Does the Gift Economy Undermine Economic Growth?

Excerpted from Charles Eisenstein:

“Why don’t we need each other? It is be­cause all the gift re­la­tion­ships upon which we once de­pended are now paid ser­vices. They have been con­verted into ser­vice work which the mar­ket con­verts into cash. What is there left to con­vert? Whether fos­sil fuels, top­soil, aquifers, the at­mos­phere’s ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb waste; whether it is food, cloth­ing, shel­ter, med­i­cine, music, or our col­lec­tive cul­tural be­quest of sto­ries and ideas, nearly all have be­come com­modi­ties. Un­less we can find yet new realms of na­ture to con­vert into good, un­less we can find even more func­tions of human life to com­modi­tize, our days of eco­nomic growth are num­bered. What room for growth re­mains—for ex­am­ple in today’s ane­mic eco­nomic re­cov­ery— comes only at an in­creas­ing cost to na­ture and so­ci­ety.

From this per­spec­tive, a third con­se­quence of the gift cir­cle and other forms of gift econ­omy be­comes ap­par­ent. Not only does gift-based cir­cu­la­tion sub­tract from GDP, it also has­tens the demise of the pre­sent eco­nomic sys­tem. Any bit of na­ture or human re­la­tion­ship that we pre­serve or re­claim from the com­mod­ity world is one bit less that is avail­able to sell, or to use as the basis for new in­ter­est-bear­ing loans. With­out con­stant cre­ation of new debt, ex­ist­ing debt can­not be re­paid. Lend­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties only occur in a con­text of eco­nomic growth, in which the mar­ginal re­turn on cap­i­tal in­vest­ment ex­ceeds the in­ter­est rate. To sim­plify: no growth, less lend­ing; less lend­ing, more trans­fer of as­sets to cred­i­tors; more trans­fer of as­sets, more con­cen­tra­tion of wealth; more con­cen­tra­tion of wealth, less con­sumer spend­ing; less con­sumer spend­ing, less growth. This is the vi­cious cir­cle de­scribed by econ­o­mists going back to Karl Marx. It has been de­ferred for two cen­turies by the cease­less open­ing up, through tech­nol­ogy and col­o­niza­tion, of new realms of na­ture and re­la­tion­ship to the mar­ket. Today, not only are these realms nearly ex­hausted, but a shift of con­scious­ness mo­ti­vates grow­ing ef­forts to re­claim them for the com­mons and for the gift. Today, we di­rect huge ef­forts to­ward pro­tect­ing the forests, whereas the most bril­liant minds of two gen­er­a­tions ago de­voted them­selves to their more ef­fi­cient clearcut­ting. Sim­i­larly, so many of us today seek to limit pol­lu­tion not ex­pand pro­duc­tion, to pro­tect the wa­ters not in­crease the fish catch, to pre­serve the wet­lands—not build larger hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. These ef­forts, while not al­ways suc­cess­ful, put a brake on eco­nomic growth be­yond the nat­ural limit the en­vi­ron­ment poses. From the gift per­spec­tive, what is hap­pen­ing is that we no longer seek merely to take from the planet, but to give back as well. This cor­re­sponds to the com­ing of age of hu­man­ity, tran­si­tion­ing from a mother-child re­la­tion­ship to earth, to a co-cre­ative part­ner­ship in which giv­ing and re­ceiv­ing find bal­ance.

The same tran­si­tion to the gift is un­der­way in the so­cial realm. Many of us no longer as­pire to fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence, the state in which we have so much money we needn’t de­pend on any­one for any­thing. Today, in­creas­ingly, we yearn in­stead for com­mu­nity. We don’t want to live in a com­mod­ity world, where every­thing we have ex­ists for the pri­mary goal of profit. We want things cre­ated for love and beauty, things that con­nect us more deeply to the peo­ple around us. We de­sire to be in­ter­de­pen­dent, not in­de­pen­dent. The gift cir­cle, and the many new forms of gift econ­omy that are emerg­ing on the In­ter­net, are ways of re­claim­ing human re­la­tion­ships from the mar­ket.

Whether nat­ural or so­cial, the recla­ma­tion of the gift-based com­mon­wealth not only has­tens the col­lapse of a growth-de­pen­dent money sys­tem, it also mit­i­gates its sever­ity. At the pre­sent mo­ment, the mar­ket faces a cri­sis, merely one of a mul­ti­plic­ity of crises (eco­log­i­cal, so­cial) that are con­verg­ing upon us. Through the tur­bu­lent time that is upon us, the sur­vival of hu­man­ity, and our ca­pac­ity to build a new kind of civ­i­liza­tion em­body­ing a new re­la­tion­ship to earth and a new, more con­nected, human iden­tity, de­pends on these scraps of the com­mon­wealth that we are able to pre­serve or re­claim. Al­though we have done griev­ous dam­age to earth, vast wealth still re­mains. There is still rich­ness in the soil, water, cul­tures and bio­mes of this planet. The longer we per­sist under the sta­tus quo, the less of that rich­ness will re­main and the more calami­tous the tran­si­tion will be.

On a less tan­gi­ble level, any gifts we give con­tribute to an­other kind of com­mon wealth – a reser­voir of grat­i­tude that will see us through times of tur­moil, when the con­ven­tions and sto­ries that hold civic so­ci­ety to­gether fall apart. Gifts in­spire grat­i­tude, and gen­eros­ity is in­fec­tious. In­creas­ingly, I read and hear sto­ries of gen­eros­ity, self­less­ness, even mag­na­nim­ity that take my breath away. When I wit­ness gen­eros­ity, I want to be gen­er­ous too. In the com­ing times, we will need the gen­eros­ity, the self­less­ness, and the mag­na­nim­ity of many peo­ple. If every­one seeks merely their own sur­vival, then there is no hope for a new kind of civ­i­liza­tion. We need each oth­ers’ gifts as we need each oth­ers’ gen­eros­ity to in­vite us into the realm of the gift our­selves. In con­trast to the age of money where we can pay for any­thing and need no gifts, soon it will be abun­dantly clear: we need each other.”

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