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Contestations monétaires. Une économie politique de la monnaie

Contestations and Contradictions in the Argentine Redes de Trueque

Contestations et contradictions dans les réseaux de troc argentins
Georgina M. Gómez et Joop de Wit


Les Systèmes de monnaie Complémentaire et Communautaire (CCS) sont considérés comme des projets de contestation monétaire, étant admis que le rejet du système monétaire officiel représente un acte de résistance micro-politique envers le gouvernement, le système économique mondialisé et les instruments de pouvoir qui les sous-tendent. Cette étude s’efforce de répertorier les diverses interprétations possibles du principe de « contestation monétaire » dans le cas des pratiques économiques quotidiennes caractéristiques des systèmes de monnaie complémentaires argentins. Les visions politiques variées qui cohabitent au sein du Redes de Trueque (réseau de troc) ont concouru à en diviser les membres, tant sur un plan vertical qu’horizontal. Ainsi, il apparaît que seule une partie d’entre eux nourrissait un projet de contestation monétaire, tandis qu’un second groupe affichait une volonté de résister à la situation et de maintenir son niveau de vie. Une troisième partie des adhérents répondit au contexte de crise en faisant preuve de pragmatisme et d’instinct de survie. Le gouvernement choisit de soutenir ces derniers, particulièrement au niveau local. Dans la mesure où les choix économiques d’une partie de ses membres rejoignaient les intérêts politiques des gouvernements locaux et des intermédiaires politiques informels, le programme Redes de Trueque fut largement diffusé. Il faut donc en conclure que la contestation monétaire n’est que l’une des multiples aspirations des adhérents aux CCS.

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1Community or Complementary Currency Systems (CCS) are schemes in which groups of individuals exchange goods and services in their localities using a self-created and self-regulated currency, instead of using the national currency managed by the Central Banks. In theory, CCS represent a contestation to the mainstream monetary system in at least three ways: by introducing the idea of free-money with no interest rates (Kennedy, 1995), challenging the issuance monopoly of the Central Bank and the exclusiveness of banks in monetary intermediation (Lietaer, 2001); and by undermining the principle of one currency per country to allow for differences in regional and local needs for money (Blanc, 2012; Gomez, 2015). Advocates promote CCS also as environmentally friendly initiatives to insulate the local economy from the downturns of the national and global economies, enhance social cohesion within a community, and sustain livelihoods during periods of economic distress (Pacione, 1997; Seyfang, 2002; Seyfang, 2001a; Seyfang, 2001b). CCS presently operate in 56 countries and in the last decade they have been multiplied around the world (Blanc and Fare, 2013).

2In what ways CCS represent a monetary contestation in the practical daily lives of economic agents, however, remain to be seen. This article argues that in reality it is difficult to identify what is being contested and by whom. Most CCS are too local and too small to actually represent a meaningful or realistic challenge to the regular monetary system. The main exception regarding scale was the Argentine CCS, called Redes de Trueque (RT), which is the case analysed in this article. Between 1995 and 2005 the Redes de Trueque were launched, grew and declined. They attracted 2.5 million users in the crisis around 2000 and dropped to almost invisibility by 2010. There are different interpretations on the extent to which the Argentine CCS represented a contestation of the powers of the state, the government, its monetary authorities or the capitalist system in general. Among the leaders of the RT, some sustained a clear anti-state and anti-capitalist discourse signalling a desire for a more communitarian type of economic system. Other leaders adopted a pragmatic position and portrayed the scheme as an anti-crisis device, although with some awareness that the crisis was the product of the neoliberal reforms and that they were proposing an alternative system. Among the participants of the RT, some regarded them as the opportunity to construct an economy embedded in the community and locality, while for others it was a mechanism to complement their meagre incomes.

3Governments are frequently repressive of CCS because they challenge the monopoly of the Central Bank over the issuance of currency. In the Argentinean case, some government officials supported the RT as a local development policy while informal political brokers disseminated the scheme as a problem-solving scheme at the neighbourhood level that was, at the same time, convenient to their own political interests. This article shows that in the economic daily practices of social actors in Argentina, the idea of monetary contestation was understood differently and some were not aware that there was a contestation at all.

4This paper explores the claim that CCS represent a monetary contestation by discussing the Argentine case. It will look into the formal and informal relationships between the RT leaders, the participants and the government. The study distinguishes between the “new” poor (those with a declared middle class history and accumulated assets before the structural adjustment reforms) and the “traditional” poor (those with a declared meagre income history and no significant accumulated assets). This distinction is a mere abstraction that cannot fully separate two clear and mutually exclusive categories, among other reasons because some of the new poor have had insufficient income for too long to be considered “new” poor and would not be able to afford a middle class lifestyle ever again. The database for this study was collected during nine months of fieldwork in 2004, including visits and interviews with 45 local coordinators (11 of them were also informal political brokers) and a survey with a structured sample of 386 participants out of which extensive interviews followed with 130 of them. In turn, a series of interviews was done with government officials and experts, while the initiators of the RT and their main regional leaders were interviewed repeatedly to register the oral history of the scheme. Shorter fieldwork visits started already in 2001 and followed at least every two years between 2004 and 2013 to follow up the situation of the nodes, the leaders and the coordinators, but without interviewing significant numbers of participants again.

