Worth more than money

Bartering brings more profit than money and it keeps societies together. The respect of the barter partner in association with the appreciation of the object of bartering are social and cultural facts that form at the same time the basis for social relations. The ethnologist Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn considers bartering clubs suitable for changing the conceived conditions of the economy. Ralf Bindel spoke to him.

(Translated from the German by Christine Gubo and Lars Zankl)

Prof. Hahn, you have been examining bartering clubs for a long time. Are they of any importance at all today?

I would claim the opposite, nowadays bartering clubs are of increasing importance. Bartering clubs are a current topic of interest. In the last ten to twenty years there have arisen new bartering clubs everywhere in Germany. This has to do with the fact that people recognise an additional value in acquiring things or exchanging services and assistance through bartering clubs.

You claim that it has also to do with social appreciation, regardless of the economic value.

In our standard economy we perceive the economic value of a thing always very firmly as only a quality of the thing. A devise has certain features, certain abilities and that is why it has the value X. A piece of clothing of a certain quality costs Y.

But when the product is exchanged, it is more worth than it costs?

It is an important outcome of bartering research that it is not only the material features determine the value of things and their appreciation, and hereby I also mean the economic appreciation, but also the fact that it has been received from a particular person. Or that it is imposed on oneself to pass on things. Exchanging is not only a social process. Exchanging is a fundamental mechanism contributing to generating value. Things receive value by passing them on, to put it simply.

When, for instance, I create a piece of furniture and invest a certain number of hours in the process, I estimate the value of the item in relation to the dedicated working time and the required materials and then I try to sell it. If I exchange that object, I want to obtain at least its equivalent value in terms of time and material. Do you believe that this kind of calculation has disappeared within the normal economy?

There are rather simple parameters in the normal economy. We can even start with Karl Marx: there is the use value, which has to be at least as high as the manufacturing costs. What you mean with working time is the market value. And already Marx described the market value as the amount due to scarcity that people can give for a thing that they cannot obtain in a different way. And then a table can be worth much more. The bishop of Limburg has put into his conference room a table that cost EUR 25,000; to him, it was worth that much.

Someone made some big money on it. That is, however, not what matters to you.

What I care about is that people recognise the value in getting the table from someone special -- from someone who is, for example, in a bartering club or from someone who they believe manufactured that table in good craftsmanship. We can find something of that in the logic of labels. In addition, quality seals on labels are always reasons for a price increase in a normal economy. In connection with this, bartering clubs are superior and much more unambiguous, because they clearly state: if I am in a Frankfurt bartering club, I know that a Frankfurt craftsman worked on this table and I appreciate the fact that I can pick it up personally and get precisely this table and not another.

Germany has several rather small bartering clubs with an unknown number of members, but in your study you mention bartering clubs with over a hundred thousand members.

In Argentina, there were really exceptionally large bartering clubs that, for some time, essentially replaced the national economy. This happened when the national and financial crises in Argentina were severe and people lost their trust in the currency.

I have heard there are bartering clubs being created in Greece. Is that right?

This is related to mistrust in the currency as a form of money. Every time this mistrust arises, the personal value of getting goods from people that I know, who live in the same area and have the same needs as I have, grows. All these things suddenly become important again.

Yet this phenomenon is not something new, is it?

Bartering clubs or rather the logic of bartering is something that exists in basically every society in the world, alongside the money economy. The parallelism of a money economy and bartering is an anthropological constant. This slumbering ideal that it is better to get personal goods from someone you know in person always gains the upper hand when mistrust in a state currency comes to the fore.

Are bartering clubs per se more sustainable than global economies?

I am skeptical as to whether bartering clubs fundamentally have a tendency towards more sustainability and more responsible consumption. This may be the case, but there is no built-in automatism that people in bartering clubs have a greater awareness for eco-friendly consumption.

What about the regional money initiative?

I personally consider the regional money initiative as a kind of bartering club as well.

Don’t they create some kind of token money (Regiogeld)?

