Eisenstein’s Gift Economy: Do We Lack Community?

La Economía de Regalos en Perú

Gifts have the function of bonding communities together.” — Charles Eisenstein

I’ve been part of the gift economy even before coming to Peru because of my natural urge to give others at least equal or more to express gratitude. To Eisenstein, this gift giving creates bonds (obligations, even) as opposed to the money economy that promotes isolation. Community disappears in a money economy because financial transactions offer you the luxury of not needing anyone anymore.

I forget how I discovered Eisenstein’s online book “Ascent to Humanity” a while back. But I’ll always remember his description of the book and the reason he makes it accessible for free: because he feels strongly that everyone should read it. More recently, a good friend and blogger Giulietta Nardone introduced me to Eisenstein’s short film:

The comparison between the money economy and Eisenstein’s gift economy parallels how I describe the difference between living in Vancouver and Peru. What is it like to live in Vancouver? I always describe how Vancouver is beautiful and filled with nature but that people are more isolated (lonely?) than in Peru. I don’t know the neighbors beyond my block and when I say “Hi” to people in my neighborhood, many don’t respond.

La Economía de Regalos en Perú
A friend’s family showed generosity to mine by dedicating a full-day pachamanca (cooking in the earth) to them.
By contrast, Peruvians in Huancayo are all about giving:

  • Most receive a Christmas bonus from their jobs
  • The lady at the bakery a block away offered to let me use her fridge to store my milk
  • Por favor (“please” in Spanish) refers to doing something as a favor
  • Strangers feel a responsibility to raise, teach, and discipline your child
  • Women breastfeed each others’ children
  • Friends are always lending each other money
  • Customers often get a “yapa” (a little extra something for free)
  • Purchasing often involves negotiating in which the seller gives you a discount

This environment blends well with how I was brought up. My parents raised me in a household with a culture of sharing and giving. I have a strong sense of gratitude. Paying back a debt of any form and recognizing others for playing a role in my life are very important to me.

I’d just like to leave you with a last piece of food for thought. In one of his videos, Eisenstein asks: “Do you know why Americans are so fat? It’s because they’re hungry for connection.” He attributes addictions such as eating and television to lack of community as reactions that fill our need for real relationships.

Are you part of the gift economy? Why or why not? Do you think transitioning to a gift economy is necessary as Eisenstein believes?

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Comments (20)

  • This reminds me of an analogy I heard recently, which I just love and have been meaning to write something about. It refers to the true nature of helping a fellow human being and goes something like this: If I am starving and all I have is a bowl of rice to eat, but I share that bowl of rice with someone else who is also starving, thereby leaving myself not starving yet not quite satisfied, then I have helped someone. However, if I have a huge pot of rice, more than I can possibly eat or store, and I offer a bowl of this rice to a hungry person, then it is the hungry person who has helped me and not the other way around.
    The gift economy also sort of reminds me of Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmal” and the “Takers” and the “Leavers” and how this idea that the world was created for Man to pillage as he pleases, with no concern for the very environment that sustains life is ultimately going to be the root of his extinction…or something like that.
    Anyway, another interesting read! 🙂

    • You have added so much to this post, Rachel! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. That analogy really underlines how interdependence and the gift economy works. There’s really no reason not to share in the second example, although sharing in both scenarios contribute to the gift economy. I had vaguely heard of Quinn’s Ishmael, but now I definitely have to get this book on my Kindle! =)

  • ” Community disappears in a money economy because financial transactions offer you the luxury of not needing anyone anymore.”

    And yet you add an extremely thoughtful comment from Eisenstein, who asks: “Do you know why Americans are so fat? It’s because they’re hungry for connection.”
    “He attributes addictions such as eating and television to lack of community as reactions that fill our need for real relationships.”
    I love neighborhoods where people come out of their homes and talk in the street, knock on each other’s doors for a needed recipe ingredient, or to pick up one of their children who’ve made themselves at home as part of the family for the day!
    Yes, I get lonely for connection, too!
    Funny,as I look back at my life I feel very blessed to have been relatively lacking in material things. That caused me to stretch and to connect with people, to barter, and to share once empathy and compassion were learned.
    Excellent thoughts, Samantha.
    Have to share this one!!

    • Me too, Betsy! I love neighborhoods like that. I’ve always dreamed about owning an apartment in downtown Vancouver, but I visited a friend there last year and she revealed that she didn’t know a single one of her neighbors! I find that so hard to believe. How can you not know anyone when you see each other all the time. People get better at ignoring each other, I think.

      That is so interesting. I think the lack of material things is a factor here in Peru too. Maybe that’s an advantage of having less! =) Thanks soo much for your awesome feedback, Betsy! Hugs! Great to hear from you!

  • You’re decription of living in Peru really reminds me of how I grew up..excluding the shared breastfeeding lol Living now in Vancouver I have found much of the same in our experiences. It’s a difficult place to make connections casually.
    The Gift Economy you describe sounds heavenly. It is based on serving love and compassion when dealing with others right? You must know that resonates so deeply with my soul. Beautiful post Samantha!

    • I can imagine that it can be so much more difficult in Richmond, Bonnie! A friend was telling me about a closed community in Champlain Heights where all the neighbors know each other and chat all the time. So, as I reflect more on this, I guess it depends on where in Vancouver and further from downtown is generally better. Richmond is just an anomaly, possibly for its immigrants?

      Love those terms: love and compassion — for sure! =)

  • Helping each other is why we exist in the first place; it is our purpose in life. Thoughtful post and one I enjoyed. Thank you!

  • Hi Samantha,

    Thank you for mentioning me in your lovely blog post! How giving of you. I just finished the 29 day giving challenge and it was transformative. Great to give all sorts of things compliments, small gifts, things that others can use. And this all reminds me of what I studied in Anthropology: The Potlatch, where a person’s wealth came not from what they accumulated but from what they gave away.

    The economy definitely needs some tweaking. It’s not quite right! We’re all barricaded in our homes protecting all the stuff, that acts more like an anchor than something liberating.

    I prefer to collect experiences, friendships, memories, laughter …

    Many thanks! G.

    • That sounds like a super cool challenge, Julie! =) Good point about accumulating things. I hadn’t thought about how that was directly related! It makes me kind of glad that I live in a one-room apartment, so I’m always thinking about how to get rid of (and gift) stuff. =)

      Love that last line of yours. =) Let’s all be collectors of those!

  • I love science fiction and I recently read the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson (Red Mars; Green Mars; Blue Mars). In it, a group of 100 (“the 100”) colonize Mars. Robinson uses this back drop as a way to talk about what could be done if we had the chance, as these colonists do, to “start fresh”. Along the way he writes about issues that cut to the bone of our own times–for example, do we make Mars (or insert here the name of any wild place left on Earth) conform to our needs or preserve it on its own terms? By the end, as the population on Mars has grown and become established, he envisions the possibility of a gift economy–it doesn’t take root automatically (these ARE colonists from Earth, after all), but it emerges as a real alternative to the money economy. Those parts of the trilogy made me weep with hope, with longing, and with a sense of loss–the feeling that it is too late for us here on Earth. The film you posted, and the optimism you express, Sam, has made me hope, even just a little, again.

    • I didn’t know you read sci fi, Laurie! Thanks for the trilogy recommendation — gotta get it on my Kindle. =) That’s really what I love about fiction… they can take us into other worlds that vicariously live in… and then we realize that maybe, just maybe, we can implement some of the best parts into our worlds. =)

      Thanks for your beautiful comment, Laurie! Great to hear from you!!

  • I don’t know how gifting could be used to reach out so beautifully until I read this. I believe reaching out in this way could change a lot of things we feel is wrong. Once we manage to reach out and change just one person’s life in any way, we take the first step towards making the world a better place.

  • Perhaps Peru’s sense of community relates to the fact that the country is economically underdeveloped and people need to act more cooperatively together just “to get by.” Whatever the reason, in many ways, many Peruvians are among the nicest and most caring people who you ever would want to meet, and that’s one of the reasons who I feel so comfortable in Incaland whenever I’m visiting that country.

  • I just hope that the people reading this and realising how good it can be to be part of a community, actually go away and get involved in their local community.

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