5Following this introduction, the article continues with an overview of the approach to CCS as a monetary contestation in section 2 and the evolution of the RT in section 3. The subsequent sections 4 to 6 explore the configuration of the actors’ interests and their relationships, and these conclude in final reflections in section 7.

1. CCS as monetary contestation

6Complementary and Community Currency Systems have spread around the world since the nineties and have attracted the interests of academics for different reasons. They are mainly seen as grassroots reactions against the monetary system, which is one of the fundamental components of the capitalist system. CCS contest the need to maintain one central monetary system per country that is subject to the global financial system. Since early 1990s, activists with a critical view of neoliberal economic globalisation have experimented with local money schemes as a means to enhance local resilience and to regain control over economic life (North, 2014: 248-249).

7Fare (2013: 2) notes that “money seldom figures among the transition tools or projects for economic reform that can promote more sustainable development”, and proposes to study CCS in relation to sustainable development and its three pillars (social, economic and environmental), because the scheme affects the locking-in of activities in a locality, the promotion of economic exchange and the transformation of practices and social representations. CCS became popular in Britain in the 1990s as a response to labour market restructuring with low-paid employment, high unemployment and wide impoverishment (Aldridge and Patterson, 2002: 371). They became relevant to pursue political and economic empowerment at the local level because they are inclusive of those who can work to satisfy their needs without using national money as means of payment, and in that sense CCS would promote economic empowerment (Lee and Turner, 1996: 1380). In addition, CCS create economic relations at the inter-personal level by allowing neighbours to meet each other through economic transactions and this generates trust. Additional emancipatory potential stems from the emphasis on re-localizing the economy by encouraging locally produced products to be locally consumed and the wealth locally created to remain within the neighbourhood. In environmental terms, CCS would support sustainable development (Lietaer, 2001; North, 2010; Seyfang and Longhurst, 2013) because they facilitate localised consumption patterns thereby reducing energy required for transportation.

8Authors like Lee and Turner (1996) consider that the main aspect of CCS is its political character, as an “alternative beyond capitalism”. CCS are a form of contestation in which participating citizens’ political values and claims are linked through a specific type of currency. CCS constitute a contestation of the centralized and global financial system and aim at building “a countercultural alternative space from below that operates under specific re-embedded economic and social rules” (Lee and Turner 1996: 1380). In Europe, CCS dispute local power relations in the search for autonomous neighbourhood politics and are conceptualized as “localised resistance to power relations” or “micro-politics”, according to Scott’s terminology of “micro-political resistances” (Scott, 1990). The conception stems from Foucault, who considered money as “a structuring discourse, a system of domination that operates through its own logic” (North, 2007: 28). Taking this approach to money as systems of domination means that money is a constructed discourse that can be resisted locally to create what North (2007) termed “heterotopic spaces” to refer to the coexistence of an “impossible space” with a large number of “fragmentary possible worlds” (Harvey, 1992: 48) existing in the same space simultaneously. CCS, as heterotopic space, have the emancipatory potential to construct more radical economic practices to the dominant capitalist order (Chatzidakis et al., 2012: 494).

9The literature on micro-politics of resistance addresses the “everyday forms of resistance” designed to constrain specific forms of local domination (Scott, 1990). CCS constitute a down-to-earth practical way to challenge a “capitalist existence”, according to Gibson-Graham (2008), on grounds that they constitute economic practices that do not re-create the dominations of capitalism. A micro-political analysis of action around non-state forms of money relates to the concept of autonomy (Hardt and Negri, 2009) and reveals “autonomous geographies” as instances where the “autonomy from the grassroots” is developed (Credland et al., 2003: 107). According to this strand of literature, CCS are moved by a desire for freedom, self-organisation and mutual aid, that comes from a rejection of an economic and political system where ‘lives are manufactured for us, instead of being the outcome of our choices and desires’ (Credland et al. 2003:109) and whereby “political decisions are tied to the needs of business and political elites based upon maximising material wealth” (Chatterton, 2005: 545). “Autonomous geographies” are defined as “those spaces where there is a questioning of the laws and social norms of society and a creative desire to constitute non-capitalist, collective forms of politics, identity, and citizenship” (Pickerill and Chatterton 2006: 730). By using a type of money that is different to the one proposed by the state and the mainstream economic system, CCS are studied as a contestation of that system at the micro-political level and as the proposal of an alternative model outside the regular economy, one that functions within collectives that subscribe to the “creative tools of desertion, exodus and nomadism” (Hardt and Negri 2009: 212). In short, CCS start by proposing a disengagement from the capitalist system that serves the interests of elites, and proceeds by promoting the construction of different norms within a specific collective. In the practice of the Argentine Redes de Trueque, however, the theoretical principles took a different shape.

2. Argentina’s crisis of the Millenium

10After two periods of hyperinflation in 1989 and 1990, Argentina adopted a wide-ranging structural reform programme that was expected to tackle inflation and make the country more competitive in the world market. It was called Convertibility Plan and its main feature was a currency peg that fixed the peso to the dollar at parity in March, 1991. One of the most ambitious and swift privatisation programmes in Latin America was launched, involving almost all state-owned enterprises, public utilities, the pension system, and much of the health care and the banking sectors. The structural reforms triggered a significant GDP growth rate of 8 per cent a year from 1990 to 1994 but in 1995 a major economic crisis hit the “modernised” Argentine economy. The peg to the dollar almost collapsed, but was saved at the cost of a recession that skimmed 5 per cent off the GDP in 1995. The unemployment rate, which was around 5 per cent for several decades, soared to 18.4 per cent in 1995. The first Red de Trueque was launched that year.

