Why Moneyless?

Money is a bit like love.We spend our entire lives chasing it, yet few of us understand what it actually is. It started out, in many respects, as a fantastic idea.

Once upon a time, people used barter, instead of money, to look after many of their transactions. On market day, people walked around with whatever they had produced; the bakers took their bread, the potters brought their pottery, the brewers dragged their barrels of beer and the carpenters carried wooden spoons and chairs. They negotiated with the people they hoped would have something of value to them. This was a really great way for people to get together,but it wasn’t as efficient as it could have been.

If Mr Baker wanted some beer,he went to see Mrs Brewer. After a chat about the kids, Mr Baker would offer some bread in return for some of Mrs Brewer’s delicious beer. A lot of the time, this would be perfectly acceptable and both parties would come to a happy agreement. But – and here is where the problem began – sometimes Mrs Brewer didn’t want bread or didn’t think her neighbor was offering enough in exchange for her beer. Yet Mr Baker had nothing else to offer her. This problem has become known as ‘the double coincidence of wants’: each person in a transaction has to have something the other person wants. Perhaps Mrs Brewer had discovered her husband was gluten-intolerant and so Mr Baker had been contributing to her lesser half’s irritable bowel syndrome. Or that rather than bread, she really wanted a new spoon from Mrs Carpenter and some fresh produce from Mrs Farmer. This was all very confusing for poor Mrs Brewer.

One day, a man in an exquisite top hat and tailor-made pin-striped suit entered the small town. The people had never seen him before. This new fellow – he introduced himself as Mr Banks – went to the market and laughed as he watched the hustle and bustle as everyone chaotically mingled and tried to get what they needed for the week. Seeing Mrs Farmer unsuccessfully trying to swap her vegetables for some apples, Mr Banks pulled her aside and told her to get all the townspeople together that evening in the Town Hall, as he knew a way in which he could make their lives so much easier.

That evening, the entire community came, jostling with excitement and intrigued to know what this charismatic stranger in the top hat and beautiful suit was going to say. Mr Banks showed them ten thousand cowry shells, each stamped with his own signature, and gave one hundred shells to each of the one hundred townspeople. He told them that, instead of carrying around awkward beer barrels, loaves, pots and stools, the people could use these shells to trade for their goods. All everyone would have to do was decide how many shells their wares and produce were worth and use the little tokens to do the exchanging.‘ This makes a lot of sense’, said the people, ‘our problems have been solved!’

Mr Banks said he would return in a year and that when he did, he wanted the people to bring him one hundred and ten shells each. The ten extra shells, he said, would be a token of their appreciation for how much time he had saved them and how much easier he had made their lives. ‘That sounds fair enough but where will the ten extra shells come from?’ said the very smart Mrs Cook, as he climbed off the stage. She knew that the villagers couldn’t possibly all give back ten extra shells. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out eventually’, said Mr Banks as he walked off to the next town.

And that, by way of simple allegory, was how money came into being. What it has evolved into is far removed from such humble beginnings. The financial system has become so complicated that it almost defies explanation. Money isn’t just the notes and coins we carry in our pockets; the numbers in our bank accounts are only the start. There are futures and derivatives, government, corporate and municipal bonds, central bank reserves and the mortgage-backed securities that so famously caused the world-wide collapse of financial institutions in the 2008 credit crunch. There are so many instruments, indices and markets that even the world’s experts can’t fully understand how they interact.

Money no longer works for us. We work for it. Money has taken over the world. As a society, we worship and venerate a commodity that has no intrinsic value, to the expense of all else. What’s more, our entire notion of money is built on a system that promotes inequality, environmental destruction and disrespect for humanity.

DEGREES OF SEPARATION

By 2007, I had been involved in business in some way for nearly ten years.I had studied business and economics in Ireland for four years, followed by six years managing organic food companies in the UK. I had got into organic food after reading a book about Mahatma Gandhi during the final semester of my degree. The way this man lived his life convinced me that I wanted to attempt to put whatever knowledge and skills I had to some positive social use, instead of going into the corporate world to make as much money as I could as quickly as possible, which was my original plan. One of Gandhi’s sayings, which struck a chord with me, was ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, whether you are a ‘minority of one or a majority of millions’. The trouble was, I had absolutely no idea what that change was. Organic food seemed (and in many respects still does) to be an ethical industry, so that looked a good place to start.

After six years deeply involved in the organic food industry, I began to see it as an excellent stepping-stone to more ecologically-sound living, rather than the Holy Grail of sustainability I had once believed it. It had many of the problems rife in the conventional food industry: food flown across the world, convenience goods packed in too many layers of plastic and large corporations buying up small independent businesses. I became disillusioned and began exploring other ways to join the growing movement of people worldwide who were concerned about issues such as climate change and resource depletion and wanted to do something about them.

One evening, chatting with my good friend Dawn, we discussed some of the major issues in the world: sweatshops, environmental destruction, factory farms, resource wars, and the like. We wondered which we should dedicate our lives to tackling. Not that either of us felt we could make much difference; we were just two small fish in a hugely polluted ocean. That evening, I realized that these symptoms of global malaise were not as unrelated as I had previously thought and that the common thread of a major cause ran through them: our disconnection from what we consume. If we all had to grow our own food,we wouldn’t waste 40% of it (as is done now in the US). If we had to make our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior décor. If we could see the look on the face of the child who, under the eyes of an armed soldier, cuts the cloth for the garment we contemplate buying at the mall, we’d probably give it a miss. If we could see the conditions in which a pig is slaughtered, it would put most of us off our BLT. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we sure as hell wouldn’t shit in it.

Humans are not fundamentally destructive; I know of very few people who want to cause suffering. But most of us don’t have the faintest idea that our daily shopping habits are so destructive. Trouble is, most of us will never see these horrific processes or know the people who produce our goods, let alone have to produce them ourselves. We see some evidence through news media or on the internet but these have little effect; their impact is seriously reduced by the emotional filters of a fiber optic cable.

Coming to this conclusion, I wanted to find out what enabled this extreme disconnection from what we consume. The answer was, in the end, quite simple. The moment the tool called ‘money’ came into existence, everything changed. It seemed like a great idea at its conception, and 99.9% of the world’s population still believe it is. The problem is what money has become and what it has enabled us to do. It enables us to be completely disconnected from what we consume and from the people who make the products we use. The degrees of separation between the consumer and the consumed have increased massively since the rise of money and, through the complexity of today’s financial systems, are greater than ever. Marketing campaigns are specifically designed to hide this reality from us; and with billions of dollars behind them, they’re very successful at it.

In our modern financial system, most money is created as debt by private banks.Imagine there is only one bank. Mr Smith, who up to now has kept his money under the bed, decides to deposit his life savings, 100 shells, in this bank. Naturally, the bank wants to make a profit, so decides to lend out a proportion of Mr Smith’s shells, let’s say 90 of them, keeping ten in their coffers in case Mr Smith wants to make a small withdrawal. Another gentleman, Mr Jones, needs a loan. He goes to the bank and is delighted to be given Mr Smith’s 90 shells, which he’ll eventually have to pay back with interest. Mr Jones takes the shells and elects to spend them on bread, bought from Mrs Baker. At the close of the day, Mrs Baker takes her newly-acquired 90 shells to the bank. Do you see what’s happened? Originally, Mr Smith deposited 100 shells in the bank. Now, in addition to Mr Smith’s 100 shells, the bank has Mrs Baker’s 90 shells. One hundred shells has become 190. Money has been created. What’s more, the bank can now lend out a proportion of Mrs Baker’s deposit! The process can start again.

Of course, the physical number of shells hasn’t changed. If both Mr Smith and Mrs Brown wanted their shells back at the same time, the bank would have a problem. However, this rarely happens and if it did, the bank would have shells from other depositors to use. The problems start when the bank lends out 90% of all their depositors’ shells. The result is that of all the shells in all the bank accounts of this fictional world, only 10% exist! If all the depositors wanted more than 10% of the total amount of shells at the same time, the bank would collapse (a bank run) and people would realize that the bank was creating imaginary money.

This system may seem ridiculous but it is what happens today, every day, in every country of the world. Instead of one bank, there are thousands. Instead of shells, we have the world’s myriad currencies. But the principle is the same: most money is created by private banks’ lending.Our most precious commodity doesn’t represent anything of value and the figures in your bank account are mostly someone else’s debt, which itself is funded indirectly by another person’s debt, and so on. Neither are bank runs fictional. Recent bank crises, from Northern Rock in the UK to Fannie Mae in the US, show the inherent instability that comes from basing our financial system on an imaginary resource. The edifice is built on pretence and, as shown by 2009’s bank bail-outs across the world, tax payers inevitably have to subsidize with billions to keep the pretence alive when the system implodes.

DEBT FORCING COMPETITION, NOT
CO-OPERATION

In the current financial system, if deposits stay in banks,the banks make no interest and therefore no money. Therefore, banks have a huge incentive to find borrowers by whatever means possible. Whether by advertising, offering artificially low interest rates, or encouraging rampant consumerism, banks share an interest in lending out almost all of their deposits. The credit this creates is, in my opinion, responsible for much of the environmental destruction of the planet, as it allows us to live well beyond our means. Every time a bank issues a human with a credit note, the Earth and its future generations receive a corresponding debit note.

It seems we can’t get enough of it. According to the US Census Bureau, there are now almost 1.5 billion credit cards in the US; the US has more than four times as many ‘flexible friends’ as people. The average household debt (excluding mortgages) is $17,510 and to compound the situation, at the time of writing the US’s national debt is growing by an astonishing $4.5 billion every second. Payback time, in both economic and ecological terms, will inevitably come. While all this money creation is great for the economy, it is not so good for the people that the economy was originally intended to serve. An estimated 77 million Americans struggle to pay for their medical bills, with credit card debts averaging $5,000 per household. Every year, almost 1.5 million people are declared bankrupt or insolvent, and approximately one million houses are repossessed.

In the end, the process of money creation inevitably means the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Banks lend out money that, by any objective measure, they didn’t have in the first place and at every stage, accrue interest and keep the right to repossess real assets if loans are not repaid. Is there any wonder that huge inequality exists in the world?

Let’s return to our little town. In the past, at times such as harvest,it was common practice for the people to often help each other out on an informal, non-exchange basis and the people there co-operated a lot more than they do today. This co-operation provided them with their primary sense of security; indeed, a culture of collaboration still exists in parts of the world where money is deemed less important. However, the pursuit of money and humans’ insatiable desire for it has encouraged us to compete against each other in a bid to get ever more. In our little town, competition replaced the co-operation that once prevailed. Nobody helped their neighbors bring in the harvest for free any more.This new competitive spirit was partly responsible for many of the town’s problems, from feelings of isolation to a rise in suicide, mental illness, and anti-social behavior. It has also contributed to environmental problems, such as the depletion of resources and the climate chaos that currently go hand-in-hand with relentless economic growth.



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MARK BOYLE is an economics graduate and former businessman who founded the Freeconomy, a worldwide alternative economy with over 25,000 members in 150 countries.



In November 2008 he decided to give up using money for a year -- no spending or receiving -- and enjoyed himself so much he decided to not go back.



He is the author of The Moneyless Man, an account of his life without money. His story has provoked debate the world over and Mark has been featured in media including CNN.com, the Guardian of London, and more.

9 responses to “Why Moneyless?: An Excerpt from Mark Boyle’s The Moneyless Man: A Year in Freeconomic Living

  1. dwoz says:

    Ok, so here’s the thing. The Nervous Breakdown is a “feel-good” site. We don’t slag on each other here. We support, and we encourage.

    So I have a choice. Do I ignore this post, or damn it with faint praise?

    Here’s my problem: you’ve presented this in an entirely too simplistic way. You don’t support your premise with your explanations. This piece doesn’t WORK.

    I get what you’re doing, with the freeconomy thing…it’s laudable and I give it nothing but encouragement. (in fact, I’m going tomorrow to cut firewood on my land for my neighbor, who’s caught short of fuel, just because it will function as cement to our relationship and give me the ability to “call it in” when I need to.)

    Your treatise on money is not supporting your argument. I understand that you’re “dumbing it down” for a financially unsophisticated audience, but when you do so, you have to retain the basic knowledge and it’s relevance to your point.

    Economics is a “tough room”. too many of us armchair Greenspans wandering around. (actually, if I had the opportunity to call Mr. Greenspan a reprehensible idiot to his face, I would)

    The “shells” thing is quaint, but unnecessary.

    Please take this in the spirit of an opportunity to build it into a piece that IS something that can create a watershed moment in a reader. you’re close…but not quite there yet.

  2. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m wondering about “$4.5 billion every second.”

    My calculator overflowed into scientific notation after but an hour’s worth of $4.5 billion seconds.

