[For the record, I admire much of Graeber’s work (and much that he writes on debt itself), indeed citing him in my dissertation. My interest in his “myth of barter” argument partly stems from studying archaeology and the earliest accounting tokens under Denise Schmandt-Besserat while an undergraduate at UT Austin, who also supervised my senior paper (that was in part a source for Chapter One of Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses). Also, I do not see this post as contra views such as The Legal Construction of Value, but ulimately supplementary to them. Image above: Ethiopian “amole tchew,” blocks of salt bound with straw, since ancient times used as a means of payment.]
- The type of “barter” economists generally discuss is properly known as commodity-exchange (as opposed to gift-exchange), yet Graeber misdirects the reader by focusing on the latter.
- It is logically not possible, before the tax-credit became a viable base-unit for currencies, to have a credit-system of monetary exchange without first having a unit-of-account to measure that credit in; the unit-of-account could theoretically be a labor unit, but has more often—and repeatedly—been a uniform, divisible, widely valued, commonly used, storable, transportable good, often grain or salt. (This is in line with anthropological understanding of the emergence of regional customs in general, and particularly with the emergence of weights and measures. E.g., “It is interesting to note that in all ancient civilizations, the…smallest unit is usually a seed or a grain, and upon such small entities were constructed systems of measurement for units related to length and area, units of mass, and units related to the volume of dry materials.” Williams 2014, pp. 1-2). Of course there have been “credit relations” since there were two people; in this loose sense “credit” surely predates even a “commodity-money;” but a simple commodity-unit of exchange almost certainly predates anything close to what could be conceived of as negotiable “credit-money.”
- Only once does Graeber attempt to actually tell his “credit-money-first” story (2011, p. 46). Curiously, it is as simple as the barter story he criticizes for being too simple. More importantly, Graeber makes the following comment (2011, endnote 9, p. 397) on his own story (he makes the same observation only one other time in “Debt,” discussed below*): “Note that this does assume some means of calculating such values – that is, that money of account of some sort already exists. This might seem obvious, but remarkable numbers of anthropologists seem to have missed it.” This is odd, because it is precisely the generations of economists who have not “missed” “that money of account of some sort” necessarily predates credit-money (and understood that very early commodity-exchange is an activity from which such units could emerge) that Graeber is directing his “myth of barter” argument at. Graeber has recognized this in an endnote, yet simply proceeds as if he hadn’t recognized it. Similarly buried in an endnote (2011, endnote 5, p. 401), Graeber writes that Marx and Weber “were of the opinion that money had emerged from barter between societies, not within them. Karl Bucher (1904), and arguably Karl Polanyi (1968), held something close to this position” and “Insofar as we can talk about the ‘invention’ of money in its modern sense, presumably this would be the place to look, must have happened long before the use of writing, and hence the history is effectively lost to us.” This is rather a different claim than what Graeber leads the reader to believe in the main text of “Debt,” that “just about every aspect of the conventional story of the origins of money lay in rubble. Rarely has an historical theory been so absolutely and systematically refuted.” (Graeber, 2011, p. 40).†
- Graeber uses rhetorical misdirection by at times conflating coins (which came much later) with what would have initially been a commodity. (Example: “What we now call virtual money [credit-money] came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems.” (Graeber, 2011, p. 40). A commodity-exchange story does not depend on “coins” coming first, only on a unit-of-account coming first, often grain or salt.)
- Graeber uses misdirection with the argument that barter only happens after a society “learns” money, then loses money and replaces it with barter. It is not supported by ethnography that all barter stems from this “reversion” process, and it cannot have been true in the oldest, pre-state-money societies (for the reason in ‘2’ above: there cannot have been credit-money before a customary unit-of-account, as there would be no way to measure negotiable credit-units).
- Note: There is a salt mine in Azerbaijan dating from ~4,500 BC., a thousand years older than Graeber’s “shocking blow to the conventional version of economic history” (i.e., documentation of Sumerian temple administrators’ monetary units, ~3,500 BC). And there is another, in Europe (adding another potential area for relevant ancient commodity-exchange in addition to the pre-Sumerian Near East, China, and Indus Valley), that is still a thousand years older, a full 2,000 years before Graeber’s temple documentation. There has been beer brewing (suggesting the earliest beginnings of the uniquely high demand for barley beyond food, and the grain most associated with early accounting units) for a full seven and a half millennia before Graeber’s temples (yes, a full 13,000 years ago). In other words: There is plenty of potential for commodity trade in grain and salt (and other commodities) to have led to the gradual emergence of commodity-units before their adoption by later religious and political groups.
Understanding how early commodity-exchange led to the creation of a unit-of-account that could then form the basis for subsequent credit-money, State-money, and our modern hybrid of the two (vertical-horizontal currency systems) is not only important for the student to better understand how Graeber’s (non-gift-exchange) credit-money systems might develop, but highlights the crucial importance of the later invention of the tax-credit as a unit to replace a commodity unit (a process not fully complete on a permanent basis until the incredibly recent date of 1971, when all promises of conversion of the dollar to a commodity, gold, were finally permanently dropped). Any professor who teaches a direct line from commodity exchange to neoclassical economics does so because they want to, not because “the myth of barter made them do it.” Not addressing the unit-of-account commodity-exchange issue will leave a gap in a student’s understanding that subsequently makes explaining State- and credit-money less rather than more clear. To avoid neoliberal ideas and bad economics, we need the proper story of vertical and horizontal (State and credit) money to be the backbone of Macroeconomics. The role of very early commodity-exchange is likely one part of that story; avoiding it is a bad strategy for building a new, fact-based Macroeconomics with State and credit-money at the forefront.
The Myth of the “Myth of Barter” ‡
David Graeber, in “Debt: The First 5000 Years,” draws a line from barter stories related to the emergence of money to the modern neoclassical view that modern “Economies—’real economies’—are really vast barter systems.” (p. 44).
This connection, Graeber argues, has impoverished economic discourse and in turn society, as the “barter” story directly enabled economists from Adam Smith onwards to dismiss the role of government policy and social goods. It also meant that students of economics were taught neither credit- nor State-theories of money. (Both of which I argue are indeed essential for any correct macroeconomics).
This not only stunted the development of economics but, still worse, led to an atomistic view of society—the barren neoliberal view of society as being reduced to mere transactions, where it is “possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations…” (Graeber, 2011 p. 387. He is 100% correct that mainstream economics is catastrophically stunted regarding “money” and that neoliberal ideas both are pervasive and diminish our wellbeing).
So, the “barter story” of money is a very bad thing according to Graeber, and it seems he has convinced (or confirmed this for) many other heterodox economists, if they weren’t firmly convinced already (and many others, both academic and general readers).
Although an anthropologist himself, Graeber prominently cites (p. 29) another, writing: “The definitive anthropological work on barter, by Caroline Humphrey, of Cambridge, could not be more definitive in its conclusion.” He then quotes her (this quote, prominently cited by Graeber as noted, is still even more important as it is almost universally re-quoted—as “conclusive”—in reviews of “Debt” and discussions of barter):
“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 there never has been such a thing.” (Humphrey, 1985, p. 48)
This seems pretty damning for a barter story of money.
At first pass, a casual reader might even take this sentence to suggest that barter itself doesn’t exist (if this interpretation sounds far-fetched, endnote 16 to that sentence reinforces precisely the idea that Graeber is alluding to: the very non-existence of barter; part of this is explained— and this is germane— by the fact that Humphrey is known as an advocate of a minority view “that barter transactions should be considered as a third category of exchange, distinct from either gift or commodity exchange, that should be studied in its own right.” (Heady, 2005, p. 270). Graeber conspicuously does not inform the reader of this.
Humphrey wrote again in 1992 (not cited by Graeber): “There are few if any whole economies of any sizable scale which are known to have operated by barter alone.” (Humphrey, 1992, p.6).
Even more damning.
Now, it is obvious that barter does exist, and indeed Graeber immediately writes “Now, this hardly means that barter does not exist…”
So what is going on here?
