Capitalism’s Last Frontier #25 The Confusion of the Commons

The concept of the ‘Trajedy of the Commons’ is often cited as being a causal factor in the origin of real property.

The original article published by Garrit Hardin in Science in 1968 was posed as a counter to the idea that issues concerning overexploitation had a technical solution.  This aspect of the thesis is often overlooked by those focussing on the implications for property rights but in this sense, concerning ‘maximisation ‘ of a resource Hardin was quite right

It is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and Morgenstern, but the principle is implicit in the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to D’Alembert…The optimum population is, then, less than the maximum. The difficulty of defining the optimum is enormous; so far as I know, no one has seriously tackled this problem.

He went on to challenge the view that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market would mean that laissez-faire in reproduction would produce the best decision for society as a whole. 

He revives a theory from William Foster Lloyd from 1833 of overuse of the public commons. Unchecked, the size of the herds on the commons will soon exceed its carrying capacity. The commons will become overgrazed.  The argument is presented in terms of utility theory.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of -1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all….the logic of commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture….The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it

He went on in terms that are quite disturbing

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

He had gone beyond the arguments of Victorian social and agricultural reformers to argue for state enforced control of reproductive rights.

The specific example of grazing rights, and which Willaim Foster Lloyd and Garritt Hardin built their arguments, is not a good one, as has been pointed out many times. 

They both certainly confused ‘common property resources’ or ‘commons’ under conditions where no institutional arrangements exist. Common property is not ‘everybody’s property’ – Ciriacy-Wantrup & Bishop  1975 “Common Property” as a Concept in Natural Resources Policy. Nat. Res. J. 15, 713-727.

As George Monbiot has argues in The Tragedy of Enclosure’

Hardin’s thesis works only where there is no ownership. The oceans, for example, possessed by no one and poorly regulated, are over-fished and polluted, as every user tries to get as much out of them as possible, and the costs of their exploitation are bourne by the world as a whole. But these are not commons but free-for-alls. In a true commons, everyone watches everyone else, for they know that anyone over-exploiting a resource is exploiting them.

Principally for our arguments over the origins of common property its thesis is not bourne out either by ecological or historical evidence.  The concept of the ‘trajedy of the commons’ has profound implications in certain contexts of natural resources and population pressure, but it does not apply at all to conditions at the origins of agriculture. 

Range management is an approach based on the ecology of grasslands.  Fifty years ago, French researcher Andre Voisin found (Grass Productivity Island Press 1988) that overgrazing, from the point of view of a grass plant, is a function of time and timing, rather than of numbers of animals. Grasses co-evolved with grazers. Whether wild or domestic, these animals often graze a grass plant severely at first bite. What grass plants need is sufficient recovery time between bites. Therefore timing and grazing management, not numbers, is the critical factor.  It is irrational for a pastoralist to overgraze on an extensive range as it is more productive to move elsewhere.  Indeed as Gilles and Jamtgarred have argued, and subsequent researchers with much ethographical evidence, it is rational in the case of extensive ranges to have communal property to provide additional opportunities for rotation of herds. 

Many of the arguments around commons come from arguments around overgrazing of commons near english town in the early modern period.  Arguments which fuelled the case for land enclosure.  As Susan Jane Bock Cox argues in her paper ‘No Tragedy of the Commons’ such lands were not a pastoral residuum but the poorest quality lands of forest and marsh  at the edges of the lords estate, the ‘wastes’ on which limited numbers of animals were grazed, (the right to graze a certain number of animals was called stinting) often animals whose primary purpose was hauling ploughs. She writes

Perhaps what existed in fact was not a “tragedy of the commons” but rather a triumph: that for hundreds of years—and perhaps thousands,although written records do not exist to prove the longer era—land was managed successfully by communities. That the system failed to survive the industrial revolution, agrarian reform, and transfigured farming practices is hardly to be wondered at.

It is no surprise that overgrazing seems to most frequently occurr throughout history on the edges of expanding settlements, such as the example used by William Foster LLoyd of Boston Common.  Here stinting controls will have broken down, the fixed land areas was suffering from population pressures and there was no opportunity for or inclination to extensive range grazing.

As many authors have pointed out the accumulation by dispossession of communal and traditionally managed land is the real tragedy.

The issue of overgrazing only becomes causal to the formation of real property rights where:

  • population pressures result from sedation and limited grazing land around settlements
  • where these pressures are contained through lack of potential to migrate and form new settlement and/or new grazing areas

Neither of these were primary pressures during the origins either agriculture or real property.



Capitalism’s Last Frontier#24 The Dispersion and Division of Landed Property

In societies that were stratified by age and gender it is possible to conceive of how an elder could accumulate more than one farmstead, such as through death or growth of an extended family, and could trade that farmstead, at times of need or to obtain traded goods.

What is lacking is a model of how farmsteads grow in population, diffuse new farmsteads, how these trade in surpluses and then how this could lead to one family group taking over anothers in some circumstances.

Consider a growing family group at the edges of the margin of cultivation.  With population growth an extended family will grow additional farmsteads, sometimes diffusing into new villages.  In a village with more than one extended family where concepts of family property ownership have developed into concepts of family ownership of land then there will be occasions where one family may consider it appropriate to trade some agricultural surplus for rights to use land.

Take for example a period of famine where one family has accumulated less surplus than another and there are insufficient family members to tend land.  In these cases there is a rational case to trade land for food.  Effectively there is a ratio of land to food, with differential surpluses that ratio will change between families giving a benefit to truck to restore an optimal balance.

With increasing population growth and dispersion extended families will in effect become overextended and some may separate into separate families with their won assumption of a right to property.  In those cases where an original head of family has a strong source of power however they might exercise this over an extended clan and potentially a proto-state.  We shall consider this under our treatment of the origins of the state.

The ratio between mouths to feed and land will be changing all of the time, through birth, death and marriage.  Assuming no technological change and no migration then unless birth rates are below the ‘replacement rate’ there will be hunger – the classic Malthusian scenario. Laying aside the realism of this situation there will undoubtedly be periods when there are hunger pressures.  In these cases where a family takes on an extra mouth to feed – through marriage – then assuming that the woman will spend a number of early years pregnant or in childrearing they will be less able to cultivate whilst decreasing the land-food/people ratio.

Here we can see the origins of the bride price as a form of rebalancing between extended families, to reduce the risk of starvation during those years, through rebalancing the land-food/people ratio.  A form of insurance.  Building up a brideprice will also require saving of surpluses.

Where there are savings credit will not be far behind, as a rebalencinmg between those with an excess of savings, and those with a shortage.  Such as from a elderly man long married and a young person seeking to save the bride price.

But at times of poor harvest the borrower may not be able to replay the loan, or even feed themselves, in these cases the borrower may take the land and introduce sharecropping. There is considerable evidence from early Rome that debt burdens became so great that many people voluntarily entered into slavery

We can see then that there are several mechanisms through which private and familial real property can develop on cultivated land, alongside more communal forms of ownership.  The arguments are often confused though through arguments about foraging land – the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’  we will look at that in the next section.

Capitalism’s Last Frontier #23 Comte & the Act of Cultivation

Charle’s Comtes’ Traité de la propriété (1834) is the single most important work on the theory of, justification for, and origins of property.

His theory was both an historical explanation of the emergence of private property and  an ex-poste justification of how private property could be legitimate even when it had been acquired through force.  It was framed at the time of the restoration of the French monarchy when the issue of whether property rights should be restored was febrile.  Comte also criticised the popular political economists of his daym such as Say, for taking the issue of property rights as given, and outside the realm of political economy itself.

His approach was both an advancement on earlier ideas based on ‘first use’ but also a sharp break from roman legal traditions that occupation and control was itself justification for property rights.  This was for Comte abhorrent bas it was used as a justification for slavery and also historically indefensible, given contemporary liberal historians such as Thierry were documenting the acts of accumulation by dispossession of the Normans and Medieval kings.  Ideas of great rhetorical force at a time when the argument for return of land seized from nobels during the French revolution were made by the forces of conservatism.

Comtes argument then was that property rights have been often illegitimate acts of looting, but that, none-the-less, some rights to private property could be justified.  What is more he recognised that ‘first use’ was rather rare by then, confined to the edges of colonisation,  in the privatisation of national property, and occasionally in industry when new goods were invented. A far more common method of acquiring property was by work and exchange.

Very rarely amongst thinkers of his age he did not automatically assume that seizure of lands from traditional trible hunter-gatherers was legitimate.  Rather his theory was took that in such societies there were property rights but that these were not individual but “national” or communal and included established hunting grounds, and recognised tribal boundaries. So Comte challenged the legitimacy of most European settlement in the other continents.

Comte also made a radical break with the homesteading principle by arguing that it was not obvious that this created an absolute property right, including when land was held in communal ownership by other peoples.

Comtes theory took one step back from the concept of property by first developing the idea of appropriation

“(t)he action of an organised being who joins (unit) to his own body the things by which he grows, strengthens and reproduces himself” and as “the action by which a person seizes, with the intention to enjoy and dispose according to his wish, a thing susceptible of producing directly or indirectly certain enjoyments.

The process of appropriation involves the transformation of physical objects into a part of oneself for the satisfaction of human needs. Denial of these needs was a denial of human rights.

A communal “national” property consisted of non-scarce goods, such as land in hunter-gatherer societies.

Agriculture being much more efficient than hunting and gathering, private property appropriated by someone for farming left remaining hunter-gatherers with more land per person, and hence did not harm them. Thus this type of land appropriation did not violate the Lockean proviso – there was “still enough, and as good left.” 

Comte rejected as absurd the concept of a social compact by which each individual renounced their original equal right of all to property in a state of nature into packets of privately owned land.  He considered it historically inaccurate and illogical.  Rather as one of the founders of sociology Comte sought a sociological explanation

Certainly the concept of ‘first use’ is incompatible ith that of a social compact.  First use assumes that the individual cuts land from the wilderness, whilst the concept of a social compact assumes and existing common ownership.

Comte sought to explain how common ownership could develop into individual ownership and by what kind of social process.

Comte argued that what makes agriculture so different from hunting and gathering and so difficult to get started is that a time lag is introduced between production and final consumption. The labour required for hunting and gathering might be rewarded in a few hours or at worst a few days, the reward from agricultural work will not come for some months. During the months between clearing the land and the first harvest the would-be agriculturalists needed provisions to provide subistence until the harvest is ready. 

This cruso economy investment argument is helpful in considering the immediate barrier to cultivation.  However it is not fully convincing.  wndering hunter gatherers could have gathered self seeded crops at a set time each year, and the act of gathering would create further seeds.  Hence no initial investment would be needed.  If creation of breads required sedentism then intensification of gathering and proto-cultivation could eventually have led to a suplus of seeds.  

