The Gift: the nature of real abundance

by Geoff Olson

Although it’s a relatively obscure book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property is considered something of an underground classic in literary and artistic circles. Canadian writer Margaret Atwood reportedly keeps half a dozen copies of Lewis Hyde’s book on hand for friends and acquaintances. Other fans of The Gift include writer Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem and singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who was inspired by the book to write a song of the same name.

In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Daniel B. Smith observes that The Gift has been “adopted as something like the theory bible” of the Burning Man festival, a yearly gathering of artists in the Nevada desert where money is replaced by barter. Video artist pioneer Bill Viola says he remembers New York artists exchanging dog-eared, marked-up copies of Hyde’s book back in the eighties. My personal copy, which I found a few years ago in a used bookstore in Vancouver, looks like it has been through the wringer, literally. It’s underlined in pen and pencil throughout and the back pages are corrugated from water damage. It obviously passed through a few hands before it got to mine.

It’s difficult to summarize this cross-disciplinary, yet lyrical book. The first part of The Gift examines patterns of gift exchange in aboriginal societies. The second part explores the role and place of creative artists in a market-oriented world. In essence, Hyde’s book is one of the few studies ever made of the cultural anthropology of giving. It’s an ode to abundance, at both the communal and psychic level. Hyde’s work was partly inspired by the work on reciprocity by sociologist Marshall Sahlins, one of the first academics to question the classic definition of economics as “the science of choice under scarcity.” Sahlin’s words, quoted in The Gift, are as relevant today as they were in 1924:

“Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity…The market-industrial system institutes scarcity, in a manner completely unparalleled and to a degree nowhere else approximated. Where production and distribution are arranged though the behavior of prices, and all livelihoods depend on getting and spending, insufficiency of material means becomes the explicit, calculable starting point of all economic activity.”

Early economists Paul Samuleson and Milton Friedman both begin their textbook examination of economics with the “Law of Scarcity,” and, as Hyde dryly observes, “It’s all over by the end of Chapter One.” In contrast, the work of early twentieth century anthropologists like Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski demonstrates that the person in aboriginal cultures deemed worthy of respect and adulation is not the one who accumulates the most possessions, but the one who gives them all away. Among the Trobriand Islanders, Hyde discovered, it could take as long as 20 years for a necklace or armband to circulate around the islands and return to its original owner. Such objects were never intended as possessions to be hoarded, but rather as prizes to cherish for a time and then pass on.

Hyde determined that, in aboriginal societies, “gifts are a class of property whose value lies not only in their use, but “which literally cease to exist as gifts” if they are not understood as part of a communal network of reciprocal relationships. They are material expression of immaterial sympathy. Even though gift cycles were never the sum total of aboriginal market relations, early explorers and settlers were puzzled by exchanges that generated no discernible profit.

In the first colonies of Massachusetts, the Puritan settlers were so puzzled by the natives’ unique concept of property that they gave it a name, which had long been in circulation by the time Thomas Hutchinson’s 1764 history of the colony. “An Indian gift,” he told his readers, “is the proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return in expected.” Hyde points out that the opposite of “Indian giver” would be something like “white man keeper” or “capitalist.” In other words, “a person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation, to put in a warehouse or museum (or, more to the point for capitalism, to lay it aside to be used for production.)”

The gift, by its nature, breaks down boundaries. This has been its principle function in archaic societies: to put the tribe into accord, not just with one another, but also with the larger world of animals, spirits or gods. This is obviously not comparable to western gift giving, which usually entails two individuals exchanging a gift. According to Hyde, the minimum number for a gift circle is three.

Australian Aborigines commonly refer to their own clan as “my body,” using a personal expression of enlarged identity – just as we do in a marriage ceremony when we speak of “one flesh.” “When we are in the spirit of the gift, we love to feel the body open outward,” the author adds. In contrast, the assumptions of modern-day market exchange “may not necessarily lead to the emergence of boundaries, but they do in practice.” Today, these boundaries are even more obvious, not just in the enormous disparities between rich and poor nations, but within these nations themselves. And there are other more subtle boundaries, such as the walls we create between one another and within our own hearts and minds, as we internalize the values of commodification. The word “citizen,” which connotes communal participation, nets a little over a million hits in Google, while the word “consumer,” which connotes social isolation and material attachment, nets almost three million. That’s an intriguing measure of how we’ve come to define ourselves, at this critical point in planetary history.

With the academic assumption that all human relations take place within a matrix of diminishing possibilities, it’s no surprise that the world dominated by electronic capital has come to resemble its theoretical foundations in scarcity. They don’t call economics “the dismal science” for nothing.

But is scarcity really such a permanent condition for human beings? As American author and philosopher Robert Anton Wilson once observed, “Known resources are not given by nature; they depend on the analytical capacities of the human mind. We can never know how many resources can be obtained from a cubic foot of the universe: all we know is how much we have found thus far, at a given date. You can starve in the middle of a field of wheat if your mind hasn’t identified wheat as edible. Real Wealth results from Real Knowledge, which is increasing faster all the time.”

Technological invention depends on a class of cultural creatives not included by Hyde in his book: inventors, technicians and scientists. Yet we owe the makeup of the modern world almost entirely to their ambiguous gifts to society, from penicillin to plutonium, from airbags to armaments. And in recent years, the worlds of artists and technicians have begun to merge with digital technology. The accelerating pace of change has kept the cultural creatives, from songwriters to computer animators, scrambling to find their place in a fast-changing world. And as media monopolies look at their plunging circulation and sales figures, regrouping and selling off their failing properties, the Internet has remained an open portal for a wide range of creativity.

Ironically, the Internet is the closest thing we have today to aboriginal gift cycles. In spite of its downside, it has come to embody the ancient, archetypal habit of giving freely to strangers. From message boards to “wikis,” Internet users are willing to help each other, even though they don’t really have to and they don’t get “paid” for it in credit. The open-source movement, in which anonymous programmers tinker with and improve publicly accessible software code, and the “CopyLeft” movement to introduce a “creative commons” for freely distributed artistic works, defy not only traditional market economics, but all previous expectations of how people are supposed to behave in a market economy. Who voluntarily works for free, wanting only to contribute to a greater good? Millions, apparently. Homo economicus is not supposed to act this way.

But can anything considered traditional wealth come from offering services for free, as gifts? It’s all well and good for those who have the leisure or financial security to contribute for free. But how can any viable economic model emerge from such altruistic activity? Or could it be that our ideas about economics are limited, or even false? “Basically, it’s the problem that occurs when people focus too hard on the idea that economics is the study of resource allocation in the presence of scarcity. That only makes sense when there’s scarcity – and in digital goods, scarcity doesn’t exist,” notes blogger Mike Masnick in his Tech Dirt column.

Masnick is referring to how the digital age has brought about endless copying of movies, songs, software programs and other intellectual property. The costs of reproducing these creative works have essentially dropped to nothing, now that they can be reduced to a string of ones and zeroes. Prior to the digital age, an average civic cinema could only show films that would attract a little more than a thousand people over two weeks, most of whom live within a few mile radius. For the most part, this has limited screenings to major distribution films. Yet DVDs extend the shelf life of films, with the cost of a rental less than that of a movie ticket. With digital downloads, the costs per movie shrink further but the potential orders increase as well.

Wired editor Chris Anderson calls this tapering of cultural production “the long tail.” EBay is another long-tail business, Anderson says: “It is not about auctioning a few old masters for 20 million pounds apiece; it’s about providing a market where huge numbers of people can sell almost anything for a couple of quid.” There are physical limits on how many titles a shop can stock or a cinema can screen. But in a digital age, there are no such limits. Abundance, paradoxically, could be highly disruptive force in the traditional economy, as file-sharing networks and DVD knockoff shops have demonstrated. A number of tech bloggers are calling for a “new economics of abundance” so that civil society can shape its influence without legislatively killing its spirit.

It may sound absurd to speak of “abundance” in a time of a global economic collapse, environmental crisis, naked political opportunism and endless resource wars. Not only that, to praise technology uncritically is as one-sided as the patronizing worship of aboriginal cultures. Digital technology can isolate its users as much as it can connect them. If there really is an emerging economics of abundance, it will likely be a double-edged sword, with new problems of its own. But there is also the possibility it may offer an alternative to the worst excesses of monopoly capitalism and privatized kleptocracy. The way into a better future is to make past ways of doing things obsolete.

The real irony is that classical economics has always promised abundance through the management of scarcity. The SUV, the 50-inch television and the McMansion in a gated community have certainly been signifiers of middle-class comfort, but not sustainable wealth or social capital. In the past century, even reciprocal gift giving has been co-opted by the market, with the ostensible warmth and sentimentality of the Christmas season belied by the retailers’ bottom line, and the perfunctory mass-march of consumers for Christ.

Scarcity economics has both authorized and valorized our methods for emptying the world of its natural capital, while ensuring indebtedness – personal, national and ecological – is the norm. So it’s no accident that this dark vision of the world has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. With the threat of very real scarcity looming on the horizon – not just in credit, but in arable land, fresh water and other species – never before have so many of the world’s people been so ready for new ways in thinking and organizing their lives.

And the new ways are having an effect, at least in the area of power production. Almost weekly, there is news about leaps in the efficiency of solar power technology, as the costs of solar and wind devices continue to plunge. Solar power use is doubling every two years and will be the dominant form of energy source within the next 20 years, according to respected inventor and author Ray Kurzweil. Sunlight can’t be metered and it’s hard to imagine nations going to war to grab an enemy’s photons. Solar will soon be price competitive with the cheapest form of energy: coal. There is no way that “King Cong” – coal, oil, nuclear and gas – can compete with nature’s other bounty, with the gift we’ve always had all around us, its access limited only by our imaginations. The current economic downturn, along with the plunging price of oil, may slow the acceleration of this trend for a time, but as long as civilization lasts, it is unlikely to be anything but exponential and socially transformative.

Some argue that even without theorizing new technologies, it is conceivable that there already exists enough energy, raw materials and biological resources to provide a comfortable lifestyle for every person on Earth. That may well be so, but if further technological advances are only to serve further population growth, as they have in the past, the gains will eventually take us back up against the biosphere’s natural limits. Technological advance has to serve a higher purpose than endless growth. The mind must come into accord with the heart, and here Hyde’s work is instructive. Ancient patterns of communal gift giving acknowledge the true sources of wealth:

“Every participant in the (gift-giving) cycle literally lives off the others with only the ultimate energy source, the sun, being transcendent. Widening the study of ecology to include man means to look at ourselves as part of nature again, not its lord. When we see that we are actors in natural cycles, we understand that what nature gives to us in influenced by what we give to nature. So the circle is a sign of an ecological insight as much as of gift exchange. We come to feel our selves as part of a larger self-regulating system.

“And where we have established such a relationship we tend to respond to nature as part of ourselves, not as a stranger or alien available for exploitation. Gift exchange brings with it, therefore, a built-in check upon the destruction of its objects: with it we will not destroy nature’s renewable wealth except where we also consciously destroy ourselves.”

If the economy of abundance isn’t strangled in its cradle – and it looks like we’re too far down the road for that to be possible – can it find rapprochement with the economy of scarcity, or even displace it entirely? Beyond that, there’s the question of what forms it will take, and if we can join the archaic wisdom of aboriginal gift cycles with the promise of computer technology. Some futurists have floated the idea of “energy credits” or some other notational unit to replace money. Others see nanotechnology, automated manufacturing at microscales, as freeing humans at last from the boom-bust cycles of scarcity capitalism. But, at this stage, it’s too early to see anything other than the vaguest outlines of a world evolving past free market monopolies and defunct, Soviet-style central planning. Given the many threats on the horizon, we may never get there, but it’s the business of the future to be unknown.

“Greed and completion are not the result of immutable human temperament, writes Bernard Lietaer, founder of the EU currency system. “Greed and fear of scarcity are in fact being created and amplified…the direct consequence is that we have to fight with each other in order to survive.”

Ultimately, the human relationship with the world is in part conditioned by how we interpret it – as one principally of scarcity or abundance. Perhaps one day we’ll realize we’re the custodians of life, but not its keepers, and we can wave goodbye to this shadow realm of hungry ghosts, fighting for pieces of paper decorated with the portraits of dead leaders. Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn summed up the distinction between these competing visions in his Lewis-inspired song, The Gift:

In this cold commodity culture
Where you lay your money down
It’s hard to even notice
That all this earth is hallowed ground
The gift keeps moving
Never know where it’s going to land
You must stand back and let it
Keep on changing hands.

Leave a comment