Re: [OPE] Odyssey and the Peruvian treasure

From: Jurriaan Bendien <>
Date: Wed Feb 11 2009 - 09:02:41 EST

I agree with Dave Z. - the abstraction of social labour, such that the "normal labour-time" associated with a task can be specified independently of any particular worker, does not necessarily presuppose market exchange.

In this sense, Marx's own 1859 comment that ANY society has its own practical notions of "normal average labourtimes" is much closer to the findings of archaeology and anthropology than Marxism is (I am preparing an article on this, but have not yet had the time to write that all up).

However, the ability for accurate, standardized measurement of a very wide range of things is almost certainly a feature of what Marx and Engels called "the bourgeois epoch", i.e. the growth of the cash economy. Sundials and waterclocks have a very ancient origin, but reliable, truly accurate clockworks of a portable kind only began to be widely used in the 18th century. Thus, for example, the clockmaker John Harrison claimed a prize for inventing a trustworthy, accurate marine chronometer, his H5 clock, in 1773 The metric system, and metre was first fully described by Englishman John Wilkins in 1668

But if you thought that the science of measurement began in the bourgeois epoch, you would obviously be wrong.

Louis Baudin, whom I quoted before, states for example that "The statistical reports in pre-Columbian Peru enabled the Inca and the higher officials to know exactly what the economic condition of the empire was and to act accordingly. (...) The governmental service of statistics was in the hands of three different categories of officials: the ordinary administrative authorities collected the data, special accountants set up the tables, and others were charged with their preservation." (p. 128-129).

The staff of the Inca emperor, aided by sophisticated demographic calculations, were apparently able to estimate quite accurately the amount of surplus labour that could be extracted from citizens, by decree, and "the skills of the inhabitants and their natural aptitudes" were taken into account (p. 140).

"If one province had just enough land to provide food for its inhabitants, the Inca [emperor] did not reserve any of it for himself, but demanded men for public works or to manufacture certain articles." (p. 141). Baudin claims that market exchange occurred in the Inca empire primarily to adjust for imbalances which inadvertently resulted from the planned distribution decreed by the Inca emperor, and which could not be corrected e.g. by stockpiled reserves (p. 146). Whether this is true I cannot verify now - Baudin evidently saw in the Inca empire a close analogy with the Stalinist system, and his description may accordingly be biased by ideological prejudices.

It is characteristic of the modern era that non-bourgeois civilisations are described as "primitive", but in fact the capacities and skills which ordinary people required to survive in those civilisations, often exceeded those of a modern proletarian by far.

Marxian economics professor Michael Hudson has co-edited a book with Cornelia Wunsch titled "Creating economic order: recordkeeping, standardization and the development of accounting in the ancient near East" with essays on the earliest methodologies in accounting and record-keeping in early Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Mycenaea. This type of research makes it quite clear that very sophisticated abstract understandings of labourtime and commodity trade existed in so-called "primitive civilisations".

Instead of abstract, obscurantist Marxist rants about "dialectical and historical materialism" you get succinct, historically specific presentations of how the economy of these societies actually worked, and what methods they had for economizing and allocating labour-effort. As B. Trigger points out, early agricultural societies were "low energy" societies which, lacking highly productive technologies, heavily depended on an efficient allocation of labour to ensure adequate output (Early Civilizations, 2003).

While the Marxists denied the applicability of the concept of abstract labour, in these societies efficient labour allocation was an absolute survival necessity and needed to be thought through carefully. If Marxists had existed back then, they would have been killed straightaway for uttering totally stupid ideas about "value form".

Personally I find real history much more exciting than Marxism, because real history proves factually just how much sense Marx & Engels's vision of 1844-1848 actually makes, and fulfills me with wonder and appreciation about all that humanity has achieved. Whereas if I keep hearing the alienated, reified, unresearched chatter about "value", "commodity", "forces and relations of production", etc., I just fall asleep from boredom.


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Received on Wed Feb 11 09:07:14 2009

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