Gift Exchange Economies—An Alternative?

August 28, 2014 § 5 Comments

Well, I’ve been ranting and railing against the capitalist economic system for several posts now, using strong words like “evil” (which I didn’t bother to define) and “dung”. I find it brings out the vitriolic in me; it tempts me to a righteous and poetic indignation. Not so good. Not very constructive, anyway.

So it’s time to own up once again to the fact that our economic system is not only evil—not only hierarchical and anti-democratic; competitive, if not actually violent; deceitful and manipulative; inherently anti-worker and effectively anti-consumer; carcinomic, rapacious, and unsustainable; oh, and anti-biblical . . .

It is also good, in that it has raised the standard of living for huge numbers of people, arguably in fact everyone on the planet—except for indigenous peoples. It is an extremely creative engine of technological advance, and many of these advances serve the greater human good. Not so much the good of whales and frogs.

But more to the point—what else is there?

When I first started talking and writing about these predicaments of capitalism and Quaker testimonies, the Soviet Union still held sway over millions of people, and inevitably, Friends would respond with: “So, what—would you have us all become communists? Look how well that’s working out.” As if there were only two economic systems in the world. Now, many Americans anyway, think there is only one.

But what about socialism? Some democratic quasi-socialist states, like Norway, are doing quite a bit better than we are by virtually every measure. Many countries have vital socialist parties and manage, mostly, not to fall into chaos or hell, as the true believers in capitalism fear would happen here.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have forgotten that fascism is also an economic system, featuring private ownership of capital but state control of the economy. Also basically a failed experiment.

But the economic systems that I find most attractive are the gift-exchange economies that most indigenous peoples have. Had. Virtually all the traditional gift exchange economies on earth have been destroyed by the market economy.

In a gift exchange economy, one gathers power, not by amassing wealth, but by giving it away. Those gifts obligate the receiver to reciprocate in some way at some time. Because people are different, as are circumstances, places, luck, and a host of other factors, some people end up with more power than other people—they have wider networks of obligation owed to them than the complex of obligations they owe to others. They often become chiefs.

The classic case is Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was the first and only man to be the traditional chief of all seven tribes of the Lakota people. He achieved this status by providing many gifts, but one especially—the (temporary) salvation of his people. Sitting Bull saw that the American military strategy was to cut off the annual, seasonal, north-south migration of the bison, kill them off, and starve the plains peoples into submission. Military power wasn’t doing so well, at least not until the invention of the carbine, a short-barreled repeating rifle that could be cocked with one hand and used in close quarters, and thus was suitable for use by cavalry. William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous for his reign of terror across the deep South during the Civil War, and named, ironically, after one of the greatest Indigenous warriors of all time, commanded the Indian Wars for a time; he called the Plains Indians the best light cavalry on the planet, with the possible exception of the Cossacks, another indigenous horse-people.

Anyway. Sitting Bull’s counter-strategy was to cut off the southern bison migration himself and keep what was left of the bison herds in the north. He talked all seven tribes, the Northern Cheyenne, and several other tribes, into cooperating to achieve this. This delayed the conquest of the Northern Plains for almost a generation. Among his own people, he was called He Feeds the People. The Lakota gifted him with this name in recognition of his great gift to them.

In gift exchange economies, you gain power by feeding people. Or by giving them hides, for clothing, shelter, containers, bedding, etc. Or by giving them rights to one of your fishing camps. Or by gifting them with horses, or basket rushes, or . . . You get the idea.

Now, you feed people and provide all these other necessaries, in many traditional indigenous life-ways, by being very good at living with the land, by really knowing it and understanding it, by possessing a sublime eco-intelligence, by possessing valuable skills, by possessing powers of organization and persuasion, by caring about future generations. By giving.

Gift exchange economies elevate social roles, instead of giving people jobs. Instead of working for a wage and then buying your life in parts and assembling it at home, like we do, in a gift exchange economy, you trade goods and services, tasks and labor, favors, songs and dances, names, reputations and loyalties. You sing at my daughter’s wedding; I give your whole family meat that lasts a week; or maybe, two winters later, I take you in when your own hunters can’t find a herd.

Gift exchange economies work for small groups who live in partnership with the land. Scaling one up to serve 300 million people would be a challenge. When everyone lives three or ten degrees of separation from basic production of basics—of food, building materials, energy sources, clothing materials, medicines, etc.—the chains of exchange would become extremely complicated; only computers could keep track. When everyone in the system has quite specialized skills and jobs, trading services would be impossible. When the only thing you could trade is things, you are still locked into the mass production-mass consumption economy to acquire the things you might trade in the first place. So—elegant idea, maybe, but totally impracticable.

The market economy has won. It’s like kudzu: it soaks up so much of the sunlight that no other economies stand a chance.

What to do? We are left with the project of radically reforming capitalism.

