For one thing, the barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.
Finding a way to make a profit from bartering isn’t just a challenge to the people putting up their livelihood for trade. Even the brokers who act as bartering middlemen are searching for creative ways to make money from a service that isn’t about making money. A website like Swap.com—which connects people who want to exchange their unused household items—looks, at least on paper, like a financial windfall. Jeff Bennett, Swap.com’s CEO, claims that “the business has been doubling every year.” They’re closing in on 450,000 registered users, who’ve taken part in more than 4 million barter exchanges valued at approximately $13 million since the site’s inception in 2010. But as no part of that $13 million is in actual money, how exactly does Swap.com cover its overhead? Most of its capital comes from “related aspects of the business,” says Bennett, such as shipping fees and corporate sponsorships. “We’ve had very good experiences with companies like Gallo wines, LuLu’s Clothing, and ModCloth.” He also hopes to introduce a Swap.com subscription service in the near future that offers customers incentives for forking over a monthly fee, like an ad-free environment and early access to their favorite items.
The Owenite socialists in Britain and the United States in the 1830s were the first to attempt to organize barter exchanges. Owenism developed a "theory of equitable exchange" as a critique of the exploitative wage relationship between capitalist and labourer, by which all profit accrued to the capitalist. To counteract the uneven playing field between employers and employed, they proposed "schemes of labour notes based on labour time, thus institutionalizing Owen's demand that human labour, not money, be made the standard of value." This alternate currency eliminated price variability between markets, as well as the role of merchants who bought low and sold high. The system arose in a period where paper currency was an innovation. Paper currency was an IOU circulated by a bank (a promise to pay, not a payment in itself). Both merchants and an unstable paper currency created difficulties for direct producers.
When exchanging services, it’s important to remember that bartering is considered income. While you may be able to write off expenses you incur during the barter, you must claim the fair market value of the services you provided as income. For example, if you charge $60 an hour as a massage therapist, and you trade a one-hour massage for housecleaning services, you may have to claim the equivalent income. When you trade assets, you may even be responsible for tracking capital gains or losses. If you have any doubts or questions, consult the IRS website.
On the positive side, there are great advantages to bartering. As mentioned earlier, you do not need money to barter. Another advantage is that there is flexibility in bartering. For instance, related products can be traded such as portable tablets in exchange for laptops. Or, items that are completely different can be traded such as lawn mowers for televisions. Homes can now be exchanged when people are traveling, which can save both parties money. For instance, if your parents have friends in another state and they need somewhere to stay while on a family vacation, their friends may trade their home for a week or so in exchange for your parents allowing them to use your home.
Make the deal. After you've found a barter partner, get the agreement in writing. Make sure you detail what services or goods will be involved, the date of the exchange (or work to be done) and any recourse if either party reneges on their part of the deal. If you are working through a membership-based bartering association, they will likely provide all the structure and paperwork you need for the deal.
“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.
Whether or not one agrees with such broad claims, it’s worth noting that monetary debt, a byproduct of currency, has regularly been used to by some groups to manipulate others. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, suggested that the government encourage Native Americans to purchase goods on credit so they’d fall into debt and be forced to sell their lands. Today, black neighborhoods are disproportionately plagued by debt-collection lawsuits. Even after taking income into account, debt collection suits are twice as common in black neighborhoods as in white ones. $34 million was seized from residents of St. Louis’ mostly black neighborhoods in suits filed between 2008 and 2012, much of which was seized from debtors’ paychecks. In Jennings, a St. Louis suburb, there was one suit for every four residents during those years.
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: