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The subversion of the gift December 11, 2006

Posted by Andreas in Society.
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For the last couple of weeks I’ve been fretting about Christmas presents. I’m pretty much sorted for my close family, but still need ideas for a bunch of other people.

I’m not religious, let alone Christian, so I’m really not quite sure what’s making me so manic. I enjoy surprising S and the boys with presents during the year, so why does some arbitrary date in December take such precedent over all other days?

I guess I’m just another victim of the full spectrum assault that the marketing industry is subjecting us to during this part of the year. To say that X-mas has been over-commercialised is cliched beyond words: the entire concept of gift giving has been subverted.

Gifting has a very long tradition among humans. The lives of hunter-gatherers, who shared food and shelter in a pretty egalitarian way, were essentially based on a gift economy. Some societies have more or less formalised gift giving ceremonies and traditions, witness for example the potlatch of the peoples of the American northwest coast and the Koha tradition of the Maori. Similarly the African concept of ubuntu and the mutual aid of the Anarchists rely heavily on gifts.

Even today gift giving is actually still quite prevalent, although we may not always be consciously aware of it.When you buy a round of drinks for your friends at the pub, and every time you invite folks over to your place for dinner, you are part of the remnants of this ancient gift economy.

File sharing on the internet, open source computer software and much of the internet itself are based on virtual gifting. Scientists around the world have a long-standing tradition of freely sharing their findings with each other.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to visit a Free Shop (“Umsonstladen” in German), become a member of a Freecycle group (like Freecycle Cape Town) or organise your own version of The Really Really Free Market! All of these fragments of the gift economy exist below the surface of capitalism.

The most important and most unacknowledged gifting relationship today, however, has been in place literally since the birth of humanity. The raising of children, almost exclusively performed by women, represents the most massive gifting activity around the world throughout history. It’s the constant, time-consuming and loving reproduction of society and it is almost entirely ignored by men!

So what’s my point – gosh, I’ve actually lost track a bit… OK, I think it’s this: rather than letting marketing gimmicks, profit margins and tons of plastic define our human relationships during one hyperactive, cynical and hypocritical annual “season of giving”, why don’t we reconnect with our old and new traditions of gifting in our day to day lives and strengthen and extend them for real community and a genuine sharing of love and life!

“Giving without expectation, receiving without obligation!”

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