Roughly simplified, Gesell was critical of usury and wanted to establish a banking system that would be dramatically different. A venture that was based on this type of thinking and stood as one of the inspirations for WIR was the Swedish JAK Bank, which is a rather peculiar firm in the industry as it charges no interest. The members of JAK earn points by having savings in the bank and can use the points to borrow money: neither savings nor loans have any interest attached to them. While JAK has not turned out as a successful WIR, it continues to operate with around 24,000 members in 2021.
Gesell, however, wanted to go even further: he sought to establish a form of money that, instead of earning interest, would “rot like apples” by having a negative interest rate. The intention was to discourage the wealthy from hoarding it while encouraging it to be spent and invested instead. This was how WIR first operated: it issued its own currency with a “tax” on the holding of the currency, which sought to accelerate circulation.
Later on, WIR abandoned many of Gesell’s core ideas and has come to resemble a more conventional bank, with one massive difference: it issues its own currency. Instead of “taxing” holders of the currency, it pays them interest. WIR can afford to do so by charging a small transaction fee and offering its members mortgages and business loans in its own currency with interest well below that of conventional banks.
WIR currently has more than 50,000 members - which add up to nearly one in five Swiss businesses, with the cooperatives symbol being a common sight in store windows next to VISA and Mastercard. Exchanges in WIR represent between 1- 2% of the Swiss GDP, with research showing that the cooperative has played a noticeable role in helping small and medium-sized businesses during periods of economic downturns and made the Swiss economy as a whole more resilient.