The Same Mistakes all Over Again: Simbi and Our Lack of Economic Imagination

By Chris Barton, Staff Writer

“Keep your money. It’s no good here. The economy isn’t working for 99% of us, so we’re building a new one,” claims Simbi’s website, a cheery blue and white page full of smiling people.

Simbi is an online bartering platform. The idea is that everyone has a service that they can offer (no matter how obscure), and Simbi presents them the opportunity to trade that service for something that they want or need, no money involved. The website claims to create a direct barter economy – one where individuals trade services, just like in the good old days when people did what they were good at and worked for each other.

The Simbi promotional video is worth watching – if for no other reason than to see some masterful rhetoric – and it encapsulates the feeling of a whole group of disenfranchised people, fed up with the ways that our economy keeps shafting them. “We toil away for cash and corporations, our lives bought and boxed… It’s time to stop working for salaries and hierarchies – and start working for each other” claims the video. A nice sentiment, for sure – but can Simbi deliver?

There are many reasons why Simbi should be awesome. It creates a brand new economic space, one where everyone supposedly starts on equal footing. It aims to empower those who aren’t benefitting from the current economic system. It allows people to market skills and services that wouldn’t normally be marketable (like walking someone through a video game, or playing chess with them). And it gives people low on cash access to services that they normally couldn’t afford.

But Simbi has a fatal flaw: it’s not inventive enough. Even though it was founded on the idea that our economy isn’t working, it fails to imagine an alternative different enough to escape the problems endemic in our current system. The barter economy is not a new model, but rather an old one, an early version of the very system that Simbi claims to replace. And therefore, it is susceptible to the same problems.

Take, for example, the claim that money is no good in Simbi. A world without money might be cool for a bit – until, for example, your car breaks down but the local mechanic has absolutely no interest in your offer to trade a yoga lesson for repairs. The relatively unlikely occurrence that I want what you offer AND you want what I offer is called the “double coincidence of wants.” Resolving this problem is the reason we started using money in the first place – so that you can pay for your car repair with what you earn giving yoga lessons.

Simbi recognizes the value of a currency, and thus you can trade services for ‘Simbi,’ which are credits you accrue that can be put towards services offered by others. Or, put another way, you get ‘paid’ for your service in ‘Simbi’, which you can then use to ‘buy’ other services. Clearly money is worth something in Simbi.
The inevitable Simbi bourgeoisie

And then, given the existence of this currency, what’s stopping me from finding a service that everyone really wants, and thus accruing a bunch of Simbi? And when demand for my service goes up, I realize I can’t keep up – and so I ‘barter’ some of my accumulated Simbi for the services of anther Simbi member, to whom I pass off some of my work. What if I do that 25 times? Someone gives me 50 Simbi for my service, because ‘I’ do good work and come highly recommended. Then I barter 25 Simbi to my assistants to actually do the work. The extra 25 Simbi I spend on being carried around in a litter while being handfed Swiss chocolates by an orangutan. Suddenly we’ve got a class divide again, with most people working for a ‘Simbi’ wage. We’re back to the very economic system that Simbi users are supposed to hate.

Simbi isn’t a different economic system – it’s a sandbox model of early capitalism. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t cool; early capitalism was certainly preferable to late capitalism. But it’s not fundamentally different from the current system. And THAT is scary. Because it means that although we can recognize the problems of capitalism, we can’t come up with a better way to do it.

The economic philosopher Slavoj Zizek has pointed out that:

“Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”

Simbi seems to mark this point well: its whole reason for being is that global capitalism isn’t working, that we’re all being exploited, that our skills and services aren’t valued, and that we’re all “working for salaries and hierarchies” instead of each other or ourselves. Yet Simbi’s alternative approach is just more of the same, dressed up in new clothes.

Are these really our choices? Early capitalism or late capitalism? The existence of Simbi shows that we are far from content with our lot, yet we can’t imagine a better way. What a horrible state of affairs.

Fixing the world’s problems requires really big thinking – inventive thinking, fearless thinking, radical thinking. We need new ideas, not just refurbished old ones. We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Until we can produce novel alternatives to capitalism, we’re dooming ourselves to continue to be ‘bought and boxed, working for salaries and hierarchies.”

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