We could start with usury laws. These were deregulated under Ronald Reagan, so many of us remember a time when interest rates were regulated more or less equitably, though I doubt that many of us were really paying attention. I know I wasn’t. But you can draw a straight line from Reagan’s policies on interest rates to the Great Recession. And here, unlike with many of our modern problems, the Bible really has something to offer as a starting point.

So let’s start there. Next time.

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§ 5 Responses to Gift Exchange Economies—An Alternative?

  • Vonn New says:

    Open Source!!!!

    There is already an alternative to capitalism at work in the world that produces the best products in their class. This very website is using it. Open source technology powers almost all the web servers in the world and most of the CMS platforms.

    Open Source doesn’t actually replace capitalism but transcends it, using it as one piece of the economic system rather than the apex.
    We build tools that we need and share them. Contributed code becomes popular based on its merit and the need it fills. Others use code for free with the freedom to improve upon it. Everybody wins.
    Though it started in the software industry, we are seeing open source ethics and organizing principles start to take hold in other areas. Tesla just made their technology open source. The Maker movement is open source based and some traditional trades like construction are starting to see open source influence.

    I think it speaks to collaboration and values of non-coercion and non-exploitation in ways that resonate with Friends testimonies. More importantly, it works in very real and practical ways.

    • treegestalt says:

      I generally love the open-source software, which as you say is often the best available! Then again, much of it is written by people who don’t realize how much trouble a layperson will have figuring out how to use something that makes perfect sense to programmers.

      Many programmers really like to make products for uses that interest them personally; and this way they don’t have to clutter the programs with dysfunctional junk that just makes sure users will have to pay. I think fractint resulted from that sort of effort. Everyone wanted to draw fractals at the time; and one person’s program for doing that wouldn’t have differed significantly from anyone else’s — This way they got to pool their best ideas, save a lot of overlapping effort, come up with a fast, user-friendly design. The best commercial product didn’t come close.

      On another hand, how much of such work lately is being produced by out-of-work programmers mainly wanting something to put on their resumes?

      • Vonn New says:

        I would argue that if they’re producing valuable code, they aren’t out of work. They might be out of job, but not work.

        I’m being flippant, but in the platform I work in (Drupal) the contributed modules and themes might be someone’s hobby, but generally they aren’t. They show up because some developer is doing work for a client and they need some tool to do something, so the developer writes it, the client pays for it, and the understanding is that if it appears to be useful beyond their specific use case, they share it back to the community. The client is recognized as an underwriter or sponsor and becomes an extension of the community. Other people contribute by writing documentation, testing, helping others, organizing events, or even by asking questions. There is a strong cultural expectation that since we all get to use this amazing stuff for free, we give back to the community as we’re able.

  • treegestalt says:

    “Evil” in this case means that the system is innately coercive, works by using people’s most selfish drives (as well as enlisting our less-selfish desire to protect our families to force people into crimes they wouldn’t normally connive in), and (as presently operating) brings out the worst in people. [Even warfare relies on and works to instill some virtues, after all!] Paul Craig Roberts today is calling the USian private and public institutions almost entirely corrupt, & can make a pretty good case.

    Whatever system we lived under, whether customary & voluntary — or externally imposed — people would game that system, if possible.

    In our case, that includes working in corporations that produce nothing, but instead prey on the productive economy, snatch up enterprises and suck them dry for the benefit of a tribe that holds the bulk of humanity in contempt. Not to mention companies that produce bads-&-disservices, while manipulating the government to give them a free hand, even to subsidizing their operations & imposing their products on bystanders.

    Religions (considered as ideologies) are supposed to inculcate a self-scoring gift economy among their adherents. People who have found God do tend to live in that way, no longer seeing themselves as isolated, no longer thinking they can harm anyone without harming themselves. People “like sheep without a shepherd” are far less able to live that way, except within small, closed circles.

    “Practical” — “practical,” that is, if we could overcome the propaganda that keeps the present system dominant — would be a sort of “The-Sabbath-was-made-for-man-not-the-other-way-around” small scale capitalism, including absolute prohibition of ‘interest’, liability for the misconduct of any enterprise one “invests” in, a small absolute size limit on profit-making organizations, etc etc. Plus an absolute ban on “advertising” & and the use of television, which seems to be far too effective a tool for mass brainwashing. (We-all would really have to work on the design, collectively — and we don’t have the tools to work well collectively on much of anything. Friends’ business practices could be helpful in that, but again, it takes a religious sensitivity for these to work the way these are supposed to.)

    Whatever to do, meanwhile, lacking the power to significantly change the system we’ve got? Pray, try to live by Guidance until the most corrupt institutions have melted like vampires in sunlight…?

  • barbarakay1 says:

    I remember when I was young thinking the 2% cap on savings accounts was low considering loan rates ran 5-19%. Now I wish those rates were back again!

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