Comte considered how could the capital could be acquired to pay workers for their labour until the product can be sold or the crop harvested.  How could an individual aquire it outside the tribe?  Because of these factors Comte concludes that the transition to agriculture (and thus private property) has to come about cooperatively rather than individually. In other words there is not a clean break between the two ways of producing.

He believed that in transitional stage this “boss” or “chef de l’enterprise” is a cooperative of one or more families of a tribe. It is the cooperative who introduce a more specialised division of labour and make the necessary “economies” to accumulate the capital necessary to become cultivators. Once family cooperatives become established it was but a short step, he thought, to the full privatisation of land and farming as family members gradually spilt off to farm individual plots of land.

Before settled agriculture based on private property can emerge there must be a transitional stage of agriculture based upon a mixture of communal and individual labour and communal and private property.. His analysis is based upon ancient Roman accounts of the Germanic tribes, travellers accounts of North American Indians and the early days of the English colony in Virginia. 

The concept of a transitional famial stage of land ownership is important.  But Comte is unconvincing over the rationale for this then becoming individually owned.  We will consider this in the next section.

Capitalism’s Last Frontier #22 Land Ownership and the Leviathen

Fevered speculation and philosophical fantasy are the features that mark out theories of the origins of property.  It has led to a whole branch of judicial, philosophical and political theories posited against an abstract otherworld that never existed beyond the pages of enlightenment philosophers.  Such works are of value to the history of ideas, so long as they are nothing to do with history itself.

The briefest review is needed of theories of the origins of property, dealing only with the key influences.

For Thomas Hobbes in the mid 17th Century originates in territoriality and the need to defend it, with the ‘strongest power in the land’ necessary to defend the status of ownership.  The assumption is of a war of ‘all against all’ – which he calls a ‘State of Nature’  and sovereignty arising from a ‘social contract’ for protection.

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; … no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.  Leviathan Chapter XIII

We tend to see Hobbes ideas through the prism of those who later attacked him.  Those for example who disagreed that man was naturally aggressive and violent, such as Rousseau.  Or in more contemporary times, those who argued, correctly, that this was never an accurate portrayal of early societies.

Life in early agricultural societies, before strict division of individual landownership, may have been short, and poor, but it was not solitary, nasty or brutish.  Early communities suffered from lack of technology, not lack of a state which would simply have extracted agricultural surplus, forced labour, or forcibly removed labour for armies of construction of public works. The creation of a State for such groups would have been seen as a clear historical regression.

We shall look at this ideas when we come on to theories of the origin of the state in more detail, but suffice it to state that it cannot be seen anywhere as anything other that than either imposed, from outside or forced by defending from external groups – it is not a ‘rational’ act – the ‘social contract’ is a protection racket.

Seeing sovereignty this way, we can gain a different understanding of Hobbes.  Not as a justifier of total absolutism, but describing the origins of power at times of war, for him seen through the lens of the English Civil War, and the rational conditions under which this was to be understood.

Rousseau’s theory of the social contract advanced from Hobbes by correctly placing the origins of property in historical time and by acts of accumulation by dispossession.

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

Rousseau has often been misrepresented as seeing in primitive man a goodness, a ‘noble savage’, a term he never used.  Rather for him civil society creates goodness or badness.

Despite the diametrically opposite conclusions on the legitimacy of political power of Hobbes and Rousseau there is a strong common theme, of property ownership seized or enforced by power.  The ‘State of Nature’ was also both a hypothesis of the historical origins of property and a philosophical; abstract to justify either current power arrangements or to challenge their legitimately.

Proudhon famously stated that ‘property is theft, property is freedom’  – indeed all property arrangements have this dual form.  We have looked at the first part, but the second part was emphasised by writers who held to what is known as the ‘Homesteading principle’ also known as the ‘labour theory of property’  – Jefferson was a noted exponent but the original and most famous exigis comes from John Locke in his Second treatise of government

Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property

This was subject to what, after Nozick, we know as the Lockean Proviso – that though individuals have a right to acquire private property from nature, that they must leave “enough and as good in common…to others.”

Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.
—Second Treatise of Government, Chapter V, paragraph 33

In this highly influential view economic value comes from mixing labour with nature, and in the extended form of the Homestead Principle, ‘free land’ never before claimed can be appropriated and title claimed.  Indeed in several 19th century frontier nations, holding principles of English Common Law different versions of Homestead Acts law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title, then land comes under the homesteader’s ownership.

Ownership of such land, especially in the writings of Jefferson and Blackstone, is seen as a bastion against absolutism, land as freedom from external bondage.  An aspiration of all free people escaping slavery and oppressive states.

This principle has two key relations to our study.  Firstly the economic product of labour – food, the relationships between land size, location, fertility, labour applied and cost of food. Secondly the margin of cultivation as the geographical extent of capitalist land holding arrangements expand.

The last, and most sophisticated, views of property in this brief survey, come from Comte, Bastiat and Proudhon, who deserve their own section.

Capitalisms Last Frontier#21 A Token of Value

Theories over the origin of money are impossible to separate from the function of money the theorist assigns.  So for example if the theorist considers the key role of money to be payment of taxes then the theory will assign the origin of money to the origins of the state and the extraction of taxation.

The task here is to examine monetary origins without preconceptions as to what its functions are; rather to consider how those functions came to be and how this changed what came to be modern money.

