Money, the gift economy, and belonging
Design principles for the post-capitalist future we long for
In the liberated future you long for, in a world where everyone belongs… is there a stock market? Private property? Is there money?
These are not predictive questions, they’re aspirational. It’s not what you think will happen, it’s what you wish will happen.
Today I want to talk about money. David Graeber explains the challenge:
Money has always been a particular problem for revolutionaries and anti-capitalists. What will money look like "after the revolution"? How will it function? Will it exist at all?… Proposing to eliminate it entirely seems utopian and naïve. Suggesting money will still exist sounds as though one is admitting to the inevitability of some kind of market.
I want to take a swing at it, by exploring the transformative potential of the gift economy.
TL;DR: Money is a story we made up; we can come up with a new and better story. I believe that story is a gift economy, a way of living in right relationship with ourselves, each other, and the world. There are three precepts that guide our efforts to construct this more beautiful world: moving from accumulation to flow; from exchange to gift; and from a focus on ‘earning’ to a focus on needs. We can think of money as medicine; its only value is to serve life. Can you imagine such a world?
I started writing this newsletter as a way of thinking out loud, as an almost desperate bid (especially with two young children) to reclaim time to think, to imagine, to dream, and to create. This is a space for me to respond to Ruha Benjamin’s enticing invitation:
Remember to imagine and craft the worlds you cannot live without, just as you dismantle the ones you cannot live within.
I invite you to join me in this inquiry, to approach this question as we approach life itself: with what Rowen White calls “reverent curiosity.”
Money is a story we made up
Which means we can unmake it. It is a useful fiction. Yuval Harari explains:
Money is the most successful story ever invented and told by humans, because it is the only story everybody believes. Not everybody believes in God, not everybody believes in human rights, not everybody believes in nationalism, but everybody believes in money.
My favorite treatment of the subject comes from the late anthropologist David Graeber, in his wide-ranging treatise on Debt. Basically, he contends that the story we are told by economists, that money arose out of the inefficiencies of barter economies, has no factual basis in the historical record. He argues — persuasively, in my view — that instead debt is the relevant currency, and money arose as a way to monitor debt… primarily as a means of social control.
It’s a story anchored in a set of assumptions about human behavior — that we are untrustworthy, that we are fundamentally selfish, that we need punishments and rewards to do the “right” thing. As I have written previously, I think that story is largely wrong, or at best incomplete.
Which is not to say money has no utility: like all of our stories, it has served an important role in organizing social and economic life, and continues to do so. But as the world burns and floods around us, I suspect that many of us are reaching a similar conclusion: surely there must be more to life, to the “economy,” than the endless pursuit of wealth? What might a different story look like, and what role — if any — does money play in that new story? Edgar Villanueva reminds us:
We humans made money up out of thin air, as a concept, a tool for a complex society, a placeholder for aspects of human relations. We forget that we gave money its meaning and its power.
I find it helpful to start by setting parameters, defining the conditions that the new story must satisfy. My favorite easy-to-grasp framing comes from British “renegade economist” Kate Raworth, and her beautiful concept of “doughnut economics.” Basically, she defines the terrain for our imagination and planning as a realm defined by planetary boundaries (the outside of the doughnut; if we transgress these we contribute to mass extinction) and basic needs for life (the inside of the doughnut, what every baby needs: food, shelter, care, water, etc). Within those parameters, the freedom to co-create and imagine is limitless.
So those are the parameters: what’s the story?
A new and ancient story: the gift economy
One of my favorite practitioners on the subject of re-imagining our economy and relationship to money is Charles Eisenstein, who hosts a community called A New and Ancient Story, born out of his work on what he calls sacred economics. The “new story” is a call to re-imagine our global economy in ways that serve life; the “ancient story” is drawing upon generations of indigenous wisdom and other forms of knowledge that help illuminate the foundations of this new economy. The most compelling story I’ve found to describe social and economic relations in the world I long for is called the gift economy.
