I hadn’t exerted myself until I felt sick for quite some time: the rasping breath, accompanied by the gag reflex as each shallower gulp of air oxygenates the blood just a little less each time – halfway towards the crest of the hill and heading into a fierce headwind; but there’s a little more story to tell before we reach the top of that hill….
Gary and I had been talking beehives. His two-dimensionally restricted knee joint reflected more than sufficiently on that time in both of our lives when we start to realise that we are getting on. What we want to do is not always lived up to by what our bodies are capable of doing. His current physical condition – one that entailed putting his life on hold and his income in jeopardy – brought home in the gloaming light of a blustery day the fallibility of people, whether individuals, couples or entire families, should things not go quite to plan. As I internally mulled over how I could help, our conversation continually skipped between spin bowling, South African history and the aforementioned opportunity to do a bit of collective bee-keeping some time in the near future.
Shortly after noon I had to leave his company and make the contour-filled bike trip alongside the Eildons to Melrose; and back again into that horrible headwind, already laden with Scottish butter, a guilty jar of coffee, and (the source of our conversational foray) two jars of Galloway honey – all contained within a rucksack that refused to stay simply facing backwards. As I crested the hill hundreds of red dots emerged to the left of me. Scattered across the grass verge were the wind-deposited bounty of a beautiful plum tree.
With around five extra pounds of weight contained within the self-aware rucksack, I once again turned up at Gary’s house; leaving shortly afterwards much bereft of plums, but considerably heavier of potatoes. Later that day the remaining plums would find themselves baked in a cake; and some of the potatoes crushed along with a few ounces of the Scottish butter.
A Barter Way
Barter is older than money – this is why. If you have something and you want something else then you have three basic options: you can just take the thing you want from the person who has it; alternatively you can give some of what you have in exchange for the thing you want; finally, you can sell some of what you have in exchange for something that has no intrinsic worth, but on paper (coin, slate, bead, wooden disc…) has some pre-agreed value, then use that virtual value to purchase the thing that you want. These three options show an increase in complexity, which reflects the way human society has gone since the earliest non-settled people became first co-operative, then civilized.
I want to stress immediately that the word “civilized” does not imply something positive: civilized simply means living in very large groups – so large that the importation of “resources” and the exportation of waste is necessary – as part of a hierarchical system of rule. It does not mean “being nice”. If anything it means the opposite.
The barter system – being the exchange of goods or services for goods or services of an equivalent, but not necessarily fixed value – is by no means the purest form of co-operative arrangement; for if we are to really live in such a way that people can genuinely rely upon each other for their basic needs then other forms of exchange and giving, including unconditional giving are also required. However, compared to the ludicrously complex cash and credit-based systems that have become the norm in civilized society, bartering has a level of purity and immediacy that most civilized people find extraordinary, even deeply uncomfortable. With a £20 note in my pocket I know, pretty accurately how much of anything I could now go and buy – and am confident that note would be accepted, at least in the country where I live.
Now, if I were to carry around a sack of onions that I had grown myself (slightly unwieldy, but it’s easier to explain this way) then what are the chances that these would be accepted in the same ready manner in exchange for, say, a fancy haircut or a pair of trousers? Pretty slim, I would say, even if the two parties were able to agree on how many onions a pair of trousers was worth. You might be lucky to stumble across an unusually liberated storeholder, or simply get the deal for the sheer novelty value – but as a form of currency in the civilized world, onions stink!
Here’s the thing, though – unlike notes and coins, onions have intrinsic value: they can be eaten to provide nutrition and flavour in a meal. There are no signatures on onions; no promises to pay back the equivalent in some other non-real asset; no need for state-backed guarantees in an increasingly untrusting and disconnected society. They are onions. They are onions in Scotland, France, Egypt, Indonesia and Australia. Not everyone might like them or need them, but at least you know what you are getting; and there are always the tomatoes in the other bag.
So why doesn’t society barter more? Here’s a list of some reasons off the top of my head; see if you can think of any more:
– We don’t trust or know each other well enough to agree an equivalent value for different things;
– We don’t understand the intrinsic value of things without a cash equivalent;
– There is no way of profiting from bartering without obvious fraud;
– We cannot easily store everything we desire for later use;
– Bartering gives little opportunity to attain status through material possessions;
– Bartering is socially unacceptable in a capital society;
– Bartering requires preparation and, usually, pre-agreement.
Whether you consider these things to be inherently negative will depend largely on how you currently choose to conduct your day-to-day transactions (as opposed to being forced to). I find having to prepare for a transaction, and being unable to profit from it as being two inherently positive things – but then I’m a bit weird, according to the norms of society, which is probably a major reason I have been able to conduct a fair bit of business without cash; people sort of expect it of me. Nevertheless, bartering is seen, almost universally in civilized society, as being something people used to do but is no longer possible or even desirable. Here’s one example of the prevalent attitude with regards to taxation:
It is quite normal for ferreted rabbits to be swapped at the local butchers shops for pork chops, or for grazing to be exchanged for field maintenance. Hay bales can act as currency in return for building work, home made cakes and repairs to vehicles etc. All very innocent, rustic and encourages a paper free environment but this can underpin what can only amount to potential income tax, corporation tax or VAT non-disclosure or even fraud.
That might sound harsh but it is the hard fact. The dream of a paperless rustic society has to be shattered and simple tax legislation and the self-assessment requirement to keep good books and records intervenes. Clearly it is important to talk to clients to explain that undocumented and unrecorded ‘Barter’ is actually as dangerous and illegal as the ‘black economy’.
This is taken from an article entitled “The ‘Barter’ System – The Hidden Evasion”. Notice the patronising quotes around “Barter” and the insistence that bartering underpins fraud, regardless of the motivation behind it. Clearly the author, a tax advisor, is protecting her business, but what really comes home here is the notion that “this is not the way we do things”. I can’t begin to imagine the ire that a society based on not only bartering, but also giving and helping just because it’s the right thing to do would raise in the tax world!
And that alone is a very good reason to start using less money.
Less Money, Less Need
Let’s take a typical, albeit nameless, industrial civilized nation. A revolution of sorts has taken place, perhaps as a result of a lack of available money-earning jobs; perhaps because people have realised that cash and particularly debt are shackles that bind us rather than free us: around 50% less money is circulating within the personal tax system due to a plethora of part-time and lower-paid jobs, a huge number of people working for themselves and incorporating barter into their lives, and almost everyone being less profligate in their spending and borrowing. What would once have been hard financial times have been transformed into times of sharing, trust, low material need; and as a result the burden on the global ecosystem, the “resource” reservoir and the lives of people who normally serve the corporate system is relieved by a significant measure.
As a further result, the burden on the public purse becomes unbearable. Only half the money previously available is entering the system, and social collapse is imminent. At least, that’s what we are told, and most certainly led to believe by the simple fact that many people who don’t deal in money still have to declare their “income”:
If you engage in barter transactions you may have tax responsibilities. You may be subject to liabilities for income tax, self-employment tax, employment tax, or excise tax. Your barter activities may result in ordinary business income, capital gains or capital losses, or you may have a nondeductible personal loss.
Barter dollars or trade dollars are identical to real dollars for tax reporting. If you conduct any direct barter – barter for another’s products or services – you will have to report the fair market value of the products or services you received on your tax return.
But if we did remove 50% of the money element from our lives, would that really lead to the societal collapse that the tax drain threatens to invoke; or is this just a way of making us complicit in the ways of the industrial machine?
In the absence of a truly mythical industrial civilization (who would want a mythical one when we have so many real ones to contend with?) I am going to use the latest available figures from the UK government to see what might happen in the event of a 50% drain in tax income. I fully acknowledge the scale of private involvement in what are ostensibly “public” services in most industrial economies; but would maintain that, in the event of a semi-cashless society emerging, reductions in spending on these services (such as electricity, water, telecommunications and transport) would easily match reductions in tax collection. Given this, it’s reasonable to just look at the effect of a 50% reduction in available income on services as a benchmark for the impact on the whole of society.
For this exercise I’ve used figures from a well-respected website that details public spending in the UK, helpfully also indicating what proportions of spending are through central government and which are through local government – this is relevant to how people perceive public services. By far the largest single chunks of public spending are Pensions and Healthcare, with 17.3% each. Now remember, we are not looking at the kind of slash in public spending that is currently taking place across the industrial world: a) it’s 50%, a far larger cut; (b) this cut assumes that the conditions exist whereby such a huge change in how we use products and services is made possible. Not only do we use less cash because there are alternative ways of doing things; we actually buy fewer non-essentials (it’s a relative term, but we’re talking things like electronic goods, vacations, most vehicles, luxury foods etc.) because the change in life has allowed people to appreciate what really matters.
