“Each of us lives in and through an immense movement of the hands of other people. The hands of other people lift us from the womb. The hands of other people grow the food we eat, weave the clothes we wear, and build the shelters we inhabit. The hands of other people give pleasure to our bodies in moments of passion, and aid and comfort in times of affliction and distress. It is in and through the hands of other people that the commonwealth of nature is appropriated and accommodated to the needs and pleasures of our separate, individual lives. And, at the end, it is the hands of other people that lower us into the Earth.” – Jim Stockinger
This post is the second in a series I called “Apart and Together” that I’m writing in response to the Corona crisis. The first one, subtitled “Responding to Opportunity in Extreme Times,” listed eight ways in which the current crisis exposes existing challenges and thereby presents opportunities for us, individually and collectively, to completely shift gears and transform our relationship to life, each other, and ourselves.
In this piece I take on the first of these themes. The Corona crisis makes possible a deep conversation previously relegated to the radical fringes: How do we shift from keeping the economy going to directing resources to where they are most needed, as a general principle of living?
Heads of state, business owners, and many others continue to speak as if all that’s needed is for us to tough it out for a while longer, for the Corona crisis to end, for a vaccine to appear, and then we could go back to normal, to business as usual. Never mind that “normal” was catastrophic for billions and for vast numbers of plant and animal species. Never mind that it left no possibility of a climate that sustains life into the future. We keep being told that this extractive, wasteful economy is the only viable option. And yet, in reality, in a time of crisis like the Corona, it becomes evident that the economy we currently have is incapable of attending to needs. Indeed, even by classical economic definitions, it’s not needs that the market attends to, it’s “effective demand.”
Why Market Economies Can’t Address Needs
While this may superficially seem like a pure semantic distinction, the entirety of the difference between an exchange economy and a gift economy hangs on the depth of this insight. In a gift economy, the presence of a need is what generates willingness in others to attend to it. The gift economy is most deeply exemplified by the act of caring for an infant, who, by clear definition, is neither capable nor expected to give back. Mothering, which can be done by a person of any biology and gender, quintessentially involves sensing and responding to need in another. This is Genevieve Vaughan’s profound insight: we all came into this world through gifting, we all have experienced receiving without giving. Many examples exist, even within our exchange economies (think interlibrary loans, humanitarian aid campaigns, and others), and I still find, with Vaughan, that the simplicity of mothering as the paradigmatic example is unsurpassed.
In an exchange economy on the other hand, needs hold no power unless they are already backed by the presence of resources that can be exchanged for what’s needed. It’s the presence of such resources, which in exchange economies generally means access to money, that converts the need into an effective demand. In that sense, then, resources go from where they exist to again another place where they exist, only changing form in the exchange. Exchange is different from flow, because the two moves cancel each other out. The flow of resources to where needs are, out of care and interconnection, is absent. Receiving what we need happens in a transactional way, because the other person also receives something sufficiently of value to them to be willing to give us their own resources. My favorite rendition of this wrenching reality is Adam Smith’s own words: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” There is no flow of care. The needs, by themselves, don’t create any movement. If anyone has a need and doesn’t already have resources they can exchange for the specific resources they need, their need will simply go unattended, while those with massive amounts of resources continue to accumulate.
This has been true ever since market economies were created by early states. Market economies, from their beginning, have served to make taxation possible, as documented by David Graeber in Debt: the First 5000 Years. This is only one way in which market economies, and especially their modern, capitalist version, concentrate wealth and resources more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer people, leaving larger and larger numbers of people in struggle.
One of the things that the coronavirus appearance, and the ensuing pandemic it caused, opened up is the possibility of exposing this incapacity of the market to attend to need. If the market were able to attend to needs, there wouldn’t have to be any governmental mobilization anywhere, because it would happen by itself through the mechanism of the “invisible hand.” And yet in country after country, governments are initiating actions that would be unheard of before, including re-nationalizing services, mobilizing war-like production, and considering cash payments to those in need or to everyone. That it’s happening is showing us in stark terms that, left to its own devices, the market cannot attend to needs. This is not an accident or an aberration; it’s exactly the inherent logic of how markets operate to make it impossible to move resources to where needs are, except through mechanisms, such as state intervention or individual and community gifting, that operate outside the market logic.
A mere few weeks ago no one would have imagined that the US, especially under a president like Donald Trump, would consider policies or legislation that support paid sick leave. The Coronavirus has opened up a new conversation. It’s not a huge shift, and it’s enough to see possibilities. Now, as Neil Howard documents in Organizing for the Future beyond the Coronacrisis, states are stepping in to attend to needs, to coordinate efforts, to restrict movement, and to distribute resources to where need exists. These are all actions that interfere with the market; the very type of actions that market advocates warn us against at other times.
