Part 2: How the Khoikhoi taught the labor theory of value to European merchant capital

by Jehu

Subjectivity and early fixed exchange systems

Under the conditions Graeber posits — simple commodity exchange among potentially hostile neighboring groups that are themselves internally bound by moral relations —  the determinants of the fixed exchange ratio schedules anthropologists find are not likely to be subjective. And this is for the same reason that the exchange ratios between differing products of labor are fixed in the first place: to avoid conflicts that could spill over into war between communities.

khoe-jjIf, in the middle of a gathering for purposes of exchange between hostile groups of hardened combatants, individuals had to sort out their subjective arguments for why, say, eighteen, and not fourteen, arrow heads should exchange for one canoe, and if these subjective arguments differed among individuals on both sides of the dispute, what is the likely outcome of this process? How long could any given fixed exchange ratio be relied upon to remain fixed should a dispute break out?

Any agreement founded on purely subjective arguments would likely collapse precisely during periods when the potential for conflict is the greatest — a gathering of hostile fighters for the purpose of bartering. We already have enough going against any emergence of commodity exchange as it is;  once we add in subjective determinants of fixed exchange ratios, the project is pretty much hopeless.

Unless someone can find a flaw in my reasoning, the above argument suggests there had to be a fairly objective measure of the relative  values of one commodity and another. And this objective measure had to be so obvious to the two communities that even jealousies, etc. did not unravel the relation.

Moreover, as Graeber writes,

“Occasionally, men would get killed, and to head off this descending into outright warfare, the usual solution was to have the killer adopt the name of the victim, which would also give him the responsibility for caring for [the dead man’s] wife and children.”

Based on Graeber’s example here, we can understand how a system of fixed exchange ratios might, in time, lead to the elaboration of a legal system to settle injury or death claims between moral strangers. Even if a dispute led to serious individual conflict, even if the dispute led to the death of a member of one of the two communities, the fixed exchange ratio system had to provide a solution.

The rise of value calculation

Here Engels provides an ingenious, if often dismissed, argument that before the rise of money, producers had what today would, at first, appear to be an uncanny ability to fairly closely approximate the labor values of their respective commodities!

The comment comes in his supplement to Capital Volume 3, where he writes:

“The little that such a family had to obtain by barter or buy from outside, even up to the beginning of the 19th century in Germany, consisted principally of the objects of handicraft production — that is, such things the nature of whose manufacture was by no means unknown to the peasant, and which he did not produce himself only because he lacked the raw material or because the purchased article was much better or very much cheaper. Hence, the peasant of the Middle Ages knew fairly accurately the labor-time required for the manufacture of the articles obtained by him in barter. The smith and the cartwright of the village worked under his eyes; likewise, the tailor and shoemaker — who in my youth still paid their visits to our Rhine peasants, one after another, turning home-made materials into shoes and clothing. The peasants, as well as the people from whom they bought, were themselves workers; the exchanged articles were each one’s own products. What had they expended in making these products? Labor and labor alone: to replace tools, to produce raw material, and to process it, they spent nothing but their own labor-power; how then could they exchange these products of theirs for those of other laboring producers otherwise than in the ratio of labor expended on them? Not only was the labor-time spent on these products the only suitable measure for the quantitative determination of the values to be exchanged: no other way was at all possible.”

According to Engels, producers in fact had no other way of engaging in exchange than to measure the relative worth of their products by the amounts of labor embodied in them. And again, according to Engels, the ability of individuals to estimate the relative values of their commodities against other commodities became less precise over time owing precisely to the emergence of money, usurers and the state. This capacity has, by our time, disappeared altogether, leaving no trace that behind the value of every commodity is simply its labor time.

Certain Marxist academics today dismiss Engels’ argument because it is counter-intuitive and because it goes against their interpretation of Capital. (See, for instance, this article, ‘The Myth of ‘Simple Commodity Production’, by the idiot Marxist, Chris Arthur). However Engels provides a simple, testable, hypothesis for the determinant behind what Graeber refers to as a rough system of fixed equivalences: In general we should expect to find that these equivalences roughly reflect the respective labor times (at some given level of technical development) of the items detailed in the schedule.

