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:
An alternate currency, denominated in labour time, would prevent profit taking by middlemen; all goods exchanged would be priced only in terms of the amount of labour that went into them as expressed in the maxim 'Cost the limit of price'. It became the basis of exchanges in London, and in America, where the idea was implemented at the New Harmony communal settlement by Josiah Warren in 1826, and in his Cincinnati 'Time store' in 1827. Warren ideas were adopted by other Owenites and currency reformers, even though the labour exchanges were relatively short lived.
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.
Bartering may sound like a style of commerce more fitting to a backwater marketplace than a modern capitalist environment. According to the International Reciprocal Trade Association—an organization created to promote “just and equitable standards” in modern bartering—the U.S. barter market is a staggering $12 billion annually. In other words, $12 billion worth of goods and services are traded every year without any currency changing hands. Scott Whitmer, founder of trade exchange company Florida Barter, says that while 2011 saw positive signs of an economic recovery, many small and medium-size companies are still struggling. “Bartering has continued to help many [of these] companies grow and conserve cash,” he says. Though Florida Barter enjoyed a record 2011—a 12 percent increase in total trade volume; more than $17 million worth of trades among the 1,600 clients—Whitmer says bartering as a business practice is still in its infancy, “on the cusp of exploding.”
Bartering allows individuals to trade items that they already have but are not using for items that they need while keeping their cash on hand for expenses that cannot be paid through bartering such as a mortgage, medical bills and utilities. Bartering can also have a psychological benefit because it can create a deeper personal relationship between trading partners than a typical monetized transaction. Bartering can also help people build professional networks and market their businesses.
When two people each have items the other wants, both people can determine the values of the items and provide the amount that results in an optimal allocation of resources. Therefore, if an individual has 20 pounds of rice that he values at $10, he can exchange it with another individual who needs rice and who has something that the individual wants that's valued at $10. A person can also exchange an item for something that the individual does not need because there is a ready market to dispose of that item.
He would have heard of channels and sandbanks, of natural features of the land useful for sea-marks, of villages and tribes and modes of barter and precautions to take: with the instructive tales about native chiefs dyed more or less blue, whose character for greediness, ferocity, or amiability must have been expounded to him with that capacity for vivid language which seems joined naturally to the shadiness of moral character and recklessness of disposition.
Since the 1830s, direct barter in western market economies has been aided by exchanges which frequently utilize alternative currencies based on the labor theory of value, and designed to prevent profit taking by intermediators. Examples include the Owenite socialists, the Cincinnati Time store, and more recently Ithaca HOURS (Time banking) and the LETS system.
No academics I talked to were aware of any evidence that barter was actually the precursor to money, despite the story’s prevalence in economics textbooks and the public’s consciousness. Some argue that no one ever believed barter was real to begin with—the idea was a crude model used to simplify the context of modern economic systems, not a real theory about past ones.
Dave Evans, a Barter Business Unlimited member who operates an online ticket reseller in Plainville, Conn., called EasySeat, was first attracted to bartering as a means to sell distressed inventory. “Our inventory is 100 percent speculative,” he says. “Bartering is a way for us to liquidate inventory that we might not be able to sell for cash.” He’s bartered tickets to New York Yankees championship games and Lady Gaga concerts, and in exchange he’s received everything from a fresh paint job at a company building to an overhauled office alarm service. Sometimes, though, he’s bartered for services that weren’t exactly essential to his business. “I used some of the barter money to get Lasik surgery for myself,” he says. “I guess that’s a little counterintuitive.”
Then again, it’s one thing to keep a community alive and well when everyone’s camping in a forest and they’ve all opted in to that vision. It’s quite another to imagine a gift economy enabling humans to build skyscrapers, invent iPhones, put air conditioners in every house, and explore space. (The same goes for collecting taxes and running large businesses.) Not that it’s an all-or-nothing situation: We already have gift economies among friends and family. Perhaps expanding that within small communities is possible; it’s certainly desirable.