[For new readers: the first chapters of Graeber’s Debt focuses on the fact that there were/are not large-scale barter economies, which entirely misses the point of the barter story and belies a basic misunderstanding of the role of commodity exchange in a “money story” (related to units-of-account).]
I could have made the earlier Graeber/barter post clearer simply by pointing out that the very purpose of the “barter story” is precisely to explain why barter cannot lead to the kinds of population and social changes we know happened in ancient societies [update; further clarification here and here]. That something else necessarily had to happen. You don’t look for barter to understand the “barter story,” you look for the early, simple commodity-exchange the “barter story” says must replace it for complex societies to emerge. And it’s ancient and everywhere.
- The “barter story” is not about barter. It is about the ABSENCE of barter…
- …that is, about how barter CANNOT be the basis for emerging complex societies; something else (i.e., commodity exchange) had to emerge for societies to organize in the way we know they did.
- Commodity-exchange emerged hand-in-hand with ancient agricultural intensification and population growth.
- (Aside: To then focus only on commodity/market exchange (for the next 10,000 years) is obviously nonsense; i.e., neoclassical economics is nonsense).
- Credit is an (the most?) ancient system of complex social organization with something money-like.
- …but credit-”money systems” must first have units of account; credit can be first; “credit-money” cannot be first.
- Commodity exchange is ancient and the most likely source of units of account; these can then form the basis for formal (“monetary”) credit-relations.
- State (chartal) theory is the most important understanding of “money” (social organizing systems) over time.
(A note on state tax-credit systems)
- “State” “money” could even have been earliest (early polities or temples setting units). It arises with the first imposition of tribute, tithes, scutage, fees, land fees, fines, wergeld, tariffs, and taxes, that is, liabilities imposed by a State or polity of some kind. (Note, however, that in-kind taxation and corvée labor were some of the very earliest “taxes” and may not have led to tax-credit units as easily).
- However, given the many millennia of agriculture and trade emerging parallel with social complexity and social practices (leading to hierarchical political/religious institutions, cities (“civilization”), and states, rather than the other way around✥), it is likely that customary commodity-exchange units pre-date even the earliest polities. (✥In other words, it is doubtful “States” pre-date initial agricultural and population growth; rather, very early agricultural and population growth led to cities and States.)
- As is known, I have long admired the writings of Jane Jacobs. Interestingly, she is known for precisely a theory that cities (and presumably their form of governance) arose before agriculture, and essentially “invented” agriculture (Jacobs, 1969; here is a 2016 discussion of the theory). That could potentially put a “state” unit emerging before even agriculture (and thus potentially a state-decreed unit-of-account before even a customary agricultural trade unit-of-account). Of course, this would assume the emergence of units had not occurred (and persisted) still earlier once again, that is, among pre-agricultural hunter gatherers.
Jacobs, Jane. 1969. The Economy of Cities. New York: Random House.