Even in a modern and developed city like Mumbai barter still exists today. Women carrying baskets filled with new steel utensils go from door to door giving them out in exchange for old sarees and old clothes. The women sell the old clothes they receive in the markets and the value they receive for the sales is more than the utensils they give in exchange.
Barter exists in all negotiation. We give and receive in manners that don’t focus on the equality of the exchange but on its relevance to the other party. Money is only one part of global political exchanges even today. Power, reputation and belief dominate negotiations and money is one of the tools used in service of these.
A powerful tool nevertheless, but not the center of exchange.
When working with under privileged groups in India to create livelihoods, we discovered that the promise of immediate cash attracted some parties but not for too long. Daily wage labourers enjoyed the freedom that this form of work provided them. They retained their power of choice and chose when that money was important to them. If a neighbour had a problem and needed their help, or if the water tanker was bringing water to their homes once in three days – cash was not the most important thing to them.
The Jonbeel mela in Assam, India is an annual fair where people from the hills exchange goods with people form the plains. Spices herbs and ginger from that hills are exchanged with rice fish and cakes made in the plains. Both parties recognise the value of what the other has to offer and the exchange happens with mutual respect.
Barter in commerce, was eventually widely replaced with currency exchange because it posed several challenges to society:
1. There has to be a match between what the two parties each want.
2. There is no common measure of value – which remains a subjective and inquantifiable concept.
3. Some goods cannot be divided and therefore even the quantity of the exchange cannot be equitable
4. Payments cannot be deferred and the exchange has to be immediate
5. Perishables cannot be stored as currency can.
Yet today we are living in a world where money has overtaken and tyrannises all commercial exchange between humans. Currency also has disadvantages and value definition also remains subjective in todays markets. The value of money itself fluctuates highly with social and political changes and therefore the direct value of a kilo of onions to a hungry family gets replaced by the defined value of the onion share market.
More importantly, barter is based in trust and mutual understanding between producers and consumers. It leaves value definition to them. It connects people directly not through an unknown abstract entity like the stock trade of today.
Giving and receiving is a natural phenomenon and occurs constantly. Trees take in the carbon dioxide we breathe out and we take in the oxygen they supply. This mutual benefit is a win win combination that ensures the life of both. If any one was to give or take more than the other the delicate harmony of this barter would soon be destroyed.
A popular story talks about how heaven is a place where everyone is focussed on giving and hell where everyone is focussed on taking. Barter requires both giving and receiving. And harmony relies on this exchange. Life itself does
Maybe the question to ask rather is ‘Can the world survive without barter? ‘