Friday, April 1, 2011

OURGOODS: Why is a significant amount of labor considered "outside" of the economy?

“What is often called ‘the economy’ (i.e. wage labor for a market exchange of commodities in a capitalist enterprise) is but a small set of activities by which we produce, exchange, and distribute values in our society. What about an economic politics that allows us to think creatively and to start here and now to make new economies? We believe that other, more just and ecologically sustainable economies are possible. Everyday people in everyday places can be part of re-thinking and re-enacting economies.”
-Community Economies Collective

For the past two years, I’ve organized Trade School (a popular education program where students barter with teachers) and (a barter network of creative people) with collaborators Rich Watts, Louise Ma, Jen Abrams, and Carl Tashian. Both projects demonstrate the social nature of exchange and have been met with an enormous amount of generosity and enthusiasm. What is the larger context for these barter projects? Something called the solidarity economy, the social economy, the intentional economy, or "community economies".

Activists, households, and artists alike participate (knowingly or not) in diverse, community economies. Taking care of others, volunteering, cooking, and making things are all valuable activities that involve production, exchange, and distribution. While this labor is not tracked or calculated via GDP, it is as crucial to the function of society as any paid job. The dominant economy runs on a scarcity principal that does not serve creative people well. Most artists are motivated by a combination of curiosity, risk, craft, a desire to speak truth, produce beauty, and gain community respect- not monetary gain and atomized self-interest. We participate in economies of abundance, where respect is harnessed between peers. This does not mean that artists should not be paid (we should demand payment!), or that money is antithetical to creative labor, but it does mean that the artists who continue to work "for free" (in exchange for exposure, respect, passion, etc.) should spend more time thinking through the diverse economies that they participate in.
For example, SolidarityNYC promotes “people over profits” by mapping and connecting NYC-based worker co-ops, time banks, barter clubs, CSAs, land trusts, open source projects, and other commons initiatives that foster values of mutualism and cooperation. As a broad platform for grassroots economic initiatives, SolidarityNYC has introduced me to people who make more change in the world with less personal recognition: social workers, facilitators, holistic healers, activists, and community-based economic development leaders. Connecting with these people has helped me see how much artist collectives can learn about consensus decision making, re-distribution of opportunities, and the power of organized self-management within a culture of interdependence.

Is this all too abstract and theoretical? Well, here's some direct suggestions for dealing with a non-monetary exchange:

#1) Bartering is an experiment in value.

What is a fair exchange? You two decide. Time, money, effort, or mutual support can be used to gauge what’s fair.

#2) Get information.

Look at their profile/ratings from other users, Google them, and trust your gut.

#3) Be clear.

Speak up and be specific about ...

  • needs: what do you need?
  • haves: what can you give?
  • skills: how much expertise do you have?
  • time: how much time do you have? how long will this take?
  • deadline: is it fixed, negotiable, or not important?
  • outcome: is it specific or flexible?

#4) Keep the dialogue open.

Communication is key. “I don’t care” can mean “I feel uncomfortable”—be brave.

(Tips taken from the updated barter process).

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