August 2, 2011

Co-Production and Time Banking (Introduction)


I want to write a few brief posts describing and analyzing co-production, the transitional principle and practice which underlies time banking. I’ll do so in the form of loose reviews of No More Throw-Away People: The Co-Production Imperative, the manifesto of Edgar Cahn, pioneer of time banking. I’m doing this to help work out my own ideas about my relocalization group’s new time bank, and to explore the principle and practice in general.
Transition is a thorny issue among anarchists, open sourcers, and anyone else seeking a revolutionary transformation but facing the prospect of much of the change being long and gradual. It’s a basic principle that we try to live as anarchistically as possible within capitalism while making whatever compromises we must (as long as they’re not morally abhorrent). Thus, for example, at P2P they discuss the netarchy as a kind of modified Internet capitalism: semi-capitalist, semi-cooperative; not optimal, but a progressive step. Similarly, most anarchists agree that we should support such things as fights against workplace discrimination even though they aren’t seeking to overthrow “employment” as such. It’s still worth doing because the cause is intrinsically just, it doesn’t directly seek to uphold the employer (the way pro-capitalist unions do), and it provides an opportunity to spread the idea: “It’s not just this particular employer who discriminates, it’s systemic. The government certainly doesn’t care, unless you put enough pressure on it. So is this government really responsive and legitimate in the first place? And why stop at discrimination? What about the more fundamental issues of employers stealing your work in the first place?”
I give those examples in case anyone finds it odd that I, the arch-anti-reformist, am interested in what looks suspiciously like a reformist idea here. The answer is that there’s two kinds of reformist ideas – transitional reform and worthless reform. Reformism as a goal is always worthless, since the terminal kleptocracy cannot be reformed. But that doesn’t mean every idea is worthless, or that some can’t serve as transitional vehicles. The question for any concept, any tactic, is always: Does it head in the right direction, with the transformational grain, or is it against the grain? Examples of the latter are wanting to “reform” banks, corporations, representative government, the tax code in any way other than abolishing taxes on the non-rich, etc. Things like that are always worthless. The common characteristic of worthless reformism is that it wants to change the nature of elite structures and elicit better top-down behavior. This cannot work, is pointless, and unworthy of our dignity. But a reform which seeks to directly empower people, to muster and enhance bottom-up action, can be worthwhile on account of this democratic enhancement in itself.
The key is to understand that in the conflicts between citizens and elites, you’re never going to permanently change the elites and get good behavior out of them. To the extent this is the goal, reformists will always sell out the people. But where any attempt at an accommodation is grounded in maximizing the participation and action of the citizens themselves, and this focus is never lost, the participation goal is the main goal of the effort. In this case, the reformist effort is concurrently a transformational effort, albeit a gradual one. What we need to do is keep the program focused on this transformational aspect as much as possible, and look for opportunities to break free of the transitional reform aspect completely, turning the effort into an undiluted revolutionary effort.
Co-production, in its most basic definition, is the way a time bank is used to render the regular people who make up its membership equal “co-producers” with the top-down structures which set up the time bank – non-profits, funders, perhaps government. The idea is that an agency of “helping professionals” can better help its clientele and itself by making the clients, via the time bank, workers in themselves and for themselves. These newly-empowered people use the time bank as a way to organize actions of self-help and mutual help, and in this way build self-confidence, self-respect, break out of cycles of dependency. They can then deal with NGO and government agencies on a basis of equality and mutual help (since their productive actions can also be geared toward helping the agency help them, thus the term “co-production”). The result is supposed to be dialectically beneficial for all.
That’s the aspect of time banking which involves the interaction between individuals and system structures which are involved in social programs. The basic idea could be extended to interaction with other kinds of organizations, agencies, business, etc. It’s related to but not the same as the aspect where individuals interact, give service gifts and reciprocate directly among themselves. Strictly speaking, co-production is a joint top-down/bottom-up process. The crux is that even if you have an enthusiastic and committed membership, to maintain a time bank effectively does require at least some cash, if only to maintain the website. (In our case, the administrative work is all volunteer, but using the software costs several hundred dollars a year. There may exist open-source time bank software; our web coordinator looked into it. But apparently its still in the rudimentary stage, while the proprietary Community Weaver software is well-advanced, and version 2.0, which is supposed to be a major improvement, will be unveiled at the TimeBanks USA conference in Rhode Island this coming weekend. Our coordinator will be attending.) Therefore the idea is that someone who has capital needs to fund the time bank (unless it can fund itself with membership fees and/or donations), and in turn the time bank needs to collectively further the funder’s mission, and the work of its membership must enhance the operation. In particular, the goal is for the “client” to help the helper help him by helping himself.
I’m sorry if I’m describing this too vaguely for anyone unfamiliar with it, and I can see how from some points of view it sounds obvious or on the contrary dubious. In a sense it sounds like a convoluted way of describing obvious principles of anarchism while falling short of fully seeking them.
It’s true that Cahn himself, and probably most time bank activists, view this co-production paradigm as the end goal in itself. But there’s no necessary reason for viewing it this way. I view time banks and co-production as transitional toward full economic democracy. As we gradually break free of the system economy, time banking offers a vestigial form of accounting and formalized trust for people to hold onto as they increasingly renounce command money (my term for the currency imposed by the system, as part of its command economy; people contrast capitalism with “command economy” and don’t even notice that the dollar is imposed by top-down planning and coercion).
Even in reformist form, co-production and time banking espouse two radical principles:
1. That work and capitalization are equal. (So we must wipe from our minds any distinction between paid work and volunteerism, or between funders and workers.)
2. That all constructive work is equal, and should be measured as such. Any hour of productive work is equal to any other hour. That’s the way time banking works. One = one. (That’s also a key part of why it’s not been considered taxable – the reciprocal gifting of work has no relation whatsoever to the “market value” of the work.)
The first of these is a radical reform concept, the second is explicitly anarchist. The first offers the argument for a more just dispensation within capitalism, while the second is already departing from capitalism itself.
This leads to how, since co-production is transitional, it is also incomplete. The “co-” in co-production means that whereas in the past governments, social service agencies and NGOs primarily dispensed aid, service, direction from the top down to passive “clients”, we shall now work toward an equal balance between top-down dispensation and bottom-up self and mutual help through reciprocated work. The passive client becomes an active participant in the whole process. (This is how it would optimally work in theory. In practice there are various potential pitfalls and abuses.)
But this begs the question, if the people can help themselves, why should the system structures exist at all? If we the people can produce for ourselves, why would we need to co-produce with them? The answer is that we don’t need to co-produce, and that the ultimate goal isn’t this new balance, but that we redistribute the entire weight from the system to the people. In that case, the balance sought by co-production is just a milestone along the road to full economic democracy.
But I do think this milestone is a worthwhile transitional goal to achieve. It’s along the path of our self-liberation, fits into the overall democratic strategy, and helps further democratic principles.
This was just an introduction. Hopefully anything that’s vague here will become fleshed out in subsequent posts.


  1. If you are looking for a time banking platform that is free to use you could take a look at http://65hours.com – drop me an email if you have any questions aidan@65hours.com

    Comment by Aidan — August 2, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    • Thanks Aidan, we’ll check it out. (For now we’re already paid up with Community Weaver for a year.)

      I gather that your site is mostly about exchange of computer services which can be done over the Internet?

      Comment by Russ — August 2, 2011 @ 11:26 am

  2. Russ, apologies if this is the wrong way to communicate this question. I noticed your comment on NC the other day- asking why traditional banks are allowed to “counterfeit” (as opposed to institutions like the Mafia). Would you mind briefly elaborating? I posed the same question on another site based on my own assumptions of what you meant and got a white washed answer muddled in legal vs. illegal language (missing the point).

    Regards, Pete

    Comment by Pete — August 2, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

    • “Legal vs. illegal”, that’s cute.

      The bank money is counterfeit in two ways. At the political/philosophical/Constitutional level, money sovereignty is part of the people’s sovereignty as such. Legitimate money would be the people’s money, by definition. But this government has illegitimately* alienated the money creation power to the banks. The banks’ money issuance has no legitimacy, and no law can legitimize it. It’s counterfeit by definition.

      (*That the State itself isn’t legitimate is another issue. Part of the reason governments aren’t legit is because of the very effect we’re talking about here, how by their elitist nature they always seek to alienate public property to private criminals. So the idea of direct money creation by the government is a mismatch of problem and prescription, a kind of “contradiction in the adjective”. But for the purposes of this discussion we can just focus on what we have, bank money.)

      On a more everyday practical level, the government does nothing but use the bank money to profligately borrow and spend, strewing huge clots of corporate welfare cash everywhere. This spending is all illegitimate, and all the money created is created with this illegitimate intent. The elites themselves claim the deficit and debt are bad things, yet their only intent is to (figuratively) run the printing presses infinitely and forever for the sake of their own obscene greed. There’s no real economic basis for any of this printing. It’s all funny money.

      As for why some gangs are allowed to run printing presses and others aren’t, that’s simply a matter of who has enough money to buy the corrupt government. The government is inherently corrupt. But on whose behalf it exerts its corruption is decided by who pays the most. So the corruption is an ongoing auction.

      Comment by Russ — August 3, 2011 @ 3:38 am

  3. I have to admit that this post made me a little more suspicious of time banking, particularly the bit about the software. I’ve seen now a few academics who have apparently devoted their recent careers to generating publications from descriptions of time banking efforts, at least one organisation offering a certification program in time banking community building, and now a time banking database offered on a yearly subscription model. I think your reasoning is sound, and I think time banking has a lot of potential, but it seems that the rent extraction activities are already beginning. If the fundamental weakness of time banking is capital requirements, and Cahn et al. are serious about promoting its widespread adoption, doesn’t it make sense to use some of that grant money sloshing around to employ a few programmers to create open source time banking software? I think you’re right that becoming independent of the financial structure associated with the time banking/NGO complex is going to be an important medium-term goal.

    Comment by paper mac — August 2, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

    • So let’s split the idea from the software. I agree, there’s the potential for another NGO leech to bloat here. We ought to be able to do this with open source software. I sent our coordinator Aidan’s link above as an example of what’s at least a free site. There are some other free and/or open source possibilities out there.

      Community Weaver seems to be a reasonably well-designed system, and the new version slated to be unveiled this coming weekend is being touted as a big improvement. But you’re right, it would be a mistake to develop path dependency with it, if it’s going to remain behind this proprietary curtain. (If I were a corporatist, I’d already be scoffing, “If time banking works so well, why can’t it pay for most or all of the work involved in maintaining the website?”)

      The real answer is probably primarily that most of us are still to varying extents prisoners of the cash economy, and so those who set up the website also need a cash income. I don’t know how much of the price for CW membership can be justified that way, or whether it’s actually at a discount, or whether on the contrary there’s already rents creeping into it. One of these days I’ll ask our administrator for his opinion on that. He’s a tech professional, so he’d know better than I would.

      Well, you also know more about this than I do. We paid $250 for the yearly membership. Does that sound bloated? Tim (our administrator) says there’s plenty of support, and that the frequent conference calls are always worthwhile. Here’s the links again:



      Comment by Russ — August 3, 2011 @ 3:36 am

      • According to what I read P2P/Open Source itself has similar issues. Even where people are using only OP software, there’s still the issue of user (as opposed to programmer) control of the platform.

        (Not that wordpress is OS, but nevertheless you’ll recall my issues with user control here. And we see how all these political sites and forums claim in principle to be democratic communities, but the moment you cross them the propertarian claws come out, usually with lots of brainwashed sycophants cheering the Leaders on. So the issue is pandemic, and it’s not just money but control. Co-production has potential issues with that as well, which I’ll get into in later posts. As the original American political philosophy stressed, but we’ve practically forgotten, the citizen must always remain vigilant.)

        Comment by Russ — August 3, 2011 @ 4:56 am

      • I think my cynicism about NGOs is maybe compromising my judgement in this case. $250 really isn’t a lot (plasuibly recovered annually from membership donations), particularly if the support is good. I think I reflexively look for the rent extraction aspect in enterprises like this, expecting people to put ideology before practical operational concerns. I’m definitely not a fan of ideological purity tests, particularly where they compromise organisational effectiveness, so I think I should acknowledge that in this case my concerns are probably not warranted. When you folks have some more experience with the software, I’d be very interested in a review.

        Comment by paper mac — August 4, 2011 @ 1:12 am

      • I tend to be skeptical as well. For example, although to me the yearly fee didn’t sound exorbitant on its face, I did raise my eyebrows at the comparable cost for the three-day conference our administrator’s attending. I always think the cost of tickets to things like that is a rip-off. But it’s optional, and he thinks it’ll be worth it, mostly for the sake of meeting and taking to other time bank managers.

        As far as the cost, our plan is for the parent organization (we’re an “NGO” too 🙂 . but a small, obscure one.) to cover the cost the first year, and try to make the time bank self-sufficient through membership dues and donations from there on.

        Comment by Russ — August 4, 2011 @ 5:20 am

  4. […] capitalism as such. It’s part of the reason reformism can’t work.   But as I said in my previous post, we can reverse this special-case dynamic. Where possible, we can take reformism and render it […]

    Pingback by Time Dollars vs. Command Dollars « Volatility — August 3, 2011 @ 2:57 am

  5. Hi,

    You address in your piece an issue which is main for me as well – How to take time banking forward in a progressive way which is aimed at promoting cultural change in our society. I myself have found the concept of Solidarity economy building, Commons as also Degrowth good guiding thoughts when reflecting on how we can use this tool.

    I am a co-founder of Stadin aikapankki (Helsinki Timebank) in Finland, and we and several other timebanks in Finland operate in the community exchange services platform, http://www.ces.org.za. Do check it out! Its a great project. No euro’s or dollars involved. We have a levy on all transactions done, and with this we make a monthly contribution to the CES team (in our currency called “Tovi” or “a moment” in Finnish), and in the same manner we also compensate members who are doing work to further the development of Helsinki Timebank.



    Comment by Ruby van der Wekken — August 17, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

    • Thanks Ruby, the CES site looks interesting. I’ll look into it further.

      Comment by Russ — August 18, 2011 @ 9:47 am

  6. […] few examples of worthless and malignant system reformism.   By contrast, I’ve argued that time banking, while technically reformist, is on a vector toward full economic democracy. That’s because it’s explicitly subversive of “the market” and the money […]

    Pingback by Notes on Strategy and Tactics (1 of 2) « Volatility — March 1, 2012 @ 11:15 am

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