We shall begin this examination by looking at primitive money, that is money before the invention of coin.  This requires us to be careful about preconceptions about what role money performs

“Primitive Money performs some of the functions of our own money, but rarely all…failure to understand the reasons for such differences leas to disputes about bridewaelth versus brideprice, to arguments about whether cows, pig tusks, and potlacj coppers are ‘really’ money, to the assumption that modern coinage merely ‘replaces’ indigenous forms of money, and to disagreements of authorities over minimal definitions of money.  In these disputes the characteristics of American or European money are too often used as a model.” Primitive Money, George Dalton American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Feb., 1965)

A good example of such preconceptions come from some ethnographical writings on the issue. or example a common theme is that money did not have an economic origin.The preconception being that money is a circulating means of exchange with no non-economic role, and utility solely as money. ;But it is rarely that straightforward.  Items that developed as money often had other purposes, such as ceremonial, or displays of wealth, which later gradually took on wider economic forms.  

Similarly we must look with circumspection that some societies, such as famously the Incas ‘had no money’ when they certainly did use certain goods, such as cacao beans and salt, as a medium of exchange.  

Indeed a vast range of goods were used as primitive money. as AH Quiggin points out

Salt, red ochre, tea, feathers, slaves, human skulls, woodpecker scalps, flying fox jaws, teeth, pigs, horses, goats, sheep skins, cocoa beans, almonds, rice, beeswax, tobacco, cloth, giant stone disks and countless other objects have been ‘money’ at various times and places. ( A Survey of Primitive Money. The Beginnings of Currency(London, 1949))

Money did not have a single origin but deems to have developed independently in many different parts of the world.

Most traditional societies evolved money, the main exceptions being some scattered hunter gatherer cultures.  Although there is no evidence of socities using barter as a ‘stage’ before money (as was universally bellieved before the 1920s, and still this view is heard today occasionally), it is equally incorrect to believe that there are no non-monetary socities, with is the more common ‘textbook’ view today.  There are ethnographical examples of groups that have no conception of a means of exchange but do have of barter.

Indeed some items can both be used as barter – for its own intrinsic worth, and as a means of exchange and store of value.

One of the most important improvements over the simplest forms of early barter was first the tendency to select one or two particular items in preference to others so that the preferred barter items became partly accepted because of their qualities in acting as media of exchange although, of course, they still could be used for their primary purpose of directly satisfying the wants of the traders concerned. Glyn Davies A History of money from ancient times to the present day, new ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002. Page 10).

Current thinking amongst archaeologists is that money originated as a store of value, or rather a memory symbol of a store of value, especially in cultures where subsistence depended on the labour of a family, and the loss of a family member, or a bad season or weather event, could lead to starvation.  Given that food is perishable finding a store of value enabled exchange of that store for another agricultural surplus that year.  The ability to exchange surplus for a bride, to compensate for the loss of labour, may also have been key (WILLIAMS, J. (Editor) Money: A History (London, 1997))

It is worth considering the classical functions of money:  In the childrens versions of old textbooks “Money is a matter of functions four, a medium, a measure, a standard, a store.”  A medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of value, a standard of deferred payment (that is a means of settleing a debt).  

The functions performed by the earliest types were probably fairly restricted initially and would not have have been the same, necessariliy, in all societies.

Many items can perform the function of a store of value.  For example today hoarding a gold bar may perform this, certainly housing is used as such a store.  But that doesnt make gold, or housing money.

The example of Yak Stone money, where any good could be used as a unit of account, but only stone money, vast and immovable, could be used to store value, shows us that the storing of value is the necessary function of money, but it is not sufficient.  Given that exchange of value requires a store of value storage is logically prior to exchange.  But storage requires a means of exchange to enable economic transactions.  

Many items that later went on to form early forms of money had symboloic value, for example the display of wealth, religious value, or a symbol of a brideprice, but these were not always tradable initially.  It is easy to read backwards and state, as some ethnologists do, that the early ‘functions’ of money were not economic, as the basis of such evidence, rather than corectly adducing that symbolic items acquired monetary use through use.

Glyn Davies quotes linguistic evidence to show how ancient and widespread the association between cattle and money was. The English words “capital”, “chattels” and “cattle” have a common root. Similarly “pecuniary” comes from the Latin word for cattle “pecus” while in Welsh the word “da” used as an adjective means “good” but used as a noun means both “cattle” and “goods”.

This illustrates the importance of cattle as a store of value.  But it is difficult to exchange, you cannot exhange a qauarter of a cow without slaugtering it.  So goods that could be divided and assessed though weight or number gathered the functions of money as well, aiding the echange function of money.  The words “spend”, “expenditure”, and “pound” (as in the main British monetary unit) all come from the Latin “expendere” meaning “to weigh”.

From means of exchange by number and weight – quantative money-  it was less of a leap to developm full commodity money.  That is objects that have value in themselves as well as for use as money.

Quantative money was used in Ancient China, Africa, and India in the form of cowry shells. Trade in Japan’s feudal system was based on the koku – a unit of rice per year. The shekel was an ancient unit of weight and currency;The name shekel was based on the Akkadian she, which was the early name for barley. Barley was used as the original medium of weight—and the shekel was equal in weight to 180 grains of barley, or around 11 grams. The first usage of the term came from Mesopotamia circa 3000 BC.

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.

Capitalism’s Last Frontier#19 The Gift of Food


The proto-economy of the pre-neolithic was predominantly an economy of sharing without the concepts of personal property in the manner we understand the concept of property today. The term ‘gift economy’ has become an emotive one.  Critics of capitalism, whether communists, anarchists, or feminist counterpose the propriatorial and acquisitive nature of modern capitalism to the virtues of the gift economy.  This can easily become romanticised in a manner akin to the writings of Rousseae, a time when man was ‘born free’, and rather than being one where life was ‘nasty brutish and short’ in the famous Hobbes phrase.  Or rather than being a time of scarcity was the original affluent society in the words of  Marshall Sahlins – allthough one where affluence is achieved by desiring little rather than by producing and consuming much.