Now, however, in the face of what is happening, things are different. As Maris Luisa di Blasi wrote: “Whether we know it or not, it is precisely [the gift] economy we activate to combat the virus. We do it now instinctively, but soon it will turn essential to become aware of this process, when in the better days we shall have to decide if falling again into the ‘ab-normal’ life imposed by the market, or choosing the necessity of a new world.”
To fully grasp why “a new world” might be necessary, and also possible, I have benefited immensely from learning about and reflecting on what got us here from a premarket past, uncovering, recovering, and thinking deeply about the alternatives that continue to exist, just under the surface, and imagining pathways forward. This is what I turn to next.
Markets and Governments
Contrary to what economists like to tell us, there never was a world of barter into which came money to make transactions more efficient. This is well documented by David Graeber in the Debt book I already mentioned earlier. In other words, markets, both in their initial material existence, and in their more abstract current forms, don’t arise naturally; they are created. And they are created by the very entity that market advocates like to malign most: the state. The details and depth of this profound shift in our understanding of human social evolution are quite beyond the scope of this short essay. I am raising it here, because I want to bring awareness to a far-reaching consequence of both the issue itself and the obscuring of it that current economic theory does: the possibility of alternatives that are neither market-based nor centrally planned. This disappearance is one of the less understood ways in which the current social order perpetuates and reproduces itself. Instead of seeing the entire spectrum of fully deregulated markets to fully planned economies as different mixes of the same fundamental logic, we are trained to see them as opposing logics in battle with each other; a battle we all must be part of and out of which there is no exit.
The current recipe known as neoliberalism pretends to go as far as possible away from government control. This is particularly apparent in the US. Ronald Reagan, a key figure in the establishment of neoliberalism, went as far as to say that government is the problem. What I believe they actually refer to is all and only two types of government action: any restrictions on the capacity of the business sector to accumulate, and any direct movement of resources towards needs. There’s no complaint about the role of government when it bails out big companies when they fail; when it incarcerates larger and larger proportions of the population as the US has been the #1 in per capita incarceration now for decades; or when it maintains certain forms of infrastructure such as transportation. The rhetoric simply doesn’t match the reality.
When we raise concerns about the ravages of the markets, all too known to enumerate, we are told, in the words of Reagan and Thatcher: “There is no alternative.” What is meant with those words is that the only alternative that existed, in this narrative, was the state-controlled economies of the communist block. Those, as the story goes, have proven themselves to be so against people and freedom – which in that story equates with markets – that they failed, as predicted. With their collapse, and the cautionary tale they left behind, we have nothing else to imagine. Our only option is to accept the one and only possibility: a so-called free market economy, where we sink or swim.
If anyone reading this is now imagining that I am fundamentally pro-government and possibly into state-controlled socialism, this thought would only point to the strength of this either/or and nothing else narrative. I am no fan of governments, big or small, any more than I am a fan of the market. I have not made any definitive conclusions about the relative merits of rampant markets vs. rampant state control. The amount of data I would need to amass in order to think that through is beyond what I anticipate doing in my lifetime. I have reached only partial conclusions about these questions. The first one is my thoughts about why capitalism has been so deeply appealing to people. One reason is that the image of “the invisible hand” makes it appear as if everything is flowing freely, with little to no control. The relationship between the market and the state, and specifically the utter dependence of the market on the existence of a solid state, is made invisible. This compares very favorably, on superficial examination, with what looks like the absolute power that the state has in existing communist countries. A second, and related reason is that the full commodification of almost everything gives the intoxicating illusion that if only we had more money we would have more and more freedom to do as we please.
A related partial conclusion I have reached is that while it’s quite easy to see the numbers of people killed within communist regimes, this ease doesn’t mean it’s actually more people than capitalism has killed. Years ago I read an illuminating article that estimated the number of millions of people killed in the 20th century because of capitalism. The links and connections made were compelling to me, and the numbers are in the tens of millions.
Until, and unless, we are able to transcend the fundamental narrative that claims that capitalism is both inevitable and mostly benign, the best we can achieve is what the Nordic countries have on a good day: giving the rich enough capacity to increase their wealth so that they will relent about giving others safety nets, and giving the majority of the people enough cushioning and basic security to accept significant wealth disparities. This is done both through relatively high taxes on the rich, and through direct programs that offer benefits to all, not only to the impoverished.
Why do I say “on a good day?” This uneasy truce depends both on continued economic growth and on a population that is relatively cohesive and homogeneous. In the short run, when one or the other change, we see rapid moves to the right even in well established countries such as Sweden. In the long run, even regulated capitalism is exponential and is already outstripping the earth’s capacity.
However imperfect, however unsustainable, it still remains true that in the short run, since markets on their own are unable to attend to needs, the current crisis definitely shows us that governments have more capacity to attend to needs, and that their intervention is sometimes the difference between life and death for the many. This is the core piece that is becoming visible to all, during this crisis. The question that I am opening here, that others are asking now, is: what happens once the crisis is over? How does this insight translate beyond times of crisis? Can this crisis be the beginning of transcending the narrative altogether?
Exiting the Market Logic
Beyond any comparison of the extreme ends of an uneasy alliance between markets and states, or even assessments of what may be optimal points within the existing logic, I want to come back to the basic reality that alternatives do exist. Two basic forms that such alternatives take are gifting and what David Bollier calls “commoning,” namely the activity of being part of a commons. Gifting is the flowing of resources towards needs through direct action. Commoning is the sharing of resources that happens when a community engages with resources together, collaboratively, through ongoing agreements.
Both gifting and commoning express human qualities that the market discourages: care and relationship. This was not lost on Adam Smith himself, and indeed he addressed morality, community, and much else in work that is far less known today than his explorations of the market. Contrary to current conception of homo economicus, the imaginary creature that is entirely consumed by selfish desires and willingness to get those met at whatever cost to others, Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759, begins with these words: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. … The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”
The entire structure of market and state requires us all to believe, at least to some extent, that without incentives or coercion we won’t do anything; neither produce what’s needed to sustain human life, nor care for others when the market can’t do it. The absence of faith that humans are wired for, and capable of, caring for each other and for the resources that sustain life is present in the prescriptions that come from the liberal left, although in a form more subtle and harder to detect.
This is one of the key places where I part ways from the liberal left in the US: I neither think that government is necessary in order to care for needs, nor do I believe it is likely to do a great job for the most part. Talking about a variety of ways to attend to “the common good,” David Steven and Alex Evans write in Planning for a World after the Coronavirus Pandemic: “Initially, these measures can be paid for through public borrowing, but eventually the rich will have to foot much of the bill, with more of the burden of taxation shifting from labor to wealth. Otherwise, we believe it is inevitable that capitalism itself will increasingly be called into question.” Both the idea that the only way to move resources to where they are needed is through a coercive measure (taxation), and the idea that transitioning out of capitalism would be problematic are fully present within the article that is otherwise deeply critical of what is happening. This also indirectly points to how dependent on friendly governments capitalism is.
My conclusion is stark. What I see is that lack of faith, implicit negative theories of human nature, and the resulting conviction that only tinkering and coercion are possible end up preventing fully visionary and imaginative pathways from emerging. To these I now turn.
Putting Needs at the Center: Care and Relationship
Although gifting and commoning are very different practices, they both exit – in full – the logic of exchange and accumulation that’s foundational to the market. Gifting is a unilateral movement of resources from where they exist to where they are needed, resulting in unconditional giving on one end being uncoupled from unconditional receiving on the other end. Commoning is a set of agreements between people in relation to resources they hold in common about how they will access and distribute those resources to attend to their needs without depleting the common resources. Although both of them have repeatedly been reduced to, and described through, market mechanisms – or claimed to be impossible given our human nature – they continue to exist. If we only look deeply enough, clearly enough, they offer us a blueprint of how we can operate, once again, in ways directly linked with needs and centered on relationship and care. Their continued presence is an ongoing threat to the narrative of the market as the only option, and it’s no surprise to me that, both on theoretical grounds and on the very material plane, they are continually being exploited, challenged, denied, dismissed, ridiculed, and outright attacked and dismantled. If we want a world that works for all, if we know that we cannot solve most current problems without shifting away from the exchange and accumulation paradigm that underlies market economies and capitalism in particular, one key step we can take, individually and collectively, is to reacquaint ourselves with the history and meaning of both, and to engage in larger and larger experiments aimed at restoring both.
Much anthropological literature construes gifting as a complex form of exchange, complete with status and obligations. This interpretation of gifting is deeply contested by many, including in particular Genevieve Vaughan, who is an author, researcher, and activist in the area of gifting. She is a pioneer in seeing gifting as rooted in maternal giving, and thus inherent to human evolution. No other mammal has offspring so vulnerable and dependent for so long, and thus the capacity to give unilaterally and for a long time, solely in response to need, has been pivotal to our capacity to develop the large brains and capacities we have. Our dependence is directly related to our brains, because all of us are essentially born premature in order for our heads to be able to go through the birth canal. If we didn’t have someone on the other end of that journey ready to attend to our needs just because we have them, our species would not have survived.
