Visions of a Future Gift Economy

Cory Doctorow’s recent novel Walkaway imagines a world where scarcity is unnecessary and generosity is a feasible way of life.

When you take a mountaintop view that lets all the gritty details blur into insignificance, most of our political arguments come down to two visions of how an economy might function. We might have a capitalist market economy, where good things are scarce and people compete to obtain them (and possibly fail to obtain necessities like food or medical care). Or we might have a socialist command economy, where central planners figure out how the work all of us do is going to produce the goods and services all of us need.

Our current economy is a blend of the two — a mostly capitalist economy sitting over a socialist safety net that is maintained by a tax-supported central government — and our endless political debates are about where the capitalist/socialist boundary should be. Do we want higher taxes and a sturdier safety net, or lower taxes and a flimsier safety net?

There is, however, a completely different third vision, which for most of human history has sounded kind of crazy: an anarchist gift economy, in which people compete not to obtain scarce goods, but to give the most impressive gifts.

Christmas dinner. Gift economies already exist in little niches, on very small scales. For example: the pot-luck family Christmas dinners I remember from when I was growing up. If you approached the dinner like the homo economicus of capitalist theory, you’d bring the minimal dish to get yourself in the door, and then pig out on what everybody else brought. The obvious result, as any economist could predict, would be a tragedy of the commons: Everybody would bring less and less as the years went by, until Christmas became a celebration of scarcity rather than abundance.

If such an outcome didn’t kill Christmas entirely, it would probably lead to a socialist revolution: A central planning committee would make sure we all got enough to eat by telling everyone exactly what to bring, specifying quantity and quality very precisely, and checking that no one cheated. So food would be plentiful again, but even so, the joy of the season might get lost.

In fact, though, neither of those things ever happened. Instead, my aunts competed with each other to bring the most appealing dishes, probably secretly hoping that everybody would eat their food first and only eventually get around to sampling what the other aunts brought. The way you won Christmas wasn’t to get the best deal for your household, it was to give the best gift. As a result, the common table was anything but tragic; we all stuffed ourselves and there was plenty left over.

Sweat and scale. Critics will ask how that example scales up, and they’ll have a point. The general human condition was laid out thousands of years ago in Genesis: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” Ever since we got kicked out of Eden, good things have required work, and work has been disagreeable. Christmas dinners are one thing, but in general nobody’s going to do the world’s work voluntarily, just so other people can have nice stuff.

Imagine, for example, being a New York gentleman shopping for a shirt around 1850 or so: The raw cotton has come from slaves working under the lash, and has been turned into thread and cloth and finally a shirt in factories where teen-age Irish immigrant girls get respiratory diseases from breathing the lint spewed out by the big machines. None of them would have put themselves through that just to give you a shirt.

And yet, as technology hands more and more of the economy’s grunt work off to machines, gift-economy niches are expanding, especially in any area that involves information or the internet. Wikipedia is a darn good encyclopedia. Linux is a top-notch operating system. They both required huge amounts of human effort to create, but they’re gifts; they exist (and are continuously updated) because people want to make themselves useful, even if they’re not paid for it. [1]

Facebook and other social-media platforms are a fascinating hybrid of economic models: Mark Zuckerberg got fabulously wealthy by putting a capitalist interface around a gift economy. Nobody (other than maybe a few of his personal friends) uses Facebook because they want to interact with Zuckerberg. We use it to see the interesting, clever, and entertaining things other people post for free. Like my aunts at Christmas, we compete with each other to provide more and better free content. The ads that have made Mark a zillionaire are the friction that we tolerate for the chance to give and receive each other’s gifts.

Goods and services. Still, Linux-programming nerds are a special case, and a real economy is more than just clever tweets or cute cat videos. What about services that require time and effort here and now? Will people provide that for free?

Yeah, they will. Look at retired people, especially professionals who did something more interesting than purely physical labor. Often they keep doing similar work on a smaller scale for nothing. Retired public school teachers teach art classes at the community center, or mentor at-risk students one-on-one. Retired business executives give free advice to small start-ups. Retired doctors and nurses help out at free neighborhood clinics, or go off to disaster areas like Haiti after the earthquake or Puerto Rico after the hurricane.

