Moving beyond money.
December 2, 2007 1:51 AM   Subscribe

I recently enjoyed Charles Stross's fascinating novel, Accelerando. One of the most fascinating parts, for me, was the first chapter's description of the character Manfred's post-capitalistish lifestyle. Manfred was trying to eliminate money from his life by getting paid in services and vouchers that took care of his needs without money. Is this possible? Is it happening? How?

I guess what I'm looking for are ways to perhaps permanently eliminate certain expenses. The anarchist book Evasion gets at the whole "moving beyond capitalism" thing in a typical anti-authoritarian way: hitchhiking, dumpster diving, squatting, etc. I'm not looking for ways to stop being a consumer, however, just for ideas on how to function and live a comfortable lifestyle without using money as a middleman.

Ride sharing is sort of in the right direction, but so is, I think, the "free" page on Craig's List. What sorts of modern gift economies exist?Exchanging services for services is as old as commerce itself. Do any of you do it (like designing a deli's website in exchange for free salami every week), and, more importantly, are there groups or websites that facilitate that sort of thing? Are there organizations of local businesses that all agree to service eachother's employees for free? Surely there must be some situations in which such exchanges are beneficial to both or all parties.

In Accelerando Stross describes it like this: "Manfred has a suite at the Hotel Jan Luyken paid for by a grateful multinational consumer protection group, and an unlimited public transport pass paid for by a Scottish sambapunk band in return for services rendered. He has airline employee's travel rights with six flag carriers despite never having worked for an airline. His bush jacket has sixty-four compact supercomputing clusters sewn into it, four per pocket, courtesy of an invisible college that wants to grow up to be the next Media Lab. His dumb clothing comes made to measure from an e-tailor in the Philippines he's never met. Law firms handle his patent applications on a pro bono basis, and boy, does he patent a lot...Manfred is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with whacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty, after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything."

It sounds like it makes sense, but Stross doesn't really get much into the specifics of negociating these contracts and such. So it leaves me wondering: how would someone pursuing such a lifestyle go about getting started?
posted by Hollow to Work & Money (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Stross doesn't go into the specifics because:
1) They're fairly boring technically, and I suppose there's no reason to overindulge in detail where it doesn't push the story along.
2) Much of it requires a much more wired world then our current one. If I want a latte or a plane ticket, and my skill set is some arcane tech support speciality, like conseling lovesick AIs, I need to figure out how to connect the two. Unless the expresso machine / booking computer is deep in the throes of unrequited lust over the cute coffeeshop girl / jet steward, I'm probably going to have to resort to cash. If you suppose some sort of very popular barter website where people can exchange services, posting needs and fulfilling them, Stross's world sounds more plausible, especially if you throw in a reputation system.

You sound like you're looking for your local community barter orgaization:

I'm not sure what New York City's ones are. Craigslist has a barter section:
but it seems a little, odd. ('I will let you watch me schtup my girlfriend in exchange for housing. She thinks this idea is really hot.') But some people have managed to work it out:
nytimes article on housing.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:27 AM on December 2, 2007

I'm no economic buff, so I can't really help on the technical side. But just as an aside, and since you mentioned several literary examples of your desired lifestyle, I thought you might enjoy the short story "Maneki Neko" by Bruce Sterling (in plain text and Google Books versions).

It describes a de-facto gift economy like the one you envision, based in Japan and controlled by a powerful, benevolent, in-the-background AI. Money still exists, but most purchases are supplemented by giving gifts to strangers on the AI's instruction, so that everyone gets what they need, when they need it, without even having to ask. The main plot focuses more on the "culture shock" (understatement!) of a bewildered American as seen through a Japanese citizens eyes, but it's a clever interpretation of what you're talking about nonetheless.

It might not help you find Utopia, but hey, at least you have another good read to fall back on!
posted by Rhaomi at 2:38 AM on December 2, 2007

You could ask the man himself if he has any specifics.
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:58 AM on December 2, 2007

A note: I'm not asking for personal advice on applying this in my own life. I'm looking for elaboration on an idea from a book and information on just what the state of the world is regarding this particular bit of speculation. Thanks.
posted by Hollow at 3:45 AM on December 2, 2007

Something to keep in mind is that here in the US (and presumably many other places), goods and services received in lieu of cash are still considered income and taxable. So you'll always need some cash to deal with the taxman. Or a benefactor whose service to you is that he pays your taxes.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:40 AM on December 2, 2007

Looking back upon all the mailing lists, bartered services and thankless efforts of my punk rock enriched youth, I'll concede that social currency, however altruistic, is still capitalism. If not for you, certainly for others. You're merely replacing promissory notes and coinage from an officiating government body with a more immediate, yet nonetheless tangible form, such as an ideal, the anticipated immediacy of a reciprocated service, or the satisfaction of attaining a goal for some perceived greater good.

