A Selection of articles on “The Gift Economy” by Genevieve Vaughan | gift-economy.com

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♦ Shifting the paradigm to a maternal gift economy

Reproduced from: http://gift-economy.com/shifting-the-paradigm-to-a-maternal-gift-economy/

Women’s Worlds, Ottawa, July 7, 2011

By Genevieve Vaughan

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I have been working on the idea of a gift economy since the 1960’s. In the early days no one was interested or even understood what I was saying but over the years interest in a free economy has grown among people seeking alternative ways of living and the internet has made the term ‘gift economy’ almost a household word.

There are many examples of the gift economy in indigenous societies, and now in EuroAmerica and elsewhere in subsistence economies, in alternative communities, in movements for free stores and free schools. The internet allows new possibilities of collaboration and of forming groups in a horizontal many-to-many ways. Wikipedia is a good example of the internet gift economy in action. Couch surfing is another. Most of these initiatives fill in gaps in the market economy though and to a certain extent they rely on the market economy. Widespread commerce in computer hardware is necessary for wikipedia to exist and couch surfing requires not only the computer but the ability to use commercial means to travel from place to place. Still these new initiatives are a very positive development because they show the possibility of a a different paradigm which brings about a positive change in relationships among people.

A paradigm is a framework, a relatively stable group of coordinates and interpretations which determine a world view. Unfortunately the contemporary gift paradigm does not include the connection with a maternal source even when women themselves are participating in it. What is needed is a radical rethinking, a revisioning of economics – and language – material and linguistic co-mmunication from a maternal perspective (latin ‘muni’ means gifts so com muni cation means giving gifts together).

In order to do this rethinking we have to look at mothering in a different way, as a or the basic economy, a mode of distribution, the direct distribution of goods and services to needs. This kind of distribution is not imposed by some essential characteristic of mothers but by the nature of dependant infants, who cannot nurture themselves nor can they exchange. That is they cannot give back an equivalent of what has been given to them. A free economy of unilateral giving has to take place for children to survive. In fact motherers, whether the biological mother, the extended family or the whole village, actually create the bodies of the members of the community through this free giving. Although children are dependent, they are not passive and receiving itself is not passive. It is the creative complement of the gift, without which the gift or service does not really exist. The receiver must accept and use the gift or it is wasted and becomes negative.

Actually the market is limited and floating on a sea of gifts. Profit itself is a gift as it comes from the part of the labor of workers which is not covered by the salary, their so called ‘surplus labor’. But there are also the gifts of housework and of nature which are exploited by the market, which does not have to pay for the reproduction of the workers or the cleanup of pollution. As someone said in the recent movie on the internet gift economy, Us Now, the kind of Capitalism we are living in has only really been so extreme during the last century. Before there were more relations based on trust, outside the market. This economic system, Patriarchal Capitalism, or Capitalist Patriarchy is limited in time but also geographically and culturally.

The gift economy is practiced in indigenous and matriarchal societies though it is largely unrecognized or discredited as traditional or primitive by the Euroamerican mainstream people who are telling the tale. My contention is that something like this gift economy also exists in the West in the so called domestic sphere, in the free housework and childcare done mainly by women. In fact free work is gift work, given to satisfy needs. This is subsistence work or what some economists call ‘provisioning’ . But we should consider it not just as an add on to the market economy, a sort of instinctual behavior. Instead this maternal economy is the basic human economy of communication from which other economies derive and of which they are elaborations. By considering gift giving as an economy on its own, we can re-frame the oppression of women as caused by a struggle between kinds of economies. We have recently come out of the struggle between the economies of Communism and Capitalism but a more fundamental distinction and more universal struggle continues to exist between the economy of gift giving and the economy of the market.

There are two main oppressive factors causing this struggle. One is patriarchy and the other is market exchange. Patriarchy is the hierarchical control of giving (and of the givers) mainly by men. Exchange is the denial of gifts by requiring a quantitative equivalent in return for what is given. Patriarchal capitalism is the combination of patriarchy and exchange so that gifts are controlled and leveraged through the market mechanisms, re-named ‘profit’, accumulated and re-invested in order to leverage still more gifts. The values of male dominance have been abstracted and generalized and used to motivate market exchange and capitalist accumulation for hegemonic power.

Another advantage of considering mothering as economic is that we can call on Marx’s categories of structure and superstructure to explain what we usually call gender differences and male and female values. The economic structure of gift giving would produce an ideological superstructure of the values of care while the economic structure of market exchange would produce an ideological superstructure of competition and domination. That is, direct giving and receiving produce other-orientation, mutuality and trust and these values come from a practical life sustaining interactive behavior rather than from a specific innate moral sense. The participation of biological males in the structure of this maternal gift economy, first as children and then in some aspects even in our society as adults, would produce their other-orientation, their so called feminine side, which in EuroAmerica has often been submerged under a ideology of male dominance. The participation of biological women in the economic structure of the patriarchal market would have the superstructural effect of giving them what we usually call ‘masculine’ values based on exchange, competition for dominance. In a more positive light these values include equality and justice, but they also diminish compassion and forgiveness. However women too maintain their childhood gift economy values throughout life and they are not altogether symmetrical with men because they often do give birth to children and in our society have to mother them in a nuclear family or as single mothers while men do not (though there are also a few single ‘motherer’ fathers). The practice of the gift economy furthers the values of the gift economy. However, in situations of scarcity and duress caused by the market system, practicing the gift economy can become difficult, dangerous and frustrating.

One of the great weapons that Patriarchal Capitalism has for dominating the gift economy is its ability to propose its own superstructural view of the world, creating an ethics based on the market and imposing its own epistemology. This view, which I call the exchange paradigm, eliminates mothering from consciousness, not only because mothers are rarely seen in positions of patriarchal power but because unilateral giving and receiving is not used as an interpretative key for understanding the way we know the world or the way we inhabit it.

Actually patriarchal market-based epistemology and ethics are part of the reason for wars and exploitation. They leave us believing there is no alternative so we accept their decisions as inevitable. The market wants us to pay and pay back and this same logic underlies the attack and counter attack, vengeance and retribution that supposedly justify wars. If we want to make peace we need to bring into consciousness a gift based interpretation of the world that will redefine humans as a maternal species, not a war-mongering species. We are already a maternal species. We have simply created an economy that is in contradiction to who we are.

Superstructurally the pervasive (and self confirming) epistemology of patriarchal capitalism takes the maternal gift logic out of thinking. Looking through the glasses of exchange eliminates the gift.

My contrary hypothesis is simple but it has a lot of consequences. The hypothesis is that early child care is based on free giving and receiving and that this kind of other-oriented mode of distribution of goods to needs is the basis not only of another form of economy, a free gift economy but also of language and other sign behavior. Language and sign behavior are one of the main themes of epistemology but they are usually seen as an inherited capacities (inherited is a gift word) or constructions, (I believe construction can also be seen in gift terms).

Patriarchy makes unilateral giving seem unrealistic, sentimental and even saintly but it is actually just a basic transitive interaction in which one person satisfies another’s needs. Unilateral gift giving comes before bilateral gift giving. It is the fundamental first step of a transitive logic which requires a receiver and of which bilateral giving is just one possible elaboration. Other possible elaborations of the gift are giving unilaterally at other levels, giving forward, giving unilaterally to many, receiving unilaterally, receiving and passing it on, receiving at different levels and giving and receiving different kinds of things in different ways, giving together with others and receiving together with others. In bilateral giving and receiving which I call turn-taking, each person becomes a giver in turn. This develops into reciprocity and there are also many variations on that theme, including what anthropologists call generalized reciprocity, where everyone gives to everyone else. In this kind of economy, relations of mutuality and trust are established throughout the community. In fact maternal egalitarian giving-and-receiving creates the bonds of mutuality, which continue to be created in similar ways throughout adult life, though we no longer recognize them as such.

On the other hand constrained bilateral exchange which is typical of market economies means giving in order to receive an equivalent of what has been given. This is an ego-oriented rather than an other-oriented interaction, and the relations it creates are completely changed. Reciprocal independence, suspicion, competitiveness, dishonesty, fear of lack, anxiety are relational products of exchange.

The market requires scarcity while gift giving requires and creates abundance. The gifts of the many are channelled to the few, actually creating the scarcity that is necessary for the market to function and maintain control but which at the same time makes gift giving difficult. Wars are used to further create the scarcity when the economy and its power structure are threatened by abundance. See for example the destruction of the abundance that had accrued under Clinton in the US economy by Bush’s wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

But lets take a closer look at mothering.

Even in scarcity mothers and other caregivers are a kind of special first ecological niche for their children, a niche which takes the initiative to satisfy its creature’s needs. In this they are like Nature but more proactive.

Mothers lay down the pattern of A gives X to B from the child’s earliest days where X is a need satisfying good or service that the mother (A) gives to the child (B).

This simple pattern is the beginning of a thread of the transitive gift logic that permeates life though we have learned not to see it.

This is a logic of human relations because in childhood it is invested with emotion. That is, the interaction of giving and receiving is the way expectations are created and fulfilled and positive relations are created. Since this interaction is necessary for the child’s survival it is not surprising that humans, both children and adults, would have endowed it with a lot of significance.

Motherers give and receive many different kinds of things and babies learn to imitate and do turn taking from very early on. Very young children smile when their parents smile at them, respond to their sister’s antics by laughing, try to put a half eaten cookie in their mother’s mouth.

