Gambling with social currencies

11_social currencies

In November 1999 – at the same time as the awakening of the intelligent multitudes in Seattle – a number of researchers and activists from nine countries gathered in Buenos Aires. They participated in a meeting at which the Latin American Network of Solidarity Socioeconomy (RedLASES) was created. Everyone had come to see how our barter clubs worked, to gain first-hand knowledge of that ‘social currency’ we had created with the (naïve?) intention of steering the fate of desperate entrepeneurship and two-digit unemployment rates towards a radicalisation of democracy…

It is true, we didn’t manage to do it. We were wrong in thinking that capitalism’s paradigm of scarcity could be overcome simply through the abundance represented by the barter fairs with social currencies. We mistook what we thought and believed in for what we needed people to believe in. We forget that Marxian truth that, in a class society, the dominant ideology is that of the dominant class. People wanted to have money in order to have things, to improve their standard of living – a legitimate desire. Without access to the mass media, we invested in academia as a means to diffuse our ideas – never a good bet for new ideas! We ended up fighting over minor questions, when the important thing was to show we were gambling on another model of development, a model which was not at all utopian, if one understood the importance of emitting and distributing another currency. Under pressure to present a ‘model system’, we were slow to absorb lessons coming from other experiences. We failed to convey the systemic dimension of the crisis, and thus the need for a systemic solution. We failed in producing a real-time articulation between the social currency, on the one hand, and other initiatives such as self-managed cooperatives, fair trade and ethical consumption, micro-credit and participatory budgets, on the other.

But to say that we were ‘wrong’ would be even more naïve. We have undertaken an important process of evolution. We have learnt many lessons, and today the micro-credit/social currency nexus is still making history in the everyday lives of many collectively organised enterpreneurs, hand-in-hand with public policy. This is no small feat.

Our strategic gambles for the future lie in showing that solidarity economy will only be the development model that we hope for if we manage to bring together everything that is presently disconnected: self-managed cooperatives, fair trade, responsible consumption, participatory budget-making, solidarity finances and social currencies. We must gamble that social currencies will become an instrument in the radicalisation of democracy; or else they won’t change how we relate to each other in any significant way.

To that end, we have to overcome the cognitive obstacles that arrest the process of social transformation that our time demands. These obstacles include: the lack of comprehension that there is an abundance of available resources – for any purpose and practice – made inaccessible by the artificial scarcity in which we live; our resilient incompetence in finding modes of articulating differences in synergy, accepting the other and their practices as legitimately other; and, our limited concept of responsibility, which we need to abandon so as to recognise that we are always responsible for our part and the whole

Heloisa Primavera teaches at the School of Economics at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is founder of the Latin American Network on Solidarity Socioeconomy ( and of Colibri, a project that offers training for agents of endogenous development (

This article is part of the t-10 series from Issue 5 of Turbulence asking, ‘What were you wrong about 10 years ago?‘.

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