I first encountered the term through Genevieve Vaughan’s writing on the “maternal gift economy.” It was the first holistic vision I encountered that actually resonated with my understanding of what it means to be human, and how we might relate to each other in a world where everyone — and everything — belongs.
But perhaps the most accessible/intuitive way of engaging with the gift economy is through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work, and in particular a recent essay called Serviceberry. It’s a gorgeous and inspiring read. She explains:
The currency in a gift economy is relationship, which is expressed as gratitude, as interdependence and the ongoing cycles of reciprocity. A gift economy nurtures the community bonds which enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is “we” rather than “I,” as all flourishing is mutual.
As always, my own sense of the design principles for this new world emerges through engaging with and synthesizing the practices and voices of those who in my view are farthest along on this journey (people like Eisenstein, Vaughan, Kimmerer, and others I will cite below). It’s hard because people don’t often name their principles: it’s an act of distillation and discernment, to connect theory to practice. I want to offer here what I see as the three core pillars of the post-monetary liberated world I long for.
Principle #1: From accumulation to flow
On this one there is near-universal agreement among practitioners: all natural systems work in symbiosis and reciprocity to thrive. In this view it’s not inequality that’s the problem (though it is), it’s wealth accumulation.
This pivot is sometimes framed as moving from scarcity to abundance. I think that’s right as a mindset shift, though getting our minds and bodies to accept that truth is lifelong work: there is enough. For everyone. As Gandhi reputedly said:
The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.
I’m not sure we can always meet everyone’s needs, but I do believe we can always care about and do our best to attend to everyone’s needs. This involves learning to embrace the concept of finitude: enoughness. It’s a revolutionary idea in an economy predicated on manufacturing scarcity and acquisition. adrienne maree brown offers a useful inquiry here, asking “are you satisfiable?”
I like this line I heard recently via Gibran Rivera:
You can never have enough of what you don’t need.
Kimmerer relates an anecdote from a traditional hunter-gatherer society where a visiting Western anthropologist was asking with bewilderment where hunters stored surplus food. The hunter replied: “Store my meat? I store my meat in the belly of my brother.”
Thus accumulation and surplus — where it does occur — is always relational and in service of the collective. Our “safety net” is each other, not our 401ks. It’s a scary idea, especially for those of us who have spent our lives investing in capital, not relationships. The irony, of course, is that those who are accumulating financial resources — particularly for retirement — are doing so in order to be able to pay for human care… fearing that no one will be there to provide that support for us in our senescence.
The liberatory potential here is easy to see if we allow ourselves to: it’s how humans have survived — and thrived — for thousands of years. In many indigenous cultures there is no concept or language for “homelessness”; the closest equivalent translates roughly to “without kin or family”… which is itself nearly impossible in a social context defined by the notion of Mitakuye Oyasin (all my relations).
Principle #2: From exchange to gift (no debt)
This one is hard to really understand, and where I see a lot of gift economy experiments/aspirations break down. It is sometimes described as moving from transactional to relational, but even that doesn’t go far enough in my view.
There are at least two different components here:
Don’t ‘pay’ and don’t ‘charge’… just give. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, offers the clearest take here… and it’s breathtaking to sit with. Here’s him explaining in a video, and here’s a short summary of his core principles on working with money.
Give without expectation of reciprocity; receive without obligation to ‘repay.’ Ooh this is hard. Basically we’re trying to expand the realm of reciprocity beyond the people involved in the gift/receipt. We are trying to de-couple the act of giving from the act of receiving in order to break the expectation of exchange: each is a skill and practice on its own. The idea here is to completely eliminate the idea of “debt.” No one owes anyone anything: the gift is freely given and freely received, within a broader context of mutual care and interdependence.
Many communities that experiment with the gift economy stumble here. Nipun Mehta’s Service Space is one of the early large-scale experiments in gift economy in service of social transformation, and has been a source of inspiration to me. Yet in my view they don’t go far enough.
