Living Without Money

19May12

Heidemarie Schwermer, has voluntarily been living without money for 16 years. She started this “Sterntalerexperiment” to raise awareness about the problems of our modern society where money is so dominant. In 2010 Line Halvorsen directed a documentary about her life. The film paints a heartwarming portrait of a kind and willful woman who tries to show that things could be different by living differently. But Heidemarie Schwermer’s experiment and the film raise many more questions than they answer. If Schwermer isn’t paying for her expenses aren’t others doing so, and why do they do this? Does her happiness stem from her lifestyle or from the fame that she earned with it? Is the experiment scalable? What if many people started to live without money? I don’t have clear answers to all the questions of the film, but in this post I will try to address one of them: what can Heidemarie Schwermer’s experiment teach us about what money ‘does’ to our lifestyle and social world?

It is quite clear from the film that Heidemarie Schwermer, 70 years old and once a teacher and a therapist, feels the quality of her life has improved since she started the experiment. Early in the film, she talks to a school class about the moment she had given away all her possessions. She says she felt great; she was jumping around; she felt an enormous loss of ‘ballast’. Today all Heidemarie Schwermer has, fits in a suitcase. She has no home but she is not homeless either: she has done some home sitting and people around her invite her into their house to stay over for a couple of days. She also doesn’t need to eat from garbage cans. Heidemarie Schwermer collects leftover foods from markets, bakeries and shops and sometimes she trades services. A hilarious example from the film is where she leads a small group to a wellness resort. They successfully offer to sing a song to the other guests in return for free access. The film depicts Schwermer’s life as playful, free, simple and meaningful.

However, Schwermers has critics too. They say for example, that this experiment is only possible because Heidemarie Schwermer lives in a world with money. She uses things which cost money: such as a computer and a telephone and her traveling. These are gifts, but someone pays for them. So, the criticism goes: Schwermer doesn’t understand her own experiment. She lives on other people’s money not without money; harshly put: she is a parasite. Others claim Schwermer uses ‘her fame as a kind of currency’. Schwermer meets kindness and generosity everywhere she goes, but possible followers can expect the ‘homeless’ treatment. Without Schwermer’s fame to pay it, it is not likely they will meet any kindness. There may be a shard of truth in each of these critiques, but I do think they miss the main point of the Sterntalerexperiment. You won’t see its value if you try to frame it in monetary terms. Schwermer doesn’t try to show how a barter economy is the same as a monetary economy, but how it is different. Schwermer’s approach to value exchange, differs in subtle but important ways from the monetary approach. It certainly has a different psychology.

To explain this further, let me give a brief introduction to the history of money. In his book “Understanding Media” Marshal McLuhan devotes a chapter to money as a medium. For him money is a universal translator, translating one kind of work into another. But over the years it did change shape. In most cultures commodity money emerged from barter. Rather than trading goods and services directly a commodity such as whale teeth or pepper, was used as an intermediary. This made trading easier and by allowing for saving, but it only worked in small communities. The next step, possible because of the institutional changes that followed the printing press, was representational money.  Representational money is money with the sole purpose of being money and without commodity value such as leather or silver coins and paper money. This allowed for trading and specialization on a much larger scale. Also trade and money became a goal, rather than just a means. Finance, financial markets and market prices emerged. These abstract, statistical systems complicated and blurred the relation between money and the work it represented; a development which has always been strongest in Western cultures. McLuhan: “The extreme abstraction and detachment represented by our pricing system is unthinkable and unusable amidst populations for whom the exciting drama of price haggling occurs with every transaction”; pp149. Money, according to McLuhan, can still translate the work of the barber into the work of the film maker, but nowadays the transaction doesn’t need to represent the value of the filmmaker’s films to the barber.

When Heidemarie Schwermer stays somewhere she gives ‘something’ in return for the hospitality of the host. She helps with cooking and cleaning and some hosts claim they just like her presence, and this is enough. Schwermer and her host feel like ‘sharing responsibility’ and as having a good time together. This is an exchange but not a transaction. The difference in psychology is easy to understand when you compare Schwermer’s approach with paying for a night in a hotel. First, a payment isolates and fixes the value of a service: the payment makes sure you ‘are even’ for this single night. In contrast Schwermer has an ongoing relationship with her hosts. This brings flexibility: you can invest in long term relationships in many ways and you don’t need to break it down into small chunks for which you must invest the same ‘amount’. Second, market prices do not express your relationship with the service provider, but they reflect the competition between similar service providers. The price of a night in a hotel isn’t about you: it doesn’t depend on how bad you need it, it doesn’t depend on how much the owner needs your money and it doesn’t depend on how generous you feel towards the owner. Schwermer’s exchanges are different. If she stays somewhere and does something for her host, she knows who benefits and in what way: it is about the relationship. In the rest of the film, we see similar differences between Schwermer’s approach and a monetary one. Later in the film, Schwermer is cleaning the floor of a supermarket, in exchange for leftover foods.  The psychology of this isn’t an exchange of a service for some goods but it is about sharing in the responsibility for running the shop and strengthening her bonds with the shop owner. It is never purely about ‘being even’, it does not need to be quantified and it is a step in an ongoing process between Schwermer and the shop owner.

