The Story of an Axe

Greg Schofield gschofield at
Sun May 27 23:56:30 MDT 2001

Discussions with Louis have revolved around the relations between Modes of
Production, where I have been empahaising the differences that can exist. I
thought I might give a couple of illustrations of how societies organised
on different principles can be sometimes effected by capitalism.

The first is the story of the axe, which talks about the effect of just a
single commodity can have on a extensive kinship community.

The context of this is Papua New Guinea some decades before World War II
when it had recently become a protectorate of Australia. The Melanesian
tribal groups vary enormously depending on cultural and geographic
position, the Neolithic farmer communities of the isolated highlands are an
example of what even an isolated commodity might do.

These forest hordiculturalists, need to clear rain forest in order to
establish their gardens, as the soil can rapidly lose its fertility this
has to be done on a regular basis every decade or so. The groups usually
comprise of fairly large tribes divided into clans which are the only true
property owning group, they have exclusive rights to various parts of the
land which then by mutual agreement divide amongst themselves for their
various purposes - life usually centers on a clan village, while the tribal
needs are often met by joint activities rather than a paramount chieftainship.

Of the tools applied to agriculture, the axe, hafted with a head of
polished stone, is amongst the most highly prized (ritual objects being
more so, but strictly speaking they are not tools). The hard stones most
suited for axes are traded considerable distance right across the island,
either as finished pieces or "blanks" ready for polishing. The amount of
necessary labour involved in polishing such stones is prodigious - the gift
of an axe can only be repayed with years of return gifts and labour - it is
a respected and necessary tool.

However, despite the labour involved in creating such axes there use is
extremely frustrating, trees are literally gnawed down by removing
scrapings produced with skilful blows (stone shatters very easily if too
much forces is involved). In this way even gigantic trees make way for
garden plots.

On the cost, capital employed people for such tasks as diving for shells
and pearls, amongst other transactions a trade begun in rather poor iron
axes. At first the very rarity of this most prized object presented no real
problem, however, as more axes became available a trade imbalance arose,
one aspect of which was when one clan in the highlands received more of
these than another - more gardens could be cleared, more importantly the
exchange of labour in which stone axes had played an important part was
disrupted. Those that had the iron axe, more robust, easily resharpened and
capable of throwing out large chips of wood while being used, found that
their no-iron-axe owning relatives from other clans were demanding a
greater number of gifts from them but returning only the old proportion.

The highlands have never been a terribly peaceful place, but the wars and
civil wars which blossomed in the wake of this trade in axes accentuated
old disputes and disrupted what had been formally stable relations.

This was just a single industrial commodity, I use this illustration to
show how complex things can get even when social relations are disturbed
just a little. I draw no moral or political lesson from this, history
always moves in this fashion, small things toppling great edifices. The
point I would make, because in a sense the rifts caused by commodities is
still going on in the highlands (Cargo Cult is just one symptom of this now
two hundred year friction), is the effect was devastating to the old
relations, yet the cause was no more than what appeared to be a simple
innovation, a simple improvement in the means of production but one bought
at the cost of tremendous social imbalance and bloodshed.

Thus, such a commodity need not have been supplied by capitalism to cause
all these effects, it was but the axe in question did not vary technically
from what a travelling blacksmith could supply, in fact iron axes were
regularly produced on the Asian mainland that were no-way inferior to the
second-rate trading axes used. There also could be any one of number of
reasons that would bring such a blacksmith to those shores.

A Chinese military outpost would not be out of the question as New Guinea
was actively navigated by the Chinese well before any European showed up in
the East - parts of Australia were also mapped and landed upon by Chinese
expeditions. However, China closed down such external exploration soon
afterwards (an imperial decision not one the merchants were keen on
either), no such possibility actually eventuated - but the point is the
effects would be similar if it had.

To understand what is going on in any particular time requires
understanding social effects in their particular context, this is why I am
so opposed to making imperialism and capitalism such metaphysical entities,
rather they have to be understood not only in their historical context but
also by it.

Greg Schofield
Perth Australia

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