Monday, August 30, 2010

Music and the "Gift Economy" 2: Examples

For the first post in this series, go here: Music and the "Gift Economy" 1: An Introduction

In order to determine whether gift economies have any practical application for artists and musicians, let's look at some gift economies.

The first ones to be described were small indigenous communities where money had never been introduced.
Instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who managed to give the most away. In some notorious cases, such as the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, this could lead to dramatic contests of liberality, where ambitious chiefs would try to outdo one another by distributing thousands of silver bracelets, Hudson Bay blankets or Singer sewing machines, and even by destroying wealth - sinking famous heirlooms in the ocean, or setting huge piles of wealth on fire and daring their rivals to do the same. "Give It Away," by David Graeber. In These Times. August 21, 2000.
However, this author suggests that perhaps there has never been a pure gift economy.
The possibility that some cultures organized their economic life around systems of "gifts made and reciprocated" rather than commodities bought and sold originates in the fieldwork of anthropologists such as Malinowksi in the Trobriand Islands, and colonial observers of the so-called "potlatches" of northwest American Indians, observations which were then synthesized in Marcel Mauss's monumental study The Gift. Yet none of these observers, including Mauss himself, were ever able to decide once and for all whether the practices they observed really constitute a distinctly different economy, a system truly based in generosity and self-sacrifice; instead, they always leave open the possibility that members of archaic cultures simply exchanged gifts in the rational expectation of receiving ever-larger gifts later, making the gift economy merely a kind of rudimentary capitalism under a different form. "Response to Barbara Sebek's 'Good Turns and the Art of Merchandising: Conceptualizing Exchange in Early Modern England'," by Scott Cutler Shershow in Early Modern Culture, 2001.
The best example of a gift economy I can find in today's world (other than some communes and family-style compounds) is Burning Man, the week-long festival held every year in the Nevada desert. Here's what Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man, has to say about it as a gift economy and the reason for doing so.
We've intentionally designed Black Rock City to foster what we call a gift economy. We allow no vending, no advertising, no buying or selling of anything. We discourage bartering because even bartering is a commodity transaction. Instead, we've originated both an ethos and an economic system that is devoted to the giving of gifts. ...

Let me draw a contrast between the market and a gift economy. I will begin with the marketplace. ... A simple act of purchase allows me to command the resources of the world. ... There has never been a better method for the productive allocation of wealth and the distribution of goods and services. ... The market, mated today in our modern system of mass production and mass distribution, has produced more wealth and distributed it more widely than in all other epochs of human history. This has liberated us from toil, but more importantly, it has freed us to independently pursue uniquely personal visions of happiness. ...

But what this transaction does not necessarily produce is connections between people. It does not produce what Robert Putnam and other writers have described as "social capital." Social capital is a very different concept. Social capital represents the sum of human connection that holds a society together, and it is fostered by networks of personal relationship.

... It is in the nature of our modern system of mass marketing to cater to the desires of the individual. "Viva Las Xmas." A speech at the Cooper Union in New York City. 4/25/02.
Burning Man would not exist, however, without the resources people accumulate during their real world existence outside of the event. They bring in what they personally need and what they want to give away. While services and products are sometimes created at Burning Man, all the raw materials are trucked in from elsewhere.
Q. What should I bring?
A. Thank you for asking the million-dollar question. Burning Man is an exercise in radical self-sufficiency. You have to bring all you need to survive, and then some. Some people bring only the basics; others bring everything including the kitchen sink.
  • Water, food and shelter are imperative — you will be asked to turn around at the gate if gate personnel believe you cannot meet your basic survival needs. Carefully read the Survival Guide, and prepare accordingly.
  • After you have taken care of your survival, everything else is up to you.
  • If you are fond of sleep, earplugs are a participant's best friend.
  • A bicycle (with a bike light) is vital for enjoying our vast and burgeoning metropolis.
  • For maximum enjoyment of the event, bring toys or costumes with which you can express your creative spirit.
  • "What is Burning Man?: FAQ"
    So Burning Man shows a true gift economy can exist within a moment of time and location, but it doesn't demonstrate that it can exist without a market economy.

