Candice Holdsworth
Candice Holdsworth

The gift economy: Would you give your stuff away?

Part one of a three-part series on gift economies.

I was very interested to learn recently of British model Lily Cole’s, new online venture: It hasn’t yet launched but from what I can gather it’s an experimental foray into constructing a micro “gift economy”, which will use social media to encourage people to interact and exchange goods and services “non-transactionally” — in other words: giving without expecting anything in return. Just giving for the sake of giving. Slightly more saccharinely (particularly if you’re of a more cynical disposition) she described it as the ”currency of kindness”.

People I’ve discussed this with either guffaw in disbelief at such an idea or nod along, interested, but are not quite sure exactly how such a system would work. Common questions are: “Surely, it’s wide open to abuse? It’ll attract spammers and scammers en masse.” “Do we really need to construct online platforms to do what most people should be doing anyway?” “What’s wrong with making money?”

As the site is not yet live, I’m a little hesitant to make prognostications as to whether it’ll become rapidly populated with fake profiles and malevolent intentions, or not. A more informed, useful discussion can be had around the theoretical underpinnings of the site ie

Why should everything be free?

I suppose context is important here. Cole lives in London, one of the world’s mega-cities, with a population of 8 174 100. If you have ever lived or worked there, you will know the paradoxical truth that it is entirely possible to be constantly surrounded by people and still be alone all the time. In cities of this size and nature, social bonds and communal ties are weak. People barely know the person living in the room next door to them, in the same house (in some cases, even sharing the same room), let alone their neighbours or their community at large (this in the loosest sense). It’s like some kind of warped ant colony, columns of strangers passing each other daily on public transport and in the streets, barely registering the steady stream of faces passing by.

In such a fiercely individualistic society, moments of kindness are rare. On overcrowded public transport, it’s every woman/man/child/dog/cat/rat for themselves, and everyone knows it. You don’t bear a grudge against the person who elbowed you out the way to get the last available seat on the tube — you’d have done it to them. You just shrug and keep a beady eye out for the next opportunity.

I’m exaggerating slightly but you get the picture. A commune in Oregon it is not.

And it can become incredibly lonely and isolating. And in more sensitive souls can engender slightly misanthropic tendencies.

So, what better way to counter-act such self-interested behaviour than with a system where one acts solely for the pleasure of doing something nice for someone other than oneself? Without being able to fully discern Cole’s intentions, this is what I’m assuming she plans to do. When talking about the site she has described “building subtle relationships” between people; that in the simple act of giving without expectation of payment we build emotional bonds that are equally as valuable as monetary gain.

She is not wrong. This is human behaviour 101: cooperation and reciprocity. I have said before that I am sceptical of the concept of ”altruism”, as I believe it to be an entirely artificial, invented religious concept. It is not native to human behaviour, we do things ”for free” because we expect other kinds of rewards: friendship, community, happiness etc.

And so now would be the time to ask the aforementioned question: “Do we really need to construct online platforms to do what most people should be doing anyway?” Or perhaps are doing anyway.

Well, in a place like London … yes. People may need some kind of forum to initialise the process before they are able to do it in a less formalised way.

And, crucially, perhaps, it is only in such an economically dynamic place that gift-giving is possible on such a large scale — where resources are not scarce, and outside of people are not wondering where their next meal is coming from. In economic terms: a post-scarcity society.

It is no coincidence then that those who most commonly ask: “What’s wrong with making money?” are usually from South Africa, where life is less comfortable and people are desperate to get paid.

Is then the idea of a gift economy a hopelessly romantic one? Devised by a millionaire who has forgotten what it’s like to struggle?

Maybe so, but perhaps, also, counter-intuitively, a gift economy is exactly what a society like South Africa needs, especially when the costs of acquiring much-needed skills and knowledge (the usual path to prosperity) are prohibitive to most people? Perhaps we should all be freely sharing these things?

I’m asking all these questions in an open-ended sense for now and not coming to any conclusions just yet. I’ll discuss them in the second part of the series where I’ll also discuss in greater depth whether or not giving in a gift economy is ever really entirely ”for free”. In the third part I’ll look at the nature of the market and whether or not it even needs money to be called ”a market”.

Check back again soon.

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  • Gift economies: They’re free but they’re not *free*
  • 18 Responses to “The gift economy: Would you give your stuff away?”

    1. Momma Cyndi #

      Thats what happens when you starve yourself and hang out with Pete Doherty.

      I am not fond of that form of charity. It is too impersonal and too ‘convenient’. A salve for the conscience without understanding or attempting to solve the problem.

      Way back in the stone age, when I was a kid, we were expected to volunteer. A couple of hours a few times a week to change nappies at an orphanage, read to the blind folk at the local workshop, play gin rummy at the old folk home, wash dogs at the animal shelter or any other task you were able to do – wherever you chose to do it.

