Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Music and the "Gift Economy" 4: Personal Versus Impersonal Transactions

Previous posts in this series:
Music and the "Gift Economy" 1: An Introduction
Music and the "Gift Economy" 2: Examples
Music and the "Gift Economy" 3: Commons, Copyright, and Radical Politics

The relationship aspect of gift economies is, depending on whose viewpoint, either its strength or its weakness. Gift economies are either good because they encourage (or force) people into social relationships, or they are bad (or at least limiting) because they get bogged down by these relationships.

Before I explore the practicality of gift economies and the arts, let me highlight some of the discussions about market economies versus gift economies. There are trade-offs with each. Even if we use a hybrid system, which many people suggest is the only option, it still helps us to understand the strengths and limitations of each to know how to best utilize each.
... gift economies are fundamentally relational. A large part of the purpose of the gift is to establish and further relations between persons and groups. Part of what makes this possible, as Marcel Mauss points out in his wonderful Essai sur le Don (in English, The Gift), is that gifts demand reciprocation. ...

The relational nature of the gift economy is both its strength and its constraint. It both establishes relationship and requires relationship. On the other hand, the market economy works on the principle of even exchange. Every transaction is complete in itself, balanced, leaving the participants free of each other.

The gift economy is free in terms of money, of course, but constrained by the qualities and requirements of human social relationships. The market economy requires a constant flow of goods or money from the individual, a flow which may be difficult or impossible to produce, but it leaves the individual free to engage or not to engage. In this way, the two systems offer contrasting models of “free” and freedom. "Some Experiments in Art as Gift." Sal Randolph. March, 2003.
Gifts can establish a relationship that then switches to a market economy.
Mauss was interested in how we make society where it didn’t exist before. Hence we offer gifts on first dates or on diplomatic missions to foreign powers. How do we push the limits of society outwards? For him money and markets were intrinsic to this process. Hence giving personalized valuables could be considered to be an exchange of money objects if we operate with a broader definition than one based on impersonal currencies and focus rather on the function of their transfer, the extension of society beyond the local level. This helps to explain his claim that “the great economic revolutions are monetary in nature” (Fournier 2006: 212), meaning that they push us into unknown reaches of society and require new money forms and practices to bridge the gap. The combination of neoliberal globalization and the digital revolution has led to a rapid expansion of money, markets and telecommunications, all reinforcing each other in a process that has extended society beyond its national form, making it much more unequal and unstable in the process. "On commoditization: exchange in the human economy." Keith Hart. The Memory Bank. 8/10/08.
Freedom is often cited as a justification for market economies:
  • Classical liberals promoted markets as a means towards greater individual freedom as a corrective to the arbitrary social inequality of the Old Regime....

    According to writers as varied as John Locke and Karl Marx, ours is an age of money, a transitional phase in the history of humanity. Seen in this light, capitalism’s historical mission is to bring cheap commodities to the masses and break down the insularity of traditional communities before being replaced by a more just society. "On commoditization: exchange in the human economy." Keith Hart. The Memory Bank. 8/10/08.

  • ... I like many aspects of capitalism; I like the freedom, the dynamism, the creativity it unleashes. I would never, ever, want to do away with the market as the primary engine of productivity. "Capitalism, the Commons, and Divine Right." Peter Barnes speaking to the E. F. Schumacher Society, October 2003.

  • The values which shape exchanges in a commodity culture have to do with personal expression, freedom, social mobility, the escape from constraints and limitations, the enabling of new "possibilities". We sometimes refer to such fantasies as escapism or social experimentation; they are closely associated with the patterns of "transformation" and "plentitude" which Grant McCracken has documented. The fantasies which animate the exchange of gifts are often nostalgic, having to do with the reassertion of traditional values, the strengthening of social ties, the acceptance of mutual obligations, and the comfort of operating within familiar social patterns. "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Four): Thinking Through the Gift Economy." Henry Jenkins. Confessions of an Aca/Fan, 2/18/09.

  • According to the study's author, Jean-Sébastien Marcoux (HEC Montréal), many researchers romanticize gift-giving. "They praise it for humanizing market relationships, for making the market meaningful, and for providing an escape from the commodifying logic of capitalist exchanges," Marcoux writes. ...

    "People use the market to free themselves from the straitjacket of social expectations—from the sense of indebtedness and emotional oppression—which constrains them in their reciprocity relations inside the gift economy," Marcoux concludes. "The Dark Side Of Gifts: Feeling Indebted May Drive People To The Marketplace," ScienceDaily, 6/17/09.
  • Gifts often come with a real or at least perceived sense of obligation and the need to reciprocate.
  • Thus in the tribal economy, when a clan or tribe (or the members of such) gives away its surplus, the recipient group or individual is forced to eventually give back, say the next year, at least as much, or they will loose relative prestige. What such a gift economy does however is create a community of obligations and reciprocity, unlike the market-based mechanisms, where ‘equal is traded with equal’, and every transaction stands alone. "The intersubjectivity of P2P: the The Gift Economy vs. Communal Shareholding," P2P Foundation, 7/28/10.

  • [According to Mauss] societies based on the exchange of the gift impose three positive obligations on members:

    1. The obligation to give (you can’t not give)

    2. The obligation to receive (you cannot refuse to receive)

    3. The obligation to return (you must return that which is given)
    "The Gift – Mauss, Bataille, Hyde, and Derrida." Erik W. Davis. Freeebay, 6/18/10.