So, one way to test Engels’ hypothesis would be simply to attempt to determine the labor times required for the production of any two equivalents known to have existed at a given period of time, employing the technology and other conditions of production known to be prevailing at that time. This is something well within the routine methods of the practice of anthropology, as can be seen by the Kon-Tiki experiment.

We have been fed a steady diet of stories that purport to demonstrate the relative stupidity of aboriginal peoples throughout the world like the one told to American schoolchildren since the 19th century regarding the Dutch purchase of Manhattan from the Native American peoples for a measly $24. However, there is another, more interesting story involving the Dutch that suggests the aboriginal peoples were highly aware of, and sensitive to changes in, the labor values involved in production of their own commodities and the commodities they received in return.

Coree teaches political-economy to the English and Dutch

The Khoikhoi story of Southern Africa, which takes place not long after the first European-African contact, suggests the law of value takes on a life of its own once established. To grasp its implications you should know that Khoikhoi society although still characterized by a low level of development of the productive forces, already had exchange of commodities among neighboring communities and, therefore, a division of labor:

“Coree’s [also spelled “Xhore”] people were one of the many small Khoikhoi communities. They possessed little more than stone-age technology, but were most skilful cattle-breeders, cherishing the beasts which formed the centre of their social activities. Their command over cattle was extraordinary: riding them was commonplace, the beasts could be trained for warfare, and at night they would lay themselves down in the centre of the camp. Probably originating further north, the Khoikhoi had over the centuries drifted south-west to what is now Namibia and the Western Cape in search of pasture, moving in regular patterns within specific territories. Like most nomadic peoples the Khoikhoi were self-limiting in numbers: in Coree’s time probably fewer than 100,000 spread over a territory the size of France or Texas. Of this region they were the undisputed masters, the nearest similar communities being the Bantu-speaking blacks five hundred miles east of Table Bay.”

In long distance European trade activities, Table Bay became an important intermediate destination for merchant capital of Europe operating between Europe and India. At Table Bay, the “Indiamen” would often takes on supplies necessary for the journey, which required trade with local Khoikhoi communities. As Graeber argues in his essay, Europeans did attempt to fix the exchange ratios for their commodities with the commodities offered by the Khoikhoi. And they attempted to maintain these ratios at a level profitable for themselves. However, precisely because such manipulation of exchange was lucrative, the Europeans kidnap Coree in order to train him in English to facilitate trade. And this kidnap leads to the upset of the attempts to fix the exchange ratio of the use values concerned as use values.

Coree’s story is told this way:

“In the year 1613 one `Coree’ was kidnapped from the Cape by a homeward-bound Indiaman (Hector, Captain Towerson) and carried back to London. There, although lodged in Sir Thomas’s own house, cherished and adorned with a suit of brazen armour, he was unhappy: `for when he had learned a little of our language he would daily lie upon the ground and cry very often thus in broken English, “Coree go home, Souldania go, home go.'”

“Coree was duly returned, laden with `tinkerlie treasure’; `he had no sooner set footing on his own shore, but presently he threw away his cloathes, his linen, with all other covering, and got his sheepskins upon his back.’ Once home Coree took some pride in his adventure, and taught his people to chant `Sir Thomas Smithe English Shippes,’ which they did `with great glorye’. Later visitors found Coree usually helpful, willing to provide cattle and sheep, but his residence in England had taught him something of European values, and he insisted on proper prices for his beasts, which particularly annoyed the Dutch.” [my emphasis]

Still another account of the Coree story is a bit more expansive on the reason for and the result of the Coree kidnapping:

“A year later Sir Thomas, with great hopes pinned on his cooperation, put Xhore back on the Hector when it set sail for the East Indies, via Table Bay. Back at home and reunited with his people, a wiser Xhore informed his people about the ways of the British and the true value of the goods and cattle that they bartered. Smythe’s planning began to come unstuck, but nonetheless Smythe continued with his plans to establish a British colony at the Cape.” [my emphasis]

The value (commodity) character of the exchanges is revealed. In reality, cattle was already an incipient money form in Southern Africa at the time. This reality is concealed by the fact that owing the low level of development of the productive forces among the Khoikhoi, money had not yet separated itself out from commodity exchange generally and was still only immaturely expressed in the form of multiple use values: cattle was money, but so was iron — which is to say the owners of these commodities could ‘purchase’ other commodities and used the labor times of these commodities as the measure of their relative values.

