Time-banking offers hope to the dispossessed youth of Europe

Everyone has something to offer if you treat their time as the precious commodity.

With a youth unemployment rate of 27 per cent, time-rich Spaniards have embraced the concept of time-banking, a market system where hours of life replace money as the measure of value (£):

Even though she's one of millions of young, unemployed Spaniards, 22-year-old Silvia Martín takes comfort in knowing that her bank is still standing behind her. It's not a lending institution, but rather a time bank whose nearly 400 members barter their services by the hour.

Ms. Martín, who doesn't own a car and can't afford taxis, has relied on other time-bank members to give her lifts around town for her odd jobs and errands, as well as to help with house repairs. In return, she has cared for members' elderly relatives, organized children's parties and even hauled boxes for a member moving to a new house.

Time-banking was first championed by Edgar Cahn as a way to address market failures. Cahn argues that the price mechanism, by valuing scarcity, actively defines "every fundamental capacity that has enabled our species to survive [as] worthless".

He suggests that our entire economic system – and therefore, arguably, society – is based on notions of "valuable work" and "assets" that belittle "our ability to care for each other". Because humans are hardwired for love, activities that are driven by caring or passion are theoretically abundant, but economically worthless; this means that they are relegated to volunteer work.

And so, Cahn distinguishes the "special program" that is the monetary system from the "operating system" that is the democracy, social justice and community on which the former depends. His basic argument is that we’ve neglected this "core economy" in favour of an accessory social system that is built around an arbitrary reward structure.

Time-banking was therefore envisaged as a tool to nurture our "core economy" by using the very mechanisms that have brought us such incredible material wealth – the market system. By using hours of time as the signal of worth, time-banking hopes to "create a constituency for justice" by incentivising people to "pay it forward".

For every hour of time and skill someone devotes to a time-bank job, they get an hour, from another person, back. This allows members access to services they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford – foreign language lessons, plumbing, help with shopping, babysitting.

However, the material payoffs of time-banking are far surpassed by the community ties and sense of worth it builds. In a study led by the new economics foundation (pdf), a time-banking initiative undertaken in the unemployment-stricken area of Gorbals in Glasgow was proven to instil pride and belonging, even in the most estranged members of society (for instance, asylum seekers who are prevented from working for pay).

A key tenet of time-banking is precisely that everyone has something to offer. In particular, members of the Gorbals time-bank cited that they felt that their skills were valued. This is especially important for the unemployed, who have been deemed worthless by the market; it counters the depressing thought that you, who are unable to find a job, have nothing to offer society. Or, more simply, it reminds those whose hourly life rate has been set at £6.08 that everyone’s time is of equal value, irrespective of education, luck, and market-worthy skills.

Furthermore, the commodification of kindness afforded by the Time Banking system eliminates the awkward one-sidedness of charity. As quoted by East London Lines, Gill Stoker, a member of the landmark Rushney Green Time Bank in Lewisham says:

The beauty of time credits is that everybody gains something. No-one feels like an object of charity. I get back what I give out.

At its worst, charity scathes recipients’ pride and fuels helplessness, whilst leaving benefactors nauseous for being so condescending.

With time-banking, the mutually incited torrent of self-loathing and moral confusion is plugged by the fact that the entire system presupposes a relationship between equals.

As a young person in Europe, it is especially easy to feel desperate and estranged. While faceless Brussels technocrats and foreign leaders hold lofty press conferences, the social floor quakes.

The nationalisms we would have clung to a few decades ago are no longer relevant; my generation has grown up with a single currency and fuzzy ideas of sovereignty. This is a good thing, but can often make you forget that you are a part of something bigger than yourself or your immediate circle of loved ones. The pretext of equal exchange, by encouraging people to get to know their neighbour (however fleetingly or shallowly), serves as a catalyst for meaningful engagement with the world, rather than passive meandering. Because its hard to make sacrifices for faceless, nameless people.

A Greek man holds a time-banking coupon in Volos. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.