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Link: “The Myth of the Barter Economy”

Original post found at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/barter-society-myth/471051/

Introductory economics textbooks and widespread assumptions say that before the existence of money, people barterered with one another, but actually there’s no evidence that this ever occurred. The only barter economies that we know of existing, existed between people who had previously used money but had this come into short supply (as when the Roman Empire collapsed).

Instead, societies which have never used money tend to do a couple of different things: either stockpile supplies at a community level and distribute them fairly, or operate a “gift economy”, where everyone shares things with others as they need them, with the expectation that when you are the needy one, people will do the same. In gift economies there’s no score-keeping; it’s not like “owing a debt” or “calling in a favour”, it’s really about sharing freely.

So why has the “barter myth” become so prominent? The article argues that it’s really about justifying the underpinnings of capitalism, i.e. that everything is a commodity with an underlying value and that if you can’t trade at market prices, you don’t deserve the resources you need to live – and that this is a natural, universal truth that every society in human history has adhered to. You might note that this is not an assumption made by any of the societies that had never used money that we actually know existed – so the prioritisation of “trade value” ahead of human life and dignity is in fact a deliberate choice, not the natural law capitalists would prefer us to believe it is.

a cartoony avatar of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.