Sacred Economics: Chapter 1, “The Gift World”

The following chapter is from Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, available from EVOLVER EDITIONS/North Atlantic Books. Return to the Sacred Economics content page here.


The converging crises of our time all arise from a common root that we might call Separation. Taking many forms—the human/nature split, the disintegration of community, the division of reality into material and spiritual realms—Separation is woven into every aspect of our civilization. It is also unsustainable: it generates great and growing crises that are propelling us into a new era, an Age of Reunion.

Separation is not an ultimate reality, but a human projection, an ideology, a story. As in all cultures, our defining Story of the People has two deeply related parts: a Story of Self, and a Story of the World. The first is the discrete and separate self: a bubble of psychology, a skin-encapsulated soul, a biological phenotype driven by its genes to seek reproductive self-interest, a rational actor seeking economic self-interest, a physical observer of an objective universe, a mote of consciousness in a prison of flesh. The second is the story of Ascent: that humanity, starting from a state of ignorance and powerlessness, is harnessing the forces of nature and probing the secrets of the universe, moving inexorably toward our destiny of complete mastery over, and transcendence of, nature. It is a story of the separation of the human realm from the natural, in which the former expands and the latter is turned progressively into resources, goods, property, and, ultimately, money.

Money is a system of social agreements, meanings, and symbols that develops over time. It is, in a word, a story, existing in social reality along with such things as laws, nations, institutions, calendar and clock time, religion, and science. Stories bear tremendous creative power. Through them we coordinate human activity, focus attention and intention, define roles, and identify what is important and even what is real. Stories give meaning and purpose to life and therefore motivate action. Money is a key element of the story of Separation that defines our civilization.

Part I of Sacred Economics illuminates the economic system that has arisen on the foundation of the story of Separation. Anonymity, depersonalization, polarization of wealth, endless growth, ecological despoliation, social turmoil, and irremediable crisis are built into our economic system so deeply that nothing less than a transformation of our defining Story of the People will heal it. My intention is that by identifying the core features of the economics of Separation, we may be empowered to envision an economics of Reunion as well, an economics that restores to wholeness our fractured communities, relationships, cultures, ecosystems, and planet.

* * *

Chapter 1: The Gift World

Even after all this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”

Look what happens
with a love like that,
It lights the Whole Sky.



In the beginning was the Gift.

We are born helpless infants, creatures of pure need with little resource to give, yet we are fed, we are protected, we are clothed and held and soothed, without having done anything to deserve it, without offering anything in exchange. This experience, common to everyone who has made it past childhood, informs some of our deepest spiritual intuitions. Our lives are given us; therefore, our default state is gratitude. It is the truth of our existence.

Even if your childhood was horrific, if you are reading this right now, at least you were given enough to sustain you to adulthood. For the first years of life, none of this was anything you earned or produced. It was all a gift. Imagine walking out the door right now and finding yourself plunged into an alien world in which you were completely helpless, unable to feed or clothe yourself, unable to use your limbs, unable even to distinguish where your body ends and the world begins. Then huge beings come and hold you, feed you, take care of you, love you. Wouldn’t you feel grateful?

In moments of clarity, perhaps after a narrow brush with death, or upon accompanying a loved one through the death process, we know that life itself is a gift. We experience an overwhelming gratitude at being alive. We walk in wonderment at the riches, undeserved and freely available, that come with life: the joy of breathing, the delights of color and sound, the pleasure of drinking water to quench thirst, the sweetness of a loved one’s face. This sense of mixed awe and gratitude is a clear sign of the presence of the sacred.

We feel the same reverence and gratitude when we apprehend the magnificence of nature, the miraculous complexity and order of an ecosystem, an organism, a cell. They are impossibly perfect, far beyond the capacity of our minds to conceive, to create, even to understand more than a tiny part of. Yet they exist, without our ever having to create them: an entire world to sustain and environ us. We don’t have to understand exactly how a seed germinates and grows; we don’t have to make it happen. Even today, the workings of a cell, an organism, an ecosystem are largely a mystery. Without needing to engineer it, without needing even to understand its inner workings, we still receive nature’s fruits. Can you imagine the wonder, the gratitude, of our early ancestors as they contemplated the undeserved provenance the world gave them so freely?

No wonder ancient religious thinkers said that God made the world, and no wonder they said God gave the world to us. The first is an expression of humility, the second of gratitude. Sadly, later theologians twisted this realization to mean, “God gave us the world to exploit, to master, to dominate.” Such an interpretation is contrary to the spirit of the original realization. Humility knows that this Gift is beyond our ability to master. Gratitude knows that we honor, or dishonor, the giver of a gift by how we use it.

Modern cosmology also affirms the mythological recognition of universe-as-gift. Is not the Big Bang something (indeed everything) for nothing? (1) This feeling is strengthened by closer examination of the various constants of physics (speed of light, electron mass, relative strengths of the four fundamental forces, etc.), all of which inexplicably have the precise values necessary for a universe containing matter, stars, and life. It is as if the whole universe were constructed for us, so that we might exist.

In the beginning was the Gift: in the archetypal beginning of the world, at the beginning of our lives, and in the infancy of the human species. Gratitude therefore is natural to us, so primal, so elemental that it is very difficult to define. Perhaps it is the feeling of having received a gift, and the desire to give in turn. We might therefore expect primitive people, connected with this primal gratitude, to enact it in their social and economic relationships. Indeed, they did. Most accounts of the history of money begin with primitive barter, but barter is a relative rarity among hunter-gatherers. The most important mode of economic exchange was the gift.

Primal though it is, gratitude and the generosity flowing from it coexist with other, less savory, aspects of human nature. While I believe in the fundamental divinity of human beings, I also recognize that we have embarked on a long sojourn of separation from that divinity, and created a world in which ruthless sociopaths rise to wealth and power. This book doesn’t pretend such people don’t exist, nor that such tendencies don’t exist in everyone. Rather, it seeks to awaken the spirit of the gift that is latent within us, and to construct institutions that embody and encourage that spirit. Today’s economic system rewards selfishness and greed. What would an economic system look like that, like some ancient cultures, rewarded generosity instead?

Let us begin by better understanding the dynamics of the gift. I referred to economic exchange above, but that is generally not an accurate description of gift community. Circulation is a better word. Today we often exchange gifts, but gift exchange is already a step toward barter. In ancient communities, elaborate customs governed gift giving, customs that persist today in societies that have not completely lost their connection to the past. Usually gift networks are closely tied to kin networks. Customs dictate who gives to whom. To some kin categories you might be expected to give; from others you might expect to receive; and in others the gifts flow in both directions.

While gifts can be reciprocal, just as often they flow in circles. I give to you, you give to someone else … and eventually someone gives back to me. A famous example is the kula system of the Trobriand Islanders, in which precious necklaces circulate in one direction from island to island, and bracelets in the other direction. First described in depth by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, kula, which literally means “circle,” is the lynchpin of a vast system of gifts and other economic exchanges. Marcel Mauss describes it as follows:

The system of gift-through-exchange permeates all the economic, tribal, and moral life of the Trobriand people. It is “impregnated” with it, as Malinowski very neatly expressed it. It is a constant “give and take.” The process is marked by a continuous flow in all directions of presents given, accepted, and reciprocated.” (2)

While the pinnacle of the kula system is the highly ritualized exchange of ceremonial bracelets and necklaces by chiefs, the gift network surrounding it extends to all kinds of utilitarian items, food, boats, labor, and so forth. Outright barter, according to Mauss, is unusual. In any event, “Generally, even what has been received and comes into one’s possession in this way—in whatever manner—is not kept for oneself, unless one cannot do without it.” (3)  In other words, gifts flow continuously, only stopping in their circulation when they meet a real, present need. Here is Lewis Hyde’s poetic description of this principle of the gift:

The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us. Social nature abhors a vacuum. (4)

While today we clearly distinguish between a gift and a commercial transaction, in past times this distinction was by no means clear. Some cultures, such as the Toaripi and Namau, had but a single word to designate buying, selling, lending, and borrowing (5), while the ancient Mesopotamian word šám meant both “buy” and “sell.” (6) This ambiguity persists in many modern languages. Chinese, German, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Estonian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Japanese, and many others each have but a single term for borrowing and lending, perhaps a vestige of an ancient time when the two were not distinguished. (7)  It even persists in English among less-educated speakers, who sometimes use the word “borrow” to mean “lend,” as in “I borrowed him twenty dollars.” How could this be? How could the same word apply to two opposite operations?

The solution to this puzzle lies in the dynamics of the gift. With the rare, perhaps theoretical, exceptions that Derrida called “free gifts,” gifts are accompanied either by some token of exchange or by a moral or social obligation (or both). Unlike a modern money transaction, which is closed and leaves no obligation, a gift transaction is open-ended, creating an ongoing tie between the participants. Another way of looking at it is that the gift partakes of the giver, and that when we give a gift, we give something of ourselves. This is the opposite of a modern commodity transaction, in which goods sold are mere property, separate from the one who sells them. We all can feel the difference. You probably have some treasured items that were given you, that are perhaps objectively indistinguishable from something you might buy, but that are unique and special because of who gave them to you. Thus it was that ancient people recognized that a magical quality, a spirit, circulates along with gifts.

Useless objects like cowry shells, pretty beads, necklaces, and so on were the earliest money. To exchange them for something of utilitarian value is, naively speaking, merely a way to facilitate a gift—something for nothing. They turn it into something-for-something, but that doesn’t make it any less a gift, because they are merely giving physical form to the felt sense of obligation; they are tokens of gratitude. From this perspective, the identity of buying and selling, borrowing and lending, is easy to understand. They are not opposite operations at all. All gifts circle back to the giver in another form. Buyer and seller are equal.

Today there is an asymmetry in commercial transactions, which identifies the buyer as the one giving money and receiving goods and the seller as the one receiving money and giving goods. But we could equally say the “buyer” is selling money for goods, and the “seller” is buying money with goods. Linguistic and anthropological evidence indicates that this asymmetry is new, far newer than money. What has happened to money, then, to create this asymmetry? Money is different from every other commodity in the world, and, as we shall see, it is this difference that is crucial in making it profane.

Gifts, on the other hand, we intuitively recognize as sacred, which is why even today we make ceremonies of giving presents. Gifts embody the key qualities of the sacredness I discussed in the introduction. First, uniqueness: unlike the standardized commodities of today, purchased in closed transactions with money and alienated from their origins, gifts are unique to the extent that they partake of the giver. Second, wholeness, interdependency: gifts expand the circle of self to include the entire community. Whereas money today embodies the principle, “More for me is less for you,” in a gift economy, more for you is also more for me because those who have give to those who need. Gifts cement the mystical realization of participation in something greater than oneself which, yet, is not separate from oneself. The axioms of rational self-interest change because the self has expanded to include something of the other.

The conventional explanation of how money developed that one finds in economics texts assumes barter as a starting point. From the very beginning, competing individuals seek to maximize their rational self-interest. This idealized description is not supported by anthropology. Barter, according to Mauss, was rare in Polynesia, rare in Melanesia, and unheard of in the Pacific Northwest. Economic anthropologist George Dalton emphatically concurs, “Barter, in the strict sense of moneyless exchange, has never been a quantitatively important or dominant model or transaction in any past or present economic system about which we have hard information.” (8)  The only instances of barter, says Dalton, were for petty, infrequent, or emergency transactions—just as is the case today. Aside from these, moneyless transactions scarcely resembled the impersonal, utility-maximizing transactions of economists’ fantasies, but rather “tended to require lasting (and sometimes ritualized) personal relationships sanctioned by custom and characterized by reciprocity.”(9) Such transactions should not be called barter at all, but rather ritualized gift exchange.

Today we put gifts and purchases into separate, exclusive categories; to be sure, different economics and psychology apply to each. But very ancient times bore no such dichotomy, nor was there today’s distinction between a business relationship and a personal relationship. Economists, in telling the history of money, tend to project this modern distinction backward, and with it some deep assumptions about human nature, the self, and the purpose of life: that we are discrete and separate selves competing for scarce resources to maximize our self-interest. I won’t say that these assumptions are not true. They are part of the defining ideology of our civilization, a Story of the People that is now drawing to a close. This book is part of the telling of a new Story of the People. The transformation of money is part of a larger transformation, founded on very different assumptions about self, life, and world.

Human economy is never very far from cosmology, religion, and the psyche. It was not only ancient economies that were based on gifts: ancient cosmology and religion were too. Today as well, our money with its qualities of standardization, abstraction, and anonymity is aligned with many other aspects of the human experience. What new scientific, religious, or psychological paradigms might arise in the context of a different kind of money?

If money did not arise from the economists’ imaginary world of calculated, interest-maximizing barter, then how did it arise? I propose that it arose as a means to facilitate gift giving, sharing, and generosity, or at least that it bore something of that spirit. To recreate a sacred economy, it is necessary to restore to money that original spirit.

At its core, money is a beautiful concept. Let me be very naive for a moment so as to reveal this core, this spiritual (if not historical) essence of money. I have something you need, and I wish to give it to you. So I do, and you feel grateful and desire to give something to me in return. But you don’t have anything I need right now. So instead you give me a token of your gratitude—a useless, pretty thing like a wampum necklace or a piece of silver. That token says, “I have met the needs of other people and earned their gratitude.” Later, when I receive a gift from someone else, I give them that token. Gifts can circulate across vast social distances, and I can receive from people to whom I have nothing to give while still fulfilling my desire to act from the gratitude those gifts inspire within me.

On the level of a family, clan, or hunter-gatherer band, money is not necessary to operate a gift economy. Nor is it necessary in the next larger unit of social organization: the village or tribe of a few hundred people. There, if I don’t need anything from you now, either you will (acting from gratitude) give me something that I need in the future, or you will give to someone else, who gives to someone else, who gives to me. This is the “circle of the gift,” the basis of community. In a tribe or village, the scale of society is small enough that those who give to me recognize my gifts to others. Such is not the case in a mass society like ours. If I give generously to you, the farmer in Hawaii who grew my ginger or the engineer in Japan who designed my cell phone display won’t know about it. So instead of personal recognition of gifts, we use money: the representation of gratitude. The social witnessing of gifts becomes anonymous.

Money becomes necessary when the range of our gifts must extend beyond the people we know personally. Such is the case when economic scale and the division of labor exceed the tribal or village level. Indeed, the first money appeared in the first agricultural civilizations that developed beyond the Neolithic village: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India. Traditional, decentralized gift networks gave way to centralized systems of redistribution, with the temple, and later the royal palace, as the hub. Quite possibly, these evolved from potlatch-type traditions in which gifts flowed to chiefs and other leaders, and then back from them to their kin and tribe. Starting as centralized nodes for a large-scale flow of gifts, they soon diverged from the gift mind-set as contributions became forced and quantified, and outward disbursement became unequal. Ancient Sumerian documents already speak of economic polarization, haves and have-nots, and wages that were barely at subsistence.10 While centralized directives, and not market trade, governed the movement of goods (11),  the early agricultural empires also used what some call money: agricultural and metallic commodities in standard measured units that served as media of exchange, units of account, and stores of value. So already, four thousand years ago, money was failing to meet my naive expectation that it would create greater abundance for all by facilitating the meeting of gifts and needs.

