A Lifestyle Alternative : The Gift Economy

Jesse James Retherford.

The gift economy and the sustainable community

Within a moral economy the social significance of individuals is defined by their obligations to others, with whom they maintain continuing relationships. It is the extended reproduction of the relationship that lies at the heart of a gift economy, just as it is the extended reproduction of financial capital which lies at the heart of a market economy.

David J. Cheal, The Gift Economy

By Jesse James Retherford / The Rag Blog / September 21, 2009

[Jesse James Retherford is a sustainable lifestyle and fitness coach in Austin.

Believing “the only way individuals can truly become sustainable is by fortifying our bonds with our community through involvement and empowerment,” he and his partner Katy Hamill also present grassroots networking, educational, and fun events, including community happy hours, discussion groups, nutritional guidance, cooking classes, workshops, and gardening demonstrations.

They are part of an Austin subculture experimenting with ways to live a genuinely sustainable lifestyle.

Jesse was born in New York City and grew up in Houston and Austin as a tie-dyed red diaper baby. He lives and works in South Austin with Katy and their almost two-year-old son Julian.]

In an impersonal market economy, individuals are taught to create and continue relationships that produce the greatest financial profit.

With profit being the overriding factor of all relationships, individuals lose touch with the hidden non-monetary rewards of their relationships. They no longer have time for the friend who provided emotional or spiritual wealth, but rather seek out relationships with those who can provide financial reward.

This is the major factor in the dismantling of smaller localized communities into globalized economies. An example of this would be: what are the reasons you chose the state, city, and neighborhood in which you live? Was it for a higher paying job? To move up in prestige or social class? Do you have true interpersonal relationships beyond mere formality with your neighbors?

Individuals pursue their self-interests through economic exchange, the least profitable social relationships are progressively broken off and replaced with more profitable ones. When people do not receive “pay-offs” for the benefits they give kin, their motivation to maintain kinship ties break down and the kinship network ceases to be a viable social structure.

— David J. Cheal, The Gift Economy

As individuals are separated from relationships with greater emotional reward in favor of those offering financial reward, they create an interpersonal abyss that cannot be filled with money or material possessions. This is why online social networking communities have become so prevalent in modern life; individuals no longer make the time to create true interpersonal relationships due to the desire to improve their self-interests in terms of financial prosperity.

Unfortunately these online communities do not fulfill the basic needs of interpersonal interaction. As Self-conscious creatures, we have core needs when it comes to our community relationships: we need physical contact (a handshake or a hug), eye contact for affirmation, the visual signs of body posture and facial expressions, and the transference of love and acceptance found through sharing with each other.

These are things that cannot be found online, and so the abyss continues to be void of significant satisfaction.

Gift Economy

I would like to suggest another option. In my work, I offer all of my services as a gift to my community. I assign no financial value and have no expectation of any exchange of value. I consider my work to be a form of community service.

What is gift economy to me?

I view the gift economy as humankind’s original economy. The human species has been around for over 35,000 years. Just as every other species of life, nature provided us with all of the resources for continued life. Until sometime in the last millennium, humans have practiced gift economy, because there was no need or use for material possessions or private ownership.

By respecting nature’s creative but fragile power and working with common purpose to nurture and replenish the natural environment, humans were able to supply their basic needs — food, water, and shelter — and live sustainably.

In the past few centuries this time-tested economic model has been deconstructed and untaught to us. Industrialization and materialism view everything (not only humans but nature itself) as resource commodities. This practice at its inception was unsustainable, and the effects can now be seen around us each and every day: economic collapse, peak oil, consumer/government debt bubbles, global warming, environmental pollution, food shortages, poverty, disesase, war, and on and on and on.

The only way to change from this unsustainable economic model to a sustainable one is through the relearning of the gift economy.

In our society, the typical model of exchange is that money is traded for a commodity or a service. The principal glue that holds this together is fairness. At its best, both parties feel good about the exchange. In a family, the typical model of exchange is based on giving. The principal glue that holds this together is love. At its best, all parties appreciate this unspoken bond of support and everyone contributes in their own way.

— “Circle of Giving: The Gift Economy of Seva Café”

In its simplest definition, the gift economy is an arrangement for the transfer of goods or services without an agreed-upon method of quid pro quo. The description I prefer is “respect-based giving.”

