Gift economics – it’s the obligation, stupid.

October 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

“In the economic and legal systems that have preceded our own, one hardly ever finds a simple exchange of goods, wealth, and products in transactions concluded by individuals. First, it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon each other.” Marcel Mauss

Among the many superb sociological and anthropological insights unearthed in Marcel Mauss’ little book The Gift is this observation that a true gift economy transforms all exchangeables into potential gifts. That means people, and spirits. When we talk about gift economies today, we largely mean giving — and sometimes barter. Exchanges of like for like based not on money but on a loose and tacit understanding that if I give to you, you will give back to me, or will give to somebody else, and that if we all participate we can all get what we need. But the gifts are just that, and little more. The exchange is enjoyable and breaks open social norms and provides a great icebreaker.

But in the gift economies studied by Mauss in the in early 20th century, all objects, people, and spirits within a society belonged to the economy. This meant that giving was a total economic act — since the “economy” meant all things were connected. To give meant to create debt. And it was in creating debts, not in giving gifts, that early gift economies were so genius. Giving obligated the recipient to return the gift: a relation indeed not of generosity but of force. Sacrifices to gods were not simply an religious ritual of honor and supplication — they were designed to obligate the gods to return the gifts in the form of bountiful harvests, hunts, and good fortune. A ruler’s spiritual relation to the gods (as descendent of) was meant to guarantee the obligation created by sacrifice.

Look around today and the signs of debt obligation are everywhere. But these debts have been created outside of a complete or totalizing social system or society. Which means that instead of creating obligations, debts create risks, too: that a party may not make whole on debts owed. The community of the ancients, cruel as it often was, looks in hindsight to have been quite rational in contrast with ours.


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