“Money can’t buy love", we're told. And we now know that thinking about money is likely to make love a lot more difficult. But is this inevitable?
Research has found that being briefly reminded of money leads us to care less for others and for the environment. This is especially unfortunate because we are so often reminded of money: handling it, paying for things, talking about it, reading about it.
But this effect isn’t, presumably, inevitable. It arises because of the symbolic meaning that money has acquired – and it’s conceivable that, in a different world, money comes to symbolise something else.
I spent yesterday afternoon in Liverpool with an energetic group of people working on local currencies – both established local currencies, like Bristol Pound or Brixton Pound, and many others in earlier stages of development.
These are people who want to change the meaning of money. But I worry that at times the profound impact that they could have on what money symbolises is lost – because of a focus on the structural changes that a local currency could create.
This means that those working on local currencies sometimes lapse into judging their success on the basis of how much money is in circulation, or the proportion of the local economy they have ‘captured’.
Measured in this way, most local currencies struggle to demonstrate much impact. Ironically, their very success is judged on precisely those values that underpin the financial establishment that these local currency schemes are setting out to challenge!
Inviting people to support a local currency because this “helps independent business” or “keeps money on the high street” sets the terms by which success of the currency will be judged, but will do little to change the symbolic meaning of money.
We discussed, at the meeting of the Guild of Independent Currencies, whether there are other, more important, impacts of local currencies. The salience of a local currency may far outstrip its economic leverage. When I visit Bristol, for example, I see signs on buses and shop doors inviting me to pay in Bristol Pounds. The social impact of these reminders – created through the values that they engage – may be far greater than the structural impact of the Bristol Pound (which is, today at least, small). If this is the case, then it’s important to ask what this wider social impact is, and whether it might be further strengthened and improved through a values led approach.
For example, a local currency could be promoted as a symbol of a community’s commitment to self-direction, civic participation and social justice. There can be few more powerful symbols of people ‘doing things for themselves’ than a local currency.
To most of us it seems to be an almost impossibly difficult thing to create, not least because it seems to level such a clear challenge towards the financial establishment. Local currencies are a potent demonstration of what can be achieved by committed people, volunteering in their spare time. What wonderful testimony to the power of people collaborating, volunteering and creating: intrinsic values that we know spill over into many other areas of social and environmental concern.
The purpose of a local currency might then be framed as being to convey a town’s or city’s commitment to these values, where its actual use becomes an expression of a commitment to self-direction, civic participation and social justice. This opportunity aligns strongly with our recent survey that shows that these are the very values that most people hold to be of highest importance.
So evidence suggests that a local currency might also seek – with complete legitimacy – to associate these values with those held to be most important by the majority of people living in that town or city, irrespective of whether or not they use the currency themselves.
In this way, the currency could become a conspicuous reminder of most people’s commitment to these values, and could have significant impact in strengthening key aspects of shared identity across a town or city. This is an effort that could then be joined by other organisations and institutions: particularly those that have a role in promoting public reflection on the values that characterise those who live in a town or city. This might include museums, universities, local government and regional media.
These values would then, of course, contribute to building public support for a wide range of social and environmental initiatives, potentially multiplying the impact of the scheme many-fold.
Local currencies present wonderful opportunities for beginning to build such shared identity – and to keep this salient in citizens’ day-to-day lives. But if these schemes are constrained by a narrow focus on economic indicators of success, this opportunity could be missed.