The Gift Economy

giftThe Idea: The Gift Economy offers us a means to learn, to understand, to take charge, and to change our world. It is a natural economy, steeped in millions of years of pre-civilization human culture and the culture of all life on Earth. If enough of us embraced it, the modern ‘market’ economy, built on the faulty and inhuman foundations of inequality, scarcity, false quantification of value, and acquisition, could not survive.

Several of the comments I have received about AHA! The Discovery & Learning Centre have been about the idea of reciprocality(my preferred word: the more common word ‘reciprocity’ now has an unfortunate connotation of negotiated market exchange rather than the simpler idea of sharing without obligation). I’ve explained that AHA! will have the effect of forcing down the ‘price’ of transfer of knowledge and ideas, and of leveling the value we put on every individual’s contribution to discovery and learning conversations, so that there is no ‘premium’ on the contribution of an ‘expert’, and so that great ideas and important knowledge are affordable to everyone. The end result could be, if we had the collective will to bring it about, a world in which everything is free, and everything has inestimable value. All of this is consistent, I think, with the (suddenly very popular) concept of the Gift Economy, which is not at all the same as an ‘exchange’ or even a barter economy.

What is the Gift Economy? A seminal work on the subject was written over 20 years ago by Lewis Hyde, a book called The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Hyde wrote:

I speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.

In her review of the book (which I have not yet read), JoAnn Schwartz writes:

Hyde is interested in examining the effect our current immersion in the market economy and the myth of the free market has both on our view of gifts and on our ability to give and receive them. The market economy is deliberately impersonal, but the whole purpose of the ‘gift economy’ is to establish and strengthen the relationships between us, to connect us one to the other. It is this element of relationship which leads Hyde to speak of gift exchange as ‘erotic’ commerce, opposing eros (the principle of attraction, union, involvement which binds together) to logos (reason and logic in general, the principle of differentiation in particular). A market economy is an emanation of logos.

In a market economy, one can hoard one’s goods without losing wealth. Indeed, wealth is increased by hoarding— although we generally call it ‘saving’. In contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gift(s) within the community that leads to increase— increase in connections, increase in relationship strength. Through this book, Hyde helps us focus on the importance of gifts, their flow and movement and the impact that the modern market place has had on the circulation of gifts.

Here’s an explanation by Genevieve Vaughan of the fundamental difference between an ‘exchange’ or ‘market’ economy and a Gift Economy:

The present economic system is based upon exchange, giving in order to receive. The motivation is self-oriented since what is given returns under a different form to the giver to satisfy her or his need. The satisfaction of the need of the other person is a means to the satisfaction of one’s own need. Exchange requires identification of the things exchanged, as well as their measurement and an assertion of their equivalence to the satisfaction of the exchangers that neither is giving more than she or he is receiving. It therefore requires visibility, attracting attention even though it is done so often that the visibility is commonplace. Money enters the exchange, taking the place of products reflecting their quantitative evaluation.

The very visibility of exchange is self-confirming, while other kinds of interaction — nurturing, unselfish and other-oriented gifts — are rendered invisible or inferior by contrast or negative description. What is invisible seems to be valueless, while what is visible is identified with exchange, which is concerned with a certain kind of quantitative value. Besides, since there is an equivalence asserted between what we give and what we receive, it seems that whoever has a lot has produced a lot or given a lot, and is, therefore, somehow ‘more’ than whoever has less. Exchange puts the ego first and allows it to grow and develop in ways that emphasize me-first competitive and hierarchical behavior patterns. This ego is not an intrinsic part of the human being, but is a social product coming from the kinds of human interaction it is involved in.

So the exchange or ‘market’ economy is entrenched in the concepts of inequality, scarcity, quantifiable equivalence of value, and acquisition, while the Gift Economy is rooted in the concepts of parity, abundance, unquantifiability, generosity and connection. As Eric Raymond puts it:

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business, science, Open Source and among the very wealthy.

In a ‘market’ economy, says Hyde, the highest status belongs to those who have acquired the most. In a Gift Economy, the highest status belongs to those who have given the most. But what is most important, he says, is that the gift must always move. This idea was recently popularized by the terrific little movie called Pay it Forward. Every gift is its own reward, but that reward is multiplied, without limit, when the gift, or any gift, is passed along to others. A story is a gift. Blogs are gifts. Ideas and insights and teaching and counsel are gifts. Conversations are gifts.

Here is a gift from Chris Corrigan, Jack Ricchiuto and George Nemeth, a wonderful 45-minute Skypecast conversation (with George’s contribution unfortunately inaudible). I am paying it forward by linking to it and by summarizing below some excerpts I have taken from it, much of which are about the Gift Economy.

