Exchange, money, usury and the growth of the merchant class played a great part in the first break-up of the gentile system of society with its communism and general freedom, and in the establishment of a series of political institutions based upon private possession, not only of personal belongings, but of the plots of land which formerly were owned and cultivated by the gens. The origin of exchange between tribes and their gcntes with other tribes and their gentes was everywhere similar. What I have called the practice of permissive grab – a request for some envied article by one tribal chief from another, which by unbroken custom could not be refused – or tribal exchange through a recognised agent among widely separated groups, developed into more or less systematic barter. This barter is to be found among nomadic hordes of the earliest form of organised savagery, such as the Australian aborigines. Exchange of the superfluities which might exist in one horde for articles required for use or decoration by another horde reached among these hordes, as is alleged, to such a point that the agent of the primitive exchange was conceded special privileges, in passing from one horde to another, in order to enable him to effect the common purpose. However this may be, the rudimentary form of exchange was tribal, or communal, though it might be conducted through elected or hereditary chiefs or other tribal agents.
Such barter of products for products, without any medium of exchange whatever to equate the value of the articles desired, and therefore exchanged, on both sides of the tribal commerce, may be observed among savages and barbarians down to our own time. Barter of this kind has been the rule between white men and savage tribes all over the world. The chaffering, by increase or decrease, of the amounts offered between the bargainers went on until both were satisfied. As between the savage or barbarian tribes thus exchanging, good faith was the rule; and even white men were, not unfrequently, honest in the early stages of such transactions when trading with goods of their own, which, in these social conditions, had little intrinsic value on their market as compared with the articles offered by the natives. In this primitive barter, also, there was little room for that cultivated art of adulteration and deception which is so marked a feature of civilised trade. The absence of a medium of exchange reduced the whole transaction to elaborate haggling on the part of the tribes engaged. But continuous barter soon engenders a medium of exchange as a matter of convenience. Here, again, we may admire the ingenuity of our communal ancestors who thus hit upon what appears a highly refined method of facilitating transactions between peoples whose sense of private ownership was still unawakened. This medium of exchange, before and after the introduction of slavery, appears, to begin with, in the form of articles of use or decoration easily portable and transferable, such as shells, whale-teeth, wampum necklaces, pieces of copper or skins, packets of tea, dried fish and the like. The habitual employment of these things as recognised means of exchange over vast tracts of country was common; and some of them can be observed at the present time performing similar functions.
There is nothing to show, however, that the use of these tokens in trading led to hoarding by individuals, or brought about any economic or social domination by one individual, or set of individuals, or caste, over other members of the community. The medium of exchange was used as a medium of exchange only. Articles of use or decoration were traded away for so many cowries or bits of copper, and these same cowries or bits of copper were parted with again to obtain different desired articles from other tribes. Hoarding for the purpose of further hoarding was unknown; although accidental accumulation was possible and gambling or betting might go on among individuals who had a supply of the current medium of exchange in their hands. But there was as yet no application of these stores to purposes of further accumulation or social domination. They were used for trade and for trade alone.
Cattle gathered in large herds, tribally owned, seem first to have given in the Eastern Hemisphere a constant, instead of an accidental surplus for exchange. This surplus, in the form of cheese, skins, horn, constituted desirable articles for human groups at a lower stage of development. As patriarchal property superseded gentile ownership, and slavery helped to extend the size of the herds, exchange became continuous and added greatly to the wealth and even luxury of the cattle-owners. But now, as exchange itself took on an economic form, the cow itself and the ploughing ox, when fully grown, figured throughout as the units of exchange. This development was very long in coming about; it was also long in its duration and very wide in its extent. The cow, in particular, constituted for many centuries the chief medium of exchange among the populations of Europe and Asia. Here again the accumulation of cows and oxen in larger and larger herds, while they greatly increased the wealth of their owners and enabled them to keep bodies of free retainers as well as slaves, did not put them in any position of economic domination by hoarding and usury. Cows and oxen as means and units of exchange were used solely to fulfil that social function, in the early stage of the growth of commerce, as other units referred to had been before, and contemporaneously – namely, to facilitate transfer of useful articles and luxuries. The exchange values of animals were roughly established from the cow downwards, in a series of equivalents which varied very slightly over long periods. Thus one cow was the equivalent of two ploughing oxen, or ten sheep, and then throughout the whole domain of articles which came into this widespread exchange. Universality of exchange on the basis of the cow unit can be fully traced. Gold, which was discovered, refined and used by men ages before silver, first supplemented and then, as social changes advanced, very gradually replaced cattle as the principal medium of exchange. The quantity of gold at the disposal of tribes in the higher stages of barbarism, as well as of individuals in the earlier steps towards approaching civilisation, far exceeded the amounts commonly admitted in view of the assumed rarity of this precious metal in these times. But gold itself was originally taken as a token of value, and used as a medium of exchange of products in all markets by reference to its value in relation to the cow. And the standard of gold as this medium, thus established, became as general as the cattle standard itself. That is to say, it was constituted and regulated, as to its equivalence of value for exchange purposes, against cows and oxen, which formed the basis and criterion of its exchangeable worth: it was not gold in the first instance which decreed the worth of cows, oxen, sheep, etc., but cows and oxen which decided the value of gold.
So clearly was this the case that even coined money bore evidence of its origin in its early names derived from cattle. The pre-eminence of cattle in ancient estimations of value is shown from the fact that, even in the early days of Rome, the assessments for the payments of taxes in coin were made, not on the acreage of land occupied and owned by the citizen assessed, but on the number of cattle he possessed. The worth of gold, when it had attained to this position, in relation to cows and oxen, was arrived at originally by measure of quantity, as in quills full of gold particles. Later it was determined not by quantity only but by weight. This weight in its varying proportions was decided and checked by weighing in a balance: so much gold against so many grains of wheat or other cereal.
Now it is a remarkable fact that, from the confines of Europe to the remotest parts of Asia, the unit weight of gold so arrived at was practically the same in all the various countries, differing immensely in their racial characteristics and even in their social development, occupying this vast territory. The value of a cow in gold varied slightly from the weight of 130 grains to 135 grains, sometimes, but rarely, rising as high as 140 grains of refined gold. So far, therefore, from the pure gold standard of value in exchange being a modern invention, the ox-weight, as it is called by Mr Ridgeway, was the first generally recognised metal medium of exchange. Thus the weight of gold which appeared in Syria, in Mesopotamia, in Palestine, in Italy, in Egypt, in Greece, in Gaul, in Spain, and practically everywhere within the then known world, through a long period of antiquity, was the 135 grains of gold, used as the standard of the cattle-gold unit.
But a definite weight of gold, in its original ox-unit of 130 to 135 grains for a cow, was an unguaranteed and uncoined medium of exchange only, and so remained for a period which we are quite unable to estimate. And this small weight was divided up into smaller weights or portions for the purpose of exchange against other things or animals smaller than the value of a cow. The full significance of this universal equivalent was not appreciated until much later. Gold was in some regions regarded as a metal for use and decoration, to an extent which would probably have been fulfilled by other more plentiful but less easily mined metals, had they been available with the appliances of the time. The quantity of human exertion necessary to obtain this precious metal in regions where it was obtainable was not reckoned of importance, when it only formed part of the general labour of the community, after such labour, apart from the gold miners, had become sufficient to provide its members with ample food and other necessaries.
Those people who brought down their gold to trade with others on a higher level of culture, in return for things which they desired and could not produce themselves, carried out their transactions entirely on the plane of barter in its early shape. On the one side the articles which it was known were wanted were shown; on the other side the quantity of gold offered for the coveted objects was displayed. Then the amount was increased or decreased on both sides until the necessary equality of estimation at that time was reached, and the trading was then and there completed.
