Gifts

Assets transferred voluntarily and without payment. At first sight, “giving” seems to be straightforward: the giver confers the gift freely. And yet, there is in return an unspoken expectation—it cannot be explicit—that he will in due course receive something back. The give-and-take of mutual obligation is so inseparable from the idea of the gift that there turns out to be no such thing as the “free” gift. The very notion of giving implies—or at least affirms an expectation of—receiving. All gifts have strings attached; indeed, the word itself is full of ambiguity: “gift”, with its implication of an object or a service that is pleasant, also bears the implication of its opposite: Gift is the German word for poison; the Greek and Latin dosis has a similar subtext—a “dose” of something with an ambivalent propensity to kill or cure. And there is ambiguity, too, in the notion of a “given”—imposing a hard-edged reality which you have to accept, whether you like it or not.G47

In other words, gifts cannot be taken at face value. They are instruments of social cohesion, creating networks of exchange and obligation which are not provided by market exchange, as Lewis Hyde notes:

It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection. I go into a hardware store, pay the man for a hacksaw blade and walk out. I may never see him again. . . . I just want a hacksaw blade. But a gift makes a connection.G48

A gift affirms the intention of good faith. The giver affirms that she is aware of the other person’s interests; she is willing to take the trouble and to give the thought needed to promote them, and to put herself in the mind of the other—to empathise with her. The power of gift exchange is witnessed by the plainly-stated formula for peaceful living in a traditional society for whom war with neighbouring groups came all too naturally—the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins quotes a Bushman’s insistence on the need to give:G49

The worst thing is not giving presents. If people do not like each other but one gives a gift, the other must accept it, and this brings a peace between them. We give what we have. That is the way we live together.G50

In a pre-market society the gift-obligation is so powerful that—as the anthropologist Marcel Mauss explains in his classic, The Gift—the whole society can be seen as a network of transfers affirming and holding in place the obligations between its members, not only within generations but between them (Script). It can be seen as the bone structure of society. Mary Douglas summarises,

The cycling gift system is the society.G51

In the Lean Economy, gifts could be all the more telling for their scarcity, with the arts, handcrafts and festival becoming the currency of reciprocal obligation: there is a deeper sense of self-bestowal in a gift you have made than in one you have bought. But whatever the gift itself, it is necessary for someone to take the initiative, without immediate returns, and without being instructed to do so—that is, to take a risk, to make a commitment to the social order. There is a sense of extravagance here, and just a short distance further along in that direction is—or was—giving on a grander scale: sacrificial giving. What is that all about? In Intentional Waste, the question is answered in terms of the necessary elimination of growth capital. But there is a deeper context, closer to the core meaning of “gifts” as relationship-builders, and concerning the join between gift and sacrifice.

Ancient societies intervened in the natural world; they depended on it and, to a significant degree mastered it. And yet, they received unexpected shocks from it; clearly, it had a life of its own; they therefore needed to establish some relationship, some reciprocity, with it. Although a key to establishing a reciprocal relationship is to make a gift of some kind, and living relationships depend on the exchange of gifts, a gift to nature is not as simple as, say, a gift to your aunt. If you give something to nature, it has to be destroyed—otherwise it is a loan: you can just go into the forest next morning and take it back. Therefore gifts to nature take the form of sacrifice, which may involve inviting others to join in eating it—an opportunity to combine ritual with redistribution (a high-protein meal) among the group.

Indeed, eating meat in traditional societies is so powerfully linked to sacrifice—turning a meal into a celebration—that we may wonder to what extent meat eating without sacrifice was practised at all. Grace before meals, which lingers on in places even in our own culture—offering up the food to God before promptly eating it—seems to have something of this ancient quality.

There is an engaging custom here, but the problem with it, of course, is that it can become routine. To be effective—that is, to not be mistaken for a mere formality—sacrifices must sometimes be charismatic, generous on a scale that hurts. A particularly telling sacrificial gift, given that he was credited with divine powers, would be the king himself, and the question as to whether that involved eating kings is much debated. But a reluctance to let a king die of natural causes is understandable: his robust health was a symbol of the community’s own health, so sacrifice-and-succession was arranged while he was still reasonably young and vigorous. In fact, so many early societies came independently to the conclusion that their king would be the ideal gift to nature that kings did not usually last very long. A refinement of this principle came—no doubt with the encouragement of kings—in the idea of substituting the king’s son; he would die on the king’s behalf and, through him, for the whole people.G52

Giving lives in a domain ranging from deep symbolism to basic housekeeping. It is the currency of the small-scale resilient community. It is sometimes magic, in that some kinds of gift can be given over and over again without loss—love, for example, and (in a different sense, since time cannot really be replenished) the gift of reciprocal service to each other. The “reciprocal” part happens, but not by arrangement. This is the opposite of transparency: you cast your gift upon the waters, and what comes back is trust.

« Back to List of Entries
David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

Comment on this entry: