Antropologia Critica
Vínculos y otras fuentes
Horst Kurnitzky


by Horst Kurnitzky[i]

Men live by exchange. They barter goods as well as their labour and services or thoughts and ideas. Even a handshake, a meeting, or an encounter of cultures can be seen as a matter of exchange. The process of exchange always leaves something to both participants. That can be goods, commodities, objects, souvenirs or ideas; something that was not part of their property before and which passed by exchange into their physical or intellectual possession. Ever since the period of rational philosophy in ancient Greece, exchange has been seen as the origin of all social life. How and why exchange took that place in the development of mankind is still a topic of investigation and of hypothesis. Common sense also suggests that 'in the beginning was exchange'. Without exchange human communal life cannot be imagined. If this form of human relationship is not a gift of God, it is at least a logical necessity that human beings live together in peace.


Take, for instance, Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday, the metaphorical first man in Daniel Defoe's famous novel. Written in the early age of Enlightenment, these characters exemplify the idea of the origin of social life at that time. Crusoe teaches Man Friday and receives services from him in exchange. The novel represents the idea of the development of mankind as conceived by philosophers and scientists in the 18th century. Men come together by rational means, organising their life according to a division of labour and to rational forms of exchange. That was the idea that distinguished the human world from nature. Animals don't think in equivalents, they have no concept of exchange or of a division of labour nor of their benefits; the only thing they want, is to be fed and satisfied. In comparison to wildlife, domestic animals have already learned to behave well if they want something. They offer good conduct in exchange for rewards, and submit themselves, like their owners, if they want to receive food for their immediate satisfaction. This determines the boundary between nature and social life as seen by philosophers and economists in the 18th century.


A contemporary of this philosophy of human relationships in the age of Enlightenment, the moral philosopher and economist, Adam Smith, presumed an inclination or propensity for exchange in human nature and made egotism and other human feelings responsible for this propensity. In accordance with this assumption, he laid one of the cornerstones for modern liberal thinking about society and economics. Hence, it is egotism that moves people to exchange, because everybody wants something that other people possess. People with different abilities produce different goods. They form a common stock, so to speak. Moved by egotism, they set up exchanges because each wants something someone else has produced. That is the basic idea of the way a liberal society and liberal exchange work. This idea of a rational calculable basis in social relations and exchange was unopposed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. For that reason liberals stated that economic management should only address the natural human egotism of the work force. Never should one talk of necessities but only of advantages, a principle which to this day characterizes all types of advertising.


This concept formed the basic element of the liberal idea of permanent economic life. Although developed during the age of Enlightenment, it remains an essential part of today's neoliberal theory of political economy in the global world system. Thus accordingly egotism was and continues to be considered the motor of economic and social change. By controlling all forms of exchange, it dominates the life and culture of civilisation. The idea that all forms of exchange are motivated by egotism transforms all relations among men into trading relationships. Commentaries on German contract law demonstrate this thinking when they compare the signatories of a contract with merchants. One is selling an accomplishment while the other is buying a service or whatever and vice versa. This idea governs the civil law code from the mediation of goods to the interpersonal relations within a family. We are buying and selling all our lives and sometimes even after death.


That the idea of exchange as basic to any social relationship is indeed very old, and has played an important role in the history of social life and in relations among societies and tribes, is demonstrated by the Lybian Logos of Herodotus' Historias. He writes there that the Karchedonians travelled to a land behind the columns of Heracles to trade. They unloaded their goods on shore and laid them in a line. Then they returned to their ships, made a fire with a large smoke plume, and waited. When the natives saw the smoke they would come to the place where the Karchedonians had left their goods, put some gold in front of each and retreat. The Karchedonians then unboarded their ships again and examined the place of exchange. If they thought that the gold was enough for their goods, they took it away. If not, they returned to their ships and waited a second time. They repeated this ritual until the natives offered enough gold in exchange for the goods. Herodotus adds that neither party harmed the other, because the Karchedonians never touched the gold unless they considered it enough for their goods and the aborigines did not touch the goods unless the Karchedonians took the gold away.


