At some point in middle school, I asked my parents to stop handing me my weekly allowance. I told them that I didn’t need to hold the money—just to know that I had a claim on it. I proposed keeping a ledger on paper, so I knew where I stood without any need for the money to move from their wallet to the little box on my desk. Slightly confused, they acquiesced, and I kept a running total of progress toward my saving goals.
The money, I realized, was an abstraction. It represented the power to do something, but there was no need for it to be physical until the exact moment that its power was brought to bear. I had independently discovered one of the hypothesized origins of money: a way of making favours fungible.
In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber argues that most money takes this form. A banknote is an IOU from a bank—initially it promised that the note could be redeemed for a quantity of gold or other goods, but eventually it became unanchored from a specific promise of redemption. The trust that makes a promise possible became the unit of value, even without a specific promise being made.
The trust that makes a promise possible became the unit of value.
In 1950s Hong Kong, British soldiers and Chinese shopkeepers hit on a similar shift from debt to currency. Graeber relates a story he heard from anthropologist Keith Hart, whose brother was stationed in Hong Kong during this period:
Soldiers used to pay their bar tabs by writing checks on accounts back in England. Local merchants would often simply endorse them over to each other and pass them around as currency. Once, [his brother] saw one of his own checks, written six months before, on the counter of a local vendor covered with about forty different tiny inscriptions in Chinese.
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.
Debt creates a bond, Graeber argues. But, in most cases, it’s a bond that seeks its own annihilation.
Exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation. It’s precisely when the money changes hands, when the debt is cancelled, that equality is restored and both parties can walk away and have nothing further to do with each other.
In a debt-dominated relationship, the goal is to be quits. To be restored to equality is to have no lingering obligations to anyone nor for anyone to have outstanding promises to you. The one who has successfully balanced the books stands alone, untethered. It’s a reasonable approach to take with a merchant, whose relationship to you ends with a purchase, but it makes little sense as a way to relate to your family or your community.
In community, the bonds of need and debt ebb and flow, rarely coming to a conclusion. In the Tiv community of rural Nigeria, Laura Bohannan received a tutorial in appropriate, uneven recompense from her hosts. In Graeber’s telling,
It would be entirely inappropriate to simply accept three eggs from a neighbor and never bring anything back. One did not have to bring back eggs, but one should bring something back of approximately the same value. One could even bring money—there was nothing inappropriate in that—provided one did so at a discreet interval, and above all, that one did not bring the exact cost of the eggs. It had to be either a bit more or a bit less. To bring back nothing at all would be to cast oneself as an exploiter or a parasite. To bring back an exact equivalent would be to suggest that one no longer wishes to have anything to do with the neighbor.
In the Tiv community, debt sloshes. There is a messiness to it that would be entirely inappropriate for a payroll company or a major bank. But, because everything keeps circulating, the small “errors” of inexactness have a way of working themselves out over the long term. The frequency with which debts, gifts, and favours are exchanged reduces the gravity of any single transaction—it’s the relationship that persists. After reading Debt, I asked a friend to stop splitting the bills with me when we had a monthly dinner out. Instead of dividing evenly, I wanted to alternate picking up the cheque. I wanted to enter into the intimacy of slight imbalance, where we expected small inequalities would work themselves out over the long run—that our friendship would have a long run.
I wanted to enter into the intimacy of slight imbalance, where we expected small inequalities would work themselves out over the long run—that our friendship would have a long run.
Exchange as Relationship
Exchange that creates a bond, rather than settling accounts, is the subject of Lewis Hyde’s magisterial work on art and gift economies. In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde lays out how gift economies are distinguished from commodity exchange (and justifies the provocative subtitle attached to the initial printing—subsequent reprints have softened it to How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World). He writes in his introduction,
It is this element of relationship which leads me to speak of gift exchange as an “erotic” commerce, opposing eros (the principle of attraction, union, involvement which binds together) to logos (reason and logic in general, the principle of differentiation in particular). A market economy is an emanation of logos.
Gift economies are active, fruitful, full of pulsing motion. They are a relationship of spiration, of shared breath and life. As Hyde puts it,
While gifts are marked by motion and momentum at the level of the individual, gift exchange at the level of the group offers equilibrium and coherence, a kind of anarchist stability. We can also say, to put the point conversely, that in a group that derives its cohesion from a circulation of gifts, the conversion of gifts to commodities will have the effect of fragmenting the group or even destroying it.
