Monday, September 26, 2011

A no-money economy

A friend of mine recently e-mailed around a link to an article about the invention of money, which contests the popular view that money originally developed as a more efficient alternative to a barter system. The author, David Graeber, points out that present-day societies that don't use money typically don't use barter either: "What anthropologists have in fact observed where money is not used is not a system of explicit lending and borrowing, but a very broad system of non-enumerated credits and debts." In other words, instead of "I'll give you a good cow for a dozen fur pelts," it's "I'll give you this cow today, and then you will owe me a big favor, which I can call in when I need to." Where barter does occur, he says, it usually takes place "between strangers, people who have no moral relations with one another"—not members of a community who can count on social forces to back up their mutual obligations.

This interested me because I realized that I happen to be part of just such a money-free "economy": my local Freecycle group. Within this group, goods are only given and received, never exchanged. Some basic ground rules are that
  1. you can never ask for any sort of compensation for any item you offer,
  2. you're supposed to offer at least one item before you start requesting items for yourself, and
  3. it's considered rude to ask for anything too big or expensive (i.e., "don't ask for an extravagant item like a diamond ring which we'd all like to have").
So there is a sort of vague notion of reciprocity—you're supposed to do some giving, as well as taking—but no one is keeping an exact tally.  More to the point, your transactions—giving and receiving—won't necessarily involve the same people (in fact, they almost never do). But you offer stuff to the group, and you receive stuff from the group, and in this way some sort of karmic balance is achieved. In other words, we have apparently reinvented one of those pre-monetary societies Graeber is talking about, in which other social factors play a much bigger role in any transaction than the notion of giving and getting tit for tat.

In fact, Freecycle just might be a near-perfect Marxist economy: "From each according to his ability and to each according to his need." It's not a complete economy, of course: the goods people have to give away aren't enough to meet all the needs of all the group's members. But within its own limitations, it lives up to this ideal quite well.
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