Introduction to the Gift Economy

This web site is offered to you in an attempt to give a new perspective, to shift the paradigm according to which we now interpret the world towards a paradigm which will make social change easier. If you are willing to shift your perspective, read on!

Many people especially in the so-called ‘First World’ live in denial or ignorance of the devastating effects our countries’ and corporations’ policies have on the so-called ‘Third World’. Even when we are conscious of these effects we feel we have no power to change them or to change similar situations within our own countries. We usually feel we do not know why these things are happening, or we attribute them to ‘human nature’, greed, and ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. There is a way to understand what is happening which allows us to address it both on the individual and group level and on the level of national and corporate policy.

In the last decades feminists have challenged the ‘construction of gender’, questioning male and female roles and sexual identities. Psychologist Nancy Chodorow talks about little boys’ having to construct their gender in opposition to their mothers’. This is where the paradigms divide. Mothers do nurturing work, unilaterally giving to their children’s needs. Since this is the most evident aspect of the mothers’ identity for little children, in order to construct a male (non mothering) identity, boys seem to have to give up nurturing, and do something else. This ‘something else’, the alternative way of being, involves acculturation into male dominance. Mothers and others then nurture that dominant male identity. Languages contain binary oppositions between male and female, as they do between other qualities and characteristics such as high and low, young and old. It is this binary aspect of language and its cultural validation that leads male children to self monitor towards a non nurturing, non female identity.

Because this process for the most part goes on unconsciously and because it contains many paradoxes – such as the paradox of male preference where the mother nurtures the ones who are unlike herself more than the ones who are like herself – our values have been altered, and nurturing appears to be a relatively unimportant and even inferior aspect of life, circumscribed to the area of early child care.

The institutions and social structures that are common in society seem to be based on domination, competition, and egotism, not on nurturing. The shift in perspective offered here is to re view everything in terms of nurturing, or to phrase it another way, in terms of gift giving. The thread of gift giving and receiving begins in every life in the unilateral need satisfaction provided by mothers. As time goes on in the individual life and in the existence of institutions and social structures, this thread is altered, turned back upon itself, moved to different levels, used for domination, used metaphorically. The thesis here is that almost everything from nature to culture can be viewed as gift-giving in some form.

One particularly important loop in the thread of gift giving is the double gift: giving in order to receive a return gift – what we call ‘exchange’. Exchange requires quantification and measurement, an equation between what is given and what is received to the satisfaction of both parties. Our present economic system is based upon exchange.

Exchange is at odds with gift giving. The competition which is characteristic of Capitalism pushes the exchange way against the gift way. In fact two paradigms or worldviews are formed, one based on exchange and the other on gift giving.

One of the ways the exchange paradigm wins its competition with the gift paradigm is by defining everything in terms of its own aspects of categorization, competition, quantification and measurement, at the same time hiding the activity of the gift paradigm. This concealment is an important factor in degrading gift giving and making it inaccessible, both as a continuing activity and as an interpretative key for the understanding of other aspects of life.

Because exchange is so much a part of our lives we use it as a strong metaphor for understanding everything. For example, we may consider an interaction to be a loving exchange when instead it is taking turns in giving and receiving. We are not usually conscious of the fundamental distinction between giving in order to receive and giving in order to satisfy the need of the other.

Giving in order to receive – exchange – is ego-oriented. It is the satisfaction of one’s own need that is the purpose of the transaction. Giving to satisfy another’s need is other-oriented. These two motivations constitute the basis of two logics, one of which is intransitive (exchange), the other of which is transitive (gift giving).

Exchange creates and requires scarcity. If everyone were giving to everyone else, there would be no need to exchange. The market needs scarcity to maintain the level of prices. In fact when there is an abundance of products scarcity is often created on purpose. An example of this is the plowing under of ‘overabundant’ crops (which may happen even when people are standing by who are hungry). On a larger scale scarcity is created 1. by the channeling of wealth into the hands of the few who then have power over the many; 2. by spending on armaments and monuments which have no nurturing value but only serve for destruction and display of power; and 3. by privatizing or depleting the environment so that the gifts of nature are unavailable to the many. The exchange paradigm is a belief system which validates this kind of behavior. Individuals who espouse it are functional to the economic system of which they are a part. Exchange is adversarial, each person tries to give less and get more, an attitude which creates antagonism and distance among the players. Gift giving creates and requires abundance. In fact, in scarcity gift giving is difficult and even self sacrificial while in abundance it is satisfying and even delightful.

Language is based on gift giving. This hypothesis breaks through the taboo against using nurturing (gift giving) as the model for other kinds of human activity and it has important consequences. If language is based on nurturing and if thinking is at least partially based on language then thinking is at least partially based on nurturing. However thinking can also be based directly on non linguistic nurturing. Sending and receiving messages, which is a commonplace way of describing chemical and hormonal interactions in the body, can also be viewed in terms of less intentional giving and receiving. If we view language as gift giving transposed onto a verbal level, and if we accept the idea that it was language that made humans evolve, we could come to the conclusion that it was the gift giving aspect of language, not just the capacity for abstraction that caused the leap forward. This conclusion could lead us to think that gift giving and receiving could be the way forward for humanity to evolve beyond its present danger and distress. Indeed we could begin to take nurturing as the creative norm and recognize exchange as the distortion which is causing a de evolution and a danger to the human species as well as all other species on the planet.

