Currency as a commons – currencies that work!

At the moment of this writing, timebanking in Finland is awaiting new guidelines from Finnish Tax Administration which is coming out tomorrow 5.11.

Following a first draft of the new guidelines, Helsinki Timebank expressed its concern of any new guidelines including euro taxation of skilled work done in aikapankki according to market value, which would destroy the equality basis of all work done in the timebank, and has instead pointed to the importance of the need for further assessment to come to a better understanding of the nature and workings of timebanking and its accounting points, of its potential including its autonomous internal timetax, and of the ethical limits as outlined in the case of stadin aikapankki.

No real political discussion around aikapankki has taken place, and argumentation has been along the lines that helping others, or watering the plants of your neighbours, must not be taxed. In itself the absence of public discussion furthering a more deeper understanding of aikapankki represents a notable discrepancy with the now ongoing process around taxation, which puts a different spotlight on aikapankki, namely that of aikapankki’s time credits as a currency.

Personally I am glad with this discussion, as I hope the issue of complementary currencies will become increasingly a political discussion in Finland.

In the below some further points are collected coming forth out of participation in the Economics and the Commons Conference in Berlin, in May 2013, and the complementary currency conference in Hague, in June 2013 (see also

Money as debt shaping our relations

As Jem Bendell (professor at University of Cumbria) pointed out during the commons conference in Berlin, we normally want to critically discuss how money is earned and how it is spent, but we rarely discuss how money is made, and what the consequences of this are.

Increasing awareness is existing that 97% of money is created by private banks as they issue loans to us, and because almost all money is created through instruments which require repayment and interest, there is always more debt than money. Loans are issued to serve economic activity, and as such a growth imperative is created which purports the need to increasingly exploit (commodify) more of life, of resources, to pay back the interest on the debt.

As Bendell continued, it is then important to realise this debt based money system also shapes our relations, basing them on notions of scarcity and competition, whilst producing massive inequality. “We think that wealth is scarce, that we must all compete for a share of it , when actually the wealth is us.” As Bendell put it, the current money system, as we know it, represents almost total enclosure of our ability to trust each other.

To come to a different economy in which values of social and ecological sustainability are determining, means we need new forms of money (a usefull source is for instance Positive Money,

The commons conference brought two angles of addressing new of forms of money to the forefront, which both challenge the dominant economy driven by market fundamentalism and the money as debt system logic.


A first approach puts forward that in a commons economy going beyond artificial scarcity, money as we know it and markets have no place, and promotes demonetization. The contribution of Stefan Meretz (who is an engineer and computer scientist) to this discussion can for instance be read here,

The issue of equal exchange is contested, and whilst that premise holds a good basis to think of co-production and stigmergy, it does bring up questions as to how to make this an inclusive process.

From the taxation perspective, a timebank working without any timecredits would be solving the issue of basically not even having to address whether timecredits are to be seen as a compensation. In our discussion around our Tovi’s in Stadin aikapankki we have addressed how to more appropriately look at the nature of our Tovi’s beyond a monetary logic perspective, and have also concluded our Tovi’s are valuable to extend the community of users across different societal borders (See also Stadin Aikapankki’s statement,

Redesigning the role of Money and redesigning Currency as a commons

A second approach then wants to redesign the role of money, or to redesign money itself as a commons. The first would be happening by money not being issued by private banks, but by the state, and geared towards common goals and objectives set by the community of users, its citizens. The second angle then is concerned with redesigning currency itself as a commons, poses as a central question, how do we design currencies to foster human relationships?

Out of the experiences of the development process around Helsinki Timebank another angle was discussed in the workshop, namely that of the development of a currency as a pedagogical process, bringing people together to learn and engage in commoning (the co-governing and carrying of responsibility for our currency commons).

This point to the fact that when a currency is a commons, the community of users set the rules. For several Helsinki Timebank has been engaged in an active process of deliberation between its members, which is a challenging process if only in light of the constantly growing membership (even if not all are users as such).

The timebank at first had no explicit value attached to its currency beyond the basic principle of everybodies time, needs and capacities being of equal worth. However, a small exchange rink seller of a large cosmetic firm wanting to join the timebank to be reinforcing the workings of the exchange rink brought out questions among membership and the (open) core group of the timebank came to decide to embark on a more explicit development process on values and principles.

A second larger decisions process made was around our internal autonomous timetax, and finally the process led to our Timebank’s ABC (see

As such, what is addressed is another core questions noted by participants in the workshop and what has been a core question for Helsinki Timebank as well: What is encouraged and facilitated through a currency?

Currencies taking back the economy

At the complementary currency conference in Holland, Katherine Gibson (professor of the University of Western Sydney) spoke on taking back the economy for it to be a space of ethical negotiation. Central questions then are such as ”What kinds of works are needed?” and ”How should they be done?”, as in general the solidarity economy approach puts at the core of its methodology and envisioning (see

Community currency systems can then be developed as ethical tools taking back the economy (and markets) by their reframing of transactions, an aspect which has also been present in the development of Helsinki Timebank, as it “wants to strengthen a social and ecological just local economy, in which everyone is of equal value and has equal participation possibilities”.

