The Gift Economy (part II)

November 25, 2011

In this post, the second part of a series on gift economies, [part one can be read here], I contrast the dynamics of a money economy to those of a gift economy, and discuss the casting of spells and how to break spells. In a future post I shall look at the practicalities of gift economies and address the issues of transitioning from our current money economy to something more desirable. Or, in other words, from scarcity to abundance.

Monetized Life

The loyalty of school children, indigenous knowledge, drinking water, the human genome—it’s all for sale.
– Lewis Hyde, The Gift

It is commonly  believed that the origins of money lie in barter. Money, we are told, developed as a technology to facilitate the otherwise cumbersome direct exchange of goods. As anthropologist David Graeber, in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, points out (as have many others) there is virtually no anthropological evidence to support this view and plenty of evidence suggesting that it is erroneous. [Graeber] Barter, the direct exchange of goods based on an agreed upon value of the goods by the trading parties, is found where people have previously come into contact with money.

Money and barter are systems where the emphasis, the value, is placed on the object of exchange, that is, on the material goods or services. The purpose of the exchange is acquisition. In traditional gift economies, such as potlatch, for example, we see something very different. Objects that help meet material needs are indeed transferred but the value does not reside solely in the object but, rather, in the giving and receiving. The purpose is not acquisition of material goods but the strengthening of support networks or gift circles.

What does it mean to strive for “financial independence”? That we don’t want to be dependent on others, to need others. We want to be free of obligation and responsibility. If you do something for me and I pay you for the service I have met my obligations and therefore owe you nothing. Job done, money paid, we’re finished. “Nice and clean.”

This hard won “independence” is illusory, of course, for we have actually exchanged interdependence, with family, friends and community for near total dependence on money and the goods and services it can afford us. We are no longer intimate with the people who sustain our lives. The monetized life is a depersonalized life.

The Gift Circle

The dynamic of the gift is very different. The gift builds relationship. The feelings of gratitude we experience in receiving gifts foster our desire to give back, to share our gratitude. And, on the flip side of gratitude we have obligation. We feel a sense of responsibility to those who are generous toward us. We look out for them and care for them. The gift attends to our self-interests by fostering the interests of the community at large. More for you means more for me.

It is told that when a needy family came to the house of the Prophet Muhammad his wife, Aisha, took the meat that they had in the house and gave all but a shank to the family. When later she explained that nothing was left of the lamb but the shank the Prophet replied that all was saved but the shank.

The gift economy, in fostering relationships of gratitude and responsibility, relies on social witnessing: a community awareness of who is generous and who stingy which consequently determines the level of generosity shown to individual community members. How, and by whom, your needs are met directly relates to how you have treated others.

In the modern world we often bemoan the loss of community. It seems the more “affluent” the society at large the more keenly the loss of community is felt. But this should not surprise us for the dynamic of money undermines community bonds by removing our interdependence, our needing each other. This need for one another is the foundation of community.

The gift circulates through the community – and we should note that the movement of the gift is indeed one of circulation and not exchange, for where, as Charles Eisenstein points out, our gifts are exchanged we are moving into the realm of barter and are no longer in the realm of the gift [Eisenstein]. As the gift flows through the community it infuses  the feelings of generosity and gratitude that strengthen our communal ties as our needs are met. Spirit is breathed into the community.

The Community of Life

What is the origin of this monstrous machine that chews up beauty and spits out money?
– Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics

The fictitious story of money’s origins in barter conveniently supports the notion that markets will spontaneously emerge, sooner or later, wherever there are human societies. Again, David Graeber shows us that such an assumption is highly problematic as the emergence of markets had far more to do with rulers meeting the needs of their armies than it ever did with meeting the needs of the people. [Graeber] If markets are inevitable then it is only to certain kinds of societies. Getting “the people” to participate usually required forceful coercion such as undermining social networks and stealing land (enclosing the commons, or privatizing, as we call it today. As Proudhon said, “Property is theft”). Of course the simplest method is to start issuing currency and then demand taxes paid in that currency. What was formerly given away is now sold and co-operation disintegrates into competition. The market emerges.

The functioning of markets requires an element of scarcity. There must be a need for something not easily obtained. Either new needs must be manufactured or the meeting of existing needs made difficult. When intrepid explorers, missionaries, anthropologists  and the like encountered “primitive” societies they did not find barter or market mentalities because what they generally found were people who lived in a world of abundance, not scarcity. Needs were met by the gifts of the gods. The world, the entire community of life, was a gift circle where, as long as behaviour appropriate to a gift circle was maintained, all ones needs would be met.

Of course, the simple minded savages couldn’t possibly be allowed to continue living in such a state of ignorance. One of any number of ingenious methods of inducing scarcity was introduced, necessitating the establishment of markets, the use of money, the collection of taxes, debt, poverty, theft, prisons, and so on, and so on… From living by the gifts of the gods to survival of the fittest. More for you means less for me.

If money has undermined the bonds of human community then it’s severing of our connection to the larger community of life has been even more complete. As the quote opening this section suggests, our economy is a monstrous machine that consumes the natural world to create money. Although the overt buying and selling of human life is generally looked down upon in our “enlightened” age the rest of life is still up for grabs. “For a price, you can buy anything, even the pelt of an endangered species.” [Eisenstein] Although money is not the root cause of our (self)exile from the community of life, but is, rather, a manifestation of it, it has nevertheless become a ferocious enforcer of the belief that we are discreet beings separate from the rest of life.