When you ask such people why they stopped working for pay, the answer usually isn’t that they wanted to do nothing; it’s that the jobs available were too exhausting and constraining. The workplace wanted too much out of them, or left too little room for the parts of the job they most enjoyed. Young people describe the same situation from the opposite side: It’s not hard for them to think of ways to use their talents to help people and make stuff, or even for them to get excited about doing so. What’s difficult is figuring out how to get paid for it.

Anyone involved with a volunteer organization knows that people will even step up to do physical labor as long as there’s not too much of it. If you require long hours of drudgery day after day, you’ll have to pay somebody. But if you want a bunch of people to paint the new school or clean out the church basement, you can usually get that done by volunteers. If not for the thought that some big corporation would be making money off of us, I could imagine people volunteering to help at UPS during the holidays, as long as we could do it on our own terms. “Hey, I’m not doing anything Tuesday. You want to go deliver some Christmas presents?”

Material goods. OK, but what about real stuff? Physical things are different from information or services.

But not as different as they used to be. 3D printing is still in its infancy, but it looks like a bridge between the information-wants-to-be-free world of the internet and the sweat-of-thy-face world of physical objects. Most of what you can make now falls under the broad heading of “cheap plastic crap“, but you only have to squint a little bit to see future printers that are more like general fabricators: They’ll use a greater variety of materials, and weave them together on smaller and smaller scales, until we have something approaching the replicators of Star Trek.

In the future, you might acquire a shirt by getting your torso scanned, choosing from a set of designs somebody posted free to the internet, and having your general-purpose home fabricator assemble the shirt molecule-by-molecule, using one or two of your worn-out shirts as raw material. No slaves. No wheezing red-haired girls. Just energy (which you might have gotten free from the wind or sun), computing power (so cheap that it’s barely worth accounting for), and gifts from other people.

It’s a stretch, but you can imagine even food working that way eventually: Get some organic molecules by throwing your grass clippings into the fabricator, and take out a beef stroganoff — or maybe at least some edible substance that is tasty and nutritious. In the meantime, people love to garden or raise chickens or tend bees. A lot of them happily give their surplus away. At the moment, that’s not nearly enough to feed the world. But such small-scale producers might come a lot closer if they didn’t need to have jobs or sell their produce for money. If you needed traditional food merely as a garnish, and got your basic nutrition elsewhere, the gift culture might provide it.

In short, some desirable things — beachfront homes, original copies of Action #1 — might always be scarce and remain part of a market economy. But it’s possible to imagine the market and gift economies switching places: Markets might become niches, as gift economies are now.

Capitalism and the surplus population. Compare the gift economy’s trends to what technology is doing to the capitalist economy. Picture a capitalist economy as a set of concentric circles: The innermost one consists of the relatively small number of people who increasingly own everything. They can afford to get whatever they want, so there has to be a next circle out, consisting of the people who produce goods and services for the rich: food and clothing, obviously, but also yacht designers, heart specialists, estate planners, physical trainers, teachers for their kids, bodyguards, and so on.

It takes a lot of people to provision a single oligarch, but if the central circle is small enough, the next one out will still be just a fraction of the general population. Those second-circle people may not be rich like the central circle, but they will need to be paid enough to buy a number of the things they want. So a third, even larger circle of people becomes necessary to produce goods and services for them.

And so on.

It would be pleasant to imagine that these circles expand forever, each new circle spreading the wealth to the next circle out, until everybody can be paid to do some useful work. But as the inner circle gets smaller and smaller, and as more and more work is done by machines, probably the process ends long before it includes everybody. So you wind up with a final outer circle of surplus population: people the economy has no real use for. It’s not that they have no skills or don’t want to work or have some moral failing that makes them unemployable. It’s just math. The people with money can get everything they want without employing everybody, so a lot of other people wind up as ballast. [2]

If you’re a bleeding-heart type, you might get sentimental about those surplus people. But put yourself in the shoes of an oligarch: The prevailing moral code won’t tolerate just letting the extra people starve, so somebody has to maintain them through either charity or taxes, even though they’re entirely useless. Imagine how you must resent all those parasites, who have no connection to your productive economy, but still want to be supported by it! [3]

Now we’re in the world of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway.

