Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Importance of the Means of Transaction

This is just a random thought that occurred to me that I want to keep a record of for revisiting later, and to ask my readers if they know of sources that have explored the idea in detail before.  Based on some reading I've been doing recently* it has occurred to me just how important control of the means of transaction (a clumsy formulation I'm using to distinguish this from the already taken term the means of exchange) has been for determining social, economic, and political outcomes.  I don't mean solely the traditional narrow definition of the means of exchange (money or commonly traded commodities such as grains or silk) but a more multidimensional way of using the concept that encompasses means of labor exchange (the medieval manor system, Chinese lineage groups, temple distribution of grain in Uruk, the modern corporation, etc.) and the control over the systems by which goods are exchanged (such as the organization of long distance trading networks, organization of local and regional markets, modern bundling of goods and services, taxation by the state for public goods, etc.).

I realize that a very common mistake committed in the social sciences is to mistake a range of disparate mostly unrelated facts for a pattern.  This strikes me as a possibility with my desire to link all of these aspects together into some form of broader causal system.  So this has to be understood as a germ of an idea than something I have a great deal of evidence for or that I would be willing to defend. 

All that said, I have often been critical of the importance given to material factors or to theories that emphasize the importance of the means of production and investment or the importance of economic classes.  By looking at the means of transaction I think there may be a better way to frame how material factors interact with social and ideational factors to lead to social, political, and economic outcomes.  The ability to control how goods are exchanged, how labor is exchanged, and how public goods are created seems to me to be a possible contender for a better way of conceiving of the interaction between material and social life than more commonly used conceptualizations.

While this is very preliminary, and possibly a waste of my time to think about and yours to read, what I'm suggesting is that rather than looking at the standard focus of economic theorizing on production and wealth or social theorizing that emphasizes class it may be more fruitful, and more applicable to wider time frames, to look for explanations of social outcomes and economic growth by focusing on the control exerted over how goods are exchanged.  Throughout history these powers have always been divided between a variety of actors.  The focus would be not on who owns what but instead on who is able to control how contracts are formed, how contributions are assessed to provide social goods (often the state, but private charities or religious organizations have in the past fulfilled aspects of this role), how labor exchange is organized (I'm trying to think of a term that would encompass modern companies organized for market production as well as both modern and older organizations that involve labor exchange for non-market activities, I see no compelling reason to make a distinction, especially since the division between market activities and non-market shifts and is part of what needs to be explained), how the medium of exchange is set, and other activities that emphasize organizing exchange over actual ownership.

A number of observations are behind my consideration of the importance of a change of focus.  First of all, I think too much emphasis has been placed on capital goods and the means of production as a result of the industrial revolution and the surge in capital accumulation required.  While this focus is important for early industrialization, I think a focus on it has obscured trends of longer duration and importance that underlie this transformation and that of earlier periods and that are of more importance to future change in economic, social, and political structures.  I think that the means of conducting transactions, which transactions involve the government vs. which transactions are private or through other designated organizations, how different forms of institutions are formed to conduct activities, and the simple control over expectations of how people will act in different sets of interactions (things as simple as knowing what to expect when dealing with a merchant to something as complex as organizing a large enterprise, whether a modern corporation or a Roman colony, in a foreign territory) are more important to determining social outcomes than standard economic explanations are.  While there is significant overlap, wealth or state power can certainly help to establish the means by which transactions are conducted, this perspective (if anything other than nonsense constructed from far too few data points) would explain the unusual importance of new sectors of activity (such as the importance of early industrializers or other innovators) as well as the outsize importance of control over finance.  It would also provide a strong perspective for explaining how private economic actors can exert outsize control over society when they are in positions essential to distribution, which seems to be a common historical theme.

That's enough on this for now.  My above description is incomplete, the primary purpose of this however is to get something on record for me to possibly revisit later if I find the time and continue to see evidence that this is an important frame.  I also believe that to properly explain it I would have to spend rather more time on specific historical examples and contrasting it with standard economic interpretations of development (such as North's), Marxist interpretations, and more sociological explanations (such as Moore's class based explanations).  If any readers have come across similar attempts to focus on transactions over production, the state, or class as socioeconomic explanatory frames I'd appreciate the reference.  I'd also appreciate any critiques, both to think through these ideas more and to know if this is so far off base that I shouldn't be wasting my time on it any further.

* Recently, I've been reading Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, Belknap Press's History of Imperial China series, Skocpol's Democracy, Revolution, and History, Wolpert's A New History of India, Mokyr's The Lever of Riches, North's The Rise of the Western World, lots and lots of papers on Chinese trade and currency, and Mieroop's A History  of the Ancient Near East.  I have no doubt that many, or all, of these have contributed to  my recent thinking along these lines, in particular Mieroop's book which got me to thinking of just how vastly the means of conducting transactions has changed over time.  The modern methods of market exchange simply don't look like something that is based upon any sort of fundamental human characteristics, rather they seem to be the product of particular social circumstances.

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