Even where gold was obtained in a society which had arrived at a relatively high level of production of articles of use or luxury, a long period elapsed before the need for weighing gold, or, later, silver, in all transactions, was obviated, and certified coinage took the place of nuggets or grains of refined gold of specified, but in no wise guaranteed weights. Gold also, however it may have been obtained, still performed its function as a medium of exchange, because it was itself valued highly as a metal for use, as well as for decoration, for public and private purposes. Thus it became in the form of weight, beginning with the ox-unit or rather cow-unit, by far the most convenient means of conducting exchange when the ruder forms of direct barter had been found insufficient. It was employed in this way, to an extent far exceeding what might have been looked for among the peoples who thus applied it to their trading, having regard to the stage of culture which they had reached in other respects.
But gold was still confined to its use for exchange when brought into the growing world of trade. Hoarding of gold with the specific intention of using it for very different social objects was as yet quite unknown. Accumulations of gold there were; display of wealth in gold was not uncommon. Instances of such amassing of treasure were to be discerned both in East and West, in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia, in Gaul, formerly a considerable gold-producing country, and even in Britain and Ireland. It was known among tribes which had not reached the highest level in the barbaric stage. But the fact that very valuable gold ornaments were often buried with their possessors shows that gold had achieved nothing at all approaching to the value of estimation it attained later on. It is quite inconceivable, for example, that the relatives of an English or American billionaire should bury with him his weighty gold dinner service, or the cherished gold ornaments of his mourning wife. They would much rather go back a stage in historic usages and show their sorrow by immolating his domestic servants, or even his despairing widow herself, on the tomb of the deceased. But if gold were really buried to-day with the corpse of the deeply lamented, as a testimony to his value when living, it is certain that resurrectionists of high standing would not be debarred, by any fear of the supernatural guardians of buried treasure, from looting the grave of the dead. This “sacred hunger for gold” did not inspire the early possessors of that precious metal. Consciously or unconsciously, the great barbarians and their immediate successors used gold socially, without allowing it to use them.
Throughout we can discern that this use of gold as a general medium of exchange was a long and very gradual growth from the cow-value of the specific weight of gold upwards. The cow, not the gold, began it. Man finding gold and proving it to be a practically imperishable element, easy to divide and recombine – most effective also for personal display – did not set to work of his own foresight to turn it into a medium of exchange. It was a series of unwitting steps that led him from one point in this evolution to the next, and the next, and the next. It is usual nowadays to assume that trade, through a medium of exchange, having superseded barter, the further development to the unlimited use of coined money was inevitable. But this process might be arrested for centuries by ordinance from above, by deliberate intention, in fact, to prevent the domination of commerce and the tyranny of the precious metals, as we see in the case of China. There the rulers for generations appear to have foreseen in some inscrutable way the baneful influence of uncontrolled money power; and, as will be mentioned later, they checked it at its source, by closing down mines for gold and silver.
In other parts of the world, however, and especially in the basin of the Mediterranean, which was the centre of Western civilisation, the course of economic progress, through the coinage of the precious metals, has shown man gradually overmastered by one of his own instruments. Gold, first in rough weights, and then, much more definitely, stamped and certified coin of regulated weight and fineness, having become the universal medium of exchange and the measure of the value of articles transferred, became also the representative of all articles of value and the means of purchasing them. Then it was that men found themselves, quite uncomprehendingly, at the mercy of their own creation, handled by their fellow-men. Private property in this dominant but practically unknown entity, money, made itself felt to an extent previously quite unthinkable.
Throughout the ancient world, and very far into the modern, land and agriculture formed the basis of the entire economic and social system of the great majority of the states and empires, outrivalling, in their pre-eminence, all other departments to which human industry could be applied. Whether occupied with breeding and depasturing flocks and herds, or with the production of cereals, or with both combined, whether as a great landowner employing slave labour on a large scale as owner of extensive areas, or as a small free proprietor cultivating his plot of ground to supply his own and his family wants, the landowners and the land cultivators were by far the most important elements of the state.
