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Living as Stewards, Not Owners
The gift economy and the dignity of need
This week, I’m sharing the story behind my recent piece on gift economies and the dignity of need. On Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your comments on the limits of a contractual approach to consent and sex.
Often, here at Other Feminisms, I’m talking about how to value the dignity of dependence at the interpersonal level. My piece on design for the disabled for Plough gave me the chance to talk about how the built world reflects our respect (or lack thereof) for need.
Here’s an excerpt from my essay “The Intimacy of Imbalance.” This selection follows a story from David Graeber’s Debt, in which he explains how merchants in Hong Kong in the 1950s traded an uncashed check as though it were currency. They simply signed over the IOU to each other. As I wrote at Comment:
The record of scrawled names grew like nacre around Hart’s brother’s debt. Little by little, Hart’s brother recedes from importance, and one wonders how long the ledger of endorsements was when the check was finally cashed. Or if it was ever cashed at all.
The chronicle of names reminded me of the card pockets inside of library books in the days before digital records. When I signed out a book, I always scanned the signatures, wondering if I’d see someone I recognized, or if someone would go on to recognize me. Adding myself to the chain felt like opening the possibility of a relationship—we didn’t know each other, but we knew that we had one love in common. For the Hong Kong merchants, the bond was less intimate, but there was still something at the heart of the growing register—a debt, or, to put it more kindly, a need.
It is the reality of need that creates relationships, whether they are as abstract as a signed-over check or as intimate as a child helping their parent turn over to prevent bedsores. The gift economy is one possible response to this universal experience of need, a response that is opposed to the abstraction of spreadsheets and the precision of ledgers.
The conventional economy is marked by isolated transactions and the sense of an absolute right to what is your own. The gift economy is marked by circulation, and a perennial question: Should I still be the one to hold what I possess? The presumption of the gift economy is that nothing will remain ours forever and that we must be exposed to the needs of the world to discover who it will belong to next.
What I’m particularly interested in exploring is how we keep that question at the front of our minds.
Should I still be the one to hold what I possess?
How do we relinquish the idea that what we currently hold, whether it feels like it was earned or gifted, belongs to us forever? How do we think of ourselves as stewards, not owners?
In the essay, I draw primarily on Graeber’s Debt and Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. And I have plenty of quotes from both of them scattered in the “annex” document I made while writing the essay. (It’s easier to trim quotes or my own material if I’m sending it to a nice Word document upstate, rather than deleting it).
But this weekend, I received another gift—an apropos reading that came too late for the annex. My husband and I pick a spiritual reading book to read aloud to each other on Sundays, and we’re nearly at the end of Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Day is Now Far Spent. Sarah discussed a section of chapter three of Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate that I wish I could have incorporated. Benedict writes:
The Church's social doctrine holds that authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or “after” it. The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner.
The great challenge before us, accentuated by the problems of development in this global era and made even more urgent by the economic and financial crisis, is to demonstrate, in thinking and behaviour, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity. This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth.
I appreciate his argument that the economic sphere is not neutral and is not a break from our duty to be good neighbors to each other. What I’d love to hear about from you all this week is: