“Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of ‘structurelessness’ it will be free to develop those forms of organisation best suited to its healthy functioning.” — Jo Freeman, in The Tyranny of Structurelessness
Value is invisible
In the spring of 2020, three members of the US Solidarity Economy Network board — David Ferris, Emily Kawano, and myself — co-designed and presented a workshop called Solidarity Economy 101 based upon our individual experiences of sharing the principles and practices of a solidarity economy with others. At the outset of these sessions, we guide participants into small groups to discuss two key questions: “What is the economy to you?” and “What has this economy meant for you, your family, and your community?”
While hosting a version of this workshop for Open Collective, there was confusion with one participant about the meaning of ‘economy’ in the questions which was less a problem of definition and more of cultural context. Another participant restated the question as, “What is your relationship to value, or money, or work growing up and now?”
Value is loosely defined as the measure of importance, worth, or usefulness assigned to something. In our current society, money prevails as our most common method of valuing time, services, and goods. Unfortunately, there are social limitations on the forms of work valued by money. This leaves beneficial work in society effectively invisible without any way to measure its value.
Work is any activity involving mental, physical, or emotional effort towards an outcome we deem useful or meaningful. Emotional labor. Systems of social care. Altruistic forms of community service. All of these are types of work that deliver value in the places where they happen. All of them are frequently undervalued by moneyed economies rendered invisible to our primary systems of value.
What is the consequence of trading in these invisible forms of value?
The tyranny of valuelessness
Greaterthan Academy hosts a series called Thriving Networks where members of our eight-week cohort were encouraged to troubleshoot the equitable balance of work and exchange of value in their respective networks. Most of these networks are decentralized and autonomous in nature and are made up of groups of people who have come together to pursue some collective aspiration that none could achieve individually. Many of these networks encounter a breakdown when they grow to a point of needing to design more formal systems of work, accountability, and valuation.
Resistance within these groups to a more formal structure prevent them from making visible the amount of labor required to sustain those networks. This often means that networks are overwhelmed by a tyranny of valuelessness. They implicitly assume that those sources of invisible human labor presently sustaining the network will always be available. Networks are destabilized when any of these individuals leave the group because they lose the invisible labor of that participant too.
Thriving Networks taught me that value is always present and being exchanged in any collaborative social context. We can be attentive to deciding how to acknowledge the value that supports work we would like to see continue in our group. Or we can leave it invisible, unacknowledged, and in danger of disappearing unexpectedly. We reap the gain and consequences of either decision.
But what can be done to support us in building a healthier relationship with value in our lives?
Healing our theory of value
A tiny experiment we used in Thriving Networks is Love Berries. Every member of our cohort was assigned an equal number of Love Berries before the first session. To acknowledge someone whom had provided value to us, we would send them any number of Love Berries through a shared Slack channel while expressing any emotional or physical sensations that arose during the exchange.
One acknowledgement I offered was to a participant whose cat pawed at the wall in the background of a Zoom meeting, generating a feeling of warm joy and light laughter within me at feline indifference to our human patterns of work. While we may not have been able to feel such generosity in exchanging money this way, it did allow us to experiment in both giving and receiving acknowledgement for these often invisible forms of value we create in shared spaces.
These exchanges felt familiar to me since they mirrored work I initially began in 2017 within the Kola Nut Collaborative. The Kola Nut Collaborative is Chicago’s only time-based service, labor, and skills exchange otherwise known as a timebank which provides a citywide platform for mutual aid, community organizing, and network weaving. The only currency required for anyone to participate is an hour of their time. All of our hours are traded in the timebank as a form of currency, which means that new currency arises whenever one member chooses to offer service to another.
How can such a network heal our theory of value? Like the cat pawing in the background video of the workshop, there are all sorts of altruistic, neighborly, or caring acts that we commit every day without being acknowledged or rewarded. The irony is that a large part of society also has profound difficulty asking for or seeking out the support that they need from other people. A value chain is waiting to be unlocked. People can be supported with structures to freely offer what they have available and facilitated spaces where they are encouraged to ask for what they need. The currency of time is meant to decouple these offers and needs from the burdensome social and class relationships we often have with money.
