Genevieve Vaughan and the gift economy
- I share letters by Franz Nahrada, Genevieve Vaughan and me about the "gift
I start with my letter, but you might want to read theirs first, further
below. Franz and I would love to include Genevieve at our lab! Andrius
Franz, Thank you for so wonderfully engaging Genevieve Vaughan and thank
you both for your attention to my and David Ellison-Bey's paper. I look
forward to sharing your thoughts at our lab's groups including Cyfranogi
led by John Rogers http://groups.yahoo.com/group/cyfranogi/ which is for
explorations of community currency, open economy and participatory
society. (Send a blank message to firstname.lastname@example.org to
I concur with you both and will sketch some thoughts I have in response.
I'm interested, from a practical point of view, in the spectrum from
"unconditional giving" to "conditional exchange". The entire spectrum is
important if we're "learning to be family" as David says. One shortcoming
of the mother-child relationship is that it tends to be exclusive. We're
not each other's mothers and sisters and children as we might be. How can
we all learn to be family?
I acknowledge the systemic and intentional abuse of women by participants
(like myself) of Western culture, and other cultures, to this day. I
think much effort is needed to hear out and take up women's perspectives.
What I myself hear, though, is a fuzzy spectrum of stands. Many Western
women (like my mother) inculcate the virtues of self-reliance,
responsibility, thrift, tit-for-tat, being a provider and "family first"
which, pushed too far, conflict with a more basic idea of treating each
other "as we treat ourselves", neither better nor worse. In my thinking,
the sexes (and there are people whose sex is not "well-defined", neither
XX nor XY) can be mapped to mental poles, but I don't find such a division
helpful in empathizing with others. What I do find helpful is a mix of
people, including women and men, and I have witnessed that open up many
more topics of dialogue.
I don't know and can wonder why Jesus was male and God was his father.
(Recently I did my first art show where the world was created in six days
by a muse of problem-solving, which is to say, the "Son of God" manifested
as a female, why not?) In the gospel of John, Jesus spoke of "children"
as those who do as their parents do, as I might imagine, in the case of
frogs. He speaks of the "son" as one who, furthermore, does as his
"father" does because his father teaches him. The "son of God" is taught
by God's example, whereas the "son of Man" is taught by making an example
out of him (raising him for all to see). I think the point of the symbol
here of the "father-son" relationship is that it is non-biological, it is
cultural, it is voluntary, it is not particular but can be general (at
which point sex shouldn't matter). But more generally, the idea of
honoring our mothers and fathers is the idea (in theory) that they love us
more than we love ourselves, they care for our silly concerns more than we
can even comprehend.
If we think of paradigms and their consequences, then the idea of God is
very general. I imagine that God creates by making room for God's
creations, through God's absence, by going beyond oneself, by allowing
oneself not to be. I appreciate that so long as I don't go beyond my
"self", so long as I distinguish myself from others, then I am not God.
But if I am selfless, if I am willing to apply my life and even give up my
life for the sake of all, myself included, then I am God. I see a
childish logic in Jesus' words that his bread is his body that he gives us
to eat; for if it is indeed his bread, then it is fated that he eat it and
it become his body; and so if he freely gives us his bread, then if it was
truly his, then we must be eating his body. We are given God's gift of
life and Jesus's gift of gift-giving and thus of this abundance we are
able to give likewise, and likewise live as God, but only by losing our
self. So the why of "giving everything away" is not because of the needs
of others, but simply as a command that we might "be perfect". I wrote in
our paper about the consequences of such a command, which is the idea of
"best use" for all, and the economy which results as each might understand
What Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes is that we do have many needs:
survival (those who mourn will be comforted), security (the meek will
inherit the earth), social (those who hunger for righteousness will be
satisfied), self-esteem (the merciful will be shown mercy), opportunity
(the pure of heart will see God), self-fulfillment (peacemakers will be
called children of God). We observe all of these needs and our responses
to them. But we can also behave in two ways that are not observable. We
can "be perfect", which is to say, sometimes we don't have any needs. And
we may have needs but ignore them by taking up the needs of another.
These options mean that we aren't trapped by our needs.
I'm writing this to clarify my understanding of one end of the spectrum,
which is absolute giving and which I believe is the divine behavior to
acknowledge as central. I think, however, that it is not a purpose for
its own sake, but rather, a reference point that helps us transform our
down-to-earth world. And that is a world where we wish to be able to take
small leaps of faith rather than drastic ones. That is a "kingdom of
heaven" in which "what we believe is what happens". And that is a minimal
and universal culture which I think we make tangible as a culture of, by
and for independent thinkers. I am trying - with our help - to discover
and express and live the basics of this culture.
That is the key point of gift-giving which I am learning from Genevieve's
responses to your letter, Franz. Gift-giving (and language) are behaviors
that foster a culture. They are not meaningful of themselves, but as the
pragmatic gestures which inspire a culture. We give thoughtfully and we
help people grow; we give thoughtlessly and we don't. We use a word
thoughtfully and we help a person's mind grow; we talk thoughtlessly and
My focus is on those people who want to foster a culture, who want the
life they live to have lasting impact. Independent thinkers are those who
create their own personal culture, their own private language, their own
global village. I give to those who give and thereby support a culture of
giving. In this way, I do not simply give unconditionally (like the sun
or the moon or the stars), but I reach out to include those (and my
selfish self) who are ever less giving, those who are the other end of the
spectrum, who live the "reality" of conditional exchange.
At that other end of the spectrum we have money, notably the
one-dimensional currency for localizing responsibility which allows for
virtually anonymous exchanges. The noble thing about money is that it can
relate complete strangers. "Money can bring people together... but you
can't pay people to care." For money is external motivation, and caring
is internal motivation. Yet there is an entire spectrum from "conditional
exchange" to "unconditional giving" along which we can include people.
This makes for ever changing relationships as we grow closer as family.
What's lovely at Minciu Sodas is that over ten years we've developed a
vibrant economy of "sharing". We embrace each other as independent
thinkers and share this existential condition like brothers and sisters,
even as our lives are so different in Africa, Europe, the US and other
lands. We give each other moral support, practical advice, personal
contacts, but also money for computers, video cameras, USB flash drives,
airplane tickets and small projects. We also give each other the "gifts"
of loans and paid work. Indeed, paid work is one of the greatest gifts.
Usually it is handed out in private cliques, but we show that we can work
openly and share openly. As our culture grows, I expect that we'll have
more economic tools (like community currency and rating systems) for
linking people who don't know each other well (yet!), but I think they
will be peripheral to the more personal giving that we enjoy, and only a
small fraction of our gift economy.
Living in the "real" world, it's vital that we be able to participate, in
parallel, both in the dominant culture of "maximizing happiness" and in
our own culture of "minimizing anxiety" (and freeing ourselves of our
selves by giving our selves away). We're showing, in practice, that we
can do both, that we can work publicly to benefit private interests, that
they can meet us half way and allow us to invest together in a commons for
all, in the Public Domain, without restriction. We're showing that we can
nurture our own economy with small leaps of faith that yet acknowledges
the society that engulfs us.
I'm excited that, after ten years, we have connected the dots for
commercial work that overcomes the corporate wall that we may thrive in
the old world as we nurture our new world. It's a gift of paid work that
grows in value as it is given onwards, as in Lewis Hyde's book "The Gift".
I suppose it's an outcome of our current economic crisis, which opens
eyes to fresh approaches, but also to longstanding relationships. Leon
Benjamin http://www.winningbysharing.net and I met, I think, in 2003, and
now he leads digital strategy at The Law Firm
http://www.thelawfirmgroup.com an advertising agency named after founder
Andy Law. Leon appreciates our Minciu Sodas laboratory's growing ability
to field global teams of self-directed workers as we did in Kenya to avert
genocide http://www.pyramidofpeace.net He gave us the gift of work to
help research and engage UK online communities on behalf of Mornflake
cereal http://www.mornflake.com and their online video contest
http://www.mornflakecompetition.com We're trying out a protocol that
benefits online communities, Mornflake, our workers and our culture. We
help a community by advancing and promoting its members' endeavors and
businesses, and by linking it with other communities. We help Mornflake
by doing works that create good will, by acknowledging the work and
opportunity it gives us, by including its link http://www.mornflake.com
and highlighting its name Mornflake in our posts. We help our workers by
encouraging them to, first and foremost, work from their own genuine
interests and so engage others genuinely and beyond this current work. We
help our culture by developing resources in the Public Domain such as our
directory of UK online communities
http://www.worknets.org/wiki.cgi?UKOnlineCommunities , My Food Story
http://www.myfoodstory.info , Shop With Us http://www.shopwithus.org
I ask for our support to help us succeed in our approach. Just as
billions are spent to good effect on sports sponsorships, so might even
greater sums be spent on works by networks like ours to generate good will
even as we invest in our social infrastructure, in bridges that link our
many online communities.