Until you put something in front of people that they are hungry for, you can’t bring out the best in them. We all have a hunger for connection, for “mates” who understand our frames, our terms of reference.

Weblogs can create powerful virtual relationships. After reading them for awhile you come to “know” the author and when you then “meet” them you can then go to work with them right away.

The media have stripped us of direct emotional connection to our world. We now look at the news anchor for clues on how to respond to the news. The media ‘mediate’ our emotional response to the outside world.

When tribal elders witness Open Space they say “This is exactly how we used to meet”. Open Space is an indigenous technology, a technology of connection, allowing rapid emergence of understanding.

When something is given, something is always inherently given back in exchange. But gifts work best when you pay them forward. You must find another place to use your learnings acquired from others — it’s this passing along that creates the Gift Economy.

Scientists have long understood the Gift Economy, the networked way of giving their thinking to each other and relating with one another. This is where the real science happens. The Internet serves a similar purpose, as those who have tried unsuccessfully to make money or bottle up knowledge on the Internet have discovered.

The Gift Economy is about ‘agency’ — you can’t be a passive consumer of gifts. Everyone has within them the capacity to contribute, and the network will only grow if everyone turns the gifts they have received to others. We need to learn to become aware of our own agency.

A friend of [Chris’], a Lakota doctor, speaks of the ‘circle of courage’, and describes the way giving builds self-esteem and hence spirit. Everyone, he says, must build four ‘capacities’:

  • The capacity of belonging — reflecting the need to be recognized
  • The capacity of mastery — reflecting the need to build personal competence
  • The capacity of independence — reflecting the need to know your own power and agency
  • The capacity of generosity — reflecting the need to know our own goodness

The ways in which we connect — these ‘technologies’, need to be in the service of presence. Open Space and similar technologies create the conditions for authentic presence. These technologies work best when they ‘go away’, when due to good process design the technology becomes invisible, transparent. Then, when you’re in it, it’s simple because it’s natural. It is just a part of the process.

Good technologies provide ‘back porch aesthetics’ that enable natural conversation, comfort and connection.

If we accept that we do not have all the answers then we acknowledge that each one of us has a crucial piece of the answer, and what is important is the aggregation and emergence of the pieces of truth each one of us carries.

Here is a great gift from Yes! magazine by Beverly Feldman and Charles Gray: 37 ways you can participate in the Gift Economy. What else can we each do to bring about a Gift Economy? The most important things we can do are internal — transformation of the way we look at our world and its economic principles and the way we act towards others and the world in which we live. Chris calls it “passion bounded by responsibility”. Responsibility simply accepted, not thrust upon us. Passion that comes from understanding and the sense of personal capacity. We need to constantly engage ourselves and others in communication and connection, and fight furiously the media paradigm of passive consumption and the market-economy paradigm of only giving when we receive measurable fair value in return. We need to constantly invite each other to address the all-important question What do you really care about?

When we engage each other in conversations about this question, we open up possibilities, we begin to feel and realize our own power, capacity, and mastery, we recognize that generosity has nothing to do with charity, and we sense the movement and strength of collective understanding, will and passion. We realize that together, collectively, collaboratively, we know more, and know better, than leaders, presidents, executives, economists, experts, and others who exploit our passivity to tell us what we should do and believe, and engender in us feelings of helplessness, dependence, and addiction. We have more capacity and power to act than all the multinational corporations and the tyrants and the state apparatus of control and repression.

Perhaps AHA! will begin its mandate not only exemplifying the attributes and capacity of the Gift Economy but collaboratively helping to encourage and broaden that economy, enabling it to undermine the old economy and replace it with one of parity, abundance, generosity and connection, helping us to imagine and realize a world without money, without personal property, without poverty, without ‘economic diseases’ (those that kill thousands each week simply because the inexpensive and ubiquitous cures are unaffordable to half the world’s people). A world where the very idea that pollution, ecological destruction, loss of biodiversity, slavery and exploitation of humans and other animals could be ‘economic’, becomes simply absurd.

As Chris says, “When each of us does something that is more true to who we really are, the collective impact of all these actions can have profound implications for the direction of our world.”

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16 Responses to The Gift Economy

  1. This made me think of Clarke’s “FairShare” idea:

  2. ..which is not the same thing as a real gift economy, but a middle ground that at least has the advantage of being better than what we have now.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    those peky weblogs, and dialogue circles, and people wanting to contribute, gifting .. all that stuff keeps threatening to create fundamental change, bit by bit .. will it ever happen on a widespread scale ? How hard will the powers that be try to keep all that energy and effectiveness at bay because it disturbs their structures ?

