Currency has been with us since time immemorial, but perhaps the internet age has enabled us to finally transcend the root of all evil.
A new system of trade has recently begun to take off in areas of poverty stricken Greece, where people no longer have the means to deal with cash.
An online network, set up 18 months ago, provides needy members with the means to barter and purchase goods, using Local Alternative Units (or Tems in Greek). In a community that can no longer afford to use the official currency to obtain small goods and staples, Tems presents a true lifeline, and is also demonstrating the power to restore lost faith.
“It’s an easier, more direct way of exchanging goods and services,” Bernhardt Koppold, a German-born Homeopathist and Acupuncturist told The Guardian. “It’s also a way of showing practical solidarity – of building relationships.”
This particular network, co-founded by Maria Choupis in the town of Volos, is one of 15 similar networks that have appeared around the nation – and it looks like more will follow.
“They are as much social structures as economic ones,” Choupis said. “They foster intimacy and mutual support.”
The Tems network in Volos plans to use disused building space to host daily markets beginning next month, where members can meet and exchange without using cash. Similar markets had already proven highly successful in open-air spaces over the summer period, however enthusiasm flagged with the change in season.
“They’re quite joyous occasions,” Choupis said. “It’s very liberating, not using money.” At one market, she said, she approached a woman who had come along with three large trays of homemade cakes and was selling them for a unit a cake. “I asked her: ‘Do you think that’s enough? After all, you had the cost of the ingredients, the electricity to cook …’
“She replied: ‘Wait until the market is over’, and at the end she had three different kinds of fruit, two one-litre bottles of olive oil, soaps, beans, a dozen eggs and a whole lot of yoghurt. ‘If I had bought all this at the supermarket,’ she said, ‘it would have cost me a great deal more than what it cost to make these cakes.'”
Of course, quite a bit of careful thought has gone into setting the system up for success – creating a miniature economy is no walk in the park. The creators decided that the number of Tems that could be held by any person could be no greater than 1,200, in order to prevent hoarding. Nor may you owe more than 300, so people can’t owe money and are instead encouraged to offer something of value. Meanwhile, businesses are allowed to make transactions via the network that are partly in Tems and partly in euros, so that they might continue to cover their own overheads while still investing in the new system.
Choupis points out that the system could have caught on even faster, had the local populace not been so “frozen, in a state of fear.”
“It’s like they’ve been hit over the head with a brick; they’re dizzy,” she said. “And they’re cautious; they’re still thinking, “I need euros, how am I going to pay my bills?” But as soon as people see how much they can do without money, they’re convinced.”
The notion of modular, or miniature, alternative economies is nothing new to online audiences. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like Second Life and World of Warcraft have relatively established economies, with in-game credits able to be exchanged for ‘real’ money.
However, the Tems network and its analogues in Greece are different in the sense that they have been created solely to benefit their users. They also have whole-hearted support from the Greek government, which recently passed a law that granted these networks official non-profit status for tax purposes.
The question now, is, can this model be made to work in an affluent economy? People flock to classifieds and marketplace websites like The Trading Post, eBay and Gumtree in order to turn their little-used or unwanted wares into quick cash, but in doing so they lose a certain amount of potential value either in taxes, bank fees and postage. Could a barter-based online economy eliminate this inherent attrition? Is it possible to throw off the shackles of the all-powerful dollar via new technologies, and can a business be profitable without it?
The people of Volos, Greece are optimistic once more. What are your thoughts?