This I discovered yesterday when David Graeber promptly replied to my email asking him why barter tended to take place between strangers and would-be enemies.
well it’s all in the book, you know, It seems silly to rewrite it all in an email. I would suggest going to one of those free sites
like http://en.bookfi.org/, download it, and check out chapter 2.
Turns out that website doesn’t link to David’s book, but I did eventually find it here.
I suppose I might have been the 3rd annoying person to have pinged David lately, asking him if he knew the answer to something he’d already answered over the course of an entire chapter in a 542 page book.
Daily I receive emails from people at work subject-headed “Quick Question” only to find the question inside may have been fairly quick to type, but would take AN AGE to answer. After years and years of this, it really annoys me. That people presume you hold the answer to so much stuff at the top of your head and that it’s convey-able in less than 10 words — which, in my book, is the only definition of “Quick Question”.
So perhaps it isn’t fair to generalise about David’s friendliness and it was helpful that he replied and sent me straight to the source — I mean he could’ve just written “it’s in the book” ….
Though if he had the table of contents helpfully lists The Myth of Barter as the title of a chapter so I would’ve got there in the end.
To prove even more annoying to David, I haven’t even sat down to read the entire chapter, but I’ve read enough to know that yes, there wasn’t any quick answer to my question.
As he explains on page 29
“The definitive anthropological work on barter, by Caroline Humphrey, of Cambridge, could not be more definitive in its conclusions: “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 that there never has been such a thing.”
Now, all this hardly means that barter does not exist – or even that it’s never practiced by the sort of people that [Adam] Smith would refer to as “savages.” It just means that it’s almost never employed, as Smith imagined, between fellow villagers. Ordinarily, it takes place between strangers, even enemies. Let us begin with the Nambikwara of Brazil.”
So despite all the economists who casually insist that barter was The Way Things Used To Be, turns out that it’s more like a ceremonial rite which took place by different tribes of people approaching each other for the first time — sometimes ending in violence. In addition to Brazil, the author takes us to Western Australia to learn more about a barter ritual called the dzamalag.
David’s conclusion is that, “barter is what you do with those to whom you are not bound by ties of hospitality (or kinship, or much of anything else).”
Sheesh, I hope my friends and family take no offence to my assignment this week, since I wasn’t planning to barter with a perfect stranger from another tribe.
If you’re interested in David, I found this video of him explaining how Yale asked him to disappear. Me, I plan to read more of his book. And I’m delighted to have found out that so many books — even important works of non-fiction, can in fact, be downloaded for free. Didn’t know this. Might be my new way of dealing with the instant gratification of book purchase compulsion.