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
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As the strangers approach the bed, I wonder if this could be a moment of great gentleness

I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do.

It’s 1.13am on an autumn morning some time towards the end of the 20th century and I’m awake in a vast hotel bed in a small town in the east of England. The mysterious east, with its horizons that seem to stretch further than they should be allowed to stretch by law. I can’t sleep. My asthma is bad and I’m wheezing. The clock I bought for £3 many years earlier ticks my life away with its long, slow music. The street light outside makes the room glow and shimmer.

I can hear footsteps coming down the corridor – some returning drunks, I guess, wrecked on the reef of a night on the town. I gaze at the ceiling, waiting for the footsteps to pass.

They don’t pass. They stop outside my door. I can hear whispering and suppressed laughter. My clock ticks. I hear a key card being presented, then withdrawn. The door opens slowly, creaking like a door on a Radio 4 play might. The whispering susurrates like leaves on a tree.

It’s an odd intrusion, this, as though somebody is clambering into your shirt, taking their time. A hotel room is your space, your personal kingdom. I’ve thrown my socks on the floor and my toothbrush is almost bald in the bathroom even though there’s a new one in my bag because I thought I would be alone in my intimacy.

Two figures enter. A man and a woman make their way towards the bed. In the half-dark, I can recognise the man as the one who checked me in earlier. He says, “It’s all right, there’s nobody in here,” and the woman laughs like he has just told her a joke.

This is a moment. I feel like I’m in a film. It’s not like being burgled because this isn’t my house and I’m sure they don’t mean me any harm. In fact, they mean each other the opposite.

Surely they can hear my clock dripping seconds? Surely they can hear me wheezing?

They approach, closer and closer, towards the bed. The room isn’t huge but it seems to be taking them ages to cross it. I don’t know what to do. In my old T-shirt and M&S pants, I don’t know what to do. I should speak. I should say with authority, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” But I don’t.

I could just lie here, as still as a book, and let them get in. It could be a moment of great gentleness, a moment between strangers. I would be like a chubby, wheezing Yorkshire pillow between them. I could be a metaphor for something timeless and unspoken.

They get closer. The woman reaches her hand across the bed and she touches the man’s hand in a gesture of tenderness so fragile that it almost makes me sob.

I sit up and shout, “Bugger off!” and they turn and run, almost knocking my clock from the bedside table. The door crashes shut shakily and the room seems to reverberate.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge