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The Gift Economy - Receiving stimulates giving

One of the alternatives to our current economic system, which is based on money created by banks as a debt and heavily laden with a cost called interest, is what has been termed the gift economy. Few would disagree that life could be much better if everything - or at least a good part of what we need for our daily survival - were freely available just for the taking.


Silver 20-SIMEC coins issued by Italian law professor Giacinto Auriti in a monetary experiment

But alas - the current economic reality is just the opposite - scarcity rules. Everything has a price, and the more scarce something is, the higher the price. To obtain anything we need to pay that price - in other words exchange something of ours for what we wish to receive.

At times - actually I would argue more often than not - scarcity is brought about artificially to manipulate the price and therefore the "exchange value" of goods. Making a profit and paying the piper requires it.

Oil probably is sa good an example as any. Far from there being a physical shortage of oil, the price for this black gold has been successfully manipulated to raise from 10 dollars a barrel only years ago to over a hundred dollars now. The corporations that exploit our dependence on oil for energy are doing the manipulating.

But we were talking about giving.

Nature gives to us abundantly, and we have no problem accepting what is offered. We do have some problems with stewardship, with giving of ourselves to Nature. Traditional cultures included taking care of the land and other creatures. They also practiced giving as a routine economic activity. How is it that we have turned away from giving as a delightful and satisfying pastime? Genevieve Vaughan, author of For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange analyzes the reasons from a feminist and largely psychosocial perspective in her article Introduction to the Gift Economy.

She sees giving as a distinctly feminine activity, and she may be right that women are culturally more apt to give, to nurture, than men. Our culture of male domination over the female, which creates a view of the sexes as opposed to and even in conflict with each other, seems to be at the bottom of this. This patriarchal bent of society, very much stressed in the Jewish and Christian tradition, seems to have made us men less inclined to consider nurturing or giving.

So what can we do to bring more balance, short of revolutionizing society and turning to matriarchy, which seems to have its own problems? Can we, in an economy that relies on scarcity and exchange as fundamental to its functioning, make a difference at all? Can we nudge the world towards more economic justice by what we ourselves are able to do?

I believe we can...

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Receiving promotes giving

What inspired me to write this little piece today was giving away a large bag of lemons from a tree in my garden and reflecting on where they might eventually end up.

But let's back up a bit.

I believe that the gift economy can be jump-started by example. Giving is a self-propagating virus that will spread into society, if only enough people practice it. In my case, the giving of lemons today was prompted by receiving a dish of tomatoes filled with rice from a lady across the street.

Rome, although it is a fairly large city, still preserves some of the flavor of a village, because it is divided up into "quarters", small areas where you know - more or less - who the other people are that live here. At times, people sit around and talk to each other, especially in the summer, when the evenings are cool and inviting to sit around on the stairs that form our street.

One of the ladies in our neighborhood is always in financial trouble. She comes to ask for help, and at times does get a loan to help pay the odd bill. But she also cooks and insists on giving some of her stuffed tomatos, lasagne or eggplant parmesan away. In turn, but not necessarily in exchange, I give some of the fruits that grow abundantly in our garden. At this time of the year it's lemons. She, in turn, passes on the lemons to her childrens' families, living outside of Rome, and to others living in her "palazzo" (it's not really a palace as the word implies - I guess you'd call it an apartment building in other places) who aren't necessarily part of the family.


Through that lady, my fruits to have ended up in places I never knew and probably won't ever know. And it is likely that those receiving them will in their turn be more inclined to give something they have. Yes, we will never know whether that is really the case, but that is the nature of the virus. It works and multiplies in hidden places. It isn't important to know either.

When you give, you do promote a change in culture. Think about it.

Whether we know it or not, the actions of just our own little selves can cause changes in chains of action hidden from our view. That seems to me a good way of changing things. Through a simple action, the gift economy can spread and perhaps, eventually bring a better life for many.

Why not just start doing it?

Start in your own neighborhood. Find someone who is good at giving things away, and give something of yours to that person. Pretty soon, a little trend may start... and who knows, you may find yourself on the receiving end once in a while - or not.

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Book: Women and the Gift Economy
"a radically different world view is possible"

Book: The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (by Lewis Hyde) (Paperback)

The Gift Economy
by Gifford Pinchot
"Lest we think that the principles of a gift economy will only work for simple, primitive or small enterprises, Hyde points out that the community of scientists follows the rules of a gift economy. The scientists with highest status are not those who possesses the most knowledge; they are the ones who have contributed the most to their fields. A scientist of great knowledge, but only minor contributions is almost pitied - his or her career is seen as a waste of talent."

A Gift Tensegrity
"If we are to move beyond adversity and conflict -- if we are to move beyond neutrality and
anonymity, then we must get to know each other. The secret of creating synergic
relationship is WE-ness. Synergic relationship is close and personal. It requires trust,
caring and committment. It requires honesty and openness."

Market logics vs. Community Logics
Could the market and free giving be mutually exclusive propositions? From this article, it would seem that this might be the case...

There is, in fact, a massive amount of research that supports the idea that when you pay people to do something for you, they stop enjoying it, and distrust their own motivations. The mysterious something that goes away, and that "Factor X" even has a name: intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is a person's sense that they are doing something because they want to do it, because the doing brings joy, it is rewarding by itself, on its own as an activity. Extrinsic rewards suggest that there is actually an instrumental relationship at work, that you do the activity in order to get something else, and that something else (like a monthly check) is actually the reward for doing it. We don't need to be paid to play, because it in itself is fun and enjoyable. If you pay me for it, it must be work.

Money: A New Beginning
An irremediable structural flaw lies at the base of our civilization. I call it Separation, and it has generated all the converging crises -- economic, health, ecological, and political -- of our day. It manifests as separation from each other in the dissolution of community, separation from nature in the destruction of the environment, separation within our selves in the deterioration of health. Science is its deep ideology, technology is its accomplice, and money is its agent.

Money as we know it today is intimately related to our identity as discrete and separate selves, as well as to the destruction that our separation has wrought. A saying goes, "Money is the root of all evil." But why should it be? After all, the purpose of money is, at its most basic, simply to facilitate exchange; in other words, to connect human gifts with human needs. What power, what monstrous perversion, has turned money into the opposite: an agent of scarcity?

The pay-it-forward Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad
At the Seva Cafe, you are gifted a free meal, and you in turn gift a meal to others.

Pay it forward: Elevation leads to altruistic behavior
Seeing someone perform a virtuous deed (especially if they are helping another person), makes us feel good, often eliciting a warm, fuzzy feeling in our chest. This positive, uplifting emotion, known as "elevation," might make us feel great, but is it enough to get us to go out and perform good acts ourselves? According to new findings reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the answer may be yes.


I grew up hearing the phrase "nothing in life is free". My parents, especially my Dad would often remind me of this. I'm guessing that I am not the only one to have heard this saying.
The problem is as Sepp has highlighted, is that when you think about it the reality is that in fact Nature gives us everything for free! The second we enter this world we discover that our bodies have been given to us for free. That the air we breath is given to us for free. The land that we walk on and indeed all that surrounds us has been given to us for free. Perhaps then all that Nature asks in return is that we follow her lead... To give just as she does. "Comprehend and copy Nature" a wise man with the initials 'V.S' once said.
So in actual fact what we should be saying to our children is actually the truth is everything in life is free, the only reason we have to pay for things is because we don't understand Nature properly... Of course whether as a people we choose not to understand or in fact we are being prevented from understanding is a subject for another day.

Nice story Sepp. I enjoyed reading it, as I can identify so much with your neighborhood , the people you mention, and your wonderful lemon tree.

Write more stories.

N.B.: I am taken aback to see AdSense on your site, and if I may express my humble opinion I think it would be great not to have them at least when they have nothing to say about the topic. Plus I always thought you didn't need the extra money, so why clutter up your great writing with it? :-)

Dear Sepp,

Yes, Yes, Yes! What else can I say? Except I've now committed myself to promoting 'social business' as possibly the most effective way of making a difference.

