• We are what we trade, and trade is what we are

    Single Issue XVII

    We are what we trade, and trade is what we are
    By Flinn

    Do ut Des... it's all about trade, isn't it?

    Hello there fellow readers and welcome back on my Sofa! Please take a seat, relax and have a glass or two of White Russian! Today I will tell you about my view on how trade impacted the development of human civilization and basically on how it was the impulse behind the most important steps forward that our kind took through the ages.

    First and foremost, I need to inform you that this poor dude is just a very mundane salesman in real life, and that for good and bad I've had the opportunity to understand many things about trade during the last few years: even if I’m still someone who doesn’t like much the idea of the “profit at all costs”, I have to recognize that trade has its advantages, the first being the needs it satisfies.

    But what is trade, then? Basically, it’s the exchange of goods or services (sometimes of both), with the purpose of satisfying our needs reciprocally. Keep this point in mind, because this is basic to the understanding of what I’m saying here. Too many people consider the idea of “trade” to be something negative, mostly because it is connected to the idea of “money” (with which I can agree, to a certain extent), but let me state that this is pretty much only one aspect of commerce and probably not the most important, at least as concerns the anthropological implications I’m referring to in the title. Let me spend few words more about this diatribe: I’m both a salesman and a farmer (as a hobby) and I can see both sides of the medal; commerce is necessary for the welfare of the society, but it requires the people involved to be continuously aware of what changes trade brings, and indeed it impacts the lives of those involved, for good or for bad.. so whether one is in favor or not is just a matter of whether you are on the good or the bad side of it. As we will see below, trade is such a strong shaping force that a lot of people, in particular those with a conservative stance, such as farmers or general workers, tend to dislike it because it is a force that can change their lives significantly without them actually receiving any advantage from this.

    Mercurius was the God of Trade and Profit in Rome of old, his name most probably derived from merx or mercator, both meaning "merchant"

    However, as I said, the base on which trade is established is a need, specifically a need that one cannot satisfy himself but that requires the intervention of a third party. We, as passing beings, base our lives on the satisfaction of our needs: some of them are fundamental (such as food, tools, shelter, etc), while others are frivolous (such as getting the latest smartphone) and only gain value when the fundamental ones are covered, and others are intellectual needs (such as the know-how to hunt or to build up a nuclear plant) and so on and on. If we look at the matter from outside, we can safely say that our lives (or life in general), isn’t anything but the satisfaction of needs.

    If we agree on this, then it becomes obvious how much the trade of those needs has been important for our civilization: please notice that when I say our, I mean of the whole humankind. The process I’m referring to started many tens of thousands of years ago, at the time of the “birth” of the sapiens sapiens civilization, and probably even before then with our elder ancestors, thus it is part of every development, no matter if we are talking about the Western or Eastern civilization, or of any other one, for what matters.

    I have the habit of making comparisons, and I often compare animals (mammals mostly) to humans: while we are similar to some in many ways (such as helping each other out, cooperating for the common good, sharing shelter and food, etc), from what I know the human being is the only creature that actually carries out trade. An animal might spare some food for the others once it is sated, but I’ve never seen an animal trading a piece of meat or a fruit for a sip of water or a better position in the herd hierarchy, if you'll allow me these simple examples. I often compare the ability of animals and humans with regard to the use of tools and the modification of their surroundings, and honestly, with all the limitations of the case, we are not that different: apes use a variety of different tools, dogs and cats can open doors, birds are usually awesome at pushing buttons/levers to obtain rewards, and so are mice… I guess the difference is just in the potential that can be expressed, with the human being on the top of it.

    Over the century before Rome's conquest of Gaul, the region took delivery of tens of thousands of wine amphorae from Italy. The Celts really loved wine, as the Roman writers were found of reminding us. Here's Dioidorus Siculus, quoting Posidonius on the subject:
    'They are extremely partial to wine and glut themselves with the unmixed wine brought in by merchants. Their desire makes them guzzle it and when they get drunk they either fall into a stupour or become manic. For this reason, Italian merchants ... regard the Celtic passion for wine as a source of treasure.'


    Increasingly intimate trade contacts and, particularly, trade with the Roman empire seemed to catalyse the development of new political and trading centres, which the Romans called 'oppida', right across the Roman world. Most of these oppida had some sort of earthwork defence, probably supplemented with walls or at least timber pallisades. ... Contact with the empire also had an impact on Celtic society. As Celtic lands became Romanized, leaders could gain power and prestige by becoming an ally of Rome, while their young warriors could prove themselves by fighting as auxliaries in the Roman army.