    Maybe you meant millions? Or another unit of time?

    As for “shells,” I worked among people whose indigenous valuables were strands of shells worked into small disks. What was interesting was that the strands were not convertible into standard currency (no rate of Australian dollars for, let’s say, a “momoru” strand) and were not convertible into each other (the value of a “kulili” couldn’t be expressed in terms of momoru) and were only used for certain purposes.

    They managed their entrance into the world of Western currency by dividing their activities and interactions into those where cash would be earned (cash crops) and paid each other for work in that arena, if necessary. But in the non-cash arena, such as food production, cooperation continued to rule. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, even in the US, as Dwoz’ wood cutting example shows.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Mark Boyle’s example of money-less living is different in an important way from dwoz and Don’s examples of a reasoned combo of money-less and money’ed living, which may well be the aim of dwoz and Don’s examples; I don’t know.

    Mark envisions our living without money. Period. That means living without using the services of banks, among other financial entities, which is a primary point of his explanation and his aim for himself and (volunteer) others.

    He has a rather well thought out concept for his goal: Start with himself, bring in others willing to experiment with group money-less living and cooperation, and spark others to form such groups.

    Given the commune experiences in the USA in the 1960s and 70s, I should imagine we’d have a picture of some self-supporting communities from which much information could be drawn. Their having died out, or p’raps grown into non-self-supporting communities, points to a possible problem with money-less community living. They may well have been communities with shared money, or with moneyed individuals who simply wanted for the most part to be self-supporting. I’ll leave any conclusions to others who’ve done sufficient research on the communes, because I have not.

    It would seem that, as Mark mentions, we may come to a time when many of us will be forced to live money-less, at which point it would be hugely useful if others had experienced it and we could learn from them. Until the “crash” which might make that situation happen, we’d be well advised to encourage such groups and to find out and apply what they’ve learned.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I wasn’t laying out a prescription, but was identifying a combination that I’ve seen working.

      I haven’t read Mark’s book, so I don’t really know how his argument and his prescription actually go.

      Judy, you mention the commune experiences of the past, and that we don’t see much of that activity these days.

      That leads me to a general issue that I never see discussed when lay people are talking about experimental/utopian/communal groups, and that’s the matter of scale.

      I don’t for a second doubt that there could be a functioning money-less social group, nor do I doubt that it might work very well. But it would be small-scale.

      Economic and social relations that are workable with (say) 10 households might, but probably won’t, work in a community of 100 households, and are not going to work in one with 1000 households.

      OK, so we’ll have a number of 10 household settlements, scattered over the land. Sounds good until you get to the details. Are the resources scattered evenly over the land? Probably they are not. Is there an infrastructure (don’t think superhighways and power grids, necessarily — even small-scale societies have trails and waterways, which are infrastructure)? If everybody doesn’t have access to the same set of resources, then will there be trade? How will it be facilitated?

      Now, all of these questions can be answered, and societies based on the answers can be found either now or in history. The Hawaiian “ahupua’a” system is an excellent example of a high-functioning historical system, but its functioning depended on a specific resource configuration.

      Well, I won’t go on. I don’t want to be misunderstood, though. For many of us, the notion of living in a small-scale society where money isn’t important is attractive. It is to me, and I spent years living in such a society. But I don’t think there can ever be very many such groupings. Ecological, social, and political context — and scale — are not going to cooperate.

      Perhaps Mark will come back on and argue his case. As we all know, most of the people who drop book chapters on TNB disappear (Daniel Radosh was a welcome exception) and the commenters are left talking to each other.

  4. dwoz says:

    I think the problem is twofold: first, if you’re going to use anecdotal statistics, make sure they’re current, and make sure they’re completely watertight. Second, your explanation of fractional reserve banking was made complicated and obscure by the use of “shells”.

    On the good side…the line about “if we had to purify our own water, we wouldn’t shit in it” was hilarious and VERY effective.

    You gloss over the problem of valuation of goods and services. We all know how that’s done in a macroeconomics 101 classroom way…talk more about how that’s done in a barter/moneyless way?

    Another fascinating topic that you just manage to take a glancing tangential shot at…the coincident of wants. Fascinating how that problem is overcome, but you don’t go there.

    Talk about risk. Talk about how the banking system ameliorates risk, but at a price. Talk about how a freeconomic model handles that problem.