  • ... there is a tendency to romanticize the idea of the gift. It’s easy to imagine that a world based on an exchange of gifts would be better, more humanistic, more intimate, even more beautiful. This notion is not entirely false, but it leaves out the problematics of the gift. Think of receiving a gift that you don’t want. Or the sense of obligation that an excessive gift can engender. Think of wanting or needing something but having to wait to find out if or when it might be given to you. There’s a dependency, and a loss of control inherent in the gift situation. If your relationship with those around you is going well, you may receive everything you need, materially and emotionally—but what if it doesn’t go well? What about the coercion inherent in the need to please others to receive what you need for your survival? "Some Experiments in Art as Gift." Sal Randolph, March 2003.

  • I don’t mean to demonize "gift economies" by inverting their moral valuation, but I do want to emphasize that people who grew up in gift economies don’t mind getting out of them all that much. It can actually be tremendously rewarding to buy a honkin’ big piece of meat from someone who you will never meet again, take it back to your hotel room, and eat the entire thing by yourself, completely alone. "Gift economies suck (except ours)," Savage Minds, 8/10/10.

  • Because the exchange of goods within a gift economy brings with it social expectations, not all gifts can be accepted. In that sense, there are goods and services which literally can not be given away, because even in the absence of an explicit value proposition, consumers are wary of hidden obligations, unstated motives, or hidden interests which come smuggled inside the gift, much like the classic myth of the Trojan Horse. "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Four): Thinking Through the Gift Economy." Henry Jenkins. Confessions of an Aca/Fan, 2/18/09.
  • Lewis Hyde, known for his book The Gift, written in 1983, now acknowledges some shortcomings with the concept.
    There is a hidden problem in the gift book: much gift exchange takes place is communities with a strong sense of in-group and out-group. Gift giving may be a wonderful thing, but what if you happen to be in the out-group? What if all the scientists are men and they don’t share their data with the women? "Lewis Hyde, author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership," Creative Commons, 8/27/10.
    Andrew Swenson, Director of Marketing at Concordia University, offers this solution to the primary problem of the gift economy:
    I’m suggesting that in order to have a true “give-win” situation that demands no reciprocation, we must remove all economic considerations from collaboration.

    This would mean that after a gift has occurred in a collaborative partnership, both parties must forget the transaction occurred entirely. It must be as if the donee has inherited something: the donor has died and the beneficiaries are free to act as they wish with their new resources.

    This is the only way that a gift can escape the moral confines of the gift economy. "The Economy of Collaboration 3.0," wordpost.org, 1/14/10.
    Even as they facilitate quicker transactions, market economies are not totally without a human component.
    The moral economy describes the set of social norms and mutual understandings which make it possible for two parties to do business with each other. In some cases, the moral economy holds in check the aggressive pursuit of short term self interest in favor of decisions which preserve long term social relations between participants. In a small scale economy, for example, a local dealer is unlikely to "cheat" a customer because they need to count on continued trade with this person over an extended period of time and thus need to build up their reputation within this community.

    The measure of a moral economy is the degree to which participants trust each other to hold up their end of these implicit agreements. When there is a sudden and dramatic shift in the economic or technological infrastructure, as has occured with the introduction of digital media, it can create a crisis in the "moral economy," diminishing the level of trust within participating parties, and perhaps even wearing away the mechanisms which insure the legitimacy of economic exchanges. At such times, we can see all involved making bids for legitimation, that is proposing new models or frameworks through which parties may reach a understanding of what should provide the basis for fair and meaningful interactions. "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Three): The Gift Economy and Commodity Culture." Henry Jenkins. Confessions of an Aca/Fan,2/16/09.
    In these times of change, we may be looking for alternative economies, but we understand the concept of the market economy and have reasons to continue using it.
    It’s hard not to be a consumer. It’s what we are most of the time. There’s work, where we earn the money, and there’s non-work, where we spend the money. Most of our time is spent either servicing others as consumers or being serviced as consumers. In its vectoralist form, commodity culture has evolved a sophisticated way of treating us as its consumers. It’s all about crafting an image and a brand for a commodity that makes it appear as something more than a mere thing. The thing—be it a T-shirt or a carton of orange juice—is the support for an experience, mediated by a brand and an image that makes us feel special, that makes us feel unique. "Copyright, Copyleft, Copygift." McKenzie Wark in Meanland, 7/28/10. First published in Meanjin Vol 69:1 2010.
    Market economies also work well when there are distances or complex exchanges to deal with. Money, credit cards, and the like allow you to negotiate with strangers and to individualize your purchases, thus giving you unlimited flexibility. (Some people feel the Internet has erased distance and complexity barriers by setting up networks and commons among people who have never met and live thousands of miles from each other. Therefore, they foresee a time when gift economies can function globally. I will address this in another blog post in this series.) The big problem (which leads to my next blog post) is that the market economy doesn't know what to do with activities that aren't monetizable.
    Money is the blood of our economic system; it shouldn’t be the soul. Humans have needs and desires that can’t be met by exchanging dollars. These needs include connection to family and community, closeness to nature, and meaning in life. A twenty-first-century economic system must address these needs, too. Capitalism 3.0 Peter Barnes. 2006.
    This brings me to the next blog post, the heart of this series: Music and the "Gift Economy" 5: Supporting Artists.

    Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter


    1. awesome, thanks for collating all this. i'm looking forward to the rest of this series

    2. Thanks. My goal wasn't necessarily to write such a long series, but I found it was difficult to fully explain the concept of a gift economy and to what extent it is or isn't workable for the arts without covering it thoroughly.

      There's so much discussion about having some people, like musicians, give away some or all of what they create, which is fine if there are ways for them to survive. The idea that they can give away some stuff and sell other stuff works IF the other stuff is salable or IF consumers have the money. Now that we appear to be in a fairly long-lasting recession, it is not altogether clear who has money to spend.

      So if we are going to look at new business models for artists, we probably need to look at bigger economic models as well to see how and if it all fits together.


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