In November of 1992 Pierre Culliford, a renowned author and illustrator published a graphic novel of tremendous gravity and startling economic insight. The novel would be his last, as on December 24, 1992, Culliford suffered a heart attack at his home in Brussels and passed away the same day.
Culliford is known by his nickname, Peyo, and he was the creator of the Schtroumpfs, who are better known by their English name, the Smurfs.
Peyo’s final novel, Finance Smurf, at long last has an English translation which became available on July 1, 2014.
Seen through the lens of post 2008 skepticism with regards to the financial system that continues to hold the world in shackles, the novel seems especially timely, and the marketing copy on the back cover, which reads:
“99% of the Smurfs have left the Smurfs Village! No one but the Finance Smurf wants to occupy the Smurfs Village!”
appears to be nothing more than an attempt to carry on the rallying cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. However, as one opens the cover and peers into the world of Peyo’s Smurfs, it is clear that the author intended to call into question everything the reader thought they understood about money, and in large part, he succeeded.
While the Smurfs are, well, the Smurfs, and as such will invariably be forever adorable and highly entertaining in the eyes of most of humanity, here at The Mint we will look past the novel’s obvious merits of providing page after page of blue colored cuteness and highlight our observations of the merits of the economic arguments and questions that it raises as well as the metaphors employed via the roles played by long-standing characters in the following review. Enjoy!
The novel Finance Smurf is set in Smurfs Village. It begins with the incapacitation of Papa Smurf, the Smurf who keeps Smurf Village safe and orderly, who is laid up by a laboratory accident. In this sense, Papa Smurf may be seen as a metaphor for a benevolent dictator or embodiment of a divine being for the Smurfs. This is important, as it is the absence of the ongoing intervention of Papa Smurf in daily life that gives room for the mischief in the novel to occur (Smurf fans will quickly recognize this plot device employed by Peyo).
It then falls to Finance Smurf to seek an antidote, which takes him to the world of humans. It is there that he learns the concept of money and becomes fascinated by it. It is interesting that he does not appear to immediately recognize the creation of money as a means to enrich himself.
Indeed a hallmark of the Smurfs is the communist (or socialist) structure of their life in the Village. Here at The Mint, we do not find this odd, as we have explored in-depth here at The Mint the fact that socialism is the norm in self-supporting economic systems the size of Smurfs’ Village who have a Papa Smurf, so to speak, as a universally respected authority figure. What drives people to Capitalism is the need to tacitly make economic decisions in the absence of a universally respected authority figure, hence Peyo’s need to sideline Papa Smurf at the outset for the narrative to play out.
Finance Smurf returns to Smurfs’ Village with the antidote, as well as a burning desire to introduce money and the human system of trade to the Smurfs. First, he reasons that he needs gold coins with Papa Smurfs likeness on them to use as monetary units. He goes to Painter Smurf for the artistic rendering, Sculptor Smurf for the mold for the coins, Miner Smurf for the gold (Miner Smurf, ironically, has a pile of gold sitting there which he has no use for, as he is diligently extracting flint with his pick axe). Handy Smurf then melts the gold and makes the coins using the mold.
Here we interject another observation. The day-to-day activities of the Smurfs are dependent upon their profession (or lack thereof). In the absence of money the Smurfs simply do what they do. There are rarely specific value judgments made with regards to what the Smurfs do, though all of their actions appear to be motivated by the needs of their fellow Smurfs and throwing the occasional party. This system, while idyllic, assumes that everyone wants to maintain the status quo. The maintenance of the status quo is at once the pillar of strength and the Achilles heel of Socialism.
It is clear that for Painter Smurf, Sculptor Smurf, and Handy Smurf, the requests of Finance Smurf are outside of the status quo. However, being good Smurfs, they go along with it and hope for the best.
With the coins made, Finance Smurf calls a meeting of all Smurfs, introduces the concept of money, and hands out an equal share of the coins to each Smurf. The Smurfs initially do not know how to operate in the new system, so Finance Smurf helps them by doing some back of the napkin costing analysis of their activities. It is worth noting here that this activity is also the hallmark of Socialist systems, the central planning of prices.
As the Smurfs begin to trade, the predictable begins to happen. The productive elements of society, Farmer Smurf, Handy Smurf, Baker Smurf, and so on, soon have more coins than they know what to do with. They take them to Finance Smurf, who is now acting as the bank, to be invested. On the other side, artists such as Harmony Smurf and Poet Smurf find themselves short of money and then mortgage their houses to Finance Smurf. Lazy Smurf is hardest hit.
If it was not obvious to readers to this point, Finance Smurf begins to embody Central Banks and Wall Street. At one point, Baker Smurf calls out Finance Smurf for lending at 10% but only giving him a 6% return. In a nod to the foreclosure crisis, Finance Smurf becomes owner of all of the real estate in Smurfs’ Village. There is a reference to privatization of public works, as when the bridge goes out, the Smurfs look to Finance Smurf to pay for the replacement, which he does in exchange for the right to collect a toll. Even corruption is broached as there is some price-fixing for lumber on the bridge project orchestrated by Finance Smurf.
In short, Finance Smurf comes to embody everything that everybody hates about today’s financial system. The rest of the Smurfs, fed up with the swift disaster that the Money system introduced by Finance Smurf has brought upon them, leave to build another village. In this action, they take the only logical step in the face of monetary tyranny. It is a wonder that more of us do not venture out and do the same today.
In terms of economic lessons to be taken from Finance Smurfs, there is little more to be gleaned.
The remaining Social/Political lessons are taught via the intervention of Gargamel, the Smurfs’ arch nemesis. Gargamel counterfeits coins, echoing a form of economic sabotage employed by nations at war, and lures the Smurfs to them, relying on their newfound greed to be their downfall. Fortunately, Papa Smurf returns and wisely guides the Smurfs away from the trap.
In another odd twist, Papa Smurf, once he becomes aware of the new Money system that has been introduced during his time of incapacitation, does not act to stop it, instead, he bumbles along with it as many a powerful emeritus would do, until the Smurfs ultimately leave to build another village, safely away from the scourge of money.
As an adult reading Finance Smurf in the post 2008 socio-economic landscape, one gets an eerie sense that Peyo was on to something back in 1992, and cleverly communicated it to the world. While the ongoing economic analogies presented in the novel are quite clear, Peyo proves stunningly accurate in his depiction of Finance Smurf inventing money and introducing it to the populace, along with a monopoly on usury, for in this way Central Banks unwittingly enslave the world by promulgating the debt based money supply.
The Peyo’s final triumph is his clairvoyant depiction of the Smurfs’ unanimous decision to simply leave the village that was their happy home before it became the illegitimate property of Finance Smurf, and build another village just a stone’s throw away, yet with one marked difference; the absence of money and its creator.
True to form, the Smurfs reconcile with Finance Smurf who repents of his ways. For Smurfdom, and indeed our world, was never meant to live under the tyranny of perpetual debts. The Smurfs in Smurfs’ Village, who had a small-scale debt problem which quickly got out of hand, simply left and went elsewhere. Jewish law called for a Jubilee, recognizing both the necessity of money and finance for large-scale commerce and the necessity of liberation from the snares that they created amongst what would otherwise be a brotherhood of man. What, then, is the solution for an entire world living under the scourge of a 100-year-old debt based monetary system?
Following the Smurfs may not be a bad idea after all.