What if we give it away?

By David Parkinson

A tiny jungle of kale plants hunkers down for winter

That which seems to be wealth may in verity be only the gilded index of far-reaching ruin.
(John Ruskin, 1860, “The Veins of Wealth”)

Yesterday, to celebrate Black Friday, Democracy Now rebroadcast a couple of recent interviews: one with economist Manfred Max-Neef and the other with environmental activist Derrick Jensen. They’re both worth listening to, but I was really caught by the interview with ‘barefoot economist’ Max-Neef, who proposes an economics in radical opposition to neoclassical economics and its trendy offshoot neoliberalism, which can be summed up as the belief that the market is the supreme force underlying and determining all aspects of human life.

Max-Neef proposes a new set of principles on which to base a sane economics. From the transcript:

The principles, you know, of an economics which should be are based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

  • One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
  • Two, development is about people and not about objects.
  • Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
  • Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
  • Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.

And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.

These principles lead to an economic (and social) system which is extremely different from the one we are stuck in now. I believe that events beyond the control of the economists and politicians are going to compel us to shift to a more human-scale economics within the next decade or so; and this process of humanization and relocalization will continue for the foreseeable future — played out against the ongoing consequences of the overshoot and damage caused by clinging for too long to an anti-human and anti-biospheric way of living. Everything in our media and societal belief system sets us against these coming changes, but I’m not alone in hoping that their net effect will be positive. The way we do things now is extremely out of balance in every way, and the pendulum needs to swing back. Other values need to start trumping the relentless voracious consumption of the planet and its conversion to junk.

The lucky thing is that the seeds of the new economic arrangements are everywhere around us, many lying dormant but many others beginning to sprout and take root. And the place to look for these seeds is in the gift economies that perform an absolutely staggering amount of the good work that goes on around here, and in every community.

The essence of a gift economy is that “valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists).” And where do we see that most often? It’s the not-for-profit and volunteer sector, where people regularly contribute enormous amounts of work for no tangible benefits — at least not of the sort that economists know how to measure, at least not without converting them into ‘in-kind donations’ measured in conventional units of currency. Volunteers and givers work to be part of a healthy community with arts, culture, recreation, and strong social ties among  people and groups. This is not something we can or should expect the cash economy to produce; if anything, the relentless need to work and consume undercuts the hard work of the gift economy.

To take an example which is front and centre in my life lately: I am bowled over by the amount of cooperative work and passionate energy that people are putting into the resuscitation of our local community radio station, CJMP FM. I’ve been involved in plenty of volunteer projects in and around Powell River, but I have never seen anything like the work that people are devoting to this one: they’re showing up to meetings, doing research, and contributing their time and their skills. Local DJs and promoters are offering to donate proceeds from music shows to help get the station off the ground. And the energy is growing. It’s very inspiring to see.

The most interesting thing about this particular project is that operating a community radio station is unlike many other not-for-profit initiatives in that it requires relatively small amounts of capital for startup and ongoing cash for operating expenses. Once you have the gear you need to get the signal from microphone to transmitter to tower, then you only need to rent a space, keep your gear dry, and you’re pretty much ready to get going.

What you do need, and in large amounts, is the time and energy of dedicated and cherished volunteers. And in order to attract and keep volunteers, you need to create an environment which rewards people for contributing their time, expertise, and energy. It has to be the case that those who contribute more, instead of feeling taken advantage of, get even more out of the experience than those who contribute less. Participation has to become its own incentive.

The radio station is only one of many such examples, but it happens to be one that is much on my mind lately. And I’m certain that as the current economic system continues to shift and shudder we’ll start to see more of these seedlings of mutual support and community-building take on more importance in people’s lives. We have surrounded ourselves with an economy which produces unimaginable amounts of what we call ‘wealth’ but which at the same time has impoverished the world by trashing the non-human world and lessening our dependence on each other. We need to start figuring out how to give away our wealth and our labour with the expectation that it will come around again, although not necessarily from the same person or place we gave it to.

For the last half-century or so, we’ve created a system in which extreme dependence on large-scale systems has rewarded us with the most widely-distributed wealth ever seen in the history of the world. Everyone in our society, except for the very poorest, still lives in greater comfort and security than the richest people in previous ages. But the dark downside of this total dependence in huge centralized social, political, and industrial systems is that, once they start to fall apart, we find that we have lost the simple ability to connect, cooperate, and build an economy to sustain us. This where we’re heading, and we’re going to have to find the ingenuity to flow around the eroding remnants of the broken system on our way to saner arrangements.

We’ll find our back to relationships among people and groups which are based much more on the free, uncoerced giving of our labour and our belongings in the knowledge that we will not be abandoned by a system imposed from above by people who have no interest in our local struggles and needs. Of course it’ll be scary and weird at times; but along the way we’ll gain the perspective that permits us to see how scary and weird this supposed best of all possible systems has been all along. That’s something to look forward to.


2 Responses to “What if we give it away?”

  1. 1 Keira December 2, 2010 at 16:07

    Hi David,

    I’ve spent a lot of time marveling over wfmu’s model the last few years (http://www.wfmu.org) and the reasons for its astonishing success. 100% listener supported, no corporate donations, no public money, no education funding, nada. They are a juggernaut for free, open culture and I think they got there by making it a cool, stimulating place to volunteer. Dj spots are coveted, competitive and treasured. Anyway no reason for all things to grow, to scale up but I do so treasure examples of groups that have done it their way.

    I always enjoy your posts, thanks for sharing.

  2. 2 David Parkinson December 2, 2010 at 16:39

    Hi Keira!! Long time no see.

    Definitely making a space that treasures volunteers is a huge part of the puzzle. Our community radio station was not that space in the past, but it’s changing quickly. I hope that it becomes the hub of all the culture that struggles to find a place in the private media which often don’t have time for the marginal. (If they did, then these things wouldn’t be marginal).

    I hope all is well in your world. Good to know that you’re reading…

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