Monday, October 25, 2010

Music and the "Gift Economy" 7: Alternative Economies

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
Music and the "Gift Economy" 4: Personal Versus Impersonal Transactions
Music and the "Gift Economy" 5: Supporting Artists
Music and the "Gift Economy" 6: Problems with Free Art

Over the course of this series, I've explored the concept of a gift economy and haven't found any indication that it presents a way to support the arts any differently than we have done for hundreds of years.

However, some people have suggested some new ways of remaking local, national, and international economies which might include, as a side benefit, support of the arts.

Let me outline a few of the proposals, from least radical to most radical:

Art as a Form of Payment
Barter has a long tradition, so I won't detail it here. I'll just point to a couple of examples of programs where artists can give art as payment instead of money.
The [Brooklyn’s Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center] Artist Access program, which launched in May, allows artists, through performances or interactive programs for patients, to exchange their art for health care credits. "Art for Health Care," New York Foundation for the Arts.
In Mexico, artists can pay their taxes with artwork, which has allowed the Mexican government to amass a collection of over 4000 pieces since the program started in 1957.

Expanded Use of Commons
In part 3 of my series I brought up the idea of commons. Some people feel we could do even more with the concept as a way to promote creativity and community. Sharing and collaboration are variations on this theme.

Some of the research on commons involves shared natural resources and community areas (e.g., pastures, fishing grounds, forests, parks). Here's what people have learned.
Certain attributes of the local community have been shown to positively affect the outcome; (U1) users are dependant on the resource system for a major portion of their livelihood, (U2) users have a common understanding of the resource and of how their actions affect each other and the resource, (U3) users’ relations are built on trust and reciprocity (direct communication), (U4) users have prior organisational experience and local leadership (Ostrom, 2000). Two more attributes are often discussed as well, but the results on their impact are ambiguous. These are group size and the extent of homogeneity in the community (ethnicity, gender and interests), related to the distribution of resources (Baland and Platteau, 1996; Bardhan and Dayton-Johnson, 2002; Ostrom, 2005).

... “Rules are shared understandings among those involved that refer to enforced prescriptions about what actions (or states of the world) are required, prohibited, or permitted”, according to Elinor Ostrom and Victor Ostrom (2004). "Commons protected for or from the people: Analysis of strategies to establish protected areas in the Swedish Mountain Region." Anna Zachrisson.
Some people are extending the commons concept to sharable items (e.g., equipment, cars). Yochai Benkler wrote a paper outlining the types of products which are especially suited for this, such as those that an individual or family may want and can afford to purchase, but they don't need to use all the time. He also writes:
Pooling large numbers of small-scale contributions to achieve effective functionality—where transaction costs would be high and per-contribution payments must be kept low—is likely to be achieved more efficiently through social sharing systems than through market-based systems. It is precisely this form of sharing—on a large scale, among weakly connected participants, in project-specific or even ad hoc contexts—that we are beginning to see more of on the Internet ... "Sharing Nicely: On Shareable Goods and the Emergence of Sharing as a Modality of Economic Production." Yochai Benkler. Yale Law Review. Vol. 114: 273. 2004.
The paper covers far more than I have excerpted. I recommend you read it if you are interested in the topic. His work is also cited here:
In his book, The Wealth of Networks, Professor Yochai Benkler has developed some brilliant theoretical insights into why online commons can be so generative. He has explained, for example, that peer production is best achieved if a particular task is modular (meaning a complex project can be broken into discrete parts), “granular” (meaning it doesn’t take much investment for an individual to participate), and does not cost a lot to integrate the results. "The Commons as a New Sector of Value-Creation." David Bollier. On the Commons. 4/22/08.
Here are more suggestions related to online commons.
For the whole structure to work without large-scale centralized coordination, the creation process has to be modular, with units of different sizes and complexities, each requiring slightly different expertise, all of which can be added together to make a grand whole. "Chapter 8: A Creative Commons." The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. James Boyle.
In discussing commons, I have gone from commons as a physical location to commons as shared objects to commons as shared projects. Moving along that continuum, here's a list of factors that contribute to successful collaborations:
The following general, practical guidelines for collaboration resurface throughout much of the literature in the field of collaboration study:

  • Develop trust and mutual respect
  • Outline clear and attainable short and long-term goals
  • Define needs/self-interest well
  • Give reasons behind your thinking
  • Combine online collaboration with face-to-face meetings to speed up the process
  • Be concise, patient, and persistent
  • Get everybody involved in the process
  • Develop a clear process including self-reflexive loops
  • Stick to initially made commitments
  • Take a dose of humility
  • Develop good listening skills
  • Pay attention to scale in collaborative groups (production groups: 4-5 participants)
  • Put a stop to domineering interruptions and put-downs
  • Communicate frequently, clearly and openly
  • Acknowledge upcoming problems
  • Use facilitators for larger groups
  • Develop a long-term view
  • Learn when to let go
  • "The Participatory Challenge," [from: Krysa, J., ed. (2006) DATA Browser 03. Curating immateriality. The work of the curator in the age of network systems. Autonomedia: New York.] Trebor Scholz 2006
    What all this research on commons indicates is that people in a variety of disciplines are looking at alternative forms of property and work. And as ownership and sources of income blur, that filters down to those who make, or attempt to make, their living from the arts and other creative fields. The more that is shared, the less artists have to buy themselves, but also the less they might be able to sell.

    Here are some resources:
  • On the Commons
  • What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption
  • Shareable: Is Social Media Catalyzing an Offline Sharing Economy?

  • Guaranteed Basic Income
    A number of people have come to the conclusion that providing everyone a basic amount of money every year to cover necessities is a better system than either providing no help for the poor or coming up with a patchwork of social programs. This money would also serve as a subsidy to allow some people (including artists) to pursue important but low-paying activities.

    Among those who support the concept is Peter Barnes. In his book Capitalism 3.0 he covers capitalism's strengths and weaknesses.
    When capitalism started, nature was abundant and capital was scarce; it thus made sense to reward capital above all else. Today we’re awash in capital and literally running out of nature. We’re also losing many social arrangements that bind us together as communities and enrich our lives in nonmonetary ways. This doesn’t mean capitalism is doomed or useless, but it does mean we have to modify it. We have to adapt it to the twenty-first century rather than the eighteenth. And that can be done. Capitalism 3.0: Preface
    Barnes feels there is historic precedent for providing people with an annual stipend.
    [Thomas] Paine therefore proposed a “national fund” that would do two things:

    [Pay] to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property: And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

    A century and a half later, America created a national fund to do part of what Paine recommended—we call it Social Security. We’ve yet to adopt the other part, but its basic principle—that enclosure of a commons requires compensation—is as sound in our time as it was in Paine’s. Capitalism 3.0: Chapter 2
    Barnes says that giving everyone a little bit of money will actually make a better economy. As an example, he discusses Monopoly.
    ... Monopoly has two features currently lacking in American capitalism: all players start with the same amount of capital, and all receive $200 each time they circle the board. Absent these features, the game would lack fairness and excitement, and few would choose to play it.

    Imagine, for example, a twenty-player version of Monopoly in which one player starts with half the property. The player with half the property would win almost every time, and other players would fold almost immediately. Yet that, in a nutshell, is U.S. capitalism today: the top 5 percent of the population owns more property than the remaining 95 percent.

    Now imagine, if you will, a set of rules for capitalism closer to the actual rules of Monopoly. In this version, every player receives, not an equal amount of start-up capital, but enough to choose among several decent careers. Every player also receives dividends once a year, and simple, affordable health insurance. This version of capitalism produces more happiness for more people than our current version, without ruining the game in any way. Indeed, by reducing lopsided starting conditions and relieving employers of health insurance costs, it makes our economy more competitive and productive. Capitalism 3.0: Chapter 7.
    There is even conservative support for a basic guaranteed income:
    Support has now come from what might seem a surprising source: the US policy analyst Charles Murray (In Our Hands, American Enterprise Institute). Mr Murray regards himself as a libertarian but of a socially conservative kind. ...

    His starting point is that in spite of well over $1,000bn (€810bn) a year spent on welfare services of all kinds, poverty in the US is still rampant. He comes out for an unconditional basic income of $10,000 a year for every American over 21. I was originally attracted to basic income as a way of divorcing capitalism from the puritan ethic and allowing young people or creative artists to opt out from the rat race. Mr Murray on the other hand finds numerous, ingenious arguments whereby an unconditional payment of this kind might help restore the work ethic and traditional values. "Surprising case for basic income." Samuel Brittan. Financial Times 4/21/06.
    Michel Bauwens, creator of The Foundation for P2P Alternatives, also supports the concept of a basic guaranteed income.
    ... clearly we need a more durable macro scale arrangement and, as I said, it is my belief that it will require the introduction of a universal basic income. This is a logical outcome, but it is surely several decades away. "P2P: The very core of the world to come," Open and Shut? 9/7/06.
    Collective Ordering
    As technology allows more people to connect and work together, this has given hope that at some point they will be able decide in advance what they need and then how to produce or acquire it. That will allow more efficiency than the current market system.
    A key insight into the altruistic economic model is that a limit on the number of an individual's direct relationships need not limit the number of their indirect relationships, since computers can efficiently establish and use multi-step relationships such as friends of friends. "Altruistic Economics & The Internet Gift Economy." Robin Upton. Altruists International. 7/7/05.
    Environmenalist Dave Pollard explains it this way:
    Now, in a process called Peer Production, the local people interested in becoming suppliers, customers or investors of the offering that will fill the unmet need from step 1 above, self-organize and become partners in the enterprise, and co-design the offering to meet their specific needs. This is not rocket science; the reason it isn’t done in traditional economy companies is that it doesn’t scale well up to the multi-national level that traditional enterprises need to grow to to continue to exist.

    The partners now decide which of them will work how many hours in the enterprise and what they will be paid (dependent on their time availability, personal income needs, and the needs of the enterprise — but with little differential between highest and lowest hourly rate, and with an appreciation that the enterprise is not for-profit and must manage its costs prudently). "How a Community-Based Co-op Economy Might Work." Dave Pollard. How to Save the World. 7/29/10.
    The ideal is that if people have a guaranteed basic income, they won't have to work at jobs they hate and will be free to contribute in ways and to the extent that they wish. According to Bauwens:
    In the context of P2P, equipotentiality is the assumption that the individual can self-select his contributions, which are then communally validated. "P2P: A blueprint for the future?" Open and Shut? 9/3/06.
    Here are three other advocates of using networks to realign labor.
  • The essence of the long-term goal is to reduce the workweek to its minimum, so that the work we have to do to survive [pay rent, eat food etc] is no more and no less than what is needed for our survival. The remaining time is then freed up to pursue work that we want to do. It’s a shift from a must-work economy to a want-to-work economy.

    Work that people want to do is inherently useful. It’s a gift economy. I want to teach: so I teach, I want to learn: so I go to school, I want to bake cookies, I want to help kangaroos who are being badly affected by our activities, or maybe I want to become a doctor and heal people. As the workweek gradually decreases, our time to do positive contributions increases, and the net-output of the human-system becomes ever more increasingly “positive”.

    The beauty of such a system is that if someone is working 2 days a week, say: farming their own vegetables, and then they decide to do nothing for the remainder of their week, this is not only completely acceptable, it is preferred to them making something they didn’t actually want to do. "Gift economy: a viable economy," Sebastian Chedal. 3/12/09.

  • What about the jobs no one wants to do-like cleaning a public bathroom?
    With the mentality encouraged by the gift economy, we would all understand what needs to be done and help where help is needed. Meanwhile, our sense of fairness would help balance the work that needs to be done on a case by case basis. If someone cleaned a public bathroom once a week, then because it is unpleasant work, perhaps they wouldn't be expected to do anything else all day. Or perhaps people would take turns doing easy-to-do yet unpleasant duties like cleaning public bathrooms. There wouldn't be any strict rules about it - people would just be held socially responsible for their role in maintaining a healthy and harmonious society.

