The gift economy

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Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth, ‘You owe Me’. Look what happens with a love like that, it lights the Whole Sky.

— Hafiz

I sometimes call this the nature economy, as this is the basis of what large swaths of the rest of Nature works on. This is a hotly debated point, as many argue that Nature is based on exchange. The honeybee, after all, in collecting nectar spreads pollen around the flowers – that’s exchange, right? And in the soil under our feet, in one inch of which there are more life forms than there are human beings on the entire planet, a ceaselessly complex dance is taking place between the plants and the microbes, each feeding each other, nourishing each other and sustaining each other, ensuring that both always have all they need. Again, on the surface, this certainly does look like exchange of some sort.

But I beg to differ. Such a way of viewing this flow of life and transformation of matter is nothing more than the projection of humanity’s narrow sense of self onto the rest of Gaia.(28) Because we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that we’re nothing more than the skin-encapsulated ego, where there is a clearly defined ‘me’ and ‘you’, we therefore assume that the rest of life has the same perception of reality. Imagine, for a moment, that there was no ‘me’ and ‘you’, and that the border known as the skin that we have used to define I and Other by since early childhood was no less arbitrary than the border between the lands known as France and Germany. How would that change the way you perceive the world, and interact with all that makes it up?

The fact that we perceive reality, and our role amongst it, in a certain manner is no basis for assuming that the rest of life does the same. For if you view all life as one whole and consider that, physically (not spiritually) speaking, you’re a collection of elements (such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) coalescing out of, interacting with and dissolving back into the rest of Earth and its biosphere, then how could you charge another part of the whole for some goods or services you offer? As Daniel Suelo once pointed out, it would be akin to your finger charging your head for scratching it, as if the finger’s entire wellbeing wasn’t based on the health and happiness of the head.

Charles Eisenstein notes how “nitrogen fixing bacteria don’t directly benefit from doing so [fixing nitrogen, that is], except that the nitrogen they give to the soil grows plants that grow roots that grow fungi, which ultimately provide nutrients to the bacteria. Pioneer species pave the way for keystone species, which provide microniches for other species, which feed yet other species in a web of gifts that, eventually, circle back to benefit the pioneer species.”(29) All just do what they do, in the organic flow of life, without any sense of debt or credit which, eventually, manifests physically in the form of money. So it could be with us, in a gift economy.

Believing that we are all completely interdependent, and part of a whole organism in the same way that your intestinal bacteria is part of you, certainly isn’t imperative for anyone wanting to engage in the gift economy, as there are many good reasons to do so even from an egocentric and anthropocentric point of view. A gift economy, in my definition, is simply a society within which people share their skills, time, knowledge, information or material goods with each other without any formal, explicit, or precise exchange. The forms that gift-based societies have taken historically vary widely. But there are a few constants. No money changes hands, no bartering takes place (despite what ill-informed economists would have you believe), and no credits or IOUs are accurately noted in little books, ready to be cashed in like a £20 note. In the type of gift economy I advocate, giving and receiving is done on a largely unconditional basis, which stands in stark contrast to the rather ironically named ‘free-market’ economy, which has very successfully managed to turn every aspect of our beautiful little planet, whose bounty was once indeed free to all, into an inherently meaningless set of financial valuations.

Gifts may be given in return at some point down the line (and in most historic gift-based economies, almost always were), and they can strengthen such a society if they are. The key to this is that they are not a condition on the original gift, that they are not immediately returned, and that they are never exact. Otherwise, as we saw earlier, you are effectively saying “my relationship with you can now be ended”. Gifts create bonds, and it is these bonds which create real community, not the superficial type we try to recreate today in a desperate response to our tangible lack of any authentic sense of community.

In its ideal form, there would be no emotional or psychological ‘credit’ in the gift economy either, though given the state of our mental landscape today, this is admittedly very unlikely, initially at least. Whether or not the increased reputation – such as sexual brownie points with your partner for giving her a massage, or Cory Doctorow’s Whuffies(30) – conferred on the seemingly altruistic giver could be perceived as currency is the subject of much anthropological debate. It could be argued that such debates are simply more revealing about the ubiquity of the mindsets of separation, exchange and cynicism that dominate our current human culture, and their subsequent projection onto other previous societies, who – perish the thought! – may have simply enjoyed nurturing each other through unconditional giving. Others will argue that the joy that participants within such economies felt through giving was what they got ‘in return’, but again, this may reveal more about our culture then theirs. Either way, what is so terribly wrong with feeling good about helping our fellow beings? Not to mention the many social benefits of a system where those who are most generous with their gifts inherit the highest social status – today we reserve such accolades to those who take, accumulate and destroy the most, a fact that only perpetuates the culture and encourages others to do the same.

