From Exchange to Gifting Part Two: Beyond the Exchange/Gift Binary

by Miki Kashtan

One of the most challenging aspects of aiming to turn around the patriarchal field is that we can’t do it while using patriarchal methods or ways of thinking. It requires a much deeper rebooting. No dictatorship of the proletariat will ever reintegrate us into care. No top-down movement will ever create a collaborative future. No othering of those who other will ever create liberation.

Similarly, restoring flow cannot rely on the separation that either/or thinking reinforces. It’s only recently that I could see that the distinction between exchange and gift isn’t a neat binary that we could use to jump from one to the other. That neat binary is one of the primary forms that separation takes. As is often the case with human constructs, exchange and gifting live on a spectrum, without any clear demarcating line. Just because we can point to extreme situations on either end of the spectrum doesn’t mean there are no gradations.

Wherever we are on that spectrum – as an individual, as a group or organization, as a community, and, maybe one day, as a whole society – we can wake up to the reality of what we have lost and what can be gained through shifting towards other-orientation and gifting. This is a journey with a clear start and no apparent ending at present. It won’t ever look the same for each individual or group that takes it on.

I want us to have generosity and gentleness and let ourselves name what we do as we will. There is no “correct” way to do gifting such that anything less than it isn’t.

In this piece I introduce three dimensions along which the journey progresses that I have identified so far. At any point on the journey, we can thus ask ourselves how we can approximate full gifting even further along any and all three dimensions. And there is no way we can evaluate each other’s journey. I want us to have generosity and gentleness and let ourselves name what we do as we will. There is no “correct” way to do gifting such that anything less than it isn’t. Again, there is no line to demarcate exchange from gifting. We are moving towards a major paradigm shift, those of us who are trying, a vision of possibility that is as luminous and inspiring as it is far from where we are. None of us can do it alone, and we need all the support and encouragement in the world from each other. If we are clear on the vision of full, global, maternal gifting; if we are moving towards gifting along any of these dimensions; and if we sense ourselves deeply as being part of such as an experiment; then let us boldly proclaim it.

Moving towards Relational Engagement

Many people, even those who live fully within the exchange paradigm and don’t ever think about maternal gifting, prefer going to a farmers’ market, if one exists where they live, or to a local store, rather than to a supermarket. Sometimes they prefer it enough that they are even willing to pay more money. There is a reason for it.

When we go to the supermarket, we have far less relationship with the entity from which we are buying than when we buy directly from an individual. The logic of markets aims to separate us from each other to the point of being completely instrumental with each other. Any degree of relationship that we have within the exchange increases the care and softens the harshness of exchange. We want the local farmer to do well in a way that we can’t similarly care for the supermarket chain. There is no human there to care for. Who would it be? The only person we consistently encounter is a cashier, with whom, by structural design, we have the least amount of relationship possible (though some shoppers and some cashiers manage to subvert this, at times leading even to a change in what is being charged). That person doesn’t directly benefit from the money we give, only after many layers of abstraction. Sure, we can give that person money directly, and we won’t. We neither have enough of a relationship with that person, nor enough models in the culture to do that level of caring. Simultaneously, we are kept far from everyone who might benefit directly from our money – most especially the CEO – and are trained to see that person as someone to envy and mistrust.

The instrumental nature of markets, which is forced on us through the absence of other options to attend to needs, means that the other person is only a means to getting what we want, and this is happening simultaneously in both directions. It is only possible to continue applying the logic of the market, which is rife with exploitation, both overt and subtle, when we don’t have an actual relationship with the other person. Creating the shift to relational engagement starts with recognizing the high cost of the exchange logic even, as it appears simple and provides many comforts to those who have a modicum of access to resources. From there, we can invite ourselves, and each other as possible, to open up to the possibility of being changed in unexpected ways, moment by moment, through engaging in relationship.

As a consumer, it seems quite plain how to move in this direction: shift to local, small, individual producers, and build relationships. There is privilege associated with being able to make those shifts, at least in many parts of the global north, and they are still available pathways we can seek and build.

