Sacred Economics: Chapter 18, Relearning Gift Culture

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 transition to sacred economy is part of a larger shift in our ways of thinking, relating, and being. Economic logic alone is not enough to sustain it. Many economic visionaries have devised mathematically persuasive revolutions in money and property, but of the handful that ever came to fruition, none survived the test of time. The final third of this book, therefore, is devoted to the shift of consciousness and practice that goes along with the new money systems I have described. As we heal the spirit-matter rupture, we discover that economics and spirituality are inseparable. On the personal level, economics is about how to give our gifts and meet our needs. It is about who we are in relation to the world. By changing our everyday economic thinking and practices, we not only prepare ourselves for the great changes ahead; we also set the stage for their emergence. By living the concepts of sacred economics, we ease its acceptance by all and welcome it into the world.

Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. –Wendell Berry

We have in our age created a distinction between money exchanges and gifts. The former is in the realm of rational self-interest; the latter is at least partially altruistic or selfless. This division of economics into two separate realms mirrors other defining dichotomies of our civilization: man and nature, spirit and matter, good and evil, sacred and profane, mind and body. None of these withstand deep scrutiny; all of them are crumbling as the Age of Separation draws to a close. And so, just as we erase the matter-spirit distinction and resacralize all of matter, just as we give up on the effort to transcend nature and realize that we are part of it, so also shall we return the spirit of the gift to all aspects of human economy, whether or not money is involved.

Each aspect of the monetary evolution described in this book imbues money with the properties of gift:

1. Over time, giving and receiving must be in balance. The internalization of ecological costs ensures that we will take no more from earth than we can give.

2. The source of a gift is to be acknowledged. The restoration of the commons means that any use of what belongs to all is acknowledged by a payment that goes to all.

3. Gifts circulate rather than accumulate. Decaying currency ensures that wealth remains a function of flow rather than of owning.

4. Gifts flow toward the greatest need. A social dividend ensures that the basic survival needs of every person are met.

The foundation of a sacred economy, then, is gift consciousness. The remainder of this book explores the ways in which we can restore the mentality of the gift in our own lives to foster and prepare for the coming world.

I am not suggesting that you become a saint and abandon selfishness. Gift culture is not so simple. As we imbue matter with the qualities we once ascribed to spirit, we are also imbuing spirit with the messy qualities of matter. No longer is the spiritual realm of our conceptions a place of perfect order, harmony, goodness, and justice. Similarly, as we imbue money with some of the characteristics of gift culture, we must recognize that the gift realm never was, and may never be, a realm of pure disinterested selflessness.

Consider the ideal of the free gift, which Jacques Derrida characterizes as follows: “For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt.” This would preclude any benefit accruing to the giver, such as social status, praise, expressions of gratitude, and even, perhaps, the feeling that one has done something virtuous. The closest example of this in real life would be anonymous charity, or perhaps the alms given to Jain ascetics, who make sure to offer neither thanks nor praise for the food. (1)  Jain religious beliefs are quite relevant to this association of the free gift with purity, spirituality, and nonworldliness. The Jain seek through asceticism to burn away karma and purify themselves while creating no new ties with the world. Thus they take care never to visit the same house twice and never to respond to an invitation, striving toward the ideal of an unexpected guest receiving pure charity untainted by any worldly bond.

The Jain are an extreme case, but similar ideals inhabit the other world religions. Christians, for instance, are enjoined to fast, pray, and give charity in secret. Buddhists following the Bodhisattva path are supposed to dedicate their lives to the liberation of all beings, putting others ahead of themselves. In Judaism, the principle of chesed shel emet, the highest form of kindness, is to give with no hope of repayment or gratitude, while the highest level of charity is when neither donor nor receiver knows who is giving or receiving. Anonymous charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, and huge Islamic charities are funded anonymously. I don’t think I need cite too many examples to persuade the reader of the association of altruism and anonymous charity with religion.

The religious ideal of the free gift that doesn’t create any social bonds is, ironically enough, very similar to monetary transactions! These also generate no obligation, no tie: once the money is paid and the goods delivered, neither party owes the other anything. But with the exception of the idealized true gifts described above, gifts are very different. If you give me something, I will feel grateful and desire to give in turn, either to you or to someone else that social custom prescribes. Either way, an obligation has been created, an assurance of continued economic circulation within the gifting community. Anonymous gifts don’t create such ties and don’t strengthen communities. The recipient might be grateful, but that gratitude has no object save the universal or abstract.

Gratitude, moreover, arises not just from the receiving of gifts, but also from their witnessing. The generosity of others moves us toward generosity ourselves. We desire to give to those who are generous. We are moved by their openness, by their vulnerability, by their trust. We want to take care of them. With the possible exception of anonymous charity, gifts don’t happen in a social vacuum. They expand the circle of self, linking our self-interest with that of anyone who, when he has more than he needs, will give us what we need. The religious ideal of the unattached gift, which diffuses the resultant gratitude to the universal level, has a place insofar as we wish to identify with the community of all being. But I do not think that the resolution of the Age of Separation is a state of universal oneness. Rather, we will step into a multidimensional self that identifies with all being, yes, but also with humanity, its own culture, its bioregion, its community, its family, and its ego-self. Accordingly, the anonymous, unencumbered gift has an important but limited role to play in the coming economy.

This was certainly the case in primitive gift cultures. While there did exist the equivalent of the universal, unrequitable gift in the form of sacrifices to the gods, most gifts were social in nature. In his classic 1924 monograph The Gift, Marcel Mauss establishes a strong case against the existence in primitive societies of a free gift. Generally speaking, Mauss said, appropriate gifts and return gifts were quite precisely determined and were enforced through social approbation and obloquy, status and ostracism, and other forms of social pressure. This is a desirable state of affairs: the obligations and commitments that arise from gifts and their expected requital are a glue that holds the society together.

We can feel the absence of that social glue today. In the logic of me and mine, any obligation, any dependency, is a threat. Gifts naturally create obligations, so, in the Age of Separation, people have become afraid to give and even more afraid to receive. We don’t want to receive gifts because we don’t want to be obligated to anyone. We don’t want to owe anybody anything. We don’t want to depend on anyone’s gifts or charity-“I can pay for it myself, thank you. I don’t need you.” Accordingly, we elevate anonymous acts of charity to a lofty moral status. It is supposed to be a great virtue to give without strings attached, to expect nothing in return.

Part of living in the gift is to recognize and abide by the obligation to receive as well as to give. Mauss gives the example of the Dayaks, who “have even developed a whole system of law and morality based upon the duty one has not to fail to share in the meal at which one is present or that one has seen in preparation.” (2) I personally experienced something of this during my years in Taiwan, where vestiges of the old gift-based culture of agrarian times still persisted in the older generation. There, not only was it a serious faux pas to fail to offer food to a visitor to your home, but it was also quite rude to refuse it. If dinner was in preparation, it would not necessarily be polite to attempt a gracious exit before mealtime (without a really convincing excuse). To refuse a gift is to spurn relationship. If gifts create bonds and widen the circle of self, then to refuse to give or receive a gift says, “I refuse to be connected to you. You are an other in my constellation of being.” As Mauss puts it, “To refuse to give, to fail to invite, just as to refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war; it is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality.” (3)

To reject this bond is a serious matter. Author Mark Dowie speaks of an Alaskan tribe he lived with that convened a meeting of elders to discuss the grave transgression of a certain tribesman on the sharing ethic. The person in question was hoarding the fruits of his hunting for himself, flouting the tribe’s gift customs. How seriously did the elders view his behavior (which was of long standing)? The purpose of their meeting was to decide whether or not to kill him. (4)

In many situations, a kind of implicit negotiation takes place in which the two parties trade excuses and rebuttals of them until they agree on a gift that appropriately reflects the degree of bond to be created. (5) “Oh, I couldn’t; I just ate (lie). Maybe just a cup of tea.” The tea comes, accompanied by a sumptuous platter of mung bean pastries, dried plums, and watermelon seeds. I partake sparingly of some of the seeds. The host gives me some pastries to take with me. And so on. This subtle dance of giving and receiving is absent from a commodity economy such as ours.

But even in America, alienated as we are from gift culture, we still feel its logic. You may have had the experience of receiving a favor from someone and then offering to pay for it, and feeling the letdown and distancing that ensue. To pay for a gift renders it no longer a gift, and the bond that was being established is broken.

The aversion to obligation enhances the attractiveness of money transactions. As Richard Seaford says, “What is surrendered in a commercial transaction is completely and permanently separated from the person who surrendered it.” (6) When we pay for everything we receive, we remain independent, disconnected, free from obligation, and free from ties. No one can call in favors; no one has any leverage over us. In a gift economy, if someone asks for help, you can’t really say no: that person and the whole society says, explicitly or not, “Hey, remember all the things we have done for you? Remember when we babysat your children? When we rescued your cow? When we rebuilt your barn after the fire? You owe us!” Today we want to be able to say, “I paid you for that babysitting. I paid you for shoveling my sidewalk. I’ve paid for everything you’ve done for me. I don’t owe you anything!”

Because it creates gratitude or obligation, to willingly receive a gift is itself a form of generosity. It says, “I am willing to owe you one.” Or, in a more sophisticated gift culture, it says, “I am willing to be in the debt of the community.” Extending the principle further, to fully receive the gifts bestowed upon us says, “I am willing to be in the debt of God and the universe.” By the same token, in refusing gifts we seem to excuse ourselves from the obligations that arise naturally with gratitude. The taxicab driver Stewart Millard observes,

The first conclusion I reached is that money makes us exquisitely inept at real human relationship. If I have just gotten a new set of tires from my friend Greg at his tire shop (I, indeed, was sitting in his parking lot thinking about this!) and no money was exchanged, then how would I repay Greg? And, a bit more subtle question arose: What if I didn’t accept this offer (gift) of tires from Greg?

By accepting the gift of tires without money, then an automatic set of behaviors and consideration arise. What can I offer in return? I could wait for him to ask, or I can do the more arduous task of actually getting to know Greg, and thus allowing a more organic exchange to take place. Money means I can pay, and then pay no more attention to my fellow human across the counter. No getting to know him, no exchange of life to accommodate a natural mingling of flows in dependence and appreciation. A reason we are so intolerant of each other is simply because we have money. If that person is displeasing, we just take our money elsewhere-and the original is just left blowing in the wind.

One of the most important gifts you can give is to fully receive the gift of another. Today we have many ways of rejecting, or partially receiving, a gift. Anything we do to lessen the obligation implied by receiving is a form of rejection-for example, reminding the giver of what you gave her last year; implying that you deserve or are entitled to the gift; pretending that, whatever you received, you didn’t want it that much; or offering or insisting on paying for something. When someone pays me a compliment, I sometimes reject it by denying its truth, projecting false humility, or devaluing it with words like, “Oh, everybody does it; it’s not so special.” When someone says, “Thank you,” sometimes I find myself rejecting it with words like, “It was nothing.” Someone might say, “Your writing has changed my life,” and I might respond, “The change was within you already, and my writing was merely its agent. Others read the same words with no effect.” While there is truth in this response, nonetheless I have sometimes used it to deflect gifts of praise or thanks that I was afraid to fully receive, to fully take in. Another way to reject the gift of a compliment is to pay a return compliment with excessive alacrity, distracting from the first compliment before it has a chance to sink in. When gratitude inspires a return gift, we must not give it too quickly, or it becomes a mere transaction, not so different from a purchase. Then it cancels out obligation rather than tying giver and receiver more closely.

To fully receive is to willingly put yourself in a position of obligation, either to the giver or to society at large. Gratitude and obligation go hand in hand; they are two sides of the same coin. Obligation is obligation to do what? It is to give without “compensation.” Gratitude is what? It is the desire to give, again without compensation, borne of the realization of having received. In the age of the separate self, we have split the two, but originally they are one: obligation is a desire that comes from within and is only secondarily enforced from without. (7) Clearly then, reluctance to receive is actually reluctance to give. We think that we are being noble, self-sacrificing, or unselfish if we prefer to give rather than to receive. We are being nothing of the sort. The generous person gives and receives with an equally open hand. Do not be afraid to be under obligation, to be in gratitude. We are afraid of obligation because, quite rightly, we are wary of “have to”; we are wary of forceful compulsion, wary of the coercion that underlies so many of our society’s institutions. But when we convert “have to” into “want to,” we are free. When we realize that life itself is a gift, and that we are here to give ourselves, then we are free. After all, what you have taken in this life dies with you. Only your gifts live on.

You can see how pervasive gift refusal is in our culture and how much relearning there is to do. Much of what goes by the name of modesty or humility is actually a refusal of ties, a distancing from others, a refusal to receive. We are as afraid to receive as we are to give; indeed, we are incapable of doing one without the other. We may imagine ourselves as selfless and virtuous for being more willing to give than to receive, but this state is just as miserly as its reverse, for without receiving, the wellspring of our own gifts dries up. Not only is it miserly, it is arrogant: What do we imagine to be the source of what we give? Ourselves? No. Life itself is a gift, life and all that nurtures it, from mother and father to the entire ecosystem. None were created through our own efforts. The same goes for our creative abilities, physical and mental, which some, intuiting this truth, might call God-given.

Of course, sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to refuse a gift, specifically when you don’t want to create the kind of tie the gift implies. All gifts have “strings attached.” But often our reluctance to receive comes not from aversion to a specific tie, but to ties in general.

New Age spiritual clichés about “opening up to abundance” make me queasy, yet as with most clichés there is truth beneath them. Fear of receiving, though, isn’t just a matter of low self-worth or feeling undeserving, as some self-help gurus would have us believe: it is also, ultimately, a fear of giving. The two go hand in hand-always! Together, they are a fear of life, of connection; they are a kind of reticence. To give and to receive, to owe and be owed, to depend on others and be depended on-this is being fully alive. To neither give nor receive, but to pay for everything; to never depend on anyone, but to be financially independent; to not be bound to a community or place, but to be mobile … such is the illusory paradise of the discrete and separate self. Corresponding to the spiritual conceit of nonattachment, to the religious delusion of nonworldliness, and to the scientific ambition to master and transcend nature, it is proving to be not a paradise but a hell.

As we awaken from our delusions of nonattachment, independence, and transcendence, we seek to reunite with our true, expansive selves. We yearn for community. Independence and nonattachment were never anything but delusions anyway. The truth is, has always been, and always will be that we are utterly and hopelessly dependent on each other and on nature. Nor will it ever change that the only alternative to depending, receiving, loving, and losing is to not be alive at all.

To be sure, there is truth in nonattachment too, a truth that gift culture reflects when we hold on less tightly to our things. This nonattachment exists within a context of attachment and connection, not independence or dissociation. Indeed, gifts aid in the release of ego attachments because they expand the self beyond the ego, aligning self-interest with the welfare of a larger, interconnected being. Gifts both serve and result from the expansion of self beyond ego; they are both cause and consequence. Feeling a connection to the other, we desire to give. The more we give, the more we feel our connections. The gift is the sociophysical manifestation of an underlying unity of being.

Detached from the world, one can do little good or harm in it. Immersed in the world, we are challenged to use our wealth wisely. (8) It is generous to plunge fully into the social realm of ties and obligations. By giving of one’s gifts in a way that is public, in a way that, contrary to religious ideals, might generate return, we increase the throughput of gifts through ourselves, magnifying our capacity and need to give. The idea is not to force a return gift or contrive to receive one-that is not a gift at all-but to meet a need and create a tie.

Gifts, along with stories, are the threads of relationship, of community. The two are intimately related. Stories can be a kind of gift, and stories accompany gifts as well, enhancing their unique, personal dimension. The compulsion to tell the story of the gift is almost irresistible. I remember my grandmother: “Well, first I looked in Macy’s, but they didn’t have it there, so then I went to J. C. Penney’s …” In any event, stories of who gave what to whom are part of the social witnessing that inspires generosity and the feeling of community.

The attitude of the giver-“I give to you freely and trust that I will receive what is appropriate, whether from you or from another in our gift circle”-strikes a deep chord. There is something eternal and true about the spirit of gratitude and generosity that expects no reward and contrives no obligation. (9)  So here is a paradox: on the one hand, the obligation-generating function of gifts creates social solidarity and community. On the other hand, our hearts respond to gifts that seek to create no obligation, that demand no reciprocation, and we are touched by the generosity of those who give without expectation of return. Is there a way to resolve this paradox? Yes-because the source of obligation needn’t be social pressure levering the self-interest of a discrete and separate self. It can instead arise naturally, unforced; the result of gratitude. This obligation is an autochthonous desire, a natural corollary to the felt-state of connection that arises, spontaneously, upon receiving a gift or witnessing an act of generosity.

The logic of the discrete and separate self says that human beings are fundamentally selfish. Whether for the selfish gene of biology or the economic man of Adam Smith, more for you is less for me. Accordingly, society must apply various threats and incentives to align the selfish behavior of the individual with the interests of society. Today, new paradigms in biology are replacing the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy while movements in spirituality, economics, and psychology challenge the atomistic Cartesian conception of the self. The new self is interdependent and, even more, partakes for its very existence in the existence of all other beings to which it is connected. This is the connected self, the larger self, which extends to include, by degrees, everyone and everything in its gift circle. Within that circle, it is not true that more for you is less for me. Gifts circulate so that the good fortune of another is also your good fortune. Immersed in this expansive sense of self, one needs no coercive mechanisms to enforce sharing. The social structures of the gift still serve a purpose: to remind its members of the truth of their connectedness, to rein in anyone who may have forgotten, and to provide gift structures that work to meet the society’s needs. Who gives what to whom? The right answer is specific to each culture and depends on its environment, its kinship system, its religious beliefs, and much else. A gift structure evolves over time and guides a culturally appropriate distribution of resources.

This, in essence, is also what we want the money economy to do: to connect human (and nonhuman) needs with the gifts of man, woman, and nature that can meet them. Each of the economic and monetary proposals in this book seeks, in one way or another, to accomplish this goal. The old economic regime is inimical to it, with its concentration of wealth, its exclusion of those who cannot pay (such as poor people, other species, and the earth) from the circulation of gifts, its anonymity and depersonalization, its shattering of community and connection, its denial of cyclicity and the law of return, and its orientation toward the accumulation of money and property. Sacred economy bears the opposite of all these conditions: it is egalitarian, inclusive, personal, bond-creating, sustainable, and nonaccumulative. Such an economy is coming! The old one cannot last. It is time to prepare for it by living from its principles today.

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1. Laidlaw, James. “A Free Gift Makes No Friends,” in The Question of the Gift: Essays Across Disciplines. ed. by Mark Olstein. New York: Routledge. (2002): pp. 46-7.

2. Mauss, Marcel.  The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York, Norton: p. 13.

3. Ibid.

4. Interview on radio station KWMR, “A Conversation with Charles Eisenstein and Mark Dowie,” April 4, 2009.

5. In Taiwan, sensing intuitively the local etiquette, I was sometimes led into uncomfortable situations. I remember once visiting an elderly man to practice my Taiwanese; that morning lesson was accompanied by a platter of sliced beef and a newly opened bottle of whiskey. It was an offer that could not be refused.

6. Seaford, Richard. Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, 2004. p. 203.

7. Gift societies combine obligation and gratitude inseparably. In the potlatches of Melanesia and the Pacific Northwest, giving could be an act of social dominance, nearly of aggression. But even outside this extreme, it is generally true that, as anthropologist Mary Douglas says, “right across the globe and as far back as we can go in the history of human civilization, the major transfer of goods has been by cycles of obligatory returns of gifts” (emphasis mine). So when we opine as to what does and does not constitute a true gift, let us keep in mind the function that gifts have played in the psychology and society of countless gift cultures up through the present day. Who are we, who live almost wholly in a commodity culture, to presume to know what a gift is?

8. The path of the ascetic is, according to this idea, only right if it comes from the honest realization that “I am not ready to use wealth (in all its forms) well, so I will abstain from it until I am prepared.” Indeed, I have met very few people who use wealth well, which is not surprising since wealth is a gift, just as our talents, energy, and time are gifts; and to use it well, we must be oriented toward the spirit of giving.

9. Therefore, I think that Mauss is missing something important, seeing the dynamics of gift societies through a polarizing lens. Despite Mauss’s philosophical opposition to the utilitarian downplaying of humans as social beings and emphasis on individualism, he still buys into some of the doctrine’s deep assumptions, in particular that people are primarily motivated by self-interest. He asks at the beginning of The Gift, “What rule of legality and self-interest, in societies of a backward or archaic type, compels the gift that has been received to be obligatorily reciprocated?” (3). The very question excludes mechanisms outside self-interest and obligation that could explain the second part of his query: “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”

If Mauss’s account of gift dynamics is complete, then we might well ask how the present money-mediated system is any different. Through the medium of money, we too exert social pressure, leveraging self-interest, to make sure that gifts are reciprocated. Monetary debt directly parallels the gift-generated obligations in Mauss’s “archaic societies.” Moreover, in those societies that Mauss cites in which, for status reasons, the reciprocated gift must be greater than the one received, usury has a counterpart as well. One conclusion that we might draw from these parallels is that nothing has changed: that today’s money economy is but an extension, into the machine age, of archaic gift economies. But another conclusion that equally fits the facts is that Mauss has projected present-day mind-sets and motivations onto the people of the past. The latter conclusion has its own buttressing evidence-for example, numerous travelers’ accounts of the open, childlike generosity of the natives they encountered. Even Christopher Columbus was moved (though not moved enough to refrain from murdering and enslaving them): “[The Arawak] are so ingenuous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen it…. Of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.” His descriptive terms point to something significant. Their ingenuousness suggests something childlike and primal about their generosity; their lovingness suggests a motivation very different from Mauss’s socially enforced self-interest.

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