When read more carefully, a much narrower claim is being made by Graeber/Humphrey: Barter exists, of course. But there are not “pure” (Humphrey 1985) or “whole” (Humphrey 1992) barter economies, and there are not large (“sizable scale”) economies that relied only on barter (“barter alone”).
But the commodity-exchange story relating to the emergence of money never said there were those things. “Barter” need not have been the “pure”, “whole” means of exchange in “sizable scale” economies for it to have been some part of the story of the emergence of the very earliest means of exchange. Indeed, the very purpose of the “double coincidence of wants” story is to show that “pure” barter could not be the basis for “sizable scale” economies. That something more was needed.**
Commodity-Exchange and Gift-Exchange
In anthropology, “barter” is often viewed as a non-technical word (even referred to as the “treacherous term barter,” Dalton, 1982, p. 181), the more precise concepts being the ethnographic behavior surrounding exchange, long viewed by anthropologists as divided into commodity-exchange and gift-exchange. Commodity-exchange basically deals with what we would think of as market exchanges, when the participants are primarily interested in the goods themselves. Gift-exchanges involve changes along with exchanges in personal relations, which as you can imagine, becomes highly complicated, especially in tightly-knit communities of very different cultures around the world.
So, properly speaking, the “barter” story related to the beginnings of “money” that Graeber critiques are stories about commodity-exchange. Of course one could and some (in addition to Graeber ††) surely have thought of gift-exchange theories related to the emergence of money. But that is not the common story where participants merely want to overcome transaction costs and the double coincidence of wants that trade-in-kind entails, and end up using some common commodity as a “go between” commodity, a simple “commodity-money.”
However, Graeber (clearly knowledgeable of the long-running cleavage of “barter” within anthropology into commodity-exchange and gift-exchange meanings) introduces the commodity-exchange story, yet then immediately switches to detailed discussions of gift-exchange, with long digressions on gift and ritual exchange among the Nambikwara of Brazil and the Gunwinggu of Australia.
It is hard to not see this as handwaving, a sort of Gish gallop strategy that appears here and also at another critical logical juncture in Debt, in note [*] below. Although Graeber is presumably using “good” anthropology, it is simply not relevant anthropology to the question at hand: How did commonly accepted commodity units-of-account arise that formed the basis for subsequent measures of negotiable credit and tax imposition?
After Graeber recognizes there is barter he raises the objection that it is the way the story of barter is said to have played a role is overly simple, both in how it is told and, more to the point, in its depiction of society. “It just means that it’s almost never employed, as [Adam] Smith imagined, between fellow villagers. Ordinarily, it takes place between strangers, even enemies.” (2011, p. 29).
But would the “barter” parable have a difference in meaning of any significance to economics if we took a more complex story of “strangers, even enemies” trying to trade rather than a simple “fellow villagers deciding to trade” story?
Let’s look into the actual ethnography.
Humphrey’s primary ethnographic research for the paper Graeber cites as definitive was based on her research of the Lhomi of the Arun Valley in northern Nepal near the Tibetan border.
Of the Lhomi, Humphrey writes (1985, pp.54-55): “Before the virtual closure of the Tibetan border by the early 1970’s which followed the Chinese invasion, the Lhomi engaged in three kinds of barter.” These are:
1) “inter-village direct exchange of surplus foods, handicrafts and items gathered from the forests, e. g. maize for potatoes, wool for tobacco, wild garlic for rice, etc.”
2) “regular and large-scale barter of agricultural produce took place each year in exchange for the produce of the Tibetan livestock economy, butter, dried fats and meats, woven woollen clothes, ropes, sacks, rugs, and blankets of yak hair.”
3) “long-distance trade of salt, acquired by the nomads in Tibet, for grains (mainly rice) acquired by the Lhomi in the Nepalese middle hills. This salt-grain trade, supplemented by other valuable items on either side, such as medicinal herbs, musk, vegetable dyes, pashmina wool, paper, coral, turquoise, silver and gold, was not primarily for use but for onward trading.”
