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What if we Gave it Away?

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Issue: 14 Section: Features

February 3, 2004

What if we Gave it Away?

Citizenship as "contribution" and alternative economies

by Karen Houle

Think about 'contribution,' outside of the box.

The box is economy. The dominant economy–capitalism–is only one among many possible models of social organization.

How we think about economy and how we structure our activities as economies shapes what we think a contribution is, what kinds of activities are contributions, and who a contributor is.

Illustration by Sylvia Nickerson

In short, economies select what counts as valuable and virtuous. Economies also define what counts as contribution's opposite: who and what are burdens, parasites or deadbeats. If we want to change those definitions and the populations they point to, we have to change-or at least multiply-our economies and economic practices.

One way to conceive of a more just society is to focus on and participate in alternate economies which, by their nature, multiply the possible meanings of 'contribution.' This is one way to discover a conception which will contribute to the creation of a world in which many more are recognized as 'contributors.' Yet, this work is quite different from efforts like getting women in philosophy to 'contribute' to that discipline. That kind of thing is a timely and important effort, but it preserves the same basic economy that came before it. It just tries to add more to it.

To attempt to expand the present model of economy to include what single mothers or unemployed Italians or adults with disabilities or women really do contribute to the system, is not to go entirely in the right direction. This is not only true for these groups of people who do not presently appear to be 'full contributors,' but true for all of us.

Let's be clear about the term 'economy.' When we say these terms: economy, economic, we mostly think of money in exchange for goods or services, but this is only one form of economy among many. An economy is a complex system of organizing transactions and transmissions. It can be linear, it can be a web. There can be some at the bottom, or no bottom at all. It can involve money but it can also not involve money. Love is a kind of economy: it's an economy of the heart, of affection, of desires. An economy involves people and things in relations with one another. Sometimes the people are the key bits, sometimes something else like 'spirit' is, and people are chiefly in its service, its vehicles.

The economy which presently dominates our social relations, including our civic relations, is the money economy. The web of all-possible relations comes to be largely reduced to relations between someone who can, or must, buy something and another who can, or must sell it. Consumer relations. The central human interaction is commercial, and takes place between the have's and the have not's, initiated by the have's and defined on their terms.

Our model of good citizenship, sadly, takes something of its style from this economy: to be a good citizen is to have something and then to spend-usually time or money-on public projects. Either through 'direct contributions' (endowment, sponsored giving) or through indirect contributions (taxation, volunteer work). These are good things. But notice that to be a model citizen, requires in the first place that we be the kind of person who has something to give, thus understood. Underneath this view is a deeper view of personhood. Personhood itself is defined by having something, some amount, some trait, some capacity.

Without question, the 'best citizens' are the ones with buying power. Who or what they contribute to isn't of great concern. The sheer capacity to do so is.
This seems correct and even unproblematic. It is only when we ask that an inkling of another possibility appears. For having is not quite the same as doing and not quite the same again as being.

Let us consider what is valuable about this money economy and what is damaging about it.

What is valuable is that the money economy is necessary for many things to take place. Basic needs, let alone preferences, could not be met if this sector of our transactions was chaotic or weak. This economy is not inflexible: we can, in fact, transfer our holdings and buying power, according to moral or spiritual concerns, by buying Fair Trade products, pulling investments out of corrupt companies, or even refusing to pay taxes.

Into such an economy, we can introduce conservation measures: private spending, public spending, or limitations on either. There are ways to adjust within the money economy in order to include more people (fairer markets, wealth redistribution) or different values (a wage for mothers' child-care tasks). We could aim for sustainability as an outcome of our consumer choices. The same logic can be used in the same way toward the question of how to achieve inclusive citizenship: we might argue to expand the definition of 'person' to include beings who don't have X but do have Y. Or have X and Y. Again, this is one way to do things, and more markets, more persons, and more products can be included in the economy by these measures. But notice that the basic idea-that membership is based on having something-and the basic structure-that those who have more will always be more valuable, more virtuous-remains the same.

From a social justice perspective, the following things about our economy and its definition of contribution are troubling: 1) Those who have little or nothing cannot be seen as contributors. At best, they are tolerated. 2) Those who already have some will end up higher on the virtue scale whenever additional criteria are added. The order never changes. 3) The interactions within this dominant economy are not required to be between actual persons. They often aren't.

The basic relation which must be forged and kept vital in order to enable 'The Good Life' is the relation between you and your holdings and, secondarily, the relation between you and where your holdings are held (bank, trust funds, shares). The good life is lived if you can get what you want, when you want, wherever you are. As one of my heros, Vandana Shiva, recently remarked: it's not a global village, it's a global supermarket.

Happiness is cilantro in January in Athabasca. Yet in the act of happily munching salsa verde in January in Athabasca, people have, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from view (except insofar as you might buy something from them, or buy them something). Living the good life within a strong money economy does not require you to be good at being with, let alone caring about, people. Even that last bastion of The Face-to-Face, the bank teller who you have to go up to to get your cash from, well, you don't even have to deal with her anymore. "That's just fine with me," you say to yourself, remembering the cranky "enforcer" at the CIBC, and how bloody slow she was.

Let's pause there.

Do we forget? Humans are cranky and slow. It is going to take me about 76 years to do the work of becoming who I am. That's pretty slow. To be a human is to be a human (that is a temporal being with non-linear personality) and to be among humans; not removed from them. But this economy, this model of contribution-means-having actually short circuits that. InstaBank Civil life.

Without question, the "best citizens" are the ones with buying power (and this can apparently involve either malls or votes). Who or what they contribute to isn't of great concern. The sheer capacity to do so is.

The money economy-our economy-will perpetually disqualify any of those who don't have money or time or good looks or rationality because they can't be virtuous, as virtue is a positive demonstration. This should make us all uneasy because among other things we are humans and to be a human is to perpetually lose something-our fortunes, our minds, our umbrellas. Also, it fails to register preservation or acts of restraint as forms of virtue: it will not compensate these the way it will compensate or reward donations, output, maximizing. Lastly, even if some people never lost anything, there must be something fundamentally wrong with a model that dictates that the virtuous human doesn't have to be among-or give a damn about-any other humans.

* * *

Alternate economies and how 'contribution' and 'contributors' morph

Alternative economies do not need to be invented or started. They have always been part of the fabric of human interaction: it's just a question of shifting our focus and our practices in their direction, so as to get them squarely in our sights and to multiply what we understand-what we are able to see-as contribution.

I am not suggesting that the money economy be abandoned. What I am suggesting is that taking care to recognize the significance and the centrality of these other economies, and to involve ourselves in practicing them, is an essential part of the project of reorganizing what it means to be a member of society. It is a piece of the social justice puzzle.

What follows are brief descriptions of four alternate economies, and how they treat contribution. This exercise is just a preliminary gesture. You fill in the blanks.

  1. Barter exchange
  2. Gleaning
  3. Gift economies
  4. Total systems (something like 'Potlatch')

1. Barter exchange. A barter is any worthwhile exchange or trade between two or more parties. Each brings something and takes something, so the verb 'to have' remains central. But barter is different from money economies. It is, by virtue of the lack of a middle man ('capital'), a direct exchange, a singular and direct mutuality tailored to localized needs and surpluses. We all have too much of something and not enough of another. What does a contribution consist in? Whatever is needed, is wanted. What is valuable and not valuable, and therefore who is a good trade partner or a poor one, is not dictated from afar by forces like advertising. It can involve anything so long as it meets the condition of shifting too much of something and too little of another.

To be a contributor here, is to have or to be a lot of something. I, for one, have many excellent muffin recipes but know no jokes. Contribution requires sleuthing out relations of excess and poverties. To contribute requires that there be someone else who wants what you've got. It's a two-way street. There isn't, strictly speaking, A Giver (who gloats) and A Recipient (who slinks away like a charitied leech). This system undermines the steady hierarchical build-up of cultural capital that the money-economy raises for givers alone. Finally, barter rewards good matchmakers, those who are able to organize relations of specificity, inventiveness, and flexibility.

