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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about alternatives to exchange economies, prompted by David Graeber’s analysis of the mythical origins of exchange and money in his book on debt. One thing that Graeber discusses is that, contra the bourgeois economists and contemporary hegemonic thinking on the subject, members of ancient societies did not exchange amongst each other - they didn’t barter within a community, which then led to a search for efficiencies in the form of money and asynchronous exchange. Rather, ancient communities had various ways to handle the distribution of produce that did not use exchange, and exchange (primarily barter) was employed between societies or communities, not within them. Graeber, an anthropologist, mentions a few specific examples, but the clearest illustration for my purposes is probably the Iroquois matriarchal form of centralized distribution. Graeber writes that while Adam Smith erected his theory of barter leading to money on books found in Scottish libraries, he ignored the anthropological work of Lewis Henry Morgan, which had been widely published by the middle of the 18th century. According to Graeber, what Morgan found was that

the main institution among the Iroqois nations were longhouses where most goods were stockpiled and then allocated by women’s councils, and no-one every traded arrowheads for slabs of meat. (Debt, 29)

Now, I haven’t followed up to see what other anthropologists or Indigenous peoples themselves currently think about Morgan’s work, but it’s a good illustration of one possible way a community can exist without exchange. Such a system should also dispense with the mystification around scarcity that exists in capitalist society. Because of the division of labour, the mystification of the labour process, the three-fold alienation which Marx identified in the 1844 Manuscripts (in capitalist society, a person is alienated from the product of their labour, from society, and from themselves), “abundance” and “scarcity” become impossible to see directly, mediated as they are by the market (i.e. supply and demand). This allows for scarcity and abundance to be manipulated - hoarding, surge pricing, etc, all being examples of this. But perhaps the most insidious result of the mystification of abundance and scarcity is the idea of scarcity itself. As Marx and Engels wrote, capitalism is the most productive economic system every created, and yet it is plagued by this idea of scarcity. Not enough jobs to go around (blame immigrants), not enough money for government services (blame scroungers), not enough money in an individual’s bank account (blame taxes). And this economic logic seeps into other areas of life, as the capitalist mode of production increasing restructures human society in its own image for its own purposes.

There was an interesting thread on Twitter last week about how the idea of scarcity affects marginalized communities. For example, the transmisic justification for arguing that trans women are not women or trans men are not men appears to be based on some strange equation between scarcity/abundance (in terms of opportunities, rights, etc.) and identity. This arithmetic is both dangerous and unnecessary, and is imported wholesale from our understanding of market (that is, exchange) relationships. The idea of exchange underpins many (but not all) of the ways we attempt to justify social exclusion, marginalization, and hatred. This isn’t surprising because capitalism profits from precisely those things as it pursues ever-expanding accumulation. If we can think of our social relationships as an economic equation in terms of who gets to consume (scarce) resources in exchange for what, if we seek to maximize efficiency and utilization of resources in our non-economic relationships, then we are turning them into economic relationships, making them - all of a sudden - prime targets for capitalist profitability. (Side note: this is what has happened / is happening with the neoliberalization of higher education: the more we employed capitalist assessment criteria and metrics, the more we became easily assimilable to the capitalist mode of production, and guess what… that’s where we are now).

In his analysis of Volume 1 of Capital, Fredric Jameson argues that “Marx’s version of the labour theory of value dramatically solves one of the age-old mysteries of the market (how can anyone make money out of a fair exchange?)” (Representing Capital, 12). Of course, Marx’s answer is that the exhanges that seem fair under capitalism (labour contracts, especially) hide a structurally necessary power imbalance and mechanism of exploitation. It would not be wrong to say that under capitalism there are no fair exchanges, just as there’s no such thing as ethical consumption. But what is significant here is the idea of “fairness” itself. As Graeber says with respect to debt, it is immoral to not repay a debt. Maurizio Lazzarato, drawing on Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals shows that neoliberal financialization has in fact not only produced people who are universally indebted (an economic situation), but who are defined by their ability to keep their promises (a moral situation). Economics and morality are thus bound up with each other: morality becomes one of the tools of economic reproduction, capitalist reproduction.

I don’t want to spend more time on Lazzarato’s The Making of Indebted Man, but it’s a really fascinating book, and I recommend it. Instead, I want to turn to a source that most people will likely find odd for me to use: The Gospel of Matthew. There are a lot of political lessons to be drawn from Jesus (I’m especially partial to “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, which to my mind stakes out a position against rule-based ethics), but two moments in particular are significant for this discussion. First, Matthew 14:15-21:

And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, We have but five loaves, and two fishes. He said, Bring them hither to me. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they all did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. And they had had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Notice how the disciples’ response to scarcity (“this is a desert place”) is to break up the community and to send the multitude to engage in exchange (“buy themselves victuals”), while Jesus argues that, for a community, there can be no scarcity, because of the means by which a community centralizes and shares (distributes) its produce. Community thus takes ethical and ontological priority over economic relationships like scarcity and exchange.

Next, in Matthew 18:22:

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.

I read this as Jesus arguing against the idea of fairness in exchange. Peter wants to know what the going rate of exchange is between sin and forgiveness, he is looking for a calculus, a criteria for default. Jesus’ position is that a relationship of love and forgiveness can and must exist beyond such logical calculus of value and exchange.

These examples illustrate that not all economic and ethical issues are new to capitalism, but they achieve particular resonance under capitalism. For me, the kind of communism that Marx and Engels argue for can be thought of in this way (taking care to avoid the utopianism of the early-19th century socialists): that in order achieve a society not based on exchange, the tyranny of economic “fairness”, and exploitation, we have to give up this idea of debt, repayment, value, equality, measure, etc., and live together as a community rather than - as the bourgeois economists would have us believe that we are - an aggregation of individuals bound together solely by economic bonds (that is, exchange relationships). Jesus argues for this kind of perspective time and time again. Turning the other cheek is not (or not only) about meekness, but about abdicating a particular form of repayment. The political thought of Jesus, while wrapped in a mystical shroud I have difficulty accepting, can still be understood as providing particularly radical illustrations of the unnaturalness of economic logic, especially when it seeps into our social relationships.

It is important, I think, to continue to imagine utopian solutions to these kinds of quintessentially practical problems. Practical solutions are always conditioned by economic logic, the logic of scarcity, exchange, and value. As a different Twitter thread discussed this weekend, the failure of our political solutions is often a failure of imagination. It’s important to keep the unrealistic, utopian ideas in play so as not to abandon the field to the domination of economic logic and the dehumanizing calculation of human lives.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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