Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    painting of a set table

    Toward a Gift Economy

    Some goods and services have value beyond their market price.

    By Simon Oliver

    July 17, 2024
    • Nathanael Snow

      Simon Oliver (“Toward a Gift Economy”, Plough, Summer 2024, No 40, pp. 104-108) interrogates the nature of markets in democratic societies and contrasts market exchange to exchange of gifts. The role of the Christian in a pluralist society can include Spirit-inspired gifting that seeks no quid-pro-quo, imitating the gift Christ provided for us in Himself. But most relationships, including those that Oliver describes as gift economies, do imply reciprocity. These are examples of what Adam Smith describes in his first important book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759, 1791) as sentimental exchanges. We exchange sentiments in our approbation and disapprobation of the actions of others. We internalize the actions that are appropriate or inappropriate among those we seek approbation from, and form what Smith calls an impartial spectator. That impartial spectator becomes the judge of our actions within society. The Christian has a higher judge, the Holy Spirit. We can understand the Godhead to have eternally been engaged in exchange of sentiment. We read many examples of one person of the Godhead speaking approvingly of the other. When God creates Man, he makes us in His image, inviting us into the conversation of the Godhead, even walking with us in the Garden. To exchange then is not implicitly avaricious. Rather, exchange is related to the Greek καταλλάσσω. Romans 5:10 reads: “ἐχθροὶ ὄντες κατηλλάγημεν τῷ θεῷ” or “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:18 translates from “θεοῦ τοῦ καταλλάξαντος ἡμᾶς ἑαυτῷ” to “who reconciled us to Himself.” John Thayer’s (1886) Greek-English lexicon defines καταλλαγή as “exchange; of the business of money-changers, exchanging equivalent values” as used by Aristotle, and the “adjustment of a difference, reconciliation, restoration to favor” (Thayer 1886, 333). Archbishop Richard Whately (1831) adapted this term to describe market exchanges and the study of Political Economy as Catallactics. The market is a reconciliatory process. Certainly, when power impedes on markets the outcomes need not be appropriate. But in most cases, the reconciliation that takes place in markets is mutually beneficial, though less personal than sentimental exchanges. Just as market exchanges can be corroded by the imposition of power, so do gift economies often introduce gifts “with strings attached.” The expectation of a return gift binds people together, often in a good way, but often in ways that trap individuals into unhealthy relationships. The true manifestation of Godly love in a relationship is a gift freely given. This understanding magnifies the grace extended to each of us and our communities by the blood of Jesus. We bring reconciliation among enemies when we gift ourselves into a contentious situation in response to the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus did.

    In modern democratic societies, our lives are dominated by markets. We buy and sell goods and services, take out loans and mortgages from banks, make investments, contribute to pension schemes, and pay taxes to the government in exchange for public services and the protection of our rights and liberties. We sell our labor on the labor market. We have credit ratings that signify the risk we pose in the market for credit. Universities market themselves based on the projected earnings of their graduates so that a degree becomes nothing more than a shrewd financial investment. Projected lifetime earnings indicate our value in terms of what we will earn and what we will pay in taxes. The market for health care places monetary value on the quality and length of life. The ledger of modern life is expressed in terms of trade, credit, debt, and account.

    In his 2012 book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the American political philosopher Michael J. Sandel points out that, while trade and currency are primitive aspects of human society, the reach of markets accelerated rapidly in the late twentieth century, particularly under the influence of the laissez-faire economics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. We have moved from having a market economy to being a market society in which almost anything is tradable. Sandel cites the reach of markets. In certain prisons in the United States, for example, it is possible for nonviolent prisoners to purchase a prison cell upgrade for around ninety dollars a night. They receive a clean and quiet prison cell, undisturbed by nonpaying prisoners. While commercial surrogacy is illegal in the United Kingdom, and highly expensive in the United States, some Western couples outsource pregnancy to surrogate mothers in India, where the cost is a fraction of the going American rate. Lobbyists wishing to attend a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill might not want to queue overnight in the rain, so a market has opened up allowing them to pay others, predominantly the homeless, around twenty dollars per hour to queue on their behalf. It is possible to sell parts of one’s body as advertising space. Some pupils in underachieving schools are paid to read books.

