Volatility

August 6, 2011

Time Banking and the Concept of Debt

Filed under: Nietzsche, Relocalization, Time Banking and Co-Production — Tags: — Russ @ 1:36 am

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Time banking’s concept of debt emphasizes mutual exchange within a network. (Although I haven’t seen it written explicitly this way, an implication is that a time bank member, given finite time to give to others, should make fellow network members the top priority, especially if one’s account is “in the red”.)
 
It also emphasizes “indebtedness” (within the network, and within community relations in general) not as something to be viewed as a chore or drain, but as an opportunity and spur to one’s own giving.
 
Some people who are naturally prone to volunteerism and see themselves as givers are uneasy or even hostile to the formalized mutuality of a time bank. But the way they should look at it is that within a time bank network, their giving could help provide others with the opportunity to give. If you help to build up that network by being a member and regularly transacting within it, you help provide those opportunities for people whose normal experience may be more passive, who may want to give more but don’t see how to do so given the resources they have available, who may even be reluctant to accept help they need on account of this sense of being unable to reciprocate.
 
A time bank and the “debt” system it creates isn’t the final form of a cooperative society, but it can be a transitional form, for purposes of education, providing a temporary structural framework, and perhaps even as a politico-economic nucleus like I described in this post.
 
I used the term debt in this comment, but that term’s not frequently used in time bank literature, because the emphasis is always on actions of giving. A debt is just an opportunity to give. Obviously that’s not the nature of system debts, class war debts, the ones we’re most familiar with in a criminal system. Since co-production implies a kind of social contract, it follows that according to co-production principles the government and corporations of this system are illegitimate, and no one can actually owe debts to them. (That’s another implication the literature doesn’t make explicit so far as I’ve read. Well, it does now.)
 
Since history’s record proves that this illegitimacy is the normal state of power structures, we can induce a general debt principle: Debt can be meaningful and valid only among peers. All other contracts are by definition unconscionable contracts of adhesion. (That’s another anarchist idea which is implicit in Nietzsche, given his frequent contrast of peer relationships with relationships that involve some power differential. But he didn’t phrase it that way either.) 
 
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9 Comments

  1. By coincidence, an exchange at Naked Capitalism this morning which is relevant to this.

    http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/08/will-sp-downgrade-be-another-y2k-scare.html#comment-440114

    In my reply I forgot to add that I also reject the “modern commercial construct”, which would make my argument even stronger.

    Yves Smith says:
    August 6, 2011 at 6:56 am
    It never said the state was the wealth creator. It said the state sets the rules that makes markets. work. No state, no modern commercial construct. The relationship is symbiotic.

    You do need a state. You can’t enforce contracts with no oversight apparatus.

    attempter says:

    August 6, 2011 at 11:31 am
    You can’t enforce contracts with no oversight apparatus.

    Perhaps. But where did you get the idea that such “contracts” are necessary or valid at all? At any rate, that’s part of what I’m disputing.

    And there are certainly ways communities can enforce agreements without the State (or its corporate doppelganger).

    But nothing can be done for humanity so long as power differentials exist. Obliterating those is a prerequisite. No valid contract could ever obtain where significant power differences exist (only unconscionable contracts of adhesion can exist there). Since by definition the State amasses great power, the concept of the State legitimately enforcing legitimate contracts is a contradiction in terms.

    Comment by Russ — August 6, 2011 @ 11:41 am

    • Yves is correct in asserting that markets require states- this is a point in Graeber’s book, that markets arise as a consequence of state spending (usually in order to provision militaries), and the notion of markets existing a priori to states (often invoked by economists) is nonsensical- non-state societies don’t have market exchanges, nor do they need them to distribute material goods. Since markets exist in order to support state activity, arguing that a state is necessary because without it we wouldn’t have markets is circular and provides no support for the notion that states are necessary.

      Comment by paper mac — August 6, 2011 @ 5:42 pm

      • Yes, that kind of circularity is characteristic of pro-state and pro-capitalist arguments. (There’s lots of contexts where you can flummox someone by challenging him to name anything necessary or constructive about some parasitic profession, with the obvious proviso that nothing counts which is simply maintaining the capitalist and/or state system itself, since that’s circular.)