By facilitating trade, motivating efficient production, and allowing the accumulation of capital to undertake large-scale projects, money should enrich life: it should bestow upon us ease, leisure, freedom from anxiety, and an equitable distribution of wealth. Indeed, conventional economic theory predicts all of these results. The fact that money has become an agent of the opposite—anxiety, hardship, and polarization of wealth—presents us with a paradox.

If we are to have a world with technology, with cinema and symphony orchestras, with telecommunications and great architecture, with cosmopolitan cities and world literature, we need money, or something like it, as a way to coordinate human activity on the vast scale necessary to create such things. I have therefore written this book, to describe a system that restores to money the sacredness of the gift. I say “restore” because from the earliest times, money has had sacred or magical connotations. Originally, it was the temples where agricultural surpluses were stored and redistributed: the center of religious life was also the center of economic life. Some authors claim that the earliest symbolic money (as opposed to commodity money) was issued by temples and could be redeemed for sacred sex with temple prostitutes (12);  in any event, it is certain that temples were deeply involved in issuing early coins, many of which bore the images of sacred animals and deities. This practice continues today with bills and coins bearing the likenesses of deified presidents.

Perhaps someday we won’t need money to have a gift economy on the scale of billions of humans; perhaps the money I shall describe in this book is transitional. I am not a “primitivist” who advocates the abandonment of civilization, of technology and culture, of the gifts that make us human. I foresee rather the restoration of humanity to a sacred estate, bearing all the wholeness and harmony with nature of the hunter-gatherer time, but at a higher level of organization. I foresee the fulfillment, and not the abdication, of the gifts of hand and mind that make us human.

Notice how natural it is to describe our uniquely human attributes as gifts. In keeping with the gift’s universal principles, our human gifts partake of their Giver as well. In other words, they are divine gifts. Mythology bears this intuition out, from the Promethean gift of fire to the Apollonian gift of music, to the gift of agriculture from the Chinese mythological ruler Shen Nong. In the Bible, too, we are given not only the world, but the breath of life and our capacity to create—for we are made “in the image” of the Creator itself.

On the personal level as well, we all sense that our individual gifts were given to us for a reason, a purpose. Moreover, we have an irrepressible desire to develop those gifts, and from them, to give our own gifts out into the world. Everyone has experienced the joy of giving and the selfless generosity of strangers. Ask for directions in a city, and most people are pleased to take time to help. It is in no one’s rational self-interest to give directions to a stranger; this is a simple expression of our innate generosity.

It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is now precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity, and forestalling our most generous impulses with the words, “I can’t afford to do that.” We live in an omnipresent anxiety, borne of the scarcity of the money which we depend on for life—witness the phrase “the cost of living.” Our purpose for being, the development and full expression of our gifts, is mortgaged to the demands of money, to making a living, to surviving. Yet no one, no matter how wealthy, secure, or comfortable, can ever feel fulfilled in a life where those gifts remain latent. Even the best-paid job, if it does not engage our gifts, soon feels deadening, and we think, “I was not put here on earth to do this.”

Even when a job does engage our gifts, if the purpose is something we don’t believe in, the same deadening feeling of futility arises again, the feeling that we are not living our own lives, but only the lives we are paid to live. “Challenging” and “interesting” are not good enough, because our gifts are sacred, and therefore meant for a sacred purpose.

That we are indeed here on earth to do something is essentially a religious concept, for conventional biology teaches that we have evolved to be able to survive, that any effort toward something outside of survival and reproduction goes against our genetic programming. However, one can make a cogent neo-Lamarckian case that the view of biology as consisting of myriad discrete, separate competing selves—organisms or “selfish genes”—is more a projection of our own present-day culture than it is an accurate understanding of nature. (13)  There are other ways of understanding nature that, while not ignoring its obvious competition, give primacy to cooperation, symbiosis, and the merging of organisms into larger wholes. This new understanding is actually quite ancient, echoing the indigenous understanding of nature as a web of gifts.

