In our modern society, it often feels like money rules all. Consider the hot-topics of the election debates - Trident, non-doms, the NHS - and you’ll see that there is nothing more damning than declaring something ‘uneconomic’. The pound is the president, and the penny the prince.
However, down a side-street in Dalston, there is a small community who are bringing these rules into question.
Save The Date Cafe is an experiment in economy. ‘We’ve tried to keep money out of the whole thing’, volunteer Harry tells me. The cafe opens Wednesday to Saturday serving lunch to hungry locals. But unlike some of the over-priced eateries that litter the neighbouring East London streets, they don’t charge any set prices.
How do they afford to source the food they serve? You guessed it - they rescue food that’s on its way to waste from local shops and supermarkets and cook it into tasty nutritious meals. And rather than pay a set fee, customers are encouraged to ‘Pay As You Feel’.
Since, as Harry tells me, there are a few running costs such as fuel and maintenance, financial payments are welcome, but more preferable are people's payments of time and energy. So customers can earn their delicious lunch by, for instance, volunteering to wash up or clean the tables. And of course, all volunteers involved in cooking and working at the cafe eat the free food that’s served up too. So by the end of the day, scores of locals can all eat free food together without any money passing hands.
This model reminds me that paying with money is essentially the same as paying with service. It’s just that money virtualises the service, assuming it has been exercised elsewhere. When someone hands over a fiver for their lunch, they’re saying ‘I’ve earned this money by working for the good of society somewhere’. The only difference at Save The Date is that the good works done by customers are necessarily kept within the space of the cafe. Therefore the economy is space-limited. This is the same effect of projects such as the Brixton Pound, a localised monetary unit in South London. The benefit of localised economy is that it ensures that wealth stays within a bound area. The economy as it works today allows money to transfer at breakneck speed from the pockets of the poor to the wallets of the wealthy. Each time you shop at a major coffee shop, for instance, some of your cash flows straight into the boss’ pockets. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes it easy for money to concentrate in particular places (think: Canary Wharf) and be sucked out of general hard-working neighbourhoods (think: the rest of Tower Hamlets). This can cause a very vertical economic structure, with a great gulf growing between the rich and poor.
In contrast, what Save The Date cafe exemplifies is a very horizontal economic structure. Rather than emphasising the importance of money in economy, which only represents service, Save The Date encourages the physical, tangible acts of service. This means that Save The Date reserves any benefit it produces only for those who go to the cafe. What a way to honour the local customers!