Not only individuals but also organisations, associations and local economic actors working according to the values of Helsinki Timebank can be joining, which on the one hand can be strengthening these actors, which will be reinforcing social and ecological workings of any actor joining, and which on the other hand allows for more possibilities for people to be directly producing value .

As such, and in light of the taxation discussion, one could feel compelled to explicitly want to put forward that it is in the interest of Finland’s welfare policies for ethical economic activities to be happening through aikapankki. And that it is exactly a timebanks developed ethical nature, including the process of negotiation also on something as an autonomous timetax, which should be seen as setting the limits to aikapankki, and as such at the least an important part of the answer to any open questions regarding potential misuse, or to the question what if aikapankki just grows bigger and bigger.

A profound sense of interdependency is an important ethics in the discussion on taking back the economy and Gibson pointed specifically to time banks and their deprofessionalizing of community skills in connection to our being as being in common with others & beyond human, i.e. Ubuntu: ‘I am because we are’. Currencies as such can be proactive tools assisting us to be subject of our own development, be this expressed in the notiongs of Ubuntu, Buen Vivir, Swaraj or commoning, countering the development discourse as we know it.

At the currency conference, Bernard Lietaer spoke of complementary currencies to be treated as a commons & managed with insights from the commons. Lietaer as such framed the development of complementary currencies as hyperdemocracy: needed are rules, mechanisms for conflict resolution, and penalties for transgression.

In Berlin, the currency workshop also proposed to link the six principles as outlined Silke Helfrich (author, member of Commons Strategies Group) on the commons during a keynote of the conference, to the reflections around currency as a commons:

  • Use value trumps exchange value.
  • He/she who takes from the commons has to contribute to the commons.
  • Commoning includes self-organization and self-healing.
  • Share what you can and defend the right to share.
  • Produce commons first, not commodities and foster relationships, not transactions.

Discussing Helsinki Timebank in Berlin led to the opinion that a timebank in its equal valuation of people’s time, doing and needs is in its very design a good tool to be developing and protecting our commons.

One global currency or a network of currencies?

Further down the line developing thoughts on currencies as a commons, a next question then comes to be, if we believe there should eventually be one global currency, or should it perhaps be instead a network of currencies?

Michel Bauwens (founder of P2P foundation) in Berlin overview addressing this question (see Michel’s presentation

Michel started of by saying that horizontal socialisation through networks is a key fact of our time, and that this will change everything. In this process there is not just one future; different social systems will have different effects and this is what needs assessment.

Different initiatives can then be separated on one axe according to centralised global control versus decentralised local control of p2p systems. Separation on the other axe is according to a for benefit versus a for profit orientation. In this diagram, the first field can be described as netarchical capitalism, and Facebook (credits) is an example of centralised control of p2p systems having a for profit orientation. The value is created 100% by all Facebook users, but whereas the use value is of interest to all, the exchange value is extracted 100% by Facebook.

The second field in which control is distributed, and which has a for profit orientation, is that of distributed capitalism, libertarianism. Example here would be Bitcoin. Whilst Michel said that the experience of Bitcoin has been absolutely a great contribution in showing that a souvereign digital currency is possible, he drew attention to how 70% of Bitcoin is owned by 12 individuals, with as such a small group of people occasionally liberating a stock of Bitcoins.

Michel called it a case of oligarchy, in which the peer is the computer. Assessing any currency, it is then very important to know what its values are, and how this reflects as a social system. As such need to realise Bitcoin is a political currency; designed by people believing in a certain kind of economics, designed to be like gold and to be speculative, and to allow for hoarding, with as mentioned early adopters and most spending people being the most powerful. A (local) community as such has no control over the currency.

A linked question is then on social entrepreneurship which wants to turn community into clients, or is the aim to create community? These are all seemingly important reflections to keep in mind as Finland is on the verge of getting its first Bitcoin machines.

In the next field of the diagram, currency initiatives have local control, and a for benefit orientation which Michel called the true p2p revolution. Helsinki Timebank could be placed here. But Michel referred to this as being not enough, that there is a need to work on a global level, which then would be the last area, of exchange systems subject to global control and with a global orientation towards for benefit practices.

I myself tend to think that an interesting option is presented by the possibility of a network of local currencies, as is also the design of the Community Exchange Systems mutual credit network (see, and persons with a lot of knowledge and experience with community currencies as Matthew Slater (community currency developer, Community Forge) are working on fascilitating increased linking up between different platforms.


Whilst the dominant discourse justifies the breaking down of the public by the need for savings, It would be important to also in Finland push for more public and political discussion addressing the need to create an enabling environment for complementary currencies.

They are tools to be working towards economic paradigm shift thinking challenging false notions of scarcity and competition, and instead fostering notions of abundance and cooperation whilst working towards common goals. This would probably need also a reassesing of certain laws, as now perhaps will be necessary to be realising a full potential of aikapankki. Ideally this would be accompanied by other policies supporting a taking back of the economy, in the form of solidarity economy building and furthering of commons and commoning in Finland.

As the commons conference in Berlin and the currency conference in The Hague demonstrated, there is an existing growing movement engaged in different concrete experiences to reflect and build further on.

Ruby van der Wekken



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