Prehistoric capitalism?

Is the practice of exchange one which occurs in all societies, or is it rather something which emerges in particular historical circumstances? One writer who has recently discussed such questions is Steven Mithen. Mithen has written previously (in The Prehistory of the Mind, 1996) on the genetic development of a brain and mind capable of our modern complex set of activities. His latest book (After The Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5,000BC, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003) deals with the formation of a productive culture within the effectively fixed constraints of our previous biological evolution.

The contents of After the Ice are an excellent, extremely readable account of early human life as reconstructed from known artefacts and other archaeological evidence. One vital component, added as an aid to presentation but essential to a work of this nature, it would seem, is the introduction of an observer, John Lubbock, through whose eyes we explore this prehistoric world. This observer, who bears the same name as an actual 19th century scientist but is not him, combines characteristics of Victorian and modern scientist, and thus when we read what he sees we are alerted to the fact that these are interpretations based on scarce data, and filtered not just through the eye but also the mind of the observer.

This becomes especially important when Mithen comes to discussing prehistoric economics. He takes care to attribute at least the wilder claims to the appropriate sources, these sources being those for whom Lubbock is a warning – those attempting to apply modern economics to scraps of ancient data. For example, we are told that a prehistoric inland tribe buried sea shells with their dead; therefore, given the mind of a modern or Victorian economist, they must have traded food for these shells; the shells must have been a symbol of status and power; and by burying these shells with their dead the high status clans could preserve the link between their ownership of shells and status, wealth and power.

Let us consider instead that ancient humans knew nothing of modern capitalist economics, and that, until we have evidence to the contrary, the human mind does not have a specific module devoted to capitalistic thinking. Instead, we will assume that ideas are the product of development, including ideas about human relationships. We then find that what seems the simplest of ideas, trading shells for an equal value of food, is actually a curious modern concept.

Firstly, the relationship between food and other products must be established: they must be exchanged, and to be valued they must be exchangeable for one product in common, a reproducible product of labour. Historically this is often cattle; for example, our words “fee” and ”pecuniary” are based on words for cattle in the Germanic languages and Latin respectively. Cattle can, however, only be subdivided when they are eaten; therefore in the course of millennia of trading the precious metals come to the fore as products of labour which can easily be used as a means of exchange and a measure of exchange value. Once such a universal representative of value has been developed, and only then, may tokens may be substituted for it, whether paper, copper and nickel, as today, or shells and beads. However, it was only in the 20th century that token money developed to the point of ending the gold standard and allowing the tokens a semblance of freedom in exchange (and only a semblance). How are our primitive forebears meant to have achieved this trick, except in the mind of a 20th century archaeologist with an understanding of such an advanced trading system so ingrained that they see it as natural to humans from the first generation?

Rather than such an understanding being genetically programmed into the hyman mind and brain, it is the product of thousands of years of social evolution, which had not finished even as the first modern archaeologists began to conjure such systems for their ancient forebears.

These criticisms aside – and they are criticisms which we would be forced to level against all academic endeavour which assumes modern conditions to be universal conditions – this is an excellent book which can be recommended to all socialists as an accessible source of information on ancient human societies.

We would, with our different interpretation, however, certainly come to more positive conclusions than Mithen. He writes, “Our politicians might devise both the will and the means to curb pollution, to distribute resources fairly throughout the world, to provide new homes for displaced populations, and to preserve the natural world. They might do all these things. But they probably won’t.” This is consistent with thinking that human social evolution is fundamentally constrained within the inherited mental structure of our organism. Socialists, on the other hand, see people as the product of history, just as earlier we have explained that one part of our lives, exchange between humans, is a product of history rather than a fact of nature to be merely endured. And so we would point to our ability to change, to transcend the limitations of our organism, to manufacture our social conditions rather than to be the product of original conditions; a potential yet to be fully realised, and which will be fully realised by transcending the conditions of our history that have led us so far from the ape to capitalist society. In other words, the answer is not to find solace in our fixed animal behaviours but in our mutability, and our ability to overcome these behaviours and conditions.


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