        In theory there’s such a thing as “market anarchism”. (Not the same thing as the scam “free-market anarchism” or “anarcho-capitalism”, though those criminals do all they can to befog the terms and concepts.) That it could work in practice (as the end goal) never looked plausible to me, though I’ve granted that something like that could be one of the transitional forms between capitalism and economic democracy.

        Comment by Russ — August 6, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

      • I’ve just finished Graeber’s book, and actually the state-market connection is a little less categorical than what I stated above. It seems like market exchanges arose as a consequence of state activity and generally only existed in relation to a state (either to support it or in opposition to it, like the markets of the Islamic medieval period which were regulated by merchants under the aegis of religious authorities, in opposition to the caliphate state). Where markets exist after a state collapses (eg feudal Europe), they tend to operate mostly on credit and shade into relations of mutual aid, taking on a social-trust basis for contract “enforcement” rather than an explicit system of penalties. This further reinforces the notion that the requirement for a state is nonsensical, given that Graeber documents numerous functioning markets that operated successfully on the basis of social trust. In any case, the book is really good, although not prescriptive at all, and I’m not sure that I have any better ideas about what a genuinely democratic economy ought to look like than I did before. I think it’s pretty clear that abandoning the notion of self-interested actors and the reestablishment of social trust will underlay whatever form it eventually takes, though.

        Comment by paper mac — August 8, 2011 @ 3:06 am

      • Where markets exist after a state collapses (eg feudal Europe), they tend to operate mostly on credit and shade into relations of mutual aid, taking on a social-trust basis for contract “enforcement” rather than an explicit system of penalties. This further reinforces the notion that the requirement for a state is nonsensical, given that Graeber documents numerous functioning markets that operated successfully on the basis of social trust.

        That sounds like one of the two parts which would interest me most, the other being how this social trust is developed in the first place. That’s why I’m so interested in working out some ideas on co-production and time banking. This looks like a possible framework for building completely new relations. I think it’s theoretically possible, at any rate, although the execution will have to be very well done.

        In any case, the book is really good, although not prescriptive at all, and I’m not sure
        that I have any better ideas about what a genuinely democratic economy ought to look like than I did before.

        If one doesn’t know, then it’s better to offer no prescription than a bad one (“reformist” at best, no doubt) simply because one feels some need to do so. (Homer Simpson: “Better say something. Otherwise they’ll think you’re stupid!”) I was thinking that yesterday at NC reading yet another piece which correctly diagosed kleptocracy but then prescribed reformist crap.

        Comment by Russ — August 8, 2011 @ 6:36 am

  2. That sounds like one of the two parts which would interest me most, the other being how this social trust is developed in the first place. That’s why I’m so interested in working out some ideas on co-production and time banking. This looks like a possible framework for building completely new relations. I think it’s theoretically possible, at any rate, although the execution will have to be very well done.

    I need to think about this more, and possibly re-read the relevant sections of the book. One interesting thing that Graeber points out is that maintaining ongoing “debts” serves as a social cohesion mechanism in many societies, and that to exactly extinguish a debt (for instance, by returning exactly the amount of flour you borrowed from a neighbour) is to indicate you are breaking off that social relationship. This seems to be true to an extent in many societies described as gift economies, as well, that is, that there’s a certain level of accounting for gifts and so on- in many gift economies, the ideal is to receive a gift, wait a certain amount of time, and then gift the giver with something that is in the same (socially-determined) “class” of item, but very slightly more magnificent, in order to maintain the “debt”. Graeber notes that hard currency exchanges operate by a totally different principle, where the transaction creates and extinguishes debt simultaneously. There seem to be a lot of shades of grey between various mutual aid, gift economy, credit economy, and “human economy” (currencies are used, but only to rearrange social relationships like in wedding gifts, payments for injury, etc) arrangements.

    If one doesn’t know, then it’s better to offer no prescription than a bad one (“reformist” at best, no doubt) simply because one feels some need to do so.

    I agree with this, I think I was maybe a little thrown by the fact that Graeber repeatedly demonstrates pretty convincingly that various common debt and currency institutions are pretty tightly associated with the worst of human experience, and then leaves us with a kind of “well, I don’t know what’s next, but a jubilee is a good place to start”. I agree with that too. At the same time, if we see that debt and slavery seem to be inextricably intertwined, and lead to patriarchical backlash, or that the system we have is the product of 5000 years of unbelievably destructive violence, or that hard currencies are inevitably war currencies, doesn’t that tell us something about the logic of debt and exchange in general? My feeling from reading the book was that Graeber is deeply ambivalent about a lot of these processes, as is maybe to be expected. For instance, he notes that his Axial Age, starting ~500 BC with the conversion from credit systems to bullion-driven imperial expansion and war, was associated with the rise of almost every significant school of human philosophy and thought from China to Greece, at least in part in reaction to the sudden development of hard currency. Likewise he seems to feel that the Islamic middle ages and European middle ages had a relatively humane implementation of the credit system, underpinned by social trust, which nonetheless required massive patriarchal, hierarchical religious structures to regulate it. My sense was that the minimisation of credit, debt, and exchange logic in our daily lives thus presents itself as a pretty explicit goal, but Graeber doesn’t explicitly go there (he mentions that capitalism has irrevocably altered our society, I don’t know if that means he thinks that these logics can’t ever be stripped out of the way we organise ourselves). I guess I feel like Graeber’s evidence militates for the refusal, wherever possible, to quantitate or tally or to go outside the communistic logic of “from each according to their ability to each according to their need”. But practically speaking, I don’t know what that means, other than to continue to refuse to tally debts between my family and friends (and to try to expand that circle) and to carry on doing it with atomised society-at-large. I guess community currencies and T$ and the like can be a step-down from state-controlled currencies and so on, but I think at the same time I feel more ambivalent toward them after reading the book as well, falling as they do within the constellation of institutions which have proven so readily pevertable to evil. I think I need to look more closely at Graeber’s sources and do some more reading around the topic. It’s definitely got me thinking, anyway.

    Comment by paper mac — August 8, 2011 @ 2:46 pm

    • One interesting thing that Graeber points out is that maintaining ongoing “debts” serves as a social cohesion mechanism in many societies, and that to exactly extinguish a debt (for instance, by returning exactly the amount of flour you borrowed from a neighbour) is to indicate you are breaking off that social relationship. This seems to be true to an extent in many societies described as gift economies, as well, that is, that there’s a certain level of accounting for gifts and so on- in many gift economies, the ideal is to receive a gift, wait a certain amount of time, and then gift the giver with something that is in the same (socially-determined) “class” of item, but very slightly more magnificent, in order to maintain the “debt”.

      That’s similar to what Cahn claims is an advantage of time banking over normal volunteering – transactions are more likely to be perceived as parts of an ongoing relationship rather than one-off occasions.

      I mentioned that here.

      https://attempter.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/time-dollars-vs-command-dollars/

      Volunteering uses a resource and meets a need, and in the process bestows a psychological benefit on the giver. But it’s a one-way, and often one-off, transaction. T$, on the other hand, does what volunteering does but also empowers the recipient to be a giver himself, generating the same psychological benefit. The nimbus of the gift-giving spirit envelops everyone in the network and becomes the general mindset. Receiving becomes the derivative of giving. Receiving becomes just taking a rest from giving, which is one’s characteristic act. Action becomes the everyday human quality. Passivity ceases to exist at all. These are all the potential implications of the network based on mutual exchange of the gifts of work, with T$ as the mechanism of accounting for them…

      The time bank network also creates a sense of community and ongoing engagement among the givers. A transaction isn’t one-off, but a community act. Even if two people don’t conduct further transactions specifically between themselves, their transaction was still a piece of an ongoing evolution, the continuation of a history and a vector toward a future.

      (That’s why I think it’s not important if a member is consistently “indebted” to a minor extent. The important thing is being an active member, giving and receiving, not whether one’s account is generally a few hours in the red or black. Some time banks are clumsy about wanting reds to be quickly made up.)

      Regarding the prescription, “a jubilee is a good place to start” sounds like a strong prescription to me (as long as the call is for bottom-up self-jubilation, not waiting around for better elites to jubilate for us), and very much in the forbidden zone from the POV of system discourse. As for the rest of it, I haven’t read the book so I can’t know, but maybe he wanted the reader to draw such conclusions on his own (that’s the way Socrates claimed to operate).

      As for the possible uses and abuses of co-production and time banking, I’m just starting out trying to work out my ideas there. But I do have the sense that there’s something there. Maybe even the movement action and movement culture Goodwyn emphasizes in The Populist Moment, to go alongside food relocalization and interact with it synergistically. Of course pretty much anything can be corrupted, and relocalization is already targeted for hijacking.

      https://attempter.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/trick-or-treat-walmart-and-local-sustainable-food/

      But we’ll certainly never accomplish anything if our main concern is fear of what the enemy may do rather than focusing on what we’re doing and how to do it right. Let’s leave the fear to the “progressives”.

      That book sounds good. I’ll have to get it.

      Comment by Russ — August 8, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

      • Regarding the prescription, “a jubilee is a good place to start” sounds like a strong prescription to me (as long as the call is for bottom-up self-jubilation, not waiting around for better elites to jubilate for us), and very much in the forbidden zone from the POV of system discourse.

        I assume that Graeber is referring to a bottom-up jubilee here, as I sincerely doubt he’s much interested in better elites.

        As for the rest of it, I haven’t read the book so I can’t know, but maybe he wanted the reader to draw such conclusions on his own (that’s the way Socrates claimed to operate).

        It probably speaks to Graeber’s skill as a writer, and his ability to sustain a high level of interest in his presentation, that I felt slightly miffed that he didn’t address my specific concerns, LOL.

        But we’ll certainly never accomplish anything if our main concern is fear of what the enemy may do rather than focusing on what we’re doing and how to do it right. Let’s leave the fear to the “progressives”.

        You’re right about that. I definitely think that your approach to timebanking is the most consistent with our overall goals. I think I have some personal difficulty with envisioning organisational solutions to our problems in part because I’m not really embedded in a cohort of people with similar goals. So although I’m really interested in the nitty gritty of how organisations work, I think I have a latent suspicion of formal organisational structures from my adventures in bureaucracy. I think my feeling is that the affinity-group model is a good approach to organisations, and it sounds like you’ve got a bit of an affinity group going with your relocalisation group. I think when I describe plans for a local food production venture, what I’m really talking about is a way to provide the means to collect people in what I consider my affinity group (who are scattered across space and in a variety of professions, and mostly without the time or money to pursue such a thing) into a place and time where we can freely pursue shared goals. I guess that kind of thing fits most closely with Graeber’s “communistic exchange”, but is perhaps of limited value for organising a broader community, as compared to something like a time bank. Well, it’s hard to say just yet. But I look forward to seeing the results from your venture, as I think they’ll be illuminating for us all.

        Comment by paper mac — August 8, 2011 @ 11:20 pm

      • I think when I describe plans for a local food production venture, what I’m really talking about is a way to provide the means to collect people in what I consider my affinity group (who are scattered across space and in a variety of professions, and mostly without the time or money to pursue such a thing) into a place
        and time where we can freely pursue shared goals.

        I’m not clear on that. Do you mean you want to find a way to bring people together geographically, or do you mean you want to use the internet as this place and time, to help these widely dispersed people engage in real life organizing wherever they are (#6 in the movement strategy I described)?

        I guess that kind of thing fits most closely with Graeber’s “communistic exchange”, but is perhaps of limited value for organising a broader community, as compared to something like a time bank. Well, it’s hard to say just yet. But I look forward to seeing the results from your venture, as I think they’ll be illuminating for us all.

        I don’t know exactly what Graeber’s term means, but this reminds me of how Transition Towns thinks time banking is good for emphasizing the broader but more superficial “bridging capital”, which is more important for community-building in general than the deeper but more insular “bonding capital”.

        Although from my writings here it’s pretty clear that I think it can be used to build both.

        Like I mentioned in a post or comment, I think both time banking and food relocalization are key movement activities which can operate in tandem and better yet in synergy. My TT book on alternatives to money includes some blurbs about time banks (in Britain and NZ) which especially emphasize food relocalization. My goal for our time bank, if and when we have a membership with enough food-related skills and interest, is to give it that focus. (For now it has no particular focus. We’re still just getting it started. The membership is slowly climbing, almost up to 40 now. So far almost all the transactions have been among just a few people, though. It seems that most time banks start out that way.)

        Comment by Russ — August 9, 2011 @ 1:25 am


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