Let’s look at this last, the third type of commodity-exchange-barter that the Lhomi were engaged in:
“Tibetan salt was acquired in the border region for x amount of rice and then transported to the middle hills where it was bartered with Gurung, Rai, etc. farmers for y amount of rice. This rice was then taken north and bartered again for salt at a rate which would give the Lhomi an operational surplus for the next cycle…There is evidence…the salt-grain trade was conducted with established exchange rates”
So the Lhomi are using a commodity (salt) that is divisible, uniform, stores well, and has agreed upon value across larger areas (perhaps with “strangers, even enemies”) as a commodity-money.
That is the “myth” of barter, exactly.
It is, quite simply, not a myth.
Nor, does it seem, the Lhomi have “reverted” to this trade due to being previously monetized. This is their traditional mode of exchange.
The phrase Gaeber picked out of Humphrey 1985 simply does not have the meaning—despite all initial appearances to the contrary—that Graeber uses it for. Humphrey’s very own primary ethnographic research focus, the Lhomi, bartered in essentially the way the “myth of barter” says happens. They use a commodity that is similarly valued throughout a region, and is uniform, divisible, stores easily, and is transportable as a simple commodity-money.
The example of the Lhomi is not rare. It is found throughout ethnographic studies, very often with grain, and it is found throughout ethnographic, anthropological, and archaeological records, including throughout Eurasia and the ancient Near East, the place where the earliest known monetary systems, that furthermore are in direct lineage to modern monetary systems, developed.
* Graeber also explicitly notes the problem on page 37: “There is just one major conceptual problem here—one the attentive reader might have noticed. Henry “owes Joshua one.” One what? How do you quantify a favor?…Doesn’t this imply that something like money, at least in the sense of a unit of accounts by which one can compare the value of different objects, already has to exist?”
But as with the diversion of the Nambikwara of Brazil and the Gunwinggu of Australia Graeber again relies on making the reader forget that the question has not been addressed. After the above quote he immediately brings up the observation that in gift-economies there are “spheres of exchange” whereby certain types of items only are traded for other items viewed as in the same class by that culture (e.g., if someone gifts you a necklace, your later return gift might have to be some type of jewelry). He then writes: “However, this doesn’t help us at all with the problem of the origin of money. Actually, it makes it infinitely worse. Why stockpile salt or gold or fish if they can only be exchanged for some things and not others?”
Graeber then makes the “reversion” argument: that barter only happens if first a society has “money” and subsequently loses it (e.g., prisoners who have known money but in its absence in prison trade cigarettes). More frequently, Graeber then says, is that credit-systems are adopted when some previous money system is lost (e.g., after the fall of the Roman Empire credit accounts that were denominated in imperial currency were relied on, even without actually having Roman coins). He discusses this point at some length, then concludes “just about every aspect of the conventional story of the origins of money lay in rubble. Rarely has an historical theory been so absolutely and systematically refuted.”
So to summarize, the chain of “reasoning” above is
- there is no way to measure, this is a problem (page 37)
- gift economies have “spheres of exchange”
- Spheres of exchange don’t “help us at all with the problem of the origin of money.”
- “there is good reason to believe that barter is not a particularly ancient phenomenon at all, but has only really become widespread in modern times.”
- “The more frequent solution is to adopt some sort of credit system.”
- “that credit systems of exactly this sort actually preceded the invention of coinage by thousands of years.”
- In Sumeria, temples developed the unit-of account of grain and silver.
- What markets there were mostly on credit. He notes some textbooks overly simple because tell stories of coin, and/or tell stories of “reverting to barter” when this is not informative.
Chapter ends. (Page 41)
So we have Sumerian temples and spheres of exchange and prisoners with cigarettes and Russia and Argentina and necklaces that can only exchange for other jewelry: It all sounds so erudite and the reader is led on an interesting, seemingly relevant journey. But the reader is led so far from the problem posed: that there had to be units to measure credit-money, that the fact this is never addressed goes unnoticed.
