Mary Anne, are you talking about my novel? I am intrigued by that as a logical progression. My religious passions, which are considerable, include a deep revulsion towards charismatic religious figures -- especially as single individuals! -- attaining political power (indeed I think my strand of Judaism can be read as precisely a series of polemics against this political arrangement, from the Prophetic era if not earlier), so I think I would be hard put to keep such a scenario from seeming very bleak indeed.
Yonatan -- in answer to the first question -- well, my question "could another systemů displace it?" is intended to be leading. Yes, I think another system could. Why does money need those attributes -- fungibility, etc.? (Put another way, why has a system with those attributes sidelined its memetic competitors?) I think part of the reason is because it decreases information processing cost. That is, what I really want is some complex basket of goods, including enough to eat, spiffy toys, people liking me, a just world, a secure future for my children, and so on, and what you want is some other complex basket of goods, and there are empty-zillion competitive and collaborative ways for us to enter into relation to achieve them, but the combinatoric problem once you get beyond a small number of people is so difficult, that we throw up our hands and say "well, for most of these things, we'll just say each person owns some set of items disjointly, and try to reduce all of their values to a single number, and exchange them." It's very crude. I think if you look at it this way, it's very interesting what happens when the exponential curve of Moore's law gets going. What happens as information processing gets vastly cheaper? It's already the case that within a small group, say 100 people, you don't really need money -- or a state for that matter -- solidarity, favors, gossip, social pressure, and so on, do the trick. What if technology allowed those social mechanisms to scale better?
"Before European Hegemony" was definitely worth reading. Fascinating. Dry in places -- there's a wealth of specific, concrete detail about actual 13th century economic practices. But that is what made it fascinating, too, and she writes well, and is able to tie all the detail into a coherent big-picture argument.
Daddy: yep. That. Although "really stupid" is probably making unfair use of the benefits of hindsight. Had things gone somewhat differently, focusing on peaceful infrastructure might have turned out to be a good bet. The Europeans who suddenly showed up in the 16th century with their dinky ships weren't just some new group of warlike barbarians -- the Chinese had seen plenty of those, and I expect there was enough slack in their strategy that under most circumstances they could have rearmed to meet the threat. The problem was that these particular warlike barbarians had just lucked into a vast pool of slaves, land, and natural resources that they could basically pillage without limit or competition, and it was fueling a crazy technological, social and population boom. Had there been no New World, and therefore no booming development of early modern capitalism and colonialism, I think the Chinese would have had plenty of time to re-arm and repel the barbarians.
Shana, I didn't, but yes, that's what I am!