But over against this private ownership of the means of cultivating the land and the land itself, which arose from the breakup of the old gentes, stood the great and growing influence of money as money, which produced nothing and destroyed much. Its corrupting and corroding economic and social force was exercised, not as a mere medium of exchange, to equate values both of which were not present on the market at the same time, but as the universal equivalent of wealth of every sort, and therefore capable of buying marketable articles of all kinds from men and women, downwards or upwards, according to the estimation of the period. When the rich man desired money for luxury, to purchase political power, or to gratify clients – when the successful aspirant to supreme control was compelled to give bonuses to his soldiery or to defray the expenses of his triumph – then money was his primal requisite. When, on the other hand, the poor man was called upon to pay taxes in a bad season, or to purchase seed for another season’s sowing, or to replace the loss of a cow or an ox – when the citizen required help of any kind – then money and money alone was of use to him. Thus money represented in the hands of its possessor real wealth with which he controlled all other apparently accidental forms of wealth. This money need not be gold, when once the money form of universal ownership obtains control. Silver or copper may perform the same service, or disservice, in the early stages of wealth accumulation and currency domination. For, in a poor society, these metals may suffice for the uses of the surrounding region of the City or State which exercises control. But gold is universal, and gold and silver together came to rule the old world.
There were two great means of accumulating wealth in antiquity, outside of furious slave-driving, conquest and piracy: commerce (which to a large extent comprised systematic piracy) and usury. “Civilisation created a class which took no part in production but concerned itself solely with exchange – merchants. Former classes, both inchoate and complete, were devoted to production exclusively. These classes divided the producers into those who did the work, and the men who controlled them, or into producers upon a large and a small scale. But, in this case, a class for the first time makes its appearance which assumes control of production generally, and puts producers at its disposal, without itself taking any part in production at all. This class becomes the indispensable go-between for two separate producers; and takes toll from both, under the pretence of saving them the trouble and risk of exchanging their products, of extending their markets for their goods and thus becoming the most useful class of all.”
Such was the commencement of the great historic development of the much-belauded trader and merchant adventurer. To him gold was the goods of all goods, whose power of trans formation endured for ever, to the ceaseless benefit of him whc possessed it and used it to his own greater advantage. Money speedily accumulated in the hands of merchants, and was employed for the specific purpose of obtaining more money by continuous purchase and resale. As, therefore, exchanges increased, with the growth of demand for articles of use and luxury, and the extension of the markets, so did the commerce and the power of the merchant class increase with their affiliated departments of piracy, slave-hunting, slave-dealing, acquisition of precious metals, etc. As merchants they played no part in the production of the goods which they were ever ready to buy and to sell; but they held all producers who, for any cause, wished to dispose of their produce, or to obtain advances upon it, in the hollow of their hand, their rapacity only being checked by the fear that they might cause their customers to divert their dealings into another mercantile channel, if such were available.
Nor were these early merchants of the Mediterranean at all behind-hand in economising the gold and silver which they amassed and avoiding the risk of transport by the use of drafts and credit, the employment of which, to swell their stock of available trading capital, they had learned from older civilisations to the east of them. In consequnce of this, merchants, with their money and their fleets and their commercial connections, became the most powerful active influence; and gold and silver in their hands displayed a faculty of economic mastery over their clients, and even over independent populations, which was little short of a mystery to those who suffered under it. For merchants, as merchants, performed no valuable social service whatever, nor did they as a class run any risk of loss. This or that master of the art of buying and selling goods might speculate unwisely and lose his acquired money; but this only meant that the corpus of his pecuniary property was distributed among his competitors and rivals: the merchant class itself got relatively richer all the time. Relatively richer, because even the very rich of those days could bear no comparison in wealth with the vast fortunes accumulated in our time. And the methods of piling up their wealth were different, being based upon a different system of production.
But the merchants were powerful and unscrupulous enough during the whole of the long period when mercantile money – capital in its childhood – held sway. Tyre, Sidon, Athens, Carthage and the other great trading cities of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor owed their wealth to this source. The universal equivalent in their possession put the world of commerce at their feet. Gold and silver were kings of that commerce. These ’lly [?] impersonal agents of almost mysterious influence gave those who handled them as go-betweens unlimited and universal power, such as even great emperors, great generals, great statesmen scarcely possessed. Money, once enthroned as the economic deity, before whom all must bow, worked its way against the general sentiment of humanity, against the ethics of the highest philosophers and the abstract brotherhood of religious achers into worldwide dominance, in a manner which even we, who can trace its rise, expansion, further growth and subsequent development, can scarcely comprehend, though we are now approaching its last term of control.