Hyde sees gift relationships everywhere, binding us together and allowing us to do more than we could by ourselves. What Graeber sees among the rural Tiv, Hyde believes is just as necessary for the cutting edge, technology-driven community of scientists. After all, he writes, they have taken on “the task of assembling a mass of disparate facts into a coherent whole,” which “clearly lies beyond the powers of a single mind or even a single generation.” A gift relationship allows the scientists to become part of a larger whole, less anxious for their particular role or standing (except when tenure reviews are done) and more able to trust themselves to the woven community of shared work and need. Ideally, one scientist’s “failed” negative result is as valued as another’s breakthrough. One researcher has warned others off a blind alley, while the other has found a promising new trail. Neither should glory too much in themselves, but join the joyful communal procession to bring light into dark places.
We frequently fall short of this ideal. In practice, inequality develops quickly, especially where contributions to the shared project are desperately needed, but undervalued. Soon, the partners in a shared endeavour sound like the squabbling parts of the body that Paul addresses in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (12:21–26 NRSV)
But in everyday life, it is easy for the comfortable to feel like they require nothing from the poor; that the relationship is all one-way. There is no sloshing and sharing of needs, just the flow of largesse from benefactor to beneficiary. This model of charity requires the assumption that what is in our possession is definitely ours—an assumption that was not shared in the early church.
Not Charity but Justice
St. Basil the Great speaks sharply in his homilies of what our obligation to others really consists of. It is easy to think of our charity or tithing budget as being allocated out of our surplus, but we give ourselves a generous accounting of the essentials that must be satisfied before we can give to others. When St. Basil speaks of giving to the poor, he speaks not of prudent savings but of waste:
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.
What St. Basil describes is not charity but justice. The unused shoes are not mine to give—they belong to the one who needs them. When I carry them out of my house and place them in another’s hands, I am not a magnanimous figure, bestowing gifts, but a penitent thief, asking forgiveness.
In St. Basil’s exhortation, it is the light dulling of dust on my possessions that indicts my miserliness. There is no call for me to possess what I do not need, and if I needed it, I would put it to use.
It is his voice that I hear ringing as I pack my daughter’s newborn clothes into zippered, plastic pouches, making space for the next size up of onesies and swaddles. It is St. Basil I hear when I descend to the basement, where I “require” space to store my excess. It is St. Basil who stands over me when I reluctantly pack the onesies that were themselves lent to us, to return to the friend who is now pregnant again. Possessing them, seeing my daughter in them, not knowing when or whether we will ask for them back makes it hard for me to send them away.
My possessions are physical enough to prompt me to action, but the little allowance ledgers I made on legal pads as a child did less to pressure me to be a good steward. The more abstracted money is, the less it suggests a specific use. The extra coat in my closet clearly belongs to the person who is cold, but to whom, exactly, does the $500 I received in stimulus funds for my daughter belong? The extra coat is an encumbrance and an indictment in a way the slightly larger bank balance is not. The extra coat can even appear ridiculous, pushed aside as I look for what I actually use, tangling me up and demanding I free it to go about its work.
Direct contact with the poor is a way of reawakening this sense of the purpose of possessions. Knowing a recipient is a way to be invited into the intimacy of a gift. But the flattening effects of the internet can deluge me in requests from strangers, with no way to sort them. And in my immediate surroundings, aggressive police push away the homeless from my neighbourhood, preventing providential meetings. It is hard to know whom I am called to care for.
My Twitter feed is full of friend-of-a-friend GoFundMe medical debt appeals, and I weigh the specific needs and particular faces against the more abstract but possibly higher-leverage donation to an organization like RIP Medical Debt, which buys and forgives bundled debt at a discount. My donation to a friend’s debt is paid dollar for dollar to their creditor, finally leaving them free. My donation to the organization buys debt at a discount, a penny for a dollar discharged, pencil erasers scrubbing ledgers clear without ever seeing the names.
Our family’s uneasy balance is to try to include a mix of both. When we receive a personal call to give, we answer—and then we match that donation to a friend with one to Against Malaria or another effective altruist group. We want the love we have for the people we know to be the cause of our service to the people we haven’t gotten to meet, the ones whose need may be deliberately hidden from us. We don’t want to train ourselves in indifference to an open hand, even if each particular gift may not be the biggest impact we can have.
