The Old Limits of the Merchant Class

[Trading for profit] is justly deserving of blame, because, considered in itself, it satisfies the greed for gain, which knows no limit and tends to infinity. Hence trading, considered in itself, has a certain debasement attaching thereto…

Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II. Q77. A4. co.

The merchant class is a group of people who, rather than producing their own goods, make money by trading, following the rule of “buy low, sell high.” One can earn an honest living as a retailer by charging only for the cost of labor done to the products, like transporting and packaging. However, most merchants fall into the temptations of usury (interest on loans) and profiteering (selling at unjust prices).

As civilizations advance, a merchant class almost always arises and finds a place for itself. 

However, before modernity, human civilizations always put limits on the merchant class. Merchants existed only in the pores of the ancient world, “like the gods of Epicurus in the Intermundia.”

In medieval villages and towns, goods were exchanged without the need for merchants. The gift economy and a network of mutual obligations meant that “most everyday transactions dispensed with cash entirely, operating through tallies, tokens, ledgers, or transactions in kind.” (Debt, page 283)

In ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia and Greece, jubilees (the cancellation of debts) and “civic euergetism” (creating public amenities and throwing banquets, funded by the wealthy) served as regular forms of wealth redistribution, a release valve for the buildup of social inequality. 

Some premodern empires, such as China, promoted the existence of merchants, but always with limits: “Confucian orthodoxy was overtly hostile to merchants and even the profit motive itself. Commercial profit was seen as legitimate only as compensation for the labor that merchants expended in transporting goods from one place to another, but never as fruits of speculation. What this meant in practice was that they were pro-market but anti-capitalist…” (Debt, page 260)

Across the globe in the Aztec Empire, the merchant class (called the “pochteca”) was also carefully restricted. “Despite their aid to and benefits from Aztec expansion, the pochteca were excluded from high-ranking administrative and political positions.” They were also barred from wearing noble clothing and forbidden to trade in a wide variety of goods which were reserved for tribute, such as cacao, cotton, dyes, sandals, and corn (Colonial Latin America, page 16).

A rare case of total economic planning can be found in the Inkan Empire of Peru, which included no merchants at all: “the Inka did not even have markets” (Charles Mann, 1491, page 84). At the opposite extreme, the Islamic world provides an example of socialized markets, where merchants “were able to become—alongside religious teachers—the effective leaders of their communities… organized… around the twin poles of mosque and bazaar.” Religious prohibitions on merchants, such as the ban on riba (usury) and the zakat tax (enforced by the state and paid to the poor), created what Graeber calls “a genuine free market.” (Debt, page 282)

Before capitalism, governments were based on religion and were always hostile to an economics of exchange-value. Markets usually existed, but they were always shackled with customs, limits, traditions, and political authorities which kept them subordinated to the common good. Today, the “Free Market” has thrown off every restriction to make the world subordinate to Mammon.

Again, if the citizens themselves devote their life to matters of trade, the way will be opened to many vices. Since the foremost tendency of tradesmen is to make money, greed is awakened in the hearts of the citizens through the pursuit of trade. The result is that everything in the city will become venal; good faith will be destroyed and the way opened to all kinds of trickery; each one will work only for his own profit, despising the public good; the cultivation of virtue will fail since honour, virtue’s reward, will be bestowed upon the rich. Thus, in such a city, civic life will necessarily be corrupted.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, De Regno II.3.