World as Gift

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Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Sacred Economics, by Charles Eisenstein:

"No wonder ancient religious thinkers said that God made the world, and no wonder they said God gave the world to us. The first is an expression of humility, the second of gratitude. Sadly, later theologians twisted this realization to mean, “God gave us the world to exploit, to master, to dominate.” Such an interpretation is contrary to the spirit of the original realization. Humility knows that this Gift is beyond our ability to master. Gratitude knows that we honor, or dishonor, the giver of a gift by how we use it.

Modern cosmology also affirms the mythological recognition of universe-as-gift. Is not the Big Bang something (indeed everything) for nothing?1 This feeling is strengthened by closer examination of the various constants of physics (speed of light, electron mass, relative strengths of the four fundamental forces, etc.), all of which inexplicably have the precise values necessary for a universe containing matter, stars, and life. It is as if the whole universe were constructed for us, so that we might exist.

In the beginning was the Gift: in the archetypal beginning of the world, at the beginning of our lives, and in the infancy of the human species. Gratitude therefore is natural to us, so primal, so elemental that it is very difficult to define. Perhaps it is the feeling of having received a gift, and the desire to give in turn. We might therefore expect primitive people, connected with this primal gratitude, to enact it in their social and economic relationships. Indeed, they did. Most accounts of the history of money begin with primitive barter, but barter is a relative rarity among hunter-gatherers. The most important mode of economic exchange was the gift.

Primal though it is, gratitude and the generosity flowing from it coexist with other, less savory, aspects of human nature. While I believe in the fundamental divinity of human beings, I also recognize that we have embarked on a long sojourn of separation from that divinity, and created a world in which ruthless sociopaths rise to wealth and power. This book doesn’t pretend such people don’t exist, nor that such tendencies don’t exist in everyone. Rather, it seeks to awaken the spirit of the gift that is latent within us, and to construct institutions that embody and encourage that spirit. Today’s economic system rewards selfishness and greed. What would an economic system look like that, like some ancient cultures, rewarded generosity instead?

Let us begin by better understanding the dynamics of the gift. I referred to economic exchange above, but that is generally not an accurate description of gift community. Circulation is a better word. Today we often exchange gifts, but gift exchange is already a step toward barter. In ancient communities, elaborate customs governed gift giving, customs that persist today in societies that have not completely lost their connection to the past. Usually gift networks are closely tied to kin networks. Customs dictate who gives to whom. To some kin categories you might be expected to give; from others you might expect to receive; and in others the gifts flow in both directions.

While gifts can be reciprocal, just as often they flow in circles. I give to you, you give to someone else … and eventually someone gives back to me. A famous example is the kula system of the Trobriand Islanders, in which precious necklaces circulate in one direction from island to island, and bracelets in the other direction. First described in depth by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, kula, which literally means “circle,” is the lynchpin of a vast system of gifts and other economic exchanges. Marcel Mauss describes it as follows:

The system of gift-through-exchange permeates all the economic, tribal, and moral life of the Trobriand people. It is “impregnated” with it, as Malinowski very neatly expressed it. It is a constant “give and take.” The process is marked by a continuous flow in all directions of presents given, accepted, and reciprocated.”2

While the pinnacle of the kula system is the highly ritualized exchange of ceremonial bracelets and necklaces by chiefs, the gift network surrounding it extends to all kinds of utilitarian items, food, boats, labor, and so forth. Outright barter, according to Mauss, is unusual. In any event, “Generally, even what has been received and comes into one’s possession in this way—in whatever manner—is not kept for oneself, unless one cannot do without it.”3 In other words, gifts flow continuously, only stopping in their circulation when they meet a real, present need. Here is Lewis Hyde’s poetic description of this principle of the gift:

The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us. Social nature abhors a vacuum.4

While today we clearly distinguish between a gift and a commercial transaction, in past times this distinction was by no means clear. Some cultures, such as the Toaripi and Namau, had but a single word to designate buying, selling, lending, and borrowing,5 while the ancient Mesopotamian word šám meant both “buy” and “sell.”6 This ambiguity persists in many modern languages. Chinese, German, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Estonian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Japanese, and many others each have but a single term for borrowing and lending, perhaps a vestige of an ancient time when the two were not distinguished.7 It even persists in English among less-educated speakers, who sometimes use the word “borrow” to mean “lend,” as in “I borrowed him twenty dollars.” How could this be? How could the same word apply to two opposite operations?

The solution to this puzzle lies in the dynamics of the gift. With the rare, perhaps theoretical, exceptions that Derrida called “free gifts,” gifts are accompanied either by some token of exchange or by a moral or social obligation (or both). Unlike a modern money transaction, which is closed and leaves no obligation, a gift transaction is open-ended, creating an ongoing tie between the participants. Another way of looking at it is that the gift partakes of the giver, and that when we give a gift, we give something of ourselves. This is the opposite of a modern commodity transaction, in which goods sold are mere property, separate from the one who sells them. We all can feel the difference. You probably have some treasured items that were given you, that are perhaps objectively indistinguishable from something you might buy, but that are unique and special because of who gave them to you. Thus it was that ancient people recognized that a magical quality, a spirit, circulates along with gifts.

Useless objects like cowry shells, pretty beads, necklaces, and so on were the earliest money. To exchange them for something of utilitarian value is, naively speaking, merely a way to facilitate a gift—something for nothing. They turn it into something-for-something, but that doesn’t make it any less a gift, because they are merely giving physical form to the felt sense of obligation; they are tokens of gratitude. From this perspective, the identity of buying and selling, borrowing and lending, is easy to understand. They are not opposite operations at all. All gifts circle back to the giver in another form. Buyer and seller are equal.

Today there is an asymmetry in commercial transactions, which identifies the buyer as the one giving money and receiving goods and the seller as the one receiving money and giving goods. But we could equally say the “buyer” is selling money for goods, and the “seller” is buying money with goods. Linguistic and anthropological evidence indicates that this asymmetry is new, far newer than money. What has happened to money, then, to create this asymmetry? Money is different from every other commodity in the world, and, as we shall see, it is this difference that is crucial in making it profane.

Gifts, on the other hand, we intuitively recognize as sacred, which is why even today we make ceremonies of giving presents. Gifts embody the key qualities of the sacredness I discussed in the introduction. First, uniqueness: unlike the standardized commodities of today, purchased in closed transactions with money and alienated from their origins, gifts are unique to the extent that they partake of the giver. Second, wholeness, interdependency: gifts expand the circle of self to include the entire community. Whereas money today embodies the principle, “More for me is less for you,” in a gift economy, more for you is also more for me because those who have give to those who need. Gifts cement the mystical realization of participation in something greater than oneself which, yet, is not separate from oneself. The axioms of rational self-interest change because the self has expanded to include something of the other."


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