Sacred Economy


One of the most derided item in Marx’s works is the idea of primitive communism. To be sure, it has some problems, such as the narrative that moves from undifferentiation to differentiation. But did Marx pinpoint something all the same?

One of the discoveries I made in The Sacred Economy was the crucial role of what may be called the institutional form of subsistence survival in ancient Southwest Asia. Given that 90% of the sparse population was engaged in agriculture, this is the key to ancient economics. How did it operate? Typically, crops were grown via a system of land shares, reallocated every year or two by means of a village council or elders (and with much debate). These were long and non-contiguous strips that were reallocated depending on a range of factors. Animal husbandry focused on flocks of 2/3 sheep and 1/3 goats, regularly milked and culled for meat, fibre, and bone. Bovines were few and far between, since they need massive amounts of fodder and water. They were used for traction and lived until they dropped. In places with more water, pigs also appear. The focus was on optimal rather than maximal use of resources. Above all, there was little sense of private entrepreneurship, and the idea of private property is simply unhelpful. If people tried that, they simply wouldn’t survive. So, it’s not for nothing that Soviet-era Russian scholars of the ancient world called this the ‘village-commune.’

What is most intriguing is that the subsistence survival regime was by far the most stable. Petty potentates might come and go, their estates might drain labour for a time, hated cockroaches (tax collectors-usurers-merchants-diplomats-landlords all rolled into one) might appear for a time. But given half a chance, people would hasten the destruction of unstable little and big kingdoms. They preferred subsistence-survival, the dominant economic form in periods of what is, from the perspective of the ruling class, called economic ‘crisis’. In the politically and economically marginal zone of the Southern Levant, where Israel appeared belatedly on the scene, subsistence survival was the persistent form.

But did this approach end some time in the first millennium BCE? Not at all. It was still present in Russia into the twentieth century, as also in Iraq, Greater Syria and Greece, to name but a few. What about now?  Recently, I was in a village in Transylvania, Romania. Here the capitalist ‘shock therapy’ of the 1990s has led to deindustrialisation and reagriculturalisation. In response, old and trusted methods have returned. My host and I came across a herd of goats and sheep. I inquired about their numbers and was told they were 1/3 goats and 2/3 sheep, with regular culls and an optimal size of about 40. And Christina sent me this link to a story from the Andalusian region in Spain, concerning the village of Marinaleda. Since the 1970s, they too have developed a village-commune, operating in terms of the long history of subsistence survival that I outlined above. Of course, it has been reconfigured in light of wider socio-economic circumstances, but the basic principles remain the same. Nowadays, the villagers call this a version of socialism.

A socialist mural in Marinaleda.

A new piece over at Political Theology Today on ‘How to Read Ancient Texts’. Obviously, I’m not the first to reflect on that perennial question, but these reflections relate directly to how one reads texts in relation to socio-economic life.

Walking around Berlin, you can’t help notice the advertisements for a new show at the Pergamon Museum, called ‘Uruk Megacity‘. While you might forgive the curators for trying to lure visitors, the question is whether Uruk was really a city, let alone a mega-city. The walls themselves at the greatest expanse in the fourth millennium encompassed 6 square kilometres. Huge? More like a country town. Estimating population is a bit like divination, so estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 (the top end is little fanciful). A decent town, perhaps, or even a small city. Except that this is the total population of the whole city-state of Uruk, which was really a rather modest affair. At a stretch, you may want to argue that by comparison with other places, it counts as a city, where most of the few centres were around 3000 each. But ‘mega-city’ is really pushing it. Then again, ‘Uruk, Megatown’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

We have already had the garden variety domestic squabble, in which women regularly crushed their men’s testicles. Some other common features of arguments have also turned. To begin with, there’s biting from the laws of Eshnunna:

If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off, he shall weigh out and deliver 60 shekels of silver; an eye – 60 shekels; a tooth – 30 shekels; an ear – 30 shekels; a slap to the cheek – he shall weigh out and deliver 10 shekels.

No wonder they wore out their teeth so early. This one is perhaps my favourite, from the Hittite laws:

If anyone steals a door in a quarrel, he shall replace everything that may get lost in the house, and he shall pay 40 shekels of silver.

That is the first thing that comes mind if I’m in a quarrel: I’ll steal his door!

It is pretty clear that ‘prices’ in the ancient Near East had very little to do with mechanisms of demand and supply. Customary if the best way to describe them, and even the various petty potentates weighed in by inscribing such prices in clay. But there is one law of Hammurabi that I find very intriguing, since it suggests that raising your price actually lowers the value of your product. Here it is:

If a woman innkeeper should refuse to accept grain for the price of beer but accepts only silver measured by the large weight, thereby reducing the value of the beer in relation to the grain, they shall charge and convict that woman innkeeper and they shall cast her into the water.