We sometimes use the word ‘exchange’ for this giving and receiving but it is a dangerous use, because it assimilates the interaction to the exchange that takes place on the market, which cancels the gift. Similarly anthropologists following Marcel Mauss do not recognize free giving and instead speak of symbolic gift ‘exchange’, which has three necessary steps: giving, receiving and giving back. This denial of the unilateral gift is what Ivan Illych called the “Mauss Trap”.

I prefer to use the term – turntaking. The mother takes the initiative to give to the child who receives. The child takes the initiative to give to the mother who receives. This giving and receiving continues throughout life at many levels. Recently cognitive neuropsychologists have done experiments, which they say show that altruism is innate. Mothering is left out of the explanation of childhood altruism by researchers like Michael Tomasello but ‘altruism’ is not hereditary, it comes from being mothered, from someone recognizing your needs and satisfying them day after day, minute after minute, with many different things and in many different contexts.

We can all play the different roles in this basic script which we learn very early from our mothers. Cognitive psychologists Lakoff and Johnson started a kind of philosophical revolution some 30 years ago (1980) when they began to revise the concept of metaphor, recognizing it as a cognitive device coming from common human experiences of the body. They say that the corporeal or spatial logic, arising from bodily experience, is what provides the basis for the logic of abstract thought (2002). However they only consider the individual body from the skin inward. Instead it would be more accurate if they said ‘intercorporeal’ logic and ‘intercorporeal‘ bodily experience.

Lakoff and Johnson introduced and made popular the idea of image schemas, which are very elementary but repeatable patterns of bodily experience such as: “up and down”, “path to goal“ and going into or out of containers, which are mapped into language at various levels. I believe the image schema that underlies both material and verbal communication is the interactive, interpersonal sensory-motor schema of giving and receiving, first located not in the body of the child alone but between the mother and child, beginning in a moment in which the child has recently been part of the body of the mother and proceeding through the long period during which s/he is dependent on the mother’s need-satisfying gifts and services for h/er body’s very existence.

From this point of view, giving and receiving is the underlying pattern or image schema of material and verbal communication, expressed and embodied in a routine that the child learns with her mother’s milk, a minimal play or script with three roles: giver, gift (or service), and receiver. This routine which is repeated in many different ways is the interpersonal intercorporeal experience that “provides the basis for the logic of abstract thought”.

Two other early mother-child interactions are Mind Reading, which is necessary for satisfying needs, and Joint Attention. Mind reading is not a psychic ability but a down to earth capacity to guess what the baby needs by putting ourselves in her place and by thinking of the context. The baby is crying and she has not eaten for several hours so she is probably hungry. So the motherer satisfies her need for food instead of giving her a bath for example. Young children around the age of 15 months have been tested by psychologists for mind reading ability and it has been found they are able to mind-read some of the contextual information adults have and understand their intentions and desires by following posture and eye gaze.

Pointing for joint attention is giving a perceptual gift by drawing the other’s attention to it. I would say that in joint attention both mother and child are receivers together of the same perceptual gift. Both perceptually receive the same thing and they bond with each other in the common perception/reception.

These abilities and their elaborations continue to permeate adult life in many ways but we do not recognize them as such even though we are doing them. For example we watch a movie together, and this is joint attention. Or go to a conference and listen to the speaker together.

These are patterns that are an integral part of mothering and being mothered, which can be said to also be matriarchal patterns in the adult elaboration of care for the other and the direct satisfaction of needs through gifting. The understanding of others’ needs by ‘mind reading,’ putting oneself in the others’ place and by attentive listening is necessary for gift giving but also for the kinds of communication upon which community is founded. Joint attention is also a community building capacity when it is done in a group which focusses its attention on the same thing, creating mutuality, trust and finally possibly, consensus.

As adults we continue to mind read what others are attending to or not. We give them what they need to cause them to turn their attention to something. If I want to call your attention to cats I can point to them, if they are present, but now they are not present, so you need something else, to direct your attention, a word. The word ‘cats’ satisfies this need. I call this kind of need a communicative need. It is not primarily my own needs I satisfy with the words I speak or write but the communicative needs of the listener or reader. We speak in the language others understand, use the words they know otherwise they will not understand us. We mind read what the other’s communicative needs are and unilaterally give them words to satisfy them. These are virtual verbal gifts, which create relations among givers and receivers, in the same way that giving and receiving material gifts creates relations. Language like mothering is other oriented. Since all our words come to us as gifts passed on to us from others in the linguistic community, they carry with them a relation to the group as well as to the individual giver, speaker or writer. This other oriented maternal relation among individuals and with the group is reaffirmed whenever we speak or write. Even when I say ego oriented things, I have to satisfy the others’ communicative needs. If I say ‘that is my piece of cake and you can’t have any’, I still have to use the words you understand and this puts us in a social relation to my refusal to give.

Both economics and language are based in maternal material communication which produces both our bodies and our minds.

Many adult communicative patterns come from the transitive interactions of mothering and being mothered. These interactions create the mutuality that causes physical and psychological well being and encourage solidarity. Dominance creates a different kind of relationship based on force. Hitting is probably also a derivative of giving, in that as in giving, the hitter reaches out and touches the other person and thereby establishes a relation – of domination (unfortunately) rather than mutuality. This pattern, begun early among boys as an alternative to maternal giving, is carried out in adulthood as individual violence and finally generalized to violence among nations. Unfortunately we have imposed an anti-maternal anti-gift economic gender identity on little boys, which artificially forces them away from their potential as homo donans, the gift giving being, instead of just homo sapiens. This is how patriarchy regenerates in every male child and in every female child who adapts to the (anti-gift) male.

The capitalist mode of production is built on top of the gift economy and functions by surreptitiously taking the free gifts of all and making them into profit.This makes everyone hungry for gifts and is the systemic basis of greed. In fact by denying and exploiting the maternal economy, the market alters the creative receiving side of the interaction, transforming it into aggressive taking. Without greed there would be no motivation for the accumulation of excessive capital. The motivation towards hegemonic masculinity is validated by the hegemony of money – and vice versa.The logic of exchange itself is programming us towards the negative personal characteristics that are functional to the system.

We need to return to the positive relational logic of the unilateral gift economy where goods circulate to needs connecting people and forming community. However if we do not assert the importance of a mother based framework in which to view the gift economy, we will simply accept the domination of the field of giving one more time by patriarchal technologies, sciences and religions that ignore or control mothering, and the modern gift economy movement will lose most of its healing and revolutionary potential. Women will be left to follow the assimilationist path to integration into these institutions or to trying to achieve equality with patriarchal capitalist men. And as we are assimilated and reap the material rewards we will be equally responsible for the evil that is perpetrated by the patriarchal capitalist gift-plundering system.

The values of the gift economy validate other orientation not only towards our individual families and friends but towards all the social groups which are exploited by Patriarchal Capitalism. Not being other oriented in this way contradicts our maternal heritage as do the wars that our governments are now engaged in including the war against poor people and the war against Mother Earth. We need to generalize mothering and turn our other oriented consciousness and care towards all the victims of these wars, including Earth Herself.

How can we shift the paradigm? How can we turn away from the economic structure and superstructure of the exchange economy towards the gift economy which already exists within and around us? Perhaps we can begin by recognizing that environmental niches also function as the giving and receiving of gifts.

We unconsciously project mothering onto the world around us also at a more conscious level when we respond with gratitude to our perceptions as gifts: the warmth of the sun, the cool breeze, the rain. We are intensely mothered children so it is not surprising that we would project mothering onto the world. This projection is not fanciful and far fetched. It is a true projection and we are also, our biological selves, Her. Our environmental niches mother us and we respond to them with knowledge and gratitude and we are also biologically, and perceptually self-motherers. That is, we unconsciously select the perceptual gifts to which we attend just as our mothers selected aspects of our surroundings to give to us. At the same time we are also culturally self-and-other-motherers and receivers of others’ gifts. And we mother each other linguistically, satisfying each other’s communicative needs with verbal gifts and combinations of gifts. Giving to Mother Nature and the spirits of nature also causes relations of mutuality and trust, creating a circulation of gifts that bridges the border between human and non-human.

By projecting giving and receiving, mothering more consciously onto the environment we bond with the environment, give to it, care for it and communicate with it. This can aid our survival as well as own evolution as a maternal species. Instead at the present we are eliminating the consciousness of the projection in favor of a neutral scientific objective epistemology and at the same time, tragically, we are eliminating the environment’s and our own capacity to give.

I have tried to give you just a few of the elements I have been trying to put together for an epistemology based on mothering and being mothered. This needs to be done so that the gift economy movements that are now taking place do not renounce and deny the very maternal and matriarchal patterns that make them function. Mothers and all women have been denied long enough. The maternal aspect of the human must be recognized, restored and loved if we are ever going to be able to function as a viable species.


Johnson, Mark and Lakoff, George, 1980. Metaphors we Live By, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Johnson, Mark and Lakoff, George, 2002. “Why embodied realism is required” in Cognitive Linguistics 13-3, The Hague, Walter de Gruyter, p. 256.

♦ Homo Donans Materno

Reproduced from: http://gift-economy.com/homo-donans-materno/

by Genevieve Vaughan
Presentation at the conference From Afar: Gifts, Institutions, Hospitality. University of Naples, April 2016.

