Money has not always been central to how people get things done. It has its uses, it saves having to spend vast amounts of time in complicated barters to get everything moved round. However, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to live in a culture where it is possible not to be economically active. Most of our ancestors will have lived this way. Most of human culture in our long history is based on co-operation and gift economy, not money.
When money is just a way of getting stuff done, I don’t think it poses much of a problem. The difficulties arise from what it has become in addition to being a tool. That you can make money out of money, if you have enough of it to begin with. That we use it as a measure of worth in all kinds of distorting ways. The measure of a person’s worth should not be about how much money they have. We measure costs in ways that don’t include environmental costs. We have a hard time valuing anything we can’t put a price tag on. What is given away is often devalued. We measure wealth in terms of what we can hoard, not in terms of what we can give away.
So many of our relationships are underpinned by an economic exchange. How much of what we need are we buying? How many of our emotional needs are we trying to meet by paying for them? What would it mean to take the price tag off things, to give more, and not to feel obliged to make money out of what we do?
The things that most enrich my life are not economically orientated. Time crashed out with my husband and cat. Time spent making things I do not sell. Time with people I like – and yet even there, the money plays a part. I can’t afford a large home, there isn’t much room for guests, so I often have to meet people elsewhere, in spaces that require economic participation. On a cold day, there are not many spaces in which I can spend time with someone without paying for it. Our social spaces themselves are constructed around shopping areas – we don’t have many social spaces where you don’t have to pay to participate.
I was struck recently when visiting the coast by the implications of a town having a beach. Here is, at least some of the time, a big, free of charge public space where people can meet, play, run around, interact. Most towns don’t have anything like that kind of free and communal space.
Where can you go, without money? What can you do, without paying for it? Who can you spend time with? And what would it mean to live in a way where paying for things is not the primary mechanism for getting stuff done? What if participation became more important than paying? What if we had non-commercial public spaces where people could spend time together at no cost? What if we weren’t under pressure to make what we do pay? I don’t think these are unrealistic ideas. We’ve constructed a way of doing things based on a set of assumptions, but those assumptions don’t serve most of us very well.