Alternative currencies – Simbi and the Flying Brick

Credit: danyythemartian – DeviantArt

The Flying Brick was the printed directory of the Brixton LETS Scheme (this isn’t the image we used – the original is lost in the mists of time – or a cardboard box in the attic).

LETS stood for Local Exchange and Trading Scheme. Brixton LETS was started in the second wave of alternative, local currency schemes in 1992 in Brixton, South London, and I’m proud to say I was one of the founding group, and one of the team that ran the scheme in its heyday over the following few years.

The idea was that members would trade together using our own local currency – the Brick (what else?) – which was a ‘virtual’ currency – a number in a database, with no physical existence. And that this currency would have different rules to ‘normal’ money, specifically:

  • It would only be valid locally – this meant that all exchanges using this currency would produce local value (money ever only produces value at the point of exchange), and that the stored value that the currency represented could never be taken out of our community.
  • There would be no interest rate (positive or negative). Ownership of currency would not generate either an enhanced trading position nor be self-perpetuating. Thus there was no incentive to hoard.
  • There would be no concept of debt, or wealth. A negative balance was considered as a ‘commitment’ to the community. A positive balance was a ‘claim’ on the community. Note that it was impossible to incur a ‘commitment’ to another individual – only to the community as a whole. Since there was no ‘overdraft limit’ as such, you could always pay for what you received on the spot.

Did we think that we might one day supersede national hard currencies? No, of course not; the whole idea was about diversity – about the idea that different currencies, with different rules, might foster new forms of economic activity – specifically that this sort of currency might encourage and enable people whose participation in the hard currency system was limited for some reason.

It turned out to be both stimulating and interesting, and rather hard work. The internet existed, some of us were reasonably smart with computers, but most members weren’t. Also, although we were local, we were at our largest around 1000 people in a dense inner city area, so it wasn’t easy to just stumble across other members. We had to design something that would act as a marketplace for a distributed community, whose default means of communication would be a landline ‘phone.

So, I developed a database of members, together with their ‘wants’ and ‘offers’. I worked out how to export in Quark Express’ markup language so that we could produce pre-press files for a Directory, and we found a sympathetic local printer who would print it for us at helpful rates. Andy Keen wrote a database system to keep track of balances, and we printed simple stapled ‘chequebooks’.

Every three months or so, we would print an updated Directory, and send out statements of account. Everything was great.

Except that as the scheme grew, the physical side of things – printing and delivering the Directory, making sure people had chequebooks, collecting new entries – began to take its toll on the energies of the core group. My argument was that we needed to grow fast – so that the hard currency annual membership fees would be enough to pay for admin work – and also to improve the balance of the market wants and offers (too many people offering massages, only one plumber). But the mix of members at the time was, shall we say, on the hippy side – and the idea of getting large, getting serious, actually working at it, was distinctly a minority view. Gradually the whole thing died away.

Except, of course, that nothing significant in your life dies – there are always traces, and the traces left in my life by the Flying Brick have been immensely rewarding – a network of acquaintances.

This is really a whole other topic, but briefly, our social relationships have become polarised; there are people we don’t really know, and then there are our friends and family – with very little in-between. We give and receive almost nothing from the former, while the expectation is that with the latter, nothing is too much to give, and much can be expected. ‘Friends and Family’ status has become high risk – and if we fail to measure up, there is at the minimum some guilt / resentment. The wonderful thing about acquaintances is that there are responsibilities, and there are expectations – but these are less absolute in character – there is no make-or-break pressure.

Involvement in the LETS scheme introduced me to many people with whom I knew I had at least some fellow-feeling, some shared ideas about the world. When I bump into these people now, it might be three years since I saw them last, but there is no guilt, no resentment, no uneasy ‘we must see each other more – I’ll call you’, that both parties know will come to nothing. Nevertheless, in an emergency, or with some particular need, I could call these people, and ask for help, in the certainty that consideration would be given. And no, social media doesn’t do that (I told you this was a whole other topic…)..

Still, though, I regret the failure of our LETS – I have always been sure that there is much of value in the idea of alternative currencies – that the idea of a diversity of currency types is a strong one – that, on a macro-economic scale, these could provide cushioning for economic shocks, and spread constructive access to economic activity more widely.

The obvious thing to do, once the internet became a normal tool for most people, was to implement LETs ideas with a purely digital infrastructure. And indeed there exist several flavours of software that enable just this (in Brixton now, we have the Brixton Pound – which has moved to an electronic format, but for some reason doesn’t really do community). However, the bubble of prosperity of the noughties, plus (in my own opinion) the unnecessarily puritanical attitude of some leading LETs activists have relegated these promising ideas to minority status.

So I’m very pleased to have been pointed at Simbi by David Bovill of The jury is still out, I’m still to do my first trade, but so far it looks to have many excellent features, and be totally free of hints that one ought to reject the ‘straight’ world before joining.

I’ll report back when I have a more informed view. If you’d like to try Simbi (free, simple sign-up), then you could earn me some Simbi by contacting me directly – I earn units for referrals!

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