Recently I have been thinking about the Gift Economy. It is one of those ideas that seems completely daft, but it simmers away in the back of your mind until it becomes normalised, then suddenly it starts to make sense. The Gift Economy is a way to live interdependantly within a community by sharing what you have and what you make with others without money being exchanged. If they do the same with you, theoretically we could all live without money. Our tribal forebears did it. People around the world experiment with it, but mostly don't live entirely in the gift economy, because in our society that would be very, very difficult. But taking an idea to its extreme is always exciting, so let's do it. Let's ban money and see what happens. Let's do it tomorrow.
Imagine that for a minute. It is such a fascinating thought experiment. Tomorrow we wake up and money has been abolished. Outright barter is also banned, due to it being a money-like contract. How would we live our day tomorrow without money? Would you go to work? Would you stay home and watch the telly or play on the internet instead? Oh, whoops, the people who run the TV station, keep the internet servers running and fire up the coal power stations also decided to stay home from work. The garbage collectors are really, really happy not to have to get up at four in the morning, so they won't be round to pick up the bins. Oh, oh. No electricity. No internet. No garbage collection. The whole fabric of society is falling apart! Aargh! What to do?
But wait. Some things are continuing without cease. Children are still being cared for. Animals are still being fed. Neighbours are sharing food, gardens are being tended. There are people playing musical instruments. Of course, there are other people looting and causing mayhem. Loose coalitions of neighbours and friends get together to work out a plan of defence. Ex-army and police officers who decided they weren't going into work if they weren't going to be paid are more than happy to volunteer to defend their families and neighbours, and train others to do the same.
Within a few days people are working out what kind of tasks they willing to do without money being exchanged, and for whom. People will generally be responsible for their own shit. And for their kids' shit. That is about the extent of their willingness to be responsible for that unpleasant task. Disseminating information is a much more rewarding task though, so many knowledgeable people are happy to write up posters detailing how to make composting toilets and how to safely dispose of humanure. An artist offers her hand-cranked linotype printer because this is an important community service. Posters go up all over town. It turns out that many farmers love their land and love to farm. Most of them have had extra off-farm jobs for years to support their addictive but unprofitable farm habit, and many people offer to join them, as food is a very motivating factor for, let's see, everyone. Private land-ownership also being abolished, owner-built houses pop up all over the place, especially on large tracts of farmland. Little villages begin to form.
No-one, it appears, wants to work in a factory producing endless consumer goods for no monetary reward. But plenty of craftspeople continue filling their days making all sorts of beautiful and useful objects from anything they can find, and have plenty of apprentices eager to learn their skills. Big hospitals don't work any more because all the service personnel discovered that they no longer wanted to mop floors or wipe up other people's bodily fluids. Plus, there is no electricity grid any more. The doctors and medical personnel are still mostly passionately devoted to making people well. They just do it on a much more local scale, and many of them also train up bright young offsiders. Doctors are very much valued, and fed and sheltered by the community they work for. Engineers and scientists never stop being fascinated by problems that need to be solved. They get together and tinker away in sheds between hauling their own shit and working in the garden. They find ingenious solutions for the many problems of this new society. I am imagining there would be many people volunteering to put some community hours in on learning how to manufacture anaesthetics and insulin under the tutelage of an enthusiastic chemist, and to get some local forms of electricity working again..
Gardens and small holdings are everywhere, in all the green spaces, and built over much of the road space in cities, because of course there are no cars or oil refineries any more. If you have to garden to eat, you learn to garden. And hunt. And look after animals. There are so many people whose jobs are completely redundant in this new world with no money. I bet you can think of twenty job titles without even trying, which wouldn't exist in this new society. All those people will need to learn to feed themselves and those they love. Maybe they will fall in love with plants and animals and teach their kids and other people's kids how to garden. Many of them will feed far more people than just their own families, and will enjoy being useful members of their small communities.
Here is where my thought experiment has led me so far - if there was no money in our world, and if we depended on ourselves and each other for everything we needed to live, very little of our modern society would survive. This means that almost all of the things we think are indispensable to us - sanitation, electricity, the internet, modern medicine, education, transport, all the things - are only produced reluctantly by an unhappy workforce which has to be coerced to produce them.
Our society denies us food and shelter unless we participate in its programme. If we agree to do unpleasant things like like haul garbage, mop floors or work in factories, then we get to eat and have a place to live. More or less. Other people get to do much less useful things, like moving pieces of paper around in an office, and bothering other people a lot. They get to swap that labour for a much nicer place to live and better food. But it is all the same programme. And we acquiesce in it everyday. We expect others to look after our shit, to feed us, to clean up after us, to move pieces of paper around for us and tell us what to do. Not because they value us as people and want to be part of an interdependent community with us, but because they have to, to live. We have to, to live.
There is actually enough food in the world for everyone. There is enough spare stuff lying around that everyone could build a shelter and be clothed. There are creative people everywhere who can invent stuff and make stuff and make our hearts soar with their stories and songs. Our access to what we need is artificially restricted by society so that some people can have more than others. This seems clinically insane to me, but all the same, I am one of those who benefit from the unpleasant work of other people. In my imaginary thought experiment I would not be tapping out words on a computer right now. I would be working in the garden and making sauerkraut and in this season eating more zucchinis and less chocolate chips. Well, no chocolate chips actually. I can understand why people like me choose not to tear down the fabric of society and institute a fairer order, because that new order would cause everyone like me to do an awful lot more gardening. We would return to an age more like our tribal ancestors, who all lived in the Gift Economy. Everything they did was for the good of their family and neighbours. Mind you, it wouldn't be all hard graft. Hunter and gatherer cultures like the Australian aboriginal people had a two and a half day work week. And we think we are the 'civilised' ones. Ha.
And obviously, if the money economy collapsed tomorrow an awful lot of people would die before society reorganised itself into loose little tribal coalitions of people who were willing to contribute all they worked for to the common weal. And learnt how to feed themselves. So maybe when I am benevolent dictator of the world I won't banish money quite overnight. But don't get me wrong, I will insist on it happening..
In the meantime I am experimenting with the gift economy in my own life, and so are many, many other people, without even realising it. We share our home grown vegies with neighbours, we babysit each other's kids, we dog-sit their puppies when they go away for the weekend, we bake cakes for the school fair and join community gardens and volunteer to clean up our community or feed those who cannot feed themselves. We make things and mend things and play music round the campfire and have pot luck dinners. Every time we do anything for someone out of a sense of love or kindness and fairness instead of for money, then we are continuing the human-long tradition of connection through care. It is worth doing, because we are better than money..
Tired, but determinedly cheerful mother of four. One grown up son (The Boy), one grown up daughter (The Girl), two girls at home, Rosy (17) and Posy (13). Trying to buy a little less, make a little more, live a little lighter, not mess up the children too much.. and now extra frugal adventures with Partner Paul..