    What if people don't want to work at all? What if they just want to mooch?
    If we lived in a society where people are looked down upon for not contributing their fair share to society, then no one would choose laziness and risk losing the respect and love of their community. And in the case that there are still people who don't contribute, community members could influence each other by refusing service to those who don't seem to be contributing. "Transition to the Gift Economy." Russell Jelter. March 2010

  • To escape from the fetters of competition, we need to develop an economy that is based on giving rather than trading: a gift economy, in place of this exchange economy. In such a system, each person could do what she wanted to with her life, and offer to others what she felt most qualified to offer, without fear of going hungry. The means to do things would be shared by everyone rather than hoarded up by the greediest individuals, so each person would have all the capabilities of society at her disposal. Those who wanted to paint could paint, those who enjoy building engines and machines could do that, those who love bicycles could make and repair them for others. The so-called “dirty work” would be spread around more fairly, and everyone would benefit from being able to do a variety of things rather ^J than being limited to one trade like a cog in a machine. "What's So Bad About Capitalism?" SF Bay Area Gift Economy -, 12/17/05.
  • Douglas Rushkoff goes a step further and proposes that we take money away from those people/companies that don't do anything and give it to people who do something.
    A majority of the money earned under our current currency system is earned by people who don't actually do anything. As such, all this speculation is a drag on the system. Speculators just bet on various companies' ability to pay back what they have borrowed. ...

    The way out —— as I see it —— is to begin making our own money again. I'm not talking barter, but local currency. Money is just an agreement. And the more a community trusts one another, the more efficiently the moneys they develop can function. We can create units of currency based on anything; if we don't have grain, we can earn it into existence instead by babysitting, taking care of the elderly, or teaching in a charter school. Every hour worked is an "hour" of currency credited to your account. "Hacking the Economy." Douglas Rushkoff. h magazine. 3/19/09.
    But we can take it one step further than creating local currency.

    An Economy without Money
    The most extreme reinvention of the economy is to eliminate money altogether.
    Imagine a future in which millions of families live off the grid, powering their homes and vehicles with dirt-cheap portable fuel cells. As industrial agriculture sputters under the strain of the spiraling costs of water, gasoline and fertilizer, networks of farmers using sophisticated techniques that combine cutting-edge green technologies with ancient Mayan know-how build an alternative food-distribution system. Faced with the burden of financing the decades-long retirement of aging boomers, many of the young embrace a new underground economy, a largely untaxed archipelago of communes, co-ops, and kibbutzim that passively resist the power of the granny state while building their own little utopias. "The Dropout Economy - 10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years." Reihan Salam. Time. 3/11/10.
    One reason people think a cashless economy is possible is that abundance will replace scarcity. It's just a matter of making sure it is distributed in an equitable manner.
    The future will be shaped by three interlocking trends: imploding capital outlay requirements for production, reduced transaction costs of networked organization, and eroding enforceability of artificial property rights. Taken together, they will render the propertied classes' privileged access to large amounts of land and capital irrelevant, act as a force-multiplier for bootstrapping the alternative economy, drastically lower the revenue streams required both for households to subsist and microenterprises to stay in business, and shift a large portion of consumption needs into the category of Free or virtually Free as embedded rents on artificially property rights are washed out of the price of goods. "The Abolition of Scarcity." Kevin Carson. The Future We Deserve.
    A group that is rapidly spreading around the world is The Zeitgeist Movement, based on the ideas of Jacque Fresco.
    Simply stated, a resource-based economy utilizes existing resources rather than money, and provides an equitable method of distribution in the most humane and efficient manner for the entire population. It is a system in which all natural, man-made, machine-made, and synthetic resources would be available without the use of money, credits, barter, or any other form of symbolic exchange. ...

