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Open Space session: How do we balance the gift economy versus the need for jobs

flipchart from open space session

It’s a topic that always generates a lot of passion; in a climate of increasing unemployment, some people are giving their labour or fruits thereof away for free. Some say they are doing it to liberate themselves from the culture of the wage slave; others do it because it creates community or because it simply makes them feel good. The people who need paid work desperately are not quite so enthused by these motivations and can interpret the whole gift economy idea as yet something else depriving them of a job.

When Ben Brangwen wrote a blog post about his Dr Bike project, where he repairs bikes for free in Totnes, it generated enough comments to make me think that this issue deserved exploring further, hence my question for the Open Space: how do we achieve a balance?

As usual, the discussion delivered more questions than answers and I’m now even more fascinated by the whole issue, but here’s a snapshot of some of what arose:

  • detail of flip chart Lots of services and goods that used to be exchanged for free have now become monetised, most notably childcare and care for the elderly
  • It wasn’t until we started to trade outside of our communities that we needed money
  • The gift economy creates relationships and stories, through virtual IOU’s
  • The gift economy creates trust, but it needs a certain level of trust already there for it to become possible.
  • Volunteering could be seen by local authorities as a cheap way to provide services which used to give people paid employment, like in the case of libraries and play and youth schemes, tempting them to cut even more services.
  • The gift economy could be socially divisive between those who have a surplus of goods and time and those who haven’t.
  • There is an element of scale: as the gift economy requires trust, it can only ever operate between people who know each other.
  • The gift economy will not pay your rent or bills

detail of flip chartThere was more, but after a whole day of absorbing information, some of it might have dropped of the back of the shelf and this is what I can remember. I hope the discussion will continue and that people increasingly venture into the world of doing stuff just for the love of it. It is about the most subversive thing you can do in an economy solely driven by the profit motive and a powerful way to get people to start thinking a that another way might be possible, even preferable.



Annie Leymarie's picture

The gift economy - doesn't have to be all or nothing!

I am so glad this discussion is happening as I'm also witnessing fast-growing interest on this, at all kinds of levels. For now, just one quick response to one of the points above: "As the gift economy requires trust, it can only ever operate between people who know each other". Surely not! There is so much generosity taking place on the Internet between people who will never meet each other! Wikipedia, this extraordinary ever-developing opus of knowledge - free to all, among so many other free sources of knowledge in text, sound or film form (youtube, etc.) - as well as all the open-source software made available by the generosity of others. Or, indeed, the Transition Network! Aren't all of us involved in this, giving our time and skills for a much greater cause that just helping some people who might know us? The times they are a'changing, and the gift economy is taking new forms. Hallelujah!

Alex Loh's picture

I see what Annie is saying

I see what Annie is saying but as a younger person who grew up with the Internet (I was one of its first users in the early 90s) I'm more in line with Ann's views. There's a zoo's worth of elephants filling various rooms, gifting them with enough dung which needs to be cleared up before everyone vacates the area due to the pong!

I work as a senior ICT manager and engineer so agree the Internet breaks down many national / distance barriers and web2.0 stuff has good points, but there is also a great deal of "Gift" content as in the German word Gift (poison!).

Its used to break folks' privacy, to stir up divisions in societies, or just to give away "free" stuff which was monetised but now no longer can be. ageing rockers or ravers (including those DJ's now in their 40s) can afford to give away their content having made their money from the 60s to the 90s! Much of what is being "gifted" is as ethically dubious as me hacking the computer of a local young artist, nicking her pictures , getting them printed out by the thousand as Xmas cards by some low cost Chinese in my ancestors country of Malaysia, sending them out as "gifts" to middle aged hippy women across the world whilst convincing another young artist to sell their nature pics to me for a pittance, having forced down the market value with the stolen content.

This is what has really happened with the "shared content" stuff. its not immediately obvious to those who try to take an optimistic view. my previous job was as an AV engineer for many broadcasters and even this "back room" job was eliminated as a consequence of "free content for all", and so have thousands of rewarding paying creative jobs worldwide. These are never coming back. 

I'd love to be able to give more time to Transition but the reality is paid work takes up a lot of my time and by the weekend I'd rather have a bit of fun than do another job without being paid... this is also impacting on open source development as most is done via diverted (i.e stolen) time from paying companies - it was overlooked when resources were plenty but corporates are now wise to this and aggressively buying into the open source projects and taking back the diverted resources.

BTW Transition is actually full of "ex-meedja" types usually in their 50s and above. cool they are sharing their skills and resources but they've obtained their stability in the real life world which most us below 45 years of age still havent, and worse we can see our dreams and ambitions (though some were unrealistic) are out the window now..

What Ann suggests means people need to interact in real life which is already dwindling thanks to technology. she is right that "the gift economy won't pay your bills" so something else has to..

John Local Money Rogers's picture

Gifts and Jobs

Wow, this is a hornet's nest of questions about security, income, class etc.!

One solution to this dilemma is *well designed* local currencies of which we now have decades of experience worldwide. Some of us (I ran a LETS for 10 years in mid Wales in the 90s) have been processing some of the essential lessons that need to be learned to create more resilient systems that benefit far more people and give people the real possibility of offering their skills and getting properly rewarded and supported by their community. The usual pattern is very low usage and then crash.
You can find this summarised in our book "People Money - the Promise of Regional Currencies":

Unfortunately, people are still rushing to set up local currencies on a wave of enthusiasm and idealism without the knowledge and not engaging in proper design processes. In particular, the analysis of local assets and needs is critical to the design process before ever you launch a system. Also, the need to get a good balance between individuals, businesses, voluntary organisations and also local government agencies where appropriate and reach a *critical mass* of key players before launch.