Herodotus' report on exchange and the statement that they did not harm each other by this ritual casts doubt on the idea that exchange really is a very natural basis of human life since it is accompanied by such enormous fear. Further, men's need to introduce ritualised forms to manage exchange and to ward off aggression suggests that there is at least an ambivalence in human behaviour that requires a certain ritualisation of human relations. Firstly, it leads us to the stated basis of exchange: the instinct of egotism. If it is true that egotism is the motor of exchange, then that same egotism will threaten civil life because of its desire to appropriate goods without giving anything in exchange. Evidently, there has to be a form of regulation, a non-economic power so to speak. Egotism is related to basic instincts like all other feelings. Like sexual drives, they demand to be satisfied without any exception. In this context even hate is related to the same fundaments of emotional life.


Secondly, the word for exchange 'barter' itself leads us to other meanings and tendencies implied by the social act. In English 'barter' means exchange of commodities like the old German word 'barattieren' and in the Italian phrase "barattare due parole con qualcuno", to exchange words with someone. The Spanish 'barato' means cheap, sold under price. But 'barter' is also related to the old French word 'barater' and 'barat' and lead us to the Bretonic word 'barad' which means deception and relates exchange to the thieves' world of robbery and struggle, like the old Icelandic word 'barátta' for combat. In most European languages exchange is related to deception. For example the French word for exchange, 'troque' to 'truque', or the German word 'Tausch' to 'Täuschen'. This ambiguity in words let us suppose that there must be also an ambivalence in the act of exchange itself.


The Greek myth of Hermes, the god of barter, merchants, thieves and market places, shows the same ambivalence we already recognised in the etymology of the word barter. The myth presents us Hermes as the god of merchants and thieves in one person and tells us that this apparent conflict is the starting point and permanent basis of social development. As a son of Zeus and Maya, Hermes began his mythical career as a thief by deceptively stealing a herd of cattle from his brother Apollo by a trick. He is a trickster, a demigod who deceives the gods in order to humanize the world. From the very beginning, the myth shows us Hermes as a creative, basically human god. Brought to his father Zeus and accused before the tribunal of gods, he confesses his crime, but is allowed to keep the herd in exchange for a lyre he had made from a tortoise-shell and the intestines of slaughtered cattle. The myth shows the nearness of thieving to fair exchange and throws light upon ambivalence as a motor of creativity and of the progress of civilisation. With his instinctive egotism Hermes stole the herd of cattle but with the same instinct he created an instrument. As the myth tells us, civilisation owes him a lot of other cultural goods, like the syrinx, a shepherd's flute, the music scale, astronomy, some sports, measures and weights, money of course, the alphabet, which means the art of memory, but above all, the art of making fire, the most important invention in man's history. With the art of fire making, man owes to Hermes the sacrificial cult. The myth tells us that when Hermes stole the herd, he slaughtered some of the cattle, made fire and sacrificed bones and fat to the gods. The mythical life of Hermes describes the role of exchange in the progress of social life and the basic conflict between instinct, the desire for immediate satisfaction, -consuming without paying, so to speak-, and the law, represented by the cult of sacrifice, which is opposed to immediate satisfaction. Hence, the myth describes what psychoanalysis has also tried to show: that the sublimation of immediate sex drives creates cultural values, but not without a price. There is always some repression, i.e. sacrifice that is not transformed into pleasure.


In prehistoric settlements, and in the tombs men have built for their dead, we also find the remains of sacrificial cults. Those traces of fire-places, funerals, temples and altars prove the existence of sacrifices to guarantee social cohesion and continuity, and reveal their specific forms. As we know, people sacrificed members of their own tribe, at first mostly female, to assure the physical reproduction of society. There has been and there is to this day no society without an incest-taboo, at least between mother and son. Throughout human history, taboo and marriage rules have been the model for social reproduction. There has been a lot of speculation as to why humans introduced the incest-taboo. Freud wrote (in a scientific myth, as he himself called it) that a group of sons in a horde of primates rose up against the chief in order to appropriate themselves of the females possessed by him. They killed the chief, but mourned and rued what they had done and introduced the sacrifice ritual to atone for their deed. This speculation cannot explain why females were the earliest sacrificial victims in many cultures. There must be another reason for the introduction of the taboo. Some authors think enormous natural catastrophes caused the incest-taboo because men felt guilty and tried to punish themselves. Be that as it may, man did base society on a sacrificial cult related to this taboo. For that reason young girls and boys were sacrificed to consolidate the incest-taboo. People apparently believed that incest is related to a form of lust which would ultimately destroy society, or in more economic terms, that immediate satisfaction prevents the transformation of human energy into a product. Later on, animals, such as pigs or dogs, were substituted for human sacrifices. Similarly they were sacrificed in ancient Egypt and Greece.


