The Impossible Will Take a Little While – Experiments in Gift Economy (Part I)

freeThis post started in response to a colleague who, like me, is aching to bring about a gift economy in the world and is willing to take heat and failure along the way without ever giving up on continuing to experiment. Although she is ecstatic to make it possible for people to take her classes, she is frustrated at how hard it is proving to receive enough for her own livelihood. She wondered why it is so hard.

About twenty years of experimenting came tumbling out of me with the most clarity I’ve ever experienced about this topic: what it means to do a gift economy in relation to our work and livelihood; how the absence of systemic support makes it so hard for any of us to succeed; how our internalized messages interfere with uncoupling giving from receiving; and, finally, in part II, how experiments in gift economy intersect with privilege.

Full and Semi Gift Economy Experiments

A full gift economy constitutes complete and total separation of giving and receiving. On the giving side, whoever has resources beyond their personal consumption (human energy, money, cucumbers, tool, or anything else) gives them without any expectation of receiving anything “in return”, as that concept is incompatible with full gifting. On the receiving side, wherever a need is recognized, and resources are given to where that need is, those receiving take in the gift without incurring any obligation, simply receiving. Of course, by dint of being human and interdependent, when we are fully able to receive, it tends to open our hearts and enhance our generosity. The uncoupling only means that the new giving will, once again, be in the direction of where there is need, not “back” to the giver, who may not be in any need.

Reweaving Final front cover smallWhen I envision a full, global, functioning gift economy, I see an enormous and endless flow of generosity in which resources continually move, always forward, always from where they exist to where they are needed. This image is one of the deepest sources of faith, energy, and passion that I have. It’s pure beauty for me. So much so, that I wrote twelve fictional stories about an envisioned future world operating in a full gift economy which are included in my latest book, Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future. (Three of them are available here.)

A semi-gift economy, the way I understand it (I haven’t found any reference on the topic), retains the core principle of free giving without the radical uncoupling of giving and receiving. Let me illustrate the difference with an example. Right now, for the last two years, I have been running a full gift economy experiment. It consists of offering a certain amount workshops and conference calls as unconditional giving, without exchange, without any avenue for paying. In parallel, I have created a Circle of Support: a way for people to contribute money, to give unconditionally to me in support of my gift experimentation. The overlap between the two groups is quite small, which is part of the success, for me, since it points to uncoupling of giving from receiving.

In contrast with this particular experiment, I have many other events that I run as a semi-gift economy. People are most definitely asked to contribute money in relation to their participation in the event, and yet the amount is entirely up to them. In this mode, giving and receiving remain coupled. Hence the “semi”. What still makes it somewhat of a gift economy is that there is no particular amount to give, leaving it fully to the person giving to decide. In theory, the idea is that the person will decide based on holding their needs and mine together, free of any expectations and obligations, with the option of zero giving being fully in the mix. In reality, as I have come to see over the years, freedom is often heavily compromised in these settings. The obstacles, which I describe below, are all internalized from social messages, and difficult to transcend. In the absence of systemic support for gifting and sharing of resources, those of us who want to experiment are required to put a great deal of extra effort into promoting a gift economy’s assumptions which so often go against the grain of mainstream ways of functioning, making it less likely that such experiments will continue or take root. I come to this point more fully after describing the obstacles.

Obstacle to Free Giving #1: Disbelief or Cynicism

We have been trained to mistrust anything offered freely. Just think about the saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch. When things are offered outside the familiar terms of the strict exchange of the market economy, they present a challenge and raise questions: Is this for real? What’s the catch? Is this even valuable? What are they trying to sell me?

To the extent that this obstacle operates, people might even choose not to attend an event because of not taking it – or the invitation to give based on their own free choice – seriously. I feel particularly sad about it because of seeing how narrow is the path that the exchange and accumulation economy leaves for genuine giving to occur. Just as much as we might not trust the seriousness or authenticity of something that is offered outside of the market logic, we also might not trust what is offered within the market logic, evident in how often we believe that this or that product or service is offered “just for money”. Part of my hope in continuing to experiment is to restore our trust in ourselves, in each other, and in our relationship to generosity.

I still want to remain open to the reality that just getting people to engage with the experiment is asking a lot of them. It’s nothing short of inviting people to question the accepted worldview and make choices outside it. Given the strength of the external and internalized messages, any of us who want to experiment with any aspect of gift economies will be called upon to work extra hard individually to overcompensate for the lack of systemic support for our attempts. This begins with how we invite people and continues all the way with how we explain the experiment to them, how we ask for money, and how we respond to what we receive or don’t. Not a small feat.

Culture pioneers

Obstacle to Free Giving #2: Invisibility of Needs

One of the amazing feats of the market economy is that it makes needs invisible and replaces them with the notion of “value”. In the context of workshops, value either refers to the ostensible value of the workshop or to the idea that my time as the trainer is valued. In both cases, neither my needs nor the needs of the person who would be giving me money are explicitly in the mix.

This focus on value goes much deeper, in fact. Talking about my time being valued points directly to the accepted idea that you have to earn your keep. Put differently: the fact of having a need for food, in and of itself, doesn’t count in the world; it’s only when we’re able to do something for someone that we can eat. Moreover, what it is that we do for that someone changes what we can eat! If in the world economy all we can do is sweat labor, then what we end up eating is not sufficient to sustain a healthy human body. If what we can do is give someone high-priced doctoring or lawyering or consulting, then we can eat things that are flown personally to our door from some chef in some other country. (No, I’m not making it up, this truly happens.)