Still, this represents only one experiment in healing our relationship to value and its acknowledgement. What about when we need people to really deal with their feelings about the availability or scarcity of money in their life?
Collective experiments in sharing value
Money Health Collective hosts regularly scheduled money conversations with small, intimate groups of people to support them in deepening their understanding of their historical relationship to money and the current repercussions of those personal stories. In my conversation, I was able explore how I moved from being deeply uncomfortable discussing money towards becoming highly procedural until finally arriving in a space where honest public sharing about my own money circumstance is second nature. Money Health Collective is a community of practice for discovering what we value beyond money and how it shapes our relationship to money.
The Offers and Needs Market (OANM) is my favorite ongoing experiment in the exploration of value within communities. OANM “is a two-hour guided process where community members meet (virtually or in person) to identify and exchange their passions, knowledge, skills, resources, opportunities, and needs.” I began experimenting with OANM in 2019 after reading a Medium article by Donnie MacLurcan of the Post Growth Institute, while Kola Nut was completing its third year of operation.
At the time, I was searching for new facilitation tools that would support small groups being able to self organize skill shares within their own communities towards a more decentralized neighborhood organizing strategy. I had developed my own model called a Time Salon, but it was neither easily explainable nor transferrable to other facilitators. The OANM has supported Kola Nut with seeding timebanking practices across more groups throughout the city more successfully than our previous tools.
Participants in an OANM reflect deeply upon how they can acknowledge their own needs while offering support to another person. What do you need to show up fully to an exchange? Sometimes the transfer of value might involve money, a token gift, bartered goods or services, or anything else that might make you feel whole at the end. These reflective exercises encourage us to consider what we value and how our communities can best support us by acknowledging that value.
Thriving Networks suggested several ways for participants to explore value in their networks including the money game, money piles, and the happy money story. The Money Game is a three-hour exploration of our hidden habits and unconscious beliefs about money originating with a similar exercise done within an intentional community. Money piles are a dynamic exercise in gift economy where a group of people divide resources amongst each other by being clear and authentic about their own needs. The Happy Money Story is perhaps the most whimsical being based upon dividing up a dinner bill by going around the table and having everyone share a story or explanation of how much everyone should pay and why. The goal is to find a collective story about money that we can all be happy telling ourselves and one another.
This last example offers the most important lesson. Value is a myth. It is the sum total of the stories we tell ourselves individually and collectively about what we and others are worth in this world. It is important that we honor our role in changing those stories and especially building value in spaces and peoples whom have been undervalued or actively devalued. The tyranny of valuelessness will be overcome when we each feel fully confident in naming our own measure of value.
What makes you feel fully valued?
An Offers & Needs Market hosted a Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park (Chicago)
One critique I often hear about timebanking is that placing an exchange value on altruistic, communal service devalues volunteerism. As named in the outset of this essay, value is invisible — always moving, changing hands, being acknowledged or ignored. Timebanking is one way that we can acknowledge the invisible value of the different types of labor required to build our communities. It is not the only one.
In nonviolent communication, we move from observation of an event to acknowledgement of feeling through our underlying needs until we can formulate a clear request of how someone else can meet our needs. You are the only person qualified to tell others what you need to show up feeling fully valued. I want to grant you full permission to name that value today.
In Open Collective Foundation, we are experimenting in helping everyone in name that value by committing to a self-set salary process. Our workplace is the site of the greatest allocation of time outside of the household where we are often not able to openly express tension about how we are valued until changing workplaces.
What would it mean if we created a safe space to express our tensions and concerns about value in all of these social and economic relationships? Let us overthrow the tyranny of valuelessness and discover what we might learn about ourselves on the other side.