As the banking crisis continues, alternative or complementary currencies are back on the agenda, as evidenced by George Monbiot's last piece in the Guardian , and a feature on Lewes Pounds on BBC's radio 4 in the last couple of days.
The idea of an alternative currency is not new, and back around 15-20 years ago, LETS schems (Local Exchange Trading Systems)were seen as a key part of the move to a sustainable society and there were close links between Green party activists and LETS schemes in various places around the country. The scheme in Manchester used a currency called 'bobbins' after the cotton industry and for a while local Green Party membership could be paid for in bobbins, though hardly anybody ever did.
Unfortunately in recent years I have heard much less about them, and even their co-ordinating body, Letslink, reports a likely drop in membership since the early days. I can think of two reasons why this might be. Firstly, the kind of people attracted to such schemes in those days meant that there were too many aromatherapists and not enough plumbers. Secondly I have noticed a decline in co-operation amongst people outside Green circles since then; to give a couple of examples:
- when our children were young we belonged to a local baby-sitting circle by which people sat for each other using tokens as a currency; it worked well for a while, but nowadays couples with young children don't seem to have such a facility, and often struggle to find sitters to whom they have to pay hard British pounds.
- when I started at my current workplace there was a milk sharing scheme, each person in a team bought the milk on a different day, over time people 'forgot' and the system fell apart until everyone had to bring their individual half pints which cluttered the fridge and regularly went off before consumption. (The company resolved this by bulk buying milk and providing it as a perk, so we went from co-operation to individualism to corporate paternalism).
This probably all started with Thatcherism and 'no such thing as society' but has continued throughout the 11 years of so-called Labour. But with the banking crisis maybe things are changing again. Whilst LETS scheme are less visible, new ideas have arrived with a broadly similar philosophy, such as Timebank and Freecycle. A prolonged recession caused by failure in the conventional economic system may provide the seeds not just for a revival of alternative currencies but their extension out of the trendy middle-class ghetto. Internet developments, such as 'Web 2.0' technologies may also help.
The next couple of years are an opportunity to see if this type of trading will be a boon to hard-pressed citizens, or if it will just be 'bobbins'.