Tuesday, July 17, 2012
The Gift Economy
When I wrote previously about Business Gifts and Bribes, I believe I took a narrow, almost prudish, stance about what a gift means. In the ensuing years, with more exposure to different cultures, my perspectives have somewhat evolved. If I have to update the essay now, however, I have more materials: A number of American companies struggled with the gift-giving practises in China, a number of executives got fired, anti-bribery act came into force in Britain - in summary, the discussions around gift giving continued to intensify.
However, it is possible to argue that treating all gift giving as some sort of bribery is based on a dim view of human nature, which is essentially incorrect. Not all transactions between two individuals are always a commercial transaction: Not even interactions two strangers always have to have a strictly defined purpose. Gift cultures, as opposed to money cultures, underlie many human activities, including what we do on the Internet and what is usually done in the academia. I write this blog every morning by getting up early and finding time: There is indeed no monetary incentive to do so. Thousands of volunteers help build Wikipedia, write software like Linux and spread the word on thousands of causes on Facebook. The university research is often carried out to develop human knowledge, the current efforts to create a result, and money-driven, culture notwithstanding. Many of the key innovations that created the Information Age originated as gifts from great minds at Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. In summary, gift, as a form of exchange, remains important and underlie a great swathe of human activity; just that we don't get to see them at all.
Our failure to see and appreciate the gift culture, and indeed the recent attempts to vilify and criminalise it, is indeed deliberate. Money is power, and that people can do things unmotivated by money is deeply problematic for the existing social order. Wikipedia is a great example of a gift activity undermining commercial enterprises like Encarta, and flies in the face of common wisdom. Besides, one could cite the case of Bradley Manning, who, despite great personal dangers, gave away confidential messages to Wikileaks, instead of selling it to another covert agency or even a tabloid. One could also remember the case of Clive Ponting, whose case now is largely forgotten, but created legal history in Britain, when he, as a civil servant, helped in the parliamentary disclosure of how Thatcher's government misled people during the Falklands War: In his acquittal, the Jury cited 'people's right to know', despite being told by the Judge that "public interest is what the government of the day says it is".
In context, it is possible to see gift culture as a resistance movement, against the countervailing power of money. Indeed, the sources of the gift culture is ancient, and there are a number of great books, like Lewis Hyde's The Gift, Mercel Mauss' The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies and Marshall Sahlin's Stone Age Economics; essentially, it is important to understand that the gift culture is normal and native to human nature, the way money-based transactions never are. Indeed, we tend to make the assumption that while money-based transactions are entirely natural and therefore fair, exchange of gifts are somewhat unnatural and therefore, must have been done with perverse interests. Indeed, most of the corporate gifts, like the ones BAE made to Saudi Princes and which got conveniently covered up by Tony Blair's government in the name of national interest, are possibly bribes indeed, but the intensity of discussion about naming and vilifying gift culture points to the threat that this poses to the existing order.
We live at a time when crisises never stop coming: One institution after another, our politicians, press, the bankers, commit heinous and rather silly mistakes scrambling after money. We are told not to see this as an inherent, systemic problem, but rather as isolated events caused by rogue individuals. However, the persistence of the problems, and unending crisis, is opening up the discussion, if only slowly, that rogue individuals in the money economy seem to be the norm rather than exception: A discussion about the possibilities of the gift economy is only just beginning.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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