Gift Economy - Discussion

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The gift economy, not barter, preceded the market economy

David Graeber:

"One of the traditional roles of the economic anthropologist is to point out that the standard narrative set out in economic textbooks – the one we all take for granted, really, that once upon a time there was barter; that when this became too inconvenient, people invented money; that eventually, this lead to abstract systems of credit and debt, banking, and the New York Stock Exchange – is simply wrong. There is in fact no known example of a human society whose economy is based on barter of the ‘I’ll give you ten chickens for that cow’ variety. Most economies that don’t employ money – or anything that we’d identify as money, anyway – operate quite differently. They are, as French anthropologist Marcel Mauss famously put it, ‘gift economies’ where transactions are either based on principles of open-handed generosity, or, when calculation does take place, most often descend into competitions over who can give the most away. What I want to emphasise here, though, is what happens when money does first appear in something like it’s current form (basically, with the appearance of the state). Because here, it becomes apparent that not only do the economists get it wrong, they get it precisely backwards. In fact, virtual money comes first. Banking, tabs, and expense accounts existed for at least 2 thousand years before there was anything like coinage, or any other physical object that was regularly used to buy and sell things, anything that could be labeled ‘currency’.

‘Money’ in that modern sense, a uniform commodity not only chosen to measure the value of other commodities, but actually stamped in uniform denominations and paid out every time anyone bought or sold something, was an Iron Age innovation – most likely, invented to pay mercenaries. Barter in the sense imagined by Adam Smith, the direct exchange of arrowheads for shoes or the like, can sometimes develop at the margins between societies, or as part of international trade, but it mainly tends to occur in places where people have become accustomed to the use of money and then that supply of money disappears. Examples of the latter include some parts of 18th and 19th century West Africa, or more recently, if more briefly, in Russia or Argentina." (

Dave Pollard on the war between the gift economy and the market economy

One of the principles of the Gift Economy is that the gift must always move (each time we receive, we must pay it forward). A second principle is that in the Gift Economy we are agents, not (passive) consumers -- and what we give is generally what we have some mastery over, something we do well. Market Economy fans work hard to undermine these principles: The 'value' of every exchange, they say (usually some product in return for money, a surrogate for 'equivalent' goods or services) must be provided back to the giver, rather than forward to someone else. And the act of consumption is advertised as a pleasure in and of itself, a reward for previous personal sacrifice (unpleasant work), which imposes no obligation or responsibility on the consumer (or on the producer, for that matter).

It is hard to overcome the constant propaganda barrage of the Market Economy, whose adherents invest billions of dollars in their 'commercial messages' and take up between 10% (some radio stations) and 75% (many magazines) of the total 'information bandwidth' of the media -- a cost we 'passive consumers' of course pay back to them in the final cost of the product.

Let's not kid ourselves: This is war. File-sharing is just the tip of the iceberg in the battle between advocates of the Gift Economy and the Market Economy. Believers in the Market Economy see everything as property, and the use of any property without payment as theft. They are using absurdly anti-innovative patent law, armies of lawyers and their control of major political parties to try to crush every aspect of the Gift Economy. Even philanthropy is viewed through a Market lens -- they expect a generous tax deduction, and will spend more on self-aggrandizing commercials (for which they also get a tax write-off) telling 'consumers' about their 'generosity' (for which they expect consumers to give them a lot of additional full-price business in gratitude) than they spend on the philanthropic contribution itself. They don't like the Internet, which they see as anarchic and uncontrolled, and once planned to set up an Alternate Internet which would be run as a commercial operation.

So we're up against a lot: Failed Gift Economy projects, anti-Gift Economy propaganda, and political, legal and economic measures perpetrated by the rich and powerful to prevent 'price-less' transactions. How do we contend with this? Are the prospects for a Gift Economy doomed by the Tragedy of the Commons -- the sense that if something belongs to everyone, it is no one's responsibility and has no value?

