Another word that is so com­mon to us that we tend to stop ques­tion­ing its mean­ing, is exchange. We use the prin­ci­ple of exchange daily, when­ever we buy some­thing: you give me an object, and I give you the agreed upon amount of money in return. In doing so, I’ve got the object I desire, and you’ve got your­self a finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion which should be, accord­ing to clas­si­cal eco­nomic prin­ci­ples, equal to the value of the object that is now in my pos­ses­sion. ‘Noth­ing is more basic to the func­tion­ing of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety than the ele­men­tal trans­ac­tion in which we acquire a cer­tain quan­tity of use value in return for a cer­tain sum of money’. 1

This type of trans­ac­tion facil­i­tates eco­nomic inter­ac­tion between two strangers. But it also means that you and me don’t have to engage in any­thing more than a very brief moment of exchange, after which we can become strangers again. We never knew each other, and we will never get to know each other either. Because once we com­plete our trans­ac­tion, there is no rea­son to main­tain any sort of rela­tion­ship. ‘What marks com­mer­cial exchange is that it’s “imper­sonal”: who it is that is sell­ing some­thing to us, or buy­ing some­thing from us, should in prin­ci­ple be entirely irrel­e­vant. We are sim­ply com­par­ing the value of two objects’. 2 The image below rep­re­sents this com­mer­cial exchange.


In this dia­gram, time is plot­ted as a line, ver­ti­cally, with you and me as the actors on either side. Trans­ac­tions are plot­ted as lines run­ning between us, accom­pa­nied by a node on the time­line. This node depicts who gives and who receives, and in which quan­tity. If we trans­late the story of me buy­ing some­thing from you into a dia­gram, we get the image above. There are two things that are strik­ing in this image. First of all, it is com­pletely sym­met­ri­cal. We exchange two things of equal value, result­ing in two equally sized half cir­cles at the node on the time­line. The sec­ond thing about the dia­gram is that it is very empty. Once we’ve com­pleted our trans­ac­tion, noth­ing hap­pens between us. We came, we saw, and we exchanged. And that’s that. A con­se­quence of the lack of any rela­tion­ship between both par­ties is that the sole focus of the trans­ac­tion is the exchange of val­ues. ‘[W]hen both par­ties to the trans­ac­tion are only inter­ested in the value of goods being trans­acted, they may well — as econ­o­mists insist they should — try to seek the max­i­mum mate­r­ial advan­tage.’ 3 Whether or not this is a good thing is up to the reader to decide, but I feel both recent and past events have shown we humans don’t get to show our best side when moti­vated by greed.

Now that we’ve taken a look at social rela­tions in com­mer­cial exchange, let’s exam­ine how we expe­ri­ence exchange with peo­ple that are dear to us. First of all, it is impor­tant to realise we rarely use money amongst friends and fam­ily. Even though we know that out there, in soci­ety, every­thing has a price-tag, we tend to skip an actual com­par­i­son in val­ues. In the case that we are friends, our rela­tion­ship is based on reci­procity, rather than on an exchange of equal val­ues. This rela­tion­ship is very flex­i­ble, and allows for the exchange of val­ues over a long period of time. If I help you move to your new apart­ment, I don’t expect to get paid. Maybe you’ve pre­pared a meal for those who came to help, to say thank you. Or maybe I can call in your help when I’m writ­ing a blog and I need a review. That’s what friends are for! But however we decide to fur­ther shape this rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ship, we never expect to equalise the value of our favours back and forth. Attempt­ing to “set­tle the debt” would be like say­ing you would like to end our friend­ship. The image below illus­trates a rela­tion­ship based on reciprocity.


The basic ele­ments in this dia­gram are the same as in the pre­vi­ous image, but the start­ing point is we both owe each other about the same amount. With time pass­ing, we exchange things back and forth, shift­ing the debt we have towards one another all the time. In some rela­tion­ships, for instance between a child and its par­ents, this shift­ing back and forth can take place in the span of a life­time. Even in reg­u­lar friend­ships the bal­ance might shift towards either side of the scale a fairly large amount at some point in the rela­tion­ship. But even though there is no attempt to, ulti­mately, set­tle the debt, devi­at­ing too much from a point of bal­ance is not accept­able either. Whereas in com­mer­cial exchange it has become the norm to seek the max­i­mum mate­r­ial advan­tage, this atti­tude is not appre­ci­ated amongst friends and fam­i­lies. One will be said to be tak­ing advan­tage of his fellows.

So with­out draw­ing big con­clu­sions, I want to leave you with a ques­tion. If we agree that in our dear­est rela­tion­ships we pre­fer not to use money and feel these rela­tion­ships should be based on reci­procity, why do we use the model of com­mer­cial exchange to shape most of our society?


  • 1) Har­vey, David. The Lim­its of Cap­i­tal. Lon­don: Verso, 2006, p. 9
  • 2) Grae­ber, David. Debt: the first 5000 years. New York: Melville House Pub­lish­ing, 2011, p. 103
  • 3) Ibid
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3 thoughts on “Exchange

  1. Capitan Nemo says:

    Ok binary code! I’ve got your point, but our friend Kowal­ski prob­a­bly refers to a net­work of peo­ple that starts from a rather even posi­tion or rela­tion­ship, going beyond the logic “employer-employee”. For instance, I can imag­ine this hap­pen­ing within a group of peo­ple own­ing dif­fer­ent exper­tise but hav­ing a sim­i­lar amount of years of work experience …

  2. 1001 00101 says:

    Good point.
    How­ever, I would like to remind all archi­tects that when they exchange their work, it should be prop­erly val­ued! It’s a com­mon trick to be asked to work under­paid in the name of good rela­tion­ship. Or a very abstract expe­ri­ence. What I am try­ing to say here is: don’t make friend with your employer, make him pay what is right.

  3. Kowalski says:

    Nice arti­cle! I found the intro very cyn­i­cal. It exposes how detached and dry can eco­nomic rela­tion­ships be.
    The sec­ond part is very inspir­ing!
    I can imag­ine that a group of peo­ple from dif­fer­ent exper­tise could exchange labor with­out the use of cur­rency, and make it a sus­tain­able model.
    It prob­a­bly works only with small num­bers, but still is inter­est­ing point of view to consider

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