Here we reach the mythical and real origin of the development and refinement of society. The basis of all economic relation and progress in society is the sacrificial cult. Exchange is derived from sacrifice. Men sacrifice something of their own and receive in exchange goods they need for their lives. They sacrifice for good luck, a good harvest, or a rich family. Men sacrifice and believe that the gods will recompense them. That is the basis of all exchange: an altar where people put their offerings in exchange for all they need and even for those things they don't need. Exchange derives from sacrificial cults; it is a rationalisation rather than the rational origin of economic relations. When people would come to the temple of Hera in Greek southern Italy, they brought with them offerings like cattle. From the Priest they received 'oboles' in exchange, small spits to roast the meat of sacrificed animals for the common meal. The 'obole' became the fifth part of the 'drachma', the Greek currency. Drachma means literally a handful of oboles.


That is the origin of money which in tribal societies may be shells or other objects representing the sacrificed female sex and in later developed societies, in antique Greece for instance, symbolic objects related to the gods. Even there, the first places with the right to mint coins were the temples of goddesses. The word 'money' itself originates from the temple of Juno Moneta where the Romans minted their coins. In the sacrificial cults of the great temples of ancient Greece and Italy we recognise the origins of the banking systems and of commerce. As people came from far and wide with their offerings, priests and temple administrators assembled an amount of goods and established long distance trade all over the Mediterranean area while the cult sites themselves became market places. Over 2000 years ago, temples and their treasuries functioned as banks. No private person had banking rights or the right to mint coins. Ernst Curtius summed this up in the statement that "the gods of ancient Greece were the first capitalists".


We see from this that ritual sacrifice is the origin of exchange, money and trade. The idea that the genesis of money is simply the history of an instrument for measuring the exchange value of goods, that money was developed from an outstanding trade object of high value and duration, as both economic liberal theorists and their Marxist critics thought, is wrong in its basic assumptions. Neither the liberals nor the Marxists nor today's neoliberals - who all have in common a foreshortened idea of the process civilisation - recognise that they are dealing with a rationalisation of the sacrificial rites with which society manages the conflict between the desire for immediate satisfaction and its repression for the sake of social cohesion.


When the Greek myth tells us that Hermes invented measure, weight, money and so on, the myth transcribes the real historical process, the development of social institutions, like the cult of sacrifice and the ritualisation of social life into a mythical event. It is a mythical narration of social conflicts and their historical solution. Indeed, society and its forms of organisation themselves arose from this conflict and its solution. The centre for the celebration of social cohesion was the place of sacrifice, from the cemetery to the market place. As we know, the Agorá of Athens fulfilled all these functions in ancient times. In the bronze age it was a cemetery, then a place of sacrifice with altars, temples and treasuries for the offerings, and later a market place, a forum for public affairs and democracy. It contained schools like the Stoa, a thatched sales stall for philosophy, and the theatre, where the Greek community participated in the dramatic exhibition of social conflict, temptations, guilt, law and faith, as when Sophocles staged the whole complex in his King Oedipus. It was the place were the dead left the living for their voyage into the underworld, at first at the cemetery and later on stage, depicted in the mythical theatre as passage to the Tartaros. Here Hermes had another function. The myth tells us that he also lead the dead into the underworld, in Latin the barathrum, a further word related to exchange, the metamorphosis of man from life to death.


Immediate satisfaction, and the law which restrains it or prohibits it, are the pillars of social life, of progress and of all metamorphoses in history. A thief like Odysseus is the prototype of the entrepreneur (like Horheimer and Adorno pointed out in their book "Dialectic of Enlightment") and society, the law, which marks his limits, function as a guarantee that social life will not degenerate into savagery. That is the subconscious starting point of all rational thought and practice. All quantitative thinking and social practice is based on sacrifice. Balance, harmony - remember that Hermes invented instruments and the scale - and all thought of equality, moral ideas, like the idea of justice and the equal rights of all human beings, have their roots in sacrificial cults. Concepts that do not recognise this fact, cannot explain games of chance, the historical figure of the thief, the violation of law or any instinctual or sexual behaviour. Economic theories based only on rational management and those that go deeper into basic motives and believe that just pain and satisfaction are the motor of society ("the ultimate quantities which we treat in economics are pleasures and pains", stated the liberal economist William Stanley Jevons in his Theory of Political Economy in 1871) do not understand that there are social institutions love, hate and religions based on sacrifice, which have motivated men throughout history.


When Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, that "the administration of the great system of the universe ... the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man", he subordinated economic theory to Christian belief in God and laid the first stone for a scientific building which believes that man really cannot understand the process of nature. He recognised that "hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love or pleasure, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes," but continued "without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends, which the great Director of nature intended to produce them." There it is: the economic theory founded on the belief in a supreme Being.


That is the religious basis of all positivist and neopositivist thinking: we have no real access to nature. "The world consists only of our sensations," Ernst Mach wrote, and meant that our perception of the physical universe has no direct connection to the real working of the physical universe. This teaching of the Vienna School of positivism was adopted by Friedrich von Hayek and the Vienna Economic School, transplanted to the London School of Economics and later to the economic teachings at the University of Chicago and the famous Milton Friedman, who stated in accordance with this Weltbild, that "man cannot intervene in nature to build industrial republics because wealth is fixed by nature and the workings of the economy are unknowable; science cannot penetrate further than it already has in the physical sciences because of the 'uncertainty principle'".


That means that the universe is a fixed entity; we cannot change anything. Man can distribute values but not create. What we call production is nothing more than the transformation of nature from one status to another. Nothing is lost and nothing is added. That could be true, if we believe in a fixed and limited universe. But the conclusion that there remains nothing but laissez-faire and free enterprise, is circular. It is nothing but the justification of egotism as a basic instinct which produces the "Wealth of Nations", prosperity, and equality, due to a system of exchange which brings society to equilibrium by a neutral counting system and realises all relations automatically through a practical and rational thing called money. But psychoanalysis has shown us that there exists a complex system of sexual relations behind this facade. Money makes the world go round because of its deep roots in the emotional structure of all social relations.


The myth of Hermes describes the complicated relations of forms of social reproduction mediated by the market and determined by the ambivalence of law and freedom. That means: all exchange is based on sacrifice and determined by the law which represses immediate satisfaction of desires and the search for an outlet, for Ersatz, which represents the ability to satisfy the repressed but not obliterated desires in another way. Both tendencies are embodied in exchange. A fair but also a dissimilar exchange requires sacrifices from the bartering partners. In return for that they get Ersatz: money or commodities with which they hope to appease their unsatisfied desires. Each exchange expresses a need for communication based on a desire for unification which goes back to a taboo desire for incest in all societies. This is the psychoanalytical interpretation. The final goal of this process is a free association of all individuals which makes all restrictions unnecessary. That is a historical utopia of the market. For that reason commerce breaks all chains of social organisation related to sacrifice, be it in the family, the tribe or the state. What the law of sacrifice excludes, exchange resupplies. Exchange originates in the attempt to satisfy repressed desires in another way. That is the historical contribution of commerce to the humanisation of social relations. Commerce itself has a tendency to overcome the sacrificial constitution of society.


Money is the centre around which economic science clusters, as Alfred Marshall and the neoliberals put it, but it is also an object of desire, which makes the world go round and leads us to reflections on its genesis and the duration of its attraction, which obviously owes more to the mental constitution of man and his emotional make-up, than to a rational suitableness of its use for exchange. As we come to this point, we see that we do after all have access to nature through the experience of our own desires and instincts, because we are part of that same nature. Reflecting on this, we can reconstruct nature from our own experience and are able to discuss exchange in a very different way: as a substantial part of human relations which man introduced to organise society on the basis of a sacrificial cult. The whole historical process, religions, revolutions and deceptions, can be seen as an attempt by man to liberate himself from sacrifice in order to achieve a more satisfactory life. What man has introduced into society is not unchangeable. All so-called objective constraints (Sachzwänge) are man-made. Once that is recognised, new and different forms of social relations do indeed become possible.





[i] International Congress: "On Exchange, Reflections on Expanding Concepts", IFK, Vienna, October 1996.