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.