Living in the gift

In moments of clarity, perhaps after a narrow brush with death, or upon accompanying a loved one through the death process, we know life itself is a gift. We experience an overwhelming gratitude at being alive. We walk in wonderment at the riches, undeserved and freely available, that come with life: the joy of breathing, the delights of color and sound, the pleasure of drinking water to quench thirst, the sweetness of a loved one’s face. This sense of mixed awe and gratitude is a clear sign of the presence of the sacred.
In the beginning was the Gift: in the archetypal beginning of the world, at the beginning of our lives and in the infancy of the human species. Gratitude therefore is natural to us, so primal, so elemental that it is difficult to define. Perhaps it is the feeling of having received a gift and the desire to give in turn. We might therefore expect primitive people, connected with this primal gratitude, to enact it in their social and economic relationships. Indeed, they did. Most accounts of the history of money begin with primitive barter, but barter is a relative rarity among hunter-gatherers. The most important mode of economic exchange was the gift.
Primal though it is, gratitude and the generosity flowing from it coexist with other, less savory, aspects of human nature. Our economic system rewards selfishness and greed. What would an economic system look like that rewarded generosity, as did the systems of some ancient cultures? Instead of economic exchange, it would involve gift circulation. In ancient communities, elaborate customs governed gift giving, customs that persist in societies that have not lost their connection to the past.
Usually gift networks are closely tied to kin networks. Customs dictate who gives to whom. To some kin categories you might be expected to give; from others you might expect to receive; and in others the gifts flow in both directions. While gifts can be reciprocal, just as frequently they flow in circles. I give to you; you give to someone else… and eventually someone gives back to me. A famous example is the kula system of the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea, in which precious necklaces circulate in one direction from island to island and bracelets in the other direction. While the pinnacle of the kula system is the highly ritualized exchange of ceremonial bracelets and necklaces by chiefs, the gift network surrounding it extends to all kinds of utilitarian items: food, boats, labor and so forth. In other words, gifts flow continuously, only stopping in their circulation when they meet a real, present need.
While today we clearly distinguish between a gift and a commercial transaction, in past times this distinction was by no means clear. Gifts are usually accompanied either by some token of exchange or by a moral or social obligation (or both). Unlike a modern financial transaction, which is closed and leaves no obligation, a gift transaction is open-ended, creating an ongoing tie between the participants. Another way of looking at it is that the gift partakes of the giver, and when we give a gift, we give something of ourselves. This is the opposite of a modern commodity transaction, in which goods sold are mere property, separate from the one who sells them.
We all can feel the difference. You probably have some treasured items that were given to you; they may be objectively indistinguishable from something you might buy, but they are unique and special because of the individual who bequeathed them to you. Thus it was that ancient people recognized that a magical quality, a spirit, circulates along with gifts.
Useless objects like cowry shells, pretty beads, necklaces and so on were the earliest money. To exchange them for something of utilitarian value is, naively speaking, merely a way to facilitate a gift—something for nothing. These ancient people turned it into something for something, but that doesn’t make it any less a gift, because they are merely giving physical form to the felt sense of obligation; these are tokens of gratitude. From this perspective, buying and selling, borrowing and lending, are not opposite operations at all. All gifts circle back to the giver in another form. Buyer and seller are equal.
We intuitively recognize gifts as sacred, which is why even today we make ceremonies of giving presents. Gifts embody the key qualities of the sacredness. First, uniqueness: Unlike the standardized commodities of today, purchased in closed transactions with money and alienated from their origins, gifts are unique in that they partake of the giver. Second, wholeness, interdependency: Gifts expand the circle of self to include the community. Whereas money today embodies the principle “More for me is less for you,” in a gift economy, more for you is also more for me because those who have give to those who need. Gifts cement the mystical realization of participation in something greater than oneself, which, yet, is not separate from oneself.
At its core, money is a beautiful concept. 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. In a tribe or village, the scale of society is still 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 lovingly grew my ginger or the engineer in Japan who painstakingly designed my mobile phone display won’t be aware of it. So instead of personal recognition of gifts, we use money: the representation of gratitude. Thus 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. 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 breathtaking architecture, with cosmopolitan cities and world literature, we need money, or something resembling it, as a way to coordinate human activity on the vast scale necessary to create such things.
It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is now precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity and forestalling our most generous impulses. We live in an omnipresent anxiety, borne of the scarcity of the money we depend on for life—witness the phrase “the cost of living.” Our purpose for being, the development and full expression of our gifts, is mortgaged to the demands of money, to making a living, getting by, surviving. Yet no one, no matter how wealthy, secure or comfortable, can ever feel fulfilled in a life in which those gifts remain latent.
The next stage of human economy will parallel what we are beginning to understand about nature. It will call forth the gifts of each of us; it will emphasize cooperation over competition; it will encourage circulation over hoarding; and it will be cyclical, not linear. Money may not disappear anytime soon, but it will serve a diminished role even as it takes on more of the properties of the gift. The economy will shrink, and our lives will grow.
This is an edited excerpt from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition (North Atlantic Books, Evolver Editions) by Charles Eisenstein.

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