Concepts of the gift economy often transpose unwittingly modern concepts of ownership.  For example to gift property assumes a concept of property and individual ownership.  Such concepts are by no means universal.  The same problem occurs with assumptions of obligation and reciprocation from ‘giving’, concepts of exchange creep in through the back door. Where food sharing is a matter of survival, as it is in hunting and foraging bands it is better to talk of a sharing economy than a gift economy.  In some socities concepts of a gifting economy arose later with concepts of mutual obligation and assertion of status, such as in the ritual of conspicuous food gifting known as potlach.

Humankind seems to have developed an early ability to share. Micheal Tomasello, codirector of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Why We Cooperate. MIT Press (2009) suggests that the evolution of copoeration is a defining characteristic of our species. Tomasello has studied the cooperative behavior of preverbal children, generally 12 months to 24 months in age, and compared their behavior to of apes in similar experiments. The results demonstrate that even children have a natural predilection to cooperate and help others. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, especially where food is concerned, tend to act in ways that increase their own individual gain.


Where do they get this idea of group rules, the sense of “we who do it this way”? Dr. Tomasello believes children develop what he calls “shared intentionality,” a notion of what others expect to happen and hence a sense of a group “we.” It is from this shared intentionality that children derive their sense of norms and of expecting others to obey them.

Shared intentionality, in Dr. Tomasello’s view, is close to the essence of what distinguishes people from chimpanzees. A group of human children will use all kinds of words and gestures to form goals and coordinate activities, but young chimps seem to have little interest in what may be their companions’ minds.

The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food. Anthropologists report that when men cooperate in hunting, they can take down large game, which single hunters generally cannot do. Chimpanzees gather to hunt colobus monkeys, but Dr. Tomasello argues this is far less of a cooperative endeavor because the participants act on an ad hoc basis and do not really share their catch

The gift of food requires a surplus of food, beyond immediate subsistence to give.


This could have happened at some point early in human evolution, when in order to survive, people were forced to cooperate in hunting game or gathering fruit. The path to obligatory cooperation — one that other primates did not take — led to social rules and their enforcement, to human altruism and to language.

“Humans putting their heads together in shared cooperative activities are thus the originators of human culture,” Dr. Tomasello writes.

Independently Hillard S. Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico has reached similar conclusions.

The structure of early human societies, including their “high levels of cooperation between kin and nonkin,” was thus an adaptation to the “specialized foraging niche” of food resources that were too difficult for other primates to capture, (The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.) We evolved to be nice to each other, in other words, because there was no alternative.

We have seen how certain technological advantages, such as the invention of cooking and agriculture, and advances in hunting, enabled a much higher yield for a given area of human habitation, enabling the support of a greater population in any given area of land.  Setting aside for one moment any population increase from an advance in food technology, such an advance can generate a food surplus, more food than is needed to sustain immediate subsistence,  The kinship group will then make a decsion, a true economic decision, about what to do with that surplus.

There are many options.  Seeds can be sown rather than consumed, or dry stored.  Food can be shared within a kinship group, or traded.

Imagine two bands. one in that year with a surplus of food and the other with a failed harvest.  The failed harvest group might raid its neighbour or trade for food.  It is essential for a group to develop one or more survival strategies for times of poor food production.  With a surplus some members of a group can afford not to work solely on food production. They can be mining or making, creating non-pershiable goods to trade, so that in harder times these goods can be traded for food.

In a kinship or family group there will be net exchange in the production of food.  Adults will be net givers, the old and infants, the sick and heavily pregnant women will be net receivers. Loss of a member of that group who is a net giver could lead to starvation from one of the net receivers. This surely is the origin of the concept of the ‘bride price’ .

Concepts of sharing and exchange cannot be counterposed as mutually exclusive in human society.  Indeed all societies seem to have concepts of sharing and exchange running side by side.  This critically relates to the evolution of the concepts of property and money.

Capitalism’s Last Frontier#18 Hierarchy and Gender Division

Humans are unique amongst primate species for the heavy use of meat in their diet.  This, and the perception of violence and strong stratification amongst ape species such as chimpanzees led to a perception, especially in 1960s texts, of ‘man the hunter (which came from a conference in 1966)’, and then in the Sociobiology of the 1980s as an explanation of human nature and human society driven by  hierarchy, aggression, male dominance and territorial expansion, and the rise of human cognition as a result of this factors and the need for co-operative hunting.

This crude view has been chipped away at for many years, but its legacy lingers.  For example against the caricature of ‘man the hunter’ we have the equal one of ‘woman the gatherer’.  Early evolutionary models of Man the Hunter fell out of favour in the 1970s due to the tendency  focus on male-dominated activities while ignoring the important nutritional contributions of women in hunter- forager societies.  From then on we have had a crude division of Man as society, woman as nature.  This ideas have been particularly prevalent in feminist writings and have rarely been helpful, simply replacing an inaccurate stereotype with its reflection.

The challenge to explain is the turn in the early evolution of the immediate ancestors of humans from a hunter scavenger model of subsistence, with strong stratification and gender roles, towards a hunter-foraging model which was much less stratified and more egalitarian, then towards a sedentist agrarian model, where stratification grew and then a hierarchical-city state model where stratification was extreme as was the diminished role and status of women.

Now it is easy to romanticise hunter-foraging societies, especially from speculative projections of current groups to the past.  But it is clear that these were much less status driven than later societies.  Wealth was what could be carried and is difficult to accumulate.  The population carrying capacity of hunter-foraging is low, so there there is a limited scale of social hierarchy that can be achieved.  The gender division of labour seems less clear cut and rather than tribes we seem to have less rigidly defined hunter-foraging bands.  The tribe only seems to develop with the arrival of agricultural sedentism.

In recent years we have gained much greater appreciation of the fundamental shift that occured early in the development of modern man through the development of meat eating and cooking, developed in Craig B. Stanford’s The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior (1999).  and Richard Wrangham.  Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009)  Prior to the discovery of cooking man could only digest limited parts of animal carcasses focussing on fatty parts, and the energy costs of the hunt, compared to the return, was low.  Cooking allowed much less time chewing and digesting, and more blood flow could go to the brain.  Wrangham suggests that cooking led to the origin of patriarchy, with male hunters requiring tending of a hearth for cooking.  Similarly Stanford believes meat sharing rituals may lie at the origins of patriarchy.

It is easy to overstress this as the increase in foraging intensity and the earliest development of agriculture, even the earliest towns such as Catal Hayeck, seem not to have led to an increase in stratification and a widening of the social division of labour.   Indeed the reverse seems to be the case.

The egalitarianism of modern hunter-gatherers is an apparent anomaly in evolutionary terms. The puzzle is that although dominance hierarchies are likely to have characterized the ancestor shared by chimpanzees and humans, and institutional hierarchies are characteristic of modern humans, the hunter-gatherers representing the intervening phase are almost entirely egalitarian in social structure and behaviour.    Erdal and Whiten 1996

The thesis in Beno Dubriel’s  Human Evolution and the Origin of Hierarchies (2011) is that this led to a lessening of the dominance hierarchies typical of primate societies.  The reasons for this are the increased cooperation needed for groups to survive through intense foraging and agriculture, and with increased sedentism or pastoral nomadism a lessening of the gender division of labour, as hunting gradually had lesser importance.  Group living required food sharing, especially for those who could not directly gather food themselves such as pregnant and nursing women, the elderly and infants.

As Erdal and Whiten state

 Instead of wasting time and energy in a futile effort to dominate others, who devoted enough of their personal resources to counteracting others’ dominance, but did not waste time and energy by themselves trying to achieve dominance, would be able to devote much more energy to productive foraging and social behaviour. Those who remained trapped in the old dominance / submission patterns would be wasting their time by comparison.

By contrast Boehm places the emphasis on the actions of the dominated groups

Egalitarian behaviour arises from dislike of being dominated. …Individual dislike of being dominated, reflected in the ethos and reinformed by it, is transformed by small communities into what amounts to social policy. … Compared with both African great apes and other humans at the strongchiefdom level or higher, human groups committed to egalitarian behavior have gone in an opposite direction. They have done so because followers discovered that by forming a single political coalition they could decisively control the domination proclivities of highly assertive individuals, even their chosen leaders. This political direction was somehow reversed after the invent ion of agriculture, and an “orthodox” version of social dominanc e hierarchy reappeared. This argument is highly relevant to theories of state formation. Christopher Boehm Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy Current Anthropology, Vol. 34, No.3. (Jun., 1993), pp. 227-254

In the following sections we shall examine the thesis often put that agriculture in and of itself created hierarchy and that hierarchy formed the basis of urbanisation and civilisation.  As we will see the causation is often reversed.

Capitalism’s Last Frontier #17 Systems Materialism

We have been looking at the causal relationships in the establishment and reproduction of social systems.  We will turn next to the establishment of the formal ‘economy’ as we know it, as well as to the establishment of cities, property and structures of hierarchy/the State.

In adopting a cultural ecology perspective we can show how social systems endure through a successful, if often temporary, adaptation to the resource challenges they face.  Clearly causality implies a determinism, an outcome of an objective reality.  This kind of determinism is not a crude materialism, especially of the economist turn where all actions are traced to economic causes or ‘laws’.  The very existence of the economic itself, of economic relations is an emergent phenomenon, emerging from the interaction and mutual determination of several social systems, of gifting, receiving, exchanging, producing, trading; each of these sub-systems coming about because of their ability to help create, sustain and manage a social surplus – a breathing space over and above raw subsistence and survival, a breathing space in which society can form, in which production is possible and travel and trade is practicable.

These mechanisms of causality are multiple and complex, which as Warren Weaver taught us makes systems hard to predict fully.  Today we tend often to refer to complexity theory as a synonym for systems theory, the theory of complex relations.  But by complex we do not mean random, chaotic or unknowable.  A sub-system is a boundary between a system of regulation and control and the unregulated and uncontrollable beyond.  Indeed all spatially bounded subsystems – which include all social systems –  come about because of the need to define and control a locality within which knowledge and power are possible.  A ‘here’ a home space and a ‘there’ an other-space beyond.

By systems materialism I mean an approach to studying the causality of social change which focuses on the physical aspects of the transformation and transportation of matter and the energy required to do so, as well as the reality of ideas on how to do so, as they are able to influence real physical events.  A systems approach recognises the multiple and intersecting causalities, and the systems of feedback which exacerbate change or slow it.  A systems approach also provides a conceptual approach which is applicable at all historical, and proto-historical, times; rather than an approach applicable only to modern capitalism then retrofitted, crudely, to other times and circumstances.

