Money and Exchange I: Gifts



Money is today's medium of exchange – the one universal medium of exchange that all production, all provisioning and all manner of social interactions in this world depends on and is determined by. That led to the ill-considered assumption, still made today, that the exchange formed the basis of money, that money arose from that same exchange which it still mediates today. Because money is such a fundamental fact of life today, we also think of exchange as a selfsame fact, namely, as the same fundamental fact as money, but just in its original form. This assumption is fundamentally wrong.

In societies not yet using money in the modern sense, we find practices for handing things over

In societies not yet using money in the modern sense, not yet dependent on one market where they can get everything only through money, in such societies we find universally disseminated practices for handing things over. But this handover never has the character of a purchase, where you transfer something to someone in order to get something else from that person. It has more the character of a gift: People give these things in the context of a shared sense of obligation that they feel for each other and that they actively express in this way. They give things to reaffirm this commitment – for harmonious relations. It is not about someone getting something particular because he needs something. Rather, it is only about this harmony between the people itself. And only amongst other things and acts do such gifts reaffirm that. Along with them, there is a certain way of coming together, in specific rites of understanding, certain words, gestures, etc. This obligation between the people is also never redeemed in full through the gifts: it is strengthened and renewed through such gifts, perpetuated by them. It must be reciprocated, but that also does not mean, as it does with money in a purchase, that a gift will be fully redeemed by a reciprocal gift. That’s because it's not an issue that someone comes into possession of this gift; rather it’s that someone gives, receives, returns, and passes the gift on. So there is much to say and tell about gifts that circulate 'round and 'round forever, from identical gifts where the same things are passed back and forth, and many more such tales. Only there are no stories of «the» exchange.

Relationships of commitment do not correspond to the exchange as we know it from money

It is decisive to recognize that such relationships of commitment not only do not correspond to the exchange as we know it from money, but through it are turned into their opposite or even destroyed: Because what we buy and pay for with money creates no commitment to the one who sells it to us, but redeems it and dissolves it. To every further obligation this exchange puts an – extremely dangerous – end.

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