Let’s see if we can figure out the assumption here. You walk into an inn and order a beer, plonking a bag of grain on the bar – as one does. ‘No,’ says the innkeeper, only silver here.’ She pulls out a large wight and tells you to put your silver on the scales. Wow, that’s heaps more silver than if I’d got hold of it by swapping some grain for silver first. Now, the customary relationships between grain-beer, grain-silver, and silver-beer do seem to have some connection. Fair enough, but how does asking a relatively higher price devalue the beer? Easy: you get less beer for the silver. Hence the beer is worth less.

Most law collections are pretty boring reads. Hammurabi is a snore, with grandiose claims to his achievements in bringing justice, peace and well-being to all. Not so the Middle Assyrian Laws. Here we do come up against sheer difference, for the mind can barely get around the reasons for pressing these laws into clay for all eternity to follow.

For instance:

If a woman should crush a man’s testicle during a quarrel, they should cut off one of her fingers. And if the physician should bandage it, but the second testicle then becomes infected along with it …, or if she should crush the second testicle during the quarrel – they shall gouge out both her .. [text curiously broken here]

One can only imagine what Assyrian domestic quarrels were like.

Then there is:

If a man lays a hand upon a woman, attacking her like a rutting bull, and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall cut off one of his fingers. If he should kiss her, they shall draw his lower lip across the blade of an axe and cut it off.

Perhaps the most intriguing are these two:

If a man furtively spreads rumours about his comrade, saying, ‘Everyone sodomises him,’ or in a quarrel in public says to him, ‘Everyone sodomises you,’ and further, ‘I can prove the charges against you,’ but is unable to prove the charges and does not prove the charges, they shall strike that man 50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service for one full month; they shall cut off his hair; he shall pay 3,600 shekels of lead.

If a man sodomises his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomise him and turn him into a eunuch.

That should stamp out sodomy.

On the universal anachronism of studying the ancient world, it is one thing to rattle on about narratives of difference, false universals and the imperialism of neoclassical economics. It is another thing to put it this way:

It is gross ethnocentrism to assume that the monk, the feudal lord, the Inca priest-king, the commissar, and the Trobriand islander are directed in their material lives to abide by the same market rules that drive the London stockbroker and the Iowa wheat farmer (George Dalton, 1971).

A significant source for The Sacred Economy is Soviet-era research on the ancient Near East. Apart from Igor Diakonoff, to whom you will find occasional references in other works, one of the great pleasures in doing this is to include many references to people like: Iu. Semenov, G. A. Melikishvili, M.A. Vitkin, Nelly Kozyrova, K.K. Zel’in, L.V. Danilova, Ninel Jankowska, G. Il’yin, and good old Vasilii Vasilevich Struve.

‘A room of your own’ is a comparatively modern concept, which has, through many centuries, been filtered down from the great houses of the wealthy. Shared rooms, shared attics, shared beds, shared lives have been and are the common lot of most people, involving a close, noisy, often smelly intimacy between people and livestock (Roberts, Landscapes of Settlement, p. 85).

Or as an old Dutch saying has it, ‘where it smells it is warm’

The scribes of ancient Egypt certainly had their hands full with even the most simple of letters. For instance:

It is the servant of the estate Sekhsekh’s son Inetsu who addresses the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), Sekhsekh’s son Penhensu: It is in order to learn about every favourable circumstance of the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), that the servant of the estate has sent this letter. In the favour of Montu, lord of the Theban nome, of Amon, lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, of Sobek, of Horus, of Hathor and of all the gods! It is as the servant of the estate desires that they shall let the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), spend millions of years in life, properity and health, starting from today.

The servant of the estate has said: this is a communication to the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), about sending me a rudder post of pine wood, a steering-oar of juniper, and a rudder-rest of ebony for the poop of your humble servant’s sea-going galley. Moreover, it is your humble servant’s poop. It is good if the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy) takes note.

If only we wrote memos or emails like that today. The astute reader may have noticed the egalitarian thread running through this note. Another example this Egyptian virtue, along with a dash of altruism, may be found in the letter of a landlord writing home (from another location) to the servants and others concerning some food shortages that have come to his notice:

Lest you be angry about this, look here … I’m responsible for everything so that it should be said: ‘To be half alive is better than dying outright’. Now it is only real hunger that should be termed hunger since they have started eating people here. and none are given such generous rations as I give you. Until I come back home to you, you should comport yourselves with stout hearts.

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