Redefining Value with Community Currency
Since money is essentially imaginary, why not use it to imagine a better world? Meet the peso of Puerto Rico.
When Richard Nixon killed the gold standard in 1971, the value of dollars, originally backed by the precious metal, became a matter of faith. The world now runs on so-called fiat currency, whose value is decreed by governments, and depends on an implicit social agreement to accept its validity.
Returning to the gold standard would not make the whole system any less fanciful. As the economist Richard Thaler said, “Why tie to gold? Why not 1982 Bordeaux?” Gold cannot be eaten or used for shelter. It’s valuable only because societies have considered it so and chose to trade it for actual stuff. A bottle of 1982 Bordeaux is considered valuable for no less subjective reasons.
The social conventions on which money is dependent can be reduced to one question: What do we assign value to? Value is related to stories we tell ourselves about the worth of certain activities (such as being a hedge fund manager) versus others (such as caring for children or harvesting food).
This fundamental understanding is behind the currency of Valor y Cambio (Value and Change). This “story-telling, community-building, and solidarity economy project” was created by scholar and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner and artist Sarabel Santos Negrón.
The goal of Valor y Cambio is to foster conversations about the tension that exists between the dominant narrative about value and the things that communities actually value, but that are often underestimated in monetary terms. Negrón-Muntaner and Santos have done this with the introduction in February of 2019 of their peso to Puerto Rico (an American territory which uses US Dollars), and from there to the heavily Puerto Rican Lower East Side of New York, with plans to take it to East Harlem in September of this year.
To receive these pesos, people have to go to the mobile Valor y Cambio ATM and answer a series of questions about what they value. They can use the bills to acquire items from participating local businesses — mainly food stands.
What does “poor” actually mean?
Pesos of Puerto Rico may be new, but the idea of a community currency is not. There are thousands of such currencies around the world that function independently of banks and governments. One of the most famous has been used in the London neighborhood of Brixton since 2009. The Brixton Pound was launched as a non-official alternative to the pound sterling, with the goal of keeping resources local. Other examples are the Palmas in Brazil, the BerkShare in Massachusetts, and time-based currencies, which give equal value to everyone’s hours of labor.
Community currencies are created to benefit the poor. But what does “poor” even mean? As it says on the Valor y Cambio’s website, “One of the reasons [for this project] is to challenge the notion that communities with little access to the dominant economy are inherently poor. […] Whereas high unemployment might mean that a community is being denied access to global products or services, many of the communities labeled as ‘poor’ are in reality rich in shared resources that tend to be underestimated.”
As the project’s co-creator Frances Negrón-Muntaner told me in an interview, “It’s one thing to become impoverished by not having access to certain resources and a very different thing is to say that people are poor. Epistemologically, they’re two completely different things. […] Women, young men, and aging people — all of them marginalized from the formal job market — would greatly benefit from a currency that could integrate both the young and the old in a new economic logic that recognizes that every member of the community can participate.”
The context for the peso of Puerto Rico: disaster and corruption
The community currency for Puerto Rico and its diaspora arose in the midst of a dire financial context in the island: an economy marked by more than a decade of recession and a debt of about $74 billion deemed “unpayable” in 2015 by then-Governor Alejandro García Padilla. Austerity measures implemented by the US to manage the debt — elimination of worker’s benefits, mass firings, cuts to health and education, etc. — have only shown that the interests of creditors are valued over the lives of Puerto Rican people.
Puerto Rico’s financial crisis was accompanied by the political upheaval in which governor Ricardo Rosselló was given the boot via a massive wave of demonstrations following the leak of thousands of text messages he exchanged with men from his circle. Along with misogyny, homophobia, and contempt for the more than 4,600 deaths caused by Hurricane Maria on display in these texts, there was also evidence of a corruption network and the misuse of public resources.
Aligning value with values
Negrón-Muntaner observed that the values reflected in the answers people gave at Valor y Cambio’s ATM are at clear odds with the policies that have been imposed in Puerto Rico. Participants’ responses showed they value family, education, community, food security, the environment, and safety from gun violence. But responding to hunger, climate change, and violence caused by firearms are not values encoded in the currency of the dominant economic system. If anything, these problems are made worse by the economy’s focus on profit and perpetual growth. The crisis in Puerto Rico is indeed economic and political, but as the Valor y Cambio project shows, it’s also a dispute between utterly incompatible ideas of value.
While the first thing that may come to mind when discussing alternative currencies is Bitcoin, the Valor y Cambio peso goes beyond being a mere medium of exchange. Where Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies adhere to the conventional standards for monetary value, community currencies offer an alternative paradigm, one that reflects the values of the people who use it.
The bills themselves represent another element of contrast with dominant currencies. Negrón-Muntaner points out that U.S. Dollars depict only white men, most of them slave owners, reminding Puerto Ricans who the real protagonists are in the country they belong to, but are not a part of. Pesos depict Puerto Rican contemporary and historical figures who’ve fought for gender, racial, and economic justice. The 25 peso bill, for instance, pays homage to the Martín Peña Channel communities, which were established in San Juan’s metropolitan area by peasants who began settling by the channel in the 1930s. For years, these communities have been fighting for the restoration of the polluted channel and against displacement by real estate speculators.
In practice, the alternative peso hasn’t supplanted dollars in either Puerto Rico or New York. And setting up the special ATM involves logistical challenges and a supply of the regular kind of currency. But it has clearly hit a nerve. In Puerto Rico, many have chosen to hold onto their pesos instead of spending them. In a nation that has been under official or de facto colonial rule for 500 years, colorful bills representing people from the community have proven to have their own kind of value.
Despite the challenges, the creators of this currency would love to expand the project at some point. Negrón-Muntaner said she and Santos hoped that by questioning the idea of value and who gets to control its narrative, the project would lead people to “question the logic that organizes all of society’s resources, and the human hierarchy that determines who lives and who dies, who deserves to have resources and who doesn’t.”
Bárbara Pérez Curiel is a writer and journalist from Mexico City. She’s interested in culture, politics, the arts, and, above all, their intersections. Her work in English and Spanish has been published in international magazines and outlets such as The Hong Kong Review and Letras Libres.
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