And still, all the while, we keep a ledger of money so distant it doesn’t feel real. Our retirement savings, growing slowly in an IRA, are a pledge of distrust in a gift economy. It is money cut off from use—for us, for the people we know—just slowly amassing in a heap so that we will be able to take care of ourselves when we don’t know if anyone else will. I set up automatic deposits and check the balances rarely, suspicious that something is fundamentally wrong with this siloed, waiting money. It is the sterile counterpart to our family-donations spreadsheet, which, in our year-end review, is a chronicle of global and local need and relationships—a prompting to pray one more time for a friend’s home repair or NICU stay.
The Mercy of Giving
Our friends enter that ledger when their need is profound, and when money might be an appropriate answer. We don’t record every phone call, every prayer, every way our friends have returned the gift in a different form. But even if we did, not all the ledgers would balance, not even over the long run. The flow of gifts that makes a community presumes a rough equality, but not all our relationships take that form. To call charity a gift economy raises the question, How does the one with nothing to return remain a full member of the community?
Augustine saw a neediness on the part of the giver that balanced the vulnerability of the receiver. As glossed by Peter Brown in Through the Eye of a Needle, Augustine linked the duty to give alms to the daily petitions of the Lord’s Prayer:
“Daily”—cottidiana—was the ever-recurrent word Augustine used, whether he spoke of sin, of prayer, or of almsgiving. The human condition demanded this. The soul was a leaking vessel on the high seas. Little trickles of daily sins constantly seeped through the timbers, silently filling the bilge with water that might yet sink the ship if it were not pumped out. And to man the bilge-pump was both to pray and to give alms:
Those who work the bilge-pump lest the boat go down do so [chanting sea shanties] with their voices and working with their hands. . . . Let the hands go round and round. . . . Let them give, let them do good works.
In her own reflection on this passage, Catholic author Eve Tushnet writes that being asked to give feels like a mercy to her when she is burdened by sin. “I have many grateful, difficult memories of being in the middle of some bout with one of my various sordid sins and being asked for money or seeing someone in need whom I could help,” she writes in her newsletter The Rogation Dragon. “It feels like being allowed, like being given the undeserved chance to serve someone.”
In Tushnet, I see something of the answer to the guilty, tardy relinquishment that I associate with St. Basil’s exhortation to stop hoarding up sin with my excess possessions. Relinquishing what is not hers, she rushes into God’s embrace like the prodigal son. Scattering our burdens and our sins, we prepare to receive his gift.
Relinquishing what is not hers, she rushes into God’s embrace like the prodigal son. Scattering our burdens and our sins, we prepare to receive his gift.
Opening our hands and letting our wealth pass through them can be difficult, but it is the practice version of the real generosity that God calls us to. Wealth is a temptation, but we can physically let it go, and once it is out of our hands, it is hard to reclaim, even if our heart aches for it.
But the real calling is to hold our selves just as loosely. As Hyde remarks in a footnote to a passage discussing bride prices, oblates, and other ways of formally bestowing the gift of a child,
If our lives are gifts to begin with, however, in some sense they are not “ours” even when we become adults. Or perhaps they are, but only until such time as we find a way to bestow them. The belief that life is a gift carries with it the corollary feeling that the gift should not be hoarded. . . . Adolescence is marked by that restless, disturbing inquisition: is this person, this nation, this work worthy of the life I have to give?
If adolescence is marked by anxiety about finding worthy recipients, full adulthood might be marked by trust that what is given in love and in accord with God’s commands cannot be wasted. The greater danger is holding ourselves back, like the servant afraid to invest the talent that his master gives him. We should expect to become part of a long ledger of transactions. When we speak a kind word to someone who appears stony, we are unaware of how it may prepare the soil for later seed. God’s plans are better than our plans, but they require trust.
The greater danger is holding ourselves back, like the servant afraid to invest the talent that his master gives him. We should expect to become part of a long ledger of transactions.
The livelier the gift economy we create, the more spendthrift we are free to be. Instead of holding on to our wealth and our selves, anxiously awaiting a worthy recipient, we can offer them freely, expecting to have something new that our neighbour has entrusted us to offer tomorrow. Every day brings a new gift, a new sin, a new way to remedy one by offering the other.