When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.

The first 23 Barter Babes to join were friends and former PH&N co-workers who wanted to support Simmons. They mostly traded items and services to help out with the launch party: a lot of food, a press release, coat racks, silent auction items, courier services and social media consulting. Barter Babe No. 24, Grace Poon, was the first person to sign up for the project with whom Simmons had no prior connection. In exchange for Simmons’s financial advice, Poon provided graphic designs for an investment presentation (which Simmons still uses today). She remembers being excited, but also nervous: it was the first trade she’d made with someone who didn’t feel obligated to give her unconditional support. She needn’t have worried.
Bartering is the process of obtaining goods or services by direct exchange without the use of currency. In times of economic instability or currency devaluation, it can be a great way to ensure the flow of necessary items and services into your household without using precious funds. Historically, face-to-face exchanges between familiar parties were most common, but the Internet has opened up a new medium for bartering opportunities for both person-to-person exchanges and third-party facilitated transactions.
“Economic theory has always got to be historically bounded,” Beggs says. “I think it’s a mistake to think you’ll find the workings of modern money by going back to the origins of money.” He does point out that, while barter may not have been widespread, it’s possible that it happened somewhere and led to money, just given how much is unknown about such a large period of time.
Within the week, Simmons gave notice to her employer. By then, she’d been pining to leave for eight months and had diligently saved for the occasion. Her plan now was to barter her financial services with other women for one year. That would be enough time, she figured, to get the altruism out of her system, but not so much that she’d go broke. She would use $10,000 in savings to pay her cellphone bill and to parcel out $35 in emergency spending each week if and when bartering fell through on the basic necessities. That money would also help pay for most of the rent at the Dovercourt and Queen apartment she shared with her boyfriend, Matt, who was in the midst of changing careers. Everything else—food, clothing, haircuts, fitness, entertainment and transportation around the city—she would acquire through barter. Simmons figured she’d need to barter with 300 women to make it work. She gave the project a catchy name, Barter Babes, and started organizing a launch party.
Trade did occur in non-monetary societies, but not among fellow villagers. Instead, it was used almost exclusively with strangers, or even enemies, where it was often accompanied by complex rituals involving trade, dance, feasting, mock fighting, or sex—and sometimes all of them intertwined. Take the indigenous Gunwinggu people of Australia, as observed by the anthropologist Ronald Berndt in the 1940s:
When the year-long Barter Babes experiment finished at the end of 2011, Simmons discovered she didn’t want to go back to Bay Street. Instead, she launched her own financial advice business, the New School of Finance. She rents office space at Queen and Bathurst, and many of her clients are former Barter Babes. Her focus is on easily digestible advice, socially conscious investment and creative solutions like barter. Simmons doesn’t recommend that anybody live entirely on swapping: it’s too hard. But she still barters. Recently, after getting engaged to Matt, she swapped a full year of tax and business financial advice for a $3,700 wedding photography package. The photographer is a Barter Babe who has, in turn, traded her services for yoga classes and a self-defence class for herself and 20 friends. On the day I met Simmons, she was wearing a shirt and a pair of jeans from a clothing swap, matched with a trendy floral jacket she bought from Coal Miner’s Daughter, a boutique co-owned by Barter Babe No. 81.
Debts in the wir currency, assigned the same value as the Swiss franc, could be paid with sales to any member of the bartering circle: if a baker needed to “purchase” eggs and flour from a farmer, the baker could pay off the debt by “selling” baked goods to another wir member. The farmer, in turn, could use his newly acquired credit to “buy” his own needed items or services. Despite a bank-led campaign to discredit the system, wir stuck. Today, it has more than 60,000 business participants and does the equivalent of about $4.4 billion in annual trade.
On paper, this sounds a bit like delayed barter, but it bears some significant differences. For one thing, it’s much more efficient than Smith’s idea of a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person simultaneously having what the other wants. It’s also not tit for tat: No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred.
But the harm may go deeper than a mistaken view of human psychology. According to Graeber, once one assigns specific values to objects, as one does in a money-based economy, it becomes all too easy to assign value to people, perhaps not creating but at least enabling institutions such as slavery (in which people can be bought) and imperialism (which is made possible by a system that can feed and pay soldiers fighting far from their homes).
Still, Adam Smith really did seem to believe barter was real. He writes, “When the division of labour first began to take place, this power of exchanging must frequently have been very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations,” and then goes on to describe the inefficiencies of barter. And Beggs says that many textbooks sloppily seem to endorse this viewpoint. “They sort of use that fairy tale,” he explains.
Barter, the direct exchange of goods or services—without an intervening medium of exchange or money—either according to established rates of exchange or by bargaining. It is considered the oldest form of commerce. Barter is common among traditional societies, particularly in those communities with some developed form of market. Goods may be bartered within a group as well as between groups, although gift exchange probably accounts for most intragroup trade, particularly in small and relatively simple societies. Where barter and gift exchange coexist, the simple barter of ordinary household items or food is distinguished from ceremonial exchange (such as a potlatch), which serves purposes other than purely economic ones.
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