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<nettime> Post re "the gift" and apologies to Nik
Phil Graham on Fri, 14 Jan 2000 18:20:06 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Post re "the gift" and apologies to Nik


Following is a post is a response to me by Keith Hart from Cybersociety
that I think offers a clear and hopeful view of 'the gift'.

While I'm here, I'd like to apologise to Nik, who took some offense at the
language and tone of my previous post. I didn't intend any offense, but I
stand by my arguments nevertheless. My bluntness (not meant to be abuse or
rudeness) was, in large part, a function of my current lack of time. 

Regards to all,
Phil

---------------------------------------------------------------------
Date:  Jan 11 2000 11:35:39 EST  
From:  Keith Hart <HART_KEITH {AT} compuserve.com>  
Subject:  The gift economy  

There was far too much in Phil's posting to take up at once, but, as
someone who has sepnt some time exploring economic anthropology, I
wondered if the following might be of interest to list members. 

The issue is less one of whether giving is new or more important in the
context of internet exchange, but rather whether giving ever constitutes
something identifiable as "the gift economy". The use of such a phrase
does imply something whole and self-sufficient which would justify a
riposte that giving takes place within an economy which is predominantly
capitalist. 

In any case this phrase comes from a literature which bases itself on
Mauss's pioneering work, The Gift, yet which, I would argue, fundamentally
corrupts his orginal intentions. Apologists for capitalism used to argue
that exchange was once altruistic, but is now selfish, claiming that a
social economy is "primitive" and the "modern" economy regrettably, but
inevitably individualistic. He sought to show that all exchange, whether
taking the form of gifts or of markets, is founded on reciprocity and this
involves the need to reconcile individual and social interests, to be
self-reliant and to belong to others at the same time, a human necessity
if we are to live together in society, but one which is very hard to
realise in practice. He tried to demonstrate that gift-exchange was both
communal and highly individualistic, just as his uncle, Emile Durkheim,
had shown the hidden social foundations of the market economy. Yet
subsequent generations of intellectuals have persisted in constructing
gift and market as opposed types of economy. 

Having said this, Mauss insisted that there were logical and practical
differences between the two forms of exchange. For one thing the gift is
not reciprocated immediately and this leaves the giver in a temporary
position of social superiority, whereas the instant equivalence of markets
allows transactors to walk away from the excahnge as independent equals. 
But, as any Marxist could point out and Mauss knew, things are not as
simple as that in markets dominated by money capital. He resisted the idea
that, once we have identified the dominant form of an economy, there is
nothing left to be said about alternative modes of exchange. In terms of
the construction of new relationships, it does make a difference whether a
couple on a date go dutch or the woman allows the man to pay for them
both. If she thinks there is no difference, she has been living a
sheltered life.

It also makes a difference whether software is distributed on the net
according the principle of copyright or copyleft. One reason for an
increased sense of freedom of exchange on the internet is the cost
revolution entailed in the cheapening of information. If sending a file by
e-mail costs so much less in terms of all kinds of resources than
photocopying, post and packaging, it opens up more liberal conditions for
the exchange of information. 

Even if the internet is a creature of capitalism, there have always been
strategies for ordinary people to claw back something of the value of what
they produce. When such practices are identified as "the informal economy" 
(again a misleading expression, if it implies the absence of dialectical
relations to the dominant forms), we can only note that what was taken in
the 70s to be an insignificant sector of the total economy is today
recognised to be very large in scope at all levels including the global.
So it is possible for practices which are objectively minor to provide a
site in which alternatives to the currently dominant economic form are
developed. 

Keith Hart



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