It was the fifth lasagna that did it. Three months into the project, Simmons had signed up over 80 Barter Babes, and every time she bartered her financial services, she seemed to get a lasagna in return. She was trying to shove yet another five-pound pasta dish into her freezer when the tears started to flow. “I don’t need another lasagna!” she yelled at her boyfriend. “I need a haircut! I need a bicycle!” She was overwhelmed with doubts about her bartering experiment: I’m so ridiculous. What the hell was I thinking? This whole thing is never going to work. Trades weren’t happening at the frequency she had anticipated, and Simmons was feeling depressed. She couldn’t afford a dye job at a salon, and she had started gaining weight. She’d gone from ballin’ to having $200 in her joint account.
Throughout the 18th century, retailers began to abandon the prevailing system of bartering. Retailers operating out of the Palais complex in Paris, France were among the first in Europe to abandon the bartering, and adopt fixed-prices thereby sparing their clientele the hassle of bartering. The Palais retailers stocked luxury goods that appealed to the wealthy elite and upper middle classes. Stores were fitted with long glass exterior windows which allowed the emerging middle-classes to window shop and indulge in fantasies, even when they may not have been able to afford the high retail prices. Thus, the Palais-Royal became one of the first examples of a new style of shopping arcade, which adopted the trappings of a sophisticated, modern shopping complex and also changed pricing structures, for both the aristocracy and the middle classes.
Trade did occur in non-monetary societies, but not among fellow villagers. Instead, it was used almost exclusively with strangers, or even enemies, where it was often accompanied by complex rituals involving trade, dance, feasting, mock fighting, or sex—and sometimes all of them intertwined. Take the indigenous Gunwinggu people of Australia, as observed by the anthropologist Ronald Berndt in the 1940s:
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.
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.
When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.
Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.
No, said Mises, for if taken back far enough, there comes a point at which money first emerges as a medium of exchange out of a pure barter economy Prior to this, it is valued only for its non-monetary uses as a commodity The demand for money is therefore pushed back to the last day of barter, where goods are traded only in direct exchange, and where the temporal element of the regression theorem ends It is in this way that all charges of circularity are obviated.
Yet after three years with the firm, she was dissatisfied. She was spending all her time advising millionaires when she wanted to work with average Torontonians, especially women. She couldn’t help noticing that most of her female friends were broke, confused and floundering. Online, her social media feeds were filled with panicky talk of recession budgets and empty wallets. There was one problem: those women couldn’t afford to pay her, and she certainly couldn’t afford to work for free. “I really wanted to do it,” she says, “but I couldn’t figure out a business model.”
No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.