There are two points of divergence that feel important to call out here. First, they still envision a transaction, and talk about pay-it-forward and other models that contain some element of obligation or implied debt. Second, where they talk about gift they imagine it an an altruistic selfless act. I disagree: I think gifts at their best emerge out of our own needs and desires, and where those connect to the needs of the collective. I don’t want to erase the self; nor do I want to privilege it. I’m seeking right relationship (I, We, World): ourselves as part of the whole.
Principle #3: From earn to need (no deserve)
My favorite practitioner here is the inimitable Miki Kashtan. This whole essay is a delightful and provocative read, but here’s the essence:
A gift economy world without money—the only truly sustainable future I can imagine… cannot come into existence as long as the notion of deserving is deeply rooted in our consciousness.
Again, there are at least two components here:
On the side of the giver, gifts are offered from a place of capacity and desire… or at least willingness. They are not extracted, not coerced, not owed.
On the side of the receiver, gifts are received because they meet a need. Not because they are earned, or deserved.
This of course flies in the face of the entire capitalist paradigm, but makes infinitely more sense if you think about it. This is where Gen Vaughan’s concept of the maternal gift economy is helpful: we can think about the relationship between mother and infant (indeed, Selene Aswell has proposed renaming the gift economy “mutual mothering”). The baby does not earn its milk; it does not do something to ‘deserve’ a safe place to sleep. It needs those things because it is human. The mother does not provide them out of a sense of debt or obligation or expectation of future reward: she does so out of care, and a deep intuitive understanding of what it means to be in right relationship.
Of course we already do this in our intimate relationships: we help our grandparents up the stairs; we take care of our nieces and nephews; we don’t ask for payment for hosting a family dinner. And we do this with our belongings (there’s a word to unpack in a future post…) — my utopia-skeptic older brother runs a thriving gift economy in outdoor goods for our large family out of his garage.
Are we building scaffolding or foundation?
This is why this theoretical exercise matters. I fear we too often conflate when we are erecting scaffolding, and when we are laying the foundation. Scaffolding is necessary: it’s a recognition that we can’t start building without some support structures in place. But it’s also temporary: we’ll ultimately need to tear it down. And if it’s all we ever build… the new world we long for never gets built. We also need to lay the foundation.
Let me give an example. One of my earliest inspirations in this work was Riane Eisler, whose pioneering work around moving from partnership to domination continues to prove powerful. She — like Silvia Federici and other feminist economists — rightly named the invisibility of feminized labor (housework and domestic carework primarily) as a failure of our economic system. I agree. But the remedy is where we diverge: both argue for a version of what Federici calls “wages for housework.”
While that may be a necessary material intervention to enable marginalized people (women of color in particular) to survive under the current hostile system, it is at best scaffolding. Ultimately the world we want (well, the world I want!) is not one that commodifies and monetizes the expression of care, but one that eliminates wage labor entirely.
Without a long-term vision of the world we desire… how can we distinguish scaffolding from foundation? How do we know which paths lead toward liberation, and which perpetuate the status quo? This is my frustration with the majority of the “post-monetary” discourse. In general, I’m not interested in cryptocurrencies: I’m not interested in replacing one scarcity paradigm with another. As Jackson Palmer put it:
After years of studying it, I believe that cryptocurrency is an inherently right-wing, hyper-capitalistic technology built primarily to amplify the wealth of its proponents through a combination of tax avoidance, diminished regulatory oversight and artificially enforced scarcity.
Hard pass. I want liberation, not chains made from different material.
“The impossible will take a little while”
I never said this would be easy… only that it’s worth it. In this post I’m talking about the World level; now I want to return back to the I briefly, and our own relationship to money before closing. Again, Miki Kashtan has the best treatment here, identifying four major barriers as we aspire to step into practice around a gift economy:
Disbelief or cynicism
Invisibility of needs
Guilt and obligation
The whole essay is a great read. Though she doesn’t use the word, the feeling that hangs over the whole enterprise for me is shame. (There’s a whole phenomenon called money shame, though much of the discourse there is firmly embedded in the paradigm I’m trying to transcend).
With a nod to Miki’s tongue-in-cheek title (the impossible will take a little while) this work is both incredibly difficult… and possible. To take just the issue of “invisibility of needs”: working on making needs visible is an entire enterprise in its own right. There are at least three components: learning to identify our own needs, then learning to express them, then learning to receive others’ gifts to help meet those needs… these are three different skillsets, each of which most of us have very little practice at. But it feels important to name this: once we know what we need to work on, we can start practicing.
Give money to serve life
This is Marshall Rosenberg’s exhortation, and serves as a common theme across all practitioners in the gift economy: give to support life, for that is life’s bedrock principle. Indeed, all of these design principles are sourced from nature: this is the insight of biomimicry. Pat McCabe (Woman Stands Shining) reminds us that the earth herself offers a powerful model:
The earth’s economy is radical abundance and fearless generosity.
I think money is one of the most transformative realms of practice available to us; as Orland Bishop reminds us, it is humanity’s largest unconscious agreement. I’m encouraged. I’m seeing everywhere in my networks a hunger for post-capitalist futures, for practical ways of working with money that move us toward liberation, toward belonging. And people are answering the call.
I’m proud that several members of Building Belonging have been ground-breaking here. In particular I want to credit Carol Xu for her powerful work exploring money, resource flow, and livelihoods; she led a mini-course that helped weave together many of the threads I’m exploring in this post. J.D. Nasaw has been hosting practice sessions around the “Money Game”; they’ve all been sold out. Jordan Lyon introduced a beautiful experiment called LoveBerries. I also like Miki’s work with Money Piles… and would love to hear what experiments you’re finding helpful.
Charles Eisenstein explains our challenge:
The task before us is to align money with the truest expression of our gifts.
I would nuance that a bit: aligning money with our gifts is the scaffolding. The foundation we want to build ultimately requires de-centering money to focus instead on life itself, a concept Orland speaks to beautifully in this conversation with Charles. The goal is to devote our time, energy, and gifts toward life… not money.
Not money… but medicine?
This post is an effort to escape the paralyzing predicament that Graeber offered at the outset: to reject the binary of “no money” or “yes money” to instead focus on the core principles that our liberated post-monetary world must meet. I’m not sure whether there will be “money” in the future I desire. But the closest I’ve come to seeing how it might serve life is the indigenous concept, introduced to me by Edgar Villanueva, of “money as medicine.” He explains:
Money is like water; it’s a precious, life-giving resource. Money should be a tool of love that facilitates relationships and helps us thrive, rather than something that hurts and divides us. If we use it for sacred, life-giving, restorative purposes, it can be medicine.
In a recent conversation, indigenous practitioner Sherri Mitchell explained that this was the original purpose of “wampum” (gifts of beads, understood by white colonizers as a form of currency). Miigam'agan agreed, explaining:
Wampum is not a currency, it’s an acknowledgement of our sacred agreement with each other.
Michelle Long’s new jubilee.gift experiment is the boldest large-scale engagement with money-as-medicine that I’ve come across, focused on bringing together extremely wealthy people with wisdom keepers. She’s assembled an incredible crew of collaborators explicitly organized around belonging in a way I find deeply compelling. Here’s how they explain the concept of gift (money as gift, as medicine):
‘Gift’ refers to a depth in our awareness that all that we have has been a gift, and that in our time on this Earth we are meant to both share our gifts, and ensure others are able to give theirs as well.
Yes. That to me is the promise of belonging… and of the gift economy.
Whew. Deep breath.
I know there’s a lot here, and a lot still left unsaid. As always, I’d love to hear what resonates, what doesn’t, and what resources and practitioners you’re sourcing your inspiration from in this realm. And I’ve love to hear in particular whether the design principles resonate: do they sound right? Any nuance you’d offer?