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.