Walkaway. The novel takes place in the late 21st and early 22nd centuries, by which time several of the trends we can see now have gone much further. Large numbers of people compete for a relatively small number of jobs, and the people who get those jobs are increasingly desperate to keep them. If you weren’t born rich, getting enough training to compete for the good jobs involves taking on debts that you may never get a good enough job to pay off. The economy has contracted around a few major economic centers, leaving large sections of the U.S. and Canada virtually empty.

Increasing numbers of people who get fed up with this situation “go walkaway”: They set out for the empty areas, hoping to find a way to make a life for themselves outside the “default culture”, which the Walkaways come to call Default. Fortuitously, the UN has responded to a variety of refugee crises over the decades by developing technologies that make it easy to establish settlements quickly: cheap wind and solar generators, small fabricators you can use to make bigger fabricators, shelter designs that don’t require skilled construction, and so on. Computing power and internet connectivity are easy to set up, and from there you can get whatever expert advice you need from professionals who find their Default jobs unfulfilling.

Walkaway settlements display that unique combination of order and anarchy you may recognize if you’ve spent any time at Burning Man or an Occupy encampment or working on an open-source project. There are elaborate social processes aiming at consensus, but if you can’t resolve a conflict you walk away from it: Take a copy of the source code and go create your own version of Linux if you want; maybe other programmers and users will come to like your vision better, or maybe not.

The Walkaway lifestyle is a mixture of hardship and abundance. The prevailing aesthetic is minimalistic, but everything you actually need is freely available. If somebody really wants your stuff, let them have it and go fabricate new stuff. If a group of assholes shows up and wants to take over the settlement, walk away and build a new settlement.

Doctorow’s most interesting insights involve the values implied by Default and Walkaway. Default is based on scarcity, and a person’s claim on scarce goods revolves around having special merit. [4] So everyone in Default is constantly striving to be special, to convince themselves that they’re special, and to prove their specialness to others. The hardest thing to adjust to in Walkaway is that you’re not special; you’re like everybody else. But that’s OK, because everybody deserves a chance to live and be happy.

Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that three things drive the plot:

  • An oligarch’s daughter goes walkaway, and he wants to reclaim and deprogram her.
  • Researchers at “Walkaway U” (a loose collection of scientists who mainly need computing power and don’t want their research controlled by oligarchs) solve the problem of simulating brains and uploading a person’s consciousness into software, thereby creating a version of immortality. Not only do the oligarchs want this technology — that would be easy, since nobody is keeping it from them — they want it to be expensive intellectual property that only they can afford to use.
  • Default culture is starting to fall apart, as more and more of the people it relies on stop believing in it. [5]

Default had tried to ignore Walkaway, and then to smear it as a dangerous place full of rejects and criminals. [6] But the plot-drivers cause Default to start seeing Walkaway as a threat.

Reflections on scarcity. One thing I take away from the novel is to be more skeptical of scarcity. Systems tend to justify themselves, so it’s not surprising that a system based on managing scarcity would concoct ways to create unnecessary scarcity. Much of our current culture, I think, revolves around making us want things that only a few people can have. [7] The vast majority that fails to acquire these things are defined as losers, and they/we deserve whatever bitter result they/we get.

Ditto for the idea that work is disagreeable. Maybe we’re making work disagreeable. Because good jobs are scarce, employers can demand a lot and treat workers badly. If, instead, we could fully engage everybody’s talents and energies, maybe the work we each needed to do wouldn’t be that demanding. We might even enjoy it.

So I’m left with a series of provocative questions: What if scarcity isn’t the fundamental principle of economics any more, or won’t be at some point in the near-to-middle future? What if God’s post-Eden curse — “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” — came with a time limit? What if our sentence is up?

[1] This blog is a gift: no subscriptions, no ads, no click-here-to-donate buttons, not even a means to collect and sell your data. It’s really this simple: I want to write it and I hope you enjoy reading it. If you want to do me a favor in return, spread my gift to your friends.

[2] Once this process gets started, a vicious cycle makes it worse: The larger the surplus population, and the more capable people it contains, the more competition there is for the available jobs. This drives down wages, and shrinks all the circles further. For example: The less the second circle gets paid, the fewer goods and services it can command. Consequently, the third circle doesn’t have to be as big. And so on.

