Economic historian Karl Polanyi has argued that where barter is widespread, and cash supplies limited, barter is aided by the use of credit, brokerage, and money as a unit of account (i.e. used to price items). All of these strategies are found in ancient economies including Ptolemaic Egypt. They are also the basis for more recent barter exchange systems.
It’s no scam, but it can be complicated to the uninitiated. As Lombardi explains, “We run like a little bank.” Members are paid in “barter dollars,” which they can exchange with other members for goods and services. Within the bartering community, it’s the only acceptable currency. “It’s like going to a barter mall,” Lombardi says. “They can do all their holiday shopping. They can get the carpets cleaned. They can pay for their child’s orthodontic work. It’s almost limitless.”
Limitless—and occasionally bizarre. Lombardi has brokered barters on everything from tattoos to real estate to headstones. “Don’t laugh, but we’ve had people who’ve bartered for boob jobs,” she says. “If that’s what you really want and it’s not in your budget, with bartering you just have to do a few more carpet cleaning jobs and eventually you’ll have new boobs. That’s a wonderful thing.”
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 the process of obtaining goods or services by direct exchange without the use of currency. In times of economic instability or currency devaluation, it can be a great way to ensure the flow of necessary items and services into your household without using precious funds. Historically, face-to-face exchanges between familiar parties were most common, but the Internet has opened up a new medium for bartering opportunities for both person-to-person exchanges and third-party facilitated transactions.
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.
For instance, each time Apple releases a new version of the iPhone, the second-hand market for older versions of the iPhone enjoys a flurry of activity. However, you do have to be as careful with the barter of used goods as you would be with the purchase of used goods. Be sure everything is in working order and shows no signs of significant damage.
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.
Other anthropologists have questioned whether barter is typically between "total" strangers, a form of barter known as "silent trade". Silent trade, also called silent barter, dumb barter ("dumb" here used in its old meaning of "mute"), or depot trade, is a method by which traders who cannot speak each other's language can trade without talking. However, Benjamin Orlove has shown that while barter occurs through "silent trade" (between strangers), it also occurs in commercial markets as well. "Because barter is a difficult way of conducting trade, it will occur only where there are strong institutional constraints on the use of money or where the barter symbolically denotes a special social relationship and is used in well-defined conditions. To sum up, multipurpose money in markets is like lubrication for machines - necessary for the most efficient function, but not necessary for the existence of the market itself."
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: