From Exchange to Gifting Part One: Why We Need to Find Our Way out of Scarcity

by Miki Kashtan

Economics never made sense to me. I just couldn’t bring myself to think in that way, and I didn’t even know why, because I’ve always had an affinity with mathematics and science. So when I sought ways of gaining extra credits to complete my undergraduate degree faster, I saw an opportunity. I registered for what is called an “Advanced Placement” exam in macroeconomics, which would both give me credits and, so I hoped, give me the understanding I never had about what economics was all about. I pored through the original Paul Samuelson’s massive tome Macroeconomics (now republished with William Nordhaus) and easily aced the exam and got the credits I wanted. Alas, that didn’t come with more understanding, even as I was able to manipulate all the equations given to me on the exam.

Several years later, already deep into my doctoral studies in sociology in the 1990s, the understanding came, in a flash of an instant while walking across campus: the whole entire thing called economics was based on the assumption of scarcity. Since I didn’t share that assumption, I couldn’t make sense of any of it. I then looked up economics, and discovered, with anguished relief, that scarcity was baked into the very definition of economics. The one I found at the time, in a dictionary, was “the study of the allocation of scarce resources.”

Scarcity, Mistrust, and Exchange

The assumption of scarcity is, at its core, a deep mistrust in life. That mistrust then leads to mistrust of each other and, through our socialization, to mistrust of self. Within this, exchange makes perfect sense and gifting seems illogical. The “law” of supply and demand means that when demand grows I, any I, will raise my prices. Why? Because I can, and because I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. That raising of prices includes a built-in lack of care within it. You may come to me wanting what I am offering. Your need may be high, and I still won’t give you what I have if you don’t have the money to give me in exchange for it. I would be a fool to do that, because I have no reason to believe that when I am in need you – or anyone else for that matter; this is never personal – will care about me and give me what you have if I don’t have the money to give you at that time. I need this money now, I need all of it, more than any present material needs that I actually have, so that in that future I can myself pay for what I need. I will always try to get the most out of you that I can. And you will do the same. This is how the “law” works when we zoom out of our individual transaction. It all makes sense within itself.

Some years ago, I did a workshop in which I talked about some of these ideas, and one participant fully owned that this is exactly how he and his partners in his business think: they think about how to give their employees the least amount possible and simultaneously how to ask the public for the most amount possible. And this is a business based on purpose, giving the public a service that’s essential. That, the gap between what anyone would give their employees and what they can charge the public, is a big part of what their profit is. To extrapolate even further: capitalism doesn’t require malice to make exploitation and environmental destruction prevalent; only the application of the logic of exchange on larger and larger scales. Extraction is an endless sequence of small choices of the many just as much as it is a set of big choices of the few.

Being a Mothering Species

We are mammals. All mammals depend on a relationship with a mother in their early life. We are the mammals in which that dependence lasts the longest. It’s over a year before we can walk, and several years before we would be able to feed ourselves on our own. Our evolutionary makeup has a technical name associated with one of its key features: neoteny. Etymologically meaning the extension of “newness,” neoteny refers to the extension of childhood, the time when we are “new,” so to speak. This is a biological feature, not a social construct. Our physical features, even as adults, are more similar to young chimps than to adult chimps. Our very survival into adulthood requires unilateral giving. This, again, is a biological necessity, not a social imperative. The social imperative of selflessness and sacrifice is a patriarchal overlay on top of what is biologically given. Female human bodies are designed to grow infants that would then need us for a very long time to survive.

This is where Genevieve Vaughan’s research and theory about what she calls maternal giving, or the maternal gift economy, combines with the work of evolutionary biologist Humberto Maturana. According to him, we come from a lineage that parted ways with other primates long ago and which he and co-author Gerda Werden-Zoller call the “biology of love.” We are, as they say, in a great state of precarity since the patriarchal turn, because we can no longer thrive in a context of dominance and submission. We need love for our entire life. We need to live in a context of trust. We need each other’s goodwill to function. The tragedy as they see it is that although we still have the genetic possibility of stepping into dominance and submission, it destroys us when we do.

This is how I understand Genevieve Vaughan’s allusion to us as a “mothering species”: Within a matricentric way of living in which mothering and maternal giving are central – which growing research indicates is what happened for most of our existence as humans – both female and male humans orient to giving; are attuned to others’ needs; live in trust most of the time; and collaborate with each other for optimal flow of resources based on needs. It appears, also, that such human collaboration also supports non-human life. The subterranean collective memory of this way of living may well be what gave rise to the Garden of Eden myth.

Females, Males, and Loss of Trust

When we were aligned with our evolution, paternity was either unknown or unimportant. Male humans were still around children, though not ones conceived from their sperms. Living in multi-generational mother-centered households meant they were around their sisters’ children a lot.

