Unwrapping the Gift Economy

It has become popular to declare that we need to move to a gift economy, in which we share more freely and value community more deeply, and in which our relationships are less often money-based and transactional.  Clearly, this is an important and appealing proposition.  But there’s far more wrapped up in the concept than it may appear.  To get to “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible,” as Charles Eisenstein so eloquently implores, we’ll need to understand the full implications – and possibilities – behind the concept.

Often, the argument in favor of a gift economy begins with reference to its historical origins in hunter-gatherer societies.  What is also needed is a full understanding of (1) why those societies were based on sharing and community, (2) why ours is not, and (3) what exactly we need to bring forward from the past if we want to have what they had, even in today’s vastly more complex reality.  Without these insights, the idea of a gift economy will likely remain a utopian dream.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at those historical origins.

In Stone Age Economics, economic anthropologist Marshall Sahlins explains that hunter-gatherer cultures (past and present) “trust in the abundance of nature’s resources” and share liberally without expectation of reciprocity.  He calls them “the original affluent society,” in which “human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate.”  Indeed, Sahlins refers to this way of life as “the Zen road to affluence,” noting their happiness, high ratio of work-to-leisure time, and ease in fulfilling their needs and desires.

From these descriptions, it’s easy to understand why the concept of a gift economy has caught the imagination of so many.

Modern approximations of this way of being include the open-source software movement, mass co-created websites like Wikipedia, neighborhood tool-sharing initiatives, and, of course, loving families.  In each of these examples, people share their time, knowledge and resources freely without expectation of something in return beyond a sense of community and contribution.

So why not extend the concept further to other areas of our lives?  Or even to all areas of our lives?

There are two related challenges.  First, approximating a gift economy isn’t the same as bringing out your inner hunter-gatherer.  The Zen road to affluence is less about what you do and more about how you see yourself in the world.

Second, in traveling back to the Hunter-Gatherer Era for inspiration, we can easily get tripped up in the Agricultural Era along the way.  And that won’t get us where we want to go.

What I mean is that each major era of humanity can be associated with a distinct worldview – a particular lens on reality.  And this insight helps us understand why hunter-gatherers operated the way they did and what we need to bring forward to our time.

  • For hunter-gatherers, the worldview was one of wholeness, without perception of separateness and with only present moment awareness.  Every hunter-gatherer society had practices to tap into collective consciousness.  Ancient Mayans greeted each other with “Inlakesh,” meaning “I am another yourself.”  Evolutionary psychiatrist Bruce Charlton talks about the hunter-gatherer’s “integrated sense of feeling at home in the world.”

It was with this understanding of themselves and the world that hunter-gatherers shared freely within what we’re calling a gift economy.  But in fact, “I give this to you because you are also me” can barely be considered a “gift,” in our sense of the word.  What we learn from this is that – if we want the happiness that they had – it’s not enough to share.  Our sharing needs to come from embracing the indivisible wholeness of all life.

And at the same time, it’s important to recognize that in their present-moment awareness of life’s fundamental wholeness, hunter-gatherers had – literally – no individuality and no innovation.  This left them vulnerable to change and rising complexity.  And I doubt that many of us today would eagerly embrace that side of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  There’s a reason we moved on.  We need something more.

  • Enter the Agricultural Era, in which the worldview was one of relationship.  It was during this time that people became aware that they could affect nature by weeding wheat fields to improve their yield, by building fences around crops to keep animals out, by deliberately retaining and planting seeds.  This new understanding of the world ultimately enabled the development of writing, organized government, architecture, mathematics, and the division of labor – all artifacts of relationship consciousness.

During this era, economic activity was reciprocal and redistributive in nature in order to serve the relationship needs of families and communities. Transactions and exchange existed only as a sub-set of social activity. In The Great Transformation, economist Karl Polyani cites historical and anthropological evidence that the Agricultural man’s economic activity “is submerged in his social relationships.  He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end.”

And this is where the idea of the gift first came onto the scene.  “I give this to you because it serves our relationship.”

Many gift economy advocates point back to this era, saying we need to need each other again; we need to be in reliant, reciprocal relationships, rather than simply engaging in impersonal transactions.  This is true.  And at the same time, it comes with heavy strings attached.  In my own experience, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of generous gifts and in both cases, it created a power imbalance that hampered the receivers’ ability to express themselves and contribute their full individuality.  That’s the potential price of gifts given from relationship consciousness.

Is that simply a necessary compromise?  Maybe, to some degree.  But recent history shows there’s a better way.

  • First, though, we had to go to the opposite extreme with the Industrial Era and its worldview of separateness – of divergence, individuality and rationality.  According to this lens, everything in the universe could be understood by breaking it down into its smallest parts.  The previously inconceivable concepts of individual rights and democracy were introduced.  And on the basis of this worldview, the market economy emerged, with money, laws and institutions to support it and large populations of intelligent, informed and (most of all) independent participants to enact it.

During this time, the concept of the gift largely evolved into “I give this to you because it ultimately serves my self-interest” (or at least that’s what mainstream economists told us).

On the basis of this worldview, we each gained the ability to express ourselves.  Innovation exploded.  Progress rocketed forward.  All at the cost of the deep happiness that comes from knowing that you are fundamentally embedded in a living world and that you are held within a community of people.

So where does that leave us now?  It has been widely acknowledged that we’ve left the Industrial Era.  But there hasn’t been such clear consensus about the era we’ve entered.  What should we call it?  More importantly, what is its defining worldview?

A look at nature offers some surprising clues about the emerging era – clues that also help us understand the full possibilities inherent in a gift economy.

The worldviews of the three previous eras – wholeness, relationship and divergence – are the beginning of a four-part pattern that every living system passes through along the path to greater resilience, adaptability and creativity.  The fourth and most important phase is integration, in which wholeness, relationship and divergence are woven together to create something new – a higher level of life with emergent, more complex  capabilities.  For example, think about how your individual cells perform divergent functions, in a dynamic network of relationship, all in service to the convergent wholeness of your body.  Those three aspects are integrated in a manner that creates you, with new, higher level  capabilities that aren’t present at the level of your cells.

At the level of all humanity, there is abundant evidence that we are several steps into an era – and a defining worldview – characterized by integration.  Across the planet, every aspect of our lives is becoming more and more woven together, where in the past there was clear segregation.  And in our understanding of reality, we are more and more able to hold – and integrate – the paradoxes of diversity within indivisible unity, boundedness and also openness, consistency within constant adaptation, wave and particle, etc.  Ours is a worldview of integration that is ushering in what might be called the Integrative Era.  And according to the pattern of living systems, the promise of this era is unprecedented levels of resilience, adaptability and creativity.

So as we dream of a “gift economy,” the task of our times is not only to share more.  It’s not to choose between Hunter-Gatherer wholeness in the world and Industrial Era individuality.  It’s not to weigh the pros and cons of needing each other versus being independent.  It’s not to decide between love and money.  It’s to imagine ways that all of those can be good and true.  It’s to ask ourselves:

  • How can we share freely in recognition that we are all one?  That life is abundant and full of wonder?  How can we ground our actions in intention to serve the whole of life?
  • At the same time, how can we nurture the pattern of our relationships, with compassion, attention and playful curiosity for what is unfolding?  How can we embrace money as a convenient tool that often facilitates our relationships, without falling into worship of the tool?
  • And at the same time, how can we bring the fullness of our divergent individuality, expressing ourselves wildly, passionately, creatively… and eagerly supporting others in doing the same?  How can we acknowledge, honor and feed that individual expression, monetarily and otherwise?

Our challenge is to design a philosophy and a pattern of economic relationships that answers all of these seemingly contradictory questions.  It is to expand our definition of “gift economy” so that we’re not only talking about hunter-gatherer-style sharing.  It is to see that our work – our offering to the whole of life – is a gift, even if it is done for money.  Our every opportunity to be in rich relationship is a gift, even if it involves money.  You are a gift to the world, and so am I.   Most of all, in integrating all the worldviews of our past, we come to see that life is the ultimate gift within a gift economy.  As we expand the underlying philosophy of our economic activities, there will certainly be more sharing for free.  But the real point is to bring a sense of sacredness into every exchange.

Designer and community builder Milenko Matanovic expresses this beautifully.  Though he is speaking of selling artwork, the same principles apply to work of any kind.

…[J]ust as the sale of one’s work is necessary for the livelihood of the worker, so a spiritual giving of the product of work is necessary for growth and creativity. In so doing, the artist acknowledges that the created thing acquires a new layer of meaning as it is received by others. This completes the cycle by enriching the community and clearing space within the artist for a new beginning. In the end, there should be three results: completed artwork, a wiser person who grew within the creative process, and an enhanced community gifted with a new way of seeing, hearing or thinking.

To me, this is the full potential of the gift economy.  This is the path to “the more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible.”

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