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Book: For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. by Genevieve Vaughan

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Michel Bauwens:

"If we are to believe this interesting contribution by Genevieve Vaughan, at the root of non-reciprocity lies the nurturing role of the mother, who gives without receiving, thereby creating the condition for life to emerge and thrive. But how then does this original moment creates such different outcomes, such as markets based on universal self-interest, where nothing is giving for nothing?

The following contribution sheds light on that dilemma.

However, it suffers from an ignorance of the relational grammar of Alan Page Fiske. He makes the vital distinction between non-reciprocal communal shareholding (giving without clear expectation of a return), the gift economy (creating an obligation for return), and exchange, demanding an immediate return. These distinctions seem absent in the work below, but that does not make it without interest, as her main stress on the unique role of motherhood remains valid.


Genevieve Vaughan, from :

“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.” (

The Gift Paradigm

"The gift paradigm emphasizes the importance of giving to satisfy needs. It is need-oriented rather than profit-oriented. Free giftgiving to needs--what in mothering we would call nurturing or caring work--is often not counted and may remain invisible in our society or seem uninformative because it is qualitatively rather than quantitatively based. However, giving to needs creates bonds between givers and receivers. Recognizing someone's need, and acting to satisfy it, convinces the giver of the existence of the other, while receiving something from someone else that satisfies a need proves the existence of the other to the receiver.

Needs change and are modified by the ways they are satisfied, tastes develop, new needs arise. As they grow, children need to become independent, and mothers can also satisfy that need by refraining from satisfying some of the children's other needs.

Opposed to giftgiving is exchange, which is giving in order to receive. Here calculation and measurement are necessary, and an equation must be established between the products.

In exchange there is a logical movement which is ego-oriented rather than other-oriented. The giver uses the satisfaction of the other's need as a means to the satisfaction of her own need. Ironically, what we call 'economics' is based on exchange, while giftgiving is relegated to the home--though the word 'economics' itself originally meant 'care of the household.' In capitalism, the exchange paradigm reigns unquestioned and is the mainstay of patriarchal reality.

Even many of those who wish to challenge capitalism envision only an economy without money--a barter economy--which is of course still based on exchange. I believe they misplace the dividing line between the paradigms, making money the responsible factor rather than exchange, so they cannot clearly see the alternative that giftgiving presents. Aiding the maintenance of the status quo and the exchange economy is a view of 'human nature' as egotistical and competitivequalities which are required and enhanced by capitalism. The qualities required and enhanced by mothering are other-orientation, kindness and creativity. Though they are necessary for bringing up young children, these qualities are made difficult, even self-sacrificial, by the scarcity for the many which is often the consequence of the exchange economy. They are considered not 'human nature,' not part of reality.

I believe that the gift paradigm is present everywhere in our lives, though we have become used to not seeing it. Exchange, with its requirement for measurement, is much more visible. However, even our greeting "How are you?" is a way of asking "What are your needs?" 'Co-muni-cation' is giving gifts (from the Latin munus--gift) together. It is how we form the 'co-muni-ty.'

By satisfying the needs of the infants who are dependent upon them, mothers actually form the bodies of the people who are, and live together in, the community. They also care for and maintain the implements, houses and locations where the community interactions take place. We communicate with each other through our gifts of goods, through co-munication. Each gift carries with it something of the thought process and values of the giver and affirms the value of the receiver. In fact, goods and services that are given freely to satisfy needs give value to the receiver by implication." (

The Critique of Exchange

"Exchange, on the other hand, is self-reflecting. It requires attention to be concentrated on equivalence between the products, and the value that might have been given to the other person instead returns to the giver in the satisfaction of her own need. In exchange, the satisfaction of the need of the other is only a means to the satisfaction of one's own need. When everyone is doing this, the co-munication that occurs is altered and only succeeds in creating a group of isolated, unbonded, independent egos, not a co-munity.

In their isolation, these egos tend to develop new artificial needs for nurturing and bonding and use domination to procure for themselves the sense of community and identity they lack, forcing others to nurture them. They use everything from personal violence to manipulation of abstract systems to achieve the satisfaction of their needs, satisfaction which they are no longer receiving from participating directly in gift interactions.

In fact, we might look at our society as starving for free gifts and the bonds that are created by them. Our compassion is blocked, and it appears that only by denying giving-and-receiving can we survive. Yet not giving is killing those who could give just as surely as not receiving is killing those who have the material needs. In order to maintain this aberrant situation, laws have been established, and armed forces are paid to back them up.

Huge amounts of money are spent nurturing the justice system, the government, the police and the military, thereby creating the scarcity which makes giftgiving difficult, and exhange a necessity for survival.

Abstract systems of laws and hierarchical organizations like the government and the military are delivery systems for gifts, taking them away from the needs of the many in the community and directing them towards the needs of special groups of exchangers who have been socialized with an ego hungry to have 'more.'

While we may be grateful to the exchangers (entrepreneurs) for creating jobs, we should realize that the jobs are ways of getting for the entrepreneur what Karl Marx called 'surplus value'--what we could call a free gift of labor time given by the worker. In order to survive, the worker also has to receive many free gifts from his or her nurturers. Gifts are distributed from the bottom up in the hierarchy, from the poor to the rich, from giftgivers to exchangers, while it looks as if the flow is going in the other direction.

The interaction of exchange itself has seemed so natural that it would not require investigation. However, it is actually artificial, deriving from a misuse of co-munication. If we no longer consider exchange natural or one of the mainstays of reality, we can stop considering our participation in it as the criterion of our worth. In fact, many women have believed that the purpose of our liberation has been to allow us to participate more fully in society. In the US, this society is capitalist patriarchy. Women have also felt discomfort in it because our values are different, and at times this keeps us from being successful. The answer to our problem is not to change ourselves to adapt to the bigger patriarchal picture, but to change the bigger picture to adapt to women's values. This change requires asserting those values as more viable than the values of patriarchy. We must understand and deeply criticize patriarchy, so that we can realize we already have the alternative in our hands.

Rather than attempting to achieve the respect of those who have succeeded in the system, we need to stand our ground.

World-wide, 19 billion dollars is spent on armaments every week. This would be enough to feed all the hungry on earth. Since this expenditure does not create any life-sustaining products, it acts as a drain on the nurturing economy. For a clear view of military expenditures see graphic on page 421-422. outside the system. Even 're-spect' has to do with looking again, evaluating and being equal to, which are criteria deriving from exchange, and are important only when caring is not already considered the norm.

As we shift our focus towards validating the gift paradigm and seeing the defects of the exchange paradigm, many things acquire a different appearance: Patriarchal capitalism, which seemed to be the source of our good, is revealed as a parasitic system, where those above are nurtured by the free gifts of their 'hosts' below. Profit is a free gift given to the exchanger by the other participants in the market and those who nurture them. Scarcity is necessary for the functioning of the system of exchange and is not just an unfortunate result of human inadequacy and natural calamity." (