The development of the productive forces among the Khoikhoi — and money is a productive force — had not attained the degree that the money character of one commodity had come to the fore and the money character of all other commodities receded to the background. But the money or value character of these commodities in Southern Africa is confirmed in Coree’s observations about the impact European iron had on the exchange value of iron against cattle.

Aborignal Peoples knew they were being cheated of their labor

The Khoikhoi story is fortuitous for us because it allows us to avoid mistaken notions that might arise from looking in isolation at either ‘normal’ internal African trade relations and the American example of Manhattan in isolation. The Manhattan story was, in my youth, an example of Native American value related naivete’ or even stupidity. And (it is possible) normal African trade relations of the period had much of the quality of habituated practices and could be mistaken for arbitrarily determined customs.

But the arrival of European iron produces a “crisis” in the iron “industry”, where we actually get a chance to observe the ‘value consciousness’ of the Khoikhoi and it appears to me to have been highly developed, compared to what Europeans must have expected. Clearly neither the English or the Dutch said to themselves, “If we kidnap these guys and take them back to Europe they will see how little value our most important trading commodity contains.”

It probably never even occurred to them that the Khoikhoi were capable of this sort of highly abstract political-economic thinking as is commonly assumed to be necessary for value to operate. Which raises the question: Would anthropology find evidence for value if it already assumed it did not exist? How is the rather unambiguous story of Khoikhoi-European trade to be interpreted, if not value (labor times) calculation? Does the Khoikhoi suggest there is the capacity for abstract value calculation at work far beyond what Graeber calls “unenumerated credits and debts”? And does it not demonstrate that this capacity for abstract calculation arises well before money itself emerges out of commodity circulation?

Since I am not an anthropologist, I am not qualified to address the evidence, but as a layman I am qualified to ask for clarification. In general, anthropology has developed itself in opposition to historical materialism as an instrument of bourgeois rule. It is as much in opposition to historical materialism as economics or any other “social science”. And if I understand the radical anthropologist Lionel Sims correctly, this is not an accident: in both the United States and in the UK the opponents of historical materialism seem to have seized the field mid-century. As a result there is a deep-seated prejudice within the discipline toward historical materialist theory that appears to cripple its efforts:

“those who argued for the Origins in an anthropology programme were effectively silenced. In fact, any inquiry into cultural origins were disallowed in modern anthropology.”

The real role of force in history

Coree’s story is quite amazing, since it goes against not only the whole of anthropology but also New Marx Reading theory, which latter attributes value calculation to the rise of money and even later — to the rise of capital itself. Coree’s capacity to calculate abstract labor values was so advanced, he was able to disrupt a significant part of early European-African trade relations. His observations were, in fact, so damaging to European merchant capital’s interests, that, according to one account I have read, the Dutch took it on themselves to hunt him down and kill him:

“Emboldened by his victories over the British and their scheme for setting up a colony, Xhore took a hard line in bargaining with other Europeans who traded with him and his people when their vessels stopped over in Table Bay. In 1626, Xhore was killed by a group of Dutch traders during a bartering conflict. In later years Xhore’s sons followed their father’s resistance footsteps in the first Khoi-Dutch war of 1658.”

The story suggests, as Marx and Engels both argued, that value calculation — i.e., the abstraction of labor values from use values — actually may have occurred very early in human history after the emergence of the division of labor, cattle herding and commodity exchange among moral strangers. It certainly suggests the capacity to calculate values appears well before money itself.

It seems that very early in this period of history after the collapse of primitive communism, mankind was already regularly conducting exchange between morally unrelated groups through the conscious calculation of abstract labor values.