Within this framework, when we say, “I’m offering this on a gift economy basis,” or “by donation”, the message that other people get is that our livelihood doesn’t depend on it. This is clearly one of the places where we will be called upon to work extra hard to make the needs visible to others. For example, my colleague who brought up this question to us in the first place has adopted the practice of saying: “This is a vulnerable experiment for me because my livelihood depends on it. So I’m taking a risk with my livelihood here.” It’s her way of compensating for the fact that the system sends a different message, namely that if someone’s offering a gift it’s because they don’t need anything; that they have the privilege of offering something freely. I may have shared once before the moment in which I was asked by a friend: “You make a living doing your work? I thought you had rich parents or something.” That was when I finally took in that I would need to work really hard for people to get that my livelihood, my basic ability to attend to my needs, depends on money coming in from the work that I do.

Obstacle to Free Giving #3: Guilt and Obligation

You are freeHard as it is to cross the barrier of making my needs visible, immediately beyond it lies the second major hurdle. It happens when people finally get that I am actually in need, like them, like everyone else on the planet. This is a profound reality to face because it truly is the case that everyone on the planet is in need. This includes both the world’s poorest people and the billionaires of the world. The difference is not in the need. It’s only that some people have amassed enough to ensure that they have a steady supply of resources to attend to their needs, which acts as a buffer against noticing and taking in that they are, still, like everyone, living beings that have needs.

Once people open to the reality that I have needs, and that my ability to attend to them depends on receiving money from somewhere, a different cultural message comes to the forefront: When someone is in need, we must do something to support them. This message, steeped as it is in guilt, obligation, or any of their cousins, interferes with free giving because it effectively turns off the joy of generosity, which is the only source from which I would want people to give me anything.

Part of why the exchange economy remains so entrenched is that it relieves people of having to think and decide. If they have a figure that tells them how much they are expected to give, they don’t have to feel guilty because they know exactly the extent of their obligation. It’s a world of difference from being asked to respond to the rich, interdependent, complex, message of recognizing the need and having full freedom to decide how much to give. In response to need, we cannot easily continue to act as independent, self-sufficient individuals. Our web of connection becomes visible.

This is also part of why donation-based giving tends to yield smaller amounts. The request for donation registers as still within the exchange economy, and is set to not activate the guilt factor, because the message, again, is that how much is given is not so important because there is no true need here.

This realization also helps me make sense of an odd empirical observation. Technically, all of my workshops, including those for which I have asked for money, have always been free to anyone who needed them to be. I’ve always, always made it possible for people to come without paying. And yet the number of people who took me up on it has been a tiny fraction of the number of people who attend my entirely free workshops. There is no effort, no request to make, no negotiation needed in the new model, and thus it’s de facto much more accessible.

This is part of why I go so far beyond not asking people to give money when they participate in the free events. I actually make it impossible for people to give any money. I sometimes have told people in so many words: “No, you can’t pay for this workshop.” I deliberately aim to create an experience of unconditional receiving for people by giving so unconditionally. I see the cultivation of unconditional receiving as key to transcending guilt, which is perhaps the reason why receiving is so often harder for people than giving.

Obstacle to Free Giving #4: Scarcity

If this is beginning to look like an overwhelming endeavor to establish the conditions that would truly allow people to participate fully in free giving, then you can perhaps have some compassion for the immensity of the struggle. And I still haven’t finished my list. There’s one more significant obstacle, which is our profound training in scarcity thinking. Once free from guilt, or even while having it, it’s very common for people to get overwhelmed with thoughts about their own needs – the children they are feeding, their housing, the debt so many people carry for their entire life, and all their own expenses.

My own theory is that this particular form of anxiety is why sliding scales don’t work so well. Because of the emotional contraction of scarcity, sliding scales often result in the overwhelming majority of people giving the bottom of the scale, regardless of where it is. I know this, because of an odd clerical error that happened a number of years ago at BayNVC that resulted in people getting two different sets of sliding scale numbers for the same exact yearlong program. One started at $3,200 and the other at $3,400.

Lo and behold, the people who got $3200 – most of them gave $3200. The people who got the $3400 version – most of them gave $3400. Can we really say that the people who gave $3200 couldn’t have given $3400? No. If they had gotten the $3400 version, they would have given it. Why? Because they are thinking, consciously or not, “I don’t have money. The bottom of the scale is something that they are okay to live with, so that’s what I will give.”

At this point it may be clear already that to really and truly get to the level of full engagement with the difficult questions of including everyone’s needs before choosing an amount is unsustainable. Why? Because to get there we would need to have an individual dialogue with each person to get to this degree of honesty and care. Who can truly do it? I know I can’t do it with everyone. So what, then, is the alternative?

(You can read about my thoughts about the relationship between gift economy experiments and privilege, along with some beginning of a way forward, in my next post, next week.)

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Sunday, March 13, 10:30am-12:00pm  PT
Monday, March 14, 5:30pm-7:00 PT

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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image credits, all from Flickr: Free Sign by Alan O’Rourke (CC BY 2.0); Open source free culture creative commons culture pioneers by Sweet Chili Arts (CC BY-SA 2.0); You Are Free by Chris Metcalf (CC BY 2.0). 

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One thought on “The Impossible Will Take a Little While – Experiments in Gift Economy (Part I)

  1. Cleona Lira

    Wow, Miki. You always blow me away not just with your words but also with how you seek to live with integrity. I too have experimented with running workshops & I notice I have some fears about ‘being taken for granted’ and other such head judgements. I am inspired by your example and to be able to completely eliminate expectations and yet ask & remind for people to remember my needs for sustainability as well as their own. I also enjoy going to Awakin circles in London where we talk about & practice giving and receiving freely. Thank you for writing your blogs, I think I have read every single one and go back to them often.


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