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For many years I have been trying to bring to light a view of the gift economy based on mothering, a free provisioning economy that is fundamentally neither instinctual nor sentimental but structural. Taking the power of definition and calling maternal provisioning ‘economic’ displaces the market from its hegemonic place in the concept of the economy. It makes us take mothering seriously in a new way and lets us take the market less seriously. I am not suggesting that giving and receiving do not have important emotional and psychological components. In fact infancy is the period of the development of mind and body before they are separated by the culture. However, looking at ‘free’ as a mode of distribution of goods to needs allows us to depersonalize and desentimentalize maternal gifting, revealing that it has a logic1 of its own that contrasts with the do ut des logic of the market and even with the Maussian logic of giving, receiving and giving back. In fact the first two steps of giving and receiving already bring about important human consequences. In the mother-child relation giving without a return is necessary for the survival of the infant who cannot give back or measure an equivalent return gift. Maternal gifting creates a transitive path of goods and services and implies the value of the child for the mother, who takes the initiative towards her or him. Receiving these goods and services in a competent way along with the implication of her value creates in the child a sense of self esteem as we shall see. Doing these acts of giving and receiving together creates positive relations between the two parts of the dyad. Although the child does not exchange quid pro quo with the mother, this does not mean that the child does not respond or that she or he does not also give. In fact the child gives signs of all kinds, cries, smiles laughter, gestures and body products like urine and feces. There are ‘protoconversations’ that have been found in all the cultures where psychologists have looked for them, in which mothers and infants take turns with smiles, sounds and gestures. These happy interactions have even been recorded with musical scores (Trevarthen 1979). But in fact these are turn taking interactions not obligatory exchanges. Quid pro quo market exchange, where I give you this only if you give me that, has a logic of its own that is different from that of the unilateral gift. In exchange the interaction is centered on the self. One gives in order to receive not just in order to satisfy the need of the other. In fact the need of the other is used for the satisfaction of one’s own need. While repeating the unilateral gift towards still others creates community and gift circulation, in exchange every ego-centric person stays in a solitary position, competing with others. Value is given to oneself and to the things exchanged, not to the other exchanger.

The logic of unilateral nurturing continues throughout life even when other more complex logics are also functioning. Freud taught us that what happens in infancy moulds adult life. So I would say that giving and receiving unilaterally among adults derives from and repeats emotions and relations formed in infancy – even without our knowing it. Moreover, even Maussian three-step gift exchange and market exchange itself take much of their significance from being variations on the theme of the mother-child gift relation. For example it would seem probable that the capacity of symbolic gifts to create recognition has its roots in the construction of the self that happens in the child through the gifts of maternal care.

Considering the unilateral gift ‘economic’ gives us also the possibility to see it in terms of Marxist ‘structure and super structure’. This lets us think of moral and sentimental values of care not as autonomous aspects of the human personality but as values coming from the practice of the maternal economic ‘base’. In the present society it is difficult to sustain these values because gift-giving and market exchange are locked in a parasitic embrace that seems symbiotic.

The values of care are the values of the maternal host not of the market parasite – but the host does not even know that it exists as an independent way of doing things because the market has been so efficient in imposing itself, reinterpreting its parasitism and making it appear legitimate.

Mothering is the original interface between child and world. We are all connected as beings who have been nurtured by others. The bridge that unites us is formed in our first years and it is created by giving and receiving within interactions with our carers. Unfortunately the logic of exchange contradicts this original relation and creates internal logical and psychological contradictions as soon as we are old enough to participate in the market.

There is a lot to say about gifting when its maternal roots are taken into account. Let me mention only a few.

It is possible to trace a spectrum of gifts from the most thoroughly unilateral through the benignly reciprocal to ‘symbolic gift exchange’, to forced reciprocity, to manipulative gifting for power over others, to market exchange, where gifts are transformed into profit by manipulation and exploitation. There are many gradations in this spectrum and I can only suggest their complexity here. However if we do not have the idea of unilateral gifting as the first step we lack the beginning of the spectrum and so cannot recognize the gradations as such, with the result that we only see a disorderly jumble of kinds of gifts, which we then attempt to classify.

There are many social metaphors based on exchange or on the gift. For example both vengeance and justice require payment for crime. The feeling of guilt stimulates us to prepare to pay. Now there are proposals of new solutions such as restorative justice that are informed by the values of giving for the satisfaction of needs: the needs of the victims as well as those of the perpetrators. Telling the truth is more a gift than an exchange because it satisfies the other’s need to know, while a lie satisfies its teller’s need or desire to deceive and has become an accepted strategy of the market.

I believe there is also a metaphor of the gift hidden in violence: hitting is ‘giving someone a thrashing’, ‘letting them have it’. Hitting others touches them physically like maternal gifting does and like gifting, it establishes a relation – not of mutuality and trust but of domination. People who undergo a heavily masculinizing gender construction, which is in opposition to the female mother construction, often use this contradictory derivative of the gift, and they often use it to make others give more gifts to themselves.

The market functions according to the capacity to take gifts. Marx’s surplus labor is the part of the labor that is not covered by the salary and is taken by the capitalist. It is forced from the laborer but given free to the capitalist. In a similar way the gifts of household labor pass to the capitalist through the family members who have received the nurturing and who contribute their surplus labor.

Back in 1988 the feminist economist Marilyn Waring began to try to quantify the value of household work. Now one of her collaborators, Duncan Ironmonger tells us “Household production is now recognised as an alternative or parallel economy to the market. Rather than being a satellite to the market economy, the house hold economy is best considered a binary star” (Ironmonger 2003).

In 2012, Ironmonger estimated the USA’s 2011 Gross Household Product at 11.6 trillion dollars (as compared to a GDP of 13.3 trillion) (Ironmonger and Soupourmas 2012). If we add to this free production the global ‘ecosystem services’, which have been estimated at some $125 trillion a year compared to the monetized economy’s $75 trillion GDP, (Costanza et al. 2014) we can see how the market economy actually floats upon a sea of gifts.

Moreover profit, the motivation of the market, is made of gifts. In fact the market is a mechanism for channeling the gifts of the many towards the few. Generalized poverty is useful to this end because in abundance everyone could live happily without working for those in power. In order to carry out the purpose of creating poverty we have invented wars, which waste the accumulated abundance.

There are many things that are visible in a new light from a point of view that includes maternal gifting so I will try to justify this perspective more thoroughly.

Infant psychology

In the last few years I have discovered an external validation in the new infant psychology, which, because it views infants differently, leaves a space for viewing mothering differently.

In the 1980s the frame by frame study of films of mother child interactions spurred this new psychology in which babies are understood as being highly social from birth (M.C. Bateson 1979). Colwyn Trevarthen, Stein Braten, Andrew Meltzoff and many others have revolutionized the study of young children, breaking away from the conception of Freud, Piaget and Skinner who saw infants as passive and solipsistic. This new understanding makes the care-giving mother a partner in altercentric interaction, with an alert and intelligent other, who is already able to represent her supramodally as ‘Like Me’ solipsistic (Meltzoff and Brooks 2007). In her interchanges with the mother the child is not only a receiver but also a unilateral giver: of gestures, vocalizations and bodily products.

Other recent researchers (for example Giaccomo Rizzolati, Vitttorio Gallese and Michael Arbib) have shown how the child’s mirror neurons simulate the activity of the mother so that each person in the dyad subconsciously knows what the other is doing and feeling. This would be particularly important for the material nurturing interaction, but giving and receiving have hardly been studied as such by mirror neuron and infancy researchers. The only comment I have seen is by Stein Braten “…we should expect, for example, that in humans give-mirror neurons should be activated during own giving and while watching the other give and that grasp-mirror neurons be activated during own grasping and while watching the other grasp” (2002).

To me the research on mirror neurons communicates the extremely important idea that each partner in the maternal dyad at least subconsciously knows what the other is feeling when giving or when receiving (and vice versa) and perhaps also knows that the other knows. Emotionally, at least to some extent, receiving is giving and giving is receiving.

Just as mothering is mostly lacking from the framework of ideas around the gift economy, material giving and receiving is mostly lacking from the framework of infant psychology2. Although it would seem to be an obvious component of this study, mother work – feeding, carrying, dressing, cleaning the infant – is not investigated, while more typically psychological communicative interactions, vocalizations and gestures are.

Interpersonal neurobiology

An interesting move towards a somewhat more central focus on the mother is a shift towards the integration of attachment theory and neurobiology in what is being called ‘interpersonal neurobiology’, as developed by Allan Schore, Daniel Siegel and
others. Here the brain, especially the right hemisphere of the brain of the mother is seen as actually interacting with the right brain of the infant. The mother holistically (and mostly subconsciously) regulates the preverbal child’s emotions and the child’s right brain registers and learns from her regulation how to self-regulate (Schore 2003). Moreover, astonishingly, “the rate of synaptogenesis in the developing infant’s brain is a remarkable 40,000 new synapses every second and brain volume increases from 400 g at birth to 1000 g at 12 months” (Schore 2015:2-3). During this tremendous growth spurt the social experiences the child has with h:er mother are incorporated into the neural connections (Shore quotes Hebb (1949) “neurons that fire together wire together”) while the potential connections that are not used disappear.

