The story of the Greek city of Volos is one recycled often lately. Anyone paying attention to world media, or more specifically Anglo-American media, will notice that the story of the city’s barter system is reported over and over again, with the same information and the same praise in practically every article. Deep down however, there may be nothing to applaud in modern Greece; only lessons to be learned.
If the cracks in the Greek economic system were so big, that today the gaps must be filled by a growing number of non-profit groups and networks disconnected from formal institutions, then the lesson must be learned that having a public sector employing one in five workers in the country was a terribly bad idea. That is, if the system was even thought about at all. Given the current state of affairs, it seems that if the potential for failure was ever considered, it was certainly ignored.
Greek austerity measures were approved in February 2012, meaning the country is now facing five years of recession, and being forced to battle a rising unemployment rate at 21%. Austerity measures were imposed to avoid a default on Greece’s debt and to obtain international aid, but in applying them Greeks lost 40% of their disposable income. As it stands now, Greek social services are simply not up to the task of helping the people in need.
Of course, a collection of Barter-Clubs spreading throughout the country demonstrates the presence of a warm solidarity. Within an incompetent state, the people have organized themselves into networks that are allowing them to survive the collective crisis.
Bartering is the oldest economic means of exchange in existence. In the modern world, bartering is an activity of last resort, when all else fails; it is successful in conditions of extreme monetary dysfunction. One will recall that bartering was used during the Argentina’s Peso crisis in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In September 2011, the Greek Parliament passed a law encouraging “alternative forms of entrepreneurship and local development”. This law is what gives the non-profit status to the growing networks, and has provided a green light to alternative currencies. In Greece, resorting to creative ways of coping with the crisis has become necessary.
The currency developed in Volos is called the TEM, an acronym for “Local Alternative Unit” in Greek. It is set up online as community banking. Members can join via the website, and be part of what has now grown to be a community of over 1300 members. This sort of currency must be distinguished from those like Bitcoin. Bitcoin is an efficient currency using peer-to-peer technology and operating without central authority. It is accepted internationally throughout the system as it is traded and bought whereas TEM is a system borne of crisis, and only works within the city limits.
Bartering comes to be in troubled times; there is nothing simpler. It is not to be praised. What is to be congratulated is solidarity, and what is to be encouraged is collective determination to find solutions and bring about innovation amidst the challenges of globalization and job loss.
-Mathieu Paul Dumont
(Featured photo: License woody1778a, Creative Commons, Flickr)