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LETS and me

Keith Hart

All my life money has been an obsession. When I was 5, I was bewildered by the relationship between rationing coupons and pocket money. When I was 12, I took up betting on the horses. Gambling saw me through university. I even became an entrepreneur in the slums of a West African city as part of my doctoral fieldwork. I put together a small real estate fortune during the 70s and then lost it when I was divorced. So, when I was asked to give a public lecture to my fellow anthropologists in the mid-80s, it was perhaps not surprising that I hit upon the topic of money. I brought plenty of personal experience to my subject, none of which showed in my official presentation. I called this 'Heads or tails?', referring to the two sides of the coin, one representing money as an aspect of political society, the other its value as a commodity in exchange. My argument was that both sides were indispensable to money, but for much of the 20th century we had been subjected to ruinous swings between theories emphasizing one side to the exclusion of the other. The lecture was published in Man, 1986.

In the course of my analysis, I drew attention to the invention of LETS in British Columbia. I am told that this was the first reference to LETS in an academic journal. I subsequently took a closer interest in LETS and this was confirmed when I met Michael Linton in a Manchester pub in early 1994. Until then, I had thought of LETS as isolated alternative exchange systems, in full flight from the mainstream capitalist economy, sometimes harassed by government agencies, but embodying the spirit of utopian socialism in small local communities. Over a couple of pints, Michael quickly sketched a very different vision of the potential of LETS. He saw their operations in cities like Manchester (my home town) linking individuals to numerous exchange circuits reflecting their different interests. These in turn would be fully integrated with normal commerce and tax regimes. Breakthroughs in communications technology (this was the time the internet went public and the World Wide Web was invented) would bring the plastic revolution to LETS. We could make our own money and markets inside capitalism, but on a very different ethical basis.

For much of the 90s, I was Director of Cambridge University's African Studies Centre. This brought me into an active relationship with some of that continent's most pressing problems, in Nigeria, Angola and South Africa, for example. Of these by far the most upsetting was Angola. This country has suffered a million war deaths in three decades; its people live continuously on the brink of disaster. Yet the rest of the world is largely indifferent. I organized a conference and a book (Why Angola Matters, 1995). But the sheer scale of the poverty, violence and disease afflicting Africa drew me into deeper reflection on the nature of our unequal world and what to do about it. I studied the history of movements to end slavery, colonialism and apartheid, especially the writings of Third World revolutionaries, such as M.K. Gandhi and C.L.R. James. I became convinced that we face an acute crisis for world civilization and that the universities, with their specialist disciplines, cannot help us to understand it, even less to overcome it.

So I left Cambridge to try out a new life as a writer in Paris. The first outcome of that was a book on -- you've guessed it -- money (Money in an Unequal World, 2001; see my article in fsd2). Unlike in my academic work, I was able to draw on my wide personal experience in writing this. My theme was the relationship between the communications revolution and changing forms of money and exchange. I proposed the development of markets and money on a non-capitalist basis and, of course, I drew heavily on the example of LETS to show where such developments might go. But it still seemed to me that there was a large gap between the world's economic problems and the scale of initiatives affecting a few individuals mainly in the rich countries.

Last year, I went to see Michael Linton and Ernie Yacub at their home on Vancouver Island. We agreed to start writing a book together on LETS. I wanted to have closer access to their theoretical and practical experience of open money and they imagined I might bring some skill and perspective as a writer. For much of 2001, we have exchanged ideas and material in preparation of the book. They have been heavily involved in the Japan Open Money Project and this magazine, while I have been making a world tour that took in Brazil, South Africa, India, the USA and several European countries. What impressed me most about JOMP was the unique combination of a wide variety of corporate enterprises and grassroots democratic organizations. This led me to wonder if the liberal revolutions which inaugurated the modern world, combining capitalist elements with popular movements of many kinds, might be revived in our day. If so, Japan would be a leading candidate for such a revolution. I was thrilled that LETS might play a prominent part in this. I am now conversing in Paris with Kenta Ohji, a member of the New Association Movement (NAM), and this all looks very promising.

But our team has not been limited to Japan. Michael and I attended a conference in Berlin in which we were able to explore the relationship between open money and the free software movement. And he is currently pursuing an amazing range of alliances from electronic payments in Brussels to schools in London and the fast-growing community currency scene in Argentina. I have been guiding research on the informal economy in France including several projects on LETS which the French call SEL. The leading newspaper Le Monde has argued in an editorial that SEL may be the most promising face of social democracy in France at this time. The movement towards open money is gathering pace. It does seem that the gap may be narrowing between the problems we face as human civilization and our attempts to approach these problems through LETS initiatives.

Now the decks are cleared for us to write our book on community currencies. It is provisionally called Common Wealth: building community and economic democracy with open money. Readers of this magazine will be no strangers to its central message. We aim to promote greater equality and freedom by using our own money, showing people everywhere how to organize as thousands of closed exchange circuits on the model of LETS. Economic democracy in this limited sense points us to more inclusive forms of community. Above all, making money for ourselves is a realistic way of building a more equal world .