Eisenstein, in his seminal work The Ascent of Humanity, sheds a lot of insightful light on the matter. His writings suggest that the seemingly altruistic acts of previous gift economy societies may in fact be selfish acts, but that the key difference is that those who undertook these acts had a far more holistic, and less egocentric and anthropocentric sense of self. In short, they viewed themselves as being a part of the whole organism we now call Gaia, and that whole was their self. Therefore a selfish act is an altruistic act, as the self within this mindset is the whole and everything and everyone which makes it up. To ‘look after yourself’, within a more expansive understanding of self, would mean you would do what is best for the whole and not the illusory skin-encapsulated ego that you currently define yourself as.

The theory, and in many examples the practical experience, behind gift economies is that when everyone operates in the spirit that underlies it, everything that is required to be done to meet people’s needs still gets done and, counter-intuitively, people end up with greater access to all the resources they need to live healthy, fulfilling lives that are also healthy to the whole that sustains them. This is in part due to the fact that the desires of people within gift economies, both historically and presently, are more minimal with less complex levels of technology, but also because their worldviews were often based on the idea of collective abundance, and not the mentality of scarcity that is central to the philosophy of monetary economics.

It is undoubtedly true that, thus far, the monetary economy has been the best economic form for creating complex products which require specialised division of labour, large economies of scale and materials from all over the world. The only thing it seems better at doing than this is convincing us that we actually need all the stuff it produces in the first place. We never felt we were missing out on the benefits of modern gadgetry before we knew about them. I don’t miss my old mobile phone even now, but I certainly didn’t miss it before they were invented. I was perfectly happy not being able to be contacted at all hours of the day or night. Are our lives better for having mobile phones? Indisputably many would say yes, otherwise they wouldn’t buy them, but given an objective appraisal of all the ecological and social issues involved in their manufacturing, distribution and use, by someone who fully understands the inherent oneness of all life and the effects of these products on everything along the supply chain, I would think the answer would be a resounding no. The problem is, the consumer is so disconnected from the processes involved in their manufacture today that few have any idea how destructive and exploitative these consumer goods are. Central to creating and maintaining that disconnection, as we saw in chapter one, is money.

The gift economy can seem, at first glance, a very idealistic and unrealistic economic model for those of us in the West; a nice thought, but not something that could ever work in the real world. Most of us would associate it with lifestyles such as the Native American Indians, some far-flung uncontacted tribe in the Peruvian rainforest, or other indigenous peoples and ancient cultures throughout the world. It is true – such economies were much more prevalent before the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Few of us would believe that there are people in the world still living in the spirit of the gift economy today, albeit some to only partial degrees now. Take one example – Anuta, one of the Solomon islands. Whilst the market economy has slowly been imposed upon the cultures of the Pacific Islands, a gift economy called aropa still exists there that would seem utopian to the Western mind, and peoples from these islands who have emigrated abroad still engage in this to a degree that many of us could also benefit from. Similarly, the inhabitants of Tokelau still engage in a practice called inati. There are many others who have resisted moving away from similar type ‘human economies’(31) into the market economy that is, contrary to popular understanding, a recent phenomenon for much of the world. Anarchist communities across the globe, despite their reputations as violent, lawless thugs (a reputation created in large by the media and the agendas of those who control it), are to this day often founded on the principle of the gift economy, although the practice is getting increasingly difficult due to the infiltration of the monetary economy into every aspect of our lives, meaning that there is an increasing lack of free space and land to enable them to do so.

Even fewer of us see the operation of the gift economy in our own lives on a daily basis, which is understandable, given the success of the current model at turning every single aspect of our days into a commodity or service to be sold. We pay people to look after our kids and our ageing parents, to cook for us, to produce our food, and house us when we have to be away from home. We even pay people to come and clean our houses, which we have already paid some landlord or bank to live in. Despite this gradual but relentless erosion, the gift economy still holds strong in a few aspects of our lives. When we cook dinner for our partners, or help a friend with some task, or care for our elderly parents three days a week, we are enacting the fragments of the gift economy that haven’t as yet been fully turned into services to be consumed by the prevalent economic model. Therefore it is obvious that we in the global West are still capable of viewing life in a very similar way to the people of Anuta, and that it is only our cultural stories that are limiting our potential to do so now.