Daniel Siegel elaborates

“Given that interpersonal relationships guide how we focus our attention and therefore how our neural firing patterns emerge, our social experiences can directly shape our neural architecture. Put simply our relational connections shape our neural connections. This interactive process occurs throughout the lifespan”. (Siegel 2012:15)

This interpersonal neurobiological research shows how nurture (gifting) becomes nature. The care given by the motherer is incorporated into the physiology of the child’s brain.

Although I consider this a very important shift in perspective, I have to insist that the most important early interpersonal experiences for infants are those of receiving goods and services, because these are crucial for the infants’ survival. Thus the patterns of giving and receiving are necessarily the original and basic shapers of ‘our neural architecture’ across cultures.

Most of the interpersonal neurobiological researchers come from the disciplines of psychotherapy, so they tend to concentrate on psychological rather than material interactions. However clearly, the material interactions of giving and receiving are the most fundamental ones. They are the substrata for the psychological interactions.

Since the neurobiological research leaves out the fact of motherwork, nurturework, it is not emphasized that at the level of practice, of daily life, all of the developments of the brain in early childhood are taking place in what is for the child a free gift economy3. The growth of the brain, the neuron activations and emotional responses all arise with regard to free unilateral gifts and gifting.

We might look at this from an adult perspective in which we can contrast free with exchange-based activities, so that it seems that free giving is mainly positive because it is not exchange. However free giving actually has an important positive character of its own in that the needs of the receiver elicit the gifting initiative of the giver, thereby maintaining the infant’s life. No third step is necessary. No return gift is required or expected. By this I do not want to say that children don’t respond or that the mothers do not respond to their responses. However this is not an exchange of equivalents but rather, according to the researchers, a reciprocal relation-creating syntony. Taking turns in gifting functions by imitation not obligation and the whole interaction is more like a turn-taking conversation than a quid pro quo market exchange.

The pre verbal gifting experiences are what create the communication and attention patterns that “form our first relationships and directly shape our neural architecture”. These first free nurture-based relationships are processed in the holistic right brain and are permeated with emotions that mark them as similar in a variety of contexts. The filling of the child’s needs ideally establishes mutuality and trust, the positive affect that Schore underlines as a most important aspect of the mother child interaction. This produces a “right brain subjective self system” that “unconsciously generate(s) a background sense of emotional well being” in the “early forming emotional core of the subjective self” (Shore 2015). In other words, I would say, nurture – receiving and giving – is important in establishing a (positive) sense of the subjective self.

The gift perspective allows us to recognize a commonality of maternal practice, while at the same time allowing for the culturally specific interactions of individual motherers with their children, which ‘sculpt’ the neuron connections in a consistent way that is also culturally variable. Moreover Shore mentions that the left hemisphere, the linguistically specialized part of the brain becomes dominant at about 3 years of age, while the right hemisphere, which has been dominant until then has little or no language. One might even speculate that the interpersonal relations based on giving and receiving that are created and stored in the province of the holistic right brain are made sequential in language and relegated to the left brain.

I would like to recall Chomsky’s Universal Grammar in which the basic mechanisms of language acquisition are innate while languages vary. I believe the basic mechanisms are not innate but circumstantial! They seem to be innate because everyone who survives experiences the same circumstance. All of us are born vulnerable and have to be nurtured freely and repeatedly by someone. Not an innate grammar but the learned patterns of giving and receiving form the communicative mechanism that is actualized in languages and reproposed verbally in syntax and ‘merging’. This mechanism continues to function also at the material level, where it continues to be accompanied by the emotions aroused by needs and their satisfaction.

This change of perspective is important because it includes the mother and her free labor as the source and does not displace her by attributing the logic of language to ‘heredity’ (which is also a kind of gift!) This allows us to see that the maternal model is the fundamental structure of our humanity. It is one more proof that we are primarily homo donans and not just homo sapiens or – worse – homo economicus.

Thus at least two kinds of unilateral gifting influence us beyond our conscious knowledge, material gifting and linguistic gifting. They are partly independent from each other: one satisfies communicative and cognitive needs, the other satisfies material needs. Both generate emotional and psychological consequences. There are also other types of gifts for example, perception, seen as the reception of perceptual gifts of our cultural and ecological niches.

In my work on the gift in language I propose the idea of ‘word-gifts’ and ‘world-gifts’ (Vaughan 2015). I would like to refer again to Allan Schore for the maternal explanation of the relation between the two levels. It is through her own responses to the world, which the mother shares with the child that she influences the right brain of the child, emphasizing the emotional values to give to things. Schore says that that the right “hemisphere, which is dominant for unconscious processes, computes, on a moment-to-moment basis, the affective salience of external stimuli. Keeping in mind Bowlby’s earlier descriptions, this lateralized system performs a ‘valence tagging’ function (Schore, 1998a, 1999), in which perceptions receive a positive or negative affective charge, in accord with a calibration of degrees of pleasure–unpleasure” (1998: 342). It appears that the responses of the right brain of the child to the world are initially determined in relation to the mother who signals parts of the world as gifts  – valences – to embrace or to avoid4. Therefore from the beginning the child’s perceptions of the world are not solitary but they are already mediated socially by the mother in a multi modal way – visually through the expressions of her face, kinetically, auditorally and chemically. The valences of the world are not asocial but they are informed also by the experiences that the adult mother has had of the world during her life5. This helps us see how giving up the idea of the solipsistic newborn can heal philosophy from the idea of solipsism in general.

I would say that for the mother the child she has had in her womb is anyway a small, unknown stranger coming from the Great Mystery. Perhaps this is why when we try to give to strangers we tend to treat them as children, infantilizing them. But even in this case we have to free ourselves from the idea of the solipsistic infant. Using the maternal attitude towards strangers is right because this is the way we establish our humanity but we should not project maternal giving as patriarchy sees it nor think of the receivers as passive. Maybe the most important thing is to recognize that the other has the capacity to be maternal also, to give again to others. It is obvious that immigrants do this if we take into account that they send billions back to their home countries from far away.

I believe it is our responsibility to give from afar to immigrants and refugees

1. By opposing the wars that create their needs to flee
2. Opposing the multinational corporations that profit from the wars and contribute to their continuation
3. Disseminating the theory and practice of the gift as opposed to exchange
4. Validating the concept of the human as maternal Homo Donans for both genders
5. Responding as much as possible to the immediate needs of those whose countries have become unliveable, so that they can give again to others.

If language is based on gifting our words are gifts that have been given to us by those who have spoken our language. If we write books or speak in public we are offering our words and our thoughts to strangers. But now all our lives are put into question. We have to be able to offer the gift of a liveable Mother Earth to the children of the future who are our most vulnerable strangers. Recognizing our maternal origins can help us do this.

To cite Arundathi Roy “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing” (2003). Let me add that breathing in is receiving the gift of air and breathing out is giving the gift of our breath.


1. I believe that anyone of whatever gender can do mothering: relatives, friends or even entire villages. Usually it has been done by birth mothers as part of their socially constructed roles.
2. Feminist researchers do discuss motherwork of course, beginning with Sara Ruddick (1989) and continuing with the many proponents of care.
3. Even if the caregiver is paid, for the child the care is free.
4. Knowing ahead of time that it is dangerous to touch something is also a gift.
5. In this regard see Luisa Muraro’s Ordine Simbolico della Madre which appeared in 1991.

♦ The Gift, Nurturance, and Human Emancipation
A Summing Up

Reproduced from: http://gift-economy.com/the-gift-nurturance/

by Genevieve Vaughan
January 2018

Click here to download the article.

Patriarchy and the market have merged into a gigantic self propelling mechanism that is overtaking all other socio-economic forms while it destroys the Earth and her people in the process. It has many levels of disguise, of concealing its nefarious patterns so we don’t even know what it is we are dealing with.

We think it is reality.

Once we have embraced the disguise we can relax, our feet on the ground. We feel ok, with our consumer products, our news media, religious institutions. They are the coordinates that tell us what is real and fake. News media also. We like to choose our station, dial up our own reality. However we are living this illusion while millions die due to our governments’ and corporations’ wars upon them, the poverty and pandemics caused by the depletion of their resources, the environment degradation caused by fossil fuel industry plus climate denial. If we remain in the illusion we appear to have no responsibility for all this.

My analysis of this deeply negative situation is predicated on my discovery that there are two economies in play in the present world. One practices unilateral gift giving and is based in mothering and the other, which is typical of the market, is based on quid pro quo exchange. There are two economic logics that distinguish the two economies and these logics produce corollaries or look alikes in other areas of life.

The gift is transitive, other-oriented, mainly qualitative and it implies the value of the other, while exchange is ego oriented, self reflecting, quantitative and gives value to the objects exchanged and to the self. This simple distinction has not been made in these terms.

The unilateral gift has not been seen because it has seemed impractical, saintly or sacrificial and has been claimed as the province of morality and religion. Yet ‘free’ is a mode of distribution and it begins in the womb and with the first intake of the free breath of life. The exchange of gifts that Marcel Mauss proposed is a three step process of giving, receiving and giving back. With young children this is not possible because they cannot give back an equivalent of what they have been given.

In fact the first and second step already constitute a gift and are at the core of all relationships. The mutuality and trust that are established between mother and child are the original human relational bond. The child can respond of course, but there is no obligatory repayment. The pattern is established and propagates by imitation rather than by obligation.

Unilateral gifting constitutes the original relational economy and it is within this economy that the interpersonal neurobiological developments in the brain happen in the first three years, before language, when the right hemisphere of the brain is dominant. The patterns involved are not at the level of consciousness for the child because they are originally non verbal.

Nevertheless I believe the patterns of giving and receiving are transferred into language and I believe that is what language is: verbal giving and receiving and giving again, passing it on. The giving of verbal gifts.

I will skip now to the patterns of exchange (some of which are also found in language)

Making a gift contingent upon a return creates a contradiction of the altercentrism of the gift. The market replays the logic of gift-giving in reverse. The view of the world coming from the market hides gift-giving/mothering, contradicts it and, meshed with patriarchy, further plunder it because the market and money function as conceptual mechanisms that distort gift giving and denature it. In fact one of the corollaries of gifting is other-oriented truth telling while lying is consonant with exchange since it satisfies the others’ need to know in a way which will mainly satisfy the need of the liar. Such are the illusions that the market and Patriarchy spin to keep us from taking responsibility to change them.

We need to redefine, rename everything with gift giving in mind.

In Patriarchal Capitalism, gifting is rarely named appropriately and exchange or its cognates are put in its place.This results in a movement of semantic fields as if the one tectonic plate of meaning had been shifted under the other. Thus we see the market at the center with flanking ‘externalities’ of nature and the domestic sphere. Instead the domestic economy is a gift economy that has been occupied, colonized by the market. The market and the domestic gift economy are locked in a parasitic embrace that seems a symbiosis while both must receive the nurturing gifts from the embrace of Mother Earth, now also raped and forced to give by patriarchal extractive exploitation.

By affirming the free maternal gifting as an economy (similar to indigenous ‘pre’ market economies) the market no longer occupies the total cognitive reference field. We can roll back the language away from economic man and his priorities, rename profit as a gift given up the socio-economic ladder from the many to the ever more gifted few, and make clear distinctions between exchange and gifting.

The culture of the market has overtaken the culture of the gift just as the colonial cultures have overtaken the colonized ones with the displacement of their languages. They are now reclaiming their languages and we can do so as well, liberating the language of the gift from patriarchal exchange based terminology.

So how do we get these tectonic plates to move?

A shift in consciousness, a shift in what we give our attention to is necessary to open a space for the spring of the gift to well up in our minds. We are all doing gifting without knowing it. We must recognize and validate it.

Indeed I believe that by putting maternal gifting first we can completely eliminate the Patriarchal Capitalist approach constituting most of Euro American academic thought, which excludes the mother and the gift in favor of the mother-dominating male and gift-dominating market exchange.

On this basis we revise our notion of who we are as a species. We are not primarily homo sapiens the knowing being, but homo donans, the gifting being. Giving and receiving comes before knowing. They are the basis of knowing, and if I am right about language, we do giving and receiving not only at the material but at the verbal level so we are all doubly givers and receivers.

The gift mode of social provisioning is how our species began and continued its evolution, before it became entangled in the alienated market structures extant today.

The gift is also the means (and the end) by which we can yet again return to sanity, normalcy, contentment, peace with each other and the environment.

Gifting is, in fact, our perennial condition, the structure and sustaining metaphor for all social life.

It is my faith that we can trace, quite readily, a very practicable route map from here to there.

And I am pledged to do all I can to help the world move in that direction.

Not to some grandiose utopia, but to the simple, yet incalculable, benefice of a caring, nurturing society inspired by the gift-giving propensities of the original, interpersonal maternal process.

Interview: Genevieve Vaughan – “The Gift Economy”

Reproduced from: http://gift-economy.com/ideas-for-our-times/

Queried by Professor Rajani Kanth
January 2018

Click here to download the article.


1. Explain what you mean by the ‘Gift Economy’.

A Gift Economy is the material interaction of a community based on the direct provisioning of needs without the mediation of exchange.

I believe that in every life there is an original economic mode that is based on unilateral giving and receiving and that is prior to the interaction of exchange, which is giving in order to receive an equivalent return.

Unilateral giving has been made problematic by religions that frame it as extraordinary and saintly and by structures of domination that force one-way giving by the weak to the powerful. There is a very commonplace and necessary area of unilateral giving in every life, however, and that is in the mothering of little children who cannot give back an equivalent of what they have received. Someone must give unilaterally to them or they do not survive. This requires the identification of the child’s needs and the provision of appropriate goods and services that will satisfy them.

Unilateral gifting, which occurs at the beginning of life, can be practiced by anyone, female or male, family members or even by whole villages, though in our society it is usually considered the work of the birth mother. Nurturing establishes bonds of mutuality and trust between giver and receiver and it is extended (replicated) more by imitation than by obligation.

This giving/receiving need-satisfying mode can be seen as the logical forerunner of all other economic modes and they can be seen as variations upon its theme. For example, bilateral transfers or exchanges are a variation, a contingent doubling, of unilateral transfers.

When there is a time variation the transfers can take place in a mode of debt or obligation – which still maintains a root in the first step of the unilateral gift. Gifting can continue into adulthood as the basic principle of distribution in groups without markets such as hunter gatherers and it also remains as a main mode within family units even in market based societies.

The maternal gift economy is a relational economy. It differs from Maussian gift exchange in that the ongoing relationships are not created by the obligation to give back but by the mutual alignment of the direct need satisfying interaction. There is also turn taking, in which each takes on the role of giver or receiver in turn but without constraint or conditionality and giving forward, passing on the gifts to others in the community, creating mutuality with them as well. Property held in common can appear in the role of giver, which those who use it align together in receiving, sharing and passing on, creating a ‘commons’.

The mode of distribution of goods to needs that is embodied in mothering gives rise to strong emotions in both parents and children and these reinforce interactive templates that are elaborated throughout life. Gift based communities maintain positive emotions and high levels of trust while the ego oriented logic of exchange produces suspicion, defensiveness and exacerbated individualism. Even when market economies have changed or depleted the context, gifting among individuals and groups continues to create positive community bonds.

The gift economy has its unconscious origin in the womb (Jordan) and it is the structure of the early childhood Evolved Developmental Niche (Narvaez). After the child is born, it is thus the economic and social context in which the brain development studied by interpersonal neurobiology takes place, where brain organization is sculpted epigenetically by human relations (Siegel).

The maternal economy is the setting of our mental development, and giving-receiving is the template for basic functions like knowing and communicating. Both in the history of the species and in the trajectory of every life, giving-receiving comes first.

The economy of a community that has retained its continuity with maternal provisioning and its logic, is what I am calling a ‘gift economy’. The gift interaction has its own transitive logic which can coexist with the market’s ‘identity logic’.

Giving gives value to the receiver while exchange gives value to the things exchanged and to the self interested exchanger.

2. How does that differ from the Market Economy that exists today?

The market economy is based on categorization and an equation of value that appears accurate but is actually spurious. First, the interactors categorize their products as not-gifts, removing them from the gift economy at the same time excluding any gift elements as irrelevant for the transaction, transparent, like air (itself a necessary free gift).

In fact, though, there are innumerable unseen gifts that bring the product to its state of saleability (surplus labor) and to the market itself – think only of the free ‘work’ of shopping, and other work that contribute to the product’s utility after the sale. Shopping gives gift value (importance) to the marketplace as well as to the commodities for sale.

The logic of exchange is contradictory to the logic of the gift. It carries an ego oriented implication because the exchanger tries to satisfy her own need by means of the satisfaction of the need of the other. This constrained quid pro quo transfer cancels the implication of the value of the other that the gift transmits.The equivalence posed between the products or between the products and money permits everyone to enter into the same sort of gift-cancelling human relation.

The replacement of the gift relation by exchange is facilitated by a common cognitive relation (as happens in the joint attention of early childhood) with the assessment of the exchange value of the commodity in money taking precedence. This process partly consists of naming the product as a value with a quantitative name as a price, in the langue of prices (Vaughan 1981).

In the market buyers and sellers, removed from the gift economy, participate in a grand hiatus of the gift where the abstract relations of products with each other and among products and people, take precedence over the exchangers’ relations as human beings. As Sohn Rethel showed products as use values and gifts are placed in an abstraction outside of time when they are ‘for sale’. In that abstract area they are evaluated with regard to a one to many General Equivalent that has much in common with the ‘one over many’ hierarchical figure of Patriarchy and with the exemplar in the objectivist concept formation process.

This one-to-many figure now expresses itself in a condensed form in the figure of President Trump, who combines the aspects of Patriarchal Male at the top with the possession of the ever expanding one to many General Equivalent and the concept model of male dominant humanity.

This template repeats itself in mass shootings in which one shooter takes the lives of many individuals, one nation dominates many, each with its dominant male (or similarly dominant female) in charge. Not understanding this configuration and its connection with money and the market keeps us from addressing these problems in a competent manner though we can all see the world is going insane.

There are many more things to be said about market exchange in this light but I will have to refer you to my books on the subject. (Vaughan 1997, 2015)

Let me add just a couple of other points. The logic of exchange has a number of corollaries or look-alikes in our interpersonal affairs. For example telling the truth is an attempt to satisfy the need of another to know (in order to correctly interpret the world for example); it is therefore other oriented like the gift. Lying is an attempt to satisfy one’s own need while giving to the other something not appropriate to satisfy hers. Justice is fashioned along the lines of exchange while mercy follows the way of the gift.

Economics textbooks say that the market is the method of the distribution of scarce goods. However the market actually creates the scarcity that allows it to maintain control. If everyone were living in abundance, there would be no need for anyone to work for the powerful in order to survive. In order to maintain its hegemony, the nation or the international body of corporations wastes the surplus wealth on wars and armaments, destroys infrastructure and devastates the environment, creating scarcity for future decades as well as many investment opportunities for rebuilding.

For various reasons giving is often assimilated into the category of exchange, but this is pernicious because it hides the existence of two fundamentally different processes with different logics and consequences. It is also an activity of patriarchy to devalue maternal practice and over value dominance, self interest, individual superiority, being larger, having more.

The market economy that we have today is based on exchange, do ut des, that takes over from gifting, and makes an abstract equation of value between products essential for the interaction, meanwhile relating it to all the other products in similar situations at that time period.

The abstract equation of value stands beyond the gift interaction and outside it, exchange is made necessary for procuring the means of gifting by draining the context of free alternatives. The scarcity in which the market distributes goods is created by the market itself. The market is a mechanism for channeling the flow of gifts away from the many and towards the few at the top.

This is done by a sleight of hand in which as Marx showed, the exchange of equivalents forms a mechanism by which gifts are re routed away from needs and taken as profit. Surplus value flows from the portion of the unremunerated labor time of the worker and arrives as a free gift into the bank account of the capitalist. (It is forced or leveraged from the worker but free to the capitalist).

The free domestic labor of the housewife flows through the surplus labor of the worker to the capitalist or if she is herself the worker it is flows as her own gift – and is supplemented to the capitalist by the comparatively lower price she is given for her labor. [paying a woman less than a man for equal work ‘compensates’ the capitalist for the free gift labor that would have passed to him through the woman worker to her husband if she had stayed at home].

Gifts continue to affirm the value of the receiver by implication, even when they are unrecognized as such. That is the capitalist appears valuable because he receives the implication of gift value from the gifts that have been given to – leveraged by – him.

The interpersonal value-conferring interaction of gifting is ‘superseded’ by the impersonal categorizing logic of exchange but the implication of the value of the receiver continues underground. This is why the capitalist appears to deserve his/her profit. The free gifts of labor are also given to or extracted by the capitalist, who does not have to pay for clean up and can place the commodity on the market as if it were largely produced by free (gift) labor.

The gifts of labor and resources of countries of the south are extracted by the north through the difference in (expenditure for) level of life in the different areas, so that what would be ignominious wages in the US provides a low normal level of life in El Salvador, and its products can be sold at high prices in the USA (the gift margin actually comes from the salaries of the US workers).

The commodification of previously free resources such as water and seeds makes clear the gift character of the baseline and the reassignment from gift to exchange through privatization. Once this has happened the needs for those products can no longer be easily filled by gifting outside the market.

The problem here is also one of definition because the good is not seen as valuable at all until it is commodified, that is until it is given a money name that connects it with other commodities on the market. Beyond this categorization it seems not to exist. Gifts, like housework, are invisible in the context of the market, a fact which allows them to be more easily plundered and renamed profit.

Viewing housework as an externality to the market puts it out of sight and out of mind. Naming the domestic economy a gift economy connects it with the non-market economies of indigenous people and displaces market exchange from its position as the only occupant of its conceptual field. In this light we can see the market and the gift economy side by side with equal conceptual dignity, but what is also brought to light perhaps is that the market economy is parasitic upon the gift and cannot survive without it. Although the host could survive without the parasite it does not know what is happening or even that there is a parasite. It appears to be ‘just the way things are’.

3. Are these ‘gendered’ Models?

Presently the market has merged with patriarchy, which supplies the individual motivation for competition, accumulation and the denial and predation of gifts. Even when the interactors are non human corporations, the values of patriarchy continue to motivate them to expand, control and dominate (whatever the values of the individual humans involved in them may be).

Nevertheless I believe that the gift economy is not gendered. The nurturing that happens in mothering takes place before the child realizes she or he has a gender, during what Freud called the ‘oral phase’. Children develop with the model of their nurturer. Because it is the task of the nurturer to bring the child ‘up’ to her own adult status, there is not the motivation to belittle the child so the relation between child and mother can be relatively egalitarian.

Most nurturers in our society are female and indeed they are birth mothers. However male nurturers are becoming more common.The indigenous gift cultures do not divide the genders along the same lines as Western Europeans do. We all need to see ourselves as human maternal gift-givers first and then if necessary divide into other categories.

4. What accounts for the genesis of these opposing Archetypes?

The problem is that we have created a masculine socialization that alienates boy children away from the female maternal model with which they first identify, placing them in opposition to it. This takes them out of the gift mode and thrusts them into an identity with patriarchal characteristics where competition for power over others is a mainstay.

This identity is not ‘natural’ but constructed by gender categorization itself and the consequent removal of boys from their original identification with their nurturers. The non nurturing patriarchal identity then becomes the norm, a power over mode ensues and mothering and the gift economy are cancelled, devalued and indeed made to nurture the non nurturers and their normativity. In this context the ego oriented logic of market exchange creates fitness for the survival of the self interested individual while other orientation and nurturing become disadaptive.

The nurturers give to their invented ‘others’, the exchangers who take as much as possible according to the patriarchal values of individual accumulation and domination. The market is an area of life that is structured to allow this to happen. It gives a home to the patriarchal identity and places nurturers in a separate and subservient domestic sphere.

4.a) How, and when, did you chance upon the Idea of relating the Gift Economy to ‘Mothering’?

In 1963, I met an Italian philosophy professor and semiotician, who was on an exchange professorship at the University of Texas. We married and I went back with him to Italy. In 1964 he was invited to a meeting of some professors in Bologna to found a journal that would apply Marx’s analysis of the commodity and money to language. I went along.

The discussion that day was so intense and illuminating that I was enormously struck. I had an aha moment in which it seemed as if I could understand everything. I started working on the idea myself while my husband was writing books about it. I spent more than a year reading the first book of Capital. Not long ago I read that Alfred Sohn Rethel also did that. I had been an English major in college and had learned to analyze poetry so I did a very close reading. In that period our children began to be born and I was taking care of them. I noticed that they were learning to speak long before they understood what exchange or the market was.

If that was the case I thought, language could not derive from exchange. If anything the similarities might be due to exchange deriving from language. Besides I knew many indigenous people had not had markets as such and yet they certainly spoke. So I began to think there must be something else going on. I was taking care of my children without exchanging anything with them quid pro quo and I did not like manipulation so our communication was based on satisfying needs, provisioning, and taking turns in the free economy of mothering.

5. Are there any Precursors in history for this apparent linkage?

From Marshall Sahlins to Darcia Narvaez, anthropologists have discussed ancient and modern gatherer-hunter societies that have intensely nurturing social parenting practices and economies mainly without markets. Recent work by Heide Goettner Abendroth reclaims the term ‘matriarchal’ to mean not a mirror image of Patriarchy but an egalitarian society based on maternal values. Some indigenous scholars and activists also use this terminology. (Goettner Abendroth also describes cultures with different social structures, such as visiting marriages and caregiving by mother’s brothers.) .

Gifting is normal daily practice, but there are also festivals of gift giving that keep the logic of the gift in function in contexts muddied by the market economy. Since exchange is the paradigm in which anthropologists are brought up they tend not to access the maternal gift paradigm when conducting their studies. Indigenous people who discuss it often continue to affirm the mother and Matriarchy (Watch video – Pearl Means: The Power of Matriarchy) even though the US government tried to break the tribal link and maternal power by forcing the children into military style boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. I believe the masculinization of little boys that happens in the Euro American mode does not happen, or at least not in the same way, with indigenous cultures.

For example Jeanette Armstrong of the Syilx of British Colombia recounts her aunt’s answer to her question about why their language doesn’t have ‘he and she’ –

“Well, it has to do with being a person.” I asked, “What does it have to do with being a person?’” She replied, “If you were to say ‘he’ or ‘she’ in our language, you would have to point to their genitals, you would have to point to what’s between the legs, and why would you talk about a person and point between their legs?” She said, “It doesn’t make any sense.” And it doesn’t—people are what they do and who they relate to and how they relate to the world. It has nothing to do with gender, except that there are males and females. So there are words like “maleness and femaleness.” (2007)

In other words, children are people before one even notices that they are different sexes. As with EuroAmericans, babies grow up with the model of the motherer but then gifting remains normal for everyone and is not assigned to one sex in opposition to the other.

6. What is your own primary field of study?

I have been extremely lucky in that I have been able to study one fascinating thing independently for some 55 years. Of course I did not spend all my time studying it but even when I was just living my life many issues and events came up that made me think about it. I tried to use a two and even three pronged approach, the description of maternal gifting and the criticism of exchange and of money, applying all three to understanding language.

Gifting provided the explanation of transitivity and need satisfaction, while exchange provided definition and categorization with money as the exemplar of the category of value (and money was a particularly salient element in my life). Very little had been written about any of these areas and nothing using all three together. Using this three pronged approach I worked through the various aspects of the comparisons between these different ways of communicating and was able to get a new perspective on almost anything.

It was as if I were in a mine with an endless vein of precious minerals, or like Alibaba in the cave of the 40 thieves. In 1978 I became a feminist and was able to combine the critique of Patriarchy and the affirmation of ‘women’s values’ with the other ‘prongs’. I also began to understand the ‘domestic sphere’ as a colonized gift economy. I tried to bring out what I was discovering little by little and published two papers in Semiotics but just at that time I moved to the USA in an environment where nobody was interested. So I bided my time and tried to practice the gift economy in a foundation. I wrote some short papers and finally my first book For-Giving was published in 1997.

