The logics of giving and of exchange contradict each
other, but the one is also built upon the other. Exchange is a
constrained double gift in that the receiver must give back to the giver
an equivalent of what she has received. The product of one
person takes the place of the product of the other. I believe that
this requirement of equivalence and place-taking is a derivative
of naming, where the verbal gift takes the place of the nonverbal
gift, and of definition, where some verbal gifts take the place of
other verbal gifts. In exchange, which operates on the material plane,
a return 'gift' takes the place of one's own, and may seem to serve,
as the verbal substitute gift would, to create a bond between
The road to hell is paved with good intentions however,
and acquiring the equivalent return 'gift' becomes the
whole motivation of the first 'gift.' Transforming the gift process into
an equal exchange, erases the other-orientation of both
exchangersmaking their equality only the equality of their self
interests. Exchange becomes a kind of magnetic template around which
our society organizes itself. Our thinking gravitates towards it, giving
it a great deal of credit, perhaps because of its similarity with
naming and definition (the linguistic processes from which it derives
and which we continue to use). Giftgiving continues unabated,
but remains invisible and does not become generalized as a
model which is validated by having conscious followers. In fact, the
gift paradigm gives-way: it does not compete with the
exchange paradigm. It is thus in the situation of giving value and
giving many gifts to exchange.
Exchange is self-reflecting and therefore self-validating. It
has a symmetrical form and the requirement of equivalence
between the products subverts the focus on the need of the other.
Because exchange is based upon and promotes the self-interest of
exchangers, there is an equality not only in the products but also
in the motivation of the persons involved.
As instances of equality, the two are then again equal to
each other and a hall-of-mirrors effect begins, which is again equal
to that effect in all the other exchanges taking place--for instance,
in the market. The processes of substitution and equivalence
in language also resonate with and confirm the derivative processes
in the market, giving the hall-of-mirrors many abstract reflections.
The abstract need for equations, which is set up by the
process of exchange in function of the self-interest of each of
the exchangers, acquires an independence, a sort of life of its
own. Anything that can be substituted by an equivalent appears to be
a value (an exchange value), whether or not it is directed
towards someone's need. I believe that the over-emphasis on the
equation, while ignoring giftgiving, is the source of the idea that there
is much human activity which is not need directed.
The abstract needs of the process of exchange are not considered needs but
part of 'the way things are.' However, satisfying them becomes
more important than satisfying human needs, and the exchange
process takes over from giftgiving, seeming to be the source of
'human' values. Thus we have the inhuman and inhumane
market-driving category of 'effective demand.'
Because exchange requires an equation, which is equal
to other equations on the market and elsewhere, it brings with it
a sort of built-in meta level1, which allows it to self-propagate and
remain in evidence in the foreground. At the same time,
giftgiving (which only requires an imitator in order to serve as a model)
is pushed into the background and made invisible, even though
it continues to be practiced in many ways. In fact, exchange
is parasitically embedded in a wider process of giftgiving,
which actually gives to the process of exchange, allowing it to continue
to prevail. Exchange itself becomes the 'other' of giftgiving.
The generality of giftgiving is captured by its being
practiced on exchange; then it is redefined as an inferior or failed
exchange. It appears to be a special case of incomplete one-sided
exchange which cannot exist on its own. The logic and practice
of exchange are parasitic upon the logic and practice of
giftgiving, however. The gifts they receive help them dominate the lives
and the world views of both those who practice exchange and
those who practice giftgiving.
There is an upward flow of gifts, against gravity, towards
the superior positions in patriarchal hierarchies and away from
needs. The presence together of many of these gift-exchange
hierarchies, which bolster each other by their similarity and sometimes
by service is called 'social reproduction.' The hall-of-mirrors
creates abundant images of the same structures--and thus once
again looks similar to language--but we are led by the
reflecting equation to take the cue for understanding the world from
the aspect of the propagation of similar one-many images instead
of from the gift aspect of language.
Perhaps it is because of similar structures at different
levels that the parasitic exchange paradigm is elevated to the level of
a self-perpetuating system with a 'mind' of its own. If
these processes are functional in the formation of our
individual minds--conscious vs. subconscious for example--perhaps
they are also forming the same patterns on a very large social scale.
The self-perpetuation is facilitated by the confirmation
of finding or creating self-similar images at different levels. I look
at such similarities between patriarchal structures at different
levels not as analogies, historical isomorphisms or homologies, but
as self-similar social patterns created by the reciprocal feedback
of the form of the definition into the
definition of gender (and vice versa, the definition of
gender into the form of the definition) at many different levels.
The idea of self-similarity was developed by
Benoit Mandelbrot in the study of fractal geometry, where he found
that the same patterns were repeated at widely different levels
or 'scales.' The cauliflower is the common example: each flower
and piece of each flower looks like the whole
I think the same thing happens in society in what we
call 'social structures.' In fractals, the patterns are created by
feeding the result of an equation back into the equation millions of
times. Socially, we are doing the same thingfeeding back
the definition into itself endlessly and thus we are actually
creating the same patterns at different levels.
Figure 1. A fractal image is generated by feeding back the results of an equation into the equation millions of times. Copyright © Clifford Pickover; reprint of graphic with permission. From Fractal Horizons: The Future of Fractals by Clifford Pickover and J. C. Sprott, 1996. This book is a clear recent discussion of fractals.
Is Reciprocity Exchange or Turn-Taking?
Homo economicus, the protagonist of
neo-classical economics, is made in the image of exchange. Even the
word homo, meaning 'the same,' brings with it the idea of an
equation. We educate our boys to be similar units of masculinity and
then to vie with one another for economic and symbolic
superiority. We educate our girls to nurture this process and to bring up
their children in its image. This has the effect that in the
'free market' (an oxymoron) society more males can be found in the
practice of exchange, while more females can still be found
Our economic systems are based on exchange and our
study of them, economics, is based on exchange as well.
Capitalism itself practices the values of masculinity and masculinity
the values of capitalism. Since these are social roles, they can also
be practiced by persons of the other biological sex. However,
this may be rendered more difficult because the social
interpretation of genders creates many impediments against the success of
one gender in areas usually occupied by the other. One of these
areas is economics, the academic discipline that studies
Because the study of the production and distribution of
goods in our society is based upon and directed towards
self-validating exchange, it does not consider giftgiving as 'economic.'
Yet giftgiving is indeed the production and distribution of goods.
The micro-economics of a different (gift-based)
macroeconomic system takes place in every household. Women's
un-monetized gift labor has been invisible to economists until recently
because those who were practicing the values of exchange were the
only ones studying it.
Now some women economists, who like other women have been socialized towards mothering and the practices
of giftgiving, are applying gift values to the study of
exchange and to their profession and are experiencing a great deal
of healthy cognitive dissonance. However, they have not
begun to question the validity of the exchange paradigm
itself as a world view, perhaps because they are still more or
less successfully operating within it.3
It is easier for those who are at least partly outside
the exchange logic to identify and promote giftgiving as a
socially relevant paradigm--indeed as the solution to the
problems being caused by exchange. This 'revolutionary
vanguard' would include not only women, housewives and
mothers (whether or not they do monetized labor), but all those
who do not make profit from exchange and instead
are unconsciously giving to it--the male and female 'hosts' of
Most of us are still blinded to giftgiving by
the internalization of the self-reflecting logic of exchange.
Even while we are practicing it, we do not 're-cognize'
giftgiving, think about it at a meta level or have a meta language
with which to talk about it. We continue to think in
exchange terms about our own culture, as well as about examples
of institutionalized giftgiving in other cultures.
A recent school of thought in France, based upon the work
of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, devotes a great deal
of attention to giftgiving, which it sees as composed of
three moments: giving, receiving and giving
back.4 The insistence upon reciprocity hides the communicative character of simple
giving and receiving without reciprocity and does not allow this group
to make a clear distinction between giftgiving and exchange as
two opposing paradigms.
It seems to them that giftgiving is just a variation
on exchange, with a longer pay back time and less emphasis
upon equality. The bonds still seem to be caused by
constrained reciprocity, rather than by the direct satisfaction of needs.
most men, these investigators are limited in their
thinking because they have not been socialized towards the
adult experience of creating bonds directly through
mothering. Giftgiving appears to be a curiosity, not the
mother-based (mammalian) life logic or a program for social
Years ago, French anthropologist Levi-Strauss's description
of the symbolic 'exchange of women' among family
groups6 inspired much further speculation in the exchange mode
by anthropologists, psychoanalysts, linguists and semioticians.
