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: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation