Barbarian Law Codes

After the breakdown of the Roman Empire, Germanic peoples and then later tons of other people “from Russia to Ireland” created very extensive law codes detailing the proper compensation for all kinds of wrongs, in minute detail. Like for stealing sheep of various ages and genders or for losing a hand vs finger vs various fingernails.

“Compensation in the Welsh laws is reckoned primarily in cattle and in the Irish ones in cattle or bondmaids, with considerable use of precious metals in both. In the Germanic codes it is mainly in precious metal… in the russian codes it was silver and furs”

Graeber: it’s difficult “to imagine how a system of precise equivalences– one young healthy milk cow is equivalent to exactly thirty-six chickens– could arise from most forms of gift exchange. If Henry gives Joshua a pig and feels he has received an inadequate counter-gift, he might mock Joshua as a cheapskate, but he would have little occasion to come up with a mathematical formula for precisely how cheap he feels Joshua has been. On the other hand, if Joshua’s pig just destroyed Henry’s garden, and especially, if that led to a fight in which Henry lost a toe, and Henry’s family is now hauling Joshua up in front of the village assembly– this is precisely the context where people are most likely to become petty and legalistic and express outrage if they feel they have received one groat less than was their rightful due.”

“Say the fine is in marten pelts but the culprit’s clan doesn’t have any martens. How many squirrel skins will do? or pieces of silver jewelry?”

Since these cultures were in the post-roman age, they converted everything through roman money. Lots of things were listed in these codes which weren’t really for sale on the open market at the time. So their price relationship wasn’t being determined by some sort of market equilibrium. It was just about using money as a pass-through for all these goods that might need to be equivalitized. This does seem to be a pretty decent approximation of the barter system economists imagine, even though its history and purpose is wildly different.

pg 60-62

Why do they cling to barter?

-Smith’s goal was to create a Newtonian Physics of economics. Concept of a separate sphere called “The Economy” was relatively new in his day, and he wanted to show that it operated by rules like physics
-Newton was a Deist, believed in a clockmaker god who set the universe in order, Smith wanted to show the same thing. This is the “invisible hand” of the market
-This assumption of a kind of divine providence behind the market depends on a voluntary contract type model of exchange, in which all trades are barter for mutual advantage.
-So basically the fundamental belief of modern economics depends on viewing The Economy as a sphere of mutually beneficial trades orchestrated by a divine invisible hand. Allowing the more human relationships into this model raises questions about the divine perfection of it all.

Real uses of barter: when money fails

-The real uses of barter come when people who were used to money don’t have much of it anymore. Like immediately post-Soviet Russia or Argentina in 2002. Or in POW camps and prisons.
-Early medieval Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and again after Carlingian empire collapsed. People keep accounts in the old imperial currency, even though they no longer have the coins.
-Adam Smith’s examples all come from societies where they did use money as a unit of account, but since it was slightly scarce they would trade in goods until it was more available.

“The law making tobacco legal tender in Virginia seems to have been an attempt by planters to oblige local merchants to accept their products as a credit around harvest time.”

pg 37-8

Real Bartering

-Barter does exist, just rarely between fellow villagers
-Nambikwara of Brazil: if one band sees the cooking fires of another nearby, they’ll send emissaries to negotiate a trade meeting. If accepted, they hide the women and children and invite the men over to talk. Chiefs give a speech praising the other band and belittling his own, they put aside weapons, sing and dance, then individuals approach each other to trade. They have this really ritualized thing where they argue over if the things they want are any good, agree on a trade, and then with mock-force take the things they’ve agreed to trade. Then they have a big feast.
-So basically for the Nambikwara, “Barter… was carried out between people who might otherwise be enemies and hovered about an inch away from outright warfare– and, if the ethnographer is to be believed– if one side later decided they had been taken advantage of, it could very easily lead to actual wars.”
-Gunwinggu of Western Arnhem Land in Australia: They have a region-wide moiety system (kinship groups where everyone in a group is part of one lineage), so people are basically divided up into teams and can only marry people from other teams. They have a big festival called the dzamalag where after some initial negotiations, strangers come to another group’s main camp. They sing and dance, then do flirty dances, fuck, and give them trade goods. When everyone’s satisfied, the host group gives the visitors their own trade goods in return. Then everyone eats.
-Point is, barter happens during “meetings with strangers who will, likely as not, never meet again, and with whom one certainly will not enter into any ongoing relations. This is why a direct one-on-one exchange is appropriate: each side makes their trade and walks away.” It’s also why there are big rituals involving food and dance and “shared pleasures,” and why they make light of the tension of possible hostility between them through play.

Real History of Not Bartering

-Six Nations of the Iroqouis: main economic institution was longhouses where goods were stockpiled and alloated by women’s councils. Nobody traded arrowheads for slabs of meat.
-“The definitive anthropological work on barter by Caroline Humphrey, of Cambridge, could not be more definitive in its conclusions: ‘No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.'”

History of Myth of Barter

-Adam Smith used it in 1776 to create discipline of economics as a moral philosophy professor
-Aristotle used it in 330BC, speculating that families must have started by producing everything they needed themselves, then gradually specializing and trading, so money naturally developed to make trade easier
-During age of exploration barter stories disappeared because everyone was discovering old-fashioned tribes and weren’t none of them bartering. “Most sixteenth- and seventeenth- century ravelers in the West Indies or Africa assumed that all societies would necessarily have their own forms of money, since all societies had governments and all governments issued money.”
-Back to Smith: he vigorously objected to idea governments create money. Following in John Locke’s footsteps. Locke thought Govt begins in need to protect private property and operates best when limited to that. Smith added that property, money, and markets were older than political institutions, and were the very foundation of human society. If govts “should play any role in monetary affairs, it should limit itself to guaranteeing the soundness of the currency. It was only by making such an argument that he could insist that economics is itself a field of human inquiry with its own principles and laws– that is, as distinct from, say, ethics or politics.”

pg 24-5

Myth of Barter

“Just about every economics textbook employed today sets out the problem the same way. Historically, they note, we know that there was a time when there was no money. What must it have been like? Well, let us imagine an economy something like today’s, except with no money. That would have been decidedly inconvenient! Surely people must have invented money for the sake of efficiency.

The story of money for economists always begins with a fantasy world of barter. The problem is where to locate this fantasy in time and space”