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From Gift To Graft

News ArchiveGift giving has been a facet of human societies since time immemorial, functioning to create social bonds, redistribute wealth, and counter misfortunes experienced by individual community members. Gift giving existed in a variety of different forms, as ritualized customs, arrangements of convenience, or informal traditions self-imposed and self-enforced. It was common across the globe, in hunter-gatherer and herding societies, East Asian civilizations, and in the pre-Industrial and pre-capitalist West. From Gift To Graft

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Gift giving has been a facet of human societies since time immemorial, functioning to create social bonds, redistribute wealth, and counter misfortunes experienced by individual community members. Gift giving existed in a variety of different forms, as ritualized customs, arrangements of convenience, or informal traditions self-imposed and self-enforced. It was common across the globe, in hunter-gatherer and herding societies, East Asian civilizations, and in the pre-Industrial and pre-capitalist West. But while the social form, structure, and purpose of gifting varied widely between cultures, a common element was its separation from trade, economy, and quid pro quo compensation. This article deals with how (post)modern Capitalism has exploited, perverted and co-opted the human tradition of gifting for its own purposes, namely, to facilitate and augment trade and support an otherwise unsustainable economic system. First, however, an examination of traditional gift giving in one pre-capitalist society will provide a foundation of understanding from which to explore Capital’s modifications and transgressions.

Among many indigenous cultures of North America, gift giving existed (and still exists) in a manifestation commonly referred to as the Giveaway. Giveaways occurred within indigenous communities and settlements at important times and occasions ranging from births to deaths, weddings and victories, rites of passage and happenings of religious significance, and it existed in many different forms. Among many Plains Nations for example, the death of a relative were grounds for the survivors to giveaway the majority of their possessions, with individuals sometimes retaining little more than the clothes on their backs and a few basic tools essential to survival. This functioned as integral to the mourning process, and after the lapse of the mourning period and the mourner’s reentry into normal conditions of living each community member gave gifts to the mourners to welcome them back to tribal life. Often the mourners ended up with more than they had initially given away. Thus, simultaneously, wealth was redistributed among the community, unhealthy ties to material possessions prevented, and strong bonds of social kinship formed.

Within these cultures, and others as well, gifts were also often distributed by and to individuals or families via less drastic methods. Such presentations of gifts often coincided with important public events or festivals and were usually done in someone else’s name, to honor that person rather than call attention to oneself, and were generally carried out with an awareness of need. Emma might give a rifle to Errico, who was previously without one, in the name of Alexander whom she wishes to honor for being a wonderful partner. In many pre-Capitalist societies, individual wealth was not measured in how much was accumulated over time but rather how much was shared with the community in the spirit of giving and solidarity.

Gift giving occurred within these societies in less structured ways as well and often served as a means of supporting members of the community who were no longer capable of securing the necessities of life. Among the Lakota, the advisors of a particular band would generally select a handful of the best hunters prior to each hunt in order to, as Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk) puts it, “feed the helpless.” Whatever food these hunters produced that day would be gifted to those unable to provide provisions for themselves and according to Hehaka Sapa it was, “a great honor for young men.” Lakota notions of humility prevented hunters from nominating themselves for such an auspicious duty, which would have been viewed as immodest, but food and other necessities were commonly gifted to the needy in other ways as well. Families with extra food would often prepare feasts with the express purpose of inviting those who were elderly to eat their fill. Such practices ensured that every member of the community was provided for, bolstered solidarity, and perpetuated social systems that would one day support the productive young when they had in turn reached old age. While these examples are from a particular time, place, and culture, the social construct of gift giving as a beneficial cultural practice were quite common in pre-Capitalist and pre-Industrial humanity in general.

The capitalist system has managed, through both deliberate social engineering and unintentional developments, to pervert, exploit, and co-opt the intrinsic human quality of gift giving for its own gain. Gift giving has been commandeered as a primary stimulus of the materialistic, consumer economy characteristic of late capitalism. When consumption among the producing and consuming class proved to be insufficient to generate the ever greater profits craved and required by the capitalist system, frivolous consumption developed largely through the impetus of gift giving. Occasions, events, holidays, etc. began to revolve around the exchange of mass produced, commercially marketed gifts. While some of these events already featured a somewhat traditional element of moderate gifting, capital’s function was to amplify, accelerate, and promote gift giving until it became essentially the sole function of the event. They became, amidst the skeletons of their former selves, little more than carnivals of capitalist consumption. In the U.S., consumer spending (food, gifts, clothing, rent, services, etc) accounts for 2/3rds of total economic activity but the Holiday Season gift purchasing orgy (taking place roughly throughout the month prior to December 25th) accounts for about 25% of the total!

