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The Political Economy of Local Currency: Alternative Money, Alternative Development and Collective Action in the Age of Globalization

Papavasiliou, Faidra (2008)
Dissertation (319 pages)
Committee Chair / Thesis Adviser: Barlett, Peggy F
Committee Members: Freeman, Carla ; Nugent, David ; Wilk, Richard (Indiana University);
Research Fields: Anthropology, Cultural; American Studies
Keywords: consumption; money; social movements; sustainability
Program: Laney Graduate School, Anthropology
Permanent url:


For the past 17 years, Ithaca, New York has been the site of an experiment in alternative money. Parallel to the dollar, the Ithaca HOURS paper currency commands a share of the local economy, circulating within a bounded area around the town. Ithaca HOURS are one of the most prominent grassroots manifestations of a diverse and prolific global social movement of alternative currencies, emerging in response to the adverse economic, social and ecological effects of globalization. The movement brings the question of financial structures to bear on the discourse on globalization and development, which have tended to neglect the role of money as an element that not only enables and measures, but influences and shapes economic realities. An alternative form of money with bounded, circulation is a tool to support local economic activity, encourage fairness and social equity, and promote environmental sustainability. This work is an ethnographic examination of the Ithaca HOURS system, tracing the course and effects of the HOURS economy on the ground, given the theoretical and pragmatic challenges in envisioning and enacting sustainable alternatives to global capitalism, and the dynamics of defining "the local" and engaging "the community" in a socially complex setting. Ithaca is part of the economically depressed "rust belt" and the site of two major educational institutions. A distinctly diverse town, characterized by a highly progressive community Ithaca is also marked by racial, ethnic and class inequalities. The HOURS economy is small, with significant variation among users. While the system has made some inroads it has not broken through present divisions of race and class. For users, however, HOURS affect social relations through consumption. HOURS offer a different way to trade in which users have more of a say as to what is important and how it may be measured. The money used colors the experience and understanding of material exchange, as different currencies codify different ways to consume. This challenges the neutrality of money, indicating that the discourse on sustainability needs to re-problematize not only trade but also its medium.

Table of Contents

The Political Economy of Local Currency: Alternative Money, Alternative
Development and Collective Action in the Age of Globalization
Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Introduction: The Political Economy of Alternative Currency 1

- Money, Stage Left 2

- Choosing the Site: Case and Problematics 11

- Social Mobilization, Alternativity and Value 15

- Structure of the Work 25

Chapter 2 - Money and Movement 30

- Money in a Global Perspective 30

- The Complementary Currency Movement in Context 35

- Resistance, Reform, Alternatives 37

- Local Money and the Economy 47

- Local Money and Society 51

- The Ecology of Local Money 58

- System Types 62

Commodity Currencies 62

Mutual Credit Currencies 62

Fiat currencies 63

Time Dollars 64


HOURS Scrip Systems 66

- A Different Development? The Problematic of Alternativity 67

Interlude - On Methods and Fieldwork 70

Chapter 3 - Ithaca: History and Context 75

- A Sense of This Place 75

- The Land and What Grew on It 78

- Communities in Community 82

- That Other Money 87

Creation 87

Evolution 95

Mechanism 98

Chapter 4 - HOUR Economy 106

- How Much Is an HOUR? 106

- The System's Outline: Currency and Members 107

- A Macroeconomic Take 115

- The "Active User" Perspective 118

- Study Design and Problems with the Data 127

- Users 134

- Transaction Patterns: Earning and Spending 139

- Indirect Effects 149

Labor and Value 150

HOURS as a Safety Valve 153

When Shopping is Difficult: An Overaccumulator's Tale 156

- Partial Summary and Discussion 159

Chapter 5 - Social Life in a Local Currency Economy: Phenomena 162

- The Problem of Understanding Hominids En Masse 164

- Community as Place 167

- "In Ithaca We Trust:" Internal Differentiation and Community 171

- The Social World According to Hours 177

- Hours as Grassroots Organization 187

- The Experience of Exchanging Community 197

Personal Interactions and Participation 198

On Finding One Another (Or Not) 202

Exchange and Social Meanings 205

- Partial Summary and Discussion 210

Chapter 6 - Social Life in a Local Currency Economy. A Field Experiment

in Money and the Pursuit of Social Equity 213

- The Cornell Cooperative Extension Project 214

- "Low Income" in Ithaca: Class, Race (and Some Gender) 217

- The Cayuga House 224

- Results and Interpretation: Alternativity and Alterity 237

- Discussion 241

Things, People, and the Power to Define Reality 241

Alternativity, Marginality and Grassroots Organization 245

Chapter 7 - Consumption and Ecology in the Alternative

Currency Economy 250

- Evidence and Skepticism 252

- Revisiting Money 257

- Experiencing Value 263

- Value, Meaning, Politics 268

- Things About Stuff 278

- Distilled 283


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