Tis the Season: Perspectives on our modern market from gift-giving economies

        Within the overarching indeterminacy of the creation, there is a rather reliable and significant determinism or cause-effect principle functioning.  Within this determinism there are a special slew of problems we refer to as intractable—computable answers for these problems do exist theoretically, but by the time we finished calculating the answer, the sun’s life would have come to an end, or, as one scientist put it, “The universe will have degenerated into black holes while your computer is still figuring the shortest route for a traveling salesman who wants to visit a few hundred cities in the U.S., stopping at each once.” 

       Better one should get going, choosing your way according to criterion that your best lights indicate, hoping to be at least modestly efficient.  And so we turn to the problems of economics, knowing that for all the extraordinary minds shining their brightest on market issues, the modern economy still has the power at any instant to be a firemen’s hose broken free of the husky grips and having a wild go of it.  Like the salesman, we know from the start that we are not going to pin the financial system down in any elegant, taming formula.

       But how can I even start?  Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem proved the improvability of the truth of any arithmetical system from within that system, and so if we want insight concerning our economic style, don’t we need an outside perspective?  What could that possibly be?  Whether I shine to Adam Smith or Marx or John Maynard Keynes, we are still all talking about our market economy, the one that was, is, and ever shall be. 

       Or has it?  So presumed is this system that we tend to think it is simply the way it is, not just natural but nature.  I’d be hard-pressed to suggest what else could possibly be.  What I hardly ever consider is that our economy, the modern global market, gives us a particular style that comes with a comprehensive ideology that wields an influence on my thoughts, desires, and feelings as powerful as Parent. Indeed, the modern global market has succeeded in making my parent one of innumerable agents for propagating its mentality and implementing its ways.  

       But etic perspectives do exist, other ways of doing business.  There were ages before the modern states with our market economies and markedly distinct socioeconomic classes when chiefs and headmen may have had more weight in terms of influence, but not in material circumstances.  These were economic systems in which resources were kept roughly the same for everybody by the reliable practices of gift-giving and redistribution. To be aware of these other ways would not mean the end of our style of doing business of course, but it might give us perspectives, modest insights that could serve us well. 

       For one, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” posits the dominance of self-interest and allows all to pursue their own.  Is this a corollary of a good read on human nature?  More likely, it is a corollary of a contingency rather than a sharp-eyed read on a deeply set part of who we are.  Lives have long been energized to work for a gain that is more than one’s individual own.  Even a modern day Mayan will offer on average $51 when playing the Ultimatum Game—Player A is given $100 and has to offer a percentage to Player B who either accepts or rejects, but if he rejects, neither gets any money.  The average offer by a fourth-generation American is not half of that.  When asked to explain the hyper-generous tender, the Mayan simply cites a concern for the other’s needs. 

       It is fascinating to see how self-supporting our market ethics has been in characterizing these other perspectives on economics. Take “Indian giver,” an insult in our culture’s connotation.  But it’s a term worth a better look as it describes a mentality common in Native cultures. A peace pipe is offered, and after enjoying a smoke together, and hearing your admiration for the feel and look and good smoke the pipe offers, the Native offers his precious smoking pipe as a gift.  “No, no, really.  You must take it.” 

       The “value” of the gift for us would be as an object to put behind a glass in a museum with a guard nearby after we’ve sold it for a cool thirty thousand—after all, it’s an authentic artifact and needs to be removed from circulation, where it may come to harm.  And for the Native?  He made this pipe, patiently drilled the wood into shape with a simple sharpened stick, sanded and buffed it carefully, and in the decades since, has tended it after each use, feeling its ability to “give a good smoke” improve over that time, increase in his sense of value.  But you are his guest, and you have expressed your admiration for the pipe, so it is not just offered, but offered with sincere insistence. 

       Here then is the first cultural clash.  We assume that deep down inside, it must be terribly hard for the native to do this, not able to make the bridge to his genuine desire to give you this gift.  What else do we have a hard time grasping?  The native understands a cardinal property of gifts—whatever is given is suppose to be given away again, not kept… or, if kept, something of similar value should move into circulation in its stead.  Gifts must always move!        