A systems approach is needed because reality is systemic.  It is the way the world is.  We can create a systems model as a reflection of reality, and that reflection is likely to be easiest to model for the simplest and most self contained aspects of reality.  As Dominique Chu writes the radical openness of systems mean that any model we create will always be an approximation of where the boundaries of where a sub-system lie will will depend on the context of outside influences.  Our models will be wrong but the act of model building can give us a greater understanding of reality.  This approach is similar to Roy Bhaskars early ideas on Critical Realism, that reality has depth, and it is worth probing to discover it.

A systems materialism is also materialistic because its focus on ecology as ontology.  There is not an infinite possible number of ideas that can be transformed into reality and where that reality sticks.  Reality only sticks, ideas stick, when they can create sub-systems that reproduce in terms of there mechanisms for managing flows of energy, regulating their environment and securing an evolutionary trajectory.

Ideas not a mere cipher of matter.  To be read off a material ‘base’.  Ideas are structures of information, information on how to approach reality and how to approach other ideas. Different ideas will have different information content on how to shape reality, each with a different information productivity in terms of the efficiency of the use of energy and the processing of matter. Ideas co-evolve with the environment and other ideas.  Succesful ideas are those that change the world.

In searching for a materialism that avoids the abyss of dualism we have to turn towards some of the ideas of Joseph Dietzgen – of his conception that  thought is material, or as he put it “Nature comprises all” .  “Our perceptive faculty is not a supernatural source of truth, but a mirror-like instrument, which reflects the things of the world, or nature”  Thought and matter were no longer radically.  Dietzen was a libertarian socialist thinker that sought to bridge the deepening gap between ‘anarchist’ and ‘socialist’ camps after the first international.  His classic work is The Nature of Human Brain Work: An Introduction to Dialectics (1869).  It was he and not Marx who invented the concept of ‘dailectical materialism’ and Marx was greatly influenced by his ideas.  However as can be seen his concept of materialism was very different from that of Marx who characterised ideas as a surface effect, a superstructure, built on a material base.   Dietzgen broke with this old fashioned kantian dualism. The world of reality is a never-ending, always changing set of observable phenomena, and it exists only as a united whole –  nature.

Today we see Dietzgen only through second hand sources, though was was critical, but deeply influenced by him, and through Lenin who thought his ideas  ‘obviously false’ .  The kind of ideas that Dietzgen criticised were those of the vulgar materialists who believed there was a one way direction of causality from physics and chemistry to ideas and to political change’. Lenin was so fierce in his criticisms because it was precisely this kind of materialism he defended.  Pannekoek criticised this kind of materialism as the ideology of a new working class, a party of technocrats that had adopted the ideology of shopfloor capitalism and scientific management.

We can reject this reductionist historical materialism- an artefact of enlightenment ideas of a prime mover, unidirectional causality as a substitute for God.

The limitations of a theory of history extended to be a theory of society and a theory of ideas was well known to Engels.

Engels for example wrote

‘while the material mode of existence is the primum agens this does not preclude the ideological spheres from reacting upon it in their turn, though with a secondary effect’  ( letter to Conrad Schmidt August 5, 1890

we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side — the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about — for the sake of the content. ( letter to Franz Mehring dated 14 July 1893)

But what was the relationship between the primum agens and ‘secondary’ factors?  How do ideas come about and influence social change. This gap in Marxian analysis led to various theories and ideas of social agency from Weber to Parsons.  But the necessary corrective of focussing on choice and agency did and can lead to the neglect of structures and tendencies that bring about chance irrespective of the choice of the individual.  Those features Adam Smith called ‘The Invisible Hand’.

Marx as a close reader of classical economics would have been closely influenced by the idea of the ‘long run’ – from Ricardo in particular.  A tendency over a period of time for various economic laws to bring about an inevitable outcome, irrespective of short term fluctuations.  There are many such dynamic tendencies in classical economics.  Capital will flow from areas of high profit to low profit, from countries with low potential for profit to those with high.  Processes with low profits will be abandoned, as will stocks and currencies if they offer poor returns.

This is often forgotten and ignored.  Political economy appeared to show the primacy of economics in a fully monetary economy – capitalism – a society where everything could be bought and sole.  If everything could be bought and sold then in the ‘long run’ economics appeared to explain everything of social significance.

If the economy and society – political economy – is seen from a systems perspective, and one where ideas shape reality through providing information and ideology to guide behaviour, we can formulate an approach to theory of historic change that can embrace, and manage, complexity.  It can explain the link between the individual economic decision and change in whole economy through systems concepts such as homeostasis, systems of adjustments in crowds (we will explore this issue further later).

It can also make use of a broader range of tools than historical materialism available from systems thinking, of self-organisation, of telenomy, of emergence (we shall also go through these concepts shortly).  These tools through adopting a systems approach can explain, as Marxian concepts cannot, of how social/economic systems are part of a wider ecosystem on which its fragily depends.

These tool are capable, in the way reductive historical materialism is not, of developing coherent theories where power, social control, ideology can be explained and seen to determine social systems, as it is the very creation of simple social sub-systems that makes control of that sub-system possible.  For example it is hard to rule the world, but easier to control an isolated village of believers.

Once we have become used to throwing the causes of natural events and those of social changes into one tub, we are only too inclined to look for a fundamental first cause, which would in a measure embody the law of social gravitation, underlying all historical events. When once we have gone so far, it is easy to overlook all the other causes of social structures and the interactions resulting from them…

The will to power which always emanates from individuals or from small minorities in society is in fact a most important driving force in history. The extent of its influence has up to now been regarded far too little, although it has frequently been the determining factor in the shaping of the whole of economic and social life (Rudolf Rocker Nationalism and Culture 1937)

At this stage it is useful to examine Rudolf Rocker’s anarchist theory of history.

