Thoughts on the Gift Economy
Adriana and I went on a long walk Sunday in search of two trails previously unknown to me, written about by Gary Kamiya in his masterful “Cool Gray City of Love” (highly recommended!). The photos accompanying this otherwise unrelated essay are my favorites from our walk. The essay below is something I wrote in response to my colleagues from the Giftival (previous post) who asked me to elaborate.
The gift is apparently a concept that carries a lot of weight. People use it in all kinds of contexts and it can hold many different meanings, and even refer to quite different things. To contemplate the notion of a “gift economy” first requires some clarity about what is being discussed.
Some people take the notion of a gift and connect it to the feelings they’ve had at receiving a gift, usually some kind of gratitude and/or surprise. It doesn’t take too long before this perception morphs further and some people begin to relive moments where they were given something that they unconsciously took for granted, and later realized they SHOULD have felt grateful for it. For those who are religiously inclined, the concept of gift quickly becomes a pivot for giving thanks to God for life itself, or to Gaia/Earth, or if more secularly minded, to give thanks to other people in one’s life for the “gifts” of food, water, even air.
I think framing the idea of a “gift economy” in these highly subjective and personal ways, often fundamentally spiritual, makes it almost impossible to face up to the enormous challenge of posing the logic of the gift AGAINST the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is an amazingly adaptive and complex system of social organization based on class, private property, and exchange knit together in a productive regime that is meant to grow in perpetuity. To pose the gift as an alternative to this runs into immediate problems, since it tends to reinforce the starting point of private property that can be “given” by one to another. (As I type this, in the background on the television is a commercial for Christmas shopping centered on a character they’ve dubbed “The Gifter”—a woman who engages in a frenzy of shopping to give dozens of gifts during the holiday season). Moreover, the notion of the gift also tends to direct our attention to the goods and services being given (and received), rather than the social relationships that are both necessary prerequisites and logical outcomes of a culture of free sharing.
Gifts have existed as long as exchange between disparate groups of people has existed, well into prerecorded history. David Graeber’s work on debt (“Debt: The First 5000 Years”) shows how money itself arose from a process of accounting that started with measuring equivalencies between gifts. Gifts were also used in many cultures as a mechanism for cementing specific relationships between powerful figures, usually men, or powerful families. The dark history of gifts is that they are also the starting point for slavery! Powerful men would give their daughters as “gifts” to marry into other families for political reasons, irrespective of the wishes of the women involved. The idea that people were objects who could be moved about as property was born in this early behavior, and eventually consumed the lives of millions over hundreds of years.
In North America there were hundreds of different tribal cultures before Europeans arrived. In the far northwest, near today’s Seattle, the local peoples had a tradition of the “potlatch”—an annual festival in which the most powerful local leaders would compete with each other to see who could give away the most wealth at the festival, even to the point of extravagantly destroying hides, animals, tools, and food in a frenzy of one-upmanship (seeking to come out on top in an upside down way by our contemporary standards). Another tribal culture that dominated the southern Great Plains from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s, the Comanches, had an economic foreign policy based on gifts and “trading and raiding.” They would send trade caravans and war parties to the Spanish (later Mexican) colonies in Texas and New Mexico and on arrival demand lavish gifts from their hosts. If the local elite chose not to comply with the demands, the warriors would attack and take whatever they wanted anyway. Trading for the Comanches started with receiving substantial material gifts, and then actual exchange would follow. Without the gift giving the relationship would revert to brute force and the same goods would be taken without any reciprocity at all.
All of this is to say that our idea of “gift” and “gift economy” is hopefully quite different than the centuries of human history would suggest it to be. But maybe it’s not? It is common among early 21st century radicals to attack markets and money as mechanisms of oppression if not a type of enslavement. But for many urban people, buying and selling from anonymous clerks in stores is a kind of freedom from the complicated social relations associated with acquiring our goods at a place where everyone knows us and we know them. The only accountability we’re responsible for is whether or not we have enough money. It is of no concern to us who produced what we’re buying, where, or how, nor what the ecological consequences may have been as a result of its production. Like it or not, that’s a kind of freedom too, freedom from having to take into account all those complicated “externalities” (as capitalism likes to label them). If we are rejecting the great “freedom” that the marketplace grants the individual (at least those with sufficient resources to buy and sell what they need and want), perhaps we DO want to replace it with a system that binds people more closely together in relationships that are precisely specific. Maybe we are proposing a “gift economy” as a way to undo the anonymity of modern life and to reintroduce social mechanisms of accountability and responsibility that have been destroyed by the only measuring system left: money. Maybe we do want the idea of a “gift economy” to put us back into face-to-face relationships where we have to make shared decisions about what we do, why, how, and with whom? But can that scale up to making steel? Building bridges? Running complex subway systems? Keeping fresh water coming out of the millions of taps? How might that work?