What about when we are the producer, the person or group that is offering some product or service to the world? The question of how we move in the direction of more relationship is gnarly. Building more relationship requires, amongst other things, having more human capacity to nurture all the relationships that the exchanges we are in creates, so that they are the least instrumental that we can make them. As an individual producer, this can fully exhaust us. As an organization, this can easily mean hiring more employees. Does that then mean increasing the prices so that we can recoup the expense? Does it mean reducing the profit? Or is there some creative other possibility? I have no answers, I only invite everyone to choose this path and to learn with me and others who have committed themselves to this journey.

From Market-Based to Needs- and Capacity-Based Decisions

How do we decide, on both ends of a transaction, how much to give and how much to ask for? Ever since markets were created, by states, several thousand years ago, and more and more so over time, those decisions are made with reference to abstract principles of the market, not based on needs. This is a logical extension of the instrumental nature of exchange relationships, and also stands apart as another dimension of the challenge of shifting from exchange to gifting.

In a market economy, the producer and the consumer make these decisions using the same logic and in opposite directions. The producer aims for the highest price possible, and the consumer aims for the lowest price possible. This is the way that market economies makes us into adversaries.

Beyond a baseline of covering costs, the generic producer doesn’t make the price based on needs, either their own or the potential consumer. The logic of accumulation feeds the logic of exchange: the price is based on what the market can absorb and what their competitors ask for, because then they can have the most profit possible for what they are selling.

The generic consumer decides based on how much they want the product, how much money they have, and whether they consider the price fair. This last point is where the producer and the consumer converge. They both orient to this abstract principle of fairness, the meager alternative to mutual care that the market offers. A fair price allows both parties to exit the situation without an experience of being taken advantage of. Even if the consumer has the means to give $40 for a regular pencil that usually costs $2, they won’t do it, however much they want a pencil, because they believe they can get it for far less money from someone else. Buying it for $40 means being taken advantage of. Similarly, even if a producer of furniture, for example, is unusually fast and able to make a table at half the time that someone else does, they will see that as an opportunity to make more money rather than an opportunity to sell the table for half the price.

In many modern societies these decisions are made in separate moments, which intensifies the separation within the exchange. In some cultures, to this day, there are ritualized versions of negotiating prices that give shape to the intensity otherwise hidden within these transactions. I have watched such exchanges in astonishment when I have seen them happen within the culture, wondering how the individuals know how to play and when to end. These sometimes include the potential customer walking away expressing feigned (or real?) anger about the price being too high, or the vendor expressing offense at an offer that is too low for dignity. Sometimes the transaction doesn’t happen, and most of the time I’ve seen both parties settle on something they both can accept. I’ve also experienced cross-cultural discomfort when I was genuinely declining to buy something that was well beyond what I would want to give in exchange for something and not being believed, such that the vendor would chase me and try to coax me back when I was clearly not interested. There are codes to understand, which I don’t, that make it both remarkable to watch and awkward to participate in.

Transforming these deeply grooved patterns of functioning, now spread all around the world in their many forms, requires deeper transformation than simply increasing the relational element within the transaction, though it cannot happen without it.

Unless we manage to shift the relationship into one of at least some degree of mutual care, we won’t be able to function at the level of needs, because care for needs is exiled from market transactions.

In this dimension, it’s almost impossible for the consumer to orient to the needs of the producer, because they are not made known. There are no channels for the consumer to ask about the producer’s needs. In most modern, alienated contexts, there is also no way for the consumer to make their needs known, nor for the person on the other side – the cashier for example – to actually choose the price. When there is enough of a relationship and enough agency on the part of the person that the consumer encounters, a small, narrow pathway forms. What a consumer can then do, which is small, is to speak about their own needs and the limitations that arise from them, absent any mention of fairness, and ask the producer or their agent whether what they are capable of offering would be enough to attend to the producer’s sustainability. This is key to this small, subtle, and hugely significant transformation: to ask about sustainability needs and not about fairness.

From the producer side, a bit more wiggle room exists, and there are, indeed, some producers in some parts of the world that experiment with such shifts, probably many more and in more ways than I am aware of.

So long as prices set by a producer are not outrageously beyond the high end of market rates, producers can set prices and name the reasons for them, based on needs. This invites the potential consumers to orient towards the needs rather than the market value of whatever they are buying. This is an entirely different pathway, unfamiliar to most and challenging to many.

