Does the Gift Economy Undermine Economic Growth
"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." (http://www.nationofchange.org/build-community-economy-gifts-1325082127)