Genevieve, we'd very much like to organize around your ideas which expand
our thinking about the gift economy (as you and Franz have inspired my
letter above). How might we best share your "thinking out loud" as you
have in your reply to Franz? One space would be our Cyfranogi working
group where your perspective would stand in helpful contrast to the
"exchange" (but also "mutuality") inherent in community currencies.
Another would be Franz Nahrada's working group Global Villages where he's
making real his vision of the world which brings together local
cultivation of one's surroundings and global sharing of experience for an
intensely human life. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/globalvillage/ He
also hosts a Ning space http://globalvillages.ning.com
Thank you for inspiring us!
+370 699 30003
Franz Nahrada: I share this letter with the Keimform community because I
think it is a part of necessary and fruitful dialogues that we have to
start. In a different colour (blue) I also included Genevieves answer
which came rather swiftly and hopefully shows that dialogue is not only
possible but also might lead to results.
we met up shortly after your Friday evening speech at the “Matriarchy-Gift
Economy - Subsistence” seminar at the Vienna University of Agriculture and
we had the opportunity to have a little chat afterwards at the buffet
generously offered by Gerda Schneiders Institute of Landscape Planning. I
talked to you about the feelings that I had as a strong advocate of
non-monetary economics about your speech. And I announced that I would
make them more precise in a letter. I share this letter with some friends
that are at the heart of the matter.
There are some reservations I do have and it is necessary to talk about
them (see below), but basically I agree with your central points:
* All human relations start with unilateral acts, the act of mothering
being a great paradigm and root of social relations. And since this is the
roots of the fulfillments of our needs it is more than fair to say that
economics is not necessarily built on exchange and that the primordial
paradigm maybe rather giving.
GV: Yes, I also think that we should keep the mother-child relation as
the central example.
* Whereas an economy of exchange tends to be largely anti-social, not
really determined by the “use and needs” - complex, but mainly just by
appeal and impulse, value and money, an economy of giving in the contrary
is communicative and transitive and creates and maintains social bonds
that an exchange economy can only create by outside additions (rules, law,
* Giving directly to satisfy someones needs is a mode of distribution.
Under this mode value is not self-feeding and excluding, but pervasive and
contageous, not dead but living.
In direct giving, value is a quality or judgement given more to the
other than the self more to people than to the things given.
* The transitive relation of giving implies a positive interest of social
actors in each others well-being and growing and carry a refined form of
* A gift economy can only thrives and therefore wants and enacts a state
of abundance rather than scarcity. The market relation in this respect
simply is not only a product of scarcity but also a very primordial
creator of scarcity. Historically we might observe that giving structures
brought with them abundance.
* Exchange economy can an exploit gift economy, not the other way round.
The market is built on the exploitation of the gift economy. However
there are moments in the context of the market where gift giving is
dependent on exchange, such as the family which is dependent on market
activity to provide the means of giving, or jobless people on
government welfare who are seen by others as ‘dependent’. This is a
situation caused by the generalized market economy which has already
taken all the free gifts as profit, and has therefore made it
impossible for people to subsist on their own from nature or in
collaborative gift-based efforts.
* Gift economy works better in fractal situations (groups small enough to
carry personal relationships) and in situations where humans are directly
linked with their source of subsistence, therefore it is intrinsically
linked to a form of living where humans have access to their own
productive means and conditions. The urban form of our existence is not
ideal for gift economy.
Yes but I do not understand why you call this ‘fractal’.
The last point is very important for me, because I organize a laboratory
for the future of villages called the “Globally Integrated Village
Environment” and I propose and promote a global organisation called the
“Global Villages Network“. The idea of both endavours is that villages
rooted in humanly refined nature can thrive much better on the base of
global information exchange revolutionising each and every sphere and
angle of life in an unprecedented depth - and making the village
circumstance enjoyable and agreeable.
Perhaps you will tell me more about your idea.
Therefore my coming was no accident. There is a deep conviction that this
information exchange must not be subdued to the market logic (although its
actors still might be in many respects). I was reinforced by my meeting
with you that we are on the track of something substantial here. Still I
was getting sad when the whole argument suddenly did end up with a
request for the reinstallation of motherly power, it seems to me like my
friend Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation) expressed it this way: ” I have
the feeling their views are very binary, gift economy = female = good;
exchange = male = bad”. The inherent dangers of this polarity or dichotomy
I think the kind of gender construction we have in the West and the
system we have created around it are the problem. This gender
construction makes little boys believe they should be different from
their mothers, and thus not-giving, not ‘feminine’. The male gender
ideal of competition for domination fits with capitalism. This takes
males away from their human gift giving identity they learned with
their mothers and causes the female givers to give more to the
not-givers/dominators. It is not that men are bad and women are good.
