When I offer MadHOURS to vendors, people often think
it's a joke. After I assure them that I didn't rip the bills off of a
board game or print them myself—that these bills are, in fact, accepted
for trade—their incredulity weakens. If they look at the bills, which
have a certain beauty and authenticity about them, a conversation
usually begins: “What do people do with this money?”
Well, I buy coffee at Mother Fool's and food at the Willy St. Co-op. I've bought custom sewing, a felt hat, a printer for my computer, and garden seedlings with MadHOURS. My kids bought a unicycle with their own hard-earned MadHOURS. You could also hire a cook, a naturalist, rent a truck, take French lessons, hire a pet-sitter, have custom furniture built, or get your toaster repaired, among a variety of things and services.
MadHOURS, like its prototype Ithaca Hours, was initiated in 1996 to combat low wages and unemployment, and to spur sustainable, grassroots economic development in the Madison, Wisconsin area.
In the five years HOURS have circulated, they have connected people as neighbors and members of a common regional community. In my own experience, HOURS foster valuable conversations about the nature of money.
As people begin to accept this money as an economic instrument in the community, certain preconceptions about money unfold. It was apparent, for example, that though people find it easy to talk about what money does, they often can't find a satisfactory definition of what money is. Given that most people save money (when they can) as insurance against an uncertain future, a sobering consensus emerged: Money is a measure of our distrust, of our failure to commit ourselves to what is good about human nature.
People I spoke with also began to see through the myth that money is a neutral medium of exchange. “Federal dollars,” as Paul Glover, the founder of Ithaca Hours, explains, “come to town, shake a few hands, then leave to buy rainforest lumber and fight wars.” While dollars make us increasingly dependent on transnational corporations and bankers, local currencies stay in a region to help people hire each other, reinforce community trading, and expand commerce that is more accountable to concerns for ecology and social justice.
Local currencies create conditions where people re-evaluate the costs of money. In their capacity to decentralize control and create participatory processes, local currencies can be powerful pivots for social change. The multiplication of these alternative economies threatens the interests of the corporate elite by preparing revolution in the minds and behaviors of people.
Participation in these economic alternatives is a form of direct action against monopoly capitalism. It is nonviolent, and therefore its methods are compatible with its goal.
With sufficient evidence of working alternatives, more people may begin to wonder why human activities that used to be done naturally have been rendered scarce and commodified; why activities like learning, dwelling, walking, and healing, under the rubrics of “education,” “housing,” “transportation,” and “healthcare,” have been turned into commodities and services that must be purchased. With more evidence of working alternatives, people begin to understand that the modern market economy takes what is best about humanity—care, neighborliness, kindness, community—and corrupts it by attaching a price.
Even though we have been socialized by a competitive and selfish culture and become accustomed to certain arrangements of social life, it is always possible to refuse destructive practices and to make steadfast commitments to relationships that presume fairness and goodwill, rather than self-interest and exploitation. Like the thousands of other local currency initiatives in the world,
MadHOURS is a practical and immediate strategy for this kind of change. For information on MadHOURS, visit www.madisonhours.org or call 608/259-9050. Camy Mathay is a writer and mother who lives in Brooklyn, Wisconsin.
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