Last week I came across an announcement on Facebook that said, “Introducing: The Occupy Money Cooperative. #LetsCooperate.” At first, I’ll admit, I thought it was a poorly executed joke. Perhaps I’m projecting a little bit, since I’m one of those terrible people that still think occupy jokes puns are funny. (“Occupy toilets!”) Still thinking the link was from Occupy Lulz I clicked on it (maybe it would be funny…?) and was brought to a page that could have been mistaken for the Chase website. The cool blues and abstract shapes scream “financial institution” and the video still looks like it might come from a credit card company. All the distinguishing aesthetic features of finance are there. But this is definitely an Occupy venture, and a serious one at that. Why would a radical leftist movement try to make a bank?
In the first chapters of every Economics 101 textbook there’s a misleading hypothetical about the origins of money. David Graeber, in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years calls it “the founding myth of our system of economic relations.” This myth is so pervasive that even people who have never taken an Economics 101 class know, and believe in, this myth. We tend to assume that before money there was this awkward barter system where you had to keep all your chickens and yams with you when you went to market to buy a calf. If the person selling the calf didn’t want chicken or yams, no transaction would take place. Money seems to fill a very important need: it lets us compare and exchange a wide variety of goods by establishing a common metric of value. The problem with this construction—of simple barter being replaced with cash economies—is that it never happened. That’s what makes Bondsy, an app that let’s you effortlessly barter with a private set of friends, so interesting: It takes a modern myth and turns it into everyday reality. What has existed for centuries, according to Graeber and other anthropologists, are debt and credit systems utilizing some sort of value measurement. Some societies might measure the value of objects in terms of other objects (e.g. clams, feathers, buffalo skins, beads) but those are measurements, not actual bartered objects. They act more like money than barter. There are far too many different credit/debt systems to generalize accurately but lots of them operated on the premise that gifts carry some promise of reciprocation. Stiffing your neighbors was a good way to starve to death unless you were totally self-sufficient.