What underlay the entire evolution and turned a useful human instrument into an impalpable machine for human oppression was the accumulation of this social force in private hands. Nothing can be more social than exchange, conducted for the benefit of two sets of producers, no matter what the medium of such exchange may be; gold itself under such conditions can work no harm to either side. Nothing can be more anti-social than exchange conducted between producers for the private and personal advantage of a third party, a non-producer who owns the universal medium of exchange, gold, which is used to exploit both of the real exchangers. Gold itself under these conditions becomes a power which eludes human control.
Furthermore, this impersonal and unhuman creation of humanity, and greed for its possession, engendered the most cruel treatment of all slaves engaged in mining for those metals which held a permanent dictatorship over man in the stage of private property and individually controlled exchange. So long as slaves were obtainable in large numbers by capture in war, by private piracy, by organised razzias, or by purchase on the public market at a cheap price, there was no limit to the ferocious pressure put upon them, under conditions where organised revolt was very difficult or impossible, to extract the greatest quantity of gold, silver or copper they could. No other consideration whatever entered into the matter.
Humanity had no say. The one and only object was to extract as much of the universal equivalent as possible within as short a space of time as could be achieved. The gain, under the conditions described, was as direct, immediate and as promptly realisable as it is in the mines of South Africa to-day. The owners of the mines and their associates were thus provided with the means of exchange and of the next great means of accumulation and domination – usury – by the simple process applied daily in the gold mines of Egypt, described by Diodoru-Siculus in the passage given below. These slaves were maltreated in order to increase the wealth of the rulers of Egypt themselves. The same system prevailed for centuries in the Greek mines, in the mines owned by the Carthaginians and afterwards by the Romans in Spain, Sicily, Gaul and elsewhere. It lasted so long, in fact, and made its appearance at all times in history, where the value of human life ethically and economically was of small account in comparison with the wealth acquired by wholesale brutality.
The following passage, quaintly translated from the famous description by Diodorus Siculus of Egyptian gold-mining, is a fair account of the mining of metals for direct profit in antiquity as also in Peru, Mexico and South Africa in modern times, where the miners are wholly unprotected from the greed and cruelty of their masters. A careful study of systematic slave-driving of young children in the mills of Lancashire at the beginning of the nineteenth century shows that, less than a hundred year ago, similar atrocities were commonly practised in the industrial districts of Great Britain at the expense of defenceless infants.
“On the confines of Egypt, Arabia, which marches with it, and Ethiopia, is a spot possessed of many great mines of gold, where the gold is got together with much suffering and expense. Since the earth is black and has lodes and veins of quartz of surpassing whiteness, which excel in brilliancy all those natural objects which are noted for their lustre, those who are in charge of the mining works, by the members of the labourers prepare the gold. For the kings of Egypt collect together and consign to the gold-mines those who have been condemned for crime, and who have been made captive in war, and, furthermore, those who have been ruined by false slanders, and who owing to an outburst of anger have been cast into prison, sometimes only themselves, but sometimes, also, with all their kindred, at one and the same time, both exacting punishment from those who have been condemned and obtaining great revenues by means of those who were engaged in the labour. Those who have been consigned to the mines being many in number and all bound with fetters ...”
[One of the kings of Egypt caused at least 80,000 persons who were only suffering from physical defects and illness to be thrown into the horrors of the mines in a single year we are told.]