When we took the patriarchal turn, we shifted from being matricentric, which foregrounds love and giving, to being patricentric, which foregrounds control so that accumulation can be passed. It’s only within this context that gender divisions begin to make sense. There is a biological asymmetry built into human life: female bodies are the ones that grow and feed the emerging new being. This will happen with or without the flowing, trusting collaboration of other males and females.

Females will continue to give regardless, because it’s a biological imperative. They will continue to do so even when they hate it because of the conditions of patriarchy; even when it’s a sacrifice, or when it’s forced on them and they are controlled by the males of the species or by the states the males have created within patriarchy.

For the males of the species, on the other hand, orienting to giving isn’t a biological imperative. They will only orient that way when we collectively align with being a mothering species. The capacity is clearly there, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of years of functioning in the matricentric logic. Still, like language and empathy, without being in a field of other-orientation and giving, and in the absence of a biological imperative, males are dramatically less likely to activate this latent capacity into actual other-orientation.

In patricentric contexts, there simply isn’t going to be a love field big enough to include the males sufficiently in the flow of giving and receiving that sustains us to create social grooves for the other-oriented pathways that are biological for females. This is tragic; this isn’t a flaw.

Also tragic is the recognition that, now, in the modern, capitalist, individualist version of patricentric contexts, females, too, are becoming less giving. Mistrust breeds mistrust. We all succumb to the logic of mistrust through intensive socialization, with its emphasis on obedience and shame. Fewer and fewer children, both female and male, are raised within the biology of love, and we are starting to lose it.

Conflict and Waste within Capitalism

And… Babies still need to be fed. We all still depend on each other. And our capacity to share the information and resources necessary to make it happen smoothly and efficiently is at an all-time low, collectively and across the globe. I use the words “smoothly and efficiently” in specific ways. I use the former to mean that whatever information and resources we share happens with the least conflict possible. I use the latter to mean that it happens with the least waste possible. In our low capacity, we generate both enormous conflicts, individually and collectively, and staggering amounts of waste everywhere in the cycle of so-called production.

In terms of what is being produced, it seems to me we now have extremely unreliable access to information about what we need, individually and collectively; what impacts we are creating and absorbing; and what resources are available to care for all the needs, impacts, and resources. Within globalized, neoliberal capitalism – the most virulent form of patriarchy yet to exist – we then produce both more and less than we need, globally, and do so with extreme amounts of violence and waste, both in relation to humans and in relation to the overall capacity of our planet to regenerate.

Trashed vegetables in Luxembourg

We distribute resources in a manner that is almost fully disconnected from needs and without accurate information about the impacts of such distribution. This is because we direct resources to where there are already other resources that can be exchanged, not based on needs. This goes back to the logic of economics. Although everyone talks about supply and demand, the term “demand” actually refers to what is called “effective demand” which means that whoever wants something has the resources to make their wishes known, whether or not there is any real need there. In fact, the capacity to offer something in exchange is the only measure, within economics, of what would count as need. Any time that resources go to where there isn’t real need and the real need remains unaddressed because it’s not backed up by existing resources, both conflict and waste grow.

The next leg in the cycle is consumption. Here, the gap with actual, rigorous information is painfully evident. Capitalism, modern style especially, relies on ongoing consumption to keep “the economy” growing. As a result, we consume, those of us who can, more than we need, independently of what we need, simply because we have the capacity to do so with money. We send false information back into the system to increase production when the need isn’t really there. How do I know the need isn’t there? Because I know that many millions of humans were able to thrive for millennia without things that to many of us seem essential for getting through one day. I fully include myself in the big mess of it. Perhaps because we were foragers to begin with, we are still oriented to look at what’s there and orient to that rather than to identify what we truly need and orient towards finding it. That we consume so much and are less happy than many who consume less, along with being beset by chronic and degenerative illnesses, multiple addictions, and debt, continues to remind me that something else is possible.

Lastly, items that don’t attend to real needs are likely to be discarded easily. The short film “The Story of Stuff” includes staggering information about just how short the life of many products is before they are discarded. We make things more and more from non-renewable materials that are not food for anyone. This means our waste accumulates and accumulates without any clear sense of what we would ever do with it. On the aggregate level of individuals, this means lots of metal, plastic, plastic, plastic, and toxic materials of various kinds. On the industrial level, it means, in addition, unspeakable quantities of chemicals, radioactive materials, and much else that most of us don’t even know about. Our waste is taxing our planet more and more every year.

No amount of finding other sources of energy, in itself, would ever get us out of this alarming situation. Global warming is only one of about twelve pathways to extinction, all of which are accelerating. Without being exhaustive, growing disparities of access to resources, erosion of topsoil, collapse of pollinators, and depletion of aquifers are all symptoms of the same challenge: the growing conflict and waste that our fundamental orientation of mistrust and scarcity produces as a main “good” and as a matter of course. This is clogging up our collective capacity, both materially and socially, to metabolize and reintegrate into the flow of life. I repeat: the biology of love itself is now at risk.

