What is Gift Economy?

By Simone Wörer

Keywords: matriarchy, gift economy, need-orientation, mothering, capitalist patriarchy

A gift economy is based on the principle that material and immaterial goods and services are given or received without an immediate or future obligation to return the gift. This would be the common definition of the term. Historically, most of the academic writers who have been working on The Gift and the gift economy have been white men and patriarchal (Göttner-Abendroth 2007). They have ignored women as gift givers, denied motherhood, and denied nature as being within the scope of ‘giving’ as a fundamental principle. They split the Gift in order to create the idea of a controllable and predictable binding contract. Many of these authors, such as Mauss, Serres, or Bataille even interpret the Gift as a violent act and do not distinguish between the logics of giving and patriarchal exchange. Furthermore, most of those approaches are anthropological and focus on ‘primitive’ societies without realizing that a culture of the Gift and gift economy are still active inside today’s globalizing capitalist patriarchy.

In recent years, we have witnessed a renaissance of theories of the Gift and the gift economy. For example, Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economies (2011) and the pioneering work of Genevieve Vaughan, both try to show that there would be no human life without the Gift. Eisenstein begins his analysis of the history of money with the words ‘In the beginning was the Gift’; and Vaughan starts at the very beginning with children of a human mother and points out the crucial importance of need-oriented mothering and caring. From a semiotic point of view, she develops the concept of homo donans, portraying humans as gift-giving and gift-receiving beings, emphasizing the maternal roots of the gift economy. We nevertheless need an integral comprehension. A radical alternative worldview requires a profound analysis of patriarchy and critique of its economic and technological systems. This would combine findings of the Modern Matriarchal Sciences network and ecofeminist insights into linkages between feminism and ecology. This integrated understanding, should help re-discover the maternal roots of the gift economy and its life-affirming culture.

The mother’s womb is the original topos, a place where we experience interconnectedness and direct satisfaction of needs. It might be considered a model of the gift economy. From a psychological point of view, at this very beginning of our lives the mother is our first Other, but we are not separate from her. On the contrary, in this stage of life, the world is experienced in entirety. Once born, we experience the same world, but for the first time, feel distance, in separation from the original topos. The urge to overcome this distance may well be the beginning of tenderness, of dedication and of Other-orientation.

Matriarchal societies, as mother-centred and gift-friendly communities and gift economies, collectively remember this origin. Furthermore, matriarchies – and indigenous societies in general – recognize Mother Earth as a giving and receiving entity. The study of Modern Matriarchal Sciences has shown that matriarchies are deeply committed to principles of balance and interconnectedness. They respect diversity between humans and nature, genders and generations. There is no private property in matriarchal gift economies and the well-being of all members is a priority. Production is based on principles of subsistence and cooperation, and instead of accumulating and hoarding goods, everything in matriarchies circulates as a gift. The basic elements of a gift economy are the following:

• balance by circulation
• interconnectedness and diversity
• abundance and ego-limitation
• mothering and need-orientation.

In his classic book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (1983), Lewis Hyde pointed out that when the Gift stops moving and becomes ‘capital’, hunger appears. Hyde is not the only thinker to describe
the movement of the Gift as a sort of circular nourishing flow. By contrast, the patriarchal logic of exchange is based on the motto do ut des – giving in order to get back. Researchers in the Critical Theory of Patriarchy (see note below) show that in its capitalist form, patriarchy appropriates and transforms the Gift as the original logic of life and bonding practice. Here, gift-oriented connections within nature and the human community are brutally transformed by machine-like systems, consisting of exchangeable and infertile parts. They function as man-made products: commodities, machinery, weapons, and money. A capitalist patriarchy produces scarcity by killing life materially and immaterially. The abuse of gift giving in the interest of accumulation, profit, and structures of dominance, leads to a generalized suspicion of needoriented and Other-oriented gift practices. A capitalist patriarchy tries to control gift giving completely by unpaid work and enforced consumption. However, a gift economy would be based on the need-oriented nourishing flow of the Gift in its material and immaterial expression, and as von Werlhof (2011) calls it, a principle of the ‘Interconnectedness of all Being’.

Note: Forschungsinstitut für Patriarchatskritik und alternative Zivilisationen, www.fipaz.at.

Further Resources

Eisenstein, Charles (2011), Sacred Economies. Toronto: Evolver Editions.

Genevieve Vaughan and International Feminists for a Gift Economy, www.gift-economy.com.

Göttner-Abendroth, Heide (2007), ‘Matriarchal Society and the Gift Paradigm: Motherliness as an Ethical Principle’, in Genevieve Vaughan (ed.), Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview Is Possible. Toronto: Inanna.

Hyde, Lewis (1983), The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Random House.

von Werlhof, Claudia (2011), The Failure of Modern Civilization and the Struggle for a ‘Deep’ Alternative: On ‘Critical Theory of Patriarchy’ as a New Paradigm. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Simone Wörer, PhD, MEd, MPS, completed her dissertation The Crisis of the Gift in political science at the University of Innsbruck under Claudia von Werlhof. She is an independent researcher; author of Politik und Kultur der Gabe: Annäherung aus patriarchatskritischer Sicht (2012); and a member of the Planetary Movement for Mother Earth and Forschungsinstitut für Patriarchatskritik und alternative Zivilisationen (FIPAZ), Austria.

Essay originally published in Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary (Edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria, and Alberto Acosta)

Published with kind permission of the authors.

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