Bringing the Economy home from the Market

Date: Fri, 10 Feb 1995 19:31:35 -0700
From: (Peter Fitzgerald-Moore)
To: Multiple recipients of list
Subject: FW Book on LETS

Keith Hudson, in his post of Feb.10th, referred to LETSystems. I thought it might be of interest to post the following review of Ross V.G.Dobson's "Bringing the Economy Home from the Market." Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1993. 235 pp. This is a much abbreviated version of a review published in "Together", a now discontinued magazine of very limited circulation. The book consists of three distinct parts. Part I is a theoretical introduction; Part II is a historical narrative of the efforts to introduce a local barter system into the Winnipeg region, and Appendix I is a 47-page collection of poster-like illustrations explaining in great detail every aspect of "Building Community with Barter Credit". There is a good bibliography and a first class index. Dobson has a strong political message, which is to show how a certain type of barter, based on a Local Employment and Trading System (LETS) could facilitate the creation of true community. He concludes that a community will only be healthy and sustainable if local production is fostered and used to substitute for imports, as Jane Jacobs has described in The Economy of Cities. Only thus can value be retained in the community rather than being exported and taken out of local circulation.

I presume that most readers will be familiar with Michael Linton's LETSystem which he pioneered in Courtenay B.C. LETSystems now operate in many parts of the world. Some are listed in Appendix III of the present volume; reference to many others can be found in the Magazine of the New Economics Foundation, London UK or in an electronic bulletin board devoted to the subject on the WEB network.

Dobson believes that our economic system, facilitated by money, destroys community. Local Economic Development, with its ties to the money system and the market economy, cannot create a true community. Community Economic Development has to sever its ties with the money system. The community envisaged by Dobson is idealistic and is based on a different ethic to that of competition and the market -- an ethic of giving, of trust and of cooperation. Dobson bravely admits its utopian character but is convinced that such a community is now possible. The values proposed are not new, they are the values of the home -- the true oikonomia --in contrast to the chrematistics of the marketplace (the debt to Herman Daly and John Cobb's For the Common Good is acknowledged). They are the values of the ordinary material life of most people in history, or at least of an idealized version of such a life. After an initial disastrous experience with a LETSystem in Winnipeg, Dobson turned to a study of pre- and early industrial history through the work of Fernand Braudel to find a theoretical underpinning for his views on money. He concludes that, in the context of community, money -- or at least money as a commodityis --the root of all evil. A very large part of the book is taken up with the question of money, All semblance of a tie between the money system and LETS trading must be avoided. The Community Circle in Winnipeg have adopted the term "Barter Credit" for the record of a transaction. These transactions are gifts, the Barter Credit comes into being only after the gift has been made. The obligation thus recorded is not to the trading partner but to the community. In this description we can begin to see the revolution in ethics required by the new system.

In the second part of the book, interspersed with some theoretical discussion which has been summarized above, Dobson describes the restart of the LETSystem under the auspices of an organization called the Community Circle and its renaming as a Barter Credit Network. The Circle had about 50 members a year after inauguration and four years later (1992) the membership had risen to about 200.

For those planning to set up a LETSystem, some of the most interesting parts of the book will be Dobson's discussion of specific problems such as the incorporation of regular businesses into the system (which could be achieved only through a compromise in principle); the question of security and guarantees which causes Dobson much anguish; and the possible application of sanctions against those that abuse the system. Dobson also addresses, but does not resolve to my satisfaction at least, the problem of establishing values in trading when divorced from the money system. As Robert Bellah and his colleagues observe, in "The Good Society," "...if we had to barter for everything, we would never know what anything was worth and we would spend our whole lives bargaining." When all is said and done, it has to be admitted that separation from the money system can never be total "...for it alone will provide much of what we want, and even some of what we need for a long time -- perhaps forever."

Peter Fitzgerald-Moore Faculty of General Studies
(Science Technology And Society) U. Calgary T2N 1N4 Canada (403)244 2841/220 7775