Since then I have continued to work on the ideas and have published other books, among other things, discussing the nature of meaning and value. I have been an activist and have tried to live my life in accordance with my beliefs, proposing the mother-based gift economy as an alternative to Patriarchal Capitalism. Meanwhile, I am still fascinated by the interweaving among the ways of communicating that are language, gift giving and the market.

7. Your critics suggest that you are ‘reductionist’ in relating all societal phenomena to ‘Mothering’.

I believe that mothering, though it seems commonplace, is the great undiscovered principle of humanity. Its early logic, which is clear in childhood, is elaborated in many different adult forms where it is no longer visible. Tracing these back to the original maternal gift interactions provides a different view of almost everything. The maternal norm is the valid one for life, not the patriarchal or the market norm.

I don’t believe this is reductionist (but perhaps reappropriationist, ‘rematriationist’ as Indigenous women say) because I do not reduce everything to mothering/being mothered. Rather I see mothering/nurturing/gifting as a root from which many trunks and branches grow, an original theme with many variations, many of which are no longer recognizable as having their origin in gifting.

For example, we saw above that exchange is only a double gift, made reciprocal and contingent upon quantification. The logic of the transaction is so deeply altered however, that exchange contradicts the gift itself and creates a hidden level where the gift is open to exploitation (as surplus labor and reproductive labor) because of the strong focus on the equation, that leaves everything else out, as if it were non existent. Another derivative of gifting is unfortunately, hitting. The transitive trajectory of the gift that passes from one to another to nurture is transformed into the trajectory of the blow. The one reaches out to the other to satisfy needs, the other reaches out to cause harm.

This ‘translation’ of the gift makes the receiver ‘inferior’ and thus calls for a ‘return blow’ to establish equality, initiating an up-down exchange of blows. These patterns, laid down in early childhood, continue into adulthood and function in different dimensions not only between individuals but between nations (see international ‘aid’ and war). In cognitive psychology these might have a more general and abstract embodiment as an (interpersonal) image schema of ‘Path to Goal’.

Once giving and receiving have arrived at this level of elaboration, the root in maternal practice is no longer visible, and this is also due to the co presence of the model of exchange and that of hitting which together overshadow and dominate the model of giving-nurturing.

8. What is your understanding of Patriarchy?

Patriarchy is a relational mechanism with a logical structure that combines with other similar structures to the detriment of women, of children and of less powerful men, animals and the environment. The values of Patriarchy include upward mobility, large size, individualism, being the center of attention, power over others, conflictuality, competition, dominance of one over many.

The objectivist or classical understanding of concepts in which one exemplar is selected exemplifies this one to many relation (Vaughan 1981). It is to be found in the form of the General Equivalent, Money, in its relation to a common quality (exchange value) of relative items, and can be seen in a proliferation of similar figures: the king and his subjects, the father and his family, and up and down the structures of democracy and the hegemonic positions of nations (Goux 1990).

Although this structure seems “natural” to some, confirmed by the instinctive behavior of ‘alpha males’ in animal settings, there are actually other types of concept formation, for example the ‘prototype structure’ discovered by Eleanor Rosch (1978). Here there are many different similarities to a ‘one’ and the prototypes themselves are embedded in wider networks of similarities and differences. When in Patriarchy great power is vested in the ‘one’ position, tyranny results and overlapping one-to-many configurations compound the problem.

For example, the General Equivalent structure overlaps with the one to many presidential figure, the one nation over many figure etc. In Patriarchy boys are given this ego ideal of success to replace the identity they formed as young children in gift relations with their nurturers, who are mostly women. Since logically not everyone can be at the top, many boys cannot actually achieve this ego ideal. Some men try to achieve it individually through one to many Don Giovanni relations and sexual violence but recently it has also been embodied in the syndrome of one shooter killing many. It can also be found in the figure of one nation making war on or dominating many.

Even if in the Western family many men are stepping down from this one position, the social configurations carry the pattern and people follow them without knowing what they are doing, now especially in consumer behavior where clothes and hairstyles identify the many with the one star Madonna or Michael Jackson.

Women can also follow this pattern achieving the top position in patriarchal organizations and corporations. Although this may to some extent put the gendered character of Patriarchy into question, it does not alter the basic structure.

9. How, or why, does that arise in history?

I believe that the one to many structures have arisen at many different moments in history and that they hang together in a network of cross validation that is somewhat different in each time and location. The shift that is imposed on little boys from the identification with the mother to the rejection of that identity causes the rebirth of Patriarchy in every new generation. Not all societies do this; many indigenous societies seem to be relatively free from it. However patriarchy imposes itself and eliminates the competition.

Indeed non patriarchal societies are much more liveable and gift economies provide abundance. As far as Western Europe is concerned, there appears to have been a peaceful matricentric society that existed for some 2000 years after the beginning of agriculture in Old Europe (which was preceded by gatherer-hunters).

The work of Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas identifies this as a peaceful matricentric society as expressed in numerous female figurines or goddesses. She suggested that it ended with the arrival of the horseback riding Kurgan peoples from the Caucasus who came from afar mostly without women and so captured local women.

Her hypothesis, controversial for 20 years, has recently been vindicated by DNA research(Renfrew). However it was that Patriarchy began historically though I believe it would not continue if we did not reignite it with the alienation of every male child from his mother and the consequent warping of the socialization of girls and society at large to compensate for this..

10. Does one have to be a ‘feminist’ to accept your views?

No. In fact there are some currents of feminism like so called “Post Maternal feminism” (Stephens) that have a knee jerk reaction to anything about mothering. However this is changing. There is now a ‘matricentric Feminism’ in academia due to the long and tireless work of Andrea O’Reilly. There are powerful currents of the women’s movement outside academia, some of whom call themselves feminist and others who do not. What really matters is their positive belief in concern and care for the other including the heroic example of the Black Lives Matter ‘Mothers of the Movement’.

I don’t believe I am an ‘essentialist’. I have done my best to analyze mothering as interactive work that can be done by anyone and I use the term ‘motherer’ to include anyone who performs this complex and detailed process. Nevertheless there are biological aspects to mothering that cannot be denied, like lactation, and that are important both materially and symbolically. We should remember however that the mothering process depends primarily on the biology of the baby, not on that of the mother, since the baby would die without the mother’s care.

It is in the necessary interaction between mother and child that the gift patterns arise, and they continue into the rest of life with many variations. My answer to this question then is no, one does not have to be a feminist (depending on the definition), but one does need to honor mothers and women in general in order to follow their leadership.

11. Are you a feminist? If so, what does that mean?

Yes I am a feminist, a matricentric, maternalist feminist, if I have to categorize myself (already a patriarchal silo-making enterprise) I stand in solidarity with women everywhere to oppose the forces of destruction and I include men of like mind who try to be non patriarchal. I try to take the elements of maternal practice and generalize them in areas where they have not been generalized, cancelled from view and replaced by patriarchal thinking.

I believe I am contributing one piece of a tapestry woven by many, but an important piece because mothering has been left out of the design or perhaps woven with a transparent thread, so the picture has been distorted and the way forward obscured. It is really impossible that there can be peace on Earth without righting the ancient wrong that has kept mothers and with them all women in a place of servitude and ignominy.

Let women lead the way forward towards a conscious gift economy and a gift economy consciousness. This has been called the century of the newborn because of the discoveries that have been made in neurobiology. I would add it is the century of the mother of the newborn and her economy, our economy in which we all develop as human, the species of homo donans, the species being of the giver and receiver, the identifier of needs, the species of passing it on, giving it forward, laying it down, and implying the value of the other.

Not doing this we have forgotten the implication and condemned ourselves to a tragic terminal egotism which allows us to remove ourselves from the deeds of our patriarchal rulers to such an extent that we do not see or hear the detonation of the drone bomb that explodes in the heart of the man crossing the street in Libya holding his children’s hands or the home whose pretty tea equipment and colorful wall hangings were destroyed by the war in Homs so that its inhabitants are making their risky way across the Mediterranean, to find dubious haven in Europe where only child traffickers save them from starvation.

Connect the dots. Who is responsible? why are these immense crimes happening? What evil anti maternal deed of ego orientation started this horrendous chain of events? that we sometimes see excerpts from on the news. Yemen dying of cholera. Say her name! Syria in rubble! say her name! Afghanistan, these 18 years! say her name! Iraq, the cradle of civilization!

Are all these not then Motherlands invaded, raped by the Capitalist Patriarchy we benefit from? What possible interpretation of events, intentions, business deals could justify any of this? The rape of women and children and the rape of nations is the same – the individual and the societal level mirror each other in fractal structures of the anti mother, exchange that puts each in egotistic opposition to other. And Mother Earth! Say her name!

The market and patriarchy fit together to create a systemic parasite that feeds on the gifts of all transforming them into stratospheric profits. Many of us are parasites in one of our roles and host in another. We can individually diminish the parasite behavior and free the host whenever possible.

Every child that is born is the citizen of a new earth, a gift economy! let us treat them all as such – boys too – and let the garden of Eden finally flower again, that garden that began before Patriarchy and exchange, the garden that is our maternal human planetary heritage.