Yes, there is the discussion of temples setting units. As mentioned in the beginning of this post, it is not against the “legal” approach to value and that states have often made markets more than the other way around (but remember the significant theories of commerce influencing State formation, both early modern Nation-States [e.g., as by Stein Rokkan, Edward Whiting Fox, Jane Jacobs] and how this might have applied to ancient state formation [Guillermo Algaze]), and I am clearly in full agreement with chartalism. However, overall commodity-exchange has been an important part of the emergence of units-of-account. Almost the opposite of “Lord Keynes” in the next note, it is not the idea that barter dominated any place or period that needs to be understood, but rather that Graeber goes too far in giving readers the impression that anthropology and/or ethnography have somehow completely overturned any commodity-exchange story, when in fact the right balance is understanding the very early, very long-term role of commodity exchange in early monetary development, while fully appreciating the importance of later institutional influences, and of course most recently, of the modern State.
† “Lord Keynes,” a popular economics blogger, believes many critics have misunderstood Graeber’s argument, arguing that “What Graeber attacks is the idea that money-less communities come to have economies dominated by barter spot trades.” As we mentioned, that phrase itself twists the barter story, which is precisely about why communities will not be “dominated” by barter spot trades. Pace Lord Keynes, however, it is hard to read Graeber as arguing for anything less than a total rejection of anything like the barter story. Yes Graeber concedes barter “may” have been behind the “frequently cited examples” of cacao money of Mesoamerica or salt money of Ethiopia. But it seems Graeber notes these precisely because they are unavoidable, rather than because he is open to any aspect of a barter story. Noticing the few passages that mention bartered commodities probably speaks more to Lord Keynes’ admirable attention to detail rather than of Graeber actually trying anything less than banish the barter story altogether.
Overall Debt is replete with bombastic phrases such as the “fantasy world of barter” and the “story of the origins of money lay in rubble” and that [the barter story] has been “absolutely and systematically refuted.” The widely read The Atlantic piece on Graeber’s “myth of barter” argument starts “This historical world of barter sounds quite inconvenient. It also may be completely made up.” (Strauss 2016). Graeber sets out, and seems to have succeeded, to totally reject the idea of commodity money in the minds of his readers, not to teach them the nuance of its likely role.
I had originally thought to title this post “The Myth of the Myth of Barter” in part because it is humorously obvious, but in part to start a “myth of the myth” series along with my “The Myth of the Currency Hierarchy,” which was very nearly titled “The Myth of the Myth of Monetary Sovereignty” (in reply to Frances Coppola’s article “The Myth of Monetary Sovereignty”).
At any rate, Google eventually informed me that George Selgin had beat me to “The Myth of the Myth of Barter”, and, believe it or not, even “The Myth of the Myth of the Myth of Barter” was taken. “The Myth of the Myth of the Myth of the Myth of Barter” is a “myth” too many, so I ended up with the current title, which is more appropriate to what I have written anyway.
** A similar point is made by Julio Huato, that the very point of understanding the “double coincidence of wants” is that we won’t find many, or large, “barter economies.” The “myth of barter” argument “is like that of a chemist rejecting the idea that unstable radioactive isotopes of a certain chemical element exist and tend to evolve into stable isotopes because the former are only exceptionally found in nature, while the latter are common.” (Huato, 2015, in Selgin 2016)
†† Indeed, Alison Quiggin’s 1949 A Survey of Primitive Money: The Beginnings of Currency contains key ideas that appear in Graeber’s Debt (“Lord Keynes” usefully highlights these). Surprisingly, Quiggin only receives two mentions, both in endnotes, in Debt. (From the blog post just linked): “It is remarkable how the details of the modern anthropological critique of the economists’ view of the origin of money were already available in 1949.” Remarkable indeed. Six decades later and many of Alison Quiggin’s ideas—quite original in the 1940s—are presented, and widely accepted, as novel.
