Issue 15: Gift Culture

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Editorial: Economics for the Future

We need to question our prevalent capitalist economic system more deeply and intensively. If we take the trouble to join the dots, we find that it is connected to many of the ills of our world – be it the rampant ecological destruction, the ever increasing urban sprawl, aggression against women and the underprivileged, or an oppressive and frenzied education system. We also need to study alternatives and ways to take our own positive steps towards dealing with them.

When we scratch the surface and discover the myths underlying the capitalist system, we realize how much the crises of today have emerged from the erroneous foundations it is built on. One of them is the belief that human beings are intrinsically selfish beings – which led to the economic principle that self-interest is the human quality that can best drive development. Another myth is that competition and survival of the fittest are realities that we have to helplessly accept. And yet another is that early societies were ‘simple’ and that money was invented to improve on the barter system that existed earlier.

Today, science informs us that co-operation has a much larger role to play than competition in Nature as well as in human nature. It is believed now that Darwin’s theory was used to suit the compulsions of the corporates and the powerful.

Several anthropologists say that what was much more common than the barter system in early societies – and still is common in many parts of the world is an economy substantially driven by gifts. According to Marcel Mauss, a social anthropologist who wrote the short book The Gift in 1925, gifts in early societies had complex layers of meanings – personal and social, economic, political, religious etc.

Most early societies probably did not barter, but shared and gave and received gifts as their customs and rituals dictated. Most of all, the gift in pre-industrial societies, while it created an obligation on the receiver to reciprocate to the giver, yet bound the two in a relationship. Today, when something is sold, it is just a thing which does not help us relate to the one who made or gave it. Also in these societies, as in the north-western Native American and the Polynesian, there were sometimes customs of competition – of a different kind: the biggest heroes were the ones that gave the most and thereby possessed the least.

They may not have studied or theorized about economics, but the net effect of their customs of exchange seemed to ensure that there was neither excessive accumulation of wealth nor extreme poverty. They were wiser than us.

From Vedic times, in India too, the Rishi who owned next to nothing but was considered wise and enlightened was revered greatly, even more than the King. Renunciation and simple living was the mark of the wise. The Bhagavat Gita’s principle message is Nishkama Karma, to put in efforts, not for rewards, not for money, but for the sake of the work itself. Athithi Devo Bhavah (the guest is like a god) is a principle of hospitality that is still followed today in India, especially in the villages, even if it is often within the boundaries of a community.

In India as well as other countries, a large part of ‘services’ people give each other, work done and gifts given by family members – women particularly, friends and others show us the power of the gift to build relationship and community – which actually form the underlying context on which the capitalist economy thrives.

Understanding early societies helps us realise that our industrial capitalist free-market system is not the only possible one for humankind. Primarily, we need an economic system in the future that helps build just communities and minimizes exploitation of the Earth or other humans.

In this issue, we present perspectives on money, economics and gift culture by Satish Kumar, Charles Eisenstien and Manish Jain as well as stories of many wonderful people who gifted their time and energy for a cause they believed in.

Seetha Ananthasivan

Some of the articles in the issue. (Click on title to view the article)

  1. Welcome to Homo Giftus
  2. Money and Morality
  3. To Build Community, an Economy of Gifts
  4. The Way of Gifts

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