      January 9, 2013 at 6:28 pm
    2. Gift economy? Can’t help but chuckle each time I read about this. Best is the examples of gift economies listed on wikipedia. File sharing? Really? Have these people never heard of share ratios and leeches? Science? Really? That’s a bit of a broad stroke.

      January 10, 2013 at 10:01 am
    3. I’m not sure why Cole views her idea as revolutionary (apart from the fact that it’s delivering the age-old idea of gift economics in a particularly London-hipster / noblesse oblige fashion); Freecycle (, Really Really Free Markets (, free shops (the Diggers in the ’60s) and so forth have been around since pretty much forever. In fact, according to anthropologists like David Graeber (see his ‘Debt: The First 5 000 Years), Marshall Sahlins, Pierre Clastres, Harold Barclay and so forth, it is formalised market / exchange relations that are the exception, not gifting.

      Of course, it is also the case that mini-gift economies operating within a broader capitalist context will serve primarily well-off people (i.e., those who, ironically, have the least need of a gift economy), but then perhaps that’s one of the questions experiments like the Really Really Free Market (we’ve hosted a number of successful ones in Cape Town and Johannesburg) pose: why aren’t all social relations structured around the premise of ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’?

      At their best, these prefigurative projects promote the revolutionary overthrow of class society (; at their worst, they serve as little more than guilty tithing or an excuse for vapid middle class idealism.

      January 10, 2013 at 10:13 am
    4. @Aragorn:
      What’s the requirement for a successful really really free market? It’s not like you’ve got bills to pay or stock to clear. People come. People “free”. People “market”. Great success! That will certainly teach us unapologetic capitalist pigs how to share resources in a more meaningful, communal way.

      If the gift economy is the norm rather than the exception, why is it so uncommonly practised? How did it come to be displaced by a formal trade ever since the first mentions of trade in Graeber’s own book? Despite the revolutionary claims, his history of debt (or articles based on his book written by him, at least) shows in fact a long history of currency.

      I’m still trying to find a place where he notes how cowrie shells, German Thaler and Spanish Dollars falsify his notion that a currency is always enforced by some military-industrial complex or some other 9/11-style conspiracy. Cowrie shells in particular should be of interest to an anthropic-apologist who wishes to believe there are no known instances of an empirical record for currency.

      Trade with these currencies occurred far and wide under no compulsion from authority.

      January 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm
    5. ntozakhona #

      Believe it or not Momma Cyndi I agree with your sentiments on this one.

      Candice it is a pity you wrote from a London perpective, I am sure your brilliant mind can look at the ubuntu way of life and look how we can build on it to strengthen bonds. You have the platform and the composition skills.

      January 10, 2013 at 2:48 pm
    6. The idea of a gift economy is most definitely a romantic one. People, by their very nature are generally neither able nor interested enough to care about those less fortunate than they are. Of course there are exceptions and those who have chosen to be ‘ givers ‘ have usually ended up with nothing in return, so they need to accept that ‘ giving their stuff away ‘ will certainly lead to their destitution and poverty. They place themselves in that situation willingly, knowing that the receiver cares not a hoot about their well being.As long as they understand that, they can be suitably satisfied, but when millionaires talk like that, they are seeking more fame rather than being caring. Even bartering is a problem, since the one always seeks to get more than the other out of the transaction. That is the nature of the beast. To believe that a gift economy would work is not only romanticising, it is a pipe dream and will never be evidenced on this planet. Before we start giving all our stuff away we had better learn to be more tolerant of others and their perceived shortcomings and additionally learn to accept that there are people who like one only if one gives them ‘ things ‘ and that there are decent folks as well, but the two are worlds apart and no-one has yet been able to reconcile their differences. Just look at sports supporters to understand what I mean. Carry on dreaming and good luck.

      January 10, 2013 at 3:13 pm
    7. Yusuf #

      How do you attract those that really need what you are willing to give? You see, in South Afirca we often get beggars that are in my opinion perfectly capable of seeking some sort of employment. I prefer to know the person in reality to determine whether he or she is deserving or not. I don’t think one can adequately or accurately determine that on an online platform. But, I speak for myself.

