The gift economy in the U.S.

I’m learning a lot from the book Women and the Gift Economy, but it has to be taken with a huge grain of salt. There’s a lot of coverage of indigenous societies, some from first-hand accounts and some from outside, Western observers. So it’s vulnerable to the same problem that anthropology in general suffers: whenever a “first world” observer comes to a “third world” culture, they take with them a number of unconscious biases. Moreover, “first world” observers don’t even understand our own culture.

So what would anthropologists say about us? What does the gift economy look like in the U.S.? What are our rituals and customs?

They might say we have a deep spiritual connection to The Free Market, one that supersedes even Christianity in importance. They might base this assumption on the fact that we tithe to banks and give most of our money and possessions to corporations, both for-profit and non-profit. It’s a strange way of looking at things, to be sure. But it’s a good idea to make things strange every so often–it stretches our thinking.

People go to work and earn a wage. Then we trade in that wage for subsistence, and when we have extra we trade it for goods and services. If we end up with surplus goods, sometimes we throw them away or sell them or just hoard them, and sometimes we gift them. Who do we gift them to? Very often, to for-profit and nonprofit corporations. These corporations then sell them to other people, in exchange for their wages. We’re gifting, but not to people. We’re gifting to institutions.

When we have surplus money (or think we do), we often do the same thing: donate to charities. We have social taboos against gifting to people (for example, the homeless people on street corners), and we have taboos against accepting gifts.

On holidays, we make gifts to each other, but we have social taboos against re-gifting, gifting things we make, and gifting used items. Gifts have to come from a store, in their original packaging, preferably with a gift receipt so that unwanted items can be returned. We have to earn a wage to buy these gifts, which means we use The Free Market as an intermediary in our exchanges.

We sell our labor on The Free Market to get our wages, but we also give it away to the market. Whenever we do unpaid overtime, and whenever we volunteer for non-profits, we’re giving our labor to corporations.

Of course, we also gift directly to people–usually to the people in our social circles, especially our families, but not always. And we violate the social taboos all the time. We give to panhandlers, help strangers in need, and make items to gift.

But a significant part of our giving is to institutions, and when we do this, we lose power. Once we give our money to a charity, for example, it’s the charity who decides on who is worthy to receive. The people who receive also lose power. If they’re given food, for example, they don’t get to pick what kind. They also lose social status, because in order to receive the gift, they have to demonstrate they are in need, meaning they are poor, meaning that they are at the bottom of a social structure in which human value is measured by wealth. They are also denied the opportunity to reciprocate, partly because they’re given so little and partly because of social taboos.

We also gift our labor directly to people, in the form of favors. But we have become more and more reluctant to ask people for favors, and that does become a downward spiral.

So that’s a glance at our gift economy, as it stands now. People are giving away an awful lot of time, energy, and resources, using customs we’ve taken for granted. But maybe it’s time to rethink them. To whom are we giving? Why? Are our gifts reciprocated? What is the power relationship between giver and giftee? Are we building community or impersonal institutions? Have we made connections between our political goals and the gifts we give, or have we compartmentalized instead?


Thoughts? Comments?

– Kristin

2 responses to “The gift economy in the U.S.

  1. Alan Gallivan

    Have you seen Charles Eisenstein’s videos or books? Try Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition.

    Thanks for your reflections. They put words to many of my thoughts as well.

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