    My third example is the Internet, expecially the open source community, the development of Wikipedia, and the use of crowdsourcing. Some people have called these gift economies, but in my mind they are not really. Rather, they are examples of collaboration. While people may be uploading items separately or contributing free labor, the final result is something that benefits them all rather than being the transfer of an item from one owner to another.

    The history of the Internet, however, has given rise to some interesting discussions, which will be relevant to my exploration of music and gift economies.
    During the Sixties, the New Left created a new form of radical politics: anarcho-communism. Above all, the Situationists and similar groups believed that the tribal gift economy proved that individuals could successfully live together without needing either the state or the market. From May 1968 to the late Nineties, this utopian vision of anarcho-communism has inspired community media and DIY culture activists. Within the universities, the gift economy already was the primary method of socialising labour. From its earliest days, the technical structure and social mores of the Net has ignored intellectual property. Although the system has expanded far beyond the university, the self-interest of Net users perpetuates this hi-tech gift economy. As an everyday activity, users circulate free information as e-mail, on listservs, in newsgroups, within on-line conferences and through Web sites. As shown by the Apache and Linux programs, the hi-tech gift economy is even at the forefront of software development. Contrary to the purist vision of the New Left, anarcho-communism on the Net can only exist in a compromised form. Money-commodity and gift relations are not just in conflict with each other, but also co-exist in symbiosis. The "New Economy" of cyberspace is an advanced form of social democracy. "The Hi-Tech Gift Economy," Imaginary Futures, 4/19/07.
    The above paper was written by Richard Barbrook in 1998. In 2005, he was asked how the hi-tech gift economy had evolve since he wrote the paper. You can read his responses here.

    Here are quotes from two people who share my opinion that the Internet probably isn't a true gift economy:
  • Notice that the gifts are exchanged between people who know each other; indeed, the purpose of gift giving is to cement relationships between people. This may have been true of the very early Internet, which was small enough that researchers could know each other and direct their work to specific people. However, it is not sufficient to explain the behaviour of people who, to use one current example, put pages on the World Wide Web, since they may never know (and, therefore, have no relationship with) people who see their work.

    Worse, in traditional theory, gifts are alienable; this means that when you give a gift, you give up ownership of it. Ownership of the gift is transferred to the person to whom you give it. However, by its very nature, ownership of information is inalienable. When you send a copy of a document to somebody, you can keep a copy for yourself. Alienability is an important aspect of gift culture; we wouldn't think much of somebody who had given us clothing, for example, if they kept asking if they could borrow it! If the Internet is not a gift culture, we have to return to the question: why do so many people work so hard on something for which they receive no financial compensation? "The Gift of Generalized Exchange," by Ira Nayman in Spark-Online, Issue 17, February 2001.

  • In my opinion, there is a profound misconception regarding peer to peer, expressed by the various authors who call it a gift economy, such as Richard Barbrook (Barbrook, 1995), or Steven Weber (Weber, 2004). But, as Stephan Merten of has already argued, P2P production methods are not a gift economy based on equal sharing, but a form of communal shareholding based on participation. In a gift economy if you give something, the receiving party has to return if not the gift, then something of at least comparable value (in fact the original tribal gift economy was more about creating relationships and obligations and a means to evacuate excess, since they did not need it for their basic survival needs). In a participative system such as communal shareholding, organized around a common resource, anyone can use or contribute according to his need and inclinations. "The intersubjectivity of P2P: the The Gift Economy vs. Communal Shareholding," by Michel Bauwens, originally written in 2006, and republished in P2P Foundation Blog, 7/28/10.
  • If you want to explore more about the Internet as a gift economy (multiple citations), go here.

    Next: Music and the "Gift Economy" 3: Commons, Copyright, and Radical Politics

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

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