(OPE-L) "Cattle as Commodity and as Money"

From: Gerald A. Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sat Jun 05 2004 - 07:41:45 EDT

(posted on 5/8/04; photos in original post, JL)


 By Walt Contreras Sheasby

 Marx has reminded us in his analysis of pre-capitalist economic
 formations in 1857 that *the original meaning of the word capital is
 cattle* (Marx, 1964: 119) As he hastens to add, however, that does
 not mean that the cattle herders of prehistory were capitalists, but it
 does underscore the special place this animal, or rather industry, had in
 the rough economic evolution of Central Asia and the Mediterranean over
 many thousands of years, an impact which capitalism, especially since
 the settling of the western U.S. after the Civil War, has globalized.

 For our purposes, the significance of Cattle to our study of Capital
 has to do with its primary and secondary roles in some parts of the world,
 first, as the original commodity and second, as an original form of money.
 The story of cattle illuminates the nature of both as social relations,
 rather than as things.

 In the first chapter of Capital, Vol. 1, Marx states that *The
 expanded  form of value comes into actual existence for the first time so
 as a particular product of labour, such as cattle, is no longer
 exceptionally, but  habitually, exchanged for various other commodities*
(159F; 71M).

 In the second chapter of Capital, Vol. 1, on Exchange Marx takes this
 considerably further when he argues that *Commodity owners never
 equate their own commodities to those of others and exchange them on
 a  large scale, without different kinds of commodities belonging to
 different owners being exchangeable for, and equated as values to, one
and the same special article. Such last-mentioned article, by becoming the
 equivalent of various other commodities, acquires at once, though
 within  narrow limits, the character of a general social equivalent.*

 *This character comes and goes with the momentary social acts that
 called it into life. In turns and transiently it attaches itself first to
 this and then to that commodity. But with the development of exchange
it fixes itself firmly and exclusively to particular sorts of commodities,
becomes crystallized by assuming the money form.*

 *The particular kind of commodity to which it sticks is at first a
 matter of accident. Nevertheless, there are two circumstances whose
 is decisive. The money form attaches itself either to the most important
 articles of exchange from outside, and these in fact are primitive and
 natural forms in which the exchange-value of home products finds
 expression; or else it attaches itself to the object of utility that
 forms, like cattle, the chief portion of indigenous alienable wealth*

 As a contemporary numismatist (Hight) points out, various items have
 functioned as *money* throughout the world, including not only
 cattle, but whales' teeth, elephant tails, yap stones, wampum, and cowrie.

 However, cattle was the general store of value par excellence. Even
 the term *pecuniary* derives from the word pecus, Latin for cattle. The
 word  *cattle* derives from the middle English *catel*, in turn from late
 Latin *capitale*. Cattle were and are a source of wealth, and are typically
 measured in terms of how many *head of cattle*.

 The earliest records of domestication date back to 7000 BCE, and come
 from Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. Cattle noticed tasty crops
 rowing and wandered near to settlements to munch. The animals were
 then tamed by penning, hobbling and castration. Domestication was
 certainly complete by 2100 BCE, when cattle were a symbol of wealth.
 In the ancient Near East cattle figurines like that shown represented

 *The first metallic money dates back to approximately 2000-1800 BCE
 and was made of bronze. These bronze pieces which traded based on
 weight, were often formed into the shape of cattle, which again were
 used  prior to the general acceptance of metals as a valuable commodity*

 A Canaanite Bronze Figurine, c. 1500 BCE

 This supports the view Marx expressed about the evolution of the
 product, once exchanged with external commodities, becoming a
 commodity within the community as well, and, in the case of cattle,
 becoming the universal equivalent against which other commodities are
 compared. As cattle wealth is statified, bullion is authorized as its
 more portable equivalent, and it becomes the universal medium of exchange,
 still in use today as backing for major international deals.

 Marx argued that in commercial transactions, this medium of
 exchange cannot be explained merely as a symbolic value arrived at by
 convention or by the fact that precious metals *are by nature fitted
 to perform the social function of a universal equivalent* (183F; 92M).

 His conclusion of Chapter 2 presents a resolution of the conflicting
 theories of money, but it will need further explication in the
 succeeding chapter:
 *These objects, gold and silver, just as they come out of the bowels
 of the earth, are forthwith the direct incarnation of all human labour.
 Hence the magic of money. In the form of society now under consideration,
 behavior of men in the social process of production is purely atomic.
 Hence their relations to each other in production assume a material
 character independent of their control and conscious individual
 action. These facts manifest themselves at first by products as a general
 rule taking the form of commodities. We have seen how the progressive
 development of a society of commodity-producers stamps one privileged
 commodity with the character of money. Hence the riddle presented by
 money is but the riddle presented by commodities; only it now strikes
 us in its most glaring form* (187F; 96M).

   Lydian King Croesus (561-546 B.C.),
 created the first official coins combining Lion (the realm) and Bull

 Cattle, however, are not the only commodity at the center of the
 early development of the money-form before the invention of bullion and
 coin currency.

 In the next posts, we shall look at two often overlooked commodities
 important to exchange in the ancient world, 1. the slave as an
 embodiment of wealth and value, and 2. the trade in sex in the diffusion of
 minting of coins. Both aspects are usually ignored in the sanitized
 of the history of progress.


 Hight, Mitch (nd), The Earliest Coins.

 Marx, Karl (1964) Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, Part II. New
 York: International Publishers.

 Marx, Karl, Capital, Vol. 1 (1976), London: Penguin Books; (1987),
 New York International Publishers.

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