         We speak nowadays of the “spirit moving,” but in these societies, it is also rather literal in that constant donation makes gifts remain alive and flowing in a group.  This is not the stock exchange where business keeps going as you remove as much as you are allowed and secure it away in a guarded account that is yours and yours alone.  In a gift-giving economy, commerce must leave a never-ending trail of interconnected relationships.  For these Natives, to possess is to give, to distribute, for this is being a trustee for the spirit of the society.  For these people, you can’t have your cake unless you eat it, and preferably with friends.  Use and liveliness is the principle, not secreting away from the whole. 

       Implicit in this other way of functioning economically is an expansion of identity.  Here, material living encourages the ego to link and widen so as to be the community.  If I grow up to be the soul my community inclines me to be, then when I speak, the voice of the tribe is speaking. In these communities, there is a sense of the Whole as having a metabolism, being a great person who we love and desire to be healthy, which is not possible if people are suffering from lack while I have overmuch.  In Australia, each Aborigine refers to their clan as “my body.”   

       For us moderns, identity boundaries can expand, but our way of being economically most often makes us hunker down, indeed, our way seems inimical to the range of identity expansion that is readily assumed amongst these Peoples.  The many of our nation who we are in the struggle to survive with causes a birthright ability to grow a larger and larger identity to stop short when my “I” has reached wife and children.

       Let’s consider the economic movement patterns of specific groups.  Amongst the settlements of the chiefdom of the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific, gift exchange goes in a circle rather than back and forth.  Here’s how it works: imagine your great great grandmother had a necklace worn by Queen Elizabeth in the 17th century, and that your great great grandfather was a watchmaker who bequeathed his masterpiece to their only son.  In your generation, your extended family’s custom has been that the necklace and watch circulate amongst the families of these ancestors, the necklace traveling geographically in a clockwise circle from family to family, while the watch moves in a counterclockwise circle, each recipient keeping the valued item for four months. 

       Such a practice is unheard of in our society, but this—along with the currency of yam exchange—is indeed the economic way of the Trobriand Islanders.  Their highly valued necklaces circulate amongst the numerous settlements and 18 islands from east to south to west to north while their highly valued armbands go the other way, all carried by their “Wells Fargo” canoers, young men versed in the routes covering hundreds of miles of sea.  Each item of the kula trade is unique and the origins story and lineage of each—the very very old and the newly minted—is known by recipient and sender.  Each carries a distinct flavor of prestige, not competitive as with our currency denominations, yet with a distinct status-bearing sense.  

       The anthropologist, Branislaw Malinowski, who lived with the Trobrianders, suggested that this style of giving in a large, constantly enlivened circle fostered a deeply felt identity with the group even when its boundaries were well beyond physical sight.  Each giving and receiving was participation in a mutual society, including a simultaneously mutual and specific ownership. This economy radiated a sense of family and joyful connection.  Our modern market surely links us, but not in a bond of celebration and expansive identity that Malinowski said the Trobriand Islanders displayed.

       When the Maori were still an independent, Polynesian people, their cycle of gift-giving had an even greater dimensionality, for its circle included the spirit of the forest.  A portion of every animal taken for food was given to the priest who offered the gift back to the spirit of the forest by burning it in a sacred fire.  The priest was needed in order to give life the rich flavor of circularity, for if the hunter made the sacrifice it would simply be a give and take, a back and forth exchange with the spirit.

       Of course the most famous situation in which this up-down-and-around cycle of gift-giving was practiced was in the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Before Hellenization and the Roman occupation of Israel, which made the market economy weighty enough to widen economic disparity, Israel was a fairly isolated agrarian society without much socio-economic division.  As the forest’s abundance was considered a spiritual gift, so the Hebrew considered the soil’s bounty and the flock’s health as gifts from Creator. The first fruits and first of the flock were returned to the One Who authored fertility itself.  Aaron and his sons and their priestly generations brought the cattle, lambs, fowl, or wheat to the altar.  There were all kinds of offerings, which provided different ways of reaching out to the Divine: some devoted completely to the Creator, some for Creator with a bit for the priest to eat, but many could be shared. 

       Lavish feasts with friends and recent acquaintances were often held, even in the Temple’s courtyard, the Holy Place, or some other suitable site in the Sacred City.  No feast was complete without the needy—the poor, the stranger, the homeless, the widow, all who hungered were invited to attend and sent away with fulsome gifts.  Festivals stimulated liberality and thus functioned as a joyful redistribution of wealth that went beyond the great moment’s pleasure of feasting together, including durable supplies as well.      