We do not deny that in history, also, there are inner connections which, even as in nature, can be traced to cause and effect. But in social events it is always a matter of a causality of human aims and ends, in nature always of a causality of physical necessity. …In the realm of physical events only the must counts. In the realm of belief there is only probability: It may be so, but it does not have to be so.

Every process which arises from our physical being and is related to it, is an event which lies outside of our volition. Every social process, however, arises from human intentions and human goal setting and occurs within the limits of our volition. Consequently, it is not subject to the concept of natural necessity….

We are with Rocker’s critique of historical materialism here, but with one critical provisio.  ‘The realm of probability’ will create potentialities for social action, but only those ideas that can be enacted through a system of power will be enacted, and in the long run only those increase the survivability of social systems, through the evolution of increased economic efficiency, will survive to transmit those ideas.

Through understanding these systemic materialist connections we can avoid the new age missapplication of systems ideas, the trap that because everything connected to everything, we need explain the causes of nothing.  Holism, and the relationship of the part to the whole is critical in systems thinking.  These ideas were often glimpsed in partial form in earlier thinking before modern systems thinking developed, these ideas we tend to bundle under the term ‘dialectics’.  Systems ideas enables us to strip away the metaphysical and idealistic crud of Hegalism that contaminated this brand.

Today we are at an end of an age of failed ideologies, of monopoly capitalism , state capitalism and marxism.  As we said failed ideologies will struggle to survive and be transmitted if more robust ideas are developed.

Capitalism’s Last Frontier#16 Crusoe’s Family

So far we have been looking at the proto-economy. Those features of economic relations that are not reliant on exchange.

Classical economics postulated such an economy, often though examples with the figure of Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual allocating their time between different production possibilities. In this economy without money trade or prices, the introduction of Man Friday is used to illustrate the possibilities of trade.

This was always a useful logical exercise to determine just what aspects of economics are foundational, and do not depend on interpersonal exchange or even a way of producing, Austrian economics uses it today. But it is a dangerous approach because humans would have soon died out were they all isolated individuals on desert islands. It is the evolutionary social dynamics which matter not the mythical methodological individual.

The fundamental aspect of the proto economy and all economies that follows are:

  1. The need to secure reproduction of humankind;
  2. The need to secure the water and energy resources (from food) to secure survival;
  3. The need to secure and sustain the local environment providing food resources.

If any social group can secure these they will have secured their social reproduction.  Their society will have survived until the next generation.

Note this survival can only be assessed ex-post, and this ‘need’ does not depend on volition to survive, only that survival occurs.  These rules apply equally to all animals, they are systemic requirements.  It is an underlying rule of social evolution.  Humankind through culture and language can assess what are those factors essential to survival in any ecological context and transmit them.  Reflexive assessment of environment and not only how to adapt to it but how to adapt that environment.  Not only to accept and transmit the culture and society of parents, but the ability to add to it and alter it where needed.

These rules are part of the underlying rules of evolution of which Darwinian Evolution is just one special case, that where the transmission mechanism of traits is genetic, in society the transmission mechanism is culture, learning, and language.

This approach roots population ecology as the foundation of social science.  This is to be counter-posed to the enlightenment and modernist view of stadial evolution and ‘progress’ of society through a single monolinear fixed series of stages, through to ‘civilisation’ that all societies have gone through.  This concept of course has deep roots and was shared equally by Adam Smith, Hegal and Karl Marx; what today we would called the traditional concept of sociocultural evolution.

By contrast the notion of social evolution we are considering has been termed  Neoevolutionism, or cultural ecology, in particular in the work of Leslie White and in particular Julian Steward (Steward, Julian H. Theory of Culture Change. University of Illinois Press).

This tradition rejects the stadial 18th/19th century notion of progress, the focus is instead on the Darwinian notion of “adaptation”. All societies have to adapt to their environment to secure survival. Steward for example argues that different adaptations could be studied through the examination of the specific resources a society exploited, and how a society exploits these resources through technology and the organization of labour.

Different environments will require differing adaptations. As a resource base or technology changed, so too would a culture. In other words, the driving force is not the inner logic of culture, but rather in terms of a changing relationship with a changing environment.  Change is seen as multilinear not monolinear, and with no fixed predetermined outcome.  Decline can occur as well as rise of societies.

Note the centrality of resources.  Resources prior to property, a resource must exist and provide a productive service to humans before any conception of ownership or sharing can arise.  The concept of property is not a necessary conception for economic relationships, but is contingent on certain social structures.  Similarly we must be very careful of the common conceptions of economic being the study of the use of ‘scarce’ resources and ‘unlimited needs’.  Scarcity only has meaning when resources and population are pressured, it is not a natural fact but a symptom of lack of adaptation of a society to its environment. Needs arise from this relationship not prior to it.

Failure to fully grasp these relationships has led to the poor treatment of pre-capitalist societies by political economy in general and modern economics in particular. We read backwards from modern economic man to the past, we make Crusoe think and act like a capitalist.  Crusoe rather was a member of a family and a tribe, lived in a village and rarely on a desert island, there was no Friday (though there were villages and tribes of Fridays elsewhere), Crusoe had children, half of Crusoes were women.

Through this approach we can consider the real behaviour of societies before the institution of property, money, the state, trade or exchange, we can also trace the development of these social structures using the tools of ecology and of political economy stripped to its ecological and social foundations.