11Although the economy rebounded, the worldwide financial crisis in the second half of 1998 pushed it back into recession. A new government, formed by the opposition party, took office in December 1999 but it was unable to do much to spur economic growth (Harman, 2002). Economic deterioration continued and in September 2001 unemployment reached 20 per cent and 40 per cent of the population were below the poverty line. The term ‘hyper-unemployment’ was coined (Kessler, 1996) and looked as threatening to Argentine households as hyper-inflation had been in the 1980s.

12The combination of unemployment and poverty was particularly traumatic in a country like Argentina, where the industrialisation policies managed to curve both problems until the mid-seventies. Argentina had near-full employment from the 1940s, mainly thanks to labour-intensive industrialisation and the domination of the Peronist party rooted among the workers’ strata. A tight labour market sustained high wages in the formal sector and the informal sector was relatively small, while social benefits were widespread and enabled a family to live on one (male) breadwinner’s income. Between 1940 and 1980, the urban middle class grew from 40.7 per cent to 47.8 per cent of the population, thanks to the upward movement of skilled workers in the manufacturing sector and blue-collar employees (Beccaria and López, 1996; Murmis and Feldman, 1993). Argentine workers historically enjoyed the highest incomes in Latin America (Lvovich, 2000), a situation that changed in the nineties. The industrialisation policies also bred a segment of informal workers that were far from being poor, marginal and dispossessed (Lvovich, 2000). While unregistered, many workers had considerable capital assets, an income similar to or higher than that of formal workers, and stable business activity and social integration. Small entrepreneurs and freelance workers were called ‘autonomous’, rather than informal workers to denote a particular mode of integration into the labour market that placed them in a middle stratum. Nonetheless, a minority of short-term, unstable, poor and socially disintegrated informal workers also existed throughout the entire period (Beccaria and López, 1996 ; Palomino and Schvarzer, 1996).

13The economic system of import substitution industrialisation started running out of steam in the mid-seventies and the structural reform of the nineties affected the welfare state significantly. An early study of the social consequences of the structural reforms coined the term “new poor” to describe households that had fallen under the poverty line in a country where about 70 per cent of the population declared itself to be “middle class” (Minujin, 1997). The middle class comprised shopkeepers, public servants, skilled workers, graduates, blue-collar workers, bank clerks, teachers and small-firm owners. Many of the sectors in which the middle class worked were targets of the reform policies of the nineties and were thus overwhelmed by the recession. Unlike the “traditional poor”, the “new poor” in Argentina had covered their structural basic needs, but, due to the drastic reduction in their income in the nineties, they could no longer afford their lifestyle. They no longer felt comfortable in the areas where they had lived all their lives, so they normally spent most of their time in their homes, almost invisible. They understood the world differently from the structural poor, reflecting much on social reality. They were the poor with a voice. In contrast, the traditional poor were part of the pockets of poverty that had always been present in the country, although not as visible and widespread as in the 1990s. The traditional poor had neither specific skills nor a stable job. Only a minority of them had secured basic structural needs such as a legally owned home; they lived mostly in shantytowns or as squatters in the cities. They relied minimally on the public services and depended on local political brokers to access health care or a place in a public school.

14The new and traditional poor are clearly very heterogeneous and the main distinction between the two groups refers to their past trajectory, including their previous status, educational attainment, availability of savings and assets such as their own house, personal capabilities and social networks (Lvovich, 2000; Minujin, 1997; Murmis, 1993, 1995). With the structural reforms of the nineties, the new poor felt abandoned by the state and deprived of services that were no longer available or affordable. Around the mid-1990s public awareness of the social costs of the reforms triggered the action of organised social groups within the civil society in what was termed “productive initiatives” because they were based on collective action and aimed at generating income by non-traditional channels (Auyero, 2000; Dinerstein, 2003). Some of the self-managed socio-economic schemes organized at the grassroots level after 1997 were the piqueteros groups (road-blocking groups), the worker-managed factories, the Red de Trueque and neighbourhood assemblies.

3. The launch of the RT: survival with dignity?

15The Redes de Trueque were introduced in Argentina with no obvious ideological aspiration to be a monetary contestation or become one in the near future. It was one of several income-generation schemes that were launched around that time in reaction to the neoliberal structural reforms of the nineties (Gomez, 2009; Pearson, 2003).

16The first group of the Redes de Trueque was established with 30 men and women in a former industrial suburb of the city of Buenos Aires in May 1995. It was a spin–off of the project of an environmentalist NGO which promoted urban vegetable gardens. At some point, the neighbours started making jams and preserves with the left-overs of fruits and vegetables and traded them with each other. They also prepared home-made toiletries and added these to the weekly exchanges. They were part of the impoverished middle class who lacked the cash to afford those goods, which they were used to buying in the regular economy. The leaders and initiators did not see their actions as a monetary contestation either, although it became clear to them that it was a non-traditional way of organising local economic activities. In the beginning, they were not using an alternative currency but a simple paper notebook in which they registered their trade. After a few months the three initiators observed that the scheme had a significant impact on the household economies and the exchange meetings of Saturdays were constantly adding new products and new members who heard about it by word of mouth. Horacio Covas, one of the initiators, called it “survival with dignity”, referring to the fact that participants could generate an income out of their own work. As noted by Pearson (2003) the origin of the RT was a combination of ingenuity and need to protect a lost middle class lifestyle, and that motivated participants to engage in collective action and sustain a collective initiative, although without clear political aspirations.

