Sunday, August 23, 2020

Storage: Very Important To Roman Emperors and Commodities Market Manipulators

From Aeon, August 20:
Astrid Van Oyen
is assistant professor in Roman archaeology at Cornell University in New York. Her latest book is The Socio-Economics of Roman Storage: Agriculture, Trade, and Family (2020).
Accumulation and its discontents
Whether collecting, storing or hoarding, we’ve always had our issues with stuff – not least deciding what’s worth having 
How much grain is enough to make it to the next harvest? How much for a lord to appease his subjects? How much is enough to survive, to grow, to flourish? Anthropologists and archaeologists have approached these questions under the banner of surplus. ‘Surplus’ denotes that extra bit that allows some people to be released from the relentless need to cultivate their own foods, and to devote themselves to other endeavours, such as craft production, transport, construction and so on. Surplus is what allegedly propelled the most profound achievements in human history, from the pyramids of the pharaohs to the monumental city of ancient Rome, a pre-industrial metropolis with a population of perhaps more than a million. Accumulation allowed such diversification of human activities – whether the surplus it represented was redistributed via market mechanisms or through a centralised power, whether divided up in a fair or unfair manner. Surplus, as this old story has it, is the basis of civilisation itself.

Yet ‘surplus’ as such doesn’t exist. People don’t gather ‘surplus’. Instead, they collect cars, harvest grain or store canned foods. In reality, accumulation is practised and thought about in relation to the specificity of the material world. Only in the abstract models of scholars does ‘surplus’ mean anything without reference to the real world of things. For that reason, the theory that mere ‘surplus’ somehow launched civilisation is wrong.

By ironing out the complexity of the material world, archaeologists risk flattening the texture of human history and human life. Take the example of my grandparents in Belgium, who lived through the Second World War. In their old age, they kept a big, meticulously organised pantry right in the middle of their house, and stored so much food that I developed a habit of checking the sell-by date of anything I ate there – whatever they consumed was bound to be far beyond its expiry date. Shortage and uncertainty were so acutely grafted on to them that it informed their storage practices even when historical conditions had changed. But the question ‘How much is enough?’ – which had a radically different answer in the 1940s than in the 1980s – does little to elucidate the historical link in their ways of thinking and acting.

What matters is not just how much they stored, but where (in a central windowless pantry: showing a concern with control), how (organised and inventoried: again, an issue of control), and what (foodstuffs: they remained in survival mode, even when consuming rather lavishly). Today, things are different for most people in the Global North. Even as a pandemic makes hoarding mainstream again, the foremost desired storage facility is probably still the walk-in closet, where people ‘store’ future versions of themselves. Endlessly additive (clothes tend not to decay within a person’s lifetime), such treasuries of garments are kept in the most intimate parts of a house, while fuelling outward displays. And when pandemic-inspired panic-buying does hit, it shows up in the toilet paper aisles, revealing how everyday luxuries have become non-negotiable. Storage, in other words, offers a historically sensitive window on to people’s deep-rooted mentalities, their hopes, and their fears – all questions that are silenced by the bland banner of surplus.

Being alive to the complexity of accumulation (rather than the purported role of surplus in a reductionist version of complexity) requires a better understanding of how people relate to things, and vice versa. Recent developments in archaeological theory and the so-called ‘material turn’ can help.
Casting accumulation in terms of surplus has perpetuated a fallacy of human control over the material world: any historical actor either has access to surplus or not and, if they do, they’re in control. In one sense, this is undoubtedly true. Accumulation – and its physical manifestation through storage – pauses the active use of objects. It takes things temporarily out of circulation, things that are not needed here-and-now but might be called upon for future use. It enables people to manage access to goods across time and space. Storage is what allowed inhabitants of ancient Rome to drink wine year-round (even if the grape harvest took place only in the fall) and to eat bread made from Egyptian wheat (even though it was harvested hundreds of miles from the imperial capital).
Storage is a human intervention that engineers the world of resources at our disposal. It is no surprise then that control of storage, and therefore of accumulation, is and was highly sought after. Accumulation means security. It means wealth. It means status. To have is good, but to hold (and thus to have tomorrow) is even better. Throughout history, full granaries and overflowing storehouses were coveted by elites, chiefs and emperors. In Minoan society in the 2nd millennium BCE, powerful central buildings (so-called ‘palaces’) on the island of Crete maintained large storage facilities. Meanwhile, monumental storehouses lined communication routes in the Inka empire, used to maintain an imperial apparatus of administrators, armies, and labourers – as well as to serve as a visible reminder of the state’s power and domination. Social and political hierarchies widened as some people were more successful than others in accumulating and storing....

How can you not love a book whose very Preface begins:
How do you know an empire when you see one? One classic answer to this
comparative conundrum is to look at storage facilities. Empires, it is assumed,
extract and centralize resources from across their territories, a brute imperialism
that finds expression in massive, central storage complexes and a continuing
concern with the circulation of stuff. The dazzling archaeological remains of
storerooms at Rome's ports of Ostia and Portus are testimony that the Roman
empire fits this rather restricted bill. But what can storage do beyond this
exercise of identification? Storage has more to offer the student of the Roman
world: as a topic that is at once at the core of survival and prone to envy, strife,
and competition; as a practice that is both grounded in the matter of economics
and inhabiting the social imagination, as an acute concern for farmers and 
rulers alike - storage opens up an inquiry into the very anatomy of Roman 
If interested see also at Cornell Research:
The Emperor’s Closet—Power and Storage

Previously on the Storage Channel:

"The Effect of Futures Markets and Corners on Storage and Spot Price Variability".
To Create A "1%" In A Social Hierarchy You Don't Need An Economic Surplus, Just A Storable Form Of Wealth 
The Golden Age of Commodities Market Manipulation: Corners, Storage and Squeezes

These days however, to purloin that wealth, you don't even need to be dealing with storables:
How to Manipulate Non-storable Commodities Markets

Remember, the spectrum runs from storage to hoarding to market corners.
And corners in commodities refers to physical, you can't corner a commod by simply buying futures or forwards, you also have to take up the physical supply.
Conversely, squeezes are accomplished in the futures..

A couple decent papers on this aspect of the abundance theory are:
"Large Investors, Price Manipulation, and Limits to Arbitrage: An Anatomy of Market Corners" and
"Market Manipulation, Bubbles, Corners and Short Squeezes"
The only way to combat abundance is with artificial scarcity, i.e. manipulation....