David Bowie as Currency

My media circles—both news and social—are mourning David Bowie’s death today. The sorrow is almost effervescent; our heartfelt mini-elegies of memes, music videos, and lyrics celebrate Bowie’s life as much as we’re lamenting the tragedy that we’ve all outlived him.

After hearing of his death this morning and recalling the flurry of Bowie appreciation that accompanied his 69th birthday last week (Brain Pickings has my favorite roll of Bowie memorabilia, particularly his answers to the Proust Questionnaire), I remembered seeing his face in an unexpected place: on paper money.

Anyone can buy Brixton Pounds online at the Brixton Pound Shop.

David Jones spent his earliest years in the southwest London district of Brixton, well before he decided to become David Bowie. The area, decades ago a thriving Caribbean enclave, became contemporarily famous for social unrest and violent riots between police and protesters in the 1980s and 90s. Today the community is rapidly gentrifying (or regenerating, depending whom you ask), and the Brixton Pound is one of its more interesting socioeconomic experiments.

The Brixton Pound (hereafter B£) is a locally based alternative currency that launched in 2009. Communities all over the world—Greece, Philadelphia, and Germany, to name a few—have created unique systems and capital as alternatives to recognized national currencies (e.g. dollar, euro, yuan). Some alternatives predate the 2008 global economic collapse, some are a response to specific economic policies, and some, including the B£, call into question the very nature of monetary systems.

Per the official B£ website:

The primary purposes of the scheme are to strengthen the local economy by incentivising people to use independent local businesses, and celebrate and further build community pride. We know that throughout its history Brixton has demonstrated an incredibly strong sense of local identity, and we believe that independent businesses are part of this landscape.

Some alternative currencies are global, such as Bitcoin, and some are hyperlocal. Some companies have jumped on the alternative currency bandwagon and call their currency by different names, such as Nike’s “Bid Your Sweat” promo in Mexico or Starbucks’ Stars rewards. And in some cases, local governments work with the community currency, such as Bristol, UK, allowing residents to pay their council taxes in Bristol Pounds. Property owners in Brixton have the option to pay property taxes in B£. At its most basic, an alternative currency can be as small-scale as a written IOU between two people. Many actors can participate in the creation and exchange of alternative or supplemental currencies. But regardless of the currency’s form, each initiative requires an active “decoupling” of legal tender as both a currency and a standard of value measurement. Community economist Thomas H. Greco:

To truly empower a local community, a currency should be issued on the basis of goods and services changing hands, i.e., it should be “spent into circulation” by local business entities and/or individuals who are able to redeem it by providing goods or services that are in everyday demand by local consumers. Such a currency amounts to an i.o.u. of the issuer, an i.o.u. that is voluntarily accepted by some other provider of goods and services (like an employee or supplier), then circulated, then eventually redeemed, not in cash, but “in kind.” In this way, community members “monetize” the value of their own production, just as banks monetize the value of collateral assets when they make a loan, except in this case, it is done by the community members themselves based on their own values and criteria, without the “help” or involvement of any government, bank, or ordinary financial institution, and without the need to have any official money to begin with.

This certainly seems to be the goal of the B£ economy. Pete Guest writes in the very cool journal Works That Work in April 2015 that “[a]round 2,000 people have registered for the e-currency system, transacting a total of £200,000–250,000 (€269,000–336,300 or US$307,000–383,800) per year.” Approximately 250 local businesses accept B£. In 2011 users first had the option to pay in B£ by smartphone. Today the Brixton Fund takes a 1.5% transaction fee from each smartphone payment to provide micro-grants to local initiatives.

Though alternative currencies are nothing new, the B£ is among the most widely known community currencies precisely because of who is featured on their masterfully (and locally!) designed notes. Bowie as Ziggy Stardust is miles and away the most recognizable face to be on a B£, but the other notes salute local sons and daughters that were voted on by the people of Brixton. The designers also incorporated parts of the local landscape on the notes, such as public artworks, beloved graffiti art, and iconic architecture. (The New York Times does the program a disservice by ascribing bougie descriptors to the notes like “artisanal cash” and “small-batch” currency; the currency was created as a means to circumvent the influence of gentrifying money, after all.)

For good measure, a couple observations from the B£ organization:

There’s no question David Bowie left behind an extraordinary body of art and an equally extraordinary legacy. He was the talented oddball androgyne the world didn’t know we needed, and I know many people (myself included) who turned to his art for comfort when they didn’t feel understood by anyone else. I don’t know how he felt about being featured on the B£ 10-note—or if he considered it at all—but I can’t help but think the use of his image on a social-justice-oriented community currency dovetails nicely with his counterculture life.

Thank you, David Bowie, for sharing your extravagant blessings with us. The Brixton Pound may leave us, but your moonlight will shine for generations.

Edit (12 Jan 2016): The folks at Brixton Pound reached out to me on Twitter to say, “thanks for this great piece. David was aware of the B£ and very happy to be part of it: http://www.davidbowie.com/news/exclusive-bowie-brixton-ten-pound-bank-note-revealed-15201.”

What a hero.

If you want to know more about how the Brixton Pound works, read up on the official website. And if you’re interested in community currency, the Community Currency Knowledge Gateway is a great place to start.


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