Local currencies foster interdependency

Chapel Hill Herald, Saturday December 03, 2005

There is a strange paradox in American culture. On the one hand, we are taught to view ourselves through the lens of individualism, extolling the self-made "man," and looking out for number one. On the other hand, there has rarely been a society more characterized by the utter economic dependency of its citizens than ours.

We depend on distant, faceless corporations for the energy to warm our homes, cook our food and power our vehicles. We depend on them for our entertainment and our communication, our clothing, tools and materials, and for many aspects of our health care.

Historically, few humans have ever been independent in a true sense. Nor have we had the kind of dependency that characterizes modern society. Rather, we have been interdependent, denizens of self-reliant communities where what one could not do for oneself could be accomplished by a tribe, extended family, community or village.

Ironically, when Hillary Clinton"s book on child rearing, "It Takes a Village," was attacked by the right, hers was the truly conservative premise, harkening back to the more typical human experience. Clinton suggested that there is an ineluctable social dimension to being human while the right insists on a reductionism that makes us easier prey for the market.

The right-wing reaction to Clinton"s book was much like this one from a reviewer on Amazon.com: "To the typical conservative Republican, family values mean that the child is raised by a mother and a father. The father is usually the one who goes to work and brings home the money. The mother is usually the one who stays at home to take care of the child, goes shopping by bringing the child along and brings home much needed supplies such as food for the family."

What that reviewer fails to recognize is that the situation he describes and its sexist contour is largely a creation of the modern era, a family dynamic forged as capitalism sought a dependent work force unmoored from the self-reliant and interdependent subsistence of earlier times.

Recent history shows that the economics of dependency are ultimately those of insecurity and of what economist Paul Krugman last week called the "Age of Anxiety." Millions of middle-class Americans teeter on the brink, wondering how long their jobs will last, how they will pay for gas, health care, heating oil or the mortgage. Sadly, too many of them -- of us -- have lost the habits of interdependency that help us get through difficult times.

Those who live under the terms of dependency but without the secure benefits thereof turn frustration into anger directed both at themselves and at society. Recent events in immigrant communities in France have illustrated this phenomenon.

In this context, it was good news to learn that organizers behind our area's local currency, the PLENTY, are seeking to revitalize their program.

Local currency is designed to build community around economic transactions, increase wealth by recirculating income locally and enhance local self-reliance.

The local currency itself is an actual paper currency which can only be spent in our area. NCPLENTY maintains a list of members, both businesses and individuals, who are interested in accepting PLENTYs. Thus, from the outset, the project has fostered a network of local providers of products and services (for additional details).

NCPLENTY is still in its infancy and has not yet taken off to the extent of some of the 200 or so other local currencies in the United States, the most notable of which is the Ithaca (N.Y.) Hour. Matt Kalb, an NCPLENTY board member, called its slow progress part of "a natural stage of growth for any local currency."

To further energize the program, they have initiated a campaign called LOOPs or Local Occurrences of Organized PLENTY Spending.

The idea is to more proactively match up member needs, creating loops or chains of providers and customers linked by the PLENTY program.

The networks created by local currencies have the potential to provide other types of support beyond merely facilitating transactions. They could provide training or apprenticeship programs. They could link up with schools to provide internships or work-study opportunities in a wide range of fields. And they could take our understanding of the economics of community to another level, beyond the tit for tat of the marketplace to an ethos that replaces volunteerism with mutual aid forged from the lived experience of where the economy meets our fundamental human needs and where it falls short.

Whether you are a member of the NCPLENTY project, you should check out the member directory at ncplenty.org. There you will find a great list of local providers who are committed to our community in the most fundamental sense.



Ira Chernus has written an interesting article contrasting the perspective of King with that of Eisenhower at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Thematically, it is along the lines of what I've written above.

I'm guessing that the lack of comment on this post indicates that there is a general assumption on the progressive front that local currencies are an undisputed good thing and thus not worth talking about. Although it's late I'd like to add my two cents worth to this thread. While I do believe that buying local is a good and necessary way to ensure the economic sustainability of one's community, I have deep concerns about the promotion of local scrips like the Plenty, for two main reasons. Maybe three.
First, know your history. Local scrips are a traditional means of economic control of a disadvantaged group: pay your workers in funny money they can only spend in a restricted area (the company store, for example) and they won't stray far from the plantation or the factory. Imagine if Wal-Mart cottoned to the potential of local currencies to keep their workers docile and trapped (and imagine the feel-good spin their marketing machine would put on it).
Second, they are unnecessary. If you want to support your local economy, just spend your money locally. If you are lucky enough to get a nice salary from Glaxo or UNC, recirculate those dollars back to the local businesses, farmers, service providers directly - they can't pay their mortgages in Plenties, and they shouldn't pay their workers with them either. I just got back from a too-brief vacation in the Greek island of Lesvos. The local economies are thriving, the food in the tavernas is straight out of the local fields and off the local fishing wharf, and guess what: the only local currency is the Euro, that you can spend equally well in Mytilini, Paris or Madrid. I believe that trade with other communities is the indispensable foundation of a sustainable, peaceful global community, and that common currencies are the indispensable media of that trading network. Balkanization of currency is retrograde, not progressive.
The third reason? I suspect there is an unstated agenda that considers there is no moral obligation to declare local currency earnings for tax purposes. All I have to say about this is that the IRS considers otherwise: use local currencies for tax evasion purposes at your peril.


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