Do you remember when John Lennon sang ‘Imagine’?
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world
Neither do I but this won’t stop me appreciating the meaning of the song. What I would like to talk to you about today though is not the Beatles, worthy as the topic may be; what I’ve been thinking about is the dream of ‘no possessions’ and ‘all the people sharing all the world’. What has been happening in southern Europe during the last couple of years is as far from Lennon’s dream as cold is from hot.
Looking at the reactions of people in the countries most hit by the financial crisis I noticed that economic hardship can lead in some cases to complete transformation of the basis of economy and that whole villages and towns reverted to bartering.
Just in case you, my readers, have forgotten what barter is about, it simply means that goods and services are exchanged directly for goods and services. In other words, money stops being the means of exchange and if you want to get tomatoes you have to offer some plums; if you want bread you have to offer some stew. Well, I suspect it is much more complex than that but you get the message.
As ‘primitive’ as this system may seem, it still co-exists with the monetary exchange. My grandmother bartered till the end of her life – true she had a garden and lived in a village. So it was only natural for her to barter grapes for apples, or a chicken for some pork. And she never ever went to visit a friend empty-handed. Now, in a different time and another country, I know a hairdresser who cuts a guy’s hair and, in exchange, he mends stuff around her house.
But bartering is not only something that people do bilaterally; in time of crisis whole communities and societies resort to this age old way of exchange.
For instance, in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s bartering became a commonplace fixture of everyday life. Apparently it wasn’t unusual for fashion designers to pay for a restaurant visit in clothes rather than money.
More recently, in 2012, a little Greek town named Volos introduced bartering on a mass scale. For it to work they had to create an alternative ‘currency’ thus bypassing the euro – TEM points. Everything in the town – child care, clothes, food and services – was exchanged using TEM. When one had something to offer they were given TEMs in return; so one could buy decorative candles for yoga lessons. The citizens of Volos were able to exchange anything – it didn’t matter what skills they had.
This made me ask whether I have any skills that will allow me to survive in a barter economy; in other words, do I have any skills I can exchange. Naturally, soon I was in despair since this kind of arrangements favour more practical competencies and pursuits. I was thinking that:
a) the time when scribes were sitting at street corners, ready to compose and write letters is long gone;
b) analysis is useful but not very easy to exchange for food;
c) nobody will care much about science and even less about science policy;
d) jokers are not patronised; and
e) I very much doubt that blogging will bring me any points.
Then I got it! I could teach; true, at the moment I teach at university level (and mainly Masters and PhD) but I could teach high school. If the need is great I can probably tutor younger kids as well, and give them even knowledge of philosophy – even in time of crisis our humanity is defined by values not consumption.
One thing is clear, though: my skill set needs brushing up and renewing if I am to survive and thrive in a barter economy.
What are the skills you have that will help you survive in a barter economy?