Page last updated at 18:38 GMT, Friday, 5 March 2010

How men in grey suits changed the world

Suit trousers and shoes

By Jolyon Jenkins

Accountancy has a reputation for dullness but its history is the history of civilisation itself, from the evolution of government and taxation to trade and capitalism. It has also provided a paper trail through some of the darker periods of human history.

At first sight it looks like the income statement for any factory. It starts with the daily wage bill, and deals with the costs of uniform and other running expenses, all properly amortised.

But then comes an odd line: the projected income per worker is adjusted so that it covers not one year, but only nine months.

For this is no ordinary factory, but Buchenwald concentration camp. The workers, leased out by the SS, are expected to be dead from exhaustion in less than a year.

Further down in the accounts is a note: "revenue at death". This refers to the sum to be made from the body itself, from ashes, fat and hair.

Wedding rings
US soldiers found thousands of wedding rings at Buchenwald

Unlike doctors, bankers and lawyers, accountants have generally avoided scrutiny of their role in the Holocaust. Accountants are seen as technocrats - grey if not completely invisible.

Yet throughout history they are there, if only you look hard enough, and often playing a vital role.

Moral standards

Take the Highland Clearances of the mid-19th century, when peasant farmers were evicted from estates of the landed gentry, to make way for sheep farms and deer forests.

Histories of the Clearances often refer to a rather anonymous figure, "Mr Brown of Edinburgh" as the agent who forced through many of the clearances.

A Brief History of Double-Entry Book-keeping is on BBC Radio 4 daily from Monday 8 March at 1545 GMT
Or catch up via iPlayer

But Mr Brown is famous to historians of accounting (admittedly a small circle): he is James Brown, the first president of the Institute of Accountants.

Brown came onto the scene because many highland landlords had gone bankrupt. Their insolvent estates were placed in the hands of men like him. He had to maximise revenue to pay off creditors.

Evicting uneconomic tenant families was one way to do it. What's remarkable is the zeal that Mr Brown brought to the task.

Crofters' cottages
The population of the Highlands has never recovered from the Clearances

He was a man with a mission, and he was doing it all for the tenants' own good. He was motivated, he said, by "feelings of humanity, pity and benevolence".

The tenants were "being reared in poverty and ignorance … many [had] never been within the walls of a church". They would be much better off if they moved to towns, or emigrated.

Another nineteenth century Edinburgh accountant, Thomas Goldie Dixon, made field visits to the Highlands to inspect the tenants and to assess their personal morality.

One was evicted because Dixon saw him drunk in a pub. Another lost his home because he was "living with a woman not his wife".

At the same time as Dixon was imposing his own moral standards, he was insisting that there was no place for sentiment.

Exactly because accountancy looks like a dry, value-free activity, it can be used as a kind of moral laundry

Under the old system landlords had moral obligations to their tenants, but now there was "no room for the exercise of these feelings".

Indeed exactly because accountancy looks like a dry, value-free activity, it can be used as a kind of moral laundry.

When the Nazis stole the personal property of Europe's Jews, Himmler insisted that all the looted property be meticulously accounted for.

By enforcing stringent accounting, he argued that "in carrying out this most difficult of tasks... we have suffered no harm to our inner being, our soul, our character." Theft was transformed into book-keeping.

None of this is to argue that accounting is evil. In fact, there are those that argue that its origins are profoundly religious.

Development of capitalism

The first known accountants worked for the religious authorities in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq), making sure that people paid their taxes (of sheep and other agricultural produce) to the temples.

In trying to keep track of who owed what, they had to issue receipts and IOUs, and accidentally invented writing.

Thousands of years later, in late medieval Italy, double entry book-keeping emerged. Dull as it may sound, double entry is one of the key technologies of the last millennium, giving a huge push towards the development of capitalism.

Mesopotamian wall relief
Writing was developed for receipts and IOUs by Mesopotamian accountants

The man who first wrote down the method, Luca Pacioli, was a Franciscan Friar. Double entry book-keeping recognises that all transactions have two aspects - a credit and a debit - and in a properly constituted set of books, the two sets of figures always balance. For those of a particular turn of mind, the balance has a beauty, maybe even divinely inspired.

Accounting is a form of story telling - giving an account - and stories require an audience, listeners; auditors.

In late medieval Italy, the auditor was God. One historian of accounting, James Aho, argues it's no coincidence that double entry emerged at a time when confession became compulsory for ordinary Catholics.

If you are a businessman concerned with the morality of making a profit, then keeping the fullest possible set of accounts is a bit like confessing your sins.

Even if you are doing something morally suspect, at least you are making a clean breast of it.

Today, we live in a culture that is obsessed with measuring and auditing, whether it's school league tables, workplace appraisal targets, or the feedback stars that we award each other on Amazon and eBay.

Once we were held accountable to God, then the state, and then our employers; now, we are now engaged in permanent mutual audit. You could see it as the ultimate triumph of the book-keepers.

Jolyon Jenkins presents A Brief History of Double-Entry Book-keeping daily on BBC Radio 4 from Monday 8 March at 1545 GMT

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