Even in a world dominated by capitalistic economics that sacrifice all in the name of profit, there are communities that exist without the divisive presence of money. How? Well, they realize that: a) people are more important than things; and b) cooperation is much more efficient and productive than competition.
The five communities listed below participate in what many refer to as a “gift economy.” In stark contrast to the current exchange economy, in which trade is motivated only by self-interest, a gift economy revolves around the sharing of resources without agenda, value determined by the recipient of a gift, and reciprocity that involves an entire community, not just the two parties involved in a transaction. That is, when you receive a gift, it is expected and encouraged that you reciprocate by giving to someone else in the community, not just the person who gave it to you.
“A gift economy is one that places a premium on what a person contributes to society, rather than what they take away from it,” explains Discovery. It’s not easy, but when we change our ideas of value, economy and trade to embrace this idea of selfless giving, money becomes obsolete. In fact, some people are reviving this practice in the western world with great success. Read on to find out what life is like in a moneyless community.
5 Gift Economies That Flourish Without Money
1. Dama – Mali, West Africa
The exchange economy that dominates our world favors the winners: those who have the power, force or cunning to control more resources than someone else. This system is hazardous to the health of these “others,” as the poverty and violence of many African countries demonstrates. In Mali, however, a much more inclusive system has flourished for centuries, only recently being recognized as a type of gift economy.
“dama [sic] is a vibrant economy and culture propagated primarily through a strong, though informal, women’s social network,” writes Beverly Bell for Yes! Magazine. “Gift-giving is not based on exchange or equivalence between giver and receiver. The person who receives a gift will probably pass it on to someone else. Another person altogether, on down the line, will give back to the original giver. dama involves return, but from within a broadly defined community to which the gift has moved on.”
This economic system makes it impossible for one person to hoard stuff, creating social equality, and gives participants the peace of mind that they will be taken care of when they need it.
2. Kula – Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea
In this group of island communities, there is a long-standing tradition that helps to reinforce the temporary nature of material possessions. Also known as the kula exchange or kula ring, Kula is a ceremonial exchange system whereby a person’s social status is determined not by how many things they own, but by the number of things given away to the greatest number of partners.
“This was trading at its highest level when one chief makes a gift to another chief often hundreds of miles away across the open sea. The gifts were essentially ritual, though not what one would consider valuable but arm bands or shell necklaces. Nevertheless they were treasured and handed on every year like pass the parcel. If you waited long enough your gifts would come round again,” explains Civilization.org. “However in gift exchange and in the Kula you still aim to give away something of greater value than you receive. This is quite the opposite to Market Trading when indeed to barter when you aim to make a profit on the deal.”
3. Burning Man – Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Lest you think that undeveloped cultures are the only ones for whom a gifting economy will work, consider the temporary economy of Burning Man. Unlike other music and art festivals which are dominated by the sale of $15 bottles of water, there’s almost no commerce of any kind at Burning Man. Trading and bartering between attendees is also discouraged.
“Walking down a Black Rock street is like Christmas morning. People call you over to give you bracelets, beer, pickles, body paint and anything else you can imagine,” writes Burning Man attendee Kimbriel Dean. “Can you imagine what happens when strangers happily give each other gifts all day? How do you feel when people give you things for free? In my experience, something magical happens between giver and recipient, and the concept of ‘strangers’ dissolves.”
Once again we see that in a gift economy, the idea of scarcity and want dissolves, overwhelmed by the notion that the community exists to take care of all its members.
4. American Indian Potlatch – North America‘s Pacific Northwest
Being raised in a capitalistic society teaches us to hold our belongings close to the chest, hoarding up as much as we can to prove that we’re better than those around us. Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest are raised to believe just the opposite. This community frequently uses the potlatch to redistribute wealth and reciprocate gifts throughout the community.
“The word itself can be translated as ‘a gift’ or something that is given away to others,” explains Mint.com. “Originally, a potlatch was also a way to show how wealthy or well-off a family was. In this way, the person hosting the potlatch proved their social rank within the community. It also served to build allies and relationships with other prominent members in the tribe…A potlatch wasn’t always simply about generosity and building stronger relations with others. Sometimes when a humiliating event befell an important member of the tribe, the community would hold a dignity potlatch. They did this as a gesture to show that the affected person was still held in high esteem.”
5. The Telethrion Project – Greece
The terrible thing about money (besides the fact that it’s meaningless) is that using it forever binds your fate to that of an economic system you don’t control. In 2010, when a trio of friends quit their jobs to live off the land in rural Greece, many of their loved ones thought them crazy. A few years later, as that country continues to experience financial crisis, their system of moneyless, communal living seems absolutely brilliant. Called The Telethrion Project, this intentional off-grid community is flourishing, with five to 20 enthusiasts living there at any time.
In particular, the workshop training sessions they offer on organic farming and building houses with a traditional adobe mix of clay, sand and straw — cheaper than bricks and mortar — have drawn interest from crisis-hit Greeks escaping a dire job market to return to tending land in their villages. “People come asking, ‘How do you get started on cultivating land? What are the first steps for sustainable farming? How can you manage without a pay check?’” said Sianos, 32, as he sat at a table recycled from an abandoned wooden cable drum. The group tries to rely on as little cash as possible. Eighty percent of all food needed is grown by residents, necessities like toothpaste — using baking soda, white clay and peppermint — and soap are made at the workshop.
Photo Credit: mcgraths