Then again, it’s one thing to keep a community alive and well when everyone’s camping in a forest and they’ve all opted in to that vision. It’s quite another to imagine a gift economy enabling humans to build skyscrapers, invent iPhones, put air conditioners in every house, and explore space. (The same goes for collecting taxes and running large businesses.) Not that it’s an all-or-nothing situation: We already have gift economies among friends and family. Perhaps expanding that within small communities is possible; it’s certainly desirable.
In trade, barter (derived from baretor) is a system of exchange where participants in a transaction directly exchange goods or services for other goods or services without using a medium of exchange, such as money. Economists distinguish barter from gift economies in many ways; barter, for example, features immediate reciprocal exchange, not delayed in time. Barter usually takes place on a bilateral basis, but may be multilateral (i.e., mediated through a trade exchange). In most developed countries, barter usually only exists parallel to monetary systems to a very limited extent. Market actors use barter as a replacement for money as the method of exchange in times of monetary crisis, such as when currency becomes unstable (e.g., hyperinflation or a deflationary spiral) or simply unavailable for conducting commerce.
As Orlove noted, barter may occur in commercial economies, usually during periods of monetary crisis. During such a crisis, currency may be in short supply, or highly devalued through hyperinflation. In such cases, money ceases to be the universal medium of exchange or standard of value. Money may be in such short supply that it becomes an item of barter itself rather than the means of exchange. Barter may also occur when people cannot afford to keep money (as when hyperinflation quickly devalues it).
It’s hard to answer that without actually seeing a modern gift economy in action. Luckily, modern gift economies actually do exist. On a small scale, they exist among friends, who might lend each other a vacuum or a cup of flour. There’s even an example of a gift economy on a much larger scale, albeit one that’s not always in operation: The Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival in which about 10,000 people gather for a month in the woods (it rotates among various national forests around the country each year) and agree not to bring any money. Groups of attendees set up “kitchens,” in which they prepare and serve food for thousands of people every day, all for free. Classical economists might guess that people would take advantage of such a system, but, sure enough, everyone is fed, and the people who don’t cook play music, set up trails, teach classes, gather firewood, and perform in plays, among other things.
In Spain (particularly the Catalonia region) there is a growing number of exchange markets. These barter markets or swap meets work without money. Participants bring things they do not need and exchange them for the unwanted goods of another participant. Swapping among three parties often helps satisfy tastes when trying to get around the rule that money is not allowed.
Toronto’s online Freecycle network, where 27,000-plus members can give, and get, things for free, provides a variation on bartering. Last April, Toronto hosted one of its first gift circles, which, as the name suggests, encourage small groups to form gifting communities—groups of 20 that give and take from a pool of goods and services depending on their needs. Torontonians can also swap skills at justfortheloveofit.org, a freeconomy community that spans 174 countries. On the site, members share talents that range from useful (dog walking, yoga instruction, electrical work) to questionable (boycotting, ear candling, loving) to weird (tree whispering, culture jamming, puppet making). When it comes to alternative economies, the creative possibilities are vast, but they all speak to the same desire for something different—anything other than what we have.
For one thing, the barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.
“Economic theory has always got to be historically bounded,” Beggs says. “I think it’s a mistake to think you’ll find the workings of modern money by going back to the origins of money.” He does point out that, while barter may not have been widespread, it’s possible that it happened somewhere and led to money, just given how much is unknown about such a large period of time.
In recent years, barter has enjoyed a resurgence as a means of countering economic insecurity, unemployment and worker exploitation. The nature of modern-day work, the pervasiveness of the Internet and the rise of social networking have all contributed to its spread. Other examples of alternative economic systems include gift economies, sharing economies and time banks.
Economic historian Karl Polanyi has argued that where barter is widespread, and cash supplies limited, barter is aided by the use of credit, brokerage, and money as a unit of account (i.e. used to price items). All of these strategies are found in ancient economies including Ptolemaic Egypt. They are also the basis for more recent barter exchange systems.
On paper, this sounds a bit like delayed barter, but it bears some significant differences. For one thing, it’s much more efficient than Smith’s idea of a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person simultaneously having what the other wants. It’s also not tit for tat: No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred.
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