Once this primal gifting – unilateral giving and unilateral receiving, independent of each other – is fully grasped, it then becomes clear, as Genevieve Vaughan has demonstrated in many articles and books, that exchange economies are fully parasitic on the invisible gifting that sustains the market: all the work of care that is mostly done by women around the world is either without pay when at home, or paid at some of the lowest rates anyone is paid. If that work had to be paid for the exchange economy would not persist, because it doesn’t generate enough to cover those costs. There is, in addition, the silent, invisible, and involuntary gifting from the nonhuman world, as well as the forced gifting of workers through the far lower wages they receive, by definition, than their employers are able to receive for the product or service those workers provide.
Commoning, like gifting, has been with us for a very long time, likely, in some form, all the way back to the period of gathering and hunting. The essence of the commons is relationship, something articulated by Elinor Ostrom in her Nobel-prize winning research on actual commons, which never look like the abstract, imaginary commons in Garrett Hardin’s widely cited article “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Even though Ostrom refuted that thesis, her name receives about 720,000 entries in a Google search, while the name of the refuted article receives 38,000,000. The difference, and what Ostrom demonstrated, is that actual commons, unlike Hardin’s models, are based in relationship. Her works established that commons are relationships, not resources: People engage with the resources of what they hold in common as a community, in relationship with the resource. The community cares for the resource as part of caring for themselves and each other: they all know that the long term wellbeing of all depends on this fuller, deeper caring. In Hardin’s abstraction, on the other hand, people approach the resource in question as individuals in competition with each other, without relationship, and without care. The logic that leads to overuse is a logic of scarcity and separation, not the logic of care and relationship.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts how, when the colonists came to North America they interpreted the local people as being lazy because they only harvested part of a field and not all of it. In reality, she tells us, this was intentional: so the field could sustain itself indefinitely into the future.
Both subsistence economies and commons are encroached on by capitalism, both early on in the well-documented enclosures, and to this day. Destroying commons severs relationships and makes resources themselves directly available for capitalist extraction in the same act that makes individuals vulnerable and in need of jobs. This is no accident. And the reverse is also true: if we want to exit the market, exchange-based, extractive economy, we must rebuild relationships and return to a focus on attending to needs, including the most elemental and physical.
Corona and Our Future
I now return full circle to the beginning of this post: what the corona crisis makes possible now in relation to attending to needs. Beyond the obvious, which is that the limitations of markets are now more visible, and certain conversations are now possible that weren’t, can we have any actual gains from this pandemic that’s brought so much anxiety, suffering, death, and loss?
Given that in the short run governments are best positioned to direct resources to needs, one of the most encouraging developments I see is the introduction of universal basic income (UBI) in Spain, with an intention of continuing past the pandemic. Conversations about UBI have been going on for many years, oddly uniting some people on the left and on the right, for different reasons. Until now, only one country has had any program of UBI for the entire country: Iran. Spain is the first country in Europe to do it, and may not be the last. The pandemic has pushed such programs forward, because of the extreme need exposed when the economy is collapsing and so many people are without jobs – currently almost the only way available for people to care for their very essential physical needs. The conversation is deepening and pressure is mounting to establish UBI programs, all over the world. Many see emergency one-time payments in several countries as potential precursors of a full UBI system.
This pregnant moment with regards to UBI is leaving me with many more questions than it answers. Could UBI be a first step in a move towards putting needs more at the center? Will this be the beginning of massive transformation, or just a stop gap measure to keep things going? What can ordinary citizens like us do with the knowledge that restoring “the economy” to “normal” would be a deeply lost opportunity? What could be immediate alternatives that could be implemented at smaller scales than nation states, scales we could conceivably influence? Are there ways of jumpstarting a commons or introducing gifting into wider and wider circles? Are we, collectively, capable of leaping over current limitations to institute a global gifting and commoning alternative to the markets based on willingness to share and gift resources with, and to, people we don’t know?
My final question is painful for me to stay with, and yet it’s the one that is sticking with me: if this crisis isn’t enough to bring the economy to a permanent halt out of which we could create many communities caring, together, for the needs of all with mostly local resources through gifting and commoning, what could?
 Adam Smith, The Wealth of the Nations, Metalibri, 2007, Book 1, Chapter 2, p.16.
You can find more on the “Apart and Together” series (including articles and videos) on the main page.
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