       We tend to be glad that the modern sacrifice of choice is our spoken prayers, but this should not blind us to the power of the older way. The ancient ceremonial ritual of sacrifice thoroughly involved each. A proper sacrifice was an animal you had cared for and were now offering to the Creator of the universe.  There was a powerful gathering of imagination in those ceremonies before it became a business in the days of the Roman Empire.  When that knife was raised, ripples must have run through stomachs.  Would not the numinous have been unmistakably evident in that instant?  There, in the shudder, in the aromatic roasting, in the taste in your mouth, there, one could feel the Presence of the God of Israel! 

       Here then is the famous monotheism of the Hebrews in the days of the First Temple.  The economy of the people involved them in a relationship with the Creator of Life.  With each of the three Pilgrimage festivals of the yearly cycle, the people as a whole and the Hebrew individual had the opportunity for intimate experience of Your refreshing Presence which served foremostly to bond them in caring for one another. The tradition clearly directed those with the means to make sure no one was without.  Even occasions at home, marriages, feasts in honor of newborns, etc., included the poor, the halt, the lame, the blind.  To each was given gifts of clothes, food, and other needed items.   This was not chance kindness, this was the Law; but again, our processing of the word misguides, for it leaves us saying, “How untoward, to be forced thus,” whereas for these, the Law was their Divine intimate Who they walked and lived with, a Heavenly Friend and Guide, welcome, and from the heart heeded.      

       This was the wide and dynamic economic reach that made Jesus such a profound lover of the Teachings.  That devotion led him to being profoundly disturbed as he grew and sensed more and more the transition to a market economy with all its hawking, even in the courtyard of the Holy Temple.  As well, how saddened he must have been to behold the sharpening divides in wealth he saw as he walked the roads of the Promised Land. 

       It had been coming since the days of the Maccabean Wars when the priests had started vying for the right to be given tax-collecting privileges from the Syrian Greek ruler.  Two hundred years later, the old-fashioned could still be lived in the countryside, but more and more powerfully, Jerusalem was towing all of Israel into the modern economic swirl.  In particular, as Christmas is the businessmen’s most important season financially today, such a commercial feel was beginning to exist in Jerusalem during the Pilgrimage festivals.  Now the notion of getting the better of someone in a deal was becoming a study, developing a repertoire of carefully thought strategies for “success” that were being practiced in the courtyard.

       As was the case in Ancient Israel, the ethics of the economic style practiced by the Northwest Tribes—what we now call the Potlatch Festivals—curried generosity and a powerful sense of identity with the community.  The Potlatch Festivals were officially funded by the chief, who formally possessed all, but his accumulation was done for the sake of executing the distribution.  According to Europeans, these festivals appeared to be elaborately constructed in order to “kill wealth.”  For the natives, the Potlatch served as the means to rejoice while making sure all in the chiefdom were equitably provided for.  They were not somber events with people in a dour line awaiting their portion; these were gala celebrations.

       As Israel had her wild Sukkot Festival with its most extravagant offerings and its rituals of appreciation for the seven holy foods that were now safely harvested, so the Northwest Tribes had their elaborate Potlatch Festivals which included ritualized recognition of their special relationship with the salmon, herring, and great sea mammals.  During the festival, the bones of a select group of each were reverently reconstructed and returned to the waters.  The spirits of their deeply valued friends were to be honored and entreated to be part of their extended family forever.  Nature would have her tougher ways in some years, but these Northwest natives were not going to create their own version of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl by overstepping the relations with the very ones they most needed.

       The Potlatch Festival was considered the gift of the ancestors.  They remained invested in the lives of their people. Someday, each attending the festival would continue to enjoy it as one of these ancestors, just as the ancient Israelite would be gathered unto the Fathers.  {Genesis 25:8, Deuteronomy 32:50}  The Egyptian pharaohs had been concerned with how to bring their wealth with them into the afterworld, but the Kwakiutl and the Hebrew’s economy involved knowing that their ancestors remained invested, and particularly invested—as was the case with the Hebrew’s Lord as well—in how we treated one another in our dealings here on earth.  Belief in the ancestors and belief in Creator and belief in the significance of your relationships with These and those you lived with were all congruent and constituted the essence of faith.      