Our sense of separation goes back at least to the Neolithic and the first agriculturalists. With agriculture a new binary view of the world is born, a world of competition, of us against them: crops or weeds, beneficial insects or pests, domestic or wild, good or evil, etcetera, etcetera. Some, such as John Zerzan, would place the origins of our separation even earlier with the emergence of symbolic culture; representational language, number and art. [Zerzan]  No matter when we place the origins of our separation, with money we have carried it to its conclusion and today find ourselves in a world of abstractions where everything has been reduced to number.

The fate of life is determined by the monetary value that can be extracted from it. If we see more value in a field of soy beans than a prairie then prairie will become field of soy beans. Sacred land or uranium mine? Rain forest or hardwood decking? Endangered species or pelt? Numbers in a ledger.

Living in the Real World

From the mistaken view of ourselves as discrete and separate beings we have developed our stories, our cultures, philosophies, sciences, technologies, economies…that support and reinforce this view. We have written ourselves into a monstrous fiction and remade the earth as a backdrop for our dystopian plot.

But we are not separate, are we? When we look at a forest freshly clear cut we feel the pain of the forest. We feel the sense of loss of the creatures whose home has been razed. Thousands of years of steadily increasing separation has not completely extinguished our sense that we are those creatures, we are those trees. When we allow ourselves, when our rational mind momentarily drops the prison guard role it has been educated to play, we feel the truth of our interdependence.

Returning to live in the real world requires just that we live in that world of interdependence. That is to say, not just believe, or even know, but live.

From the moment of your birth, no, before that even, you have been receiving the gifts necessary to sustain and nourish you. Before you were capable of “earning your keep” you received the gifts of life, of Earth. It is no wonder that we often experience deep feelings of gratitude for simply being alive, for we’ve been receiving precious gifts non-stop the whole time we’ve been here. What has changed? Why do we now feel anxious that what we need will no longer be given to us? Is it because we have not maintained the behaviour appropriate to a gift circle?

Marcel Mauss noted that traditional gift economies contained a trio of obligations: “the obligation to give, the  obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate.” [Hyde] We have all been given gifts, ways in which we are able to make unique contributions to life on our beautiful planet and, if we are not to renege on our obligations then we must be giving generously of our gifts. To do not what you love but what you think you must do “for the money” is to renege on your obligations. Behave inappropriately and the gift circle is broken. To overcome your survival anxiety, to put aside the monetized illusion of security, and wholly offer up your gifts for the well-being of all life is to re-enter the gift circle. (I am not suggesting that you will never need money but, rather, that if you do what you love and give of your gifts, whatever money you need will come.)

To refuse a gift is to proclaim that we do not want to be in relationship with the giver. The obligation to accept also requires that we be open to all gifts that come our way, that is, not to have fixed ideas about how our needs are to be met. Let’s face it, we don’t know best. The evidence of that is everywhere. Our “knowing” is so wrapped up in our story of separation that it is woven through with desires to control the world around us. It is time to let go. Remember, the “weeds” are often more nutritious than the crops.

The earth gives us what we need. Long before we got the idea that we could run the show, Earth generously provided for our every need. We must reciprocate if we want to live in the gift. Nothing can demonstrate this more clearly than looking at the current state of this planet. Since attempting to take over the reins we’ve run vital life support systems in to the ground. Not reciprocating the gift ceases to flow. To rejoin the circle we must use the gifts given us and give back to Earth. That is, to fulfil our purpose in life. To fulfil our ecosystem function.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Melville House, 2011. An earlier text of the same title, later expanded into the 2011 publication, is available online or as a PDF here.
Eisenstein, Charles. Sacred Economics, Evolver Editions, 2011. Online text here.
Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal, CAL Press, 1999. Free eBook download here.
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift, Vintage, 2007. Free eBook download here.

4 Responses to “The Gift Economy (part II)”

  1. Cath Koa and Karin Says:

    Nga mihi nui, thanks Dion for your stunning articles on the Gift Economy. As you well know, the Maori way of living in Aotearoa/New Zealand was always based on a system of koha or sharing in just the ways you mention above. We recently facilitated a Kaitiakitanga Wananga in the North Hokianga where we urged students [whanau] to return to growing and fishing and sharing in this way rather than relying on government scraps…and all agreed this was/is the way forward…so thanks for documenting this with such clarity and beautiful writing…we are with you all the way and hope this inspires others to take part in a koha system of living also….kia kaha..mauri ora…arohanui- Cath Koa & Karin Meissenburg, Mohala Organic Gardens, Aotearoa/New Zealand.

    • dion Says:

      Wonderful Cath! Yes, it certainly is the way forward to resilient, healthy communities. Government dependency is also a spell that must be broken.
      I was pleasantly surprised reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift that he draws examples from Maori culture. Of course, throughout the pacific there are persistent elements of gift cultures that we can use as foundations for the re-emergence of gift economies. Here in Japan too.
      I was going to sign off with “keep up the wonderful work” but it seems rather redundant. How could it be any other way. It is your gift and you give generously.
      Much love.


  2. Keeping coming Dion… I have always appreciated receiving your gifts. Thank you.

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