Another element of the Capitalist expropriation of special events is that it has conditioned subject populaces to identify and limit the act of gifting primarily to times deemed appropriate by oligarchic state/corporate entities. Gift giving is now generally relegated to fixed, structured, and planned events determined and marketed by corporo-state entities rather than being a continuous, spontaneous (or pseudo-spontaneous), and socialized facet of culture, as it once was. In the U.S. and elsewhere, Consumer Holidays have been engineered to stimulate spending in the retail off-season, i.e. the non-Christmas season. Some, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, have essentially been invented, while others, such as Valentine’s Day and Easter, have been hijacked and corrupted. No matter what their origins, it is clear what purpose such “holidays” serve today. In addition, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and child births are all now bound to materialistic, consumerist, and frivolous gifting customs devoid of meaning or social awareness. As the events in our lives become increasingly linked to commodity consumption our lives in general suffer the same fate.

Gift giving in late capitalism also diverges from its roots in the items that constitute the gifts themselves. Whereas in pre-Industrial societies gifts often took the form of a hand made tool or ornament, special or ordinary food, or performance of some helpful act, gifts in mainstream Western society are now nearly ubiquitously manufactured, mass produced, and mass marketed items often of very questionable use value. This contributes to the homogenization of culture and the further colonization of the populace into a consuming horde. When only things made at a factory and touted by some decadent celebrity are perceived as valuable, humans lose not only their desire to create and aid but their faculty to do so as well. They surrender a powerful core element of human existence to the capitalists, advertisers, money grubbers, media, and government entities that have a vested interest in engendering and perpetuating materialistic consumption.

Late capitalism gift giving has also developed a quid pro quo (equal exchange) component lacking in most traditional forms of gifting. Whereas most pre-Capitalism gift giving transpired without an expectation of immediate or equivalent reciprocation, (post)modern times have seen the rise of gift giving as little more than couched and concealed commodity trading. Today, gifts are generally given at the same time (or very near it) as they are received and are expected to be of roughly similar price range, regardless of the thought or time spent on the gift or its actual use value. In Lakota society, someone experiencing good fortune who gifted a buffalo haunch to a family in need of food might experience reciprocation years later when they lacked something equally necessary. It would likely be of a different value and very possibly might originate from a different person entirely. This was socialized and altruistic gift giving. Modern gift giving is a direct exchange between two entities of generally equally priced (not valued) items or services, in other words, Trade.

Gifts in the Capitalist system have also come to be equated with a supposed expression of love. Parents who really love their children buy them lots of presents for Christmas or their birthday. Husbands who really love their wives buy them expensive jewelry and diamonds. When gifts are exchanged between people in unequal financial positions (as in a businessman husband to a housewife or parents to children), some degree of extra fealty is expected by the individual(s) who happen to have more money to spend on material goods. Love is not only supposedly expressed through the presentation of some trivial item, put love is actually owed in return for it if there is a discrepancy in expenditure. Love is bought and sold for knick knacks and baubles. Diamond jewelry, the manifestation of love according to Capitalist mouthpieces, doesn’t even have any discernable use or unique artistic merit. In Capitalist society, the very manifestation of love is useless, uninspired, and common place.

Capitalism has colonized gift giving to such a degree that its original incarnations, facets, and purposes are hardly distinguishable in modern society. Traces, however, still remain. The common practice of giving blood to be stored in a blood bank accessible to large numbers of people is an example of gift giving in its least capitalistic sense. The essence of life is donated without compensation with the social awareness that it is needed by others and the social expectation that it will be available should the donators ever require it themselves. This harkens to the very foundation of pre-capitalistic gifting-- gift giving as a satisfaction of needs. Presentations of free music or art as well as the nurturing and care provided by parents to their children also demonstrate the continuation of social gift giving. The rapid growth throughout the U.S. of community Really Really Free Markets where goods and services are shared freely on a use basis is a recent incarnation of gifting and provide a stimulating and thought provoking glimpse into the possibilities of gift economies, often to those outside of anarchist or libertarian socialist circles.

Asserting that Capitalist production and consumption has co-opted and corrupted gift giving is not an argument to return to pre-Industrial ways of life but rather an appeal to revitalize the original intentions and functions of gifting into (post)modern societies. The selfishness and self-absorbance that has been engendered in humanity through the institutions and programs of Capitalism must be challenged on both an individual and a collective/community basis if hopes of creating a more just, free and equitable world are to bear fruit.
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From Gift To Graft | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
From Gift To Graft
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, December 14 2007 @ 04:13 PM CST
Barrel Sniffer's article reminds me of the "Really, Really Free Market" piece from Crimethinc that I posted on Infoshop a few weeks ago, and makes me want to pose the same question I raised in that thread: How does the concept of a gift economy apply to the production and distribution of industrial goods and services? Sure, we can gift each other with all kinds of items - food, clothing, tools, shelter, personal services - but what about the mass production of food or other consumer items, or the production of the machinery needed to create these goods? Does the gift economy make any sense in this context?
From Gift To Graft
Authored by: HPWombat on Friday, December 14 2007 @ 05:25 PM CST
How does exchange matter? What would happen if we didn't have exchange? Do you think we can't go straight into an exchange-less economy?