COMMUNITY VOICE: <br/>The Maternal Gift Economy

COMMUNITY VOICE:
The Maternal Gift Economy

An Alternative Economic Model

 

Our current economic system is based on exchange, most frequently the exchange of money for goods or services. Author and researcher Genevieve Vaughan says that this model is inherently patriarchal, and suggests that an alternative economic model based on giving should be considered when thinking about how to recover from the global financial crisis.

A DIFFERENT ECONOMIC PARADIGMThe recent financial crisis has shown the deep sickness of our economic system. Though billions of dollars were spent on palliative measures, no radically different approaches have been considered.

I believe that the answer to the question of why women have been oppressed for centuries is also the answer to the question of what is wrong with the present economic system. In order to get to this answer we need to connect the dots in a radically different way. We can begin by considering the direct giving of goods and services to satisfy needs as an alternative economic system--a gift economy based on maternal care. This gift economy already coexists (though often invisibly) in our society with the more dominant economy based on exchange: the "giving in order to receive an equivalent" approach. The gift economy and the exchange economy diverge in a very elementary way in everyday life, but they also have divergent consequences on our relationships and our psychologies.

GIVING VERSUS EXCHANGINGThe logic of the gift economy contrasts in many ways with the logic of the exchange economy. It bridges the gap between one person and another and values the other, creating positive relationships. Exchange, by requiring an equivalent, cancels the gift; it is ego oriented, self-validating and places people in competition with each other. The gift economy calls for the person who receives the gift to be creative in how they use the service and/or pass it on, while the exchange economy diverts attention away from the receiver onto the object, and treats the other as means for acquiring it. Giving/receiving is mostly qualitative and directs attention to needs; exchange is mostly quantitative and requires equations and measurement. Giving/receiving produces interdependence and trust, while exchange produces adversarial behavior, mistrust and the illusion of independence.

MOTHERS: OUR FIRST EXAMPLES OF THE GIFT ECONOMYIn infancy everyone experiences being the recipient of unilateral giving , because young children can't live without maternal care, no matter who is doing the mothering--whether women or men, birth mothers or aunts, whole villages, or even paid caregivers. Though the quality and the specifics of the care may change according to who provides it, if the child survives the care must have been adequate.
Society usually allocates the job of mothering to the birth mother, and female gender is usually socially constructed to encourage and ensure that women perform this maternal role. The binary gender construction in the West requires that from very early on in order to be ‘male', boys renounce identification with the mother and therefore also with the ‘female' gift economy, upon which their lives depend. They are trained away from their maternal identities when they are most vulnerable, and are encouraged to construct their gender identity around an adult model of independence, power and ego orientation. The renunciation of the maternal identity and gift economy is a false and problematic necessity imposed on males, for which females are expected to compensate by giving even more.

THE EXCHANGE ECONOMY: HOW IT HURTS USThe logic of the exchange economy cancels gifts and creates a non-nurturing system. Although it may seem "neutral," the market system is actually gendered to favor men because it negates, devalues and disguises the maternal gift economy while exploiting and dominating gifts of all kinds.

In fact, the gift economy actually nurtures the market. On the surface, the exchange economy is based on the equivalent values of the products exchanged. At a deeper level, it is motivated by the extraction of free gifts. It is these gifts that make up profit, whether they come from the free resources of Mother Earth, the uncounted and unrecognized work of housewives and mothers, or from the "surplus value" that flows to the capitalist from the unpaid portion of the labor of workers of both genders.
Many women in Capitalism have found themselves ill at ease with the requirements and values of their positions because they have not altogether renounced the need- directed maternal economy. Those who cannot or do not want to give up their place in the system can work to shift values and practices from within. Those who are relegated outside the system can begin to understand and affirm the political significance of their own gift giving work.

SUPRESSING THE GIFT ECONOMYThe exchange economy is deeply threatened by the possibility of a gift economy and tries to prevent it. In fact, in abundance, gift-giving would be easy, even delightful and people would not need to submit to working within power hierarchies. Instead, they could simply provide for each other according to an adult elaboration of the model of the mothering economy. This is what has happened in many indigenous societies and is one of the reasons European Capitalism has tried so brutally to eliminate or colonize them.

The market system promises abundance but actually channels the hidden gifts of the many to the few in power, thereby creating the scarcity that it needs in order to maintain leverage and control. Maternal gift-giving is made difficult, even self-sacrificial, by the imposition of a general context of scarcity.

When too much abundance threatens the system, scarcity can also be created by wasting wealth, for example by destroying it in war. Recent financial bubbles have also had the function of creating scarcity through waste of wealth: It is easier to control an impoverished population than a wealthy one. Even global warming can serve this purpose. The destruction of our natural ecological riches wastes the gifts of the Earth and interrupts the passing on of gifts, making all of the mothering done by past generations meaningless.

WHAT TO DO?The two logics of gift and exchange influence us psychologically without our knowing it. They have echoes at many levels. Justice as payment for crime is an exchange-based concept, while restorative justice is gift-based. The values of Patriarchy and Capitalism coincide--independence, power, competition for domination. The power of the Patriarchal Capitalist system comes from its parasitic hold on the maternal gifts of the many and its ability to redirect them towards itself. It follows that feminism should oppose Capitalism.

At present the way to address the problem of poverty seems to be the assimilation of more gifts and givers into the market. However, the market is not the long-term solution; it is the problem. By accessing and affirming the values of the maternal gift economy, women and men can transition away from Patriarchal Capitalism and eventually dismantle the market non-violently, turning the culture in a new and healthier direction.

There are many recent gift economy initiatives. Some have been made possible by the new abundance of resources available on the internet. Unfortunately much of this work remains Patriarchal, because the connection with mothering is not recognized. I believe that until economies are understood as gendered and gender is understood as economic, we will not be able to create any mode of distribution or production that really works for the good of all. Connecting economics with a wider view of life can show us the path towards satisfying human and planetary needs, instead of nurturing Patriarchal Capitalism.


Genevieve Vaughan is an independent researcher. She was the founder of the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, which was in operation from 1987-2005.Her first book, "For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange" was published in 1997. It and her other books and many articles are available for free on her Web site, www.gift-economy.com.


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Comments (9)


Debra Winegarten
United States

This is absolutely the most succinct, clear version I've ever read of this earth-renewing philosophy!

Cloudwoman
United States

This article spoke of the work I do in treatment of traumas and the aftermath of violence and wars. The resulting effect of such catastrophic events literally remove and strip away the patriarchal economy systems and provides a reunion with the Gift Economy. Value and respect for what Vaughan write here, for the female gender in care giving and the simple garden to feed her family is highly esteemed.

Nancy Vedder-Shults
United States

I've been longing for this analysis for many years. When I first encountered the "Wages for Housework" movement, I knew that their analysis of what Genevieve Vaughn calls the "gift economy" was right, but their solution was wrong. Here we have a cogent interpretation of how patriarchy and capitalism work hand-in-glove. This is a feminist type of Marxism ("surplus value") as opposed to a Marxist type of feminism, just what we need to begin changing over to a constructive, caring economy. Thank you, Genevieve! I will be blogging about your theory at http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/author/nancyvs. It dovetails very nicely with Tikkun's suggestions of a Global Marshal Plan and it strategy of generosity (http://www.spiritualprogressives.org/index.php?topic=gmp) and the development of a New Bottom Line (http://www.spiritualprogressives.org/article.php/tenets).

My only disagreements with Genevieve are when she talks about how capitalism economically creates scarcity. These ideas are unnecessary to Vaughn's thesis. She has already demonstrated that "scarcity thinking" is a part of the patriarchal/capitalist psychology. When she implies that wars or financial bubbles are started in order to waste wealth, I think she goes towards conspiracy theory, rather than sticking with her cogent psycho-economic model.