    Cybernation, or the application of computers and automation to the social system, could be regarded as an emancipation proclamation for humankind if used humanely and intelligently. Its thorough application could eventually enable people to have the highest conceivable standard of living with practically no labor. "Resource-Based Economy." Jacque Fresco. The Venus Project.
    Here's more: "What are some of the central characteristics of a 'Resource-Based Economy?'"

    So now, we have finally reached a point where a gift economy makes sense. If there is abundance and if people trust that their needs will be met, they may feel free to give away what they want to give away and what they don't need.
    In various ways Marcel Mauss, Georges Bataille, and Jean Baudrillard have all argued that societies are grouped around the notion of excess (and acts of generous gift giving) rather than resource scarcity (Coyne 2005: 99-150). "The Participatory Challenge," [from: Krysa, J., ed. (2006) DATA Browser 03. Curating immateriality. The work of the curator in the age of network systems. Autonomedia: New York.] Trebor Scholz 2006
    My personal opinion is that all the discussions about giving away music and then selling scarcities is way too limited. Most of the proposed ways for musicians to make money are based on consumerism. Should we be encouraging them to sell anything? Or should we find ways to help them, and others, survive in a new economic system? As we move more toward user-generated creativity and participatory society (in art, journalism, networking, and so on), finding ways for everyone to live fully and creatively rather than just finding ways for elite artists to sell their works seems to be a good goal.

    Here are two extensive gift economy resources:

  • Regenerosity
  • Anarchism and Gift Economy

  • Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE 11/20/10
    A recent article on the subject: "To end poverty, guarantee everyone in Canada $20,000 a year. But are you willing to trust the poor?"


    1. Suzanne,

      I read most of this post and the others and I think the problem with a gift economy is that it ignores human nature, namely our innate competitiveness. Every effort to overcome this has failed in very, very ugly ways, most notably in the Soviet Union, but also North Korea and other outposts of communism, which is essentially what a gift economy would be. How would you handle a person who wanted a little more?

      In music, there is much debate about how to make money now that nobody seems to want to pay, but the real debate should be about why people aren't paying. In my opinion, they're breaking the law and we're not doing enough about it. But it's an unpopular opinion, I know!


    2. Yes, I'm not convinced that any sort of true gift economy is going to work. We have problems enough as it is getting a consensus on basic political issues. What I wanted to do is to put it all into perspective. If you are going to ask musicians and artists to do the giving but no one is giving to them in return, then it's back to day jobs for them.

    3. I must say that I'm glad I discovered your Blog. Very informative and relevant to what I'm going through as an independent unknown (bordering on secret) musician.

      When I first started writing and recording my own music I compiled enough songs for a CD then distributed it digitally to generate some extra income. I quickly learned that NOBODY is listening to unknowns much less buying anything they are not familiar with.

      Spent considerable time marketing and trying to get exposure with very little result. So I gave up on the idea of selling my music.
      What I started to do was donate to charities using the music. This gained me fans, more listens and donations.

      I went a step further and offered my music for free. Once I did that my listens and downloads increased dramatically.
      Some even have voluntarily donated using the name your price option.

      So while I make no money from music I am getting far more exposure and people are downloading which means my songs are now in circulation. I say secret musician because I can't afford the time to play out live and instead post original song videos to YouTube which is a 24/7 performance on demand method:

      To hear my free music:

      Thanks for your excellent Blog here.
      Followed you on Twitter.

    4. Thanks for your comment. Musicians are trying out lots of different models and it's always useful to hear what has worked and what hasn't.

      I will check out your music.

    5. I strongly support guaranteed basic income for many reasons.

      Research shows it's cheaper than paying through many different government programs.

      People don't in fact work less, except single mothers and boys who stay in school longer.
      It allows people to contribute without thought of specific reward, which improves creative contributions.

      Many of the people who did pioneering work on what become the internet and software industry did it at first for free because they had some other job. But only a few capitalized on it, which is simply not fair. Nor is good for everyone else when only a few schemers make all the money.

      Clearly this kind of approach, a citizen's dividend, would be very helpful for musicians and other creative people.

      Here's a link to a recent article in a national Canadian newspaper:

    6. Thanks for that article. I will add it as an update.


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