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Evaluating complementary currencies: from the assessment of multiple social qualities to the discovery of a unique monetary sociality


The phenomenon of complementary currencies has experienced in recent years a significant evolution both in terms of the sheer number of initiatives and in terms of their ability to attract the attention of academia, politics and media. The spread of these experiments and the increasing involvement of public institutions have led to a growing demand for evaluation procedures specifically targeted at CCs, both as economic experiments and as public policy initiatives. The task of evaluation confronts the peculiar multidimensional character of complementary currencies. One of the traits that is commonly recognized as a characteristic of CCs is indeed the presence, alongside more strictly economic dimensions, of multiple social dimensions and aims. Some evaluation models therefore attempt to measure—through the identification of multiple variables, and of corresponding indicators—the impacts of complementary currencies in terms of a wide range of expected social or economic objectives. This paper intends to question the sufficiency of similar approaches. We will argue that those approaches risk to overshadow a peculiar form of sociality which may emerge particularly in certain types of complementary currency experiments. The paper highlights the significance of this sociality and the relevance of its analysis for the advancement of evaluation practices in the field of monetary innovation.

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  1. 1.

    Despite their variety, the currencies that can be described as complementary should not be confused with virtual currencies (like bitcoin), since the former, unlike the latter, do not aim to compete with the official currency, or to replace it, if not partially and for specific purposes and in designated areas. It is appropriate, to that effect, to maintain the distinction between complementary currency and alternative currency. Digital coins fall mostly in the second category; not surprisingly, they are often designated by the term “alt-coins”.

  2. 2.

    This is the perspective of several projects funded by the European Commission, including D-cent ( last accessed 26 May 2017) and Digipay4Growth ( last accessed 26 May 2017).

  3. 3.

    See, just to mention one of the main strands of thought dealing with the issues, the analyses on the enacting of the social (Law and Urry 2004).

  4. 4.

    On liquidity and clearing as alternative principles for reforming the monetary and financial system, see Amato and Fantacci (2014b).

  5. 5.

    Hart and Ortiz (2014, pp. 477–478). In addition to Zelizer (1998), we refer here also to the work of Guyer (2004), Maurer (2005), and to the contributions collected in Blanc (2006).

  6. 6.

    Within economic theory, the question of the nature of money was shelved with the spread of the gold standard, when the issue appeared to be effectively solved with the identification between money and metal. The flame of the debate was rekindled, not surprisingly, in the period between the wars, when the suspension of convertibility reopened the scientific interrogation on the (social) nature of money (Simiand 1934).

  7. 7.

    An ideal type of currency scheme is proposed by the research group on Complementary Currency Systems at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (Boonstra et al. 2013), which identifies currencies with social objectives (e.g. Time Banks), currencies with economic objectives (LETS—Barter networks—C39—Regional currencies) and digital money systems.

  8. 8. (last accessed 26 May 2017).

  9. 9.

    As Dodd (2014 p. 289) observes, Zelizer’s “relational” approach to money—which “involves designating which kinds of economic and monetary transactions are appropriate for different forms of relation”—allows to focus on some characteristics of economic transactions that the approach based on embeddedness tends to overlook.

  10. 10.

    For a possible classification of CCs based on issuing procedures and other structural features, see Fare and Ould Ahmed (2014).

  11. 11.

    An example may be provided by bitcoin, even if, as we observed above, it does not fall under a strict definition of complementary currencies. Bitcoins obey predetermined and rigid rules, embedded in an algorithm. However, like official money, they are meant to be treated as an asset, and are even more liable of being hoarded, and withdrawn from circulation (Amato and Fantacci 2016).

  12. 12.

    For an analysis of mutual credit systems from a macroeconomic perspective, see Stodder (2009).

  13. 13.

    Unlike time banks, which are based on moral principles of equality and community, these experiences do not assume a measure of value based on labor, on the assumption that all hours of work are equal; nor do these experiences introduce ways of pricing goods and services that transcend normal market prices as in the case of certain LETS or SEL.

  14. 14.

    Hence the reservations expressed by Ingham on the possibility for complementary currencies to develop from limited-purpose means of exchange circulating within extemporaneous exchange networks into proper means of payments that can be lawfully used to discharge debts within social relations extending over space and time (Ingham 2004, p. 187).

  15. 15.

    Although, according to Sartori and Dini (2016), the central clearing company may also play a role that is similar to the state’s in other ways.

  16. 16.

    Once the legal liability question has been put to rest, by ensuring that the operations of the circuit are allowed by the state and the fiscal authority.

  17. 17.

    As in the case of Chiemgauer, in the historical examples of stamped money inspired by Silvio Gesell and in the tax anticipation scrips described by Irving Fisher (see Fantacci 2013). Forms of demurrage are practicable also in mutual credit systems, as shown by the design of Keynes’s International Clearing Union, where positive balances were subject to the payment of charges, equal and symmetric to those imposed on negative balances.

  18. 18.

    In fact, the roots of this argument can be traced even further back to Aristotle (Amato 2015).

  19. 19.

    In particular, in Fantacci (2005) e in Amato and Fantacci (2012).

  20. 20.

    Cambridge, King’s College Modern Archives, Keynes Papers, TM/2/286- 30.

  21. 21.

    As argued by Lucarelli and Gobbi (2016, p. 1401) specifically with reference to local clearing systems: “Alternative monetary and financial institutions can be conceived to ensure that money is systematically spent and debts are systematically paid. The clearing principle has to do both with the establishment of a measure for exchanges and for the payment of debts that is not itself an object of exchange and with re-establishing a balanced relationship between debtor and creditor”.

  22. 22.

    In analogy with Simmel’s argument on money as a “claim upon society” (Simmel 2004, p. 177), we might say that a positive balance in a mutual credit system is a claim of the account holder upon the circuit, whereas a negative balance is a symmetrically opposite claim of the circuit on the holder. This symmetric relationship is another hint of the distinctive sociality of mutual credit systems.

  23. 23.

    Without indefinitely postponing the moment of payment, as in the capitalist system described by Bloch (1954).

  24. 24.

    On the role of such organization in overcoming the limits of voluntarism in the management of CCs, see Sartori and Dini (2016, p. 294).

  25. 25.

    The social dynamics of mutual credit circuits (with their distinctive localness, based on exchange and credit) thus represent an analytical field that is different from (but on many points consonant and complementary to) the one concerning the social and relational dynamics in localized production systems, subject of very wide analysis. Monetary innovation at the local level in particular highlights the emergence of both instrumental and expressive networks which, as pointed out by Ramella (2005) are one of the main phenomena in the dynamics of technological innovation at the local level.

  26. 26.

    We refer here to the classical distinction between accountability and learning, within the debate on the purposes of evaluation (see e.g. Van Der Meer and Edelenbos 2006, Regeer et al. 2016).

  27. 27.

    If, following Zelizer’s argument, circuits of commerce cannot be reduced to networks or communities, then, we might add, the functioning of CCs cannot be adequately captured in terms of the sum of networking and communitarian dynamics.

  28. 28.

    For a discussion of important aspects of the processes of learning in theory based evaluation, see Van Der Knaap (2004).

  29. 29.

    The contexts in which such learning processes may arise seem to fit the concept of communities of practice. See Wenger (1998) and Lave and Wenger (1991).

  30. 30.

    If the aim is to measure the relationship between these processes of learning and the performance of CC systems, it is possible to envisage two different approaches: on one side, by translating them in terms of variables that may be assessed even through quantitative methods; on the other side, by considering them unobservable variables that may be inferred through mathematical models based on other, observable and strictly economic variables. To what extent these avenues of research may be viable and helpful remains open to investigation.


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Correspondence to Luca Fantacci.

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Doria, L., Fantacci, L. Evaluating complementary currencies: from the assessment of multiple social qualities to the discovery of a unique monetary sociality. Qual Quant 52, 1291–1314 (2018).

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  • Complementary currencies
  • Clearing systems
  • Monetary theory
  • Evaluation
  • Social meaning of money