  4. Cindy says:

    Buddha’s teaching: emptiness. Imagine the day we die, what can we take along? Therefore eveything we process become burden. That includes knowledge. What I cannot tke away, why should I keep?Cindy

  5. Indigo says:

    Bravo, Dave, on perhaps my favorite of your many great articles.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments and the links. This idea really has legs — I used to think it was wildly idealistic but there are so many examples where it is already happening that I suspect it poses a greater threat to the Market Economy than any of the proposed alternatives. McLuhan said “information is always trying to be free” — who’d have guessed he was suggesting a way to bring in a revolutionary economic (and hence social and political and cultural) system.

  7. pig says:

    Hi Dave, thanks for this article. Three responses:You’ve got a sidebar that lists “requests for future posts on specific subjects” under “Blog writers want to see more”, and in this post you assert “we recognize that generosity has nothing to do with charity”. This last bit is beautiful and elusive to me. I’m working on it in my own life, but would love to hear you elaborate on it in your words (or a reference if you’ve written on this before. I’m a little new.)Amamda Koh has a proposal for people who would like to own her artwork (or that of other participating artists) that strikes me as an interesting twist/compromise of the gift economy idea. Her explanation is at own thoughts on my struggle to function within *any* economy(!) including my excitement and fears about a gift economy, at again.

  8. Iain Lowe says:

    Hi Dave,I’ve been reading your articles for several months now and I just thought I would leave a note to tell you how much I appreciate the hours of work you put into each of these pieces. Each one could be used as the basis for a series of discussions and I often read the final sentence and find myself reeling with an influx of ideas and excitement.I am a software developer and I have been both the recipient and the giver of many many gifts from the open source community over the years. I try to give back what I can and hope that others will find it useful. I’m interested in seeing what others think about concrete ways to implement a gift economy in the “real world” that could supplant the current grind. I really enjoyed the links to both the “37 ways…” and the “caretaker” pages that you provided.I think that one of the things that slows down the wholesale adoption of these types of gift-giving is that people are afraid of getting robbed. They are afraid that when they put themselves out there somebody will just take advantage of them. It takes a great amount of courage to put the first foot forward and to hope/pray that your actions will take root in fertile ground.What if we had a way of identifying people that want to interact this way? I suppose that this is one of the things you are exposing little by little in each of your articles on the subject. What if I could go down the street and get meat from a neighbourhood butcher… for free? What if I could pass by the baker’s and get my bread… for free? And what if those who needed it could come and see me to have custom software built…for free?We have been brought up (or some of us at least) to believe that “what goes around comes around” but we don’t really believe that this is something that could actually work in “real life”. Breaking the pattern is hard. Thanks for helping us along the path!

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Amy: I will write about that, thanks for the inspiration and for your wonderful blog (can’t believe I haven’t discovered it before). Really interested in more of your thoughts on both the Gift Economy and Emotional Neediness — will check your site regularly. Amanda’s idea is sheer genius (that’s why we need artists in AHA! Discovery Sessions). Iain: What a wonderful post — thank you. I think the gift economy has the potential to just sneak up on us, kind of like outsourcing ;-) You can see it in Open Source, in blogs & the Internet, in scientific exchange, in file-sharing, and that’s just the first wave. There’s a joke going around that could turn out not to be a joke at all: “If Wal-Mart is always lowering prices, how come nothing is free?” Just wait…

  10. YOu said – Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business, science, Open Source and among the very wealthy.Based on your analysis it would seem to me that the best way create a gift economy is to create abundance so that it naturally forms. That will have more effect than exorting people to do what the majority will not see as in their best interests.

  11. MT says:

    I think it’s a mistake to portray giving as fundamentally unselfish, if only for the sake of persuading people you’re talking about a practical sort of system. Self-interest is what drives productivity. Period. But culture and its rules determine what actions we perceive to be in our self interest. Also I think you may be placing too much emphasis on bilateral or two-party transactions and on production and overlooking a possibly special aspect to creation and creativity. Intellectual property, if not kept secret, copyrighted or monopolized, is a gift to everybody, and intellectual property is arguably the essence of wealth and progress.

  12. melissa says:

    Just to let you know i found this great place to make holiday cards. They are usually like $20 but free if you click on this link. I am going to put my christmas letter and favorite family picture in them for christmas cards this year. If your interested

  13. This is a great blog, I will be sure to visit again!

  14. Just browsing the internet, your blog is very, very interesting.

  15. Liz Seymour says:

    Another wonderful example of the gift economy in action is the Really Really Free Market movement–bascially a bazaar of goods, services, performances, workshops, food and whatever else anyone wants to give away. The first one was held in Miami during the FTAA protests four years ago and they are spreading fast.Thanks for the gift of your essays and insights Dave!

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