Money for a Gift Economy

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

An Excerpt from chapter 1 of Sacred Economics. by Charles Eistenstein:

"Today as well, our money with its qualities of standardization, abstraction, and anonymity is aligned with many other aspects of the human experience. What new scientific, religious, or psychological paradigms might arise in the context of a different kind of money?

If money did not arise from the economists’ imaginary world of calculated, interest-maximizing barter, then how did it arise? I propose that it arose as a means to facilitate gift giving, sharing, and generosity, or at least that it bore something of that spirit. To recreate a sacred economy, it is necessary to restore to money that original spirit.

At its core, money is a beautiful concept. Let me be very naive for a moment so as to reveal this core, this spiritual (if not historical) essence of money. I have something you need, and I wish to give it to you. So I do, and you feel grateful and desire to give something to me in return. But you don’t have anything I need right now. So instead you give me a token of your gratitude—a useless, pretty thing like a wampum necklace or a piece of silver. That token says, “I have met the needs of other people and earned their gratitude.” Later, when I receive a gift from someone else, I give them that token. Gifts can circulate across vast social distances, and I can receive from people to whom I have nothing to give while still fulfilling my desire to act from the gratitude those gifts inspire within me.

On the level of a family, clan, or hunter-gatherer band, money is not necessary to operate a gift economy. Nor is it necessary in the next larger unit of social organization: the village or tribe of a few hundred people. There, if I don’t need anything from you now, either you will (acting from gratitude) give me something that I need in the future, or you will give to someone else, who gives to someone else, who gives to me. This is the “circle of the gift,” the basis of community. In a tribe or village, the scale of society is small enough that those who give to me recognize my gifts to others. Such is not the case in a mass society like ours. If I give generously to you, the farmer in Hawaii who grew my ginger or the engineer in Japan who designed my cell phone display won’t know about it. So instead of personal recognition of gifts, we use money: the representation of gratitude. The social witnessing of gifts becomes anonymous.

Money becomes necessary when the range of our gifts must extend beyond the people we know personally. Such is the case when economic scale and the division of labor exceed the tribal or village level. Indeed, the first money appeared in the first agricultural civilizations that developed beyond the Neolithic village: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India. Traditional, decentralized gift networks gave way to centralized systems of redistribution, with the temple, and later the royal palace, as the hub. Quite possibly, these evolved from potlatch-type traditions in which gifts flowed to chiefs and other leaders, and then back from them to their kin and tribe. Starting as centralized nodes for a large-scale flow of gifts, they soon diverged from the gift mind-set as contributions became forced and quantified, and outward disbursement became unequal. Ancient Sumerian documents already speak of economic polarization, haves and have-nots, and wages that were barely at subsistence.10 While centralized directives, and not market trade, governed the movement of goods,11 the early agricultural empires also used what some call money: agricultural and metallic commodities in standard measured units that served as media of exchange, units of account, and stores of value. So already, four thousand years ago, money was failing to meet my naive expectation that it would create greater abundance for all by facilitating the meeting of gifts and needs.

By facilitating trade, motivating efficient production, and allowing the accumulation of capital to undertake large-scale projects, money should enrich life: it should bestow upon us ease, leisure, freedom from anxiety, and an equitable distribution of wealth. Indeed, conventional economic theory predicts all of these results. The fact that money has become an agent of the opposite—anxiety, hardship, and polarization of wealth—presents us with a paradox.

If we are to have a world with technology, with cinema and symphony orchestras, with telecommunications and great architecture, with cosmopolitan cities and world literature, we need money, or something like it, as a way to coordinate human activity on the vast scale necessary to create such things. I have therefore written this book, to describe a system that restores to money the sacredness of the gift. I say “restore” because from the earliest times, money has had sacred or magical connotations. Originally, it was the temples where agricultural surpluses were stored and redistributed: the center of religious life was also the center of economic life. Some authors claim that the earliest symbolic money (as opposed to commodity money) was issued by temples and could be redeemed for sacred sex with temple prostitutes;12 in any event, it is certain that temples were deeply involved in issuing early coins, many of which bore the images of sacred animals and deities. This practice continues today with bills and coins bearing the likenesses of deified presidents.


Perhaps someday we won’t need money to have a gift economy on the scale of billions of humans; perhaps the money I shall describe in this book is transitional. I am not a “primitivist” who advocates the abandonment of civilization, of technology and culture, of the gifts that make us human. I foresee rather the restoration of humanity to a sacred estate, bearing all the wholeness and harmony with nature of the hunter-gatherer time, but at a higher level of organization. I foresee the fulfillment, and not the abdication, of the gifts of hand and mind that make us human." (

More Information