Transcending Market Logic: Envisioning a Global Gift Economy

Mother holds child.

“We need to embrace the gift economy and realize the maternal potential of all of humanity,” Vaughan writes. Mother and Child by Janice Fried. Credit: Janice Fried (

Dreaming of Jubilee—the abolition of all debts and a yearlong halt to market transactions—is a helpful activity because it reminds us that our corporations are the ones who should be asking for forgiveness for their acts of plunder. Taking the idea of Jubilee seriously can help us break free of a market mentality and begin to adopt a gift economy mentality.

Within our current market-based society, it is quite common for people to frame social interactions as exchanges: glances, conversations, ideas, and gifts can all be considered in that mode. Market exchange, quid pro quo, is validated at every turn in our society, so the idea of an exchange of equivalents permeates our idea of interaction. In reality, however, there are many initiatives and responses that are not exchanges. Rather they are instances of unilateral giving that are imitated and repeated.

Maternal Giving

For many years I have been developing a philosophy of the gift economy based on mothering and being mothered. I’ve learned in the last decades that studies of interactions between mothers and infants show early turn-taking episodes, “protoconversations” in which the two parts of the dyad imitate and respond to each other. Protoconversations take place long before children have any inkling of economic exchange. They occur in a context in which the adult is unilaterally supplying the materials the child needs to survive. The child’s survival is contingent upon this free giving because she cannot satisfy her own needs and cannot give back an equivalent.

New studies on infant psychology by researchers such as Stein Braten, Colwyn Trevarthen, and Andrew Meltzoff show that babies are highly social beings right from the beginning, and not passive egotists as Freud and Piaget imagined. These studies can also be taken as the basis for a new psychology of mothering because rather than being seen as slavishly serving a solipsistic being, mothers can be seen as caring for a being endowed with what Trevarthen has called great “innate intersubjective sympathy.” This caregiving takes place before and beyond the market economy. It takes place in what we might call a “maternal economy,” where gifts and services are distributed directly in response to needs, according to a transitive, other-oriented logic that has as its goal the enhancement of the life of the child. It makes sense to call this arrangement an economy because giving and receiving form a mode of distribution of goods to needs that is actually more functional than the mode of exchange.

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