My first contact with the barter system, outside of having read of its historical place, was in the stories that my brother and his wife told me of their life in the woods of British Columbia. They had retreated from the urban midwest and sought peace for a time in the islands between mainland Canada and the Island of Vancouver. They had a Portuguese neighbor down the road (whom I recall was nicknamed “The Portuguese”) who had a smokehouse. So they, who raised chickens for eggs and an occasional fricassee, would bring salmon they had caught in the salt-water bays to the neighbor, who would smoke the fish in exchange for fresh eggs. I thought that was so cool, such an obvious and compelling idea, that I recall the story to this day.
I now, also in retreat from the cities of the Great Lakes Basin, live in a small town nestled against the Spanish Peaks in southern Colorado. We are not as remotely located as Quadra Island, B.C. is, but being in a rural mountain locale, the notion of exchanging services for services is alive and well here. In the light of the fact that the fall of capitalism as we have known it may well be upon us, this system of sharing advantages seems to be growing out of both necessity and principle. I fish here, mostly for trout, and I have traded a fresh catch for produce from friends’ gardens. I have traded a few hours of recording studio tracks on the organ keyboard for equally valuable time and skill with the computer keyboard. I plan to continue the practice, as it works and has distinct advantages over exclusively exchanging green pictures of deceased U.S. presidents for very un-green Chinese consumer goods.
In the barter system, the whole idea of relative value becomes personalized. You simply trade something you have for something you need. The relationship thus established then blossoms into a trust-based partnership of mutual supply and demand. You always know what you get is worth what you give because the level on which these transactions take place is so flexible and enduring. You might get the better end of the deal this week, then the following trade yields an apparent edge to the other guy. Nobody bitches, nobody returns anything for refund, everybody wins.
In addition to the cashlessness of the trade-offs, there is yet another benefit to this system. In the whole process, you are touched by other human beings. There is no anonymous middleman simply taking a piece of the action for shelf space or delivery fees. Personal relationships are formed, friendships often follow. You find out how your vegetable supplier is feeling, what he or she is planning on for the summer, what joy or grief has entered his or her life. Additionally, even this act is reciprocated, and you are blessed with another’s interest and concern about your own life. In such an arrangement, the monetary value of “things” pales in comparison to the value of human contact and acceptance of honorable mutual dependence.
The way we have been doing things, if you haven’t been paying attention lately, is proving to be both antiquated and ineffective. This de facto caste system which we have borne and raised, with the haves holding an invincible edge over the have-nots, is about to collapse under the weight of a restless and dissatisfied world populace and the ever-increasing chokehold that this system holds on the vessel which is our planet. All of us, from the hilltop manors to the corrugated tin shacks, are about to realize, whether we like it or not, that we are in the same lifeboat together and anything that can bring us closer and devalue those things which actually have no intrinsic value needs to be considered.
The late Memphis Slim wrote a song called Mother Earth, which happens to be my favorite blues song, in which he says,
You may own half a city, even diamonds and pearls
You may have your own airplane to fly you all around the world
I don’t care how rich you are, I don’t care what you’re worth
When it all ends up, you’ve got to go back to Mother Earth
You don’t believe that sappy socialist crap? Just ask some recently-diagnosed terminal fat cat as he empties his Gucci colostomy bag. I’ll bet he’d trade that in a heartbeat, with just about anyone for just about anything.
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