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.
Bartering is based on a simple concept: Two individuals negotiate to determine the relative value of their goods and services and offer them to one another in an even exchange. It is the oldest form of commerce, dating back to at time before hard currency even existed. (Learn more about how bartering evolved, read The History of Money: From Barter To Banknotes.)
Modern barter and trade has evolved considerably to become an effective method of increasing sales, conserving cash, moving inventory, and making use of excess production capacity for businesses around the world. Businesses in a barter earn trade credits (instead of cash) that are deposited into their account. They then have the ability to purchase goods and services from other members utilizing their trade credits – they are not obligated to purchase from who they sold to, and vice-versa. The exchange plays an important role because they provide the record-keeping, brokering expertise and monthly statements to each member. Commercial exchanges make money by charging a commission on each transaction either all on the buy side, all on the sell side, or a combination of both. Transaction fees typically run between 8 and 15%.
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.
In 2012, the average Canadian had more than $27,000 in consumer debt. Wages are shrinking, costs are rising, and one-third of us are living paycheque to paycheque. “Most of us live beyond our means both financially and ecologically,” says Marta Nowinska, founder and president of one of Canada’s largest bartering communities, Swapsity, which launched in 2010. “Swapping is a viable approach to solving a lot of real problems,” she says. Like Simmons, Nowinska left a Bay Street job to join the world of barter. The idea for Swapsity came to her one day in 2006: she was on the subway and noticed how miserable everybody looked. She started to think about a business that could empower people. At first, she thought people could swap jobs, but dismissed it as unrealistic. Then: what if they could swap other things? She developed a business plan and launched a website.
It helped that she had something other people wanted. “If I had gone in and offered to bake a pie for a free night at their hotel,’ they’d probably have said ‘no.’ ” One Barter Babe, Carly Boyce, knitted Simmons an exact replica of a favourite hat Simmons had lost but luckily had a picture of herself wearing. When it came time for the trade, Boyce remembers feeling guilty because the hat was so easy for her to make, and she told Simmons so. Simmons laughed: it was incredibly easy, she told Boyce, for her to give financial advice. It was a funny conversation, Boyce says, but also one that gets at the essence of bartering: when money is taken out of the equation, value is a moving, customizable concept—and that’s just the way most barterers like it.
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:
In his analysis of barter between coastal and inland villages in the Trobriand Islands, Keith Hart highlighted the difference between highly ceremonial gift exchange between community leaders, and the barter that occurs between individual households. The haggling that takes place between strangers is possible because of the larger temporary political order established by the gift exchanges of leaders. From this he concludes that barter is "an atomized interaction predicated upon the presence of society" (i.e. that social order established by gift exchange), and not typical between complete strangers.