Collaborative credit: introduction

“It only requires that we each take control of our own credit and give it to those individuals and businesses that merit it and withhold it from those that do not.” – Thomas Greco

What is collaborative credit?

Collaborative credit is a way to trade / exchange products and services with each other, without official currency. It’s an old idea that, in the age of the internet, could scale up to strengthen local communities and eventually challenge the banking system. It’s collaborative because it’s something we do together – you can’t give credit to yourself; and what’s credit if it’s not collaborative? It’s just a lending institution trying to make money out of you. But collaboratively, it’s just about exchange.

Here’s a basic explanation. Imagine a barter. A plumber (say) fixes an IT specialist’s leaking tap, and the IT specialist fixes the plumber’s laptop. They decide that these jobs have the same value, and so no money changes hands. Then, imagine that the plumber doesn’t have a broken laptop, but would like some fresh vegetables. A market gardener lives nearby, and she has a broken laptop. She gives vegetables to the plumber, the plumber fixes the IT person’s tap, and the IT person fixes the market gardener’s laptop. Everyone is satisfied and again, no money is required.

sardex

A street ad for the Sardex collaborative credit system in Sardinia.

Now imagine a local community with hundreds of local people, all offering products and services, but not for money. Everyone has an account – if they provide something for someone else, they go into credit, and if someone provides something for them, they go into debit. There are limits to how far anyone can go into debit or credit (you wouldn’t want people just taking but not giving, or just giving, but not providing work for anyone else; however, limits may vary between businesses and individuals, depending on how much they are trusted and how much trade they put through the system). Limits (and all other rules within each system) are decided collaboratively. This is important, because the risk / benefit of someone leaving the system owing / owed is shouldered by everyone through inflation / deflation, unless they agree otherwise. Otherwise we have the current finance system where banks make all the profits and the taxpayer shoulders all the risk.

Now, plumbing work might ‘cost’ a lot more (in terms of credit) than, say, six eggs, so people offering products or services put a ‘price’ to those services, in credits. An hour’s plumbing work might be twenty credits, and six eggs might be one credit. It’s a ‘free market’, in that people are free to set their own prices, and customers are free to accept or reject those prices. If enough people reject a price, it will have to be reduced, and if too many people are chasing someone’s products or services, prices will go up naturally.

repair

Household appliances tend to be replaced when broken, rather than fixed, due to the difficulty and cost involved in getting them repaired compared to buying a new one. Collaborative credit can make repairing things worthwhile again, even as a sideline for handy people with sheds.

There are two main ways to do collaborative credit – with a ledger (i.e. everyone has an account), or with tokens (but not tokens that are bought with official currency) that make it impossible to go too far into debit.

There are similarities between collaborative credit and local currencies. The main difference is that the former involves membership schemes, but local currencies don’t. However, there’s a big difference between local currencies that are bought with official currency and vouchers issued to members for free, as IOUs. Local currencies bought with official currency have many benefits, but can’t be considered collaborative credit.

This medieval tale shows how self-issued credit works in a local community. Each trader’s credit has the traders’ name on it, and the risk is theirs alone. In collaborative credit, the risks are mutually held, which means that collaborative credit schemes require governance. Unlike medieval market traders, we now have the advantage of the internet to organise it!

Existing schemes

Here are ways that collaborative credit already works, in order of increasing formality.

Families and friends: people do things for each other because they want to; they might keep mental tallies, or sometimes exchange verbal or written IOUs.

LETS: LETS started in Canada in the 1980s. Most collaborative credit schemes are formed where the economy is depressed – plenty of local resources, skilled people and demand for goods and services, but with one thing missing – money – which LETS doesn’t need. It was successful, and soon spread to the rest of the world.

Timebanks: timebanks are similar to LETS, but credit is based on hours worked. It’s easier to express services in hours than products, but timebanks don’t reward people more for more challenging or skilled work.

barter

There was never a society in which the main means of exchange was barter, and money didn’t evolve from barter, but from mutual exchange within communities, where the vast majority of exchanges took place. Barter was always marginal and between strangers.

Eco- / Bangla-pesa: William Ruddick set up a system called Eco-pesa (a printed voucher redeemable for one shilling) in slum areas of Kenya, from which developed Bangla-pesa – another voucher, but this time issued by the people themselves, not bought with shillings. Businesses, including new co-operative farms and stores, flourished. Ruddick was arrested for counterfeiting, but was released when they realised he wasn’t a forger. The idea has spread via Grassroots Economics to other parts of Kenya and to South Africa.

Sardex: Sardex is a business-to-business credit network on the island of Sardinia. It’s a type of commercial barter scheme (see below), run socially (i.e. for more than just profit), and restricted to small and medium-sized businesses on the island – that trade with each other via credit rather than cash.

WIR Bank: the WIR Bank started in Switzerland during the hyperinflation / depression between the wars. Its members are businesses that trade using mutual credit accounts, not money. It’s still around – its 2005 trades were the equivalent of 6.5 billion swiss francs (about £4-5 billion) – but with no money involved.

Commercial barter: in the 1960s and 70s, commercial barter (sometimes called commercial trade) exchanges developed that allow businesses to trade by offering credit to each other, avoiding interest on bank credit. Commercial exchange brokers make their money from fees and commissions, and are overseen by the International Reciprocal Trade Association. Some are huge – like Bartercard – but they’re for-profit and not democratic.

A global system?

There is currently a plan (‘Credit Commons’) to expand and co-ordinate the collaborative credit idea to encompass the whole world. More here.

cape-town-talent-exchange

Cape Town Talent Exchange, where the Community Exchange System was born.

What are the benefits of collaborative credit?

Economic

The main economic benefits are that the means of exchange (in this case credit, rather than money) is not scarce; there’s no interest to pay; and it doesn’t allow the banking system to siphon wealth out of our communities. Here’s more on what’s wrong with the banking system.

Producers of useful goods and services should never be prevented from providing them to people who want them because of a scarcity of money. The more you think about it, the more ridiculous that situation seems, because people can provide their own means of exchange – one that carries no interest, and doesn’t allow banks to extract wealth from the system. To take part in this type of exchange, purchasers also agree to provide goods and services to other people – which means that only people who provide useful goods and services are able to obtain value from the system. Beautiful!

Recessions / depressions are caused by a lack of money. During a recession, all the same infrastructure, producers, skills and customers that were there before the recession are still there, but there’s not enough money to stimulate trade. But to paraphrase Alan Watts, saying that people can’t trade because there’s a lack of money is like saying that people can’t build houses because there’s a lack of centimetres.

Money always attracts money. It always concentrates in very few hands, causing money scarcity for everyone else. Also, that concentration of money is always used to buy power – to pay, or to give jobs to, politicians, or in wilder times, mercenaries. This can’t happen in a collaborative credit system because credit doesn’t attract more credit. You can’t lend out your credits at interest. You can only spend credit on other people’s products and services.

An introduction to the WIR Bank in Switzerland (English subtitles can be switched on at the bottom right of the screen) – a collaborative credit scheme for businesses, founded in 1934, that now makes billions of pounds equivalent of trades per year.

Collaborative credit insulates the community from inflation, monetary problems or financial collapse in the wider society. The more you trade in the system, the less you’ll be affected by a global financial crash. There’s a widespread belief that the global financial system is in a precarious state – bumping up against limits of various kinds – resource limits, ecological limits, limits to the amount of debt, and limits to the amount of wealth that the financial sector can extract from the real economy (remember that the derivatives market is ten times the size of the real economy of goods and services). 2008 was a stumble. If it falls completely, credit commons may be the only safety net.

Social

Collaborative credit is about groups of people becoming stronger by leaning on each other, and is a natural tool for local organising. Even in a global system, you would plug into it via your local community, where you are known and trusted. Technology can help spread the idea, but ultimately it’s all about real people. It can help build safer, more interesting and happier communities.

As well as all the essentials of life, you can also get things that are difficult to obtain from the money economy – like someone to house-sit for a meter-reader or a delivery while you’re at work. Maybe someone can read or work at your house, so wouldn’t charge much. Elderly or disabled people can ‘pay’ for help by doing things such as sewing, knitting, baking, child-minding, house-sitting, food processing etc.

Local networks provide a ‘club’ of people happy to prioritise the offerings of fellow members, because it’s a reciprocal arrangement, and doesn’t require you to have money to purchase things. This allows people to gain confidence and develop skills in producing goods and services that benefit the community; and it allows ordinary people to decide where to give credit, rather than banks, who make those decisions based on profitability rather than what benefits your community.

businesses

You can develop new skills to provide products or services for a willing group of local customers, and maybe turn that hobby into a career.

Environmental

The biggest environmental benefit is that there’s no interest. Debt principal can be paid back in a stable economy, but to pay interest, the economy has to constantly grow (by producing more debt or by increasing the velocity of money – either will require more resources and produce more waste). It’s this constant growth that’s the root of the destruction of the biosphere; and this destruction is not trivial.

