Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. This is an old adage that the Greek people would do well to remember when dealing with the seemingly overwhelming problem of their country’s battle with their creditors. You don’t have to construct a perfect answer to these problems overnight; when new ideas are tested, new social structures and economic networks will grow around them.
But before we get carried away, let’s make one thing clear: the current Greek/euro mess is not the doing of the Greek people but of “their” government [sic]. It’s a mess that was created by criminal politicians with the help of their criminal banking friends in Goldman Sachs (the same criminals, by the way, who are making the crisis even worse today). And yet somehow it’s the people who are going to be asked to foot the bill for the sins of their “leaders” (as usual).
So let’s skip the usual chatter about the he said/she said back and forth “negotiations” over the Greek obligations to the Troika (or whatever they’re calling themselves these days) and cut to the chase: if it’s the Greek people who are going to be obligated to pay for this mess, then why not disengage themselves from it altogether?
Does this sound too far outside the box? Pie in the sky? Wishful thinking? Well you better hang onto your hat because it’s already happening.
Entire academic treatises could be written on the ways that the ongoing Greek euro crisis has transformed civil society in Greece (and they have been), but long story short it’s difficult to think of a major area of the economy that has not been supplemented by volunteer networks, community organizations, complementary currencies and other resourceful answers to the question of how the people can take care of themselves in the absence of a solvent government.
One example that is very simple to understand is that of the TEM network created in Volos as Greece began to plunge into the depths of their euro crisis. The people of Volos had a problem: they still had services to offer and products to sell, and they still wanted to buy products and services from each other, but they didn’t have the actual euros to do so.
But why should a lack of some arbitrary exchange unit stop people from engaging in mutually beneficial transactions? The answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t, and so the people of Volos, a sleepy industrial port city in the region of Thessaly, began their own exchange network, the TEM (a Greek acronym for Local Exchange Unit).
An article on the TEM by Public Radio International that reads like a journal entry by an anthropologist from Mars suddenly dropped onto Earth describes TEM this way:
Let’s say someone offers a haircut. The network determines that’s worth 10 credits. (To make it easier to set prices, one TEM is valued at one euro.) The haircutter can then spend those credits on products at the market, or on services offered by someone else. “To be clear, there is no real ‘currency’ that changes hands – no scrip. Instead, credits are tracked, goods and services are listed, offered and accepted, through an open-source computer program designed for this kind of ‘community banking.’”
The entire concept is a lot easier to understand than the article makes it sound, but it’s telling in and of itself that the writer feels the need to dumb the idea down to that level. In short, TEM is just a form of mutual credit. It allows people to offer units of their service (whatever that may be) in exchange for credit that can be used to purchase services from others. The basic idea has been around for decades and it has been implemented in different forms all around the world.
Although usually intended as a supplement to the mainstream economy for facilitating local trade, in Volos during the Greek crisis it quickly became something different. From 50 members at the onset of the crisis in 2010 to 400 in 2011 and 800 in 2012, members were relying less on the network for haircuts and shoe shines and more for staple items like fruit and vegetables. The only complaint from the network’s euro-poor participants? That the network wasn’t bigger so they could source olive oil and meat in it.
Volos is by no means the only community to discover the utility of a supplementary trading system, not even in Greece. “Ovolos” is a financial cooperative in Patras that combines a local exchange currency with a time bank and a barter network. “Peliti” is a seed bank that started in 1995 as a way to collect, preserve and distribute seeds for free and has now grown into an NGO that hosts the world’s largest annual seed swap, drawing thousands of visitors a year from dozens of countries.
And Greece is not the only country that has turned to complementary currency systems in the face of hard economic times. In Argentina at the height of the currency crisis in 2001, as much as 20% of the economically active population was using a complementary currency.
In fact, there are thousands of such community currencies, barter exchanges, mutual credit systems, time banks and LETS systems currently in use all around the world, and not just in places in the midst of economic crisis. From Brazil to Kenya to London to the United States to every other corner of the globe, people are catching on to the benefits of being able to exchange directly with those around them.
Now let’s be clear what these systems are not. They are not “the” solution to the financial crisis in Greece or anywhere else. They will not make the macroeconomic problems disappear or make the government and central bank (and international creditors) that caused those problems suddenly go away. But they will (and do) allow for local economies to continue even when those larger systems fail. And they have the idea of community and trust woven into their very fabric. By participating in one of these complementary currency systems you are not just engaging in another nameless, faceless economic transaction, you are engaging with the community around you and forming the support network that will be crucial in the event of whatever collapse may be coming.
Having said that, complementary currencies, barter networks, mutual credit systems and the like are “a” solution, just one of many to be implemented along with all of the other methods of freeing ourselves from the current bankster-run debt-based funny money economy and building the type of community we want. They may seem like little acorns next to the big picture of bond crises and bank runs, but where else do mighty oaks grow from?
In the end, perhaps PRI put it best when they concluded their befuddled article on the TEM system by noting: “The only question, it seems, is if the TEM will be an alternative for the euro – or the drachma.” Either way, the only real solutions will come from the people, not their political “overlords.”
Grow, little acorns, grow!