The Gift Economy

Our neighborhood book group met again last night. When we started in September we agreed that we would read a book (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), watch a movie (The Power of Community), and reassess where we were in six weeks. Last night was week six. We had all come to the group interested in building a little bit more community into our lives, and we’ve succeeded. We’ve decided to disband as a formal group, at least until January when some of us will come back together again to read The Great Turning, but informally we all have new friends and a list of new things we want to do: 2rrfm7jpg.jpgSteve and Cindy are planning to go out this Thursday to the film series Sarah helped to organize; Betsy’s going to bring her boys out to try the vegan chili that Jodi and Mark are making for the Westerwood Neighborhood chili cook-off on Sunday; a lot of us are planning to attend Renee’s dance performance in early November. It’s nice to be reminded that it doesn’t take much to dig your roots deeper in your own neighborhood.

The moon was a fuzzy crescent behind a thin scrim of clouds as Jodi, Crystal, Mark and I walked down the street to Betsy’s house last night. We haven’t had a real rain in weeks and Greensboro, along with the rest of the Southeast, is in a serious drought, but the dry warm October night was perfect for sitting on Betsy’s front porch with the candles lit. One of our members had had to miss most of the meetings because on Tuesday nights she’s often with a family she works with through her job. Last night she was free and I got a chance to learn a little bit more about what she does. Sitting cross-legged on the porch with the autumn night behind her, she spoke with deep compassion about her work to keep families together and to help mothers and fathers become better parents.

“If you could change one thing to make it easier for them, what would it be?” I asked.

“The first things that come to mind is that there just aren’t enough resources in their community,” she said. “They need so much but there just aren’t enough places for them to go when they need help. That’s not really it though….” She paused and opened her hands wide in front of her and looked down at the floorboards. “There’s something bigger than that. 2rrfm6.jpgThe family I’m working with has two parents and they’re both working, working ten and twelve hours a day. When both of them are working there’s enough money for what the family needs and sometimes enough left over for something extra like going out to eat, or filling the car with gas and driving the kids somewhere for the day, but if anything goes wrong, if one of them gets hurt or sick, it all starts to fall apart. And when they’re working the parents are always exhausted, exhausted and stressed. It’s hard for them to be the kind of parents they’d like to be. I’ve thought for a long time that this system didn’t work, but now I see it close up and every day. ”

I grew up on the privileged upper edge of the middle class with so many layers of safety nets suspended under me that I would have to work very hard to hit rock bottom. But through the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs and elsewhere I’ve seen the same things that Renee has seen—seen people try to negotiate capitalism’s high wire act without the safety of a net underneath. I’ve seen first hand the resilience of spirit required to keep intact one’s own dignity and self-respect intact when the money dries up. And I’ve seen what happens when the resilience finally fails and the anger and despair take over.

2rrfm4.jpgMy friend Nego is the chief songwriter for her band Boxcar Bertha. In her song “Disconnect Me” she says “Nothing is just the way it is/ Everything’s the way we make it.” It’s easy for us in the middle class—particularly those of us reclining atop a tower of safety nets—to hear about families like the one Renee works with, or the people I know from Food Not Bombs who sleep out of sight and risk arrest every time they sit on a park bench too long, and say “it’s a shame, but that’s just the way it is.” It’s not. It may be the way it is now, but it’s not the way it’s always been, and it’s not the way it has to be. We live in a very particular economy of our own making, an economy that benefits far fewer people than it harms, but that keeps us all in a kind of hypnotic trance—or so exhausted and fearful that we can’t imagine anything different.

Reading Jared Diamond helped me to see things through a longer lens. In an essay he wrote 20 years ago entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist points out that as human beings we have spent most of shared history as hunter-gatherers: “If the history of the human race began at midnight,” he says “then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture.” He turns conventional wisdom on his head and explains what agriculture brought with it: “recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Each hunter-gatherer society has its own cultural markers of course, but what they have in common is that they are all organized around a gift economy. In hunter-gatherer societies respect is not awarded to those who own the most; 2rrfm10.jpgit’s given to those who share the most. The concept of haves and involuntary have-nots is nonsensical; self-interest includes living in a healthy, functioning community, which means that the members of the community should be as healthy and functional as their companions can guarantee. Organizational consultant Gifford Pinchot has written: “Defining success by what one gives rather than what one has is neither a new practice nor an overly idealistic view. It is rooted deep in history and human nature, and is more basic than wealth or money.”

The gift economy stands in sharp contrast to the exchange or commodity economy we live under now. Of course all of us live in multiple economies, and one of them is a gift economy. It’s the rare parent, for instance, who presents his or her children with a bill for the time and money that went into their raising. Twelve-step programs such as AA operate as gift economies. Blood banks can only exist as a gift economy. The scientific community has many of the earmarks of a gift economy: scientific knowledge has very little value until it is shared. Open source software is distributed in a gift economy, public libraries are in some ways a gift economy, the internet is one vast gift economy. Right now you are participating in a gift economy—I’m not charging you to read, and WordPress, bless their hearts, is not charging me to write what you see here.

I saw a wonderful gift economy at work on Sunday when a Really Really Free Market was set up in the parking lot at the HIVE. It was the first one held there, but the concept is always the same: people who have something to share, whether it’s goods, services, performances, knowledge, or whatever bring it and anyone can take away whatever he or she wants. 2rrfm8.jpgThe HIVE is in a neighborhood where many people are living the same kind of economically distressed life that I was hearing about last night. I saw a lot of families there on Sunday picking out clothing and toys with their kids; I had some extra cans of soup and some bread that had been donated to Food Not Bombs so I put them out on a table and they went pretty fast too. I looked around myself to see if there was anything I wanted to take home. It feels strange at first to look at goods laid out on a table and discover that the only question you have is ”Do I want it?” Not “Can I afford it?” or “Does the price seem fair?” or “Do I want it enough to pay what they’re asking for it?”, or “If I buy this now will I wish I hadn’t when I see something I like better?” Just the simple question ringing in a strange inner silence: “Do I want it?” And if the answer is yes, you take it.

Really Really Free Markets have become pretty common (Carrboro has a very successful one every month) but the concept is only a couple of years old. The first one was held in Miami in November of 2003 as part of a massive protest against a meeting to implement the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Miami was a bloodbath—the federal government gave the city $8.5 million for security and they used it for tear gas, rubber bullets, armed personnel carriers, and helicopters. My older daughter Isabell was there and described, among other things, seeing a riot cop in full gear pepper spray an elderly auto worker in the face; Nego was there also—her song “Miami” is well worth listening to. On the fifth day of the protest organizers set up a festival they called a Really Really Free Market, both to give protesters a little relief and to demonstrate the gift alternative to the decidedly un-free “free market” economy represented by the FTAA. That first Really Really Free Market included massages, food, music performances, medical aid, puppets, paper hats, dancing—all of it, of course, really really free.

I didn’t go to Miami, but I was at the second Really Really Free Market, held the next summer in Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital. I was one of the organizers. The day, June 12, was chosen to follow on the heels of another gathering of high muckity-mucks, 2rrfm2.jpgthis time the G8, which was meeting on a well-guarded island off the coast of Georgia. We got a permit to hold the festival in a little park in downtown Raleigh where schoolchildren eat their bag lunches when they are on school field trips. It’s a nice little park with picnic tables, benches and trash cans, convenient to the visitor’s center across the street and the state archives building next door.

My daughter Margaret and I drove over early on Saturday morning to set up. Things had changed a lot since we had checked out the park a few days before. The picnic tables were gone, the benches and trash cans were gone, all the parking meters had little hoods over them, and the 2nyc05.jpgvisitor’s center and the archive building—all the downtown museums—were closed. Bike cops circled through the park as Margaret and I unloaded the buckets of wildflowers I had clipped the night before. A woman drove up and handed us a basket of tomatoes and green peppers from her garden; the whole transaction was recorded on videotape by a policeman who was visibly filming us from six floors up. Mounted police rode by in pairs on big brown horses. When Margaret and I drove off to pick up some old rugs and books that had been stored in someone’s basement we passed a buff-colored school bus retrofitted with grillwork over the windows, and a mobile command unit set up in a park two blocks away. It was weird.

The market itself was wonderful. Someone gave free haircuts; someone else brought a massage chair. There was homemade banana bread and sandwich makings and lemonade. An old time string band set up under a tree, and people danced. All the time a helicopter circled low over the empty and locked downtown, the sunlight glittering off its canopy as it banked. We found out at the end of the afternoon after the last box of old books and bags of tomatoes and bunched of flowers had been taken away, and the last remnants of mess had been carried across the street and put in the dumpster, that forty fully geared-out riot cops had spent the day in the archives building waiting for the call to deploy.

I don’t believe in an armed revolution. I wouldn’t want one. By my reading of history, in an armed uprising the most vulnerable people always the worst of it and in the end a powerful bully is simply replaced by another powerful bully. I do believe, though, that it’s possible to simply ignore a bad idea out of existence. I’m not saying that dismantling capitalism is easy, but I think the more we exist beyond it, above it, around it, outside it, the more unsteady it will become. Maybe some day it will just fall over from its own weight. After all, we carry with us the deep memory of thousands and thousands of years of a gift economy. And no one has ever needed armed riot police and teargas to keep a gift economy in place.

I’d like Nego to have the last word. 2rrfm1.jpgShe wrote a song called “WEF” about her experience protesting yet another economic body, the World Economic Forum. Nego wears a patch pinned to her hat that reads Ni Fronteras, Ni Banderas—no borders, no flags. In the song she recounts getting into a conversation with a bus driver who says he wished that were possible, and asks how she would go about it.

“One person at a time,” she says.

We’d move closer and talk like family,
It would be the way that this life could be.
Loving imaginations,
Facing the music that we are making.

I ain’t waiting on no revolution,
No, I’m living one every day.
It’s in the food I eat and who I eat it with
And where the food comes from…

I’m with Nego. I’m not waiting on a revolution, I’m living one every day as best I can, and trying to use the time and energy I save to open up that revolution to anyone else who cares to participate. Nego’s song is posted in its entirety on Boxcar Bertha’s MySpace page.

Go ahead and give it a listen. It’s free.


Filed under the big picture

5 responses to “The Gift Economy

  1. Anna

    Thank you for sharing about your Really Really Free Market! It was an encouragement for me this morning, as I sit in my apartment listening (and feeling) bombs going off about 10 miles from here. The windows rattle sometimes, if the explosions are strong enough. I live in an “abandoned edge of the empire” next to the largest munitions depot in the U.S. They test artillery within less than a few miles of city limits. Helicopters and jets fly over daily. We can even hear, on a clear day, the rat-tat-tat of smaller arms firing. Any day of the week.

    If there is any place that needs some of the beauty to which you all aspire, it is here.


  2. hey there, Liz — this is kathryn walker & i know you from around town, various things (i went with you to your house for supper one night when Tracey Brown was leaving for Seattle). i just wanted to say how moved i am by this site, your words, how you lay them down.

  3. nego

    thanks for all the props! i’m glad the benefit went well last weekend!

  4. I agree with this line so much:

    I’m not waiting on a revolution, I’m living one every day as best I can, and trying to use the time and energy I save to open up that revolution to anyone else who cares to participate.

  5. Alex

    I’ve been working backwards through your posts so this comment comes a little late, but I just thought I’d caution against idealizing the past “gift economies” too much. Steven Pinker has an interesting TED talk ( on how violence has been steadily decreasing over the years, decades, centuries, and millenniums, starting from at least as far back as those hunter-gatherer societies.

    Capitalism certainly has its own dangers, bit gift economies aren’t necessarily utopias either.

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