17The initiators felt the full potential of the scheme would be reached if the scheme grew beyond its uniqueness. In the hope of finding partner groups elsewhere, they resurfaced old contacts with socialist and environmentalist activists and discussed the scheme in workshops in the capital city of Buenos Aires. Their goal was to “infect others with our enthusiasm”, Covas remembered (Interview in Luján on 29/11/2006). The effort to replicate the scheme was successful around the beginning of 1996, when a second group launched the scheme in the Capital city and soon a third followed in the Northern outskirts. The three groups were articulated, so trade was possible between them, and participants would exchange their home-made products three times a week. Participants would trade home-made bread for jams, cakes, hand-made pullovers, carrots and soap. The three groups hence formed a first small network (RT).

18The growth in the number of participants living in different neighbourhoods of a large city marked the limitations of the accountancy system with a notebook. It was becoming too burdensome and time-consuming to register all transactions within and between the three groups. Another initiator then proposed to print notes of fixed denominations that members could use as means of exchange. This was done: the first physical complementary currency of the Redes de Trueque was born in 1996. Once again, the central goal was pragmatic problem-solving in the crisis. The complementary currency, called créditos, enabled hundreds of participants to trade with each other and was the bloodline of collective action. The initiators were not aware that creating a currency in a territory where everyone used official currency was, in fact, a significant deviation from the monetary norms of the regular economy that “did not re-create the dominations of capitalism”, as expressed by Gibson-Graham (2008).

19Besides the deviation in the use of currency, the participants in the RT started creating discourse with notions of the space “in here” the CCS and “out there” in the regular capitalist economy. “In here” was used to refer to a network of trust where they exchanged goods and services of their own local production under conditions that mixed market exchange and reciprocity. They gradually built a discourse in which words like créditos (the name of the currency), prosumers (a conflation of producers and consumer in the same person), nodes (each local exchange group), coordinator (the organiser of a node), and solidarity, among others, acquired a shared meaning that identified participants and distinguished them from non-participants. The discourse would prove significant later in terms of building identity.

20The network became noticed “out there” in 1997. Formal relations between the RT and the government started in 1997, when the government of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires (with a status equivalent to a province) sponsored the organization of the First Workshop on Multi-reciprocal Exchange. This was the first formal recognition of the initiative and it stemmed from the Secretary of Social Promotion, which was later seconded by the Secretary of Industry, Commerce, Tourism and Employment. The event summoned 1.300 participants and the initiators participated with other organisers. The Secretary of Social Promotion launched the “Support Programme of Multi-reciprocal Exchange”, the name that the initiative received in those days. The Workshop inaugurated the formal relations between the RT and a local government, and introduced the initiators to two types of politics: interacting with the government as a more powerful actor with its own goals, and dealing with the different views and power struggles that derived from the diversity of visions within the RT. For instance, some leaders did not want to have any formal contact with government to preserve their autonomy. Besides, the Workshop inaugurated the practice of more or less regular meetings of the RT, still informal and often quite messy, but already taking shape as a civic governance system.

4. Monetary contestation and vertical divide

21The scheme kept growing until 2001 and was replicated exponentially, becoming a network with several leaders, dozens of locations and hundreds of participants. By 1998 The leadership was no longer held by just the first three initiators and as the network expanded, so did the number of organisers. The number of currencies also multiplied and circulated in parallel to the official one, based on nothing but mutual trust among the participants and the leaders. Together with the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, they organised an official gathering with 200 local organisers called the Workshop on the No-Money Economy in March 1998. Six months later they organised another national workshop on Multi-reciprocal Exchange. The new leaders became more radical in their contestation of the state legitimacy and some leaders were adamant on rejecting any support of the government and other “instruments of control of the state and the elites in power”, among which the regular money figured prominently (Interview with a coordinator in Mar del Plata, 30/11/2004). Heloisa Primavera, a leader that joined the RT around the end of 1996 and became a prominent spokesperson, recalled that: “I thought back then that the RT spirit of contestation of authority and established norms was an incredible display of citizenship. The RT was becoming the second historical opportunity of Argentina to build more equal and democratic social relations. The first one, of course, was the first Peronist movement that got workers used to expecting paid holidays, public health care and so on. The two workshops of 1998 made it obvious that we were a communitarian and utopian movement pushed by a generation of leaders that aspired to build a different society. The initiators got the message that the RT had taken a life of its own and it was no longer ‘their’ project” (Interview in Florida on 2/8/2004).

22These events reflected that the original project launched in 1995 had changed and was appealing a number of activists with a clearer anti-capitalist ideology. The written documents produced in the workshops explicitly contest the rules of the capitalist system, including its money and the salience of market relations in society. The leaders and the node coordinators formed working groups to elaborate on a number of issues, such as the construction of an autonomous governance system for the RT, the meanings of solidarity and citizenship and how to promote them, and the ways to construct a grassroots economy to de-link from the regular economy and its money. The documents contain various characteristics of “an heteropia” (North, 2003) in which the RT was constructing a new layer of social existence in the same space as the capitalist regular economy.

