Anything but sex …

This week’s card is the 5 of Clubs and my assignment is to barter. Pretty much anything. Here’s some weird stuff I just found about bartering which is tantalising incomplete —

Contrary to popular conception, there is no evidence of a society or economy that relied primarily on barter. Instead, non-monetary societies operated largely along the principles of gift economies and debt. When barter did in fact occur, it was usually between either complete strangers or would-be enemies.

According to wikipedia to find out a bit more about why or how barter was usually reserved for strangers or foes I was going to have to track down the work of economist David Graeber who wrote  Debt: The First 5000 Years and while I am officially allowed to buy books again (as of today the ban on book purchases and writing meals has expired*), I just don’t have the time.

However, I have found this book review from Social Text Reviews where I bump into Georg Simmel again (the philosopher who guided us through the meaning of money seminar a few weeks back). But as for bartering this was the only mention from the review of Graeber’s work:

Importantly (and consciously) Debt overturns historical misconstructions such as the myth of barter (what Graeber calls a pernicious and long-lasting fallacy perpetuated by Adam Smith); the “free market” (a concept which has never sustained a universal meaning); and the ubiquitous but false notion that money is an invented thing (“‘money’ isn’t a ‘thing’ at all, it’s a way of comparing things mathematically, as proportions: of saying one of X is equivalent to six of Y. As such it is probably as old as human thought.”) (52). Graeber even performs a corrective on “knight-errants,” who in actuality were thuggish Christian fighters whose bullish debt extractions were washed over in literary accounts.

I don’t know, maybe it is worth buying the book? But after a quick Google I’ve an even better idea. Turns out Graebel is actually David Rolfe Graeber and he’s an American anthropologist and anarchist who happens to be based here in London at Goldsmiths, in the Social Anthropology department. I’m pretty sure anarchists don’t mind emails so I’ve just contacted him to ask what the story is with bartering — why only strangers and foes?

As for me, I reckon my bartering will be limited to friends and family. Stay tuned till next week …unless of course you’d like to make me an offer of trade.

* I was going to report back on whether deprivation proved painful, wasn’t I? The short answer is: No. I have plenty of books to read already and I’ve kept a running list of the ones I wanted to buy over the past several weeks. This has proved more fun than the instant gratification that Kindle could’ve provided. Maybe I should adopt this as a policy. But I don’t think so, nothing really compares with the pleasure of popping into my favourite bookshop and walking out with a fresh book in hand. As for no writing meals — (i.e., dining out alone to write), without wanting to over-promise, I think the break might make it easier for me to cut down on these and keep them more as an occasional treat. This prohibition lead me back into the kitchen. I’d almost forgotten the pleasures of cooking. (And yes, close friends reading this, I can hear you sniggering … but really, it’s all relative.)

2 thoughts on “Anything but sex …

  1. I was reading Graeber last month on this very topic and will paste his answer to your question below, from a Sept. 13, 2011 post of his at the Naked Capitalism blog. You can read his answer in context at

    Graeber says:
    3) All this is not to say that barter never occurs. It is widely attested in many times and places. But it typically occurs between strangers, people who have no moral relations with one another. There is a reason why in just about all European languages, the words ‘truck and barter’ originally meant ‘to bilk, swindle, or rip off.’ [4] Still there is no reason to believe such barter would ever lead to the emergence of money. This is because barter takes three known forms:

    a. Barter can take the form of occasional interactions between people never likely to meet each other again. This might involve ‘double coincidence of wants’ problems but it will not lead to the emergence of a system of money because rare and occasional events won’t lead to the emergence of a system of any kind.

    b. If there are ongoing trade relations between strangers in moneyless economies, it’s because each side knows the other side has some specific product(s) they want to acquire—so there is no ‘double coincidence of wants’ problem. Rather than leading to people having to create some circulating medium of exchange (money) to facilitate transactions, such trade normally leads to the creation of a system of traditional equivalents relatively insulated from vagaries of supply and demand.

    c. Sometimes, barter becomes a widespread mode of interaction when you have people used to using money in everyday transactions who are suddenly forced to carry on without it. This can happen, for instance, because the money supply dries up (Russia in the ‘90s), or because the people in question have no access to it (prisoners or denizens of POW camps.) This cannot lead to the invention of money because money has already been invented. [5]

    1. Wow!!! thank you so much! He’d already replied to me earlier — with rather a snippy reply, so I’ve already downloaded his book, read the appropriate chapter and blogged about it – though the post doesn’t go live till tomorrow

      but am much more excited that you had the answer for me

      if I only I hadn’t so impetuously gone and emailed him — sometimes Zeros makes me do things I’d never normally do 🙂 xxx

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