For many years now I’ve been uncomfortable walking into a big crowded shopping mall and feeling the energy of the place. It generally feels like most people are there for entertainment, shopping for stuff they don’t really need. Four years ago I remember people joking about how it is very much a contemporary American cultural practice to “Shop ’til you drop” (STYD), but since the Great Recession, I rarely hear that any more.
Good riddance I think! The United States has had an economy that depended on ever increasing domestic consumer spending more so than any other major economy in the world. I’m no economist, but I suspect that one of the reasons our unemployment rate continues to be stubbornly high through our slow recovery is that many of the STYD folks have found it necessary to hang up their shopping bags and cut up their credit cards. Looks like the jobs that supported that superfluous hyper-materialism are just not coming back.
And reading the recent Yes! Magazine piece by Charles Eisenstein, “To Build Community, an Economy of Gifts”, I’m more convinced than ever its for the better. Eisenstein says we can trade that lost consumerism for community by returning to (or at least towards) a “gift economy”. He writes…
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 “whys” 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.
Now neither Eisenstein nor I are saying to just sit back and enjoy getting poorer while the rich are getting richer. But tough economic times are as good as any to think about what is really of value in your life and spend your money more wisely on what really adds to that value. I think it’s really worth wrestling with his provocative thesis, that community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own.
Our Monetized Alienation
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.
So he’s saying we are alienated by our monetized wigitization of life. We are increasingly interacting with generic commodities and services engaged by payment rather than building relationships between unique human beings whom we depend on! He goes on to point out that much of economic development becomes finding more and more of the “commons” previously available or shared for free and figuring how to charge for it instead. There are so many examples of commoditized former “commons”. Here are just a few that come quickly to mind for people of middle-class economic privilege like myself. I’m sure you can think of many more…
* Bottled water – Usually costing more per gallon than gasoline
* Child care – Rather than people just volunteering to keep an eye on each other’s kids
* Lessons and classes – Rather than sharing our expertise freely
* Vacations – Expensive travel, lodging, activities, etc rather than just relax amongst friends, family nature, etc
* Communication – Spending ever-increasing subscription fees and per message charges to “talk” with friends electronically using various purchased devices rather than still free face to face conversation
Return to a Gift Economy
What Eisenstein is advocating for is a return to (or at least towards) what he calls a “gift economy”. This involves building circles of community where you freely share or “gift” skills and other resources with people you know rather than having to purchase those same things from random strangers (that you have no intention to have a relationship with). He argues that…
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”… The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earning it, and the more time we have to contribute to the gift economy, and then receive from it. It is a virtuous circle.
Well… maybe a bit pie in the sky since many of us spend most of our money on essentials like food, housing and transportation. But then maybe the difference between living within ones means and running up the credit cards is in the margins, that last ten percent of discretionary spending, the other stuff we are purchasing rather than sharing with each other in common. Maybe reducing that discretionary spending by giving and receiving gifts within a circle of community is the difference between a job you enjoy and that higher paying more stressful managerial job up one rung on the org chart. (The job where you make enough extra money to afford that expensive vacation to relieve the higher stress level of the job… *grin*)
The “Gift Circle” Concept
Eisenstein gives a practical example of the “Gift Circle” concept, developed by “social architect” Alpha Lo (see Lo’s blog)…
The ideal number of participants in a gift circle is 10-20. Everyone sits in a circle, and takes turns saying one or two needs they have. In the last circle I facilitated, some of the needs shared were: “a ride to the airport next week,” “someone to help remove a fence,” “used lumber to build a garden,” “a ladder to clean my gutter,” “a bike,” and “office furniture for a community center.” As each person shares, others in the circle can break in to offer to meet the stated need, or with suggestions of how to meet it.
When everyone has had their turn, we go around the circle again, each person stating something he or she would like to give. Some examples last week were “Graphic design skills,” “the use of my power tools,” “contacts in local government to get things done,” and “a bike,” but it could be anything: time, skills, material things; the gift of something outright, or the gift of the use of something (borrowing). Again, as each person shares, anyone can speak up and say, “I’d like that,” or “I know someone who could use one of those”…
Finally, the circle can do a third round in which people express gratitude for the things they received since the last meeting. This round is extremely important because in community, the witnessing of others’ generosity inspires generosity in those who witness it. It confirms that this group is giving to each other, that gifts are recognized, and that my own gifts will be recognized, appreciated, and reciprocated as well.
It is just that simple: needs, gifts, and gratitude. But the effects can be profound.
Needs, gifts and gratitude… and no reason you could not engage in such a circle online as well (though it helps to be neighbors to share heavy tools and appliances and offer rides and such).
It certainly appeals to me, but then I’m always a sucker for anything that features a circle of equals rather than some sort of pecking order. In this case a circle of giving among people in community with each other rather than a monetized hierarchy of some who have and others who have not.