The gift paradigm has the advantage of restoring mothering to its rightful place in the constitution of the human. What has been wrongly proposed in the construction of gender, with devastating effects such as the promotion of the values of dominance, competition and hierarchy (which are non nurturing values), can be countered by re introducing gift giving as a social value and interpretative key. Both male and female human beings are basically nurturers. One gender is not the binary opposite of the other. If we reintroduce the gift paradigm into our interpretation of the world, we will find our ‘gift giver within’ which will then be validated. Women, as those who have been socially designated as the nurturers, will be rightfully restored to their place as the norm, and men can be reinterpreted in this light as those who have been socially dispossessed of that norm-al behavior but who can re acquire it by espousing nurturing values. Institutions are usually organized around the exchange and dominance paradigm, but they can be reorganized to satisfy needs. The rewards which accompany dominance can be eliminated and gift giving can be affirmed and promoted.

All of us are mothered children. Someone must satisfy our needs unilaterally in order for us to grow up. As time passes we become receivers of ever more complex gifts, and we must creatively receive and use what we are given.

Because we are mothered children we can find gifts everywhere. Even if there is not a mothering intentionality behind some aspect of our environment, we can nevertheless receive it as a gift. Our response to it may be as creative as it would be if it actually were a gift. Since we are in a common creative receivership towards the environment we can attribute this receivership to others and confirm it by receiving their responses as gifts.

Daily life includes many examples of gift giving and receiving. In housework for example, we satisfy the ‘needs’ of our households to be cleaned and maintained, which in turn satisfies the needs of the people living there for a clean, healthy, uncluttered environment. Without this work, the seemingly direct gift character of the home environment would not be available. Cooking satisfies the ‘need’ of the food to be made safe and enjoyable so that it is creatively received by the family, whose physiological and psychological needs it satisfies. Farmers need seeds to plant and the knowledge of how to tend the plants and harvest them. Their work involves many subsidiary needs, such as the need for water, fertile soil etc. (Globalization has recently allowed corporations from the North to privatize and make the free gifts of traditional knowledge, seeds, fertilizer and water into commodities that must be bought and sold, a situation which has particularly depleted the people of the South. This is one example of how free gifts are not respected but are made into the objects of plunder.)

Needs for maintenance and repair accompany almost any human or non human-made useful thing in our environment. At the level of advanced Capitalism there are many interdependent needs, for automobile and road maintenance and repair, for example. These needs are usually satisfied through the exchange economy but may also be satisfied free (by individuals who repair their own cars for example). At the level of fully established capitalism, there are many financial needs – the need for capital itself is one. In this case a low interest loan might be considered a gift. Where jobs are scarce, giving someone a job might be considered a gift. The profit made by the capitalist on the labor of the worker, if it is considered in terms of surplus value (the value of the products over and above the amount necessary for the worker’s livelihood as expressed in his/her salary), can also be considered as a gift the worker is giving to the capitalist. The low price of labor in the so called Third World and the difference between national economies create a flow of gifts from the South to the North also called ‘profit’ by the corporations in the North. By foregrounding needs and their satisfaction instead of exchange, we can acquire a new perspective in which we follow the thread of the gift from its simple unilateral beginnings to the tangle created by exchange, with a re proposal of the gift at a variety of levels and in a variety of measures. We can see the fertile and ‘generative’ capacity of gift giving in the fact that we establish bonds with one another by its means. The recognition and gratitude towards the source of the satisfaction of our needs, and the recognition and care towards the other whose needs we satisfy actually establish the bonds of communication and community which are instead broken by the adversarial logic and process of exchange. Living in a market-based society makes us think of all bonds in terms of exchange, of debt and repayment, however the bonds which are established through gift giving are positive and life- enhancing in contrast to onerous debt and responsibility. Indeed the words co- muni-ty ans co-muni-cation, derive from the latin ‘muni’ which means ‘gifts’.

Language is a transposition of gift giving which co exists with material gift giving proper, but one specific aspect of language has a different structure. Naming and the definition have a structure similar to exchange and perhaps are the original model for it. Money is given and received in place of a product in the same way that the name of something is given and received in its place. (Click on the chapters on definition in my book, “For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange” for a more thorough discussion of this point.)

It is not because of a fatal flaw in human nature that we act so inhumanely to one another, but because of a complex tangle of gift-thread logics and strategies which become contradictory and promote adversarial behaviors. The tangle can be unraveled and understood, not within the exchange paradigm itself but by starting over, putting gift giving first as a theme for understanding the world.

Click on any of the headings on this website to find out about more gift giving – both the theory and the practice.

– Genevieve Vaughan 4/04