The gift economy

by Rob Horning

18 February 2007


It might be useful to contrast Bataille’s vision of potlatch expenditure, of competitive destructive waste, with the “gift economy,” production by technology-assisted volunteers rather than paid labor—open-source projects, shared amateur entertainment, Wikipedia, etc. Justin Fox has an article in Time about this phenomenon, pondering what sort of alternative it presents to capitalism’s assumptions of rational self-interest. We assume that people behave rationally by getting paid what they are worth—by making every marginal unit of effort or expenditure yield the most additional utility, however we construe that. Bataille seemed to want to imagine an escape from the prison of rational calculation with behavior so destructive it could yield no such utility, but utility can ultimately be rehabilitated to capture that desire to escape from it. As Jameson notes in Postmodernism, the idea of the market (“Leviathan in sheep’s clothing”) exerts a totalizing force, with economists such as Gary Becker explaining how any possible desire, conscious or unconscious, can be configured to conform to production functions—mathematical models of inputs and outcomes—and thus be rendered rational. Jameson sees this as a desperate attempt to salvage the promises of freedom and equality capitalism rests on but never can deliver. In his view, spontaneous order is an expression of despair at how individuals are never really free in the sense of being able to intervene in their destiny, which remains governed by motives dispersed throughout the system and directed by no one. Instead “cynical reason” (Peter Sloterdijk’s term for “enlightened false consciousness”) in the form of semi-ironic consumerism reigns as the only freedom we know, and we accept it as compensatory.

But does the gift economy, productive volunteerism, do anything to disturb that analysis? Is there an alternative form of freedom from market rationality in working hours for free on a Linux patch or in distributing your fan fiction online? Or has the compensation changed from money to attention or recognition. (if this is true, what does it say about the devaluation of money, which can no longer secure a fundamental human need such as community recognition?) Fox talks to Yoachi Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, who posits a sweet spot between exploitation and cooperation whereby corporations can capitalize on this outpouring of volunteer labor: “The key, Benkler says, is ‘managing the marriage of money and nonmoney without making nonmoney feel like a sucker.’ ” His view is opposed by Nicholas Carr, who argues the market will eventually co-opt volunteer labor by learning how to value it and price it. It seems like work being done for free is either being subsidized elsewhere (as perhaps with Benkler’s book; he’s a Yale professor and may have been paid by the university to research and write the book) or is pleasurable in its own right, the way most work is markedly not—we do it on our own time, with our own goals in mind and via methods we’ve improvised that make us feel most engaged.

But does the gift economy recuperate Bataille’s notion of expenditure—does it serve as a refutation that any act can truly be nonproductive? Also, does it refute the strange notion that true freedom is incompatible with production, that it must consist in some free play that yields only abjection? It seems more likely that people enjoy being useful but have that natural impulse perverted by a market system that insists that gratifying that impulse alone is not enough. The market encourages to suspend that impulse and pursue profitable but personally meaningless activities. Then we rescue the impulse in our private hobbies. The wealth of networks lies in bringing to account all that energy expended in hobbies without corrupting it with the taint of market-driven thinking that makes the work seem inadequate in itself.

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