Hidden Gifting within Exchange

This form of capitalism all but fully ignores (and regularly even actively opposes) local flows of resources within families and communities, flows which still operate through the commons and through unilateral giving. Simultaneously, as Genevieve Vaughan has shown, capitalism and all forms of exchange completely depend on flows of gifting, however invisible they might be, as an essential necessity for capitalism to be possible at all. Here are some examples.

If all that is called “reproductive labor” – which includes, in addition to growing and giving birth to new humans, active care for the young, the sick, and the old; feeding and clothing everyone; and all the emotional dimensions of caring for everyone – were paid labor, our entire economy would collapse instantly. Capitalism both degrades and is parasitic on reproductive labor, which continues to exist outside the market, invisible and inevitable, and which continues to be done, overwhelmingly and all around the world, by women. Reproductive labor remains oriented to needs and isn’t mediated by markets, though the logic of markets and exchange penetrates that realm more and more. I believe that prior to accumulation, all labor – if we can even call it that – was reproductive. Production is distinct from reproduction in that it is oriented to surplus, not to need. Surplus is what feeds the possibility of accumulation. Producing surplus is, I believe, what is destroying life on planet earth.

A second flow of invisible and coerced gifting that capitalism also depends on is the power that employers have to extract labor from workers and give them only a fraction, in the form of wages, of what their work earns for the employers in the form of profit. This is an area that receives quite a bit of attention, especially in how it specifically intersects with colonization and white supremacy: none of us who live in the global north or other affluent pockets could have access to any of the products we buy without the intense extraction of labor from black and brown humans, fellow members of the same species, whose lack of access to the resources necessary to sustain themselves, and whose attempts to exit the market and re-create communities that function in at least partial gift sharing, are inseparable from our own capacity to live in the convenience that is our everyday, common existence.

A third and deep flow of gifting is the progressive extraction of the gifts of our elemental mother: the one precious planet we share with many millions of other species. This extraction is both direct and indirect. Directly, we cut down trees, deplete water, degrade the soil that sustains the plants and animals that feed us, and excavate minerals and other substances from within the earth. Indirectly, we create waste of enormous proportions that cannot be reabsorbed and is accelerating the destruction of everything else. These impacts are not on anyone’s balance sheet, because they are not monetary. And, within our GDP measures of the economy, when acute impacts that require intervention happen, they add to the GDP, because nothing is subtracted from the GDP. There are no negatives in the growth economy.

From Gift Economy to Maternal Gifting

Modern economics refers to societies or communities that orient all their activities to needs rather than surplus as existing within a “subsistence economy,” a term I experience as carrying derogatory energy that is vaguely similar to what the word “primitive” carries: a sense of superiority about what “our” modern societies have been able to accomplish; a sense of freedom from need and from the elements; a sense of something we would never want to come near. No amount of knowledge about how difficult our lives are and how much structural violence we produce and tolerate, nor awareness of how much generosity, kindness, and sheer joy some of the societies we look down on experience, has so far been enough to get large numbers of us to shift course.

And yet without this change, there may not be any future for us. A finite planet has no capacity to sustain a species on a rapidly accelerating exponential growth trajectory and without natural predators to keep its growth from overwhelming all life. Neither I nor any number of people who have looked into these areas and studied them deeply can see pathways that lead into a sustainable future without massive changes to how we engage with each other socially and economically.

I am still learning about what this change entails after years of studying and experimenting. For example, it’s only in recent weeks, in conversations with others, that I have come to see that speaking of the gift economy rather than, simply, of maternal gifting, keeps us within some version of the existing logic, still somehow within scarcity.

Exiting this logic makes it possible for us to taste, experiment with, live into, and share with each other the ancient logic still within our cells: the logic of caring for each other’s needs with available resources, within capacity and willingness, and with the least impacts possible. I continue to have faith that if saving us and, by extension, all of life is still possible, restoring flow through activating care and orienting to others’ needs has everything to do with it.

This isn’t something that we can do as individuals; only in communities, collaboratively, and on ever larger scales, until we can include all humans and all life on planet earth within our circle of care and within the flow of maternal gifting; until enough of us can lean on enough faith to grow a field of love large enough to bring enough tenderness to the patriarchal field to reintegrate us back into the living.


Adult female-infant wild chimpanzees feeding , by Alain Houle on BMC Ecology Image Competition

Young Housewife, by Alexey Tyranov on Wikimedia

Trashed vegetables in Luxembourg, on Wikimedia

Piles of plastic waste in Thilafushi, by Dying Regime on Flickr

Hadza women lightly roasting starch and fibre-rich //ekwa tubers, on The Conversation


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