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Friday, 2 October 2009

What would Steiner do?

Off to an Anthroposophical Society of Ireland workshop on the financial crisis in Dublin (looking forward to it if not the 6am start!) 'Money - In Search of Truth and Reality within the Financial Crisis'.

I've been reading a little about Steiner's view of the economy - as part of his conception of the 'threefold social order' (economy, state, society), but can't say I've really understood him. In an effort to better do this I've joined and now subscribe to the Centre for Associative Economics - latest issue its journal - Associate! has some interesting articles. In one I read the following:
"To bring balance to purchase money and loan money, we need to step in through gift money and convert our excess surplus into purchase money: in effect to give away capital to maintain a healthy economy. This is not necessarily a matter of more charity; there are other ways this can be accomplished such as interest free loans, or loans that can be written down as the borrower achieves success in his or her business activity. The other solution is to cut debt, to reduce the principal on a housing loan, in effect just shrink the amount of debt in the economy. These actions free up funds to spend on core activities; ideally activities which serve the general needs of humanity – education, health, culture. This gesture is guided by the understanding that capital cannot grow indefinitely in relation to spending money, that excess surplus has to be returned to the economy in a healthy way, that my surplus at some point is probably best used by someone else, not accumulated for my benefit. “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours.” This, according to the Rabbi, is the attitude of the virtuous for it recognizes the importance of giving. The parallel in the associative economic view is the importance of gift money".

This idea of 'gift money' seems to be that for moral as well as sound economic reasons (to prevent booms and crashes) 'surplus' profits (or a proprtion of them) should be simply recycled back into the system. The idea of interest free loans has a definite appeal in relation to the financing of any 'Green New Deal' with innovative financial mechanisms such as 'Green Bonds' or creating a 'Green Bank'.

In Steiner's 1922 lectures on economics he writes perceptively about money and its role in the economy;

"We ought not to let money merely flow
into circulation and give it freedom to do
what it likes. For we thereby do something
very peculiar in economic life. If we require
animals for some kind of labour, the first
thing we do is to tame them. Think how
long a horse has to be tamed before it can
be used. Yet we let money circulate quite
wildly in the economic process

Steiner, R Lectures on Economics, New Economy Publications, Canterbury 1996 - emphasis added.

From what I can gather - or gather so far from my very limited reading and understanding of his ideas - what Steiner had in mind was the necessity to build in devaluation within the money supply. This is something I've come across before in my research and reading on alternative/complementary currencies and the use of 'scrip money' during the 1930s Depression (I wonder will our current economic woes which are being called a recession develop into a depression so that it will have to have a capital D like the 1930s?!), which was a form of local money existing alongside the official currency

One of the main issues with scrip money is it had an in-built depreciation mechanism - either each time you used it, this was one transaction closer to it being no longer useable (i.e. each scrip note had a fixe number of transactions it could be used for), or there was a date set when the scrip note would be worthless and no longer accepted as a medium of exchange. The ingenoius element of scrip money, and which speaks to Steiner's concern about the dangers of 'surpluses' being accumulated, is that these currencies encouraged exhange and economic activity but discouraged hoarding. What's the point of hoading currnecy that is 'worthless' after it time limit has come?

I would suspect that as the economic crisis deepens we'll see a return to such localised responses. Alongside people shopping more in charity shops anothe depression-beater is re-localisation, and one of the most successful and best know recent examples of this is the Totnes pound championed by the Transition movement .


  1. Hi John - just wondering have you read anything about 'Islamic banking' methods? Usuary is supposedly outlawed in Islamic society - although of course it does happen. I used to have a load of papers around the house on islamic economics - one particularily good one on why the IMF should conform to Islamic economic models when dealing with muslim countries. Ha ha if...I probably don't have any of those papers anymore sadly as I probably thought I'd never need them again. Now here I sit wondering if there's any chance of me getting to do a phd???

  2. I know about the law against usury within Islamic teaching (which of course used to be the case also within Christianity) but can't say I know too much about it, except I think it would be a 'very good idea'. Lets arrange to meet to talk about PhD/postgrad stuff. JOhn