community is the new gold

A week ago I gave a talk about my dissertation to a wonderfully supportive group of colleagues at the University of Virginia, and I launched what I’m now calling an open dissertation—a blog, at culturemodding.com, with updates on the project (the whole dissertation is called Culture Modding: How We Play With Our Food, Money, and Beds in the Twenty-First Century) and new segments as I write them.

I’ve just posted some thoughts on the currency section this afternoon, and I’m reposting them below in case you’d like to follow along as the project develops.

Most of the dissertation thoughts I post here and on the new blog will be drafty and rough, and comments are especially welcomed—

———————————-
It’s been an interesting few weeks in the American financial sector, what with the AIG bailout and the Freddie/Fannie takeover.

Last night on PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal, Moyers talked with economic critic and author Kevin Phillips about this thoughts on recent developments and his book Bad Money (watch a 26:09 clip here); a troubled Phillips stated we were “a few innings” into what he suggested may be a disastrous game Wall Street has begun, facing off against bubbles from the past few US administrations.

Phillips mentions the rising price of gold in this week’s markets, and that made me think of local currency, which is backed by a community. In the innings to come in American economic stability, I think community is the new gold.

Like the first part of this project (see the previous culturemodding.com entry about food), I’m concerned with a social object—here, currency. And I want to focus on the thing itself, the watermarked bills in your wallet that can be tendered in a specific geographic area.

Like online networks of food, we can consider local currency an alternative visible to those seeking it out and largely invisible to those who do not. We may also consider local currency a complement to national currency; it can be used instead of national within an area, making it an alternative, and it can be used in conjunction with (and traded back for) a national currency, making it complementary.

I started thinking about local currency a few years ago when I lived in Carrboro, North Carolina, an area with high levels of participation in local governance, farm-to-table cycles, and flow of capital. It is comparatively easy (compared to large suburbs and many major metros) to be chain-free in Carrboro—buying and consuming products from local stores instead of from big-box retailers. (I’m thinking especially of perishable products like food that need to be purchased almost daily.) There is an abundance of farms that participate in markets held in multiple locations three days of the week, and much of the produce is also sold at the Weaver Street Market, a co-op that accepts the local currency, which is called the PLENTY (Piedmont Local EcoNomy Tender).

Many local currencies in the US (here‘s the Wikipedia list) tie the currency to an hour of labor at the living wage rate for that community. The PLENTY does not, and was a good way for me to experience how local currency works in daily transactional use when I lived in Carrboro.

It was a few years ago, and I remember being in line at Weaver Street buying North Carolina catfish (caught in the Outer Banks), garlic from Peregrine Farm, some local lettuces. In my wallet, there were a few half-PLENTYs (worth $5–I find it interesting that there is the notion of a whole with PLENTYs) and a $20 bill. The PLENTYs wouldn’t be accepted at the chain grocery store across the parking lot, but then again, neither would the $20 dollar bill, if I used the automated checkout lanes—the computers operating the automated checkout lanes weren’t programmed to accept the new $20 bill when the bill was first released.

The interaction with the cashier at Weaver Street Market was sometimes markedly different using the two currencies. When I used the local currency, it triggered sort of a half-smile from the cashier as she slid it under the tray where the regular currency was lined up. To use the currency, even as a part-time member of the community (before I moved to Virginia, I commuted back and forth on the weekends), indicated a deeper-than-casual knowledge and engagement with Carrboro community economics.

Significantly, though, I didn’t take it with me. When I moved permanently to Virginia, I kept one whole PLENTY, one half PLENTY, and one quarter PLENTY, mostly to prove that the currency actually existed. I still have these notes, and I felt twinges of guilt it in ways that I don’t feel for, say, the Hungarian currency leftover from a trip a few months back in an area of the world I don’t know when I’ll visit again.

Taking local currency out of its geographic region can hurt the currency, as you have then effectively removed it from circulation and it becomes an empty object—one of novelty and beauty, but not of utility.

On September 9, 2008, the Lewes Pound was launched, and the Web site now says that almost all 10,000 “have been sold.”

The issue is that many have been taken out of circulation:

One of the reasons for this success is that the LPs are so admired and inspiring that everyone has wanted to get their hands on them, and not just in Lewes. That’s great, but for this initiative to succeed and benefit our community, people need to spend their Lewes Pounds, not frame them!

So, as a a member of this community, the best thing you can do to support this initiative is to spend, spend, spend your Lewes Pounds as soon as possible! This is getting easier every day. As of today we have over 85 traders on board, as well as the Lewes Farmer’s Market.

I’m curious as to how the consumption of this currency will play out in Lewes proper and online, whether we’ll see the currency so widely supported (geographically) as to devalue it—for, like with food in online networks, the sustaining mechanism of the community is in trading the social object imbued with the resonances of community interaction.

Do you agree that local currency needs parameters to be viable as a complementary currency? Other thoughts?

Related posts:

  1. a few good community leaders
  2. better video of good community leaders
  3. victorious community gardens