2000s >> 2000 >> no-1151-july-2000

LETS not make the same mistake again

Alternative currencies are coming back into favour but, as a solution to the problems of capitalism, they have been tried before, more than once, and each time have been found wanting. This time will be no different.

According to David Boyle in his recent book Funny Money there are various local currencies currently in use in the USA: (1) “social money” (particularly involved with helping old people, reforming young offenders etc); (2) “labour money” (exchangeable scrip received for work done); and (3) “local currencies” (based on a fixed amount of a commodity – e.g. $10 of meals in a restaurant or a cord of wool!). Essentially these are all variations upon LETS.

In the old days poor folk used to do each other favours—a lift to town or some home-grown veg. Sadly this sort of social behaviour is disappearing and alienated individuals often need an intermediary to be brought together. This is what the local currencies can do. There is therefore some use for such self-help schemes within capitalism.

These kind of currency schemes are also useful to socialists in showing how people can co-operate—how human nature is not just all war and whacking off. In many cases (in particular the “Time Dollars” used in Washington) the system is little more than the able-bodied doing something for the old folk. Charity, if you want to sneer, but all the same a form of voluntary labour for the good of the community, surely the basis of work in socialism. As an addition one might add that in the Washington case the scrip is a useful way of indicating the extent of voluntary work done by an individual.

If these currency cranks stuck to giving lifts to old ladies and trading organic lentils between themselves nobody would be particularly interested. But they’ve got bigger plans. According to Boyle these local currencies are “revolutionary” and “will turn the world upside down”, poverty will be abolished and it is even predicted that “Funny Money” will solve the Northern Ireland conflict (this is reminiscent of the Pankhursts’ claim that female suffrage would abolish prostitution and VD).

Like all reformist schemes the problem lies not in these flabby and ineffectual palliatives themselves but in the hope attached to them by often desperate members of the working class. Alternative currencies, like experimental communities and a dozen other half-baked schemes, have been tried before, more than once, as a solution to the problems of capitalism and each time have been found wanting. Funny Money shows that even as palliative measures “alternative currencies” fall down. The Philadelphia scheme operating in a hell-hole called Camden (one in every thousand of its population murdered each year, 60 percent on welfare, probably the poorest place in America) collapsed before Boyle could get there. Since up to 85 percent of scrip can remain unused this outcome is hardly surprising. People actually do like to help each other. Formal something-for-something schemes can get in the way and are a waste of time so far as voluntary work goes. Meanwhile in Washington the alternative money scheme is being phased in to replace simple food handouts so that, as the “liberal” twerp running it said, the poor folk can make friends. The comment of one slum dweller “I don’t need no friends—just gimme the free food” just about sums it up.

What is worse is that such measures help to do the capitalist class’s dirty work. In Washington “Time Dollars” mean that old people can live at home rather than having to be lodged in old folks’ homes “at far greater expense to the public purse”. Similarly in Minneapolis it is hoped that “people will flood off welfare” to earn “Commonweal Service Dollars” (Jesus!). In other words, Boyle’s “revolutionary” schemes help lower taxes—a great boon to the capitalist class. And this of course is a good clue to why most of the “alternative currency” organisations in the US are backed by grants from the government.

Marx of course has to enter the arena at some point. Boyle thinks “the old monster” unworthy of consideration but one of his comrades holds that local currencies must be communist as they operate on the basis of “from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs”.

Boyle also finds time to sling mud at Morris. He wonders what a “medievalist” like Morris would think of credit cards, “invented” in Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Only the wilfully ignorant could read News from Nowhere and not know that it was a direct response to Bellamy’s statist nightmare.

Boyle also pours scorn at those who spend their Saturday mornings in “dull committee meetings trying to change the world” and says they would be better off joy-riding. Presumably he spends his Saturday mornings in dull LETS meetings trying to piss in the wind. Perhaps if he spent his Saturday mornings reading some decent stuff he might get his economics sorted out.

Boyle is clearly one of those blokes aware that “something is amiss in the state of Denmark” and who wishes to do something about it. His solution is local currency based on “something spiritual” inside us. But the real problem is the capitalist mode of production of which money (as wages) is an essential component. According to Boyle money is “too useful” to be abolished. So useful to the people of Camden, New Jersey and all the rat-holes of the earth. But people of Camden, New Jersey, just like the people of Camden, London and Camden anywhere else come to that, need currency, DIY or otherwise, like they need a boil on the bum.


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