It is that the gender constructions become embedded very early on in
two opposed economic logics, one of which takes from the other (which
gives to it). These gender constructions do not become part of
everyone in the same way, but they are widespread in our society.
It denies respect to one half of mankind and what they have achieved in
history, denouncing their very essence as unproductive, parasitic and
valueless. It creates the danger of scission, of another power struggle.
When we reached that point in your speech, my neighbor, a middle aged
woman who was deeply sympathetic about the cause, whispered to me: “Its
sad women are not free from the addiction of seeking revenge”.
I believe revernge is made on the logic of exchange, ‘paying’ someone
back for what they have done so I do not believe in revenge. In fact
my book is called For-Giving. Revenge is not part of the gift
I do believe though that women’s and especially mothers’ points of
view have not been represented in history except perhaps in some men’s
re working of them.
I thought about the endless contributions in science, I thought of the
long line of enlightened men who contributed a lot to the wellbeing of
society. They were not even mentioned and honored and this sadenned me.
Without this recognition and practical enactment of male creativity and
male freedom that I even felt at work in women-led endavours like Tamera,
the idea of mothering or maternal heritage could hardly be considered as a
role model for a future society. (And definitely no change will work that
imposes one role model on the world)
I didn’t really cite anybody.
Later on, I was very taken by your warmhearted and motherly way of talking
in private, and I told you there is a whole strand of political, social
and economic thinkers who struggle with the fact that obviously in the
superficial “end-victory” of capitalism there is a similar spectacular
self-betrayal as in the late days of the Soviet Union or in the parties at
Versailles castle of the ancien Regime. Wherevere we come from, we have
understood that political declaration and political revolution are not the
means to change a society, that a new, nascent “germ - form” of a new mode
of production is showing its first vital signs in such developments like
Free Software and Wikipedia, open access and social media.
Yes, I agree.
I liked your repudiation of the theory that Free Software is a “hidden
exchange system” where human labour spent in the programming or design
effort is exchanged for reputation or attention, simply because these
schemes are far from being proven empirically and also end up with very
vague operationalisation. But equally I think the Free Software phenomenon
is a harbinger of a structure which goes far beyond our understanding of
what usually is talked about as gift economy. So you for the sake of
scentific truth you must reconsider your statements in this respect.
I think the internet provides a situation of abundance that is far
beyond anything most of us have known. The fact that a search engine
can bring me almost anything I want to know with such a tiny effort
on my part fills me with awe. Wikipedia and Free Soft ware are very
fertile and productive models, as well as General Public Liscence and
other anti copyright projects. We do not know where they will go or
how they will develop. The contrast with the scarcity created by the
market on the material plane makes them vulnerable to privatization
and commercialization though, because people have material needs they
have to satisfy.
I also refer to your groundbreaking remarks about language, whose social
nature makes any theory of language as market ridiculous. I also think
that the remarks about Chomsky and Wittgenstein were justified, both
thinkers limited by their non-social concept of language.
I am glad
In fact, if we go the core of the case, language is not a gift economy. I
do not give away the word that I say to you, I simply share it with you.
This is due to the abundance we have in language. You understand
because I give you words you already have. I give you something I can
easily make again so I don’t lose it when I give it and you don’t take
it away from me when you receive it.I give it to you to create a
relation between you and something else, something in the world (which
in my opinion, is also a kind of gift, a gift of perception or
immagination), in receiving it you establish this relation recognizing
I have a similar relation.
Language is a gift economy at the level of syntax as well.
As you have so beautifully marked, without that unilateral act of
expression I would even loose or at least not refine my own ability and
competence as a speaker. It is necessary to engage in expression, not
because I want to have an equivalent in words from another speaker (what
an absurd imagination!), but because I constantly need to engage in
performance to improve my competence. In this respect I am simply
productive - as a tree is productive that spreads its fruits to the eaters
without asking for direct compensation. In language and in nature,
exchange is a complete non-phenomenon, and scientists are happy if they
finally discover some crazy monkeys that do something like exchange, and
the newspaper editors are happy because they found the final proof that
our way of doing economics is somehow eternally routed. What a nonsense.
