Monday, March 26, 2012

Time Bank Belgium

Recently, a time bank has opened in Belgium. What is a time bank? Time banking is a tool by which people can exchange their time and skills instead of buying goods or services as in a conventional market system. Time banking is a way of creating an alternative economic model. (more)

Wikipedia describes time banking as "a pattern of reciprocal service exchange that uses units of time as currency. It is an example of an alternative monetary system.".

As we all understand, 'money' is purely abstract and the currency that we use (euro, dollar, ...) is actually nothing more than a convention, an agreement to use that certain type of denomination. In theory there is no reason to limit our economy to only the standard currency, and we could be free to use anything we want.

image source:
Larry Adams
Work in progress, article will be reviewed and updated in due time.

It is a common misunderstanding that it is 'natural' to use gold as currency.  There is no 'natural law' to do that, gold in itself has no value but the value that we give it ourselves. The most quoted example are the split tally sticks, as used in medieval England, initiated by King Henry I around 1100 AD.
One would mark a wooden stick with a system of notches and then split lengthwise. This way the two halves both record the same notches and each party to the transaction received one half of the marked stick as proof. (1, 2)

But besides this classical example, we have the old counting board principle of the Sumerians (pdf), the use of cowry shells as currency in Western-Africa (1, pdf), brass rods used by the Tiv in Nigeria and Cameroon (more), the first paper money in China in the 9th century and even continued after the Mongolian invation in 1217 (1, 2), ... Even if we jump closer towards contemporary history we have in the 18th century the colonial scrip in the American colonies of the former British Empire  which was used to spark American economy because of a lack of material for minting coins  (and later made illegally by the British Parliament through lobbying by the Bank of England as it would make the colonies independent of England) (1, 2) and Abraham Lincoln's greenbacks of 1862. (1, 2)

Even now, since 1971 when president Nixon took the US dollar of the gold standard, our circulating currency is purely virtual, and exists only in an abstract way.

It is important to understand that 'money' as we use it, has absolutely no physical existence, and only makes sense in our own minds as long as we believe in it. The above examples are just the first ones that come to my mind and an enumeration that proves that any object could be used as a means of exchange, as long as a group of people agree upon it.

Alternative money systems have been in circulation throughout history, contemporary European examples are the different types of "emergency money" used between the two world wars in Europe. As the economies were experiencing a big inflation after the first world war, town savings banks, municipalities, private and state-owned firms started issuing their own currency, next to the official national currency, to spark the economy.
It was therefore not legal tender, but rather a mutually-accepted means of payment in a particular locale or site. (more)

Once a group of people agree mutually that a certain type of object (be it tally sticks, paper bills, or even socks or bottles of wine) is used as currency, then that type of object will become a means of payment. It will only become legal tender when a government allows by law that that certain object has to be accepted as 'money', for example to pay taxes with (and in Medieval England, taxes had to be paid in the before mentioned tally stick system, West-African communities used cowry shells, and so forth).

Regardless of a currency being legal tender or not, it can always be used as a local currency, as long as people agree mutually to except it as means of payment. An organisation that focuses on the concept of alternative or complementary money systems is The Open Money Project, active for 25 years according to their own website. Please have a look at and

Now to get back to the topic of time banking, an alternative system that exchanges 'time' as currency. In that way, there will be more stimulus to look at the time that it takes to provide a certain service. The concept is an initiative of the artist collective 'e-flux', consisting of Anton Vidokle and Julieta Aranda, and currently has branches in New York, Sydney, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Den Haag and now Leuven, but hopefully will continue to grow. Anybody can go to the Belgian Time/Bank site to become a member.

In an interview with Jolien Verlaek of Metropolis M, Anton Vidokle explains that this project is not a result of the global financial crisis, but more as a way of maintaining the open culture in the art world: artists and curators are mostly very willing to help colleagues and students but in many cases, this 'giving of time' (in helping to develop new ideas, new points of view, giving criticism, expertise, ...) cannot be expressed in a monetary value.
The fact that there is no payment, does not mean that people don't want to help, but if a person is putting a lot of time and effort in a project, without reward, it can become difficult to persevere. Time/Bank is an attempt to create a parallel economic structure that is able to offer some form of compensation and enables you to spend more time on things that you enjoy.-- Anton Vidokle in Metropolis M
Although Time/Bank is not an effort to offer an alternative to the current economic situation, "emergency money" has been highly effective in periods of economic decline in the past as for example the German depression after the first world war (1, 2, 3).

Additionally, the Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer (1, 2) states that if we want to sustain the current standard of living, our currency system is in need of diversity (seminars: Berlin 2009, Flanders 2011). By adding one or more extra currencies, we can make ourselves less dependent from the monopoly of the current monetary unit. It will bring more resilience in the economic system.

At the same time, my personal belief is that the current use of money tends to favor monopolies and gives no incentive to stimulate local markets or even act out of morality. Money as we know it flows in one way only: out of the pockets of the Bottom Billion, into the pockets of the 1%. No matter what we do, that is the way that the system is designed and it is its nature to flow that way.

If an additional currency system is adopted, one that stimulates neighbourhood participation (1, 2, 3) or local economies (Ghent), the local environments will benefit. There are many possibilities, currencies can be designed to devalue over time to avoid the hording of money (and therefore stimulate circulation), a new form of money can be used to stimulate the purchases of local agriculture and products, or free trade goods.

Even if you believe a complementary currency is 'impossible', think of all the coupons, collectibles, trading stamps and loyalty programs that you have been confronted with or even participated in. All these as well have a similar goal: by moving within the limited circle of stores that provide these programs, your behavior alters. Why then not create a 'loyalty program' for services and goods to the benefits of your own community?

More on timebanks:

More on complementary currencies:

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