gold. Hart is a fine close-in journalist, gathering many engaging facts and anecdotes about gold’s production and endless manipulation within the world economy and human psychology, but the lack of a compelling central narrative makes the work feel less cohesive.
Recommended for those determined to speculate in gold as an alleged hedge against economic tremors.