I believe we need to do three things simultaneously:

1. Use our collective ingenuity and collaborative skills to make the Gift Economy work: The successes of the Gift Economy to date are primarily due to a combination of human creativity and innovation, applied to create enabling, sharing technologies. We need to apply these same skills to ensure that we find ways that will address its failings-to-date:

  • The exploitation, exhaustion and even bankruptcy of many of those who give much more than they receive, from open source programmers to bloggers to independent artists.
  • The precarious dependence of many Gift Economy institutions (like libraries, public broadcasters and public research programs) on government and other public-sector largesse.
  • The loss of trust essential to community sharing as communities become larger and more impersonal.
  • The degradation of the creative commons as a consequence of the Tragedy of the Commons.
  • The trend for more and more online information to require a paid subscription or pay-per-use.
  • The use of increasingly manipulative, hard-sell techniques to coerce charity as more positive appeals to generosity prove inadequate.
  • The steady loss of electronic freedom and discouragement of innovation in the face of huge, expensive 'digital rights' campaigns and over-reaching intellectual property law campaigns.

2. Personalize the messages and workings of the Gift Economy: If you know the person who gives you a gift, you are far more likely to pay it forward. That's not (primarily) because we know the donor will ask us if we've done so, it's because we tend to value something more highly when we know, trust and respect who it came from. We need to find ways to personalize the gifts we receive from others, to make them more one-to-one, more human.

3. Fight the regressive forces opposed to the Gift Economy with everything we have: It will take a long time for the Gift Economy to eat away at and finally replace the Market Economy from the outside in. We cannot hope to eliminate the Market Economy quickly -- in fact it would be hugely disruptive, perhaps disastrous, to do so even if we could. We must focus our fight on the reactionaries -- those who are so ideologically obsessed with privatizing everything, making everything property, and undermining public belief in public institutions, government and self-regulation. And we must focus on those who are trying to destroy and undermine Open Source, the Creative Commons, the Internet and our electronic freedoms, 'price-less' sharing of assets and information, true philanthropy and volunteerism, self-sufficient individuals and communities, collective effort and collaborative innovation. It's a fight against doctrinaire corporatism, against lawyers who are trying to patent and copyright everything forever, and against ignorance that there are workable alternatives to an untrammeled Market Economy." (

An update on the Gift Economy discussion by Dave Pollard, at

Genevieve Vaughan on the difference between gifting and exchange

"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." (

Is the gift economy matriarchal?

From Matriarchal Society: Definition and Theory, By Heide Goettner-Abendroth:

"The relationship between Modern Matriarchal Studies and the Gift Paradigm

There are important analogies between modern matriarchal studies and the gift paradigm.

The subject of matriarchal studies is the investigation and presentation of non-patriarchal societies of past and present. Even today there are enclaves of societies with matriarchal patterns in Asia, Africa, America and Oceania. None of these is a mere reversal of patriarchy where women rule -as it is often commonly believed -instead, they are all egalitarian societies, without exception. This means they do not know hierarchies, classes and the domination of one gender by the other. They are societies free of domination, but they still have their regulations. And this is the fact that makes them so attractive in any search for a new philosophy, to create a just society.

Equality does not merely mean a levelling of differences. The natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and honoured, but they never serve to create hierarchies, as is common in patriarchy. The different genders and generations have their own honour and through complimentary areas of activity, they are geared towards each other.

This can be observed on all levels of society: the economic level, the social level, the political level and the areas of their worldviews and faiths. More precisely matriarchies are societies with complementary equality, where great care is taken to provide a balance. This applies to the balance between genders, among generations, and between humans and nature.

The differentiated rules of matriarchal societies have been meticulously researched regarding existing societies of this type. Merely historical facts will not reveal how matriarchal people thought and felt, how they conducted their politics and how they lived their faith.To be able to research this is an advantage of anthropology. In my principal work "Das Matriarchat" I presented matriarchal societies throughout the world and was able to deduce from these examples their rules and functioning on all levels of society. I base my arguments on my research of twenty years.

In order to show up the analogies between matriarchal research and the gift paradigm, I will give you a brief overview of some of the rules and regulations of matriarchal economy. This economy is a subsistence economy. It is usually based on agriculture using animals for labour, (Mosuo in YÉnnan/China, or the Minangkabau of Sumatra/Indonesia) although in some instances there are societies using animal husbandry (such as the Tuareg in Northern Africa). There is no private property and no territorial claims. The people simply have usage rights on the soil they till, or the pastures their animals graze, for "Mother Earth" can not be owned or cut up in pieces. She gives the fruits of the fields and the young animals to all people, and therefore the harvest and the flocks can not be owned privately. Parcels of land and a certain number of animals belong to the matriarchal clan (matrilineal and matrilocally organised clans) and are worked on communally. Parts of flocks can be united with other parts and land often changes hands within the peasant community as chosen by lot.

The women, and specifically the oldest women of the clan, the matriarchs, hold the most important goods in their hands, for they are responsible for the sustenance and the protection of all clan members. The women either work the land themselves or organise the work on the land; the fruits of the fields are given to them and the milk of the flocks as well. The big clan houses also belong to them or the tents in case of nomadic tribes.

Matriarchal women are managers and administrators, who organise the economy not according to the profit principle, where an individual or a small group of people benefits; rather, the motivation behind their action is motherliness. The profit principle is an ego-centred principle, where individuals or a small minority take advantage of the majority of people. The principle of motherliness is the opposite, where altruism reigns and the well being of all is at the centre. It is at the same time a spiritual principle, which humans take from nature. Mother Nature cares for all beings, however different they may be. The same applies for the principle of motherliness: a good mother cares for all her children in spite of their diversity. For example with the Mosuo, the woman who is elected to be the clan mother from among her sisters, is the one who most clearly displays the attitude of care for the other clan members.

Motherliness, as an ethical principle pervades all areas of a matriarchal society, and this holds true for men as well. If a man of a matriarchal society desires to acquire status among his peers, or even become a representative of the clan to the outside word, the criterion is "He must be like a good mother." (

On the link between community, monetization, and gifting

Excerpted from Charles Eisenstein:

“Com­mu­nity is nearly im­pos­si­ble in a highly mon­e­tized so­ci­ety like our own. That is be­cause com­mu­nity is woven from gifts, which is ul­ti­mately why poor peo­ple often have stronger com­mu­ni­ties than rich peo­ple. If you are fi­nan­cially in­de­pen­dent, then you re­ally don’t de­pend on your neigh­bors—or in­deed on any spe­cific per­son—for any­thing. You can just pay some­one to do it, or pay some­one else to do it.

In for­mer times, peo­ple de­pended for all of life’s ne­ces­si­ties and plea­sures on peo­ple they knew per­son­ally. If you alien­ated the local black­smith, brewer, or doc­tor, there was no re­place­ment. Your qual­ity of life would be much lower. If you alien­ated your neigh­bors then you might not have help if you sprained your ankle dur­ing har­vest sea­son, or if your barn burnt down. Com­mu­nity was not an add-on to life, it was a way of life. Today, with only slight ex­ag­ger­a­tion, we could say we don’t need any­one. I don’t need the farmer who grew my food—I can pay some­one else to do it. I don’t need the me­chanic who fixed my car. I don’t need the trucker who brought my shoes to the store. I don’t need any of the peo­ple who pro­duced any of the things I use. I need some­one to do their jobs, but not the unique in­di­vid­ual peo­ple. They are re­place­able and, by the same token, so am I.

That is one rea­son for the uni­ver­sally rec­og­nized su­per­fi­cial­ity of most so­cial gath­er­ings. How au­then­tic can it be, when the un­con­scious knowl­edge, “I don’t need you,” lurks under the sur­face? When we get to­gether to con­sume—food, drink, or en­ter­tain­ment—do we re­ally draw on the gifts of any­one pre­sent? Any­one can con­sume. In­ti­macy comes from co-cre­ation, not co-con­sump­tion, as any­one in a band can tell you, and it is dif­fer­ent from lik­ing or dis­lik­ing some­one. But in a mon­e­tized so­ci­ety, our cre­ativ­ity hap­pens in spe­cial­ized do­mains, for money.

To forge com­mu­nity then, we must do more than sim­ply get peo­ple to­gether. While that is a start, soon we get tired of just talk­ing, and we want to do some­thing, to cre­ate some­thing. It is a very tepid com­mu­nity in­deed, when the only need being met is the need to air opin­ions and feel that we are right, that we get it, and isn’t it too bad that other peo­ple don’t … hey, I know! Let’s col­lect each oth­ers’ email ad­dresses and start a list­serv!

Com­mu­nity is woven from gifts. Un­like today’s mar­ket sys­tem, whose built-in scarcity com­pels com­pe­ti­tion in which more for me is less for you, in a gift econ­omy the op­po­site holds. Be­cause peo­ple in gift cul­ture pass on their sur­plus rather than ac­cu­mu­lat­ing it, your good for­tune is my good for­tune: more for you is more for me. Wealth cir­cu­lates, grav­i­tat­ing to­ward the great­est need. In a gift com­mu­nity, peo­ple know that their gifts will even­tu­ally come back to them, al­beit often in a new form. Such a com­mu­nity might be called a “cir­cle of the gift.”

For­tu­nately, the mon­e­ti­za­tion of life has reached its peak in our time, and is be­gin­ning a long and per­ma­nent re­ced­ing (of which eco­nomic “re­ces­sion” is an as­pect). Both out of de­sire and ne­ces­sity, we are poised at a crit­i­cal mo­ment of op­por­tu­nity to re­claim gift cul­ture, and there­fore to build true com­mu­nity. The recla­ma­tion is part of a larger shift of human con­scious­ness, a larger re­union with na­ture, earth, each other, and lost parts of our­selves. Our alien­ation from gift cul­ture is an aber­ra­tion and our in­de­pen­dence an il­lu­sion. We are not ac­tu­ally in­de­pen­dent or “fi­nan­cially se­cure” – we are just as de­pen­dent as be­fore, only on strangers and im­per­sonal in­sti­tu­tions, and, as we are likely to soon dis­cover, these in­sti­tu­tions are quite frag­ile.” (

Does the Gift Economy undermine economic growth?

Charles Eisenstein:

"Why don't we need each other? It is be­cause all the gift re­la­tion­ships upon which we once de­pended are now paid ser­vices. They have been con­verted into ser­vice work which the mar­ket con­verts into cash. What is there left to con­vert? Whether fos­sil fuels, top­soil, aquifers, the at­mos­phere's ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb waste; whether it is food, cloth­ing, shel­ter, med­i­cine, music, or our col­lec­tive cul­tural be­quest of sto­ries and ideas, nearly all have be­come com­modi­ties. Un­less we can find yet new realms of na­ture to con­vert into good, un­less we can find even more func­tions of human life to com­modi­tize, our days of eco­nomic growth are num­bered. What room for growth re­mains—for ex­am­ple in today's ane­mic eco­nomic re­cov­ery— comes only at an in­creas­ing cost to na­ture and so­ci­ety.

