A World Without Money?

Recently I have been thinking about the Gift Economy. It is one of those ideas that seems completely daft, but it simmers away in the back of your mind until it becomes normalised, then suddenly it starts to make sense. The Gift Economy is a way to live interdependantly within a community by sharing what you have and what you make with others without money being exchanged. If they do the same with you, theoretically we could all live without money. Our tribal forebears did it. People around the world experiment with it, but mostly don't live entirely in the gift economy, because in our society that would be very, very difficult. But taking an idea to its extreme is always exciting, so let's do it. Let's ban money and see what happens. Let's do it tomorrow.

Imagine that for a minute. It is such a fascinating thought experiment. Tomorrow we wake up and money has been abolished. Outright barter is also banned, due to it being a money-like contract. How would we live our day tomorrow without money? Would you go to work? Would you stay home and watch the telly or play on the internet instead? Oh, whoops, the people who run the TV station, keep the internet servers running and fire up the coal power stations also decided to stay home from work. The garbage collectors are really, really happy not to have to get up at four in the morning, so they won't be round to pick up the bins. Oh, oh. No electricity. No internet. No garbage collection. The whole fabric of society is falling apart! Aargh! What to do?

But wait. Some things are continuing without cease. Children are still being cared for. Animals are still being fed. Neighbours are sharing food, gardens are being tended. There are people playing musical instruments. Of course, there are other people looting and causing mayhem. Loose coalitions of neighbours and friends get together to work out a plan of defence. Ex-army and police officers who decided they weren't going into work if they weren't going to be paid are more than happy to volunteer to defend their families and neighbours, and train others to do the same.

Within a few days people are working out what kind of tasks they willing to do without money being exchanged, and for whom. People will generally be responsible for their own shit. And for their kids' shit. That is about the extent of their willingness to be responsible for that unpleasant task. Disseminating information is a much more rewarding task though, so many knowledgeable people are happy to write up posters detailing how to make composting toilets and how to safely dispose of humanure. An artist offers her hand-cranked linotype printer because this is an important community service. Posters go up all over town. It turns out that many farmers love their land and love to farm. Most of them have had extra off-farm jobs for years to support their addictive but unprofitable farm habit, and many people offer to join them, as food is a very motivating factor for, let's see, everyone. Private land-ownership also being abolished, owner-built houses pop up all over the place, especially on large tracts of farmland. Little villages begin to form.

No-one, it appears, wants to work in a factory producing endless consumer goods for no monetary reward. But plenty of craftspeople continue filling their days making all sorts of beautiful and useful objects from anything they can find, and have plenty of apprentices eager to learn their skills. Big hospitals don't work any more because all the service personnel discovered that they no longer wanted to mop floors or wipe up other people's bodily fluids. Plus, there is no electricity grid any more. The doctors and medical personnel are still mostly passionately devoted to making people well. They just do it on a much more local scale, and many of them also train up bright young offsiders. Doctors are very much valued, and fed and sheltered by the community they work for. Engineers and scientists never stop being fascinated by problems that need to be solved. They get together and tinker away in sheds between hauling their own shit and working in the garden. They find ingenious solutions for the many problems of this new society. I am imagining there would be many people volunteering to put some community hours in on learning how to manufacture anaesthetics and insulin under the tutelage of an enthusiastic chemist, and to get some local forms of electricity working again..

Gardens and small holdings are everywhere, in all the green spaces, and built over much of the road space in cities, because of course there are no cars or oil refineries any more. If you have to garden to eat, you learn to garden. And hunt. And look after animals. There are so many people whose jobs are completely redundant in this new world with no money. I bet you can think of twenty job titles without even trying, which wouldn't exist in this new society. All those people will need to learn to feed themselves and those they love. Maybe they will fall in love with plants and animals and teach their kids and other people's kids how to garden. Many of them will feed far more people than just their own families, and will enjoy being useful members of their small communities.

Here is where my thought experiment has led me so far - if there was no money in our world, and if we depended on ourselves and each other for everything we needed to live, very little of our modern society would survive. This means that almost all of the things we think are indispensable to us - sanitation, electricity, the internet, modern medicine, education, transport, all the things - are only produced reluctantly by an unhappy workforce which has to be coerced to produce them.

Our society denies us food and shelter unless we participate in its programme. If we agree to do unpleasant things like like haul garbage, mop floors or work in factories, then we get to eat and have a place to live. More or less. Other people get to do much less useful things, like moving pieces of paper around in an office, and bothering other people a lot. They get to swap that labour for a much nicer place to live and better food. But it is all the same programme. And we acquiesce in it everyday. We expect others to look after our shit, to feed us, to clean up after us, to move pieces of paper around for us and tell us what to do. Not because they value us as people and want to be part of an interdependent community with us, but because they have to, to live. We have to, to live.

There is actually enough food in the world for everyone. There is enough spare stuff lying around that everyone could build a shelter and be clothed.  There are creative people everywhere who can invent stuff and make stuff and make our hearts soar with their stories and songs. Our access to what we need is artificially restricted by society so that some people can have more than others. This seems clinically insane to me, but all the same, I am one of those who benefit from the unpleasant work of other people. In my imaginary thought experiment I would not be tapping out words on a computer right now. I would be working in the garden and making sauerkraut and in this season eating more zucchinis and less chocolate chips. Well, no chocolate chips actually. I can understand why people like me choose not to tear down the fabric of society and institute a fairer order, because that new order would cause everyone like me to do an awful lot more gardening. We would return to an age more like our tribal ancestors, who all lived in the Gift Economy. Everything they did was for the good of their family and neighbours. Mind you, it wouldn't be all hard graft. Hunter and gatherer cultures like the Australian aboriginal people had a two and a half day work week. And we think we are the 'civilised' ones. Ha.

And obviously, if the money economy collapsed tomorrow an awful lot of people would die before society reorganised itself into loose little tribal coalitions of people who were willing to contribute all they worked for to the common weal. And learnt how to feed themselves. So maybe when I am benevolent dictator of the world I won't banish money quite overnight. But don't get me wrong, I will insist on it happening..

In the meantime I am experimenting with the gift economy in my own life, and so are many, many other people, without even realising it. We share our home grown vegies with neighbours, we babysit each other's kids, we dog-sit their puppies when they go away for the weekend, we bake cakes for the school fair and join community gardens and volunteer to clean up our community or feed those who cannot feed themselves. We make things and mend things and play music round the campfire and have pot luck dinners. Every time we do anything for someone out of a sense of love or kindness and fairness instead of for money, then we are continuing the human-long tradition of connection through care. It is worth doing, because we are better than money..


Treaders said…
It is all very Utopian but a wonderful dream, and if enough people "start somewhere", surely something good can come of it. It still wouldn't be enough to save that 90-something% who don't even have 1% of what we spoilt westerners have but you've got to start somewhere right? A very thought-provoking article. I would love to join the Transition Network (which seems to be flourishing in the UK at least) but am still struggling to find something similar here in France. Or maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places. Cheers. Anna
Jo said…
Anna, I am nothing if not a utopian idealist. It won't actually solve any problems at all because it is never going to happen. But it is fascinating to think about, and it has been informing some of the decisions I've been making in my life recently. More to follow..
Anonymous said…
Hi Jo, Lots of food for thought. I like your last paragraph - a good way to live.

My recent ancestors were homesteaders who lived off the rocky shore land here. Typically a family would have some chickens, and a pig each year if they were wealthy enough. They caught fish and dug for clams. Fish was dried and preserved with salt. The garden provided fresh produce in the summer, but in winter they were limited to root vegetables that stored well. Many winters of cabbage and turnip soup. Wheat and oats were transported from where they are grown, 2000 miles away. They certainly traded with their neighbours but everyone was hard up.

I don't romanticize that life. It says to me that smallholding is dependent on rich, arable land that is held for personal use. If every city dweller did that, I feel the countryside would be destroyed. As you say, there would be a transition in which many people would die and only a small population could be sustained.
Jo said…
Dar, as a gardener myself, who only provides a quite small amount of my family's food from the garden, I am awed at the sheer doggedness of our ancestors, and of people who do that today. Our cities can't do that - instead, as city dwellers we use land from far away to have our food grown for us, and wreck all sorts of other people's countrysides in order to attain all our 'stuff'. If indeed we did have to provide our own food for any reason, giant cities would be a thing of the past. In your country and mine we would have to reinhabit the vast farmlands where our food is currently grown by very few people, mostly by means of large amounts of oil..
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

Yeah, I hear you. Incidentally, there probably won't be much in the way of garbage as garbage is a sign of waste and waste requires a surplus. I tend to walk in two different worlds as the world of money is almost impossible to get out from under although I try very hard to do exactly that.

As an observation the world of money is a very strange world indeed and not to be a bummer, but with the way that house prices keep escalating year in and year out, I can't but help think that money is worth less with every passing year (you do need more money simply to purchase the same thing as the year before). Other people see that particular matter differently and nobody wants to be the one to burst that bubble. I noticed today that there are reports of using superannuation as part of a housing deposit. It may happen yet.

