Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Civic Engagement and TimeBanks

TimeBanks are community-based systems that facilitate the giving and receiving of services. Central to their function is the concept of time dollars, or time credits. Time functions as a quantified unit of value, or currency that is locally administered, enabling a wider network of reciprocity to unfold. In Los Angeles alone there are thirteen TimeBanks (arroy oseco network 2014). Each TimeBank identifies with their respective neighborhood. Pasadena, Altadena, North East LA, Echo Park, Silverlake, Los Feliz, Glendale, Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights, Downtown LA, Westlake, West Adams, & Korea Town. 

“The origins of time-based currency can be traced both to the American anarchist Josiah Warren, who ran the Cincinnati Time Store from 1827 until 1830, and to the British industrialist and philanthropist Robert Owen, who founded the utopian "New Harmony" community. While both systems are based on the principles of mutualism and the labor theory of value, Josiah Warren's currency was explicitly pegged to time as a measure of specific goods or labor. For example, 3 hours of carpenter's work would be considered equivalent to 3-12 pounds of corn. Meanwhile, Robert Owen's currency simply bore an inscription referring to a number of hours, which presumably could be exchanged for however many pounds of corn a farmer would deem adequate or labor of any kind.” (Time/Bank 2014) 

Edgar S. Cahn, a professor of law and social justice activist, initially came up with the “TimeBank” design in 1980. “The first successful contemporary time bank was started in 1991 by Paul Glover in Ithaca, New York. ...people began to exchange time, which led to the creation of a time-based currency—the "Ithaca Hours," which even local businesses began to accept, and which still flourishes. Time banking and service exchange have since developed into a full-fledged movement, usually centered around local communities.” (Time/Bank 2014) In the thirty plus years since Cahn’s initial design, a large network of TimeBanks, and other related projects, have spread across the US and Europe.   

“Time banks are like loyalty points for neighbourliness, community building and social inclusion. Activities include befriending, giving lifts, peer tutoring in schools, mentoring, small house-hold repairs and gardening. Each hour of service given earns a time credit, and a broker finds participants to meet others’ requests for help, and keeps track of the exchange of time credits. Credits can be redeemed by purchasing services from other participants, saved for the future, or donated to others.” (Seyfang, 2004)  

Through the administrative function of the TimeBank, the various institutions, groups, and individuals that constitute the TimeBank community, enable a more complex and dynamic exchange of resources outside of the formal economy, than would otherwise be possible. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argues that prior to currencies, villages functioned through direct bartering. As the story goes, bartering eventually gave way to money, which was followed by systems of debt. In David Graeber’s monumental book Debt: The First 5000 Years he argues that historical developments actually unfolded in, more or less, the opposite direction of the conventional economic parable. Systems of credit and debt emerged well before money. Villages functioned not through on the spot bartering, but through neighborly systems of credit. Graeber explains, that in village life it is in your best interest to having your neighbor slightly in debt to you. Such transactions were only quantified when anger and the risk of violence emerged. According to Graeber, the quantification of value, and the emergence of currencies were deeply linked with the formation of armies; primarily as a means of dealing with the logistics of feeding large armies as they moved around the country. Even as money began to emerge and function as the dominate unit of value, there was unusually so little actual currency in circulation, that most of the economy functioned on credit. Graeber goes on to trace the practices of debt jubilees, where as a mean of stabilizing the economy, all personal debts would be cleared. Central to Graeber’s argument, is the idea that debt between peers is negotiable, while debt across hierarchies is far less flexible. From this perspective, if democracy is to mean anything, it is that everyone has a say in the negotiation of debts. (Graeber 2011)      

With Graeber’s historical research in mind, one can begin to understand the TimeBanks as a quantitative strategy for enabling this traditional neighborly village economy within larger more complex urban settings. Central to the administrative function of the contemporary TimeBank is a short list of open source systems. Administratively managed through the use of an online software, TimeBanks could been seen as part of a possible spectrum of experiments with digital networks and currencies, from TimeBanks, to BitCoin and other autonomous currencies, to Wall Street high-frequency-trading super computers - all of which use software to manage the promise of future value. 

Moments of economic crisis and personal financial uncertainty foreground the fragile social norms that uphold our belief in the value and function of a currency. Such function is predicated on what Foucault might describe as instruments of  ‘governmentality’, or the hegemonic distribution of governance, where individual and group participation is an integral feature of contemporary architectures of power. There is an agonistic quality to Foucault’s critiques, that one can leverage to evaluate the community centric rhetoric of TimeBanks, and the function of “participation” in civic life. Whether it be TimeBanks or other civic projects, there are clear connections between the language of “collaboration” and the withdrawal and erosion of public services. Volunteerism will never effectively replace paid labor; nor do most of these efforts hope to do so. But the question remains, to what extent do self-organized communities build greater democratic power versus enable further withdrawal of formal benefits and services? Certainly there is no single answer to this question, but rather a slew of moving targets and conditions. One thing is certain, freedom and social responsibility are bound together, the legibility of which is dependent upon systems of governance and power. Out of pragmatic necessity one must eventually claim an ethical position, that translates into instrumentalized systems that adjust to shifting goals and conditions.       

In Seyfang’s 2004 study of an inner city TimeBank from Glasgow, she found that TimeBank members were disproportionally unemployed and came from low-income, and rental households. In the UK, which has a stronger welfare system compared to the US, TimeBanks have been embraced by local authorities and promoted within “deprived” and “excluded” areas.  Embraced by New Labour as a kind of self-help extension of the welfare state, TimeBanks quickly multiplied and spread across the country in the early and mid two-thousands. By contrast in the US, TimeBanks have been much more inline with cooperative groups, community organizing, and resource mapping initiatives; or what might be described as prefigurative politics. The main critique of prefigurative politics, or “being the change you want to see,” is that “it can lend itself to... depoliticised lifestylism – reducing social change to a matter of individual choices (and often consumption choices), creating self-satisfied, judgmental communities that are oblivious to how the availability of choice is in itself socially determined.” (Gerdes)  

So while there are considerable differences in the wider conditions informing TimeBanks, the Glasgow case study offers two generalizable points. 1) Smaller TimeBanks can struggle with “skill gaps,” where a lack of skills within the existing network makes it less likely that the TimeBank will meet the needs of everyone. 2) The success of TimesBanks (measured by circulation of time credits, and the less quantifiable outcome of helping to “stitch together the social fabric”) is largely informed by partnerships with local organizations in addition to individuals.  

KoreaTown Los Angeles, source:

I recently sat down with Sean, the main administrator, from the KoreaTown TimeBank. Ktown is in central Los Angeles and according the LA Times it is the most population dense area in Los Angeles, with 120,000 residents in 2.7 square miles. With roughly seventy members, and just over a year old, the Ktown TimeBank is one of the younger and smaller of the Los Angeles TimeBanks. The “Arroy Oseco Network” as it’s known, was started in the mid two-thousands, with a total membership of a few thousand people. Silver Lake and Echo Park are apparently the larger, and most active in the network. Sean explained that a lot of people like the idea of the TimeBank, but the one hour orientation meeting is a hurtle that most people never make it past. “You have to really want it.” And even for those that manage to make the meeting, most of them don't realize the many things they can contribute, or gain from the TimeBank. Sean explained that it takes considerable energy and discussion for the new members to fully understand and appreciate all the things one can contribute and ask for. According to Sean, the TimeBank functions as a kind of “social club,” where friendships can potentially emerge. As a framework, the group meetings and online system,  facilitate “a lot of small things, that in aggregate become huge - become most of life.”  

In the past, the Los Angeles Metro offered TimeBank members a seventy percent discount on their annual Metro pass. Having appreciated the idea of the TimeBank for sometime, it was the incentive of a cheaper Metro card that initially motivated Sean to join. Sean doesn’t drive, he’s an avid cyclist. He is in his mid thirties, and works as a freelance graphic designer, so his schedule is somewhat flexible. I asked him about the demographics of the TimeBank. “Do you think the Ktown TimeBank members are more likely to be, under, or unemployed?” Sean doesn’t have any facts or figures on the matter, but anecdotally he doesn’t think so. Many of the members are creative industry types that freelance or have flexible schedules for some reason or another, but there are also some housewives, and retirees. So while it seems quite possible the demographics of the Ktown TimeBank reflects a certain degree of privilege, Sean did make a point of saying that it has brought him into contact with people he would never otherwise meet.          

hand drawn map of Ktown, source:


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