    I am completely in agreement with the core premise…that currency, and fractional reserve banking, and the structure of the money supply and the way it’s being gamed, and it’s relationship to the concept of social trust, is something that’s easily broken…and that at least on a local level, the net benefit of all that crap is highly debatable.

    • Judy Prince says:

      To Don and dwoz and Mary Richert who are far farther along the way to money-less living than I, it’s great to hear your take on how to become more self-sufficient about resources than we are now. You three are more likely to translate your theories into actions than I, but I so value this discussion, despite, ironically, having spent the day buying antiques and admiring the gorgeous cathedral-like interior of the Anglican Church at Evensong.

      Since I’m going to buy Mark Boyle’s book, I’ll find out, p’raps before you three, how he deals with the several issues you (Don) and you (dwoz) raise. Especially since he might be out money-less’ing now and unable to respond to us now.

      Like you and so many others, I’ve given some thought to how the communities that Mark proposes will work out, where they’ll be, how long they’ll last, and to what extent they’ll need to depend upon money’ed systems that are in place.

      We have other examples to look to than the communes in the 60s and 70s. My parents, for example, initially met when they worked at The Barter And Trade during the Great Depression. Dad was a baker, mom was a rug-maker with her father. The several tradespeople in their building did, indeed, barter and trade their wares. But they also had money or chits from the government, I believe, from which they could buy things unavailable from tradesfolk.

      Further, we can look at great portions of countrypeople in, say, Elizabethan England, who depended upon the land for their sustenance and who presumably traded with one another without using money, at least some of the time.

      If our economic system breaks down, my guess is that a national militia would try to keep folks from preying on one another and taking one anothers’ resources. The militia people themselves would have a great deal of local power, doubtless acting as virtual judges and juries as well as enforcing strict laws while people learned to adapt to their new circumstances and survive.

      We find it far easier to imagine that we’ll always have a strong infrastructure and relatively stable social order. Less often do we imagine wholesale’ly and wholeheartedly *modeling* how we can sustain ourselves using our own resources—-and how poor and desperately unresourced/unresourceful folks can manage to sustain themselves, as well. The fact is, of course, that many poor are far more resourceful than we are. They could show us a thing or two about survival, indeed. But they and we could learn much more in coming together, individual by individual, in pursuit of like-minded goals. Encouraging it should be top priority in the various governmental levels’ agendas and budget.

      I’ve received Kurt B Reighley’s new book, _The United States of Americana_ (see Litsa Dremousis’s recent review of the book and her interview with Kurt); hence, I’ll be further enlightened on the ways to marry modern e-technology with near-forgotten survival skills.

      I look forward to more comments!

  5. dwoz says:

    I want to temper my criticism with the statement that I am a total fan of money-less living.

    I would live off my own 48 acres without hesitation, were I to hit upon the “magick” scenario.

  6. Interesting post and thoughts. Sounds like an intriguing premise, and I’ll check out the book’s Kindle sample, but I have to admit this started losing me right away, with “Once upon a time, people used barter, instead of money, to look after many of their transactions.” My first two thoughts, after reading this sentence, were of wampum and salt. “Once upon a time” is problematic, especially in a piece like this, in terms of carrying the meaning you need it to; it’s the stuff of fairy tales, after all, and one immediately questions: what times? Go to any museum and societies have had coins and currency for thousands of years. Didn’t Egyptians have coins?

    I’m not sure how common the knowledge of why I would think of salt is: most people know it’s where we got the term salary, right? As well as the phrase about a man being worth his salt? Used to be currency. Back in that same marketplace you mention where potters brought their pots and tanners their hides and etc. Because, sure, the potter brought his pots, but people often used salt to buy them, didn’t they?

    Money is, unfortunately, ultimately arguably more easy to “look after.” It’s smaller, numeric, and can represent other things. Ten bucks can buy a lot of different things, whereas with barter, one has to possess something someone else needs.

    Eddie Izzard did a cultural documentary a few years back. It used to be on youtube. In it, he decided to barter for breakfast. The breakfast vendor needed potatoes, so Eddie went to get potatoes. He had trade socks for a hairdryer for a pot for potatoes for a sandwich, or something like that, when simply having a few quid would have done.

  7. Gloria says:

    I don’t have time for a well thought out comment. I’ve been so busy lately. But I just wanted you to know that I read this (days ago) and have told friends about your book. I hope to read it myself someday.

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