From the gift paradigm point of view, women are themselves the
source of nurturing, so that the 'giving' of women is a gift of
givers--a meta gift. The exchange (if it is constrained and seen through
our capitalistic eyes) or turn-taking (if it is not) has a content
which, in the case discussed by Levi-Strauss, is women, who are
the source of giving.
Giving and receiving, rather than the constraint
of reciprocity, is what causes bonding. The interaction of
nurturing and receiving nurture (or nurturers) is the mutually
creative factor, not the imposition and following of the law, not
the equivalence of exchange, nor the constraint of reciprocity.
In societies which are less deeply etched by exchange than our
own, gift practices (gift cycles) serve definitional purposes,
defining relationships among the members of the group. We
might consider them descendants of language, of another lineage
than exchange, but using the giving and receiving of
gifts--co-munication--for the purposes of status. (See Figure 2. on Page 56.)
Figure 2. A possible genealogy of co-munication through gifts, language and exchange.
Women are the Vanguard
Lewis Hyde, Jerry Martien and other writers on gift 'exchange' have done work7 which re-interprets historical and anthropological literature, at least partially liberating the idea of the gift from the constraints of capitalism. Perhaps because they have not had the experience of mothering, they tend to see the gift way as a poetic thing of the past, which has been forgotten,
marginalized and covered over--much as their own experience
of the gift way (with their mothers when they were children)
has been covered over but still remains in the unconscious and
in myths and stories. Continuing to see giftgiving in terms
of reciprocity (that is, exchange) maintains the discourse within
the parameters of the patriarchal status quo.
Women can more easily recognize the presence of
giftgiving everywhere because we have an actual example of it in our
adult practice of our social role (however socially disqualified
and devalued that may be). That is why women are the vanguard,
the carriers of giftgiving as a social program, a way of
organizing society now and for the future.
The lack of a theory of language as giftgiving makes
the understanding of giftgiving as a living principle more
difficult. However, the discussion of money as a 'gift' and
wampum as 'words' and 'speech acts' proposed by Martien is a bridge
between language and material giftgiving (as was wampum itself).
Martien lets us see that wampum was a means of material
co-munication (interpreted by European settlers only as a 'primitive' kind
of money). The strings of shell beads were sent from place to
place to define situations and satisfy special needs for
bonding, attention and care. For example, special beads were sent to
those in mourning, to satisfy the need for consolation. Beads were
given to create pacts and maintain promises among social
groups. Wampum would appear to be a many-word material
language, which went beyond definition to create solidarity and
mutual inclusion, while money remains at that stage which
names everything quantitatively in order to facilitate a more
'primitive' human relation of mutual exclusion--of having and
not-having private property.
In our own lives, as well as in the investigation of
other cultures, the question arises as to whether it is possible to
follow and assert a clear model of giftgiving or whether, by focusing
on giving back, any transaction becomes assimilated to the model
of exchange. This is really a problem of the intersection of
two logics; but it is often read as a moral question(we ask, "Is
really being altruistic, or is this just a hidden
manipulation?"), which only clouds the picture and sometimes makes us pay for
our acts of love with shame. We wryly comment, "No good deed
ever goes unpunished." Self-interest appears to be the basic
motivation of all humans, with scarcity as its natural complement. The
good of the whole seems to be, after Adam Smith, the compendium
of the self-interests of all, while orientation towards the other
is unrealistic and self-sacrificial. Reciprocity is a way of
maintaining the self-interest of both of the parties to the interaction.
The custom of giving back a bit extra, more than one
has received, is a way of affirming the gift model--even
when, through reciprocity, one is running the risk of being perceived
as exchanging. However, this process has also been assimilated
into exchange as interest on loans. In fact, lenders give their money
in expectation of the extra gift of interest they will receive.
(This kind of exchange has become so much the norm that an
interest-less loan is now considered a gift).
Anthropologists, like the rest of us in patriarchy,
have difficulty taking off the mirror glasses of the exchange
paradigm. Thus they talk about 'gift exchange,' confusing the two
modes from the beginning. Again giftgiving appears to be an
under-developed version of exchange rather than a different and
more viable method of organizing society. In so-called
'primitive' societies, giftgiving often has a symbolic function. I believe that
is because, in imitation of language, as we just saw with
wampum, special material substitute gifts (like verbal substitute gifts)
are given in organized ways for the purpose of creating specific
bonds among givers and receivers.