So, looking at Pensions, we seem to have a sticking point already: but what is the purpose of a pension? Exactly, it’s to give people an income once they retire or are not able to do paid employment. But aside from the basic state pension, an awful lot of that fund is to pay for public sector pensions, which are quite generous. If fewer people worked in the public sector (they are bound to, because there is only half the tax coming in) then fewer people would need pensions. But if fewer people had above basic level pensions, how would they get by? Because people are spending less money – they are sharing, bartering, giving freely and getting when they are needy. Result: pension fund greatly reduced.
Healthcare is another huge cost, and this is one that could be cut much further than pensions: yes, people will still get ill, although with far more people focussed on their community the number and severity of, and need deriving from chronic conditions, particularly in the elderly, would be dramatically reduced – people look out for and care for each other better. Mental health costs, a genuine symptom of civilized society, would be way down as humanity’s real needs – in this case companionship and care – are far more readily available. Even acute conditions would be far less likely to develop severely as, again, people would be more willing to disclose problems and help deal with them at an early stage. And as we learn that cancer is an almost uniquely civilized condition, long term this may also start to reduce as the worst excesses of civilization are curtailed. This is no exact science, but you probably get a good idea of the wider implications of a more communal society.
The next largest cost on the list is General Welfare (15.1%), consisting largely of family and child financial benefits, and unemployment benefit. We are starting to face a few anachronisms here: in a barter-based culture, does “unemployment” benefit have any relevance? What about child benefit, the universal oddity that pays the same whatever the earnings (well, up to a very generous level) – does this fit into a culture of exchange where things like childcare (which are paid for through another family benefit), many essential food items, and all sorts of other things that CB was originally for are now greatly enmeshed in barter and giving? I’m not saying that there aren’t people in need; but there are certainly a lot fewer people in need within a co-operative way of living. This area of spending might become almost unnecessary.
Fourth on the list, and the last one in double-figures is “Education”, with 12.5% of the total public spend. We send our children to a local school, but are very much aware that the purpose of the public schooling system is to create good little wage-slaves for the future: at age 12 and 13 children in the UK are already having to decide where their specialities lie, so they can be funnelled through the system and placed in their employment pods (or on the “unemployed” pile) until they retire. This is why (a) we do an awful lot of real education at home and (b) our two children will be allowed to choose whatever subjects they like, undefined by whatever job aspirations the school system would like them to express. For the vast majority of industrial system families, school is also a very useful child-minding service – necessary because in a large number of cases both parents either choose to or find themselves having to go out to work. I’m not going to dwell on this much more: communal society; school system in tatters. We can learn in our communities.
So, that’s well over 60% of the public budget that can easily be cut by – oh, I reckon around 50%. What about the rest? Here’s a quick run through of the remaining big costs:
Not sure whether a more communal society would change any governments’ habits of a lifetime, but how much support would corporation sponsored and media cheered invasions get now?
Protection (police, courts and prisons): 5.3%
The main cause of crime is a lack of mutual care and attention; add to that the effect of the consumer society and it’s obvious what effect a change in values would have.
Central government admin: 4%
Hmm, less hierarchy and policy making – sounds like a plan!
A more close-knit and communal society travels less: less commuting, less need to “get away”, less desire or need for shopping or entertainment trips…
That takes it up to over 80%, with the other fifth being a quarter interest payments, and other services about to take a tumble like economic development (who needs corporations?), formal recreation and sport (time for a kick around, or a swim in the lake), waste management (it’s a less wasteful society by definition) and social housing (ok, that one can stay until we learn to build our own homes).
Feel free to accuse me of peering through rose-tinted specs – and you would be right if we were talking about the actual likelihood of a more mutually beneficial and communal way of living coming along under the current system of mind control – but I would contend that the benefits of living with far, far less money as a necessity are both economically possible, and then go way beyond simple economic sums. In short, the route to even a 50% reduction in our use of money is via enormous changes in the way we treat each other and ourselves; the way we look at the value of all things; the scorn we will inevitably cast upon the tireless system of birth-school-work-retire-die, that forgets to include the word “live” in its lineup. We could do a lot worse than simply consider a world without money, and then start to take some baby steps – get used to the temperature of the water, if you like, before taking a plunge into a different way of living.
Originally published at http://earth-blog.bravejournal.com/entry/60133