Maurer 2013: “But the state-credit theory, like the barter theory, is founded on a myth. The myth of primordial debt does not explain how that debt to society is converted into a specific sum of money or into a numerical accounting problem…”
“Graeber notes that so-called primitive currencies often fill this role—rather than to buy things, they are used to repair relations. Graeber tries to zero in on the problem of the quantification of debts in state-credit theories. He cannot find a satisfactory explanation. It is a frustrating part of the book, and I can easily see why other commentators have skipped over it, for it takes Graeber a while to get to the point. The difficulty is also that the historical detail Graeber provides on specific injuries requiring specific sums or numbers of milk cows is just fascinating—even if it is not too far off from ordinary market logic because it is ultimately about calculating equivalences. (Maurer, 2013, pp. 83-84)
Note this last sentence by Maurer, that Graeber’s example of milk cows is actually not unlike the barter story itself. Very similar to Maurer’s observation: Graeber presents an interesting account of an early transaction in c. 1275 BC Egypt (Graeber 2011, p. 218):
“In the 15th year of Ramses II [c. 1275 BC] a merchant offered the Egyptian lady Erenofre a Syrian slave girl whose price, no doubt after bargaining, was fixed at 4 Deben 1 kite [about 373 grams] of silver. Erenofre made up a collection of clothes and blankets to the value of 2 deben 2 r/3 kite-the details are set out in the record-and then borrowed a miscellany of objects from her neighbors-bronze vessels, a pot of honey, ten shirts, ten deben of copper ingots-till the price was made up.”
So here we have a price unit set in a weight of a commodity. Because she does not have the weight of silver, Erenofre must struggle to find clothes and blankets, bronze vessels, a pot of honey, ten shirts, and ten deben of copper ingots. Yes, Erenofre goes into debt relations to do so [and note of course the scribe shows no concern that the “price” concerns a human], but more to the point: Had Erenofre had the requisite commodity-money (373 grams of silver), she would not face the high transaction costs of finding clothes and blankets, bronze vessels, a pot of honey, ten shirts, and ten deben of copper ingots. The very existence of a price in grams of silver is precisely what has to be explained before a credit-money story can be told. This ancient Egyptian account is—barring the unfortunate “Syrian slave girl”—an ancient, apparently factual account remarkably similar to the classroom barter story, highlighting the problem of transaction costs where having a simple commodity-money overcomes the problem.
Many in the MMT community have been persuaded—regarding a “myth” of barter— by Graeber’s Debt. Yet a key part of his views are “not in paradigm” as some say, and based on the same mainstream misunderstanding of “money” and “debt” as everyone else. Graeber writes in the beginning of Debt:
“Sometimes, though, debt seems to mean the very opposite. Starting in the 198os, the United States…itself accrued debts that easily dwarfed those of the entire Third World combined…So what is the status of all this money continually being funnelled into the U.S. treasury? Are these loans? Or is it tribute?“
Plea to David Graeber: Please understand what the MMT people are telling you. Sovereign governments have people saving in their currency, including foreigners who have sold things to that country. That is all that that type of “debt” is. It has essentially nothing to do with anything else you write in Debt. Bonds are vestigial; there is no meaningful use for the word “debt” in the context of sovereigns with free floating currencies and no foreign denominated debt. There are many MMT sources for this understanding. I linked to my own version above, you may find it interesting or helpful (1000 Castaways: Fundamentals of Economics ).
Algaze, Guillermo, 2008. Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dalton, George, 1982. “Barter.” Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 181-190.
Graeber, David, 2011. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House.
Heady, Patrick, 2005. “Barter,” Ch. 16 in A Handbook of Economic Anthropology, Ed. James G. Carrier. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, Massachusetts: Edward Elgar.
Huato, Julio, 2015. “Graeber’s Debt: When a Wealth of Facts Confronts a Poverty of Theory.” Science & Society: Vol. 79, pp. 318-325.
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Liu, Li et. al. 2018. “Fermented beverage and food storage in 13,000 y-old stone mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel.” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Volume 21, Pages 783-793.
Maurer, Bill, 2013. “David Graeber’s Wunderkammer, Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” Anthropological Forum, 23:1, 79-93.
Quiggin, Alison Hingston, 1949. A Survey of Primitive Money: The Beginnings of Currency, London: Methuen.
Selgin, George, 2016. “The Myth of the Myth of Barter.” Alt-M blog.
Strauss, Ilana E. 2016, “The Myth of the Barter Economy,” The Atlantic.
Williams, Jeffrey Huw, 2014. “”Measurement in Antiquity,” Ch. 1, Defining and Measuring Nature. San Rafael, California: Morgan and Claypool.
“The key question isn’t the origin of money, but the origin of moneyness.” JP Koning