From this per­spec­tive, a third con­se­quence of the gift cir­cle and other forms of gift econ­omy be­comes ap­par­ent. Not only does gift-based cir­cu­la­tion sub­tract from GDP, it also has­tens the demise of the pre­sent eco­nomic sys­tem. Any bit of na­ture or human re­la­tion­ship that we pre­serve or re­claim from the com­mod­ity world is one bit less that is avail­able to sell, or to use as the basis for new in­ter­est-bear­ing loans. With­out con­stant cre­ation of new debt, ex­ist­ing debt can­not be re­paid. Lend­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties only occur in a con­text of eco­nomic growth, in which the mar­ginal re­turn on cap­i­tal in­vest­ment ex­ceeds the in­ter­est rate. To sim­plify: no growth, less lend­ing; less lend­ing, more trans­fer of as­sets to cred­i­tors; more trans­fer of as­sets, more con­cen­tra­tion of wealth; more con­cen­tra­tion of wealth, less con­sumer spend­ing; less con­sumer spend­ing, less growth. This is the vi­cious cir­cle de­scribed by econ­o­mists going back to Karl Marx. It has been de­ferred for two cen­turies by the cease­less open­ing up, through tech­nol­ogy and col­o­niza­tion, of new realms of na­ture and re­la­tion­ship to the mar­ket. Today, not only are these realms nearly ex­hausted, but a shift of con­scious­ness mo­ti­vates grow­ing ef­forts to re­claim them for the com­mons and for the gift. Today, we di­rect huge ef­forts to­ward pro­tect­ing the forests, whereas the most bril­liant minds of two gen­er­a­tions ago de­voted them­selves to their more ef­fi­cient clearcut­ting. Sim­i­larly, so many of us today seek to limit pol­lu­tion not ex­pand pro­duc­tion, to pro­tect the wa­ters not in­crease the fish catch, to pre­serve the wet­lands—not build larger hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. These ef­forts, while not al­ways suc­cess­ful, put a brake on eco­nomic growth be­yond the nat­ural limit the en­vi­ron­ment poses. From the gift per­spec­tive, what is hap­pen­ing is that we no longer seek merely to take from the planet, but to give back as well. This cor­re­sponds to the com­ing of age of hu­man­ity, tran­si­tion­ing from a mother-child re­la­tion­ship to earth, to a co-cre­ative part­ner­ship in which giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing find bal­ance.

The same tran­si­tion to the gift is un­der­way in the so­cial realm. Many of us no longer as­pire to fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence, the state in which we have so much money we needn't de­pend on any­one for any­thing. Today, in­creas­ingly, we yearn in­stead for com­mu­nity. We don't want to live in a com­mod­ity world, where every­thing we have ex­ists for the pri­mary goal of profit. We want things cre­ated for love and beauty, things that con­nect us more deeply to the peo­ple around us. We de­sire to be in­ter­de­pen­dent, not in­de­pen­dent. The gift cir­cle, and the many new forms of gift econ­omy that are emerg­ing on the In­ter­net, are ways of re­claim­ing human re­la­tion­ships from the mar­ket.

Whether nat­ural or so­cial, the recla­ma­tion of the gift-based com­mon­wealth not only has­tens the col­lapse of a growth-de­pen­dent money sys­tem, it also mit­i­gates its sever­ity. At the pre­sent mo­ment, the mar­ket faces a cri­sis, merely one of a mul­ti­plic­ity of crises (eco­log­i­cal, so­cial) that are con­verg­ing upon us. Through the tur­bu­lent time that is upon us, the sur­vival of hu­man­ity, and our ca­pac­ity to build a new kind of civ­i­liza­tion em­body­ing a new re­la­tion­ship to earth and a new, more con­nected, human iden­tity, de­pends on these scraps of the com­mon­wealth that we are able to pre­serve or re­claim. Al­though we have done griev­ous dam­age to earth, vast wealth still re­mains. There is still rich­ness in the soil, water, cul­tures and bio­mes of this planet. The longer we per­sist under the sta­tus quo, the less of that rich­ness will re­main and the more calami­tous the tran­si­tion will be.

On a less tan­gi­ble level, any gifts we give con­tribute to an­other kind of com­mon wealth – a reser­voir of grat­i­tude that will see us through times of tur­moil, when the con­ven­tions and sto­ries that hold civic so­ci­ety to­gether fall apart. Gifts in­spire grat­i­tude, and gen­eros­ity is in­fec­tious. In­creas­ingly, I read and hear sto­ries of gen­eros­ity, self­less­ness, even mag­na­nim­ity that take my breath away. When I wit­ness gen­eros­ity, I want to be gen­er­ous too. In the com­ing times, we will need the gen­eros­ity, the self­less­ness, and the mag­na­nim­ity of many peo­ple. If every­one seeks merely their own sur­vival, then there is no hope for a new kind of civ­i­liza­tion. We need each oth­ers' gifts as we need each oth­ers' gen­eros­ity to in­vite us into the realm of the gift our­selves. In con­trast to the age of money where we can pay for any­thing and need no gifts, soon it will be abun­dantly clear: we need each other." (

Second excerpt, from an interview conducted by Transition Culture:

"You use the term ‘the gift economy’ a lot to describe, as I understand it, what we need to be moving towards instead. What does the gift economy look like for you, what does that mean? Does that mean that we just swap stuff all the time?

