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Conducting commerce sans currency

Like the ebb and flow of ocean tides, the human sea of migrant labourers who had surged out of cities to return home after their incomes were jeopardised by the first lockdown, and who eddied back in search of urban employment, once again poured out of metros as new curfews and restrictions were imposed in a desperate bid to check the implacable and alarming spread of the coronavirus.

The second wave of the exodus has once again sparked the debate of lives versus livelihoods, a distinction without a difference, which overlooks the reality that the two are inextricably linked and the one cannot be assigned priority over the other.

But as a bridging measure to alleviate rural distress caused by the sudden and repeated stoppage of remittances from urban wage-generating centres, local communities could be helped to organise and develop self-sustaining systems of commerce based on what are termed ‘open-source’, or ‘complementary’, instruments of negotiation which are not dependent on conventional currency in the form of cash.

Cashless commerce has thrived in various parts of the world ever since the age-old barter system of trade (I’ll give you a sheaf of maize if you lend me your plough) and was gradually replaced by more commensurable units of exchange based on the labour invested in them.

Tracing the evolution of complementary, or open-source, commerce, US economic historian Douglas Rushkoff has noted that such methods of localised trade and industry flourished throughout medieval Europe, their efficacy attested to by the great cathedrals built during this period, the narrative of their construction memorably documented by the bestselling novelist Ken Follett in his Pillars of the Earth trilogy.    

Cathedrals, castles, palaces, and other imposing edifices were the equivalent of today’s employment generating schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

Masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, bakers, brewers, artists, would congregate at the construction sites of such projects, all trading their labour for the pooled labours of others.  Centralised currencies – coins of gold, silver, or copper – were used mainly for non-localised use, such as overseas trade.

Though centralised currencies gained dominance when monarchs began to consolidate their power and their territories, localised complementary commerce continued to exist in pockets of time and space as disparate as the Californian hippie communes of the 1960s, recession-hit Japan in the 1990s, and a number of villages and hamlets in contemporary Britain where communities have devised localised survival mechanisms against the centralised ‘Tescofication’ of the country.

As Rushkoff has noted, the main advantage of complementary, labour-based units of value is that, unlike centralised currencies whose value increases in direct proportion to their shortage of supply, open-source commerce increases with augmented supply: the more labour you bring into the collective pool, the more prosperous your localised economy, and you, will become.

As a child I witnessed close-up the working of a complementary economy in the small town, which was little more than a village, of Mandvi, in Kutch, where our family originally came from.

Bracketed by the sea on the one side and a sand dune desert on the other, the Mandvi of those days was an oasis of isolation from the rest of the country.

Every year the family would make the long journey from what was then Calcutta to Mandvi, where my grandmother continued to live in our ancestral home.

The Kharwa fisherfolk of the town would trade their catch for everyday necessities.  As the non-Kharwa residents of Mandvi were strict vegetarians, like my grandmother who kept goats in the courtyard of the house and whose milk she would sell, the community had developed its own self-sustaining tokens of trade which included cowrie shells and thick copper tokens called Dhabus.

A brass canister frothing at the brim with fresh goats’ milk would be exchanged for a handful of shells or Dhabus.

The internet has created its own form of complementary commerce between geographically far-spread but cyber-linked communities which trade in information and expertise, or through the use of cryptocurrencies like the Bitcoin, a distant e-descendent of Mandvi’s Dhabu.  

The transactional dynamics of such wide and varied decentralised, synergetic communities could hold many helpful lessons of livelihood at the disruptive time of the pandemic. If nothing else, to those who have had to forsake their customary sources of income they could provide the vaccine of hope.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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