Part of the Art, Money, and the Renaissance blog series
“For artists to be rewarded for the value they bring to society,” Will Ruddick says, “the value of the reward must come from that society – rather than based on the fiat based debt of for-profit banks.”
When it comes to out-of-the-box thinking about money and its role in society, Will is on the global cutting edge. He’s the founder and director of Grassroots Economics, a non-profit supported by Burners Without Borders, and one of the few agencies in the world that creates Community Currencies.
All money is fundamentally an agreed upon delusion – we all agree that these types of metal, or pieces of paper, or units on a screen, are valuable in a way that can be exchanged beyond their intrinsic use for other goods and services.
The more legitimacy a currency gets, the more civil society tends to warp around it: witness how panicked the whole world becomes when what is essentially billions of units of imaginary value – wealth entirely generated in the abstract through financial speculation – is “lost.” Or look at real estate bubbles: the exact same house can soar in value overnight, then lose value, then soar again … even though it hasn’t changed at all. Then, of course, there was the Dutch tulip mania of the early 17th century, when tulip bulbs were so highly prized that fortunes were made and lost by trading them as commodities.
Don’t tell us this is based in reality. Money is the ultimate conceptual art project.
Community Currencies are Will’s attempt to re-balance the relationship between communities and currency – creating new forms of money that are designed to create wealth within poor and undeveloped areas. Since 2010, Will and his organization have created unique currencies across six different impoverished communities in Kenya, which are in turn supported by a network of hundreds of local businesses and schools.
Here’s how that generates real wealth: small business owners go about their daily economic activity, and usually have surplus left over that no one can buy, and that will otherwise go to waste. Let’s say you’re a fisherman, and most days you sell 90% of your fish, but can’t sell the other 10% because the community is too poor to buy them. Well, if you accept a community currency, then people who couldn’t otherwise buy your fish with the national currency can use the community currency to do so.
Suddenly people who would otherwise go hungry are being fed. That’s great! But it doesn’t stop there: now you, the fisherman, have a bunch of community currency, and one of the people who accepts it is a carpenter. Your boat needs repairs: now the fish you sold through the community currency has repaired your boat, which saves you all kinds of money and problems. And the carpenter pays an artist to put a mural on his shop – so now the artist has a bunch of community currency. And the artist uses it to pay his rent (because his landlord accepts it) and to buy fish.
What would have been waste and loss is transformed into real world value and concrete wealth. Rather than detracting from the economy, a well-established community currency adds to the economic activity and overall prosperity. Eventually this translates into gains made in the national currency too.
(Not, to be clear, “Decommoficiation.” There’s no moral virtue to replacing one kind of currency with another – one’s not “pure” and the other “dirty.” One’s not “good,” the other “bad.” The point here is to design money around the ends we want, not to be designed by it – which is entirely in keeping with the Renaissance Florence ethos of money we’ve discussed before.)
We’ve already seen how an individual artist can benefit from the presence of a community currency: people who otherwise couldn’t pay for art suddenly have the capacity, and that capacity can turn into rent and food (along with opportunities to benefit the community) for artists.
But what if we think bigger? Once you’ve re-imagined the role of money, you have to ask: could the whole arts funding model change?
Ruddick suggests that while “it is painful to tell many artists that they are contributing to a system which destroys communities,” that in fact artists – and arts funding models – should focus not on selling art to the highest bidder but on generating sustainable wealth for local communities.
Art, approached in this way, could even be seen as a kind of community currency itself.
This is an approach Ruddick himself hasn’t explored, but he suggests that it would have several components:
- A community funding model for arts require artists to see themselves as part of a community.
- “If you are not producing art for your community,” Will says, “you are simply part of the problem.”
- That means artists, despite their own need to make a living, need to “ensure that your community can buy your art.”
- When they do get commissions in national currency, they need to make sure they’re investing the money in their local communities, to support other local wealth and culture generating institutions.
- But the ideal situation is to leave banks and national currencies out of the exchange entirely – letting art directly “purchase” the goods and services the artists need to live and thrive, thus using their art to not only support themselves but over time generate wealth for their communities.
“Ten percent of your effort should be here,” he says, “supporting a community of distant peoples and creating global unity.” But “Ninety percent of your effort should be here: with your community of neighbors creating local unity and resilience.”
It’s a stretch to imagine anything like that working in the world we live in – but the same could have been said of all of the Community Currency projects Will has worked on. That hasn’t stopped him, and the difference it’s made in the lives of thousands of people has been real.
A lot more real than the wealth generated by a real estate bubble.
It’s hard to say if the creation of Community Currencies for the arts is compatible with the other models we’re proposing in this series. (You can read about them here) In some ways clearly yes: it creates tighter relationships, which is the essence of Matronage, and it further embeds artists in communities. But it also raises difficult questions about whether it would end up being a kind of second-class currency for artists, potentially one more distraction from actually paying them. But it is an experiment worth conducting on its own terms: in some communities, it’s working. That’s as good as any a place to start. The basic premise: that money should serve the culture we want rather than culture serving the money we have, is compelling.
To learn more about community currencies and Grassroots Economics, visit http://grassrootseconomics.org
(Photo courtesy of Grassroots Economics)