No, it’s not about barter actually. Economists have this fantasy that once upon a time people used barter and then money was more convenient so they switched to money, that all along we’ve been trying to maximise our self-interest and take advantage of somebody else and get the best deal, but that’s a fantasy projection of the present on to the past. The gift economy for me means two things actually, one is the shrinkage of the money economy so that a lot of things that are quantified today and commodified and exchanged with money will re-enter the gift realm.

Things like the care of children, the preparation of food, to some extent the building of houses, the creation of entertainment, all of these things used to be part of a gift economy, done mostly within families or small communities. A lot of these things should be done by people that know you intimately – life’s a lot richer when your music is mostly something that you get together and sing, rather than something you listen to on your ipod. So that’s part of it, the shrinkage of the money realm.

I’m not talking about the abolition of money, I’m talking about the transformation of money, so that it takes on the properties of gift. One of those would be that you no longer maintain wealth, status and security by keeping a lot of it, in a gift culture the more you gave the richer you were. The wealthy person was the generous person. Another aspect of it would be to be part of the circle of the gift as in ecology where the waste of any creature is a food for the next. Obviously, this is not a new insight, but human economy has to join the circle of ecology and our money system has to encourage that. That’s the other main aspect of gift economics as applied to money." (

Peer-to-Peer Potlatch and the Acephalic Response

From: Andrew Whelan: Leeching Bataille : Peer-to-Peer Potlatch and the Acephalic Response.

Andrew Whelan:

“There are significant problems with ‘gift economy’ accounts of peer-to-peer (p2p). In what follows this argument is advanced on several grounds. Firstly, empirically: it may have been at one time that p2p operated like a gift economy, and it may be now that some elements of the p2p ecology operate like gift economies. But certain social and structural facets of ‘free culture’ online generate serious problems for conventional gift economy readings. In addition, there are notorious problems with conceptualising the actual practice of gifting and how it can best be understood in relation to reciprocity: the consequences of the ideology of the ‘pure’ gift and so on.

Secondly, then, there are good theoretical grounds for questioning the appropriateness of the gift model for p2p. There are inherent features of the theory of the gift and the model of reciprocity involved which tend to “elide inequalities of power” (Osteen 2002: 3). Furthermore, regarding p2p, the gift has often been picked up only partially; with deployments retaining elements of the economism the theory of the gift attempts to overcome. Many references to the anthropology of the gift in relation to p2p dilute significantly both the totality of the gift in the anthropological accounts Mauss drew on, and the enormous importance accorded to the gift and what it stands for in Mauss, Bataille, and numerous others.

Thirdly, the gift economy reading does not go far enough. It misconstrues p2p as utopian, positive, progressive, reciprocal, communal. It pretends that the ‘good guys’ (the ‘pirates’) are not (or not only) hyperconsumers. It underplays the extent to which downloaders and the monopolistic content producers are locked together in a grotesque embrace. It fails to grasp the consequences of Mauss’s account of the gift (let alone Bataille’s) when it asserts that p2p exchange is assessable as a utilitarian good, a good with calculable benefits, when in fact p2p presents a kind of supereconomics or antieconomics. It misidentifies a naïve and faulty model of the political in a contested and problematic social and cultural practice. It fails to account satisfactorily for the incredible responses to p2p from state and corporate agencies (for the violence of that particular gift). In short, it doesn’t work, and it also obscures from view some of the most important aspects of p2p; it artificially isolates p2p from the total social phenomenon in which it is embedded: the ‘general economy’ (Bataille 1988).” (