    Alice Roberts in 'The Celts: Search for a Civilization' (Heron Books 2015) p. 162 & 163
    Just two examples of how much the commercial interactions between two civilizations contributed to modify and reshape both

    So, it becomes evident that the main difference between people and the other “intelligent” animals is the ability to give a value to something and to trade it according to that value. I can also say that this is the only form of acquisition that is practiced exclusively by humans, while for instance conquest (and war, by extension) is a common thing in the animal world (see, for instance: herds or single animals fight for the access to water or food, be it vegetables/plants or prey) and so is the exploitation of their own kind (such as the male lions leaving the hunting role to the females) or of other animals (such as the hyena, that is usually stealing prey from the other carnivores, or those animals that steal the lairs of other animals); the “colonization”, which we think we have invented, is as a matter of fact at the base of the expansion of species throughout the whole history of the Earth and thus it’s another form of acquisition that is not exclusive to mankind. Do we want to talk about the habit of stealing resources? Or that of sucking up the life from other living creatures? Both behaviors are rather common in the animal and vegetable worlds, and parasites are more common than “regular animals” (with viruses being considered as parasites par excellence).

    I’m also convinced that nothing (not even war) has the same potential as trade when it comes to the ability to quickly shift the balance and to revolutionize a society: as a matter of fact, the economic power of a nation (with trade being the force which generates richness, basically) has the strongest impact on how that society develops and on how it interacts with the other societies; it is not exclusive though, with war being close, but what’s war if not just a form of "trade" made with other means? Its final goal is that of acquiring something, whether that might be power (that is later exchanged for something else), resources, lands or whatever. Even work is a form of trade: we give our time and know-how in exchange for money or goods. Isn’t chatting with friends a trade too? We gift them our time and ears to get in exchange good moments, sympathy, joy and so on. As creatures based on the “interaction”, we are actually made of trade, if you'll allow me the stretch.

    After the battle of Plassey in 1757, the pattern of the [East India] Company’s commercial relations with India underwent a qualitative change. Now the Company could use its political control over Bengal to acquire monopolistic control over Indian trade and production and push its Indian trade. Moreover, it utilised the revenues of Bengal to finance its export of Indian goods.

    The activity of the Company should have encouraged Indian manufacturers, for Indian exports to Britain went up from £1.5 million in 1750-51 to £5.8 million in 1797-98, but this was not so. The Company used its political power to dictate terms to the weavers of Bengal who were forced to sell their products at a cheaper and dictated price, even at a loss.

    Moreover, their labour was no longer free. Many of them were compelled to work for the Company for low wages and forbidden to work for Indian merchants. The Company eliminated its rival traders, both Indian and foreign, and prevented them from offering higher wages or prices to the Bengal handicraftsmen. - Monica Roy, Economic Policies in India during British Rule
    Very often, war was instrumental to open new trade routes or to take control over the existing ones...

    However, for the purpose of this analysis let’s take a couple of steps back and reconsider the history of the first civilizations: for the early pre-historic societies know-how, I believe, was more important than material things, the resources being abundant for a very small population. Later, as soon as the various groups grew and know-how became a form of power (imagine the edge a people manufacturing things in iron could have over another one manufacturing them in bronze or wood), people started to trade finished goods for the most part, with barter being the basic form of exchange.

    As barter implies that the physical goods have to be traded, so easy access to the resources/goods became essential; it was not just water, or shelter, or food resources, but also all the other kind of direct or indirect resources: proximity to mines, to large fertile fields, to forests or quarries and so on, that became essential for the success of those civilizations. Similarly, access to sub-resources that could provide more services/resources was the key to the development of the first historic civilizations: the first of them developed close to rivers (Nile, Tigris, Indo, Yellow River, etc), because a river means fresh water, fertile land (and quite certainly the presence of migrating herds) AND an easy mean of trade and movement of goods, especially heavy ones (such as stone, metals, etc).

    Barter was the first form of trade and it is still the most convenient form under many circumstances

    It is surprising to note that even in the age of Harappa culture, when trade was in a highly flourishing condition and had almost assumed international proportions, the ordinary medium of exchange was barter. The enormous volume of trade during this period, apart from that within the boundaries of the Harappa kingdom, involved a considerable merchant class, with the attendant organization of caravans along recognized trade-routes leading to the remotest parts which is supported by a very large number of weights and measurements belonging to a uniform system as well as a number of seals found in the two capital cities of the Harappa civilization and at other smaller sites" (pages 302 to 303).
    "A Study of Barter and Exchange in Ancient India" Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Volume 15, Issue 1 (1972), by Upendra Thakur

    The need for new routes and new resources was also the basis of the impulse to explore new lands and, most important, to found new colonies: the Phoenicians, who were the first people to touch all the coasts of the Mediterranean sea, were a people of traders, who turned later into a people of sailors to satisfy their need for new resources and new markets. They were behind the main Mediterranean civilizations (such as the Romans, via mixing with the Etruscans, or Carthage) and founded many settlements all around the area and also had close interactions with all the other older civilizations (Egyptians or Greeks, for example). And now consider this: what was the impulse behind the colonization of America if not the search for new resources? What did the explorers bring back with them for the most part? Wasn’t it gold and silver and rare/unique food, rather than converted locals or “cultural acquisitions”? And what about the Romans? Could have they become so powerful and rich if not for the need to organize themselves and their trade routes? Roman roads, which are up to today an example of engineering mastery, were built to permit the movement of goods and news (and armies) around their dominions: if I have to think of a civilization which is an exemplar of being shaped by the needs of trade, than the Roman one is certainly the one I would pick.

    The Phoenicians' trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea (text in Italian)

    The main sources of trade goods during the Roman age (text in Italian)

    Let me throw in more considerations now about some of the most important achievements of our kindred: money (and credit by extension), transport engineering (both infrastructures and various vehicles), intercultural exchanges. Money is probably the most revolutionary achievement in terms of fast steps forward of our civilization: it allowed us to replace physical goods with something of a nominal value which could be transferred everywhere without having to worry about big volumes, capacity, expiration and so on. I deem it’s easy to get how important money was; it rapidly changed the way we could trade and it was adopted very easily by everyone who got in contact with the idea. In the very beginning money was nothing other than the raw value of the precious metals/stones used for barter, later that value was coined with the effigies of the ruler/dominion that owned that precious metal, until at the end it turned into something completely nominal (including checks, bank credit, etc). Money is also a sort of register of important political or social events, as depicted on the coins themselves.

    Many periods of our history would have still remained "dark" had not the spade brought to light the various important hoards having remarkable bearing in the history and culture of the periods concerned. The dumb and tongueless coins, like other antiquities, have been the mute recorders of some of the wonderful events concerned with many a period of our history which would have otherwise remained absolutely forgotten and ignored. Harbingers of culture, they speak of various political upheavals that shape and change, from time to time, the currents of the annals of a country." (p. 297)
    "A Study of Barter and Exchange in Ancient India" Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Volume 15, Issue 1 (1972), by Upendra Thakur

    And what about transport engineering? Why even travel if not for the need to engage in some form of trade? Why build a great port or bigger ships if not for the sake of better and safer commerce? Or consider this: flying is awesome, but why are airplanes preferred over balloons? Because they are faster, they allow for a better and more convenient trade. Why develop steam ships, even though they were slower than Clippers? Because they could keep moving no matter the weather or the direction of the wind, thus being faster over the whole year. Do you know why Hong Kong was built? Because the British Empire was in need of a safe port to protect both its military and commercial ships from typhoons! And why did they spend an enormous quantity of resources and time to build a big airport there in the 90s? Because it is still one of the most important and most profitable commercial bases around the world.

    By extension, trade means exchange, in particular cultural exchange: as a matter of fact, if one wants to be successful in trade, one has to make the effort to understand one's counterpart (both in terms of language and in terms of culture). Basically it’s the same logic as for traveling: why bother about learning new languages or adapting to a different culture if not for the purpose of having something in exchange? Yes I know, this sounds incredibly trivial and mundane, but as a matter of fact we don’t do anything if not to trade something for something else. I often help people with their personal issues, and I do that because I like to be of help and because I feel better when I successfully do so… I’m strongly convinced that if not for the need to interact to trade knowledge, resources and goods, we would have never developed up to where we are today. Once again, the ability to trade is unique to humankind, and this should say it all about the nature of the main difference between us and the other mammals.

    The volume of modern daily trade is simply uncountable, and it basically grows larger every day!

    As mentioned above, with the introduction of new and better means of travel and trade, the idea of global commerce became truth. There are plenty of tools nowadays for us to close a deal without the need to step out of our house, or even of our bed! E-commerce is really the base of modern business: even those like me, who sell manufactured products and have to travel quite a lot, can exploit the net and all the related tools for marketing, promotion, contacts, sales, payments and so on and on. Two weeks ago I bought a doll for my daughter in Australia, because it was cheaper (transport costs included) to have it via that channel rather than ordering it in any local shop (not to mention that my daughter is already playing with it, while if I'd had to order it locally I would not have received it yet..). A few years ago I completely rebuilt my old vineyard and my cellar, and despite both being activities dating back to prehistoric times, I could actually buy everything I need via the Internet ... I'm sure that for most of you I'm not saying anything out of the ordinary, which in turn proves one of my main points: "we are what we trade, and trade is what we are"!

    Trade has never been as easy as nowadays

    The importance of trade in modern days is, in my opinion, beyond our understanding: I can say that should for any reason the trade fluxes be interrupted (for instance by a global disaster) then the survival of humankind itself will be in trouble.. we are so accustomed nowadays to being able to obtain everything we need via trade, that for the most part we have lost the knowledge of how to do the basic things by ourselves. How many of us are capable of growing our own food? Or making our own clothes or shelters? Trade is a powerful engine that pushes civilization further and further ahead, but are we actually capable of keeping pace with it? I have to be honest, I'm afraid that we are not. Should something global happen, only a few of us will survive... and now that I think of this, hasn't it happened already in the past? If I think of the Maya, there are plenty of theories on why such a great, advanced and powerful civilization collapsed so fast, one of them being the so called "contraction of trade", which is my favorite of course (also because it can explain and fit together with many of the other theories).

    The upper class did none of the practical work of providing food, or clothing, or shelter; all of this was done by the lower classes. When resources started to run low the system simply couldn't sustain itself: the lower classes got poorer and poorer in an attempt to maintain the standard of living of the upper class, which in turn was totally unable to take care of itself regarding basic needs ... at a certain point the balance broke, the poor probably fled or rebelled (or both) and the upper class (which was at the base of the scientific, social and cultural advancements of the Mayans) was overwhelmed and it simply disappeared. It's just a wild theory from my side, but as a theory is as good as any other ...

    However, I'm naturally aware that the matter of trade in itself has so many sides that it could be discussed for ages, and it's probably worth a book more than a simple article like this one. Still, I hope that you enjoyed the read and that, as I intended, it provoked thoughts and stimulated your imagination!

    Written By: Flinn
    Comments 11 Comments
    1. Dante Von Hespburg's Avatar
      Dante Von Hespburg -
      My hat goes off to Flinn, incredible article you've created mate, particularly the drawing on economic theory and historical analysis combined with your personal experiences in trading (both business and pleasure ). Its also a really relevant piece to the moment with the battle of globalization vs protectionist models you've discussed. You thus open up some really interesting avenues of further thought and provide a base to launch from with this article. Pleasure to read .
    1. ♔atthias♔'s Avatar
      ♔atthias♔ -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dante Von Hespburg View Post
      My hat goes off to Flinn, incredible article you've created mate, particularly the drawing on economic theory and historical analysis combined with your personal experiences in trading (both business and pleasure ). Its also a really relevant piece to the moment with the battle of globalization vs protectionist models you've discussed. You thus open up some really interesting avenues of further thought and provide a base to launch from with this article. Pleasure to read .
      I could not have put it better I agree 100% +rep flinn
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      tnx gents as mentioned on the article, this is a matter that would need a book, if not an encyclopedia

      this is a medal with many sides, still I hope that I was able to trasmit my original idea; I tried to condensate as much concepts as possible in a quantity of text that would result enjoyable to read, so I hope that I haven't missed anything major
    1. Narf's Avatar
      Narf -
      Great job, Kudos.
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
    1. Jake Armitage's Avatar
      Jake Armitage -
      gonna read this sooner or later, flinn
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      it's an easy read, believe me
    1. Cathay's Avatar
      Cathay -
      Good thinking.
      So...what about the trade war we are now in?
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      Hello Cathay and well met; well as I said war is just another form of trade and so by extension trade is always a sort of war, that is

      If you refer to the China-USA issue, you'd better move to the Mudpit, as here is not really the place for a similar discussion
    1. Swiss Halberdier's Avatar
      Swiss Halberdier -
      This is a very interesting article about historical trade and your overall conclusions about the impact on humanity is also great! Congratulations for his article!
    1. Flinn's Avatar
      Flinn -
      Thanks mate give me some more time and I will certainly come out with something new and of course completely unrelated