The Dream Café

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TWoN Chapter 2

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Here I run into a problem, right out of the gate.  On page 22, we are told that the division of labor “is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.”

The claim is that the propensity to trade is a fundamentally human.  “It is found in all men, and to be found in no other race of animal.”

In order to explain why I consider this wrong, it is necessary first of all to define trade.  There are some who would define it narrowly: it requires explicit negotiation and agreement.  Others might consider anything in which a party receives something from another while the second receives something from the first to be a trade; but Smith himself rejects this on page 23: “When an animal wants to obtain something either of a man or of another animal, it has no other means of persuasion but to gain the favor of those whose service it requires.  A puppy fawns upon its dam, a spaniel endeavors by a thousand attractions to engage the attention of its master…”

It is clear that when Smith speaks of exchange, he is excluding such things as trading affection for material objects as some might claim a child does with a parent.  But then, it is clear that trading is far from as universal as Smith claims.  The Pygmy engages in trade with the nearby townspeople, but within his tribe, he simply shares with others in the tribe, whether they were part of the hunt or not, because that is expected.  Those who are poor at hunting are teased, and often the butt of jokes; but receive no less goods than anyone else.  My understanding (I speak under correction here) is that the same is true among the Australian Aboriginies.  Morgan observed the same thing among the Iroquois of North America.  I haven’t yet come across anything to indicate trading for necessities within any hunter-gatherer tribal group is the norm; and even trading for things other than necessities, within a tribe, seems rare from the little I’ve come accross.

So, then, if Smith is wrong about trade being a part of “human nature” (page 22, 1st paragraph), we have to look for origins of trade elsewhere than in the basic makeup of man.  Does this cast his entire structure in doubt?  I have no idea, not having read the rest of it yet.

I will say that it seems clear that division of labor and exchange are closely linked, each inspiring the other, so that as far as the rest of chapter 2 goes, there is much to be said for his arguments.  He discussions certain sparsely settled areas (the Highlands of Scotland, for example) as requiring less division of labor than more densely settled areas, and argues that this will slow down the development of manufacture, which makes a great deal of sense.

corwin

Author: corwin

Site administrative account, so probably Corwin, Felix or DD-B.

0 Comments

  1. Maybe it was a typo and he meant to discuss the fundamental nature of man to “raid.”

  2. Smith makes a serious confusion, here and elsewhere, between two essentially distinct concepts: division of labor in production, as in the famous making of pins example, and division of labor in exchange.

    Division of labor in production appears to have as its pre-requisite a certain intellectual capacity for abstraction as applied to the production process that has been a very slow growth in human history. It is a fundamental characteristic of the industrial revolution, and its widespread use in American industrial production after the profitable experience with it during World War II is responsible for the outbreak of affluence in the 40s and 50s that produced the slackerdrone Boomers that have afflicted our culture ever since.

    Division of labor in exchange has been with us since before recorded history. Jane Jacobs posits it as the root of the growth of cities in the ancient world (and therefore “civilization” as we know it). It does depend, as you have discerned, on the notion of property, and the granularity of that notion within the social group — when goods are the common property of the community, “exchange” in the Smithian sense is possible only between communities; when goods are property of the individual, then “exchange” can take place within the community. The movie THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY gets a lot of mileage out of the consequences of a change in granularity in this respect.

  3. It seems from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_Iroquois) that the Iroquois were theory-less communists, but they certainly engaged in trade. I had no idea their economy (with a relatively advanced degree of nationalism compared to most other North American native systems) was based primarily on sharing and gift-giving until I looked it up. It doesn’t seem to be widely taught in school….

    Is it possible they are the only successful communist state in history? By that, I don’t mean to troll, but I observe that the majority of communist states subsequent to Marx have fallen rapidly into tyranny, and the remainder were rapidly crushed by their neighbors. In comparison, the Iroquois dominated the region long enough to become established (looks like they lasted about 600 years until the Europeans came), and also, so far as I can tell, remained stable and consistently actually communist, as opposed to communist in name only as with many recent soi-disant communist nations. Of course many smaller tribal societies seem to have been communist in style, but I don’t count them as states.

  4. Tim:

    I basically agree with both you and skzb, in that I find Smith’s distinction between trade and “gaining favor” to be … obscure.

    But I also find your distinction between divisions of labor in production and exchange obscure. As in the previous chapter, I’m coming from the perspective of anthropology and evolutionary biology. In foraging societies, there’s always considerable division of labor (by ape standards), between males and females. It’s not just that men hunt and women gather and both eat meat with two veg, but men and women pass tools and tool-making back and forth.

    So if a man kills a deer, and shapes the bone into a needle, and gives it to the woman who uses it to make a deer-leather shirt, which he then wears — I can’t see where you (or Smith) draw the lines of exchange/trade/division of labor.

    I guess (thinking as I write) that reciprocation or sharing, especially within a family, comes first — and actually it’s interesting that Smith skips over this step. Or do you think that’s included in his word “exchange”? And is it in your understanding of “exchange”, Tim?

  5. Miramon: It is called “primitive communism,”which is defined as equality based on scarcity, and pretty much every branch of human society went through it at some point.

    My understanding of Morgan is that the Iroquois traded with other tribes (trade in sense that Smith is using it), but not within a given local tribe.

    (As a side note, I’ve come across some indications that division of labor according to sex was nowhere near as absolute and well-defined in primitive societies as anthropologists originally thought).

  6. Perhaps some part of your difference with Smith here has to do with contracting definitions of family. Accepting provisionally Smith’s contrast between trade and the exchange of favors and affections with those you regard as kin, the member of a tribe would feel more or less a kinship with the rest of the tribe, regarding neighboring tribes or villages as other. Smith’s modern society has a much more restricted sense of self vs. other, extending the favor of kinship not very far beyond one’s own household, and so trades rather than shares with members of the (more structured but more loosely bound) community.

  7. On the flip side, we know now that chimps will trade meat for sex. And male chimps seem to trade support and favors.

    There’s also trade between humans tribes, like how ochre or seashells get hundreds of miles away from their sources.

    Division of labor by sex doesn’t have to be absolute to be significant; if most women gather and take care of the kids, and most men hunt and fight with other tribes, that’s division of labor, even if some men and women swap roles. There’s also the elderly, providing child care and knowledge in return for food, and shamans, and if one man is better at making knives than hunting, I’d be surprised if no one noticed and swapped accordingly. There’s a fair bit of potential for division of labor. (And of course, to the degree that there isn’t specialization, that can be seen as a factor in why they’re so materially poor.)

    The poor hunter may get mocked and fed; I suspect someone who could be a good hunter but is lazing around gets more social pressure. Trade and social welfare are not mutually exclusive.

  8. Re: “primitive communism”–in a certain sense, couldn’t it actually be said to be based on an abundance rather than a scarcity? That is, an abundance of all the things that the society has (food that’s hunted, gathered, or harvested, the materials to make all basic tools) though a scarcity of more specialized and varied goods.

    It may seem like a quibbling distinction, but the point hidden here is that such societies are, to use Marshall Sahlins’ phrase “the original affluent society,” with all the basic needs met and plenty of leisure time. Meanwhile, there’s no basis for trade except for the type of sharing that has been mentioned above, because everyone has access to everything that’s available.

  9. “Re: “primitive communism”–in a certain sense, couldn’t it actually be said to be based on an abundance rather than a scarcity”

    Not really. Once there is sufficient abundance of necessities to support a leisure class it ceases to be primitive communism.

  10. A collection of studies called _Limited Wants, Unlimited Means_ offers 12 anthropological studies suggesting that hunter-gatherers worked far less than people in civilizations, did not face starvation constantly, and all in all had a relatively easy life. This was based on a relatively egalitarian society in which the abundance did not support a leisure class but a leisure society, because a minority could not deny these necessities to other members or exert coercive power over them. Now, this is one thing to maintain in the relatively small unit of a tribe, not more than a couple hundred people, but the interesting thing about the Iroquois was the scale on which they maintained this kind of social structure, essentially as a confederation of tribes. Likewise, population densities that allow for seasonal movements of people to follow herds and/or avoid over-foraging are also necessary to sustain this kind of societal organization.

    So again, it seems to me to be an abundance of necessities and of leisure, though a scarcity of unique luxury items.

  11. “A collection of studies called _Limited Wants, Unlimited Means_ offers 12 anthropological studies suggesting that hunter-gatherers worked far less than people in civilizations, did not face starvation constantly, and all in all had a relatively easy life.”

    Certainly, I’ve come across that same information. And if we ignore infant mortality and short life-span, they make good points. But what such societies do NOT do is accumulate a surplus–which is necessary for the existence of a leisure class.

  12. Fair enough. Until relatively recently, however, infant mortality and short life-span were simply human problems, regardless of whether they were organized into civilizations or tribes. Granted, that the processes of civilization have, over the past 10,000 years, led to such things as longer life spans and fewer dead babies, and it’s extremely doubtful that we would have gotten there without such an arrangement. It’s taken a lot of exploitation to get here, though. Which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate living through childhood and having a good chance to live a relatively long, relatively healthy life.

    In any case, the point here is that “human nature” isn’t necessarily to acquire and exchange things (homo economicus?), but that such inclinations are tied to social structures involving division of labor and class inequality. And the distinction I wanted to make was that life has been pretty good for people when things were structured differently, so presumably they can be again, even if the specifics look much different than they did.

    And yeah, I’m getting a bit far afield from the reading.

  13. “In any case, the point here is that “human nature” isn’t necessarily to acquire and exchange things (homo economicus?), but that such inclinations are tied to social structures involving division of labor and class inequality.”

    I certainly agree with you there.

    “And the distinction I wanted to make was that life has been pretty good for people when things were structured differently…”

    I pretty much agree here, too, with the caveat that how good things looked in any given place at any given time depended very much on the vagaries of nature and accidents of geography.

    “…presumably they can be again, even if the specifics look much different than they did.”

    Once again I agree, and with equality based on plenty rather than scarcity, the above caveats would no longer apply.

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