Gift economies have been with us throughout history. The book Women and the Gift Economy, ed. Genevieve Vaughan, has examples from South Africa, Big Mountain Black Mesa in Arizona, the Carribean, El Salvador, and elsewhere.
On a smaller scale, and here in the U.S., gift economy projects are all around us. Here are just a few:
- Little free libraries
- Open source software
- Creative Commons
There’s also a facebook phenomenon of “Buy Nothing Groups,” local groups where members give away items for free or ask for items. Its organizers had been inspired by the gift economies practiced in villages in Nepal.
And there are “free shops” or “give-away shops” and “The Really, Really Free Market,” which people organize in parks to give away goods.
Here’s my question: is this phenomenon going to change society? Do these new gift economies offer an alternative to capitalism? Or are they a complement to capitalism, the same way shadow work is a complement to wage work?
I’m not saying this to be a downer. I really do hope people will find viable alternatives to capitalism, because capitalism is not working. I am saying it because we need to look critically at the solutions we hope will work, rather than glorifying them just because they are “alternative.” Maybe some gift economies do a better job of resisting exploitation than others. And maybe there are safeguards that can be put in place.
I don’t think the answers to my questions will be found in the U.S. and Europe, the so-called “first world.” I think the so-called “third world” is far ahead of us in social innovation. So let’s take a quick visit to Argentina, based on what I learned in the book Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin (2006).
In 2001, Argentina suffered an economic meltdown, caused by the policies of the IMF. Banks froze their accounts and used depositors’ money to pay off foreign debt. Corporations fled. Factories shut down. In other words, capitalism broke itself. How could people survive? A movement was born, called horizontalidad. Or a collection of movements, including occupations of factories and workplaces, unemployed worker movements, new barter systems, direct democracy, neighborhood assemblies, and much more.
When Sitrin edited the book, many of these new movements were being co-opted or were changing in other ways. What has happened since then?
I don’t know the whole story. But fast forward in time to 2010, and a new phenomenon sprung up in Argentina: the gratiferia, meaning the market where everything is free. It has since spread to many other countries.
The grateferia in Argentina is maybe different than, for example, the Buy Nothing Facebook group that I participate in, because it’s maybe informed by a different kind of social consciousness, called politica afectiva (a politics of social relationships). Or just because the people of Argentina know, the way people in the United States do not, what happens when money suddenly disappears, and again, what happens when it comes back.
That’s all for now.
Women and the Gift Economy, ed. Genevieve Vaughan
Beginnings of the Buy Nothing Facebook groups
Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin