Adventures in a gift economy…

I, like many of you, have come to the conclusion that Capitalism is killing the planet. Killing the planet means killing ourselves. We are engaged in species suicide. We don’t seem to be able to help ourselves.

For the longest time I have thought we needed a new system of managing ourselves and our resources, but I have had no idea what it should be. There have been inklings here and there. Buddhist Economics, an essay by E. F. Schumacher that wondered what an economic system based on Buddhist principals would look like. It offered a whole new way of thinking of things. It speculated that the well being of people should be centered. No matter how much capitalist economists try to tell us that capitalism centers the well being of people, that people’s living standards rise wherever its principals are adhered to, it just isn’t true. It creates the conditions it then claims to fix. It exploits people for the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few and leaves too many impoverished.

There were more inklings in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a woman with Native American ancestry and a American Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology. The book is steeped in Native American ways of thinking about nature. That nature is a commons we all have the right to enjoy and harvest as long as we do so respectfully, don’t claim any part of it exclusively for ourselves, and don’t take more than we need. The bounty of the commons is a gift we receive and share. She places this gift economy alongside the system of capitalist exploitation where the commons has been transferred to private ownership that we buy and exploit for our personal benefit.

Robin Wall Kimmerer knows in her heart that the system her ancestors had was better, but acknowledges that it would be difficult to organize people and resources beyond a tribal or local community level based on it. She delivered a message of hope to me, but not a clear pointer to where we should be going or how we might get there.

Then, a few months ago I read an essay she wrote about serviceberry economics, essentially making the case for a gift economy along the lines her ancestors practiced. In that essay she referenced Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. I bought it. I read it.

Charles Eisenstein explained to me why Capitalism requires a forever-expanding production and consumption, aka, growth. We always owe more than we produce. The way money is created and distributed is based on debt. Debt that is collateralized by the ability of the economy to grow endlessly. He also showed me a viable way to create an economy that is not based on debt and the accumulation of capital. We create money that has an expiration date. It looses value over time. The incentive to accumulate is removed and the result is that money circulates more freely, which puts more goods and services in more people’s hands. It isn’t practical to horde what looses value. We also eliminate usury, the practice of loaning with interest. The practice of making money from money. We practice a gift economy, where it is more significant to give than receive.

Charles Eisenstein believes that capitalism is set to collapse under its own weight because we are running out of commons (that which belongs to everybody) to convert into private ownership. I am not so sure that is the case. We are exploring outer space and traveling to the Moon and Mars with an eye towards growth through privatizing that commons. Space is comparatively limitless and, assuming we find resources that can be valued, the potential for growth is also limitless.

Even so, Sacred Economics gave me the outline of a system that seems feasible. And Capitalism doesn’t have to fail or be replaced wholesale to achieve it. A sacred or gift economy, which values the commons and people, can grow up alongside the capitalist economy and channel human creative effort in ways capitalism can’t. It may in fact be a necessary adjunct to capitalism, its strength being the building of community on the local level which Capitalism is not at all good at doing. In fact, capitalism is anti local community.

Sacred Economics led me to The Gift by Lewis Hyde. I am five chapters into it and pretty sure it is a transformative text for me. It is an in depth look at the “Gift Economy” as it applies to the artist and creative labor.

Because of the above referenced books and essays, especially Sacred Economics and The Gift, I have decided to run an experiment this year with my art production and distribution. I am planning to make what I call photo chapbooks. Chapbooks are small books or pamphlets that, traditionally, contain poems, stories, ballads or religious tracts. My photo chapbooks will contain a small set of images and sometimes a poem or some relevant prose writing.

I am planning to do a series of these books that propagate and distribute only through a gift economy. That is, I will give them away to family, friends and acquaintances. They will have instructions explaining that the chapbook is a gift from the artist to the wider world. They will specify that the chapbook should never change hands for money, that it is the artist’s wish that they only be passed from person to person as a gift and any receiver of the gift is encouraged to gift it to another person if it doesn’t find a permanent home in their library. If it does find a permanent home, then the receiver is asked to gift something in their possession to someone they know in a similar way. In that way, the gift stays in motion as gifts are intended to do.

One of my favorite quotes is from, I think, John Cage, who told someone somewhere struggling with their creative product and how to live from it, “make the work, something will come of it.” I am interested to see what comes of this work.