Robert Priest


Gift economy gives back: Charles Eisenstein preaches giving and receiving as the answer to recession


May 16-23, 2013 | VOL 32 NO 37

My smile would be a jagged maw of cracked and crumbling stumps now but for a present from musician/artist Mendelson Joe of some of his paintings – which I was able to trade for good dentistry.

So I’m familiar with the benefits of a gift economy. But I didn’t realize until I attended a recent talk by Charles Eisenstein at the Inner Garden on Richmond that accepting the charity of the great painter was an act of generosity on my part. 

“Accepting a gift puts you in a state of obligation,” Pennsylvania-based Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics: Money, Gift And Society In The Age Of Transition, tells the 60 or so would-be world changers in the audience. But, he continues: the obligation is not necessarily to the giver; in ancient economies it would have been to the community.

“Let’s say a neighbour comes and borrows your power tool; now you feel at liberty to borrow something from him, to ask a favour of him. Some gifts create ties.” The end result, he explains, “expands the notion of self to include other people. It rates our self-interest with the interest of others.”

Or, as he has written, “Because people in gift culture pass on their surplus rather than accumulating it, your good fortune is my good fortune. Wealth circulates, gravitating toward the greatest need.”

This decidedly anti-market economic theorist started his career with a master’s in mathematics and philosophy at Yale, and proceeded to China, where he learned the language and studied Eastern religions. But he considers his first book, The Yoga Of Eating, a manual on “how to recover authentic appetite so that desire and willpower, health and pleasure, no longer need to be opposed,” a work that predated his present mission.

It’s the money system, not the digestive one, that he’s mainly interested in deconstructing. The creation of cash as “interest-bearing debt”  puts us “into competition with each other, creates artificial scarcity where none need exist and drives and compels us to grow and grow the economy,” he tells his enthusiastic listeners, in long streams of eloquence punctuated by reflective pauses.

Sooner or later, he has written, we will have to transition toward a de-growth economy. “Does that sound scary? Today it is: de-growth means recession, with its unemployment, inequality and desperation. But it need not be that way. Unemployment could translate into greater leisure for all. Lower consumption could translate into reclaiming life from money, re-skilling, reconnecting, sharing.”

I know. It sounds like a kind of faith, doesn’t it? It’s all being explained at the Inner Garden, after all, which calls itself Toronto’s Sacred Gathering Space, and Eisenstein’s talk is heavy on the intuitive and aspirational. And the ideas aren’t exactly new; they were very nimbly explicated in 1983 in Lewis Hyde’s illuminating The Gift. In the end, they’re all about the laws of karma, the Golden Rule or Kropotkin’s mutual aid. But one of Eisenstein’s own impressive gifts seems to be for grabbing airtime for this new-old attention to reciprocity. And sure enough, it’s starting to affect me.

I have to confess that being self-serving is so in my genes, there’s most often a financial calculator quietly tabulating costs and benefits of most of my actions. I’m also one of those people who can talk myself out of picking up litter in a public place on the basis that I’m being a fool to do what others should. It’s sure comfy to have an ideology that makes you feel wise and proper when you give in to your urge to give – or receive. 

One of the things I’ve been too long separated from is a band. I’m a singer/songwriter, and top-notch musicians will often offer to back me up for free if need be, but I don’t want to feel exploitative. So for years I have refused the gift. 

When I talk later to Harvey Weisfeld, an attendee at Eisenstein’s  workshops, he tells me it’s necessary to examine our “shadows” – our doubts, fear of never having enough, our greed and guilt – and “to receive and offer our gifts into the world in service without attachment to how it benefits us, but instead with a deep trust that in the circle of our communities our needs will be met.”

Okay, I want in on the potlatch; I want to rock. And thanks to the rules of sacred economics, maybe I’ll accept a little guitar help. In fact I’m obliged to. For the good of all.

The Butterfly effect (2014)
Article in Now Magazine

The Milton Acorn Memorial People's Poetry Award, 1989
Special Choice Award, Children's Book Centre, 1993
Socan Airplay Award, 1994
Chalmer's Award, Theatre for Young Audiences, 1998

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