Cultivating a polyculture of exchange

Talking (and writing) about money is an interesting thing. It’s almost always done in relation to its scarcity (“I’d love to (fill in awesome activity), but I can’t really afford to right now”) or its overabundance (“CEO bonuses are (fill in description of disgust/moral outrage)”). Both conversations tend to get negative pretty quick. Language and social customs seem to make it far easier to talk about problems and challenges than comfort and sufficiency.


Money has occupied an increasingly polarized place in personal and public dialogue, as economic hardship continues to disproportionately affect people around the world and financial inequality is exacerbated in even the most ‘developed’ countries.  Such is our common relationship to money that we often forget (or never realized in the first place) that it is ultimately just a social construct, a medium of exchange, a representation of value – and not a concrete and universal fact of existence. It exercises such a powerful influence on our lives that the pursuit of money has become an end in itself, as if bills and numbers stored in a computer possessed objective value in and of themselves.

I’ve written elsewhere about the power of a dominant narrative to constrain our awareness of what is possible, how the cultural myth of progress ends up justifying otherwise reprehensible acts and patterns. And it is the same with money. Because it functions as such a radical monopoly of exchange, it is hard to even imagine how we might meet our needs without it (by ‘it’, of course I mean the national currency where ever you live – Pound, Dollar, Yen, Euro, Yuan, Rupee..). It is commonly assumed (and in fact, commonly taught in higher education) that hard currency was the natural evolution away from the primitive barter system which made life so darn difficult and inconvenient for early people. However, a thorough study of history shows that people have exchanged goods and services in a huge variety of ways over time, and that centralized hard currency systems are almost everywhere and in every age associated with war, violence, and the erosion of trust.

Sound at all familiar? While we don’t actually have a bullion-based money system since Nixon removed the US Dollar from the gold standard in 1971, we do have an exploitative debt-based credit system. Money created as interest-bearing debt necessitates perpetual economic growth to pay back interest, and thus markets must also perpetually expand – colonizing that which was previously outside the market, such as gift- and trust-based relationships (the social economy) and the whole of the ecological world. When the complex web of community woven together by gift exchange and trust is replaced by a cold and exact form of monetary exchange, essential bonds of relationship are lost. We no longer need to trust each other, we no longer need to need each other – as long as we have enough money, I need only trust that others will accept the money I have to get what I want.

The work of prominent thinkers and practitioners such as Lewis Hyde, Bernard Lietaer, and Charles Eisenstein compellingly detail the subtle and overt ways in which monetization is everywhere followed by the erosion of community and the progressive atomization of society. So how can money and exchange actually serve the real needs of communities, both human and non-human? How can we re-imagine money as what it is really intended to do – facilitate exchange between people, foster the flow of energy through and among communities to meet the needs of all?

When I look around at the community I live in and those nearby, I see many forms of exchange taking place everyday, many of them outside the formal global economy: people sharing their time and skills to help others, gifts being given and received, a community currency designed to keep more money circulating in the local economy, a credit union to provide loans to those not served by commercial banks and help invest in the community, a thriving informal barter system of skills and services…together sowing the seeds of a diverse polyculture of exchange.

Like all complex adaptive systems, the global economic systems needs diversity to remain resilient and the lubricant of that system – money – is anything but diverse at the moment.

In practice, what might such a polyculture of exchange look like? And how might it affect human relationships, our collective consciousness, community, connection to the rest of life? These questions are part of an ongoing inquiry into the emergence of the new economy being explored at Schumacher College – and one that I am particularly excited to explore experientially with the people of Totnes in the coming weeks. Along with Transition Town Totnes, I’m helping to organize a participatory event next month to explore just this in the specific context of the Totnes economy. Stay tuned for more details and reflections on the process as it emerges.

We are collectively the makers of meaning, so how can we re-embed value in people instead of paper? If money is merely a representation of value, lets not confuse the map for the territory as it were. As David Graeber reminds us, “if money is just a social construct,…an agreement, we can renegotiate it at any time.”

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