      January 10, 2013 at 3:52 pm
    8. Sarah #

      As Aragorn Elorf points out, Freecycle has been around for years. I live in New York and have given away and received all kinds of things from the online network. My brother in law lives nearby in Connecticut and is moving to Florida — he had a lot of stuff to get rid of, some of it quite valuable (furniture, power tools) as well as various books and games. We put them out on his local freecycle email list and they were all gone within the week. Some people got some terrific free stuff and he didn’t have to feel bad about throwing it away. Similarly, friends in the neighbourhood live in a big building with lots of residents. There’s a “free table” in the laundry room that is always full of stuff, especially toys and clothes that children have grown out of. My friends have got chairs, a kids’ table, and books, and given games, gifts they weren’t going to use, extra yarn, etc. In Maine every year after spring cleaning, people put things out on the kerb for people to take, and here in Brooklyn everyone leaves stuff on the street for others to help themselves (I got a serving dish, books, a pretty nice painting and other things from “Please Take — Free Stuff” boxes over the years). This is all to say that there already is a gift economy in place, if you spend a few minutes looking for it. The assumption is that you give sometimes and you get sometimes, and the takers are helping the givers get rid of stuff as the givers are providing the takers with something they…

      January 10, 2013 at 5:24 pm
    9. @Garg: I’m not sure I understand your first paragraph, but the RRFM is a form of prefigurative politics.

      You appear to be confusing the idea of formal trades with formalised trade relations. Sure, lots of formal trades occurred back in times of yore; the structuring of social relations around formalised, quantitative exchange is, as Graeber observes repeatedly in the book you’ve now ostensibly finally read, something much rarer than commonly assumed (by those who perpetuate the neo-Smithian myths of homo economicus, for instance). Check out some of the other anthropologists I mentioned.

      PS: Invoking share ratios and leeches to discredit the gift economics / mutual aid basis of filesharing is kind of disingenuous, don’t you think? As far as I am aware, most filesharing happens outside of private trackers these days ;-)

      January 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm
    10. Shmerk #

      It is an idea that has been floating around for a while, and whilst it is highly idealistic and we all might be skeptical about how it could possibly work, there is an excellent book that looks at gift economy amongst other economic ideas, called Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. Worth a read in my opinion.

      January 11, 2013 at 2:07 am
    11. GC #

      Altruism cannot be and is not understood by anyone who does not seek their place in terms of finding where they are on the spiritual ladder.
      The first men on earth “Adam” were not greedy (50 000 BC) – they had all they needed. Then came expanded families and they started running out of quality fertile land. So they started fighting with each other.

      I argue this mess is God’s mess – He created man. He made man greedy.

      We now are conditioned to admire wealth and power as well as seek it for ourselves – like good capitalist thinking dictates – clearly this is a path to man’s self destruction – who actually cares about the ozone layer when you have no food. People in this state of mind are said to be in “double denial”

      No, altruism is not for those who cannot afford food or school fees – if you can – try giving somebody an unsolicited gift of something they cannot afford but need – the feeling and emotion is ten times better than being on the receiving end.

      January 12, 2013 at 2:24 am
    12. Momma Cyndi #


      :-p isn’t that against your religion?

      January 12, 2013 at 10:22 am
    13. Yaj #

      A gift economy would be ideal . of course. However the current debt-based money system of fractional reserve banking and compound interest creates scarcity of money and competition. It infuses society with fear ( of scarcity) and incentivises greed. Essentially it forces people to behave in a selfish and self-serving manner with quite the opposite effect of the gift economy.

      Without systemic monetary reform to full reserve banking and debt-free social credit we will never get close to a gift economy and our ecological systems will collapse.

      January 12, 2013 at 11:49 am
    14. @Aragorn:
      Nothing disingenuous. Just kindly qualify your statements, that’s all.

      There are 2 falsifiable claims here that do not require the relativism or the sophistry of the pomos/poststructuralist or whichever banner we are ad hoc hypothesising waving as anarchism this week:

      1. Why is a gift economy claimed to be the de-facto standard when the records show formal or formalised trade since time immemorial? Surely this indicates that a gift economy is not preferred by the majority?

      2. What is your standard for a really really successful really really free market?

      These are straightforward questions. I was just asking for straightforward answers and not semantic waffle.

      January 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm
    15. Someone please google ‘the world’s oldest profession’ and enlighten us how this fits into a gift economy framework…

      January 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm
    16. ntozakhona #

      Momma Cyndi

      I have been brought up to believe in Ubuntu which is captured in the Setswana idiom that motho ke motho ka batho loosely translated it means I am because you are. Ah, forgot – should not have translated- your Setswana thinks morogo is not a Setswana word.

      What is your religion? ANC is terrorist then corrupt etc etc ad nauseam?

      January 15, 2013 at 6:52 am
    17. A new ‘gift economy’ website was developed here in South Africa (Cape Town), and launched January 2013 called It’s based on the concept of ‘time banking’ where people can ‘trade in time’ with others either in their local area or globally.

      February 12, 2013 at 8:29 am


    1. The gift economy: Would you give your stuff away? | Institute for African Affairs - January 9, 2013

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