    The pervasiveness of markets and our evolution from having a market economy to being a market society are not inevitable developments of human culture. They require a particular imaginative framework and worldview. One characteristic of the modern world, beginning around the seventeenth century, is the worldview that separates nature and culture. Nature becomes a domain of objects with no intrinsic value or orientation except trade and consumption within the cultural domain of market societies. If nature has no intrinsic purpose or value, no origin, end, or meaning, its value lies in what we can get for it – in trade and consumption. The idea, therefore, that humanity, having risen above nature, can manipulate and exploit nature to its own ends through technology provides a framework for the rise of capitalist market economies and industrialization. Is there an alternative imaginative framework, a different way of understanding humanity’s relationship to nature, a more fundamental economy?

    painting of a set table

    Pam Ingalls, Julie’s Table, oil on board, 2018. All artwork by Pam Ingalls. Used by permission.

    Despite how pervasive markets have become, the relationships and social units that we most value and prioritize, particularly friendships and the family, do not primarily involve the market, money, or contracts. They are expressed through a different economy, a gift economy. A friendship, for example, is a relationship based on sharing life and the gifts of time and attention. The family is a web of relationships established on gift exchange. A father does not charge his children for reading to them or cooking their dinner, for both are gifts. A wife does not charge her husband for caring for him when ill, for care is a gift. Indeed, we talk of “caregivers.” When children are taught to thank those who protect and provide for them, their thankfulness is an acknowledgement that what they have received is the gift of loving care; their gratitude is a return gift. We laud those who donate (rather than sell) their time and skill to their communities, for example in running a Scout troop or volunteering in a thrift store. We prize philanthropy. The church is a body overwhelmingly constituted by the gift of people’s time and talents. Intimate relationships such as marriage involve the gifts of love and attention that are never reducible to trade, debt, and account. One of the many reasons why the breakdown of intimate relationships is so painful is that a bond previously expressed in terms of shared goods and the exchange of gifts is often broken down into monetized assets that must be divided and debts that must be paid.

    Contemporary discussions of the gift economy have roots in the work of the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss and his book The Gift (1923). Mauss analyzes fieldwork concerning the practice of gift-giving and gift exchange in archaic indigenous societies, particularly in Polynesia, Melanesia, and the American Northwest. These societies, where traditional practices of gift-giving and exchange were still relatively untouched by modern capitalism, led Mauss to two important conclusions.

    First, a gift conveys something of the giver to the recipient. Take a simple example: At daycare, a child paints a picture for her mother and gives it to her when they arrive home at the end of the day. The gift – the picture – expresses the child’s imagination, skill, and view of the world to her mother. The gift is not a mere object or commodity; it bears meaning and mediates a relationship. If a friend gives me the gift of time and attention in listening to my hopes and fears about the future, she is conveying her sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and concern – important aspects of her character, perhaps fashioned over many years. The time and attention given by my friend express and confirm the friendship. As Mauss writes, “It follows that to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself.”

    According to Mauss, the giving of a gift can be contrasted with the transfer of private property in a market economy. When one sells a car, ownership rights are transferred from the seller to the buyer. The seller is alienated from the object sold and has no further claim upon it. The relationship between seller and buyer lasts as long as a contract of sale remains unfulfilled; once the transaction is complete and obligations satisfied, they go their separate ways. Gift-giving is quite different. Because the gift carries with it something of the giver, it continues to be imbued with power and significance. The giver is, in a sense, present with the gift. For example, the girl’s picture will always be, in some sense, the girl’s picture that she gave to her mother. According to Mauss, this means that gifts establish lasting social bonds between donor and recipient.

    The gift is not a mere object or commodity; it bears meaning and mediates a relationship.

    Because gifts bear meaning, their value to donor and recipient cannot be expressed straightforwardly in monetary terms. Take the following simple example. On my desk, I have two objects: a computer I bought for my work and an engraved fountain pen given to me by my brother when I took up a new job. The computer is extremely useful. It was expensive, and, because it still functions quite well, I could sell it for a reasonable amount of money. It has a monetary value, and I know how much it would cost to replace. It would be inconvenient if the computer were lost or broken, but I could replace it quite easily, assuming I had the necessary money. The computer has a function and a monetary value as a commodity, but it has no meaning, because it does not mediate a relationship. The pen, on the other hand, is a gift. It conveys something of my brother to me, namely our shared liking of traditional things and my brother’s recognition of me as a writer and academic. The pen makes a claim on me – I look after it and enjoy it, and I am reminded of my brother and my vocation whenever I use it. If I lost the pen, it could not be replaced. I could buy a similar pen, of course, perhaps an identical pen, but it would not be the pen given to me by my brother. If I were to attempt to sell the pen, which would feel like a rejection of my brother and his gift, it would probably fetch a fraction of its price when new. The pen is not a tradable commodity. Whereas the computer’s value lies in its utility, the pen’s value lies in its utility and its meaning. Gifts really are magical; they mediate the giver to the recipient and hold a power over us.

    This leads to Mauss’s second conclusion concerning gift-giving: because true gifts establish and mediate social bonds, they are reciprocal. A gift, far from being unilateral, awaits and expects a response in the form of a return gift. So, it is not simply gift-giving that is important in the societies studied by Mauss, but gift exchange. When I give the gift of a meal to my friends, for example, I hope for a response in the form of a return gift. That might take the form of a bottle of wine donated at the start of the evening, a thank-you card the following day, or an invitation to dinner in a month’s time. This exchange of gifts establishes a relationship of charitable friendship and invites a pattern of gift exchange in which donors and recipients continually convey something of themselves in the gifts they offer. This is one way that intimate relationships and family life are formed and expressed – members of the family continually offer each other favors (doing the laundry, cooking a meal, arranging a birthday party, organizing a picnic, buying Christmas presents), and children are initiated into this round of gift exchange or “economy of favors” as they take their place within the daily life of the family.

    painting of two people hugging

    Pam Ingalls, Win Win, oil on board, 2015.

    When we read the Christian and Hebrew scriptures, “gift” is a concept that hides in plain view. We might not notice its significance, but once our attention is drawn to the prominence of gift-giving and receiving in the story of Israel and the church, as the theologian John Milbank points out, we see gift as an all-encompassing theological category. Christ is God’s gift of himself to creation (John 3:16). The Holy Spirit is known as “the given” (donum) amongst theologians of the early church (reflecting, for example, Isa. 11:2–3 and John 20:22). Importantly, according to Saint Paul, the church is the community of the gifted (Acts 2:1–13; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:11–13), and grace is God’s gratuitous gift for our salvation (Eph. 2:8).

    Most fundamentally, creation is understood as gift, for all things come from God (James 1:17–19). By the early second century, through attentive reading of scripture and careful philosophical reflection, Christian theologians (in common with Jewish, and in due course Islamic, thinkers) brought a new clarity to our understanding of creation: God creates all things ex nihilo – out of nothing. If we are to talk intelligibly of God and his unique creative act, we must not think of the universe as existing in endless time. Nor must we think of God fashioning the cosmos from a primordial soup. God is the source of everything that is not God, including space, time, and matter. Everything has an ultimate beginning in God’s creative act. Creation is therefore the gift of existence. Reflecting themes in the anthropology of Marcel Mauss, we can say that creation bears something of the giver, God, to the recipient, creatures. It is an expression of divine beauty and goodness. Creation also invites a response in the form of a reciprocal gift of thanksgiving. This exchange forms a relationship of covenant between God and creation.

    Life is not a matter of trade, possession, or right, but of gift.

    Within the order of creation, the gift of life is particularly important: the life that God gives in creation and breathes into Adam (Gen. 1:11–12, 20–25; 2:7); the gift of food to sustain life (Gen. 1:29); the life to which God continually recalls the people of Israel (Deut. 30:19; Ezek. 18:32); the life that God gives in Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, the way, and the truth, and who gives his flesh for the life of the world (John 11:25; 14:6; 6:51). Christ came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), and through Christ God calls us to eternal life (Rom. 6:23). The Christian difference is this: To receive our lives as a gift rather than as the outcome of a blind evolutionary process or as a mere possession. We come to know that our life as gift conveys something of God, the donor, to the living; it invites a response. Despite sin’s refusal of the gift of life, it is given again in the waters of baptism. Life is not a matter of trade, possession, or right, but of gift. My life is my life, given by God.

    The Christian imagination therefore knows little of the distinction between nature and culture, for both are encompassed within the more fundamental concept of creation as gift. Nature is a gift of creation within which the human person receives her life as gift. Human cultural life and creativity, our polity and economy, depend entirely upon, and are enfolded by, nature. Nature provides the gift of food to sustain the gift of life. Most importantly, if nature and culture are enfolded within creation, both have an intrinsic meaning and purpose as gifts of God and expressions of divine goodness. Trade may be necessary and markets inevitable, but there can be no ultimate commodification or reification, because market economies are always reliant upon the more fundamental economy of creation as gift. This theological imagination can provide a very different framework for reintegrating the natural and the cultural and renewing a sense of humanity’s place and vocation within a created order and a divine economy of gift in which meaning, purpose, and value are restored.

    Contributed By SimonOliver Simon Oliver

    Simon Oliver is an Anglican priest, a theologian, and the Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now