Gift economy

Gift economy

The primitive way

For most of human history, there was only one form of economy – the gift economy. This concept was so successful that it lasted for several hundred thousand (if not even million) years – until our culture encountered it on its global conquest and replaced it with capitalism (or with whatever previous version was embraced by the people at that time).
Actually, it shouldn’t even be called ‘economy’, since it has little in common with other forms of economies. Putting ‘civilized’ labels on acts and actions of primitive people is misleading and alienating, and often serves the justification of the alleged ‘naturalness’ of exploitative systems. The term ‘economy’ was coined much later in human history, and now retrospectively labeling primitive customs as such is like the British Empire “discovering” Australia and claiming it to be their territory, regardless of who lived there before – an act of colonization
Primitive cultures offer things as gifts, letting the receiver decide what, if anything, the return gift might be. Like this the people can let their gratitude and goodwill guide them, and every act is individual and personal.

In Thailand parts of this tradition are still alive (called ของฝาก – “kong faak”), it is common to bring little gifts or souvenirs when you go to visit someone, even though no one really expects to get anything.

We regularly exchange gifts with our friends and neighbors, since our garden produces enough surplus at times that we can’t eat everything ourselves (we don’t like selling, so we give away): banana trees for example often have the habit of giving fruit at the same time. It is not only a nice gesture but it actively reinforces community, enhancing hospitality and kindness in your immediate surrounding. If you expect nothing in return, every counter-gift will be a surprise to light up your day.

Things that we regularly give away:

One days catch - more than enough for us!

One days catch – more than enough for us!

  • bananas
  • fish (especially in dry season, when the water level is low)
  • all kinds of vegetables
  • exotic fruit


Things that we got in return:

  • Wild honey
  • A big pile of wild pig meat (with liver)
  • Some pythons
  • A colugo

Why selling is difficult – morally and logically

Trading has been traditionally something you do with your enemies among primitive people. They don’t trade with kin.
As Fredy Pearlman writes in “Against His-story, Against Leviathan”:

A person gives things, just as she gives songs or stories or visions to her kin. The receiver may or may not reciprocate on some other occasion. The giving is the source of satisfaction. We will be so far removed from this, we will not understand. That will be our shortcoming, not hers. She trades only with enemies. If a hostile group, whether near or distant, has something she wants, she and several well-armed cousins go to the hostiles with something the hostiles might want. She offers her gift, and the hostiles had better offer the thing she wants on the spot or she’ll carry her gift right back to her village.
Soon after the rise of the first Ur [one of the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, 3800 years ago], trade becomes extensive. Virtually everyone is now everyone else’s enemy. When you give someone a gift, you expect what you went for; you keep careful records on your clay tablet, and
woe to him who defaults.
A single view of the hoards gives rise to a new human quality. This quality becomes so widespread that we will not believe it did not always exist:

Capitalism (and by extension civilization itself) tries to turn us all into competitors – potential enemies. We strongly dislike this method of creating negative feelings and discouraging community and altruism.

Taking the long way over money, instead of gifting or exchanging, leaves out those in financial difficulty – and those are often in most desperate need. This is especially devastating when it comes to food, since the economically disadvantaged (who don’t have a garden) find themselves in bad health when they can’t afford good and healthy meals on a daily basis, further worsening their situation. Poverty is a trap, and money-based exchange unfair.

Since we very much dislike reducing anything to a mere number (especially to give something a fixed standardized value), we consider the optimal price of anything the garden gifts us with as zero – also considering that it was not us who created it, but the plants around us.
Instead of expressing it in the abstract form of a number, we consider every single piece of produce to be individually precious and valuable, making the optimal price infinity – thus creating a mathematical paradox.

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