Capitalisms Last Frontier#20 Property, Hunger and Money


This section has a simple but a bold thesis. Money did not arise as a means for exchanging property.

Rather money arose as a means of storing value and that property arose to enable as a means of exchanging things for money to enable value to be stored.  This store of value, in the first and last instance, acting as savings for hungry times.

This reverses the causation received from 19th century texts – such as Engel’s ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’ and many similar works in the same vein.

This issue requires re-examination because older theories leave unexplained two critical issues.  Firstly the origin of property.  The origin of property is assumed not explained.  Given the wide functionality of the sharing economy explored in the last section the reasons why private property arose need explaining.  Secondly older theories do not properly explain the origins of money in the light of continuing research, especially the deep roots of money in social rituals of exchange, and how systems of monetary exchange and the sharing economy can and have persisted alongside each other for millennia.

‘Seizure’ views of the origins of property see it as arising from an elite taking what was previously common property, and then exchanging that property with others who have also taken it. We see the literature strewn with phrases such as ‘Once agriculture began men seized control’, as if agriculture by itself somehow bred changes to mans behavior that engendered hierarchy and stratification.  There is no evidence for this.  Modern archaeological evidence shows a remarkable lack of stratification of early agricultural communities, with them being the natural outgrowth of social relationships from intense foraging.

Seizure theories are seen as originary primitive accumulation, with the means of life then seized people are forced into labouring or slave relationships.  The problem with this approach is it conflates two processes into one.  The formation of property, and accumulation by dispossession.  Accumulation by dispossession does not require private property on either side, it simply requires dispossession by one individual or group by the other.  Whereas property can be formed in some circumstances without disspossession, as in the classic Jeffersonian or Lockean concept of ‘free land’ cloven from the wilderness.  Although romanticised this has been the actual process at the margins of cultivation for most of mankind’s history.  They are logically separate processes, although one process can force and assist the other.

In a gift economy how do you secure your kin against hunger given uncertain conditions/harvests?  In previous sections we have seen the importance of dry storage of grain in supplying this security, a more secure diet though not necessarily a better one nutritiously.  But this still has its disadvantages.  It can only be stored for so long, only so much of it can be sown, only so much can be stored given the size of buildings – which take time and effort to construct, and grain is hard to move in bulk. Most critically grain cannot be eaten whilst it is being stored.

This last factor explains the origins of property and money.  Grain surplus saved is insurance against future uncertainty.  At anyone time there may be other groups who desire that grain because they are not in surplus or who find there own stores are running less than that which they would optimally save.  In return for that grain they may offer something else of use to the other group.  This is of most benefit when that other thing is also capable of being exchanged back when the shortages and surpluses are reversed.  This kind of exchange can happen as gifts – but it requires a large extended kinship obligation.  In circumstances where kind groups meet, or where the trade needs to take place over an extended area creation of a store of value that can later be exchanged for food has the advantage that the exchange can be done fairly anonymously, without strong obligations of kinship or trust.  It can even take place with rival groups where trust is lacking.

There are other types of exchange that need to be undertaken outside the immediate kin group and foremost amongst these is marriage.  The desire to avoid interbreeding creates taboo traditions and formalised arrangements for socialisation outside the immediate kind group.  Because of the severe economic loss of losing a productive adult traditions of brideprice arose and these traditions seem intimately connected to the origins of money.

We know that barter not universal, and certainly not an essential precursor to monetary exchange. There is no evidence that all or even most societies relied primarily on barter before using money for trade.  Barter has severe disadvantages in any form of trade.  It requires a ‘double coincidence of wants’ For barter to occur between two people, both would need to have what the other wants.  Money, in whatever form, acts as an intermediary store of value which can be used later to exchange for a subsistence good such as food.  The presence then of some form of money, even if a minority part of economic relations alongside a sharing economy, can make a group more resilient to variations in subsistence than other groups that engage in pure sharing economies.

Money in whatever form requires a good to be exchanged against.  Imagine two sharing economies, one with a surplus of money, the other with a surplus of food.  The group exchanges money for food.  But only at the point of exchange is can this be considered ‘property’.  Afterwards the money is collectively owned as is the food.  This is only a hypothetical example but it shows that money is logically prior to property.  Money does not arise because of a prior conception of property and though the need to exchange that property.  Money is prior to property.  All that is needed is a concept of a group or individual giving away – sharing – a money good in exchange for a consumption good, such as food.  The food is property only to the extent that the whole of humanity are restrained from eating it.

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