In his book, Marshal Mcluhan notes that “Money separates work from the other social functions”; pp147. In her experiment Schwermer brings those ‘two worlds’ together again. She lives her life by  sharing value in a fairly small network of people. This approach has its limits. It easy to see how we could build self-sufficient communities in this way: I do not doubt that we can grow food and build houses without money. But it is harder to see how we’d produce smartphones or cruise ships this way. There are so many people needed to make these products, that it is hard to see how they could not come from an anonymous market. Schwermer’s experiment may raise the question whether the material world is the better one of the two or it may inspire us to find new ways to ‘produce’ more complex products without such depersonalization of the work that goes into it. But I believe there is a response to the film which is closer to home. If you think about it: we all still live in both worlds. We buy products without thinking where they come from, but we do solve problems in Schwermer’s way too. Many invite friends over to paint their houses, others exchange clothing with friends. Maybe we can solve many more problems within our own networks, rather than buying it from an anonymous shelf. Schwermer shows us what the possible benefits of the nonmonetary approach may be. If we have a choice, we can choose consciously. To have a choice, most of us will need to get to know the nonmonetary mode better. If so, let’s try a ‘Sterntalerexperiment’ light.

Reading more.

The arguments in this post are largely congruent with those in my last post about gamification. Earlier I wrote a review of Marshal McLuhans book “Understanding Media”. Also, I wrote about markets and their substructure in my posts about the connected costumer and the traveling influence problem.

Heidemarie Schwermer has a website and she wrote two books. In 2001 she published “Das Sterntaler Experiment, Mein Leber Ohne Geld” which is available on Amazon. Her second book, “In Fülle SEIN – ohne Geld” can be downloaded for free from her site.  In 2010, Line Halvorsen raised money to create a documentary about her life with the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The documentary can be ordered here.

Of course there are many people who question our modern lifestyle and try to do something about it. I do not have an extensive library of examples but I would like to mention Noeska Klomberg’s Design Academy graduation project. She started the food “Food-Combers” service, where people pay to pick up left over food from farmers sites.

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5 Responses to “Living Without Money”

  1. 1 G

    As long as one is willing to suck on the teat of society, taking without giving back, one can live quite well in a socialistic society such as Germany. Good luck living on the kindness of others for healthcare in a different society. Easy to live without “security” when the whole Gesellschaft is there to pick you up when you famm.

  2. G, thank you for commenting! If I am correct you pose two questions. First: does Heidemarie Schwermer ‘give something back’. My answer after seeing the film would be ‘more that she takes’, but this is a matter of debate. The second question is how does the sterntaler experiment scale to countries that are poorer and less organised. I do not have enough experience to answer this question, but the general trend seems to be that the more people have and the more organiser their lives is the less they are willing to share what they have. So it may scale better to poorer countries than you imagine.

  3. 3 G

    Hi Koen- No, my point is that those who live in a country like Germany, live off the grid in the full knowledge that in the case of emergency (such as a broken bone or need for cancer treatment) society will cover her costs, although she has acted as a free rider (or free loader). If you live in China (or parts of the US, eg), maybe you wouldn’t “resign” from public insurance, because you would then actually be left to die in the streets. Her choice to live without cash actually means that she is stealing tax revenue from the state which supports her and the society she relies on, because the value of her “barter” should be taxed with VAT just like everything else. She is living black and those of us who pay taxes are being abused by her.
    I recycle religiously, give my usage to Zu Verschenken and Freecycle, wear my clothes until they have holes (and go to the Orange bin) or donate those in good children (eg which my children have outgrown). I don’t use AC, I take public transport (with a ticket I pay for) and I am made angry by her theft of the services that my tax dollars provide. I don’t have an issue with the poor, incapable, or those who can’t give back, but I have a problem with her promulgation of living black and living on the sweat and taxes my family and other workers provide to maintain society.

  4. G. Thank you for this clarification. I hadn’t thought about tax, or the issue of public goods before reading your comment.And it is an interesting issue when you dream up a ‘world without money’. When it comes to Schwermer and her experiment I believe I arrive at the same conclusion as I did when writing the post. It is fair to say she is a parasite if you put money as primary and value creation as secundary, but the point of the experiment is to explore what happens when you turn that order around. Of course you need to break some ‘rules’ to make that happen.The difficulty with the “Yeah, but she should pay taxes otherwise she is misusing my hard earned money” is that it is, once again, framing the experiment in monetary terms. What should she do? Bring part of the things she ‘earns’ with barter to the Reichstag? I think you can only appreciatie the experiment if you are willing to consider the possibility of a world that does not revolve around money and if you are willing to give her some space to act ‘as if’. For that I guess you need to forgive her for not paying taxes too, Maybe she is not a narcistic cynic, who consiously decides to take a free ride on Germany’s excellent public services, just because of the attention and fame it brings.In that case you were right to be mad. But maybe she is trying to show us something, which is worth a (second) look and a willingness to be lenient towards the type of inperfections that go with experiments. .


  1. 1 Reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog

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