[3] In case you’re struggling to put words around the flaw in this way of thinking, I already did: The mistake is the assumption that the oligarchs own the world, and that a baby born into poverty has no claim on either the natural productivity of the planet or the human heritage that created technological society. The oligarchs assume they are the sole rightful heirs both of the Creator and of all previous generations of inventors.

[4] Characters in the novel dispose of the “meritocracy” view of capitalist society very quickly: The view is based on circular logic, because “merit” is defined by whatever the system rewards. So Donald Trump is on top because he has merit, but the only observable evidence of his merit is the fact that he’s on top.

[5] The collapse of Soviet Communism is probably a model here. The Soviet system maintained the appearance of vast power right up to the last minute. When people respect you mainly for your power, the first signs of weakness quickly snowball.

[6] Recall the mainstream reaction to Occupy Wall Street.

[7] The archetypal example of this is the the Prize in Highlander: “In the end there can be only one.” Reality TV tells us this story over and over: The Bachelor will pick only one woman. Only one performer will become the next American Idol. And so on.

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  • Martin malone  On January 8, 2018 at 9:27 am

    I have recently been rereading karl polanyi’s The Great Transformation, which is his critique of the assumptions of both adam smith and karl marx. Based on his knowlege of social anthropology and non-industrial peoples, he completely rejects the assumptions of “homo economicus.” He points out that people have always worked and lived for reasons other than economic interests and that it is only in the last few hundred years that we have bought into an influential myth that is a complete misrepresentation of who people really are. He is not trying to create some edenic past. He simply points out that “social” reasons, the larger contexts of life, have always been more important than economic ones; and that even in capitalist societies, much of the work we do, as your Christmas dinner example shows, is for non-economic motivations. Thanks for this.

  • weeklysift  On January 8, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Another classic is Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the 20th Century 
by Harry Braverman. He blows up the myth that technological change creates more opportunities for skilled labor.

  • Xan  On January 8, 2018 at 10:53 am

    “It takes a lot of people to provision a single oligarch” is the single best thing I have read today.

  • JoAnn  On January 8, 2018 at 1:07 pm

    This reminds me of Francis Moore-Lappé’s work, especially the ideas she began to develop in Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity. Basically, there is more than enough food for everyone — it’s the distribution of food that is f’ed up.

    You might also find Louis Hyde’s book, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, of interest on this topic.Hyde is interested in examining the effect our current immersion in the market economy and the myth of the free market has both on our view of gifts and on our ability to give and receive them. The market economy is deliberately impersonal, but the whole purpose of the ‘gift economy’ is to establish and strengthen the relationships between us, to connect us one to the other. He points out that in a market economy, your wealth increases by hoarding (saving). But in a gift economy, your wealth decreases by hoarding. Circulating, not holding, is the way to increase. Website link is for a review I did of this book some years ago.

  • Allison Barrett  On January 8, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    Anthropogists studying economics have theorized that communities move older economic strategies like barter when capitalism isn’t working. I know Rhoda Halperin did extensive work on that on Appalachia, and Kathleen Pickering did work on that on Pine Ridge Reservation.

    • DMoses  On January 14, 2018 at 10:37 pm

      Its more proper to say that in smaller economies its easier for more personal methods of interaction to occur.

      Bartering isn’t “uneconomic” its just that the costs associated with bartering (finding someone who wants your thing and is willing to trade for it) increase significantly as the number of people and distance (in a communicative or interpersonal sense) increases.

      This isn’t “non-capitalism” its just a situation in which currency is not needed. (and is likely to be a result of other costs of currency like taxes, a sufficiently small community can avoid paying taxes by bartering because the costs of bartering are relatively low compared to the costs of taxes when a community is small)

  • Alan  On January 8, 2018 at 3:50 pm

    I don’t think gift economy is a good description of Linux and open source software in general. The majority of open source software is written because it satisfies a need for the developer or the developer’s employer. (That need might be “someone will pay us for it.”) Work done to satisfy non-paying third parties is far less common.

    (Having done a fair amount of work on Wikipedia, I find “gift economy” a reasonable summary.)

    • weeklysift  On January 10, 2018 at 7:50 am

      I’m not plugged in well enough to make claims about how any particular open-source project works now, but the origins of open-source in general and Linux in particular were in the gift economy. For a long time, commercial developers wouldn’t touch Linux or any other open-source project. Hobbyists would add a feature because they wanted to use it, and then make their code freely available to anybody else who wanted to build on it. See Wikipedia’s History of Linux.