Each organism and each species makes a vital contribution to the totality of life on earth, and this contribution, contrary to the expectations of standard evolutionary biology, need not have any direct benefit for the organism itself. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria don’t directly benefit from doing so, except that the nitrogen they give to the soil grows plants that grow roots that grow fungi, which ultimately provide nutrients to the bacteria. Pioneer species pave the way for keystone species, which provide microniches for other species, which feed yet other species in a web of gifts that, eventually, circle back to benefit the pioneer species. Trees bring up water to water other plants, and algae make oxygen so that animals can breathe. Remove any being, and the health of all becomes more precarious.

You may think me naive, with my “so that” reasoning. You may say it is just good luck that things work out so well: the trees don’t care about watering the plants around them—they are in it for themselves, maximizing their chances to survive and reproduce. That they nourish other beings is an unintended side-effect. The same for the algae, for the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and for the bacteria inside ruminants that allow them to digest cellulose. This world, you might think, is everyone for himself. Nature is a cutthroat competition, and an economy that is the same is natural too.

I do not think it is natural. It is an aberration, a peculiar though necessary phase that has reached its extreme and is now giving way to a new one. In nature, headlong growth and all-out competition are features of immature ecosystems, followed by complex interdependency, symbiosis, cooperation, and the cycling of resources. The next stage of human economy will parallel what we are beginning to understand about nature. It will call forth the gifts of each of us; it will emphasize cooperation over competition; it will encourage circulation over hoarding; and it will be cyclical, not linear. Money may not disappear anytime soon, but it will serve a diminished role even as it takes on more of the properties of the gift. The economy will shrink, and our lives will grow.

Money as we know it is inimical to an economy manifesting the spirit of the gift, an economy we might call sacred. In order to know what kind of money could be a sacred currency, it will help to identify exactly what makes money into the force for greed, evil, scarcity, and environmental pillage that it is today.

Just as science often projects culture onto nature, so economics takes culturally determined conditions as axiomatic. Living in a culture of scarcity (for scarcity is what we are experiencing, when “making a living” dictates the expression of our gifts), we assume it as the basis of economics. As in biology, we have seen the world as a competition among separate selves for limited resources. Our money system, as we shall see, embodies this belief on a deep, structural level. But is this belief true? Do we live in a world, a universe, of basic scarcity? And if not, if the true nature of the universe is abundance and the gift, then how did money become so unnatural?

Previous                                                                                                                                         Next


1. Readers of The Ascent of Humanity know I prefer non–Big Bang cosmologies such as Halton Arp’s dynamic steady-state universe, in which matter is continually born, grows old, and dies. But here, too, it appears spontaneously from nowhere, as if by a gift.

2. Mauss, The Gift, 29.

3. Ibid., 30.

4. Hyde, The Gift, 23.

5. Mauss, The Gift, 32.

6. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 323.

7. The Chinese terms for buying and selling have nearly identical pronunciation and similar ideograms as well. The character for buying, 買, originated as a depiction of a cowry shell, an early form of money, while the character for selling, 賣, was developed later, suggesting an earlier nondistinction.

8. Dalton, “Barter,” Journal of Economic Issues, Vol XVI No.1, March 1982: p. 182.

9. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 292.

10. Nemat-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, 263.

11. Seaford, Money and the Early Greek Mind, 123. Seaford adduces persuasive evidence for this claim: early documents that took the form of lists, artwork showing processions of individuals bearing offerings, etc.

12. Bernard Lietaer makes this claim in The Future of Money for a bronze shekel that he states is the earliest known coin, dating to 3000 BCE. I have found no other mention of this in my research, however. As far as I know, the earliest coins appeared in Lydia and China at about the same time, the seventh century BCE.

13. I sum up this argument in Chapter 7 of The Ascent of Humanity, drawing on the work of Lynn Margulis, Bruce Lipton, Fred Hoyle, Elisabet Sahtouris, and others.

Leave a Reply