       In good years, the Kwakiutl would invite the Haida or the Haida the Kwakiutl, and the host would give abundant gifts, such as hand-crafted, richly-decorated canoes, an exceptionally worthy offering for those of these sea-faring nations. This sharing with those outside the nation or tribe or band is a common practice of Natives around the globe, from the Yanomamo of South America to the Dobe of the Kalahari and Sng’oi of the Malaysian Jungle.  Not only do those of your group provide a security net, but various tribes and chiefdoms can serve as security for other groups as well.  

       The Taino of the Caribbean demonstrated this principle of not limiting gift-giving to those of your own tribe.  Struck by the profusion of gifts he received upon arriving, Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabelle, “So tractable, so peaceable, are these people that I swear to your Majesties there is not in the world a better nation.  They love their neighbors as themselves, and their discourse is ever sweet and gentle, and accompanied with a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, yet their manners are decorous and praiseworthy.”

       Note too the Greek custom of hospitality that runs through Homer’s Odyssey more deeply even than the wine-dark sea.  It is the revered, economic code of Mediterranean cultures: strangers are treated with great generosity, including food and shelter and royal treatment for days and weeks… and in the case of Penelope’s suitors, months and years.  The Phaeceans give us the ideal of xenia in Homer’s tale.  They do not even ask Odysseus who he is until they have taken care of his needs.  First things first: he was to be fed, clothed, allowed a chance to rest well, and given gifts. This was the way of honorable living in the Mediterranean and Middle East, be it under the name of xenia, taarof, or Hachnasat orchim.

       There is a vocabulary problem in an essay such as this.  Not only do the sense of ownership and utility have noticeably different shades when speaking of the modern and older ways, but the very sense of self does as well.  Gifts are a way of life in these other economies; for us, a gift is a commodity.  What we give and receive is almost always a product given in identical form by many thousands of others beside me to many thousands of others besides you.  Do the two cultural uses of “gift” have much to do with each other?  Perhaps there is something about the spirit of Christmas that would be a bridge to these other economic ways, but the commercial Christmas season would seem an exotic beast from another planet to those of a gift-giving economy. 

       Certainly there is a scalability problem in an essay like this, one that would make most of us say the whole consideration does not count for much—there are so many of us now!  Of course we care about our nation, but when we have millions, it’s inevitable that we hit disagreement and divide after disagreement and divide.  It’s unfair to expect the kind of unity these smaller entities have known.  In addition, considering these numbers, we do damn well: don’t we have safety nets in the form of food pantries and don’t my taxes go for the centralized government’s redistribution!  And in this season, when the special delivery person brings me the box of exquisite pears and apples and jams straight from the Specialty Fruit Club, and the note says its from you, my dear old friend, well, is anything really sweeter?   

       But we do have a level of poverty that is dreadful and we have divides in economic classes that are extreme, which ought to call us to seriously consider the critique from these other ways, from our past.  What do they say—or we might put it this way: what do we say, for they are us.  That way of phrasing it summons the mentality that is at the core of our assessment. 

       It’s not just the numbers: the kind of unity, living and breathing in the very identity of the mature members of these other societies, is a unity and identification we not only are remote from having, but widely fear and disparage, as if it is bound to reduce me to a robotic homogeneity and probably a corrupt one at that.  Associational involvement from Shriners to bowling clubs to unions and even P.T.A. memberships are dramatically dropping—we are not joiners, and, in the name of individualism, are proud of it. 

       Invoking the sacrosanct rights of this individualism, we fear the kind of curriculum that would dare teach the value of the kind of deep giving and sense of responsibility for all commonly found in these other cultures.  But no, our ancestors say, when done right, the identity as the community makes me more—not robotic—and teaching the way of caring for all is an agenda we would find ourselves taking a passionate shine to if the teaching is right. 

       How could we forget?  Haven’t I always wanted to be involved in a truly great and real work?  Did our size make us stop thinking about us, as if our galaxy had expanded enough to leave the reach of my best telescope, and so, “out of sight, out of mind? ”  

       Ah, but we are yet galactic!  The ethnic village, school assembly, and Gillette stadium are not the only venues conducive to loyalty!  Especially not when the most compelling story we know, our modern living mythology in fact, teaches us that we are a common species down to our very genes… and beyond even that, all organic life on this planet has a common lineage… and beyond even that, All has a common origin in a manifestation we refer to as the Big Bang.  Ours is a modern mythological story fully commensurate to the task of having us take on the community identity even at the global society scale in which we live today.

       {to be continued…} 



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