What advocates of the gift economy are asking is why not just extend the spirit in which we give to our close family and friends to the wider community? If it would feel abhorrent to charge your mother or friend for dinner, then why is it so socially normalised to charge others in your local community for doing so, given that one day that stranger you charge may become one of your best friends? I’d even argue that there is a much greater likelihood that the stranger would become a friend if you did something for them in the spirit of the gift, as opposed to the mechanism of exchange. In fact, I’d go much further and say that once you start living in the spirit of the gift again, you will slowly begin to realise that the boundary between I and other isn’t as solid as you’ve been conditioned to think it is, and that you will no longer just see this old stranger as a new friend; you will see her as part of you. This, at least, has been my experience.

Whilst gift economists ask why not?, you may understandably ask why bother? My response: if you can see the beauty in the spirit of doing things for free for the people closest to you (or the coldness of charging them), if for no other reason than to express your love and gratitude towards them, then how much more inspiring would it be to do it for people whom you don’t even know yet?


It was on the philosophical foundations of the gift economy that we put on a free one day festival, called The Freeconomy Feastival, to celebrate my first year of having lived completely without money in November 2009. It was to be done without a single penny changing hands, and once this novel idea got rolling, everyone wanted to get involved. It was an absolute joy to watch lots of people, from backgrounds as diverse as accountancy to anarchy, put huge efforts into co-creating something that, on the surface, had little or no benefit to them personally.

After sending out one email to my local Freeconomy(32) group in Bristol just three weeks before the proposed event on Buy Nothing Day 2009, sixty volunteers got back to me, wanting to get involved. Together we put on a one day event that saw thousands of people come along and eat and drink for free (including free ale produced using wild ingredients by brewer Andy Hamilton) and his crew of happy brewers), attend our free cinema, go to a day long schedule of talks from inspiring voices, enjoy a three course meal made completely from waste and wild food, take (and give) whatever they wanted from our Freeshop, and go to an extensive programme of free workshops on the day, including a make and mend area teaching people how they could make that stitch in time that, legend has it, saves nine. There was free massage and other holistic therapies too if it all got too stressful.

To watch the gift economy in full flow in this way was a moving experience. I was constantly asking volunteers to take a break, but many ended up working twelve to fourteen hours straight, telling me that they were having far too good a time to stop. The venue hosts gave the venue for free, various community groups gave us enough cutlery, cooking utensils, seats and tables to feed thousands, other groups loaned us bicycle powered sound systems and smoothie makers, brewers made the beer and showed people how to do it in the process, foragers went to the woods and showed people how to forage, as did the skip-divers and the chefs. Not only was it all done for free, and in some cases anonymously (which takes away the argument for enhanced reputation being the currency), it became a huge educational experience for everyone, meaning that inadvertently and without intention, everyone got something back.

Can you imagine any paid dish-hand, in a commercial restaurant, refusing their break? In the monetary economy, where we feel forced to do things for money, the thought is preposterous. But once you cut away the nonsense, the thing that most of us want in our lives is a sense of purpose and meaning, something beautiful to believe in and contribute towards. We want to wake up in the morning passionate about what we do, instead of being forced into doing something we resent just so that we can survive within a system that many of us feel doesn’t serve us, or the rest of life, very well any more. And whilst I’m not for a moment claiming that a big one day festival run solely on the gift economy is evidence, in itself, that entire communities could work in that way on a daily basis, it does at the very least show us that there are other ways of doing things, and more uplifting ways of being.

Festivals such as Burning Man are also run on the same philosophy to a large extent, and to a much more impressive scale than the one we put on in Bristol. Why not put the word out to your local Freeconomy group and organise a similar festival in your own community?

Many forms of the gift economy existed a long time before the monetary economy, and I hope it will never completely vanish into a world where every inch of our planet has a price and where every act requires an exchange. What a horrible thought. It is my dream that we may one day move beyond these conditioned and outdated mindsets of scarcity, exchange and insecurity, and start living again in a way that is life-affirming, which inspires us instead of depresses us, and which has the feelgood factor that the monetary economy will never have.