No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.
No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.
Some entrepreneurs are already taking the principles of swapping—use everything and anything you already have to survive—to create another offshoot system, one that turns a hefty profit. Called the sharing economy, it is perhaps best exemplified by Airbnb, a service that enables people to rent out their apartments like hotels. Other sites let you turn your driveway into a parking space, your car into a taxi and your tools into a rental service. Forbes estimates revenue flowing through the U.S. sharing economy will hit $3.5 billion by the end of 2013, and maybe more. It’s worth mentioning that some business associations and government members are terrified of this rise: like most alternative economies, it’s largely tax-free.
This sort of scenario was so undesirable that societies must have created money to facilitate trade, argues Smith. Aristotle had similar ideas, and they’re by now a fixture in just about every introductory economics textbook. “In simple, early economies, people engaged in barter,” reads one. (“The American Indian with a pony to dispose of had to wait until he met another Indian who wanted a pony and at the same time was able and willing to give for it a blanket or other commodity that he himself desired,” read an earlier one.)

Trade did occur in non-monetary societies, but not among fellow villagers. Instead, it was used almost exclusively with strangers, or even enemies, where it was often accompanied by complex rituals involving trade, dance, feasting, mock fighting, or sex—and sometimes all of them intertwined. Take the indigenous Gunwinggu people of Australia, as observed by the anthropologist Ronald Berndt in the 1940s:

It’s hard to answer that without actually seeing a modern gift economy in action. Luckily, modern gift economies actually do exist. On a small scale, they exist among friends, who might lend each other a vacuum or a cup of flour. There’s even an example of a gift economy on a much larger scale, albeit one that’s not always in operation: The Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival in which about 10,000 people gather for a month in the woods (it rotates among various national forests around the country each year) and agree not to bring any money. Groups of attendees set up “kitchens,” in which they prepare and serve food for thousands of people every day, all for free. Classical economists might guess that people would take advantage of such a system, but, sure enough, everyone is fed, and the people who don’t cook play music, set up trails, teach classes, gather firewood, and perform in plays, among other things.
Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.

Simmons learned how to ask after one Barter Babe, a veteran barterer, told her she needed to post a wish list. Following the advice, she eventually got not just one bike but two (one for her and one for Matt), a TTC pass, yoga lessons, a haircut and food she wanted to eat, among hundreds of other things. Simmons made exceptions for some unique trades, too, such as both circus performance training and butter churning lessons, the latter of which she now barters as a skill to others. She even worked up the nerve to approach local businesses in person, armed with a business case for barter. One café near her apartment traded a month’s worth of morning coffee for a financial session; a boutique hotel, Hotel Ocho at Queen and Spadina, took a financial seminar luncheon for its employees in return for an overnight stay for Simmons’s parents, who were celebrating their 35th anniversary. 

Nowinska says one of the biggest challenges Swapsity faces is that new barterers think they have nothing to offer. So they offer bad trades. Yet most people have hundreds of skills—from cooking to networking to scrapbooking. The trick is learning to recognize the value of your skills, your knowledge and your talent. Bartering attaches value to things that are not always recognized, or highly valued, in a cash economy—often hobbies that people can’t make a living on but love to do. One Barter Babe trades her homemade canned goods for gifts—mostly other crafted items—she can give away at Christmas. A Swapsity member has traded pounds of fiddleheads she picks at her mom’s house in the country for feng shui sessions.
It helped that she had something other people wanted. “If I had gone in and offered to bake a pie for a free night at their hotel,’ they’d probably have said ‘no.’ ” One Barter Babe, Carly Boyce, knitted Simmons an exact replica of a favourite hat Simmons had lost but luckily had a picture of herself wearing. When it came time for the trade, Boyce remembers feeling guilty because the hat was so easy for her to make, and she told Simmons so. Simmons laughed: it was incredibly easy, she told Boyce, for her to give financial advice. It was a funny conversation, Boyce says, but also one that gets at the essence of bartering: when money is taken out of the equation, value is a moving, customizable concept—and that’s just the way most barterers like it. 

While Swapsity trades are facilitated online, its participants can be seen in real life at themed in-person swap meets as well as the annual Live Green Toronto Festival. Over the past three years, more than 25,000 items—primarily clothes, books, CDs and DVDs—have been swapped at its events, collectively saving people roughly $200,000. About 5,000 items have been donated to charity. On average, each participant saves $80 at every swap (the value of items they go home with and would have otherwise bought). This year’s Live Green event was packed despite the grey July weather: until it started to rain heavily in the late afternoon, lineups to get into the six swapping tents spanned the full length of the waiting area, then folded in on themselves like accordions. Even in the rain, the leaking tents bustled.
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