“... toil at their tasks continuously, both by night and by day, getting no rest, and jealously kept from all escape. For guards composed of foreign soldiers who speak languages different from theirs are set over them, so that no one is able by association or any kindly intercourse to corrupt any one of the warders. The hardest of the earth which contains the gold they burn with a good deal of fire and make soft and work it with their hands, but the soft rock and that which can easily yield to stone and iron chisels is worked down by thousands of hapless beings. And the craftsman who selects the stone takes the lead in the whole process and gives instructions to the workmen. And of those who have been plunged into this misery those who excel in bodily strength cut the glittering rock with iron pickaxes, not by bringing skill to bear upon their tasks but by sheer brute force, and they hew out galleries, not in a straight line but following the vein in the glittering rock. They then, living in darkness owing to the twists and turns in the adits, carry about lamps fitted on their foreheads, and changing in many ways the posture of their bodies according to the peculiarity of the rock throw down on the floor the fragments hewn and this they do unceasingly under the severity and stripes of the overseer. But the boys who have not yet reached manhood, going in through the adits into the excavations in the rock, laboriously cast up the rock thrown down bit by bit and convey it to the place outside the mouth of the adit into the light. But the men who are more than thirty years old take a fixed measure of the stone mined and pound it in stone mortars with iron pestles until they reduce it to the size of a vetch. From these the women and older men receive the stone now reduced to pieces the size of a vetch, and, as there is a considerable number of mills there in a row, they cast the stone upon them, they stand beside them at the handle, in threes and twos, they grind until they have reduced the measure given them to the fineness of wheaten flour. And since they are all regardless of their persons, and have not a garment to cover their nakedness, no one who saw them could refrain from pitying the hapless creatures owing to their excessive misery. For there is absolutely no consideration nor relaxation, for sick or maimed, for aged man or weak woman, but all are forced to toil on at their tasks until, worn out by their miseries, they die amid their toils. Wherefore, the unhappy beings regard the future as more to be dreaded than the present, owing to the excess of punishment, and expect death as more to be longed for than life. But, finally, the craftsmen get the ground-up stone and complete the process. For they rub the ground-up quartz on a broad board placed on a slight incline, pouring water on it. Then the earthy part of it, melting away by the action of the liquid, flows down along the sloping board, but the part that contains the gold adheres to the board owing to its weight. Repeating this process frequently, at first with their hands, they gently rub it, but after this, pressing it lightly with delicate sponges, they take up, by these means, the soft and earthy part until the gold dust is left in a state of purity.
“Finally other craftsmen, taking over the collected gold by measure and weight, put it into earthenware pots, and, in proportion to the amount they put in, a piece of lead and lumps of salt and furthermore a small quantity of tin and they add barley bran. Then having made a well-fitted cover and having laboriously smeared it over with mud, they bake it in kilns for five days and as many nights continuously. Then, after letting it cool, they find none of the other things in the vessels, but get the gold in a pure state with but a slight reduction in quantity. With so many and so great sufferings is the production of gold at the frontiers of Egypt completed. For Nature herself makes it plain, I think, that gold is produced with toil, is guarded with difficulty, is most eagerly sought for, and enjoyed with mixed pleasure and pain.”
Thus it seems to me Diodorus Siculus, so simply and directly Englished, gives a more terrible account of the real horrors of slavery in the mining industry than can be found anywhere else. It calls for no strain upon, the imagination to see these tortured human creatures slowly dragging onwards to death under the whips of the slave-drivers, in order only to provide an article of exchange and luxury for their masters. But wherever slaves were easily come by, could be cheaply replaced in quantity, and cost little to feed and superintend, similar horrors were practised. The slaves of the Romans recruited by wholesale capture came under the same law when production of any sort was carried on for gain.
This method of mining was also used in the mines of Peru under the Spaniards, and rapidly worked out the bodies of the unfortunates sent to toil in them by the tens of thousands. This frightful working and floggng of men, from which there was no escape but unnatural death or suicide, forms a strange contrast to the gold-washing and simple gold extraction from gold seams carried on at the same period by gentile tribes for decoration and barter. Gold to the savages and barbarians represented no more than a metal valuable in itself for its durable and decorative qualities. They had no merchant class to fasten upon it and convert it, as a universal equivalent, into a means of individual exchange and of private accumulation as well.
Last updated on 5.7.2006