In the wake of a global meltdown that exposed the fragility of our financial system, it's understandable that many people are suspicious of the stability of our centralized monetary systems.
"We have had 97 major banking crashes over the last 25 years, and we have 178 monetary crashes over that same time period," says Belgian currency expert Bernard Lietaer. "Would you not say that’s a sign of something being repeatedly unstable?"
As a result, Lietaer and others are advocating for "complementary" currency systems—alternative monetary devices that run parallel to centralized currencies. These can take the form of local currencies separate from the government, or even organized barter arrangements.
One example of such a currency, says Lietaer, is the Wirtschaftsring (Wir), which was established in 1934 and is used by 75,000 businesses in Switzerland alongside the Swiss franc. He says the Wir has played a crucial role in stabilizing Switzerland's economy: "When you have a recession, there are not enough Swiss francs around to buy things. The number of participants and the volume of transaction in Wir increases, spontaneously, because that's what’s available. People don't have to have a credit line with the banks in order to purchase things."
Lietaer says that larger complementary currencies can also play a social role. The Fureai Kippu is a Japanese communal currency that supports the elderly. One unit is equal to one hour of service to help an elderly person with tasks that are not covered by the national health care system in Japan. The Fureai Kippu parallels the national system on a local level, tracked as a savings account via two computerized clearinghouses. "If you were trying to do that with conventional money, it wouldn’t work. Japan would go bankrupt!" says Lietaer.
So, why haven't other countries taken a hint from the Swiss and Japanese? New York University media studies professor Douglas Rushkoff attributes dearth of open source currency to "centuries and centuries of programming." Our current system of centralized monetary instruments, explains Rushkoff, dates back to the Middle Ages, when peer-to-peer economies flourished. As local currencies thrived, so did the middle class—threatening Europe's aristocracy. Financial experts, hired by the rich to halt the threat, suggested that local currency be outlawed and replaced with a single form of money dubbed "coin of the realm."
"That’s the system that ended up getting passed down to us today," says Rushkoff. "It's part of a six or seven hundred year push for centralization of power." Now, he says, the emergence and prominence of the Internet can allow us to return to peer-to-peer exchanges. "People are starting to realize they can sell things to people through the 'net—they don’t have to work for a company to make money."
But both Rushkoff and Lietaer admit that governments are not keen on the idea that citizens issue their own coin. "I have never met anybody who has the privilege of monopoly who is okay to lose it," says Lietaer.
"If someone really did develop a robust and popular [complementary] currency, I think they’d get killed," says Rushkoff. "This is not an area that you play around with lightly. This is beyond organized crime. This is what people fight wars and stuff over. This is really big. So if in the States, for example, people started to use an organized currency—if it came into real use, beyond the local and hip way it happens in Portland or Ithaca, where hip people are using it for their coffee and pot—if it became robust enough that real people felt good about using it, they would shut it down in a minute. And that’s when you’d have to have a real struggle. That’s when you’d have to look constitutionally: are we allowed to transact? As far as I’m concerned, as long as people are paying taxes on the cash equivalent, then the government really can't complain."
However, Rushkoff says that he doesn’t know of anyone adamantly and publicly against complementary currency, rather, "most bankers and economists just laugh at it." But perhaps they should start paying attention. Rushkoff serves as "Chief Revolutionary Officer" of the site superfluid, a collaborative online system where people exchange services and work together on different projects. Participants credit and debit themselves for the work they perform.
Rushkoff says ultimately these types of alternate currencies are an extension of free market capitalism: "If you’re really going to be a free market capitalist, then you have to have free markets. Just as companies are allowed to compete with each other for providing goods and services, the only way you're going to have great currencies is if the currencies are allowed to compete with one another within one country, so that you can have different tools for different jobs."
— “Complementary Credit Networks and Macro-Economic Stability: Switzerland’s Wirtschaftsring,” 2009 article by James Stodder, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
— “Beyond Money,” blogs and books by community economist Tom Grekko, author of “The End of Money and the Future of Civilization.”
— The International Journal of Community Currency Research