23The participants combined a “capitalist existence”, as defined by Gibson-Graham (2006), with a daily economic experience that did not fully reproduce capitalist norms. However, the participants of the RT were on a different speed in terms of contesting the state. They continued with their exchanges at the shop floor of the nodes and did not necessarily share the desire to construct an anti-capitalist economic space, as noted by other researchers (Leoni and Luzzi, 2003; Hintze, 2005; Hintze, 2003). Moreover, they did reproduce some of the norms of the capitalist system, because the RT functioned under the rules of market exchange, although with different means of exchange. Some participants offered in the node the same goods and services that they sold in the rest of the economy, but for a complementary currency. The perception that using different means of payment represented a qualitative deviation from the capitalist economy was not evident. “The main difference in here is that you sell much more. If I need vegetables at home, I bake croissants and sell them in the node to obtain créditos and with them I can buy vegetables for a whole week. This allows me to live on my own work and not on welfare”, a participant explained (Interview in Bernal, 26 June, 2004). For her, the main difference was the quantity she could sell doing the same activity and the currency for the exchanges, but not so much the political logic behind it.

24In terms of profile, the RT had clear traces of a part of the disenfranchised middle-class that turned to collective action to face the fall. In a study of the RT in Buenos Aires with data collected in 2000, Gonzalez Bombal (2002) found that the educational level of the participants was relatively high: 53 per cent had completed secondary school (12 years of schooling) and 28 per cent had received some years of tertiary or university education, while only 19 per cent had primary school alone (seven years of schooling). The majority of the members (56 per cent) were between 40 and 60 years old, 44 per cent were unemployed and 24 per cent had vulnerable employment. One of the organisers regarded the enthusiasm of the disenfranchised middle class as crucial for the take-off of the RT because activities in the nodes required a set of elements that were not easily found among the structural poor: entrepreneurial and professional skills, an initial idle capital to get started (often including tools and machines) and capacity to secure goods and services in the regular economy in pesos that could not be paid for in créditos (e.g. housing, public utilities, transportation costs) (Primavera, 1999). Moreover, González Bombal (2002) and (Powell, 2002) underlined that up to two-thirds of the participants were women, some of them with unemployed husbands or doing odd jobs in the informal economy. The presence of women from a disenfranchised middle class background led Parysow to affirm that the Red de Trueque corresponded to and recreated the traditional gender division of labour and hobbies of middle-class women (Parysow and Bogani, 2002).

25The disenfranchised middle strata saw the RT as a solution to protect their lifestyle and as a partial substitution for lost jobs, both in terms of income and personal satisfaction. The scale and scope of the exchange varied from one group in the network to the other, as did the supply that included a wide choice of groceries and home-made foods, second-hand clothes and toys, prints and publicity, day care for children and the elderly, decoration items and kitchen-ware, the most varied art and handicrafts, legal and psychological counselling, lessons of every sort, hair-styling, fortune-telling and dental care. Participants expressed that both the economic and the social aspects were important and explained their activities in the RT as the opportunity to “feel useful” despite being unemployed or cashless, because “coming to the nodes reminds you that you can do so much as a human being” (Gonzalez Bombal, 2002: 113). Some participants said they preferred the RT to the “degradation in the labour market” that followed the new flexible hiring modalities and the informalisation of employment (González Bombal, 2002: 106). The RT provided the space for its participants to share embedded social relations within a local economy, but from a pragmatic approach and with limited political aspirations of contestation.

26The new radical leaders, however, were convinced that it was just a matter of time until the participants realised that the RT was a different economy with non-capitalist rules. “It was the perfect invitation to dream of a different future. The RT came like a tsunami to cover the paradigm of scarcity installed in the minds of people who just do their business and which is typical of ultraliberal capitalism, financiarised, and mediatic in which greed is shown on a video-clip”, sustained Primavera (Interview in Florida, Province of Buenos Aires on 2 August 2004). The RT at that time seems to have fostered the hope of revolutionary change in the hands of self-defined utopian communitarian activists while developing a community currency. Tarrow (1998) argues that contentious politics requires that activists mobilise resources available to them at a point in time to build a coalition of ordinary people working together for shared purposes. The new leaders thought that they had found such a “window of political opportunity” around 2000, in which all levels of the government were weakened by the economic and political crisis and the RT attracted favourable media coverage and wide social participation.

27The Redes de Trueque had thus undergone a series of changes between the beginning in 1995 and 2001, which led to a vertical divide in the sense that the leadership and the grassroots had different and rather contradicting aspirations. A new generation of communitarian and utopian leaders joined and spoke of the initiative as a micro-political contestation of the one of the main instruments of the capitalist system, the currency. Their central mechanism of resistance was the use of a non-official currency issued and managed by grassroots groups. The commitment to this monetary contestation, however, was concentrated at that level and distant from the pragmatic problem-solving interest of many of the participants. The latter aimed at accessing goods to protect their lifestyle and found that collective action was conducive to that goal. This resulted in a vertical divide in terms of political aims within the RT, consistent with the findings of other researchers (Leoni, 2011; Hintze, 2006; Hintze, 2003; Gomez, 2009).