I think Stross was using Manfred as a reference to the Technocracy Movement, with an extra nod to J. Neil Schulman's Alongside Night.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:05 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I used to trade services all the time. One guy I worked for built computers. He wanted me to do a big programming job for him. I said I'd do it in exchange for a PC built to my specs. That made us both happy, because he got parts wholesale. He felt he was paying me less than he would have been, had be given me cash.

I did web design for a guy in exchange for the use of his offices at night, so I'd have rehearsal space for my theatre company.*

After 9/11, when the US economy tanked, my boss at the time was unable to give me the raise he's promised. So he offered me two extra weeks of vacation instead, and I accepted.

* We rehearsed there for five years, and then had to leave, because the guy's employees started working at night, and they needed their own space. It sucked, because we'd been getting free rehearsal space all those years.

We weren't able to find more free space, so now we rent rehearsal space. The theatre company is too poor to afford it, so a company member and I pay the rent out of our own pockets, which really hurts.

Still, I've found that I like this arrangement better. Back when we got free space, we were always having to work around the donor's schedule. He would have a night meeting, so we couldn't rehearse. Stuff like that. But now that we're paying, everything is cut and dry. We pay; the space is ours.

Sometimes money makes things simple.
posted by grumblebee at 6:08 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I love Accelerando but I think that Stross is more describing a vague idea of a lifestyle that helps to define his character than speculating an alternate economic system.

Smart Dalek and rokusan are basically right: barter is not really different from money. McLuhan has shown very well that money is a convenient way to concentrate and exchange the memory of an amount of work. Of course, you can do without, but it won't change the nature of your exchange: money is just a media that represent the value that you assign to each work (service of thing).

What grumblebee said: money is a medium that makes exchanges simpler.
posted by bru at 7:41 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

You used to see a lot of trading services or even products back in the days before the computer invaded every aspect of retail business. Today, especially when dealing with products, it's very hard to get away with "gifting" or doing favors for people. The computerized systems won't allow it without leaving a trail.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:42 AM on December 2, 2007

A medium or a media? In this case, I'm not sure. Maybe both?
posted by bru at 7:45 AM on December 2, 2007

I'm not looking for ways to stop being a consumer, however, just for ideas on how to function and live a comfortable lifestyle without using money as a middleman.

Here is your fundamental contradiction. Consumerism and money are not really separable. In a barter-only system, you would need to be a producer of something (goods or services) for which others would reward you. Stross' book (which by chance I read just the other day) is a fantasy, which works only by eliding the details.

The closest you would come to that in today's world, I think, are celebrities (perhaps like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton) who never handle their own money, and are given goods and services in exchange for their presence. If they stay at a hotel, either the transaction is handled by an employee, or the hotel gives them the room free because having a celebrity in the place will attract other people. I mean, if you had a restaurant, and Shakira came in followed by a bunch of photographers, would you not give her a free lunch in exchange for all of the advertising you would get?

And that's pretty much the situation with the main character in Stross' book, where people want to be around him because they believe that there will be material benefits to his presence. He's not really disconnected from money, he's just being portrayed as living a fantasy life in which he doesn't have to handle the stuff himself. Really, there are too many inefficiencies built into this -- to get that travel voucher, you would need to spend as much time negotiating and arranging "payment" as you would for a more useful (because it could be used for anything, not only travel) cash payment.

To get an idea of the inefficiencies involved, look at how celebrities like Mike Tyson and Michael Jackson have managed -- by never being in charge of their own money, and instead supporting large entourages of people who take care of all the material things -- to burn through incredibly large fortunes.

It's a great fantasy (and a terrible book), but not of very great relevance to living today. What you will find if you look closely at people who disconnect themselves by choice from the cash-driven market economy is that they also have to disconnect themselves from the consumer culture that is at the center of that market economy. So you have a choice: more consumption, or less money-centric transactions, but not both.
posted by Forktine at 7:46 AM on December 2, 2007

I see someone already mentioned Sterling.
posted by Max Power at 7:53 AM on December 2, 2007

I read Manfred as a person who was in a pretty unique situation: his intellectual property created so much wealth (for others) and goodwill (for him) that he wanted for nothing purchasable anymore.

A key point of Manfred's economic style was that he eschewed the billions of compensation that was rightfully his. That would definitely generate some awesome in-kind returns, but it's not really a viable scenario for those of us who don't routinely create billions of dollars worth of tenological innovations.

I didn't see a whole lot of other characters in that book in the same situation, until much much (MUCH) later. So even in Stross's extra-wired future, that lifestyle was still pretty rare.

But the idea was freakin' awesome. Loved the book. Stross is right up there with Asher, Banks and MacDonald for my money.
posted by Aquaman at 9:29 AM on December 2, 2007

A French artist called Matthieu Laurette lived the tale. His most famous conceptual work (Money-back Products, 1993-2001) concerns his method of shopping and being fully refunded based on the basic marketing system of the major food and commodities corporations.