But its also nonsense to describe the act of the tree or the speaker as a
gift, its a simply functional process.
I disagree. There are several differences in viewpoint between us here
that I woud like to clarify. One of the reasons to see the core
process as mothering instead of just giving as such, is that mothering
is transitive, it has to satisfy the need of the other. If the child’s
needs are not satisfied s/he will suffer and die, so the mother cannot
just give like a tree gives apples. She has to make sure the child
gets the food.
In language I believe we see that the other person has a communicative
need regarding something that we recognize but s/he doesn’t at the
moment. We give h/er the word gift that will put h/er in relation to
us regarding the kind of thing. That is why I say language is
basically other-oriented, basically because this is how it functions
at base. However it can be used in ways that are not other oriented,
once the base level of meaning is satisfied. That is, it can also be
used to express the ego or to issue commands or to be verbally violent
or to lie etc. And it can be used to explore a subject or write books
whether anyone reads them or not. In this case I believe the author
generalizes the reader and satisfies the needs of whoever s/he thinks
might read the book.
As to improving our performance, I think that is a rather poetic
impulse, to elaborate upon the gifts we can give. We do this by
understanding the communicative needs of others in more detailed and
sensitive ways. However I don’t think this is a main linguistic
Or maybe we have a moral conception of the gift, I do not know.
I think it is unfortunate when we see gift giving in terms of
morality rather than in terms of community forming communication.
What I see, and here we come back to the example of free software, is a
congruence between my act of production and the general needs of society.
My act of production, rooted in my individual self, bends into the general
need because I am performing acts within a societal medium. The
information medium, the programming, is flexible enough to be managed in a
way that actions become contributions. People can share code that they
wrote for themselves because it is simply also useful for others, or they
can engage in a joint efforts where they only work on a module because
they also can use the whole. The latter logic applies to Wikipedia. Do
something, give and you will be given. Its not a totally unilateral
process, its actually the reenforcement of a logic.
I would call this the circulation of gifts.
The logic is deeply embedded in the commons, in the fact that we cant own
the means of our existence privately without depriving ourselves in many
Having said this, I feel there is a positive opportunity to discover a
gender-independent and universal logic. Maybe you do not consider this
your point of view, but I think it could be a productive resonance point.
Yes. When you read my work you will see that I do say that
gift-giving- and –receiving is the basic human logic established in
the mother-child relation. If it exists in language it is also
universally human, or ‘gender independent’ as you say. However, in the
West the construction of the male gender as non-mothering has pushed
many men (and some women) away from the gift logic into the non-giving
logic of the market system, which is merged with the power-over values
of patriarchy. This is not really anybody’s ‘fault’but a mistake that
has been made by giving too much importance to biological or
physiological differences, so that we commonly put males and females
into binarily opposed categories from childhood on.
And in one think I think we totally agree. The issue of overcoming our
nowadays obsolete economic and political system is connected to a deep
transformation in culture - from self - referential to sharing values.
In this respect I want to invite you as a guest or even as a benefactor
into one of the innumerable attempts to create a new culture.
This is an attempt centered around the emergence of a global virtual
network of independent thinkers, equaling the depth and the primordial
goals of a university. The name of this culture is worknets, an attempt to
organize support and gifts to sharing individuals. Its about a culture
where we wish everybody to suceceed. Its a culture where wealth is
relations and we want to show the beauty of working openly. The core of
the worknets culture is an initiative called Minciu Sodas, Garden of
Thoughts, the creation and personal endavour of its founder Andrius
Kulikauskas. I would like you to have a look at his paper “An Economy for
Giving Everything Away”. See under
I did read the paper but my emphasis is not on giving away but on
giving to satisfy needs, (which can be all different kinds of needs,
from material to spiritual, esthetic etc.) The gift is trasitive. The
importance is given more to the care and well being of the other than
to my personal liberation from things.
As the title says Andrius recognises the value and the meaning of a gift
economy and tries to find ways to re-introduce this logic in the midst of
prevalent market relations. I am sure you will find his reflections
moving, especially because Andrius tries to identify various market
I think that the commercialization of gifts can be dangerous. In fact
look at how negative the commercialization of the gifts of nature like
water and seeds has been.
I address Andrius equally with this mail and suggest to him to introduce
your work to the thousands of readers and hundreds of participants in our
community and tell you what we have to offer.
Thank you. I would be very interested to know more about what kinds of
projects you are doing.
All the best from Vienna
All the best to you