2. Gleaning. Go rent Agnes Varda's film, Les Glâneurs. Across the world people endeavor to make use of what has already fully passed through one cycle of the primary economy and is 'wasted.' Bugs and fungi do this too. Gleaning means following the swath of primary economy, picking up waste and using it either for its originally designed purpose (pulp wood left in a clear-cut is gathered and brought to the mill) or for an entirely different purpose (used french fry oil runs a school bus). What counts as a 'contribution' within a gleaning economy? To contribute is to make less, to render invisible, to disappear. The good economist here bears the opposite features as the contributor in the money economy, the one, remember, who makes more, renders visible, exceeds. What kinds of virtues are required to succeed as gleaner? Patience, good timing, imagination, modesty, humility, and friends, too. This happens in groups.

3. 'Potlatch' economies were prevalent throughout Polynesia and Melanesia, and up and down the Pacific Northwest Coast, noted from early contact through the early 20th century, when it was outlawed. There are many versions of it, some probably highly distorted, but some features seem to be common to all renditions.

Potlatches were total economies. Persons did not give or take as individuals but as members of groups, as heads of family groupings, acting for groups and on behalf of groups. Wholes gave and wholes received. The second feature involves the virtue associated with paring down radically. Prestige and power could be demonstrated insofar as one was prepared to give the whole of it away, even destroy the most valuable belongings in front of others. Status could be gained by being the kind of chief (head of a group) who gave it all away. Not just a tax-deductable donation or philanthropic funds generating interest; the whole amount was squandered. One 'flattened' ones rivals with the total girth of what one had in order to gain in that what could not be otherwise gotten: status, respect, a name, power.

Importantly, even though there were short-term shortfalls for whoever's group had given the potlatch, the fact of mandatory reciprocity meant that these shortfalls were, at best, only that. Under this kind of arrangement, who turns out to be 'a contributor'? Interesting: the one who contributes the most here is the one who receives, who has nothing to begin with, because without that full transfer, the system couldn't do its work of reward and redistribution. To contribute in this sort of an economy means to participate, to remain fully within a vast system of dependency and fluctuation.

4. Gift economies. 'Gift economies' involve Marcel Mauss, not the Clinique" counter. Yes, it's always 'gift time' at Clinique, but I'm thinking about something much older and stranger than the newest shade of lipstick. What Mauss tells us is that 'economies of gift' make use of human agents in order to pass-as opposed to hold-the life, the spirit of the thing. He calls it the hau of the thing; the power in the object. Gift economies are not so much exchanges between two agents as they are transfers, the sheer moving of stuff through webs of human relations. Gift economies were organized so that the life-giving ness of the gift could pass through, pass along in time and not be extinguished by 'private property,' as when a beautiful thing is taken into one hand and kept there.

What is strange and wonderful about 'gift' is that the contributor, really, is spirit. Those 'around' the spirit play supporting roles. Whether one (temporarily) receives or whether one (briefly) gives, these roles are secondary to the event of transmission, yet this transmission establishes webby human networks which are of utmost importance for any number of other economies. A good contributor is one who receives well, and also one who gives well. These are descriptions of caring, are they not?

Oddly, good work is done by being the kind of person around whom and through whom a maximum number of relations pass. One isn't important by possessing the largest capacity to give; one gives insofar as one has the largest capacity to receive. This idea is especially dear to me since it helps me to think about my grandmother's last months in a new way, in a way that preserves, for her, dignity and power. But not in any standardly understood form of dignity or power. After all, she was very very sick. But, this much was also true: the number of people who were required to touch her, to enable her, to feed her, to move her, to read to her, to wash her, to speak about her, to be with her turned out to be many.

When I think about her death through the lens of gift economies, I see that she was, at that point, a great 'contributor' precisely because her needs were the kind of needs which marshalled many relations, (even without intending to), yet held none of the benefits of these for herself, ultimately. This view of economies radically inverts the story of contributor and virtuous member of the collective, and places those persons with little or nothing at the very centre of their mechanisms. It is only through such a radical reframing of economies that those presently 'on the margins' of society find themselves at the heart of the matter.

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