After a week of living moneyless, I’ve decided I need a new definition of money. The current economic system in the UK, and many other places around the world, creates an abundance, an excess of all kinds of consumer products, from food and clothes to technology and even shelter. All these things are created for sale and you can buy them with money.
But because of the excess, you can also acquire these things for nothing, by intercepting them at the point of waste disposal, either after the consumer has tired of them or before they reach the market simply because they are part of that essential excess built into the system.
That excess is created because money under capitalism is a right to demand. As consumers with money in our pockets, we feel a fundamental right to exchange that money for whatever good we desire, and there is no greater crime for a supplier than to fail to meet that demand.
I’ll show you how this works with a classic skipper’s example: chain sandwich shops. Sandwiches are cheap to make, but office workers will happily pay a triple mark-up for a sandwich from a shop like EAT. What are they getting for their money? Not the mere sandwich commodity; the real product being sold is convenience. But that convenience only works if they can get exactly the sandwich they want.
A City Solutions Consultant wouldn’t pay a triple mark-up if the only option was bread and butter, or if the shop persistently ran out of his favourite wild crayfish and rocket. If either of these things happens, the consultant takes his business elsewhere (or starts making sandwiches at home).
The consequence of this is that the sandwich shop’s business model is obliged to over-produce sandwiches; they cannot afford to sell out every day for fear of shedding customers to their rivals. The result: waste, in the form of bags of sandwiches dumped on the side of the street at the close of business. This is well known to scroungers in areas densely populated by chain sandwich shops, like the City of London.
Urban scavenger Keziah Conroy showcases such sandwich shop hauls on her blog: a jalapeño chicken wrap, an all-day breakfast buttie, sourdough toasties, a chicken sunshine salad, and a beef and tomato baguette.
So what is money, if you can satisfy all your material needs for free by changing the way you acquire stuff? Well, now I know: money is just one way of solving a distribution problem. That’s all.
My Solutions Consultant pays money so that EAT will bring together all the ingredients and labour required to make, package and store his sandwich. All he has to do is turn up at the conveniently located shop and hand over his money.
This also explains why the sandwich shop business model demands total saturation of an area. There are eleven EAT sandwich shops within a quarter of a mile of Bank Underground station in the middle of London’s business district: money is a distribution mechanism, nothing more, nothing less. It reduces the friction of our lives, making our lives easier by “greasing the wheels”.
Positive constraints like No Money increase friction, and my argument is that this is a good thing: friction helps us engage our imaginations, learn how our world actually works and come up with alternative solutions. If we don’t want to spend money, then we have to work out different ways of solving the problems of distribution, whether that’s by squatting empty buildings, cycling and hitch-hiking, or skipping from waste bins.
However, without the “right of demand” that comes with money exchange, we must also expect less than perfect distribution solutions and be more flexible with what product we end up with (although that often means much richer variety, as I found with New Covent Garden).
The truth is that, if money is a solution to the problems of distribution that creates vast systemic waste, then the expenditure of money itself is a correlate for that same waste. Because there is already excess and waste in the system, every time I spend money, I am being profligate, draining natural resources, contributing to pollution and environmental degradation, wasting labour and energy, and tossing more and more garbage into land fill sites and waste incinerators.
I cannot hide from the knowledge that spending money actively contributes to a wasteful society. My new definition is this: money is waste.
Mark Boyle, who lived moneyless for four years, has written extensively on the implications of our use of money and would agree with this new definition.
“If we grew our own food, we wouldn’t waste a third of it as we do today. If we made our own tables and chairs, we wouldn’t throw them out the moment we changed the interior decor. If we had to clean our own drinking water, we probably wouldn’t contaminate it.”
We don’t because we spend money to reduce the friction in our lives by distancing ourselves from these labours. And to serve us our frictionlessness, we conspire to waste on a collossal scale.
‘Binning = Winning’. Binning = Winning. Accessed 1 October 2016. http://urban-scavenger.tumblr.com/post/118375084608.
Boyle, Mark. ‘I Live without Cash – and I Manage Just Fine’. The Guardian, 28 October 2009, sec. Environment. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/green-living-blog/2009/oct/28/live-without-money.