Collaborative credit favours local procurement policies, which reduce food miles and everything else miles.

Members can hire out equipment, so that individual households don’t have to have everything. This could work with vehicles, lawn-mowers, gazebos, power tools, welding gear, camping or fishing gear, or even washing machines.

The norm nowadays is to throw things away and buy new, because of the cost and difficulty of finding someone to do the repair. But often, local people will enjoy repairing things, and not charge too much. This reduces resource use and waste.

Many people are putting their hopes for a more just and sustainable money system in Bitcoin and/or other cryptocurrencies but this is a questionable approach. While not all cryptos require as much electricity as a small country to secure them, almost all cryptos are treated as assets, which must be acquired before they are spent, not as credit.

What can I do?

There’s not much you can do alone. You need to get a group / community together to exchange with each other. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village to support an adult too. The whole idea of collaborative credit is to collaborate.

Join an existing group

There are existing LETS, timebanks or even commercial barter groups that you can join as an individual or business, but if the idea of a global credit commons inspires you, this is problematic, as there are few LETS groups and no timebanks with the software that can connect to a global network (Reading and Bracknell LETS are exceptions), and there are few businesses involved – transactions tend to be of the babysitting, gardening and loft clearance ‘favours’ type (that probably wouldn’t have been money transactions anyway, and often don’t get registered on the system). Nothing wrong with that of course – but it makes it difficult to attract a younger crowd or to build the base of a new economy. In commercial barter, the focus is on the bottom line, rather than world-changing – there’s no reason to believe that commercial exchanges will be part of a wider collaborative credit movement.

ces-australia

There’s a lively mutual credit scene in Australia, where they have developed their own Australian Community Exchange System network.

Start a new group

Get a group together who’d like to trade with each other in your community and who are interested in helping bring about wider change. Make sure that some members are businesses – especially those that provide essential products and services. Examples could be community-supported agriculture, veg boxes, farmers’ markets, housing and worker co-ops, local shops, restaurants or market stalls, independent cinemas, nurseries, garden centres, plumbers, builders, electricians, craftspeople and car mechanics. You don’t need permissions, start-up capital, grant money or expert advice. Just get a group of people together and you can start a collaborative credit group. But you need that informal local trading group first.

It would be great to involve local authorities, as well as national organisations like the Phone Co-op, Co-op Energy etc. At the time of writing, Newham council in London is spending 80% of council tax income to pay interest on bank loans. This is money extracted from the community for absolutely no reason other than to make bank shareholders wealthier. How much better for local businesses to provide credit to the council to provide the services they need, without interest.

Then set up a trading website – one that will allow your group, once established, to plug into a global network. You can use Hamlets software, available from Community Forge (with step-by-step guide, test site and support contact details). There’s help available, and it’s free. Because the Hamlets software is open source, anyone can run it on their own web server; but Community Forge will host it for you.

Grassroots economics have introduced voucher schemes into poor areas of Kenya. The vouchers don’t have to be bought with official currency – they are just to facilitate trade locally in a membership scheme, and in fact represent a collaborative credit system.

Spread the word locally and attract more people. Explain that there’s free promotion and a willing group of potential customers. Traders can provide a small percentage of what they offer via collaborative credit, and if it works, they can slowly increase that percentage. Going into debit isn’t a problem – there’s no interest to pay, and it means you’ve given people work; you’ll have to work to reduce your debit at some point, but really, being too much in credit is more of a problem, because you’re holding on to credits that can provide work for other people. The trick is to get credits moving quickly around your community, so that everyone can work and get what they need. If local members have no internet access, there can be a printed catalogue, and a local co-ordinator can register the trade online.

If you’re in a job that’s about capturing market share for a corporation rather than providing useful things for your community, but you’re doing that work to pay rent or mortgage rather than because of any great love for it, you may want to consider re-training. Difficult but not impossible – see here for a couple of hundred ideas. Also, this may be easier in a small town than a large city – community may be stronger, house prices and other costs lower, with farmland nearby to provide food and other raw materials.

Go global

When your local group is working well, using software that can connect with a global network, you can connect your group to that network to intertrade and help build a global, collaborative exchange system. More here.

Thanks to Matthew Slater of the Credit Commons Collective for Information.

 


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Matthew Slater develops software for complementary currencies. He co-founded Community Forge, which free hosts software for collaborative credit schemes; he co-authored the Money & Society MOOC, a free masters level multidisciplinary online course. He co-drafted the Credit Commons white paper, a proposal for a global solidarity economy money system, based on mutual credit principles.


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