  • Michael Ignatowski  On January 8, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    I’ve read claims that the single greatest endeavor in the history of the human race in terms of person hours spent creating it is Wikipedia. Yet this is something that according to classical market economics could not possibly exist.

    Another one of the most important elements of a gift economy is basic scientific research – people involved are motivated primarily by the value and recognition of the gift they give to the collective scientific knowledge of humankind. Variations of gift economies are more fundamental to our civilization that most of us realize.

    • weeklysift  On January 10, 2018 at 7:52 am

      There have been a lot of such projects. I remember one of my friends proof-reading for Project Gutenberg in his spare time.

  • ikeandmike  On January 9, 2018 at 5:22 pm

    Let me just say, thank you for this gift! I look forward to it every week, and I always feel informed, moved, and humbled by your humanity, knowledge, and insight.

  • Mikel Aickin  On January 10, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    Re gift economies, I was surprised that you didn’t mention the potlaches of the Northwest Coast native peoples. We understand why they worked, and so did the European invaders who made them illegal. They were grafted on top of more conventional trading systems, and they had a lot to do with governance. They also required a completely different mind-set about what humans and societies are all about.
    The counter-example would be libertarian fantasies. There is seemingly no end of libertarian communities that fail for what in retrospect seem obvious reasons. In general, it is the mind-set differences between libertarians and potlachers that makes them completely different.

    • weeklysift  On January 14, 2018 at 8:52 pm

      I was surprised that Doctorow didn’t mention potlatch cultures either.

  • Sumana Harihareswara  On January 13, 2018 at 4:56 pm

    I loved *Walkaway* for many of the same reasons you did. I’d therefore also recommend to you Margaret Killjoy’s novella on some similar themes:

  • DMoses  On January 14, 2018 at 10:27 pm

    While maybe fun in a novel these types of things do not work in real life and really cannot work in real life. Its a pleasant fiction but the only solution to the coming jopocalypse(if it happens) is government intervention. The same logic that suggests a jobpocalypse in the first place is the one that that prevents an spontaneous anarchic utopia from forming. Nothing about a macro production function necessitates that the equilibrium amount of human labor is the same as the available human working population; hence jobpocalpyse. Nothing about a macro production function necessitates unowned or excess capital which can readily be exploited, hence no anarchic utopia.

    When thinking about a gift economy its important to note that this is not a feature which is incomparable with modern, or even historical economics. Homo-economicus is rational and utility maximizing but this does not indicate what precisely generates utility. The idea that altruistic things are somehow irrational is a fiction and generated to attack a system that otherwise works. (this isn’t to say that homo-economicus is correct, but this is a more complicated discussion than simply saying that this person cannot be happy by giving things to others)

    The easy example here is that there are hundreds of thousands or even millions of gift economies that already exist in the United States alone. These exist in social networks, in family and neighborhood structures, and social scenes. Being the most helpful and throwing the best parties produces social status, a good like any other. The interne can expand the range or size of a gift economy but it cannot alleviate the fundamental problem of production. Gift economies are just a thing that happens, but its not a system by which “real production” happens. That always happens as a result of a combination of capital, labor, and technology(and management).

    The argument that gift economies can exist therefore we can have an anarchic gift economy utopia is a non-sequitor. The reason we cannot have an anarchic gift economy utopia is because there is no place to go to make it. If you do find a place to go and make it there must consistently be free land for which to place the additional members. While many aspects of the gift economy are possible as a result of low marginal cost of reproduction this is not true for anything other than the intellectual property involved. The natural resources required (especially non-renewable natural resources like rare earth metals) will never be free. There are no empty areas to go to now, and there certainly won’t be when the default city dwellers are using those “empty” areas to produce natural resources for them to use.

    “Scarcity” does not mean “there isn’t enough to go around”. That is and has always been false for pretty much the entirety of human existence. The thrust of technological progress has been expanding the amount of stuff for humans to use. “Scarcity” means that there is a non-infinite amount of goods, capital, and labor and because there is a non-infinite amount we will generally use all of it. Being equitable, therefore, will always be about forcing one person who already has a claim on something to give that claim up to those who do not. (And, as an aside, this isn’t theft, its the price of civilization)


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