21 April 2011

Gift economy musings

Last Saturday I attended AMASS: Towards an Economy of the Commons at Chisenhale Gallery, London. The event was organised by DOXA, the Amateurist Network and ...ment journal and included speakers like co-operative director Sion Whellens, writer and editor Anthony Iles, activist/critique group The University of Strategic Optimism, Eva Weinmayr from AND publishing, and academic Stevphen Shukaitis. Members from the organising groups as well as attendees contributed to what was a very interesting discussion around the possibility of an economy of the commons.

The talks included ideas of autonomy and autonomous spaces, self-organisation and issues around the re-enclosure of commons. Speakers addressed how to deal with the conservative attempt to co-opt communal tendencies (sharing, working collectively for mutual benefit, working for no monetary profit, natural generosity, solidarity, etc.) for the profit of the few (read: Big Society). What to do when those 'in power' take away not only the people's right to exist as a political body (through the privatisation of all 'public' space) but also concurrently recuperate all radical or counter-government practices into the very system those movements despise.

Sociologist/anthropologist Marcel Mauss was mentioned a couple of times in relation to his notion of a gift economy. Firstly by Shukaitis, and then by Iles as well as by some audience members. People were positing the possibility of an economy not based on the transfer of abstract 'money' as a vehicle for obtaining goods and services but rather an economy based on people's commonality - the fact we all need certain things - and thus premised on the fact that gifts encourage reciprocal exchange rather than oppression and division which necessarily comes with the abstract value assigned to having 'more' or 'less' money.

I think this is an extremely useful way of thinking away from economies based on abstract value and consequently abstract human relations and towards economies centred on the simple fact that there are human requirements for existence (not economical ones) and, when shared and managed by humans amongst themselves (rather than from above), both value and relations become at once decentralised and somehow concretised.

I do have some queries about the gift economy, however. Is this sort of exchange-based system simply emulating the money-based one, just without the money? Would we still feel the same oppressive need to 'pay back' - the despair of debt, or the burden of 'owing' someone - within this gift economy? Perhaps. Would the gift economy merely be another life-controlling system that presupposes lack, and the hierarchy of the gift-giver (having) and the gift-receiver (not having)? How could we create a gift economy in societies whose foundations presuppose competition, rivalry and the fear of not having what someone else has? All these questions deserve serious consideration.

Subconsciously continuing on this train of thought, I was visiting the website of Danish duo Doublethink, where I found their brilliant short essay called Generosity or stupidity? In it, Doublethink write about their 'public service' projects, which exist somewhere between generous interventions into social mundanity and indulgently cynical comments on the ridiculousness of our public relations as individuals, as a society and spacially.

The duo make some very useful comments around the co-option of what should be basic services: 'it is interesting how what started as a water and gas service in many countries, have developed into a political project structuring people’s lives', concluding that 'at the end of the day, the service is only relying on human beings.' I think this second statement is vitally important to bear in mind when thinking about all the structures that surround and create us. Coincidentally, though somehow unsurprisingly, their essay also cites Mauss, shedding light on Doublethink's primary stance: 'a gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is simply a contradiction in itself.'

Lastly, and I'm nearly done, Gregory Sholette's great new book (Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture) makes a nice link about the Situationist's espousal of an alternative to capitalist economics based on the concept of a potlatch ceremony, which according to Mauss (via Sholette!) 'redistributed ... property downwards, in the form of gifts that traveled from those better off to those less so, thus raising the status of the gift-givers within the entire community.' Obviously, as suggests Sholette, the Situationists expected at least some kind of pay-off for their efforts (like the potlatch 'gift-givers' expecting a rise in status), even if political in nature rather than material; 'their generosity therefore might be thought of as a gift of resistance.'

Of course, this gift of resistance is a great one - let's all get more of that, please! - but I think a key question we should also consider is what it means for society on all levels (and for the proposed gift economy) if the concept of gifts and generosity are based on the assumption of some reward, even if subconsciously? Could a society function away from the give-receive binary? Can we even imagine what that would feel like? A place where the concept of 'giving' was not predicated - however honourably - on some recompense. Where goods and services flowed happily in all directions without even the thought being possible that 'you owe me' or IOU.


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