5. Informal politics and horizontal divide

28The RT continued growing exponentially until the beginning of 2002, when it reached an estimate of 2.5 million members in over 5.000 nodes across the country (Ovalles, 2002). As the crisis in Argentina aggravated and the scheme became better known, the traditional poor joined the scheme in large numbers and with more pressing needs, mainly for food. When the traditional poor entered the space of the nodes, which were originally constructed by and for the disenfranchised middle class, a second divide appeared within the RT and its dimension of monetary contestation. The traditional poor saw the RT as one more income-generating activity in their livelihoods’ strategies but did not have the necessary capacities, resources and equipment to produce goods and services at home, so they got considerably less benefit out of the scheme than the disenfranchised middle class participants did in the first years (Leoni, 2011). The poor offered their labour as gardeners, for example, but did not have the tools to perform the work. At the higher levels of the hierarchy, the radicalised discourse of the new RT leaders also clashed with the original vision of the three initiators who thought of the RT as a pragmatic problem-solving scheme that would be “complementary” and not “alternative”, and who were still critical decision-makers in the scheme.

29The massive entrance of the traditional poor into the RT was related to the lack of other choices, the role of political brokers and the dismantling of the welfare state in favour of targeted social policies. The “traditional poor” represented 15% to 25% of the population, depending on the business cycle (Lo Vuolo and Barbeito, 1992), typically lived in slums and managed their survival strategies on a large number of income-generating activities, mainly casual work, waste picking and informal vending. They had no legal rights to demand services reserved for formal waged workers, but they could sometimes got access with the help of political brokers at the local level. Based on research in slums of the province of Buenos Aires, Auyero emphasised the problem-solving role of political brokers who controlled information and resources obtained through their formal or informal affiliation to the Peronist party (Auyero, 2000; Auyero, 1997). Voters exchanged electoral support for goods and services, and configured clientelistic networks.

30Brokers typically use a pragmatic approach and adapt quickly to local circumstances and changing times (Szwarcberg, 2012).When political brokers at the local level heard of the RT and its impact in generating income, they identified it as a system they could use to support their own networks and keep a grip on their electoral support. A broker who was also an RT coordinator explained: “I opened a node to help my neighbours to get food and other necessities. Many of my neighbours lost their jobs and cannot find another one, so the situation was bad. We went many times to the municipality but it couldn’t help much because it is also broke, everyone is broke. It was easy to open a node because you just need some people expressing interest and a place to meet. I have connections so I can use the office of the Peronist party, so we started the node there and we trade twice a week. Some families eat out of it and afford small luxuries like a cake for a birthday. They appreciate my work and the support of our councillor. He sometimes comes, too.” (Interview with Carmen, San Martin, Buenos Aires, 7 October 2004). This view resonates with Auyero’s (2002) characterisation of informal political networks as pragmatic problem-solving in exchange for electoral loyalty: with no other social policies and scarce resources to aid the poor, brokers perceived the RT could solve the problems of those with meagre incomes and at the same time increase their popularity, so they added nodes to their repertoire. Across the country they became coordinators and promoted the RT among their “clients”, the traditional poor, who were willing to participate in the scheme as long as it contributed to their livelihoods. In the meantime, the more radical leaders of the RT met once a month and produced numerous expressions against traditional political practices, such as clientelism and brokers.

31While political brokers incorporated the nodes in their repertoire of informal solutions to the every-day necessities of the poor, local governments soon followed with formal support. At the central level, the Secretary for Small and Medium Enterprises in the Ministry of Economics stated that the RT had a positive effect on the generation of micro-enterprises and signed an agreement with the initiators in October 2000 by which the secretary would provide the RT support and funding for six-months (La Razón, 6 October 2000). At the local level, several municipalities started accepting créditos as payment for municipal taxes in arrears or became active in the local nodes in 2000 (Powell, 2002; Gomez and Helmsing, 2008). This support expanded the legitimacy of the RT. For example, the municipality of Calchaqui, the Province of Santa Fe, accepted vouchers as payment for local taxes on property, tourism, building improvements and for any taxes in arrears. The mayor used the créditos to buy inputs needed in the municipality (e.g. food for the municipal soup kitchens, cleaning products and services) and to pay its employees for overtime. The mayor justified the decision by saying that “there are 300 families living on the RT in this district. The municipality cannot be the ‘island in pesos’ of the local economy. If the RT is good for citizens, then it is good for the local government too”, he declared (La Nación, 22 November 2001). In Venado Tuerto, also in the province of Santa Fe, the municipality accepted up to 30% of the local taxes in the local vouchers and used them to start a social policy programme in the district (Gomez and Helmsing, 2008; Plasencia, 2008).

32Provincial constitutions did not always allow payments in créditos and specified that municipalities can only accept official money as cancellation of taxes. Several mayors found ways around that rule. In the municipality of Plottier, Neuquén, the mayor became a member of the local node and bought goods and services for the government (e.g. prints and photocopies, repairs for public buildings) with payments in kind. The mayor explained that the node spared him the “moral obligation” of wanting to help the population in need and not being able to do so. “I also find it an interesting tool for the local economy, so we obviously cannot stay out of it”, he declared (Revista Trueque, Año 2, No. 3).

