Barter, Baby, Barter


From Susan Astyk

…I’m particularly fond of barter because while it is often not possible to pay the property taxes that way, barter can cover an awful lot of other territory.  It is astonishing what barter can bring about – and while I like barter networks and other programs, and can see their advantages, I am particularly passionate about barter that takes place in human relationships – because I think it kills two birds with one stone, not only does it save money on the particular exchange, but it helps us give up our general dependency on money in place of community.

I see all the uses of internet barter networks, which give you credit you can use with people for what you need, even if the person who has the other thing doesn’t need your resource.  And yet, direct barter – the oldest form of human exchange, in which my eggs and your honey meet one another, has something special going for it.

And that is the reality of human exchange – in monetary exchange, and I think by necessity to an extent in barter networks, things have  a fixed valuation.  This is convenient, of course, but it also changes the nature of the relationship.  When your eggs equal on “barter buck” or “credit hour” you are shopping for the best possible bang for your buck.

But when you and your neighbor who have a relationship are figuring out how many eggs a week are worth a cord of firewood, something more is at stake besides the precise exchange – you have entered into a relationship that can’t be commodified fully, one in which you have to talk to each other, have to interact.  And this is always just the beginning – someone who eats eggs will probably keep wanting them.  Someone who heats with wood may want more firewood.  The relationship will be based on two things – your perceived equity (ie, it was fair) and your pleasure in the relationship – this is also true with some kinds of shopping, and is why people like going to farmer’s markets and hate Walmart (in part).

But the thing about barter that I find true is that it brings out the best in us for the most part – because it is never possible to full equate eggs with logs, because they are fundamentally not the same, in barter, you are never fully sure that the price paid is a fair one – you can’t be.  And what I see in barter relationships is a turning around of economic exchanges – because we want fairness even in ourselves mostly, because few of us like to beholden, or to look cheap, we find ourselves feeling as though the relationship is never fully even – at its best, both barter participants always feel that they got the better of the deal, that they paid too little, and thus, “owe” a little on next time.  Instead of *getting* the best bang for your buck, barter becomes about *giving* the best bang for your time…

Full article here

See also our own Mendo Time Bank (now organizing)
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