In other words, both the exchange of commodities for
money and 'symbolic gift exchange' are variations on the theme of
co-munication. They are two alternative uses of the
intertwined patterns. In fact, both language and the production
and distribution of material goods are found in all societies and
have co-existed for millennia. Societies have learned to use their
own processes in a variety of ways to create new processes
Language is a second (verbal) gift economy, while
definition and naming are special de-contextualized processes of
language. These processes evolve into exchange when they are
transposed onto the material plane, as people substitute one product
for another and equate them quantitatively.
The introduction of money provides a 'general
equivalent,' a single substitute gift (like a word) in which the values of all
the products on the market can be expressed and evaluated.
While money provides an additional abstract element in the
exchange process, it does not alter its basic logic. Thus
barter is not a solution to the problems caused by exchange. Rather it is only
an example of the same logic without money. By taking
the distinction between giftgiving and exchange as the
watershed between two basic paradigms of human interaction, we can
clarify a number of different (seemingly unrelated) problems.
We can understand many of the irrational and
harmful aspects of patriarchal capitalism as a point of contact between
the two paradigms. Surplus laborthat portion of the workers'
labor time that is unpaid and goes towards the profit of the
capitalistcan be considered as a gift under constraint, from the worker
to the capitalist. The tendency to pay women less than men
for comparable labor, can be interpreted as an attempt to
maintain women in a giftgiving position, reinforcing our practice of
the invisible gift model by making us give even more unpaid
(gift) labor than our male co-workers do. Because of the equality
of exchange and the value we attribute (give) to it, we are apt
to give credit to the market as 'just' even when it is penalizing
us (Father knows best).
Women's unpaid labor in the home has been calculated
as some 40% of the Gross National Product. It is one of the
most glaring examples of unrecognized gift labor that exists.
Consider also the gifts that come to the rich from the poor, to the
North from the South, to exchange-based economies from
that are still to some extent gift-based. Differences in
exchange rates, levels of life and self-sufficiency in the
'developing' countries permit a flow of gifts from them to the
so-called 'developed' countries.
Not only is this flow not recognized as such, but it is
actually read in the opposite direction so that the North appears to
be giving loans, material aid, information, technology,
markets, protection, even a 'civilizing influence' to the South,
which becomes depleted and crippled trying to pay back the 'more,'
the interest on what it has been 'given,' but which has actually
served to stimulate more hidden gifts which drain away its capital.
For example, the lowering of the level of life in
Third World countries serves the First World by lowering the price of
labortransforming the differential of low-cost labor and raw
materials into collective gifts from the many in the South through the
few in the South to the few in the North. The manipulative use
of giftgiving for the purpose of profit making (leveraging more
gifts) is itself an exchange. However, misinterpreting giftgiving as
an exchange and profit as 'deserved' confuses the two paradigms
and is not just a bias of academicians. It is a very widespread view
that is part of and supports the practice of exploitation.
The many examples of actual slavery that have
poisoned human history are evidence of the tendency to place groups
of people in constrained giftgiving positions through 'owning'
them. Women of all races and cultures have also often been in
these positions with regard to their husbands, whether or not they
were actually 'owned.' In order to accumulate capital, surplus gifts
must come from somewhere. Slavery provided that surplus 'free' to
the slave 'owners' in the South of the US, for example, though it
cost immense human suffering to the slaves.
But exchange also provides an efficient mechanism
for accumulation, by hiding the gifts it receives behind the screen
of an equation which appears to be 'fair,' and a transaction
which appears to come from a 'free choice' (no matter that the
absence of alternatives often reduces poor people to a situation similar
to slavery). Capital can be seen as the combined gifts of the
captured by exchange and understood within exchange's
self-reflecting parameters as coming from fair profit on an
investment. Equal exchange does not produce a profit. Gift labor is
necessary for that purpose.8
Gift labor is easy to hide because, as we said
regarding language, giving is transitive. If 'A' gives to 'B' and 'B' gives to
'C,' then 'A' gives to 'C.' Thus, if a wife gives her free labor to
her husband and he gives his surplus labor to the capitalist, the
wife's labor passes transitively through her husband to the
capitalist. The gift is also unseen because we avert our gaze from the
original source. At most we look at 'B' giving to 'C.' What is in
full evidence, however, is the so-called 'equal' exchange between
'B' and 'C,' where the capitalist pays the worker a salary which
is determined by the price of that kind of labor on the market.
