Money and gift


I remember first encountering the idea of a gift economy at university, during a course on the anthropology of religion. The idea of obligation interested me: where such an economy exists, there is an obligation to give, an obligation to accept, and an obligation to reciprocate.

My tutor used an example to explain: imagine that you open your front door in the morning to find a parcel on your doorstep. It is clearly wrapped as a gift, and labelled as being for you; there is no indication who it is from; and the contents, when you open it, turn out to be highly valuable to you – not trivial, not a trinket, and something that makes clear that the giver understands something about you – your needs, interests, tastes. How would it make you feel?

My answer tried unsuccessfully to find a word that blended gratitude and discomfort. I would have been grateful because somehow my needs would have been acknowledged and understood – a pretty deep form of validation – and spooked because of the anonymity of the gift. How did the giver know what I needed? What might they expect in return? Are my actions under the same scrutiny as my needs?

If my discomfort was strong enough, I might feel unable to accept the gift. And my worries about how I should respond mean that if I accepted it, I might feel obligated in return. Since I do not know the identity of the giver, I think I would want to give something to third parties – by finding, in other words, somewhere to discharge my sense of gift-created obligation.

Most of us will have some experience of this kind of obligation on a small scale, and most of us will also understand other connected ideas such as choosing the right value and type of gift – gifts express something of the actual or desired importance of the relationship to us, so that (for example) if I gave (or more likely, attempted unsuccessfully to give) a piece of gold jewellery to a work colleague, or if I bought a close friend a book on a subject in which I knew he or she took zero interest, it would count as a social faux pas. The gifts I chose would have mis-stated the social bond between us.

What is harder to imagine is the idea of an entire gift economy. We can grasp the idea on a small scale, within a community such as a family or a workplace, for example. It doesn’t mix well with the money economy, though – start increasing the scale of the gift-giving, for example at Christmas, and it doesn’t take long before we feel that we are giving through expectation, and giving beyond our means, rather than giving according to our ability. Personally, another source of gratitude is that within my family, Christmas gift-giving has never been a competitive arms race of monetary generosity, something which used to annoy me before I realised how important it was. Important, because it keeps gifts free of too much of the taint of money. It creates gratitude, community, and obligation, rather than indebtedness, resentment, and alienation.

Gratitude is how we experience a positive obligation, perhaps one that arises from love. When we experience it, we typically restate to ourselves the value of our relationship with the person or entity to whom we feel gratitude, and we may wish to deepen our relationship by expressing that gratitude. Indebtedness is how we experience a burdensome or unwanted obligation. When we experience it, we typically restate to ourselves the lack of a relationship with the person or entity to whom we feel gratitude, and we may wish to discharge our debt without encountering them or otherwise acknowledging the relationship. Too much indebtedness and the feeling of gratitude is lost.

And because our own global economy is a money economy par excellence, gift economies are always contingent and small-scale – a form of resistance. Goods and services that might once have been provided as gifts are commodified. There is probably some need for this – capitalism is astonishingly powerful at innovating and adding value, and I am not saying that, were I to fall off my horse/bike, I would prefer freely-provided Bronze Age healthcare to a visit to social-market A&E.

But innovation is not exclusive to free markets. To take two facile examples, the Soviets sent the first satellite into space, and geniuses like Copernicus operated completely outside the modern economy, which is founded on the dubious idea that everything that motivates people can be measured in money. What I think is more interesting is that a totally marketised economy generates bad innovation and bad growth, serving the needs of people conceived as individual economic actors, rather than as communities with a common interest that can be judged by some method other than the market. James Meek has written really well on this, in a brilliant essay that explores innovation in the NHS through the story of hip replacements. In it, he shows that the innovation now being generated by a free market-driven healthcare system is both worse in terms of patient outcomes, and more expensive, than the innovation that was generated when the NHS was entirely based on a social market. Elsewhere, he has written about the relentless logic of the privatisation of public services.

The logic of what Charles Eisenstein says about gift vs. money economies is both beautifully simple and hard to resist, and though I think the solutions, at least as far as they are presented in this video, are a bit vague, it’s still worth sharing. Thanks to Pad Daniels of Exploring Volunteering for drawing my attention to it.