What this means to me is the removal of money as our agreed-upon currency of exchange; instead we create a currency based on love and mutual respect. We build relationships within our community that are founded on serving that community. We practice an economic model with an orientation to others instead of our own narrow self-interests.

Imagine what your world would look like if you could choose work based on personal fulfillment as opposed to financial reward. Would you choose a new vocation? How many hours a week do you think you would dedicate to that work? How would that change the time you spent in your own personal development? Or the time you spent with your family and friends?

Jesse addresses a “Sustainability Now!” seminar at “Fuente Eterno,” held at Canyon de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico, earlier this year.

How I came to practice gift economy

Although I did not realize it at the time, I started using gift economy while I was in massage school. I was already an established fitness coach with a regular clientele. I wanted to learn as much as I could about massage, and the best way to do so was hands on. To that end, I began to give 10-16 hours of massage each week to my clients and the community at no charge.

I found the act of giving to be incredibly freeing. I realized that in the old paradigm — in which I defined my own value, i.e., my rate — this so-called value reflected nothing about my own professional worth. It was based on the “going rate” in the industry which in turn was based on market research about what the average consumer would pay.

If I priced myself too high, people would think I was a shark. If I priced too low, then the opinion may be that I must not be very good at what I do. Beyond that, once I set a price, I had to wait for a client to contact me, then work to sell myself to that client. I had always felt this system was flawed, but didn’t know any other.

One of the contradictions that I found was this: while I represent the kind of client I want to work with, I realized that I could not afford my own rates. How could I justify pricing someone like myself out of my own services? Why was it that the only people who could benefit from my services had to come from a higher economic class? Aren’t my services just as important to someone like myself as they are to someone more financially fortunate?

With this new paradigm of giving, I no longer have to wait for a client to hire me. Now I can hire my own clients! I no longer have to consider the financial circumstances of an individual; rather I can base my services on need, and thus I can give it freely to everyone in my community. At the same time, my clients are empowered to determine their value of my work, instead of relying on a predetermined price schedule.

Once I finished school, I decided to offer all of my services (sustainable lifestyle and fitness coaching and massage) to the community as a gift, and it has been remarkably successful. I have not had a drop in income due to gifting. In fact, I have actually seen an increase. I have formed tremendous relationships with new people, growing my community to a size I could not have imagined during the ten years I worked prior to gifting.

The most common question about gift economy I receive is:
How do you pay your bills?

The most notable factor is my family’s choice of lifestyle. We have aligned ourselves toward a life of simplicity and sustainability. At first we considered such a lifestyle choice to be a bit of a sacrifice. The choices we’ve had to make are sometimes difficult, but ultimately we’ve found the challenge to be fun.

Each month we evaluate our lifestyle choices and find over and over again that the best things in life are still simple and free. Our goal is to live each month spending less money than the same month from the previous year while continuing to find more ways to enjoy life without spending money. This helps to keep our costs down. Thus we need very little to maintain our lifestyle.

The second answer is that as somebody that gives gifts, I also receive gifts. While I have chosen to remove myself from any expectation of return, I realize that most people do give a tangible gift in return for the services I provide. Since the currency system is common to all of us, money is the most convenient form of gift.

In addition to monetary gifts, I have received a massage table, lemon tree, food, drink, a vacation, a bread machine, labor, and many more things, as well as the intangible gifts of gratitude, appreciation, and friendship that can never be measured.

I am finding that there is no greater value than the gift of selfless service to others.

[Jesse James Retherford’s website is The Art of Fitness.]

The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to A Lifestyle Alternative : The Gift Economy

  1. Awesome! I have been operating as a gift economy acupuncture and Chinese medicine practitioner since moving to Portland last year. Your description is eloquent and mirrors my own experience. Great work! I just wrote about my experiences on my blog a few weeks ago. Thanks.

  2. I’m delighted to see this post! As someone who has practiced gift economy her whole life without realizing it had a name, one of my all-time favorite books is poet Lewis Hyde‘s The Gift, originally subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. (1983) Itself a gift to creative people everywhere, it calls for a way of life in which wealth is measured not by what we have but what we give.

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