Focusing on the salary as the 'just' price of labor draws
our attention away from the quantifiable and unquantifiable giftgiving which is also taking place. Exchange validates itself and fits
with the other exchanges which are occurring in the market. It
floats like a cluster of bubbles on a sea of hidden gifts--given
by women, workers, the unpaid, the underpaid, the poor,
the unemployed (who with their demand for jobs keep the 'just'
price of labor low), and all those in classes and countries which are in
a giftgiving stance towards privileged classes and countries.
Then there are the many gifts of consumers who
consistently overpay for products like gasoline, which have a relatively
low production cost but a high utility to people whose needs
have been determined by transportation industries. There are the
gifts of the past, of the surplus value contained in 'fixed capital,'
but also in (mostly women's) free gifts of maintenance of
the buildings, goods, use values and people of previous
generations--their children, their language, their art, their culture, and
the by-products of their lives. There is a great unrecognized
flow-through of gifts from the past to the present, as well as
people in groups and in countries in the giving stance to
the countries in the taking stance.
There are the gifts of nature ready for our use, air and
water and sunlight, which we are adapted by evolution to
creatively receive--but which are becoming polluted and scarcified by
being covertly expended, wasted, to cut costs (give gifts) in the
service of the exchange paradigm. This pollution forces
unborn generations to hand over to us their potential use of
nature's gifts so that we can make a quick profit. We are blocking the flow
of gifts towards the future. New types of commerce
invade previously giftgiving areas, from fast food restaurants
to laundromats. The inheritance of all is becoming
commercialized by the industry of bio-genetics, turning even the (biological)
free gifts of the many to the profit of the few.
1A 'meta-language' is a language which talks about language. Terms such as 'noun,'
or 'sentence' are part of the meta-language of grammar. The 'hall-of-mirrors' effect
spawned by exchange makes all the other equations and reflecting structures in the
society validate exchange. By their similarity to it they appear to say 'This is norm-al.' The
self-reflecting focus warps our view by overemphasizing the exchange process
and decontextualizing ittaking it away from its contextits otherin giftgiving.
In Principia Mathematica, Bertrand Russell discussed his theory of logical types where
'higher' logical levels are of a different type than the levels beneath them. For example, the
class of all classes is a meta-class at a higher logical level than its members.
Meta-messages are messages about messages and tell us how to interpret them. I believe that the
hall-of-mirrors effect creates many meta-messages which keep our focus locked onto
the exchange process. See also Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ballantine Books, New York, 1972. Bateson discussed the potential for resolving
schizophrenogenic double binds by changing meta-messages. I believe the double binds are caused
by concealed exchange motivations at the meta level. Recognizing giftgiving as the
context in which exchange and classification are embedded could cause us to re-focus
our economics and our logic, validating giftgiving.
2For another useful explanation of fractal geometry and self-similarity see
James Gleick, Chaos, Making a New
Science, Penguin Books, New York, 1987.
3The International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE).
4See, for example, the work of Jacques Godbout, Serge Latouche and the
review MAUSS, which is an acronym for Mouvement Anti-utilitariste des Sciences Sociales.
5In an influential foreword to a re-edition of Marcel Mauss' The Gift, W. W. Norton, New York, 1990, Mary
Douglass discusses exchangeor reciprocityas the
bond-creating aspect of the gift. She refers to her experience in a foundation where
she learned that "the recipient does not like the giver, however cheerful he be."
She believes that free gifts should not be given because "refusing requital puts the act
of giving outside any mutual ties." p. vii. Women too can be mesmerized by
the exchange paradigm into believing that reciprocity, not the satisfaction of needs,
is the source of human relations. I would just like to mention that there is
great psychological distress around free giving and that charities often give
paternalistically, demeaning the receiversanother reason why the recipients may not
have liked Douglass's "cheerful giver."
6Claude Levi-Strauss, Anthropologie
Structurale, Paris, Plon, 1958.
7Lewis Hyde. The Gift, Imagination and the Erotic Life of
Property. Random House, 1979, New York, and Jerry Martien, Shell Game, a True Account of Beads in North
America, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1996.
8 Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers, Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1988, discusses
the impact the gold and silver of the Americas had on European
capitalism, along with the numberless other (unrecognized) gifts the
native people gave to the rest of the world.