He fed and cleaned himself for nothing by almost only ever buying products with "Satisfied or your money back" or "Money back on first purchase" offers. He gained fame in France and abroad at the time appearing on TV and media including in 1997 the French National evening news (Journal de 20h, France 2) and the frontpage of respected daily newspaper Le Monde with the headline 'Tomorrow we will eat for free' (Demain on mange gratis).

In 1999 the Daily Express in UK featured him in an article titled "The secret of free shopping" and in 2000 the Daily Record named him 'The Freebie King'. He presented his work at the 49th Venice Biennale.
posted by dov at 11:09 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

In a barter-only system, you would need to be a producer of something (goods or services) for which others would reward you.

Or you could be a noble, where your "service" is your bloodline.
posted by meehawl at 12:10 PM on December 2, 2007

You might be interested in Time Banking.
posted by miss tea at 1:38 PM on December 2, 2007

I haven't read Accelerando, but the bit you excerpt sounds quite implausible.

There's a certain kind of wannabe William Gibson* writer that operates on the notion that if they jumble together a wild enough melange of multicultural and high-tech references, they will sound sophisticated.

The paragraph you quote reeks of that style to me. Just because someone glibly throws around phrases like "Scottish sambapunk band" and "compact supercomputing clusters" and "e-tailor" doesn't mean they actually have a clue what they're talking about. (But they will be fetishized by the BoingBoing crew.)

*Gibson usually does his homework and puts more thought into his speculations than his many imitators do. And these days he writes more about the actual, if esoteric, present than the speculative future.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 2:19 PM on December 2, 2007

Artifice_Eternity, William Gibson would probably be among the first people to admit Charles Stross knows more about the technical aspects of what he writes about than Gibson does or is ever likely to, since Gibson's interested in the psychology and sociology of people more than in any of the infrastructural things that underlie people's reactions to their lives.

Hollow, in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars novels several lengthy passages describe the Martian underground gift economies, sometimes from the point of view of the economists who planned them and set them in motion. A bunch of the theoretical underpinnings are referenced, but I don't have the books here to summarize them.
posted by cgc373 at 3:19 PM on December 2, 2007

I'm going to go ahead and be the grumpy pro-capitalist here. There's a very good reason that economies moved from barter to a money based system. The fact is that it works better.

If I have 100 eggs, I can't go to the car repair shop and have my muffler replaced in exchange for the eggs unless the repair shop has a current need for eggs. Eggs are an inefficient means of exchange because I have to waste so much time finding someone who wants what I have.

In addition, eggs are a very poor measure of value. If I want to know what my car is worth, I go to the Blue Book or a similar reference and it will tell me what an average auto of my type with my mileage is worth in US Dollars. How do I convert values between eggs and horses and day old tortillas. The exchange rates would be unimaginably complicated.

Finally, these things are terrible stores of value. If I have eggs, I have to spend those pretty quick because they go bad and become worthless. Money lasts, essentially, forever so it's great for storing value for a later time.

In short, money is used for a reason. Barter sounds great and folksy in the abstract but is a huge hassle and inconvenience in practice.
posted by MasterShake at 3:56 PM on December 2, 2007

Maine has a timebank network. People do work, and earn credits used for other services in the network. Since I work fulltime, I don't participate, but friends have used it. Doesn't work for most big stuff, like rent, food, fuel. Works for massages, yard work, and other personal services.
posted by theora55 at 4:11 PM on December 2, 2007

Eggs are an inefficient means of exchange because I have to waste so much time finding someone who wants what I have.

MasterShake, I'm not disagreeing with you. What you say makes sense. And I also think it's interesting how cash becomes symbolic to people. If capitalism is evil, it's evil doesn't lie in little pieces of paper. It lies in the fact that some people have so many more things and opportunities than others. And that still happens when people barter.

But just to play devil's advocate, I wonder if an "egg" system would work better if it were coupled with modern technology. Computers could help us work out who has a need for eggs (or whatever). This is basically what Craigslist does, but it's still too manual. How about a system where I type in what I have, you type in what you need, and an automated process matches us up?
posted by grumblebee at 7:36 PM on December 2, 2007

Barter sounds great and folksy in the abstract but is a huge hassle and inconvenience in practice.

But it does exist, albeit as an ad hoc supplement. It's called 'using your contacts'. The question then becomes one of what binds the circle of trust that has a friend's brother give you a fair deal on a car repair in return for a buddy pass flight a few months later, and how easily it can be expanded, both across networks and into full payment. My guess is that technology can assist in a kind of social and cultural arbitrage: it'll tighten margins, but it'll still be about trading personal benefits and access on top of 'wholesale' transactions.
posted by holgate at 8:06 PM on December 2, 2007

Isn't Manfred Mancx Richard Stallman?

Stallman has devoted the bulk of his life’s energies to political and software activism.

Professing to care little for material wealth, he explains that he has "always lived cheaply… like a student, basically. And I like that, because it means that money is not telling me what to do."

posted by sushiwiththejury at 11:26 AM on December 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

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