Talking with Heretics

On friday I was up in Birmingham for a ‘Live arts Futures’ gathering as part of Fierce Festival, our project partner in Birmingham. I was asked, along with Brett Scott, author of ‘The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance’  (which I will be referring to as this blog and its pages unfold…) to contribute to a discussion on Alternative Economies. It was very deftly moderated by Lynn Goh of In Between Time Festival (if you don’t know about their work, you should…very inspired programming).

Such a complex and broad subject, it’s often after these events, when the question has been asked and you have responded, that you only start to understand the importance of the question. Along the timeline of the books I have referenced here and on my previous BTB blog, Brett’s book is the next, timely step in opening up an understanding of the esoteric world of finance in a humanly accessible way.

He speaks from personal experience, both as someone of sometime shaky economic means and from his previous persona as a derivatives broker in the city. I can very much relate to his sense of wanting to go beyond the strictly oppositional, right /wrong dichotomy that has (understandably) evolved out of current economic activism, i.e. within the Occupy movement. And yet at the same time highlighting social justice issues and in his case offering pragmatic ways to subvert or engage in alternatives to the mainstream economy that seems to be literally devouring people’s livelihoods, identities and sense of self worth on an accelerating basis.

Looking at links between us, as I am offering up a live, public service rooted in the arts but seeking to cut across sectors and social contexts, I liked what he had to say about alternative currencies (roughly quoted):  ‘I currently partially think of experiments in alternative economies as quasi-artistic; they tend to be before their time, they exist within a society that does not support them. They are quite performative and an ‘acting out’ – using them (whether the Lewes/Brixton/Bristol pound, the bit coin or localized gift economy systems for example) takes you out of your current societal context and of course there is a big question as to whether alternative currencies or exchange systems are sustainable within the current economic system.’

This idea of a symbolic ‘acting out’ of alternative economies very much connects to the idea of The Book of Debts and how it can be instrumentalised by the public. One collective way of highlighting a contrast to the mainstream system. What might the uses of this acting out in this project  (reciting, recounting, scribing, reciting and burning debts) actually be? How useful can such a seemingly futile series of acts be?  A few responses to this came out of the Portslade burning:

I still feel burdened by a financial debt, but having had it included in the book gave it more air somehow. It exists, it is there and I will need to repay it. While I’m not able to do that now, I am not sinking into hopelessness around it, but it is as if there is a ‘placeholder’ – this acknowledgement also acknowledges my responsibility for the debt “ and ‘It was useful to have a structure within which to reflect on my debt. It is interesting to have a more positive and restorative conversation around debt, rather than the same old cyclical story’.

Brett also talked about technology driving change in this area and how money has been acting as an intermediary technology designed to ‘resolve trust problems between strangers in transactions, but in so doing it atomises human relationships. It has psychological feedback built into it, so perhaps it might achieve the aim of facilitating exchange but in so doing it breaks down societal cohesion. With internet –enabled monetary systems, they can become a new way of sharing both information and new  ‘trust-metrics’ can start to develop alternative forms of exchange – eg gift platforms, time banking, peer-to-peer systems, open source economic systems etc.’.

The example of time banks came up at this point, and the tension in the idea that they take a lot of time  (!) to administrate once scaled up. I gave the example of the closed system of childcare swaps I have set up with three other families at my children’s school. An example of a gift economy, instead of each paying for childcare we found enough of an affinity  (children’s ages and existing friendships) for it to work on a weekly basis. With this, as well as time enabling us to work and work away more easily, have come other ‘relational resources’ that would not come with paid childcare, which arise out of putting oneself in a trust system to co-support each other – deepening friendship bonds, conflict resolution sharing if issues arise, last minute help more likely available since there is on-going communication etc.

There was a question at this point –in seeking to look at this as ‘system’ that could be used more widely – at the lack of diversity that this ‘system’ entails – i.e. It relies on an affinity with parents with perhaps similar values in order to work and is not open to all, it is exclusive (I think the word ‘pluto-facist was even mooted at one point. Well yes, it is an individually-initiated gift system within a small-scale community where affinity is an essential component to making it work. And children are humans with relational sensitivities not commodities..)  Brett pointed out that there is a trade-off in any gift –based system like this where there can be an inherent conservatism and it raises the question of how to balance the two – i. e not wanting to get into a system where there you could be stuck in an oppressive set of relationships where you are bound to your community (more relevant I think to what happens within families over time, Brett gave the example of communities in the poorest areas of South Africa, where most systems of exchange are non-monetary) . But at the same time the other end of the scale is a situation of extreme alienation and no network of relationships at all.

‘The Gift that is not used is lost, while one that is passed along remains abundant’ (Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and The Artist in the Modern World).

One thing I omitted to say at this point about gift based systems – and which applies to the childcare swaps I am part of – is that it is not restricted to exchanges between two individuals, it is the needs of the group –which change over time (i.e. sometimes I or someone else are away working more often than someone else in the group and so need more support, but that might change the following month) which are the determining factor for how often a particular swap will occur. It is the idea of a transferable gift, on a more esoteric level this related to the idea of karma, that when we give it comes back to us, but not always from the same source to which we gave.

This is an inherent quality of the gift and also of debt, and the perversion of this in the current economic context is that financial debts can be sold on to companies with whom we did not choose to enter into a financial relationship, and who then are invested with a moral power to pursue and hound until a result is secured, regardless of changing circumstance. More on that next time, as I drill down into the focus of this current Volume of The Book of Debts, coming to the streets of Birmingham from next week –details to follow soon….

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