Yes, but it is token money with social rules. Take a look at scalage: you get a coupon – which I would not even consider money, the value of which decreases if one does not use it within a pre-specified period of time. From my point of view, Regiogeld is the classic modern form of a bartering club. Regional currencies work according to a principle of regional limitation and focus on a particular group of people that basically everyone knows or can now.

But this all stands in opposition to the global monetary economy.

Yes, and it does fundamentally restrict the specification ‘let economic value equal monetary value’ – for example by means of the logic of scalage that makes the accumulation of such monetary forms simply impossible.

That means that bartering clubs and regional money initiatives really can be an alternative for regional economies, but are restricted to a particular region.

I don’t even consider the geographical reference to be a necessary criterion. Regional money or bartering clubs are mainly based on their members’ willingness to enter a particular kind of social contract and it is essential, that every single one of them refuses the rules of credit interest rate and debtor interest rate. Liability is created by the willingness of offering and acquiring things oneself offers or acquires according to particular social rules, and not by being forced into a predicament by amounts of money.

So how is the value of a person’s bartering good assessed or how does appreciation for it come about? What if I am nothing but a consumer because I do not have certain skills, or because I am too old, sick, or disabled – what contributions can I then make and how can their value be determined?

Which services or goods can a person offer in such a situation? This is actually a really difficult question. Where is the objective value of a good in a bartering club? At the end of the day, these questions show that every economic evaluation is in fact a social arrangement. The basic logic of a bartering club should include that people who cannot be productive on their own should receive goods without compensation.

Does this have something to do with social valuation, that I can be confident that the goods I provide or receive will be remunerated in some way or another?

I think the idea of a social arrangement is important in this regard, that is, the shared idea that any form of service can also be rewarded with goods. I mean, bartering clubs do not evaluate goods or services on a completely abstract level. They agree that a valuation has to be based on social principles, whereas the standard economic doctrine states that the valuation of a good follows market mechanisms. The latter is the principle of an invisible hand. And this hand fails in certain situations and with regard to specific groups of people.

And this social arrangement is a price list?

This would only be part of it. A more important question is which goods and services are accepted as a form of stocklist in the first place. That is far more crucial. For helping in the garden, I either get something in return or I don’t. By the way, in our standard economy there are also stocklists, but we are simply not actively aware of the fact. Just think about medication. I am not allowed to sell you antibiotics. They are restricted goods, which only a certain group of people are allowed to sell. This hidden list of goods that can or cannot be sold and which may or may not participate in the market already exists in our minds, but we simply do not think about it.

Why is this of interest for you as an ethnologist?

A critique of evolutionary conceptions about money led me on to this topic. These conceptions are grounded in the idea that money is a superior form of exchange compared to all the other forms. This is a strictly Eurocentric perspective! It is a faulty idea of how an economy works in a society. In every economy there are many forms of exchange processes and the ones that are not monetary – and that is where we come back to the topic of bartering clubs –are very often far more important than we realize. That is the reason why I research bartering.

Will bartering have a chance to exist in the future, and not only as a research topic?

We will certainly not return to a society that functions without money. But during the present debate about what the Euro actually is, it is important to have a greater understanding of the background of certain issues: What does money-based exchange mean, which other forms of exchange are there and on what basis do we opt for one or the other. I think, in a way, that in our society we ignore the actual role of money and are not aware of the actual exchange practices we participate in every day. We think in terms of money but act according to a completely different set of rules. 

Could a debate about bartering bring a different form of valuation of goods and services into public focus promoting sustainable development because fewer resources are used?

I see this as the goal of my argument. I want people to have a different understanding of what value is and that a monetary amount is not even sufficient to explain the economic importance of certain goods. For this we simply need to actively and reflectively engage with the economic goods, we come into contact with on a daily basis. This is not only a question of ecological awareness but also a question of the channels through which economy penetrates our social framework. Or to put it the other way round, how our social relations define economic relations.

Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn is an ethnologist and an expert on material culture, global consumption and cultural globalisation. He works at the Institute of Ethnology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. 

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