Did you notice that once you replace monetary relationships, you have to replace them with real world relationships?

Home grown tomatoes, now that is real wealth! And having enough to share is even better.

Anonymous said…
Well, yes, but

No chocolate at all. What with needing to grow it in certain climes and then transporting it here. And other things that need transportation. Like mangoes. And raspberries.

And not all workers do so under sufferance. Including cleaners.

And indigenous peoples may have worked fewer days a week but their life was not all wine and honey. In fact very little of both. Shorter life span. Limited food. At mercy of natural disasters. In times of scarcity, life for new borns and old people was particularly harsh. And they didn't have lounges and books and televisions and reading glasses when your eyes age.

And not everyone wants to garden. There's a reason why societies have moved away from agrarian subsistence and battering. Ie, people choosing to walk "off the farm". Subsistence And growing your own is hard work. (At the end stages of the war and Post war Germany my mother's family were largely subsistence and catch and kill and grown and mend and go hungry and cold. My mother's adult life was as a housekeeper and cleaner and was easier than subsistence living.)

Though I will vote you in as our benevolent dictator. (As long as you get me chocolate.) I know you won't sit back and let lots die as your utopian, no money society reaches it's equilibrium.

I do love doing things out of love and kindness. I don't see money as the source of greed and exploitation. Greed can still happen, as can accumulating stuff. We can project onto money our negative emotions and desires but it is not money that has them or causes them. We definitely need more of the kindness thang going on. And less the accumulation of money.

Unknown said…
A very thought-provoking essay, Jo. I have to admit, I tend to agree with Lucinda, as I come from a background of crofters and fishermen, it was a very hard life, especially if the weather played up. But to do things, just for kindness, is very satisfying to the soul. And yes, greed can happen without cash. I believe the quote runs, " the love of money is the root of all evil" so the money is not the problem, so much as the mindset that desires it above all else.
Fernglade Farm said…
Oh! As to chocolate, well carob trees will easily grow in our sort of climate. I have some growing here. Easy peasey!

Jo said…
Chris, yes, yes, and yes. Just yes.

Lucinda and Hazel, I have spent the last two days in more deep thought. My imaginary life without money actually looks very similar to any post-apocalyptic story about a world with no oil. But mine is more benign because I haven't included any power grabs, plagues or wars.

I hear you that many of our ancestors chose an easier life. We also choose an easier life because the system favours us.

We get to do that because a) oil and b) the billion strong army of people who make our way of life possible by living the sorts of lives our ancestors the fishermen and crofters and farmers did. Except now they have to work in fields sprayed with pesticides and get cancer and birth defects in order to make our t-shirts and barely make a living. Money works for us, but it doesn't work for them.

Chris, can't say carob does anything for me, but given a lack of chocolate I might be won over..
heather said…
My nine-year-old son has independently reached your same conclusion, that money ruins everything. He and I have had many conversations in which I try to make Hazel's point, that greed rather than an abstract system of tokens for keeping track of trade, is the deeper problem. He remains unpersuaded, though, so you are in good philosophical company, as he is another deeply thoughtful person.

I wonder if there is not room for both a strong local gift economy, and a money economy for some exotic luxuries, such as say wheat, or spices, or, you know, fabric that doesn't itch? I daresay these items can be (and have been, and perhaps are) produced without coercion by some who are lucky enough to have a (small, pricey) surplus to trade. But I doubt that those folks far away are likely to gift me their surplus, trusting that I, a stranger, will eventually get back round to them (or their mother, or their nice volunteer neighborhood security guard) with something nice in return. Does it necessarily ruin everything then if they agree to accept my gold bits, or wampum, or whatever, for their vanilla beans this time, knowing that they can use them for my dried chiles next time? I think you could find plenty of examples of societies that both took care of the true needs of their own through a gift economy, and used some abstract trade tokens for the occasional foreign nicety.

I hope you don't mind my thinking out loud here, because I find this concept to be very interesting (and I hope you are secretly writing away on a story containing it).

Thanks for stimulating thought. And I will tell my son that you agree with him.
-- Heather in CA
Dennis Barton said…
In the current system money is essential to survive but is not the primary motive for a number of people who look to be needed. My elderly mother recently fell and a number of passers by helped her not for what they could get from the situation but for a general caring attitude to seeing someone vulnerable in trouble.

Dennis Barton @ Chand's Disposal

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