The Gift Economy (part I)
October 31, 2011
Goods and Services
This past week I have been feeling deep gratitude for the gifts of October. The delicious Akebi (chocolate vine) fruits that have appeared everywhere amongst the trees, the walnuts and chestnuts littering the ground, the first of the winterberries, little raspberry like fruits peeping out from under a carpet of deep green foliage, the Inubiwa (wild fig) fruits, persimmons, salads of tender chickweed, dandelion, plantain, sorrel and pomegranate, the warm sun on my face, the cool moist earth under my feet. Receiving a squid from Tsuchiya-san I give thanks also for the gifts of community, for the gift economy in which we participate.
Via Tsuchiya-san we are part of a (at least) three-way gift economy which also includes a local fisherman whom we are yet to meet. Passing on our surplus to Tsuchiya-san, and often things we have made with our surpluses, we receive the surplus not only from Tsuchiya-san’s garden and kitchen but also the surplus catch of her fisherman friend. I don’t know if our gifts ever make it directly to this particular fisherman but they will certainly make it out to Tsuchiya-san’s circle of friends and family as there is simply too much for her to consume on her own. In the words of a Pirahã hunter-gatherer “I store meat in the belly of my brother.” [Everett, Eisenstein] This is security.
In our present day conception that we inhabit a world of scarcity security is equated with acquisition, possession, hoarding. This is a mindset that, in large part, results from our shift to agriculture. It is not found amongst hunter-gatherers who show little concern for tomorrow. It has repeatedly been remarked by anthropologists studying the life ways of hunter-gatherers in different parts of the world that while there was food for today that was enough. [Sahlins] Even though it could be stored or preserved usually it wasn’t. It is not that technologies/processes for food storage were unknown, they often were, evidenced by the fact that they would sometimes be utilised to keep food items for later barter with visiting traders, [Everett, Eisenstein] but because food was stored in the bellies of brothers and sisters. And here we must understand “brothers and sisters” in the widest possible sense: all creatures, all plants, Earth itself, are our kin, or, more precisely, are us.
The gift economy is, of course, not limited to goods. With Tsuchiya-san we also participate in another ancient form of the gift economy, a form absolutely fundamental to the development of culture, the defining characteristic of culture: the intergenerational passing down of knowledge borne of experience.
After a morning spent helping Tsuchiya-san with some physical labour we rested, eating rice balls and drinking tea. Tsuchiya-san remarked how wonderful it was to have young bodies about to help out with the physical work and I in turn remarked how wonderful it was to have old folks about to pass on their wisdom and knowledge. This lead to a teary moment of gratitude amongst all of us as we realised how lucky we were to be receiving these gifts. Such exchanges, so essential, are now largely absent not only from rural communities that have experienced a mass exodus of young people but throughout our entire culture (in the cities of our most “affluent” societies there seems to have been a mass exodus of old people, shunted off to retirement and nursing homes, hospitals, or self-exiled somewhere). Our relationships have been monetized, as “services.” The guidance of our elders has been replaced with educational institutions, life coaching, counselling, therapy, the physical contributions of our young ones replaced by labourers, hired help, contractors etc. As our economic system, with its insatiable need for growth, converts every natural resource into money, taking them away from us so they can be sold back to us, so too are our relationships slowly but surely being replaced by services for which we must pay. [Eisenstein]
To break the psychological tyranny of our deeply engrained fear for tomorrow is no easy task. Increasingly our belief that scarcity is the ground state of Earth is being actualized. Our (agri)culture has made it so. The shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture has altered the environment from one that abounded in an astounding diversity of wild plant and animal foods to a homogenous landscape of agricultural crops that we must sow and tend today in order to harvest tomorrow. And thus begins the process of deferment that has come to dominate our culture (exemplified in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions but present throughout all agricultural peoples), a process of rewards for work done where nature no longer gives freely but must be coaxed into giving, where we must toil to “make our living,” where paradise will come later, always later. Our monetizing of everything, every natural resource converted into a “good” and every relationship converted into a “service” realizes this belief in scarcity, making mere existence a cause for anxiety: Get to work! if you don’t want to die cold, hungry and alone. In other times we called this slavery.
Given that we have created a world of scarcity how can we possibly move again into a state of abundance? This shall be the subject of my next post but rest assured I won’t be trotting out the New Age cliché that you just have to “allow your consciousness to dwell in a state of abundance and it will come to be.” More often than not the “gurus” that pull out lines like that (for a buck) are in fact talking about manifesting monetary abundance. It should be clear from what I have written above that I do not see money as merely a neutral medium of exchange, just an “energy,” to cite another New Age cliché (money is about as neutral an energy as atomic energy, making toxic everything it touches). Money, as we have it today, is an agent of scarcity, a creator of scarcity. But putting money aside for a moment, there is, nevertheless, a germ of truth to the first New Ageism: our perception of the world helps shape it and if we can free our consciousness from the fetters imposed by a lifetime of messages to the contrary, we will see that not all is as we had previously believed, that the ground state of Earth is, in fact, abundance and not scarcity. With this realization we may not immediately enter into a world abounding in all that we need but we may see that what prevents us from entering such a world is not what we thought it was. In other words, we will already be well on our way to reaching it.
The irony, that on the day I write these words the seven billionth person will join us on this small planet, is certainly not lost on me. If scarcity wasn’t Earth’s ground state we’re sure doing our best to make it so. Or, should we see it through the generous eyes of Charles Eisenstein who has suggested that maybe every human being that ever lived is being reincarnated on earth now to witness humanities great transformation.