Gift Culture

Charles Eisenstein, USA

Author & Speaker.

(Submitted by The Art of Living Team)

Wherever I go and ask people what is missing from their lives, the most common answer (if they are not impoverished or seriously ill) is "community." What happened to community, and why don't we have it any more? There are many reasons - the layout of suburbia, the disappearance of public space, the automobile and the television, the high mobility of people and jobs - and, if you trace the "why's" a few levels down, they all implicate the money system.

More directly posed: community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own. That is because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people. If you are financially independent, then you really don't depend on your neighbors - or indeed on any specific person - for anything. You can just pay someone to do it, or pay someone else to do it.

In former times, people depended for all of life's necessities and pleasures on people they knew personally. If you alienated the local blacksmith, brewer, or doctor, there was no replacement. Your quality of life would be much lower. If you alienated your neighbors then you might not have help if you sprained your ankle during harvest season, or if your barn burnt down. Community was not an add-on to life, it was a way of life. Today, with only slight exaggeration, we could say we don't need anyone. I don't need the farmer who grew my food - I can pay someone else to do it. I don't need the mechanic who fixed my car. I don't need the trucker who brought my shoes to the store. I don't need any of the people who produced any of the things I use. I need someone to do their jobs, but not the unique individual people. They are replaceable and, by the same token, so am I.

That is one reason for the universally recognized superficiality of most social gatherings. How authentic can it be, when the unconscious knowledge, "I don't need you," lurks under the surface? When we get together to consume - food, drink, or entertainment - do we really draw on the gifts of anyone present? Anyone can consume. Intimacy comes from co-creation, not co-consumption, as anyone in a band can tell you, and it is different from liking or disliking someone. But in a monetized society, our creativity happens in specialized domains, for money.

To forge community then, we must do more than simply get people together. While that is a start, soon we get tired of just talking, and we want to do something, to create something. It is a very tepid community indeed, when the only need being met is the need to air opinions and feel that we are right, that we get it, and isn't it too bad that other people don't ... hey, I know! Let's collect each others' email addresses and start a listserv!

Community is woven from gifts. Unlike today's market system, whose built-in scarcity compels competition in which more for me is less for you, in a gift economy the opposite holds. Because people in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune: more for you is more for me. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need. In a gift community, people know that their gifts will eventually come back to them, albeit often in a new form. Such a community might be called a "circle of the gift."

Fortunately, the monetization of life has reached its peak in our time, and is beginning a long and permanent receding (of which economic "recession" is an aspect). Both out of desire and necessity, we are poised at a critical moment of opportunity to reclaim gift culture, and therefore to build true community. The reclamation is part of a larger shift of human consciousness, a larger reunion with nature, earth, each other, and lost parts of ourselves. Our alienation from gift culture is an aberration and our independence an illusion. We are not actually independent or "financially secure" - we are just as dependent as before, only on strangers and impersonal institutions, and, as we are likely to soon discover, these institutions are quite fragile.



Submitted by Joseph Hofler III on Sat, 04/07/2012 - 13:42.

There is some truth to this. But I disagree with the monetization portion of it. Poor people in an area do not have a greater sense of community, in fact more often than not it is just the opposite. Regional crime statisitics pretty much back that up.

It is much more complex than that. I would say it has more to do with urbanization, and the greater anonymity that that creates for the individual. And paradoxically, that anonymity in an urban setting translates to both isolation, and often a sense of impunity - "being anonymous, my actions will not be noticed, no need to give because it will not be recognized, and taking is not noticed either but has potentially more upside."

Urbanization post WWII maintained a sense of community for a while for many reasons, possibly because those moving from rural to urban areas carried that sense of community with them and maintained it for a period, but second and third generations could not (mobility mentioned here comes into play in that regard). And of course, urbanization goes hand in hand with greater governmental involvement in every aspect of life - and authority structures tend to discourage strong individual initiatives in such matters, both actively and implicitly, since people come to expect things to be done for them.

Submitted by Charles Eisenstien on Sat, 04/07/2012 - 17:03.

It depends which poor people we are talking about. In Third-world countries, "poor" people often have very strong community because their social ties have not been monetized. They depend on each other. This is especially true in relatively intact rural communities, such as Indian villages, but also to some extent in favelas, shantytowns, and so forth.

In the West, as this comment observes, this is not necessariy the case.

It is also true that urbanization -- and even more so, surburbanization -- has contributed to the decline of community. But that reinforces my point. Suburbanization is an agent of the conversion of social capital into paid services. Public space becomes private space. We have to pay even to talk to or visit our friends.


Submitted by Joseph Hofler III on Tue, 04/10/2012 - 13:58.

I think you are taking a rather skewed view here, Charles. I have lived in South Africa, and the sense of community in the shanty towns is not that tremendous. Same goes for poor regions in other parts of the third world I have lived in. The common denominator can also be seen in the counter example - there are endless small towns throughout this country (and the world) that maintain a strong sense of community, despite being financially well-off, and technologically advanced.

Similarly, having lived extensively as an ex-pat, I have seen "meta-communities" formed within larger structures, people who are getting paid very well and living on the cutting edge that still help each other, socialize, communicate, come together for fun and commiseration alike - because they are all strangers in a strange land and form social relationships, often life-long ones, based on that commonality.

I see much less of a financial common denominator, rather a very strong population density factor. As for your last comments about "public space becoming private space" and suburbanization being the agent of conversion of social capital into paid services, they are also not supported. Suburban areas arise from private farm, forest, or other space being re-purposed for housing development.

Private space remains private space - albeit for a different purpose. And the reliance upon money for communication is pretty much space-independent - living in a rural community, I still pay for telecommunications, internet, media, and everything else in that regard, just as my urban or suburban counterparts do. The primary difference is that I KNOW my neighbors, they KNOW me. We all make the effort, in part because we cannot hide in the crowd: our actions, our family and our history are known to everyone else in the small number of people who populate the area.

This is generally not the case in higher population density areas, regardless of financial means and technological level.

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