Everything is scarce. As any rocket scientist will tell you, every gram counts. Everything is, then, subject to economic choice. I think all sane schools of economics agree on this. For all that David Graeber and others seek to make out as though the market process introduces unnecessary scarcity calculation into our lives, I’m confident a gift economy cannot give rise to the thousands of layers of today’s division of labour, and so today’s prosperity. Markets are just the consequence of and the setting for voluntary exchange between consenting human beings. That’s it. No brutality required. It is an Ur form of human interaction with strangers.

The idea, in common circulation among anthropologists, that gift economies gave rise to debt in its modern form, and that debt predates mutual exchange, while attractive, and even somewhat identifiable praxeologically, does not stand up to serious investigation because we have a very very long history – assuming the new thesis to be correct, debt only goes back 5000 years – and at no time has it been standard operating procedure to give away gifts to total strangers, such as people from a different tribe.

So, the praxeological approach. The human actors in a pre-civilised – pre- division of labour – society will most likely operate in small social groups where everyone knows pretty much everyone else and the social graph is closed. This means a group of about 150 people or less, likely a lot less. Inside these groups every individual will be inclined toward gift giving, knowing the satisfaction that can be had from doing so – gift-giving is a category of human action – and will also expect to receive gifts in turn. Not an Xbox One, admittedly, and certainly no chance to play Halo 5, but we’re talking pre- division of labour here. These satisfactions, of the giver and recipient at the time of the giving, are the primary reasons to do so.

So why markets? Why abandon this egalitarian gift-giving society where each is kept from gaining above any else by the expectation that they will give in turn? David Graeber correctly surmises that any attempt to get ahead in terms of wealth will be self-defeating as those who seek to do so would have to resolutely avoid asserting any political influence over their peers, and vice versa, anyone seeking influence will have to give gifts until they descend back to parity with their peers. The gift economy is self-reinforcing, which is why all present-day gift-giving societies are still pre-industrial tribes with a standard of living that can charitably be described as basic.

Societies at some point experience a transition, though the reason is obscure. Eventually just gift-giving isn’t enough anymore. Why not? Possibly one gift economy tribe conquers and enslaves another, introducing the beginnings of the division of labour through slavery. Or possibly a group of socially manipulative individuals within a tribe manage to codify their dominance, likely for religious reasons, in the realisation of their desire to enjoy privilege and prestige. The lust for power is a want that we act to satisfy as much as any other. The gift and market economies are the two mechanisms anarchists of whatever stripe can offer as limiting mechanisms. And on the subject of markets, where do they fit into all this pre-history?

A pre-civilisation human being looks outward and is unsatisfied. It is the universal human condition to feel one’s present situation is in some way unsatisfactory, and that a better future lies just beyond one or more actions, like maybe settling down and figuring out a way to keep wind and rain at bay while taking a bit more time to sow now that you’re in one place than when you kept moving around. The finer points of the settling process here are mysterious to say the least, but it seems there was nothing intrinsically feudal about the establishment of settlements, with their increased cultivation and domestication. Indeed it’s likely that peoples settled gradually over time. But what of our pre-historic comrade?

He or she lays claim to a patch of land and builds on it. Remember that land is always subject to scarcity as there is always a limited supply of the stuff. Even if in theory you could just move horizontally to settle on virgin land, it might be more costly in terms of opportunities foregone than staying right where you are. What opportunities? You might want to be close to certain other people, or close to an open area for trading. And here we get into a bit of history. The free market, with its division of labour, is admittedly similar – at least when looking at these ancient examples – in its superficial appearance to the feudalism of the totally agrarian societies of the Nile, Euphrates-Tigris and Yellow Rivers. I missed one, didn’t I; the Indus River.

The Indus River, in present-day Pakistan, was the cradle of the most sophisticated of all the four Ur civilisations. Instead of transitioning from gift-giving egalitarianism to feudalism the society in this series of valleys in Asia went the route of private property. That means that gift-giving retreated in importance, presumably gradually, from the entire social graph of each individual – the up to 150-ish peers any one person would know – to just family members or those in serious and dire need. The rest was slowly appropriated by the market exchange mechanism using debt and currency which, like in the other three ancient civilisations, took in agricultural produce and precious metals.

The striking aspect to all of this is that the Indus Valley Civilisation‘s – hereafter referred to as Harappa after the first city of the culture to be rediscovered in modern times – response to the problem of scarcity appears to have been free-market anarchy. It is important to add the proviso that it only appears this way. As yet, no palaces or temples whatsoever have been unearthed in any of the cities, whereas highly-developed sewer systems, private property title documents, and roomier homes than those of the common folk in any of the other Ur civilisations are volubly attested at almost every site until the Late Harappan, when this civilisation gave way to the Vedic Civilisation which is the first modern Hindu culture, combining the building and writing of the Harappans with the religious beliefs and myths of the incoming Northern invaders, the Aryans, who ultimately enslaved the natives of the valley and further South also and created the modern caste system, thus replacing the free markets of Harappa with the feudalism that has lasted, in a mutated and socialistic form right down to the present day.

So the land now trodden by the Urdu- and Pashtu-speaking peoples of Pakistan can lay claim to being the first free society, with both individual liberty and a division of labour, in history. Jolly good show. In the millenia before the agricultural and industrial revolutions a free society lived and thrived for thousands of years, with a ‘Golden Age’ as we would recognise it lasting about 700 years. Not bad. So surely the civilised, highly specialised peoples of the Earth in the 21st Century have reason to look backward and think on the possibility that, just maybe, we are mature enough to handle statelessnesss.

Remember that the division of labour in agriculture, textiles, housing, utilities, retail and logistics comes entirely from the private sector – that is, from civil society – meaning the state is an unnecessary feudal vestige left over because we all escaped gift tribalism the wrong way all those countless centuries ago. We are orders of magnitude more ready for anarchy than the tribes-people who embarked on the scary and original experiment of settled civilisation in the Indus Valley. Take heart in their success, and even if their culture is not with us today, let its voices ring out, in their thousands, a cacophony buying and selling and exchanging and peacefully living in liberty.