Saturday, April 10, 2010

Fears and Hopes for the Gift Economy

In doing currency work, I catch a lot of slack from both sides. Some say I am being too idealistic - local currencies designed to support our highest values won’t work or people aren’t ready for them any time in the next 20 years. And gift economies – well forget about it! We’ll never get there! People are inherently competitive, greedy and selfish. On the other side, I am not being idealistic enough – we need gift economies now, not more ways of keeping score (currencies)! And gifts economies are the only things that will get us towards our true goal of spiritual reunion, abundance, care and love for all. I’ve also lived and worked in the gift economy to a large extent for the last five years, helping to coordinate the Really Really Free Market – a demonstration event of a pure gift economy and meeting a lot of my basic needs through friends’ gifts.

To some extent, there is a realist in me that questions whether we actually have enough abundance to share gifts with close to 7 billion people on the planet. Some researchers claim there is plenty of food and water, but it is just maldistributed through corruption of power and unequal wealth. Whatever the case may be, people in some parts of the world really don’t have enough. We haven’t actually solved the abundance problem yet, which seems a necessary condition for a healthy gift economy. There needs to be more real democracy, more local resource control, less people, better distribution and more efficient use of resources.

I also know from having worked in the nonprofit world for many years that gifts come with strings attached, powerful ones, just as they did in some these traditional gifting cultures. The ability to give is power - one must first have the resources and where did they come from? Additionally, if one can give, one can take away or refrain from giving again. Philanthropists often choose charities that serve their own interests and rarely ones that work against the source of their unequal, unearned wealth. If nonprofits do work that is too economically radical, they don’t get funded.

It’s easy to ask people to rely on each others' generosity when you’ve never gone hungry or had to think twice about taking your kid to see an expensive doctor when they are very ill. If your life depends on a reliable structure within which there are thin margins, you might not be so ready to give it up and put trust in trust of people that have been framed as your competitors or gatekeepers for survival. Again, the ability to participate in the gift economy is a luxury many people feel they can’t afford much of.

Then there is the incremental transformation argument. We need baby steps between where we are and the gift economy so that people start to trust each other again, and relationships, cultural patterns, rituals, and institutions form to support this framework. Most of this no longer exists in the US dominant culture – quite the opposite. Our culture has been designed against gift economies. Needless to say, if you jump ship and just believe there is a life boat doesn’t mean there is one (we need to build it too!). Of course, if you are rich, you might have a life vest tucked in back pocket to cheat just in case.

On the other hand, if we can’t ever imagine getting to a place where everyone takes care of each other without fear, we will never get there. Aim low and you will hit it every time. We need to be very conscious of our compromises with “realism” and be honest about them, including discussing what we do want our culture to look like. Every compromise may get you one step forward in material reality but may have the unintended consequence of one step back in confidence and consciousness towards our highest goals.

I believe we should give as much as we can, especially if we have more than enough and we should trust the universe to take of us and our brothers and sisters to reciprocate. But maybe there are agreements that should be in place that reinforce this, collective agreements that ensure survival and enable people to start to trust each other, especially in the cultural transition (if people die or get jaded in the process, it might not help to transform much). Even traditional gifting cultures had agreements, especially for basic sustenance, they didn’t always just randomly give all their stuff away. Just because there is an agreement, doesn’t mean it’s not a gift if it is a voluntary, participatory agreement to give each other gifts. Today these agreements might look a bit like participatory socialism. At the Really Really Free Market there is a sacred space where people can practice giving and receiving. There is an agreement that inside the space everything is free and everything outside the space must be negotiated before taking – that’s the agreement. We can use agreements like this that assume an appropriate level of trust given the particular situation. In low levels of trust situations, like resource redistribution, there probably needs to be much stronger agreements for it to work and people to feel secure in knowing they will get back their stolen resources. The redistributed resources in a sense are enforced gifts – maybe an oxymoron. But as we relax, feel secure, and sense abundance, we can try out using fewer and softer agreements.

When we are able, we also need to provide as many opportunities (events, rituals, structures and institutions) for people to practice safe gifting and even risky gifting as possible. The experience of giving and receiving gifts transforms people through the process probably much more than just trying to convince the economically traumatized masses. The knee jerk reaction is that it can’t work, but when you experience good gifting and it works, it kind of creeps up on you and changes even the cynic. You can’t deny real proof that a gift economy is possible. It may possibly even calm the mortal fears of the greedy rich and make them turn over a new leaf.

So in summary, yes, I believe some amalgam of gift economies and mutual caring agreements is possible, but the possible might take a little while. Give it time, give it love and patience, the seeds will grow. But you also have to give the seeds plenty of water, food, prayer, and sunlight. Create a free box, join a timebank, start a free farm stand, offer a free room to a homeless person or a wealthy billionaire – if we all do some gifting, it might just change the world.

Much love,

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