Gift Economies // #chimesthesis – life+running

Gift Economies // #chimesthesis

As I started researching capitalism and greed, I discovered an interesting alternative economic model: the gift economy. 

What the heck is a gift economy?

Gift economies differ from capitalism economies because the premise is “more for you is more for me” rather than “less for you is more for me”, according to Charles Eisenstein, anyway.

Also, I quickly discovered that other designers have been experimenting with gift economies as well. Experience designer Pomme Van Hoof, whose research also involved gift economies, defines a gift economy as:

“… an economy in which goods and services are given to one another without specific agreements for immediate or future returns … [gift economies] can establish new and meaningful relations and a sense of community”.

It turns out that true gift economies typically exist in very tight-knit communities, such as in tribes, and that capitalism and gift economies usually do not co-exist. Pretty much all the authorities on gift economies agreed on this. 

One of the most notable works on gift economies is The Gift by Lewis Hyde. First, Hyde explains that a gift needs to keep moving in order for it to maintain its gift status and not become a commodity:

“… whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept.”

Of course, a gift may not always keep its original form — especially in the case of food, which is the most popular form of a gift. Hyde explains that the gift can be transformed and the important thing is to continue moving the spirit of the gift.

Gifts also have the power to strengthen community, according to Hyde — even one that functions in capitalism. He says:

“Because of the bonding power of [gifts] and detached nature of commodity exchange [gifts have the power to strengthen community.”

In addition, Hyde talks about the difference between a gift economy and capitalist economy:

 “In a commodity exchange, it’s as if the buyer and the seller were both in plastic bags; there’s none of the contact of a gift exchange.”

and that:

“… the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange is that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves [none].”

In short?

“… a gift makes a connection.” (Hyde)

In addition, the premise of gift economies is becoming increasingly important in today’s sociaty. Gift economy expert and activist Charles Eisenstein says that:

“Many centuries and millennia have indeed accustomed us to a world of great and growing inequality, violence, ugliness, and struggle.”

Given the state of wicked problems that the United States and the rest of the world are currently experiencing (such as economic disparity, crime rates, etc. … and let’s not forget the 2016 presidential election, #amirite?), Eisenstein’s sentiment rings true. Both Hyde and Eisenstein believe that one of the differences between capitalism and gift economies is greed.

In fact,  Eisenstein says:

“… community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own … because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people.

He explains how communities that are poor are stronger:

 “If you are financially independent, then you really don’t depend on your neighbors – or depend on any specific person … You can just pay someone to [do what you need].”

Although Eisenstein had a lot of information that supported my research, I don’t believe his radical idea that we can move from capitalism to a gift economy. Instead, I think if we infuse some of the ideas of gifting into our communities we can create pockets of kindness.


Have you participated in a gift economy?

Even the simple act of giving a casserole to a neighbor when they are in need counts!


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