Tag Archives: gift economy

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

Gift economies large and small

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
  • Wikipedia
  • Kickstarter
  • Freecycle

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.

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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.

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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.

-Kristin

 

Related Links

Women and the Gift Economy, ed. Genevieve Vaughan

Really, really free market

Beginnings of the Buy Nothing Facebook groups

Horizontalism, ed. Marina Sitrin

Gratiferias

Other gift economies

horizontalism

 

Shadow work and the gift economy

In earlier posts I’ve discussed shadow work — the unpaid labor that complements wage work in a market economy. This includes everything from childcare and housekeeping (which together make up ten hours of my unpaid day) to commuting to shopping — basically any efforts that make it possible for a worker to sell their labor. I’ve also discussed subsistence work — the unpaid labor that provides for basic human needs — and the ways in which subsistence work can also function as shadow work, by making a wage laborer cheaper to maintain. Finally, I looked at work from a market economy perspective and a household economy perspective.

So there’s another kind of economy that is worth looking at: the gift economy. In a gift economy, basic needs are met through gifts rather than barter or market exchange. As it turns out, some peoples have historically run on the basis of a gift economy, and all peoples have incorporated gift economy principles and practices to some extent.

There’s a helpful discussion of gift and market economies in the article “The Khoekhoe Free Economy: A Model for the Gift” by Yvette Abrahams, found in the anthology Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different World View is Possible, ed. Genevieve Vaughan.

The essay discusses the history of the indigenous people of South Africa, the Khoekhoe. Their gift-giving economy was lost after hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, apartheid, and structural adjustment–but many aspects of it remain. For example, it is the tradition at mealtime for a family to keep a little in the pot, in case someone knocks on the door and needs it.

Women give huge amounts of free labor, and according to Abrahams (writing in 2003), women’s subsistence farming provides about 66% of the food that feeds the continent, but it is never included in economic figures because it is given away, not sold.

This would be a workable economic solution except that women’s ability to farm is limited. For one thing, whites own 85% of the land in South Africa. For another, women have access to it only if they have a husband or a son.

So today in South Africa, the gift economy is broken in some important ways. It’s not a free social exchange, for instance, if one person needs the gift in order not to starve. It’s also not possible to gift when you have nothing. Abrahams writes: “Today, I cannot give away my labour. I have to work in order to eat.”

Also, the free labor operates not only as subsistence but also as a free subsidy of the wealthy. Abrahams writes: “Women’s non-waged labour provides two-thirds of all the food that Africans eat each year. In a way, it leads to greater independence, but in another way, it is a huge subsidy of the globalized capitalist economy.”

In other words, the gift economy is being exploited by the market economy. And the free gift of subsistence labor that people provide each other, to meet human needs, is being transformed into shadow work.

Is there a way to turn that around? Could understanding the relationship between the market and gift economies help us build a radically different future?

If you start to think about the gift economy, it is everywhere. The land gives freely of itself, providing sustenance and water and asking nothing in return. And from the moment of a child’s birth, their parents are providing the free gifts of food, shelter, and love. Even in the Western world, people are constantly giving each other presents — for birthdays, holidays, housewarmings, baby showers, weddings — and holding potlucks, and giving to charities, and volunteering, and the list goes on. Gift-giving is a normal human activity. Perhaps it is the market economy (which we mistakenly imagine is the only one that exists) that is artificial.

But if we have a gift economy, right here and right now, it is a broken one. When the market economy takes the free gifts but provides nothing in return, the gift economy runs out of steam and fails. We need to fix it.

Next up, I’ll talk about some more gift economies, both familiar and new.

– Kristin

womanand_giftcover

 

Elementary School “Book Swap”

This month I hosted a “book swap” for my child’s elementary school. It’s an idea that’s been rolling around in my mind for quite a while–I initially thought it would be great to have a book exchange party in which my kids and their friends could swap books they liked. But one thing led to another . . .

The book swap was much easier than I expected, and a lot more fun! Here’s a quick recap of what I did and how I went.

First, I approached the principal and the PTA with the idea. They suggested that I do the book swap in conjunction with a PTA “family partnership night.” Those happen regularly and involve games and free pizza. So I signed on to host the family partnership night and got some help. Then I sent out communication to the school well ahead of time, including both online and paper announcements. I was hoping for lots of people and lots of books!

Then I found some books to prime the pump. It turns out that there are usually tons of books for lower grades, but not so many for higher grades. I went to a thrift store and found some appealing upper-grade books for about a dollar each. It would alternatively have been a good idea to solicit donations from middle-schoolers. I also reached out through my local “Buy Nothing” Facebook group and left a box in the office so people could donate books early. Finally, the kids and I worked on clearing our own shelves.

The day of the event, I showed up early to order the pizza and to put out signs on the cafeteria tables, so that the people who brought in books could organize them roughly by grade level (pre-K through 1st, 2nd & 3rd, and 4th & above). I didn’t have to do the organizing myself because the kids were all over it.

We had a gorgeous spread of books by the time we were done! It was heavy on the picture books and light on the books for fourth graders and above, but there were at least some.

Kids were allowed to take 2 books each to start off with. Once everybody had taken two books, it was more of a free-for-all. When we were done, about half the books had been taken and half remained.

And that was it! Really fun and easily manageable.

I asked other people on the Soup for Teachers Facebook page if they’d done anything similar, and people have. Here were some of the responses I got:

  • One school hands out “book bucks.” Kids who bring books get one “book buck” for each book they bring in. But every student gets a “book buck,” whether they brought books or not.
  • Another school takes donations and then uses volunteers to sort them. Each student then gets the same number of books.
  • Another school does the swap during school hours, classroom by classroom. They get books from a variety of places, from the thrift store to the spring library sale to Goodwill. Then students visit, one classroom at a time, and each student takes one book.

Has anybody else done a book swap for a school? How did it work? Would you do it again?

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image from modernreader.org