One example of how this happens is the growing number of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA in short) farms. There are various sub-forms of this way of operating and I describe only one of them. In this one, people sign up to be members of the CSA for a season and take on a share of the anticipated costs of running the farm for the season rather than paying for specific quantities of produce they will receive during that same season. For the rest of the season, they receive a weekly box of vegetables (or other items the farm grows) that are precisely what the farm has for that week divided among the members. There is shared, collective responsibility for the well-being of the farm – a clear orientation to other and to needs – rather than an individual exchange based on market value.

Towards Uncoupling Giving from Receiving

The third dimension along which we can move from exchange to gifting takes on an extra layer of challenge. I’ve written more than once about uncoupling giving from receiving, so I am only summarizing here the basics of the internal challenges before getting into the systemic external challenges that we face in this regard. Giving without receiving can bring up anxiety about the future and can bring up concerns about being a fool. Simultaneously, it’s still encoded within our cellular makeup, and most people enjoy it when an opportunity arises. Receiving without giving is a tough barrier to cross and is made even tougher by actually asking to receive unilaterally.

Anyone who’s read David Graeber’s Debt probably knows why that is. Any time we receive without giving we are trained to believe we are in debt. This is why the response to “Thank you,” in many languages, is the equivalent of “There’s no reason to express gratitude.” That statement stands in for releasing the receiver of the debt; letting them know they don’t owe anything.

Even when we have full willingness and capacity, internally, to uncouple the giving and receiving, we face steep additional challenges when we are on the producer end and aim to do the uncoupling. On the fuzzy line between internal and external challenges we find the sum total of the internal challenges that others face. Even as we make our needs known and invite people to contribute to us based on orienting to our needs along with their own, many won’t be able to do that. This takes at least two forms. One is giving more than is consistent with their own sustainability, because of some shame or obligation. In this example, they are unable to uncouple. The other form is giving less than they have financial capacity for even if they might be willing to if they could truly orient to our needs, because they are still oriented to the market, and the shift to holding needs rather than market value is just too big for them to take. This can be so overwhelming as to lead to anger about being told what the needs are!

Beyond the totality of internal obstacles, all of which ultimately are internalized versions of narratives from the mistrust that pervades our contemporary cultures, the last set of obstacles is directly systemic.

It arises from the peculiar ways in which we are not in active relationship with the majority of the people on whom our lives depend, which are many; many more than we will ever know and definitely feel. We have no pathways, nor would it make sense, to ask the entire world population to orient to our own individual needs. At one point, human thriving was enclosed within small, local groups, where orientation to needs was within what the eye could see. We knew who our people were, each and all, individually. This is no longer the case. In a world of exchange, when we offer something to the world, even if we want to fully uncouple it from what we receive, we are limited.

Overcoming this can happen only in part and only with ongoing effort. This is one core, deep area of exploration that I have been engaging in for decades. Or, perhaps more accurate is to say that I never fully bought into the exchange paradigm, and thus experimenting with restoring flow has been easy, fun, and generative for me. This is now one of the primary areas of experimentation within the two communities I am part of: the Nonviolent Global Liberation online community of close to 300 people and, within it, our first physical community experiment, now numbering four and still in a vagabonding stage, that I am part of. I describe some of the experiments in the next part of this mini-series.

This loops back to where I started in part one of this mini-series, with my difficulty in understanding economics. When I was five, I asked my mother why we had to pay for groceries; why we could not just come, get what we need, and leave. This is full uncoupling that no longer even depends on relationships. It only relies on full, easy trust in the flow of life caring for all: what we started with, evolutionarily, on the small scale of foraging bands, and what I still hope we will move towards as one integrated species in sacred connection with all of life.

A free shop, where you take for free…

PHOTO CREDIT

Lady bargaining with vendors, by Kaarma, on pixahive.com

Cashier counters in Beijing, by 維基小霸王, on wikimedia.org

Clagett Farm, by F Delventhal, on Flickr

Inside the KostNix free shop in Innsbruck, by Kostnix innsbruck , on wikimedia

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