I think it is important for anyone proposing a “gift economy” as an alternative to daily life today to be clear about what that entails. I think we should pose the “gift” as a means of decommodifying the goods we produce collectively and depend on for our reproduction. The gift should be a way of signifying our intention to move more and more of material life from the realm of private property into a new type of commons. If that is our intention, then we have big political problems! Do we have a majority of people on our side? How do we win them over? How do we explain to people who don’t already think positively about this transformation that their lives will be MUCH better during and after this transition? Can we begin to create the social practices that allow us to reproduce a complex, largely urban life for millions of people on the basis of freely associating producers who give their skills and time freely, and simultaneously gain access to the food, shelter, energy, transit, communications, etc., that they need for their lives just as freely?
Pretty quickly we can see that we’re not talking about personal behaviors, choices, and preferences (although these are part of it) but rather proposals for new systems of social life. But what are we proposing? More freedom? Less? Freedom from market relations? Freedom from anonymity and the consequential social anomie? But wouldn’t a system in which we have to decide every part of our material lives be a new kind of oppression? How could we organize complex, technological society, mostly urbanized, so that we could all work a lot less, enjoy the work we do because we choose it freely and control it democratically, and make sure we’re not destroying planetary ecology by producing “enough” for everyone? How would we decide what is “enough”? What would democracy look and feel like when it is geared to managing collectively the material reproduction of a complex urban society?
The idea of a gift culture is surely a good place to start thinking about these things, but not if we stop the process at giving thanks for breathing or eating or sunshine. Giving thanks is a fine gesture of social solidarity, but it’s not nearly enough. I’ve often had to agree that “better is better than worse,” when it comes to a whole range of inadequate choices, but even if it’s better to buy healthy organic food, or to patronize a small business that your friends own or work at rather than a big box store like Walmart, or to ride a bicycle rather than driving a car, IT’S NOT ENOUGH! Consumer choices are not very important when it comes to changing life (but of course, make “better” choices rather than “worse” ones if you can). Simply put, we will not shop our way to a new life.
This brings us face to face with the increasing presence of one of capitalism’s latest marketing slogans, the “sharing economy,” usually based on another buzzword concept, “social entrepreneurship.” This frothy arena of business claims to be something new but it’s actually quite familiar. It is what capitalism has been doing incessantly since its beginning: converting normal human behaviors based on cooperation, sharing, and social solidarity into products for sale. Insofar as people are taking their time and skills and resources OUT of the market and making them available FREELY to others, helping people use shared wealth to reduce their dependency on money and buying goods in the marketplace, claims for a “new economy” that challenges capitalist paradigms can be made. But absent this deliberate breaking with markets, money, wage-labor, and private property, we are actually seeing the EXPANSION of capitalist social relations into areas that were not yet previously colonized by that logic.
Good will is important. Desires to help and support one another are a basic building block of social solidarity. But confusion about what we’re up against is probably one of our greatest problems. We will not be able to create businesses to overthrow business! A “gift economy” worthy of its name implies a massive transformation on a scale that frankly most of us are frightened to think about. I appreciate my friends, with whom I mostly enjoy an unmeasured reciprocity and generosity. I think we’re hoping that kind of spirit, similar to the first years of our lives in the arms of our mothers and fathers where everything was given freely and lovingly, could be the basis of a society-wide transformation. Maybe it can. But if so, we’ll have to figure out the political arguments, and the ultimate institutional dynamics that will facilitate such a transformation. It won’t happen just because we wish it so, or because we feel a lot of love for the people we’re surrounded by. If we gather to discuss these ideas but have to always go back to a life where the overriding logic is to get money to pay our bills, we’ll be spinning our wheels for a long time to come.