See my latest blog as I enjoy getting up to 'blog speed'...

Greetings from London!

PAY it FORWARD is another way of expressing the gift economy!


Sharing a comment from Becky C. received by email:

This may be the majority norm at the moment, but I believe that even one small step, person....can change the world.

I love this quote from Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

It's a place to start. :-)


well, about that ad sense - the google ads, I am experimenting. They usually have good matches for the technical articles. A bit less for pieces like this one.

It is true I don't need the money at the moment, but why not find out how things work ... who knows that in the future this may not come in handy.

Bert, a friend in the Netherlands, comments:

Your [blog posts] always induce my thinking process ...!

Giving what one doesn’t own or what comes naturally (mother’s milk, lemons from nature, etceteras) is not a difficult enterprise.

Giving what one owns is more difficult. Not because people, especially men, are selfish egoists, but because we, in the Western world, already live under the whip of a system of enforced giving called taxation and interest. Meaning that the state & banks already own half or more of what we, the citizens, own (make) because we’re forced to “give” it. The current system of enforced giving by levying taxes is only one step away from full socialism/communism, the utopian system that forbids private ownership. Put bluntly: enforced giving equals being robbed.

One can only give what one owns and out of free will. The essential prerequisite for giving is owning. So, before discussing ‘giving’, let’s first discuss how to restore people’s right to own what they’ve created, earned, so that, once their right to own has been restored, they can ‘give’ whatever to whomever and whenever they wish to give.

If the ‘gift economy’ is just another way to force owners to disown things, it’s effects will be as devastating as those created by communism. If the ‘gift economy’ is a system that first of all restores people’s right to own, it will, by doing just that, undermine the current system of enforced giving by taxation and interest.

Just a thought - if we all worldwide had taken the astronomical funding for war over the past century and used it to WELL-house, WELL-clothe, WELL-medically care for, WELL-feed, WELL-transport, and WELL-educate everyone in the world, we'd still easily have had enough money left over to detain and treat every warmonger for their psychological defect, and have a massive successful international space program and cooperative scientific and cultural advancements that would boggle the mind.

"Paradigm" ... seems academic, sort of sterile and technical. But the word strikes my ear softly, as it should. Like "dawn".

In the late 60s (my early teens) I had the good fortune of encountering alternative paradigms in full bloom: a bandmate blew his amp? We pooled funds and, rather than repair his old one, built a better one from scratch. In a likewise fashion we put a hippe-bus on the road and kept it on the road for 2 summers.

Gifting is a peculiar dynamic, a special dynamic. Because I've (since discovering through my professional work that "military/industrial complex" wasn't an abstraction) lived in volunatry simplicyt I've only rarely given cash ... but, because I lived in that mode, I very usually had time and energy to devote to whatever and whomever resonated with my sense of place and being.

But things have shifted.
I first say it in '69 ... before the road trip 30 or 40 people came by to party when we hung new drapes in the bus ... after the trip, when it was time to pull and rebuild the engine, it came down to the core 6 or 7 of us.
It seems now that folk are so busy in their wealth, so driven by their indebtedness, they aren't attending to their internal resonances ... a whole layer of inter-dependencies is dumbed down, numbed, damped.

"Keep the fire burning", or "may the circle be unbroken" ... it falls to those of us who still resonate to nurture our sensitivity.

I thank you for your simple act of giving; you're heartened this aulde WillowBear.


Hello!In nature you just pick and breath,pick and drink,pick and taste.It is not human economy,it is natures economy.
Universe is too big.Earth is too small.Man is just an ant.
But man has a brain,concience,feelings.So giving enhances these.Taking creates ill feelings.
Nature only gives.Man only takes.
Atleast let us be in attitude of gratitude.

An Alternative to Capitalism?

The following link, takes you to a "utopian" article, entitled "Home of the Brave?" which I wrote and appeared in the Athenaeum Library of Philosophy:

John Steinsvold