12. What political practices flow from adopting your ideas?

Fact is, if we were giving to all these countries instead of enacting the ‘hitting’ patriarchal imitation of gifting, we could be in a relation of mutuality with them. There is a sylllogism of the gift: if A gives to B and B gives to C then A gives to C. It is transitive all the way through and implies the value of the receiver. We would be interested in the receivers, not in denial of the suffering we cause.

The logic of exchange is self reflecting, ego oriented. Our minds hold back, not used to traveling down the path of thought towards the suffering of others. Even if we have caused it ourselves. And we are dying of suspicion and loneliness while the gift economy (that we are exploiting) would bring community and trust.

We need a radical disbelief in the social structures we have now, an understanding of how and why they are mortiferous, a vision of the alternative and plans for getting from one to the other way or ways of life. Realizing that total transformation is necessary will allow us to realign and reinterpret projects that are not enormously radical in that light as moving in that direction. Whatever the degree of radicality all the projects would have the deeply radical final goal of total transformation towards the gift economy.

Maintaining the maternal value of peaceful revolution will help us embrace a non violent approach even in the most radical initiatives. Volunteers can see the light at the end of their labors as the gift economy final outcome, as can people in the helping professions, urban gardeners, free librarians, tool sharers, eco villages, time banks, coops, all can see the final goal as one of social transformation, while those truth tellers, whistleblowers, those protesting war, organizing marches, lying down in front of nuclear missile transports can also see their work as a social gift, the solution to a problem consonant with the values of the (M)otherworld to come!

13. Have you had success in sponsoring projects that embody your vision?

I tried for about 20 years to create projects for social change according to the philosophy of the gift economy. These projects were all done under multicultural women’s leadership according to what I was calling at the time, ‘women’s values’. Now I am trying to promote the gift economy more by speaking and writing because the theory of gifting is important to making its practice revolutionary. When I started the projects in 1984 in Texas, no one understood the theory, nor were they interested in hearing about it. Now, 34 years later, many gift initiatives have sprung up independently and many volumes have been written about gifting.

I believe that in my case the material gifting had repercussions at a level that simply writing about it would not have had, perhaps preparing the ground in the collective consciousness for some of the practical experiments and theoretical work by others that came later. (Other influences on them were surely also writers on the gift like Lewis Hyde and the MAUSS Journal. They have mainly left out the issues of Patriarchy and the Maternal Gift however.)

14. How would your vision protect us from the unfolding crises of our times?

The crisis has deleterious effects on individuals psychologically as well as materially. I think we can all make internal adjustments affirming the gift paradigm, so see the alternative already within us. Doing this would allow an affirmation of the self outside the trammels of exchange logic, which includes paying for crime, with guilt as its prefigurement.

Learning to think and self evaluate according to the gift paradigm while distinguishing it from exchange would allow us to self-and-other validate while passing through the crises and would allow us to communicate better and bond in communities of trust, providing solidarity for material survival and well being.

I think that what we believe is a moral sense is actually the gift paradigm values emerging from behind the values of the exchange economy. Knowing with clarity and keeping in mind what the problem is (patriarchy + exchange), would allow us to address it much more effectively.

15. Is your ‘ideal society’ related to classical notions of ‘socialism’?

Socialism, Communism and Capitalism are all patriarchal and would all be very different without Patriarchy.

I like to reinterpret the motto ‘From each according to their ability to each according to their need’ and I add that the receiver should have the ability to give again. Abundance in the context should be provided – such shareable commons – as should self-provisioning be encouraged.

16. How do you see the world getting from where it is to where you want it to be?

In order to shift the paradigm to the gift, a lot of renaming and reframing needs to happen. I believe that among the things that need to be reframed in the light of the gift economy, there is also morality. I wonder if we do have a ‘moral faculty’ at all. Instead I think that it is the values and processes of the gift economy shining through the overlay of exchange, that make us act in other-oriented life-affirming ways.

Usually morality is seen as a structure of do’s and don’ts carried out almost with force against oneself in order to do good and avoid harm to others. This structure is really no match for the kind of amorality and immorality, the wildly egotistical conduct that is typical of consumer capitalism, corporatocracy, and environmental destruction.

Understanding caring values not just as abstract principles, perhaps supported by laws, but as the values accompanying a kind of behavior and economy that are what establish us as human beings (and what, as I believe also underlie communication and language) would allow us to see ourselves as acting consistently with this gifted core [our ‘species being’ (Kanth)] when we are other-oriented, other-tending, and in discord with it when we are following the values of the market and Patriarchy, both of which are artificial and pernicious though they have run rampant.

The values of the gift economy follow the practice of attention to the other’s need and the initiative for its satisfaction. This comes from love of the child or at least commitment to furthering her life. Hormones released in the birth process help this motivation physiologically. This process can be more informative than ego orientation. Other-tending interest expands to all the surroundings and beyond while self interest is limited to the purview of the individual.

The gift economy brings people together; in fact it is the basis of co-muni-cation and co-muni-ty (‘muni’ is latin for ‘gifts’, so I take these words as meaning ‘giving gifts together’ ‘giving gifts together’.) Exchange separates people and rules are necessary to reunite them.

Conscience in the morality of the exchange paradigm functions by appealing to internal modes of exchange and power over, forcing oneself to choose to give, bribing oneself with rewards and punishments for doing one thing instead of another, judging – categorizing – oneself as good or bad, valuable or valueless.

We also experience guilt for wrongdoing, evaluating our misdeeds emotionally and preparing ourselves to pay for them, sacrificing in order to even some imagined score. I believe we can reconceive morality as guided by maternal anarchy in which people follow the path of other orientation because they are following the maternal model that is validated in society at large and has been the core of their childhood development.

The gift economy is the moral economy, if morality is no longer seen as a faculty sui generis. If boys are not alienated from the maternal model they can maintain the gift values, and the whole construction of patriarchy will begin to totter, life by life. This must be clarified by theory and connected by analysis to the dismantling of patriarchal structures in society at large.

Women who want to be mothers should choose as fathers men who love children. There could be tests. This could eventually move evolution away from the one-to-many bully model that we are seeing everywhere. I believe non-violent parenting and non violent communication (Rosenberg) can also be used to facilitate this transition.

While these changes are being made at the personal level, an effort should be made to change the perspective at other levels of society, in institutions, locally, nationally and internationally. Naming the different elements ‘exchange’ or ‘gift’ would help people to identify which elements are part of the economic parasite and which of the host. A widespread understanding of the problem would allow a peaceful transition to a solution or many solutions.

17. Name some of your most important Works.

“Communication and exchange” (1980) Saussure and Vygotsky via Marx” (1981), For-Giving, a Feminist Criticism of Exchange (1997), ed Il Dono/the Gift (2004) ed Women and the Gift Economy: a Radically Different Worldview is Possible (2007) Homo Donans: for a Maternal Economy (2007), The Gift in the Heart of Language: the Maternal Source of Meaning (2015), ed. The Maternal Roots of the Gift Economy (2018 in Press)

18. Is there a website you can refer the curious to?

www.gift-economy.com, genevievevaughan.org

19. What works/authors inspired you in your own journey?

Malinowski, Marx, Vygotsky Rossi-Landi, de Saussure, Freud, Goux, Sohn-Rethel, Schaff, Jean Baker Miller, Olga Silverstein, Bruno Bettelheim, Lewis Hyde, Carol Gilligan, Lakoff and Johnson, Tomasello, Goettner-Abendroth, Barbara Alice Mann, Trevarthen, Meltzoff, Stein Braten, Allan Schore, Darcia Narvaez, I Ching, Tarot. William Blake, Emily Dickenson, Dylan Thomas, Ursula Le Guinn.

20. Do you see your work as a contribution to science (knowledge) or to advancing human welfare (policy)?

My work points to a revelation of what we already are but did not know it or understand its implications. A maternal species, that has loved its masculinized male children so much it has let them get away with murder, even matricide, genocide, gynocide. So it is a contribution to science but a destabilizing one because it requires a lot of reframing of scientific thought at many different levels.

For example I believe that our perceptions become accessible framed as giving and receiving processes and similarly that language is a construction based on gifting. Such a deep shift in the way we understand ourselves and the world will almost automatically change policy and advance human welfare.

21. What do you expect to see in the near future: redemption, along your lines, or a collapse of human civilisation?

We can transition into a gift economy if we come to consciousness and begin turning towards the gift on a personal level now. Lots of people are already doing it without giving it that name. And some are doing it with that name without the mothering aspect. Those in power are still benighted, however and our Patriarchal democratic processes only give us choices between Marauder Capitalism and Capitalism LITE.

We have to see around the corner to the future that we are making as we speak but to do that we have to look through the veil of lies to see the horrible present that our leaders have brought us to create without knowing it for so many people on Earth. Every lie we believe, every exchange based compromise we make or allow our governments to make leads us closer to the final tragedy, which will be all the worse because it will be the end of a beautiful maternal species that never got a chance to know itself.

But perhaps we may take heart. After the last bomb is dropped and the last shot is fired, people – the motherers – may begin again, finally practicing the gift economy.

There is no other way.

But maybe we still have some time. If we don’t passively wait for the old patriarchal world to self destruct, we can change the paradigm and begin to restore the peaceful motherworld now.

© 2019 Genevieve Vaughan. All Rights Reserved.

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