Greece Volos BarterAccording to Richard Florida, readily available digital tools like Firefox and Final Cut were supposed to empower artists, designers, and other “creatives” to steer the world’s future in a 21st-century Creative Economy. So why aren’t we all employed in creative industries by now?

It’s easy to point to the usual suspects like job outsourcing to China and Wall Street fat cats. But it is also true that some creative economies are thriving–even in epicenters of economic recession such as Greece–but they are organized around barter and free software rather than dollars or drachma.

First the bad news:

Is the Creative Class Engine Sputtering?

“The ‘creative class’ was supposed to be the new engine of the United States economy, but according to Scott Timberg, writing in Salon, that engine is sputtering. While a very few technologists have become very wealthy, for most creative workers, the rise of amateurs and enthusiasts means that few are actually making a living. The new economy is good for the elite who own the servers, but, for most, ‘the dream of a laptop-powered “knowledge class” is dead,’ he says.”

Now the good news: people in “impoverished” economies are finding ways to get what they need without dollars (or euros):

In Greece, Barter Networks Surge

Greeks squeezed by wage cuts, tax increases and growing fears about the euro have looked for creative ways to cope with a radically changing economic landscape….

The first time he bought eggs, milk and jam at an outdoor market using not euros but an informal barter currency, Theodoros Mavridis, an unemployed electrician, was thrilled.

“I felt liberated, I felt free for the first time,” Mr. Mavridis said in a recent interview at a cafe in this port city in central Greece. “I instinctively reached into my pocket, but there was no need to.”

Mr. Mavridis is a co-founder of a growing network here in Volos that uses a so-called Local Alternative Unit, or TEM in Greek, to exchange goods and services — language classes, baby-sitting, computer support, home-cooked meals — and to receive discounts at some local businesses.

Part alternative currency, part barter system, part open-air market, the Volos network has grown exponentially in the past year, from 50 to 400 members. It is one of several such groups cropping up around the country, as Greeks squeezed by large wage cuts, tax increases and growing fears about whether they will continue to use the euro have looked for creative ways to cope with a radically changing economic landscape….

Even the government is taking notice. Last week, Parliament passed a law sponsored by the Labor Ministry to encourage the creation of “alternative forms of entrepreneurship and local development,” including networks based on an exchange of goods and services. The law for the first time fills in a regulatory gray area, giving such groups nonprofit status.

Here in Volos, the group’s founders are adamant that they work in parallel to the regular economy, inspired more by a need for solidarity in rough times than a political push for Greece to leave the euro zone and return to the drachma.

“We’re not revolutionaries or tax evaders,” said Maria Houpis, a retired teacher at a technical high school and one of the group’s six co-founders. “We accept things as they are.”

Still, she added, if Greece does take a turn for the worse and eventually does stop using the euro, networks like hers are prepared to step into the breach. “In an imaginary scenario — and I stress imaginary — we would be ready for it.”

The group’s concept is simple. People sign up online and get access to a database that is kind of like a members-only Craigslist. One unit of TEM is equal in value to one euro, and it can be used to exchange good and services. Members start their accounts with zero, and they accrue credit by offering goods and services. They can borrow up to 300 TEMs, but they are expected to repay the loan within a fixed period of time.

Members also receive books of vouchers of the alternative currency itself, which look like gift certificates and are printed with a special seal that makes it difficult to counterfeit. Those vouchers can be used like checks. Several businesspeople in Volos, including a veterinarian, an optician and a seamstress, accept the alternative currency in exchange for a discount on the price in euros.

A recent glimpse of the database revealed people offering guitar and English lessons, bookkeeping services, computer technical support, discounts at hairdressers and the use of their yards for parties. There is a system of ratings so that people can describe their experiences, in order to keep transparent quality control.

(The network uses open-source software and is hosted on a Dutch server, cyclos.org, which offers low hosting fees.)

The group also holds a monthly open-air market that is like a cross between a garage sale and a farmers’ market, where Mr. Mavridis used his TEM credit to buy the milk, eggs and jam. Those goods came from local farmers who are also involved in the project.

Not content just to host Greek barter databases, the Dutch are getting into the act for their own artists:

All across Europe, we are suddenly being told that we are too poor to afford culture, but we are not poor. Many of us are artists, writers, curators, teachers, filmmakers, designers, and architects, and we have knowledge and skills. We can self-organize.

The dismantling of public funding for critical culture in the Netherlands in particular has made it urgent and necessary to develop new support structures if critical culture is to remain viable and vibrant. Alternative economies and other mutual aid systems may be one of the ways by which independent organizations and cultural producers may persevere.

Last May, Stroom Den Haag opened the Dutch branch of the e-flux Time/Bank, a platform and community for the cultural sector through which goods and services can be exchanged internationally by using time as a denomination of exchange. As cultural producers, we often do things without the use of money, and the Time/Bank is a tool to amplify this ability–based on the premise that everyone in the field of culture has something to contribute, and that it is possible to develop and sustain an alternative economy by connecting existing needs with unacknowledged abilities.

Time/Store follows the historic Cincinnati Time Store, opened by American anarchist Josiah Warren in 1827 as a three-year experiment in alternative economics. Warren’s idea was to develop an exchange system in which the value assigned to commodities would come as close as possible to the amount of human labor necessary to produce them. For example: 8 hours of a carpenter’s labor could be exchanged for eight to twelve pounds of corn. This system eventually led to the creation of time currency, and to contemporary time banking–an international alternative economic movement.

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