33It did not take long before the radical discourse of contestation of some sectors of the RT as well as the scale it had reached started raising concerns, both at the formal level of government as at the informal level of the brokers. On the formal side, the RT were becoming a parallel economy that did not pay taxes, contested various fundamental powers of the state and its instruments of control, and on which the government had minimal or no effective regulatory capacity even in the most basic aspects like the hygiene of the food on sale in the nodes (Leoni, 2011: 66). The state could neither control nor protect the RT because local exchange networks with complementary currencies did not appear anywhere in the Argentine legality. A total of three bills were discussed in the Congress during 2002 but none of them was eventually approved.

34At the informal level, the brokers started frowning at the discourse of autonomy that some of the participants were using when they experienced the node as an empowering experiment. “The broker helped me when my wife was sick but since then he keeps coming back to ask me to attend his political meetings and I am tired of that. It seems I always owe him. Since I started coming to the node, I have discovered that I can get a lot of things with my own work and I need him less and less. I get unsold vegetables from a greengrocer’s nearby and I bring them to the node to sell. It is not much, but it has provided me with another way to go by” (Interview with a 45 year old man in La Tablada, province of Buenos Aires, 23 September 2004). As underlined by Koster (2012), brokers are fragile actors that understand their own vulnerability, and in the nodes some brokers did not receive well that their political clients may have seen it as an exit from their clientelist network. The RT could become a serious contestation to their capacities of social control.

35The interest of the brokers and the traditional poor in the RT changed drastically in May 2002, when the government launched the subsidy for Unemployed Heads of Households. It was the first large-scale and all-encompassing national subsidy for the unemployed in a decade, distributed by the local governments at the local level and with brokers’ informally assisting to identify households in need. The programme aimed at securing an income to the most vulnerable households and distributed cash as long as the head of household received training or contributed 20 weekly hours of labour to the municipality. It targeted the protection of the family, so it required that the children of school age be kept at school and their basic health be taken care of in the public health system. The Programme reached almost 2 million beneficiaries in its first year and was heavily criticized from both the left and the right wings, which agreed on denouncing that it promoted clientelism at the municipal level (Hintze, 2003).

36By 2003 the regular economy was bouncing back and the Redes de Trueque were losing their appeal. The RT had serious internal problems like forgery of the créditos, hyper-inflation, abuses and speculation with prices and political conflicts at the level of the leadership. With the economy under recovery, participants that could find a job left the nodes. The disenfranchised middle class participants benefited from the RT during the crisis because it constituted an uncostly, down-to-earth, practical way to escape severe economic distress through collective action with other neighbours. As they could re-enter the regular economy, they would leave the nodes.

37The traditional poor joined the RT later, pushed by the crisis, in absence of other options and in search for the basic necessities. They had no accumulated assets, no income in pesos and no working capital. They combined the activities in the nodes with every other income-generating option at hand, including odd jobs in the informal economy, scavenging, and other assistance they could get from the brokers. They would typically obtain second-hand goods in charities or scavenging and then they would sell them in the node, with various degrees of success. The impact of the RT on their household economies was considerably less and Leoni (2011) further argued that the traditional poor were more comfortable with waged employment or social policies than with the self-employment implied by the RT, so they readjusted quickly by leaving the nodes as fast and massively as they entered them. The RT was never designed to reduce traditional poverty and indeed, proved not to be such a solution (Leoni, 2003), but introduced the poor to the possibilities of “surviving with dignity”, which was based on own work and collective action and was a construction of the disenfranchised middle class, quite distant from the individual and hierarchical principles of clientelistic networks. The longer term effect of the experience, however, will probably be seen in a future crisis of the welfare state, because the RT declined too abruptly to be able to assess the increase in resilience or empowerment among the traditional poor.

Conclusion: resilience before resistance

38In theory, Complementary and Community Currency Systems are built on the principle of monetary contestation. The use of means of payment other than those issued by the central bank can be considered per se an act of resistance to the government, the globalised economic system or the instruments of control that sustain them. This perception would be in line with a theoretical proposition that CCS would constitute economic practices that do not re-create the dominations of capitalism and national money as one of its main instruments because they develop the “autonomy from the grassroots” (Credland et al., 2003: 107). They could construct an “autonomous geography” in the sense that “there is a questioning of the laws and social norms of society and a creative desire to constitute non-capitalist, collective forms of politics, identity, and citizenship” (Pickerill and Chatterton 2006: 730).

39This research has analysed the question of monetary contestation in the Redes de Trueque in Argentina, generally enquiring in what ways there was a contestation and specifically what was being contested and by whom. The study shows that the RT was not launched as a political project but as a pragmatic and creative scheme to improve economic resilience during the neoliberal reforms. It appealed firstly to the disenfranchised middle class, as was already underlined by other researchers. However, the RT became a political project at a second stage and for a relatively small group of another generation of leaders that pushed forward a discourse of contentious politics. For them, the use of unofficial currency had a connotation of micro-political resistance to money and other instruments of control of the state. This created a first horizontal divide between those that understood the RT as a monetary contestation and those that saw it as a creative and self-reliant device to generate income.

40Around 1998 there was the original RT interpretation as a project that represented ingenuity and pragmatism for a majority of disenfranchised middle class participants, and another interpretation that reflected resistance and autonomy at the micro-political level. The latter vision of the utopian or communitarians leaders had a longer term horizon and sought to create a parallel socio-economic system that would not reproduce the rules of capitalism and would become a long-term space of autonomy. At the same time, it did not appeal a large number of participants. As the economic crisis affected more strata in society and supressed traditional mechanisms of social policy, the visions became more separated and led to a vertical divide that distanced the utopian leaders from the pragmatism of most participants aiming at satisfying their basic needs.

41To the extent that they succeeded, the RT empowered participants in the economic, social and political arenas because it offered them an additional choice to sustain their livelihoods and hence increase collectively their resilience to the crisis. Moreover, the RT reflected shared identities and a common discourse that helped participants to distinguish “us” from “them” behind the principle of “survival with dignity”. The local governments that supported the scheme were aligned to that pragmatic interpretation and understood the RT was solving the income generation needs of their constituencies during the crisis.

42The pragmatic project attracted the structural poor, who joined the RT considerably later than the new poor and sought to preserve the access to goods and services that was traditionally mediated by political brokers. While they shared a pragmatic vision distant from a political project of resistance, the structural poor focused on survival while the impoverished middle class or new poor centred on the protection of a lifestyle and resilience. The differences were affected by the relationship that the two groups maintained with the government: the disenfranchised middle class was served by a welfare state built around waged labour, while the poor accessed public services via political brokers. When the RT irrupted from the grassroots as a widespread income-generation scheme, informal brokers quickly added it to their menu of problem-solving schemes and disseminated the nodes among the traditional poor. The political brokers approached the RT as a way of expanding the offer for their clientelistic networks because their own resources were reduced by the crisis and the welfare state was depleted by the neoliberal reforms, hence fitting in the RT pragmatic interpretation.

43Local governments and brokers supported the RT while it was useful to their goals and within a repertoire of solutions, but they ignored the possibility that using unofficial currency could be a contestation, as some RT leaders proclaimed. Governments were interested in supporting complementary currencies as long as these alleviated problems like unemployment and social exclusion and in some exceptions as an instrument to advance local economic development and the locality’s autonomy.

44The RT presented three types of positions in relation to a political project of autonomous geography, and the three co-existed across the networks. The first group was aligned with the theoretical principle of monetary contestation that CCS is generally associated with in much of the research on them. Utopian ideas existed among the most politically-oriented leaders as well as among some participants. The group stood for a communitarian project that conceived the nodes as places in which the powers of the government and capitalism would be contested by resisting the use of regular currency. The politically-oriented project persisted as long as there were resources and a collective desire to sustain a monetary contestation to configure an alternative socio-economic system.

45A second group supported a project of “survival with dignity”, which was an inward-looking scheme built around common needs in which the complementary currency was a tool to increase economic resilience, protect a lost middle class lifestyle, and generate income at the local level. Collective action became a source of resilience to keep what could be saved of a socio-economic system lost for the disenfranchised middle classes and which did not contest upfront the neoliberal system “out there”. This project was shared by participants of the disenfranchised middle class and the initial leaders, and constructed new identities as prosumers but did not embrace an explicit project of micro-political resistance. It was also the project that the government supported, mostly at local level and with local economic development implications.

46The third group incorporated the RT to their pre-existent repertoire of survival activities within local politics and informal brokers while the government resources were seriously curtailed due to the crisis. This group joined the RT in large numbers and stayed as long as it suited its interests and facilitated access to resources in formal and informal networks. It was essentially a temporary type of participation that lasted only as long as the CCS filled in a gap in terms of income and political resources.

47The RT hence contained several projects in one network and explains why it became fragmented before its sharp decline in 2003. These three projects presented different conditions of durability in time and appealed to different social segments. The case of the RT also shows that the relationship between a CCS and the theoretical idea of monetary contestation is not a given and can accommodate for the different visions of the various groups of participants. This heterogeneity among participants is sometimes overlooked by research on projects of micro-political contestation because, on the one hand, using an unofficial currency is not indicative per se of a reflected and homogenous political project of resistance at the micro-level. On the other hand, CCS frame identities and shared interpretations of the economy by not using the currency of the regular economy. The daily economic practices of the participants create and sustain a number of ambiguities that participants may or may not be able to resolvein the long run, but that enabled some important achievements in the short run. For instance, the RT mingled the traditional poor and the disenfranchised middle class, enabled the poor to survive the most severe economic crisis in Argentina without the need to commit electoral support, and stayed in the social memory as a project of “survival with dignity”.

48The diversity of approaches and projects resonates with Harvey’s (1992) idea of heterotopic spaces in which a number of fragmentary possible worlds exist in the same space at the same time. The RT, in itself, was such an heterotopic space. The divergent visions could co-exist under the same umbrella name of Redes de Trueque for some time and allowed for the unprecedented Argentine expansion of the CCS. However, these frictions were unresolved and after some time they became wedges at the level of the leadership that contributed to the demise of the RT. The outcome indicates that some fragmentary worlds may undermine other fragmentary worlds and even destroy the entire project.

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Georgina M. Gómez et Joop de Wit, « Contestations and Contradictions in the Argentine Redes de Trueque »Revue de la régulation [En ligne], 18 | 2e semestre / Autumn 2015, mis en ligne le 24 décembre 2015, consulté le 23 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Georgina M. Gómez

Joop de Wit

Senior Lecturer, Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Kortenaerkade 12, 2518AX, The Hague, The Netherlands,,

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