Joan Garvan
Joan Garvan
Australia

Hello,

There is importart work happening along similar lines to Genevieve under the banner of care. Nancy Fraser's book: Justice Interruptus talks about models of care including a 'universal carer model' and Nancy Folbre has a blog called Care Talk (easily found through google)to mention just two. But for me Martha Fineman's book, The Autonomy Myth and Eva Kittay's work in Loves Labour - critique Rawl's Justice Theory and provide a way of understanding the current structuring of care through a 'theory of dependency'. Ellen Bravo's book - Talking to the Big Boys is good and many others but distinctions are important and a continuing association between women and care has problems. Jessica Benjamin, Rozsika Parker and Lisa Baraitser have done important work in psychoanalysis talking about the need for both recognition and negation in maternal infant dynamics both for the woman-as-mother and child. So a huge array of difficult issues that are best not pulled together under an all encompassing theory. As Nancy Fraser says, this is an opportunity for women but it needs careful thought and determined action.

Yours in the spirit, Joannie

Joan Garvan
Joan Garvan
Australia

PS: I forgot to mention there is a forthcoming conference in October this year in Toronto, organised by the Association for Research on Mothering - with keynote speakers including: Eva Kittay, Matha Fineman, Nancy Folbre and Ann Crittenden to name a few and the theme is Mothers and the Economy: the economics of mothering; an important meeting at this time and place - see if you can make it. They are currently calling for papers. http://www.yorku.ca/arm/conference.html

bmuthien
South Africa

An incisive and inspiring short article. The feminist gift economy offers the radical nonviolent alternatives we need to transform our societies on all levels, from political-economic to spiritual-cultural, without the traditional gulfs between...
Bernedette Muthien
www.engender.org.za
Cape Town, South Africa

Fran k
United Kingdom

Its so good and I thank you with all my heart. truly, I cant say how much. You are giving so much, and are so talented. its wonderful. Frank

nino
Italy

Genevieve, your article is just great. I completely agree with you that connecting economics with a wider view of life can show us the path towards satisfying human and planetary needs, instead of nurturing Patriarchal Capitalism.

Yet, please allow the possibility that you are not a female but rather genderless temporarily incarnated angel on earth. You may be a proud user of the perishable female body / mind, but that's all you can be: a user. You are not that what you use. Even if you wanted, you can't be that. We can pretend-play male /female, that's all. Proof? When you lose the grip on the body you temporarily use, you will become aware of it.

Because of the truly extraordinary miracle of the temporary incarnation on earth, we very much identify ourselves with this earthly costume. Yet, the solution is not in marxism or any such theory - it is in the process of self-rediscovery.

The one that knows about the genderless Self doesn't seek power and dominance over resources or over other beings. Such a being doesn't really care for the victories over others, for fame or control of others.

It takes the radical change of mindset of the individual if we are to see radical changes in the cruel society that we live in. But, these changes cannot be imposed. None can take away available options to the temporary guest on earth, except the 1 that has given them. Life on earth is a reality show, that is happening with a reason. Matriarchal Communism instead of Patriarchal Capitalism?

All the best, Nino
kidseu@gmail.com

Main Objectives of the Gift Economy:

1) Everything we have or use will be gifted to us and we are free to do what our heart tells us to do. Everyone supports us for what we want to do so we work only in the direction that we are most interested in.

2)Working in that direction we produce a certain outcome and we have used the best effort and the best materials. We keep part of what we produce for ourselves if we need it, and the bulk of the extra product we gift to those who need it the most.

3)There is no ownership of any object. Everything we have we use and own for as long as we have a use for it and then when we no longer need it we pass it on to others.

4) We neither take nor snatch. We ask and then we receive and in most cases we simply receive it as a gift without having asked for it first. And of course when we have more than we need we give the rest back to those who need it: Give and receive.

5)We accept every person with our full heart as having his/her own unique characteristics. We accept all his/her thinking patterns, habits, religious beliefs etc and with that we have no barrier of "mine" or "yours" and "big" or "small". Every person here is one of my own and my equal. When we give we see the requirement most of someone and not the individual person. We are all equal in our eyes and in our hearts. We respect and support all his/her personal activities and interests and support their well being as a family member of this world.

6) All big projects are run by cooperation of all those who are most interested in doing that work. Here responsibility is shared with convenience and interest. Everybody with a mutual understanding works together and produces a certain useful output for this society.



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