Monday, May 4, 2009

Gift economies wont work in an impersonal society.

your friend asked you to help him move, you would very likely do so. You are friends, and there are social reasons for you to help him out. However, if your friend offered you 5 dollars to help him move, you might feel insulted. In fact 5 dollars is pretty crummy pay for helping someone move, and you might refuse altogether.

Sometimes, people put forth a lot more effort when there is no mention of monetary payment than when money is mentioned.

Gift exchanges have their own incentives:

1) to give gifts is to increase social status. A giver is seen as generous and successful, both positive traits.

2) They increase social bonds between those who share gifts with one another.

3) Often, though it is not verbally agreed upon, such as with birthday presents, it is expected the giver will receive a gift of their own in the future.

Sometimes these incentives need not be very large. This may be because

1) The gifts are seen to have little value to the giver and therefore it costs them little or nothing to give them away.

2) As with free software and information, the goods and services are easily reproduced and it costs the giver little or nothing to give them away.

The problem with gift economies is that either gifts become expected and mandatory due to customs, or the gifts are of little value to the giver.

A gift economy may work on a smaller scale where the participants of that economy all know one another, however, a huge, complex and impersonal society such as ours has no real chance of creating a thriving gift economy. Traditional gift economies worked because they were small enough so that every one knew who and when they should give gifts to. If one did not give the proper gifts at the proper time there would be social repercussions. The same is true today of birthday presents. If one does not give birthday presents, one is less likely to receive birthday presents from others, and if a gift is not given when expected, one suffers social repercussions.

This type of gift giving only works between small social groups such as tribes or groups of friends. In our impersonal world it simply would not be possible for a full scale gift economy to work. The only way for us to create a gift economy would be for us to revert to a tribal type society, where we would be able to create many small scale gift economies.

Those gift exchanges which anarchists participate in today which are less personal such as really really free markets or food not bombs tend to only work because the things exchanged often have little value to the giver. Many of the items are dumpster dived or old and unwanted. It would be surprising to see a new iphone or an expensive car being given away at a really really free market.

There is some incentive to give things away to those we don’t know. We are only willing to participate in these types of exchanged with strangers with they cost us little or nothing.

My point being, that while food not bombs, really really free markets, free software and other types of gift exchanges that anarchists may participate in, have many positive aspects, they have little chance to exist on a large scale or to replace the current capitalist system. There is no incentive for someone to give something they highly value without getting something in return.

If you want to live in a gift economy, it must be small enough that the participants can personally know one another. If that is the kind of world you want to live in, you must be willing to give up certain things that are unproduceable at smaller scales.

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