Participation and gifts


In the United Kingdom a tendency that reached its nadir with the concept of ‘The Big Society’, can be seen in the extent to which ‘participation’, whether in the affairs of the community, the city or the nation, has come to be considered a responsibility of citizens.

Samuel Kirwan
5 September 2013

‘The obligation attached to a gift itself is not inert. Even when abandoned by the giver, it still forms a part of him. Through it he has a hold over the recipient, just as he had, while its owner, a hold over anyone who stole it. For the taonga is animated with the hau of its forest, its soil, its homeland, and the hau pursues him who holds it.’

Marcel Mauss, referring here in his book The Gift to Maori practices of exchanging gifts, where the hau refers to the ‘spirit of things’ and taonga to the object given, provides an ambiguous starting point when considering the central role of gift-giving to the production of identities, relationships and cultures. From the Potlatch, a gathering within certain native American tribes where goods were both freely distributed and destroyed, to the kula of Melanesia, an inter-tribal trade event defined by ritual acts of generosity, Mauss captures the vitality of the gift – its life beyond the interested parties. Yet he does so only in order to contain the gift within particular economies of gift-exchange. For although ‘in theory’ such gifts are given, received and reciprocated voluntarily, ‘they are in essence strictly obligatory, and their sanction is private or open warfare’. Mauss’s project was to uncover the economies of exchange that shaped these obligations to give, receive and reciprocate. The gift, in other words, could be explained as an alternative form of economy, its giving as an interest-oriented action ‘the motives of such excessive gifts and reckless consumption, such mad losses and destruction of wealth’, lay ultimately in the self-interest of the giver or destroyer.

Mauss nonetheless raises some fascinating aspects of gift-giving. What characterises the gift, as opposed to a present, is its uniqueness – the level of personal labour or effort embodied in it. Gifts are profoundly personal: ‘one gives away what is in reality a part of one’s nature and substance, while to receive something is to receive a part of someone’s spiritual essence’. The giving of a gift, in other words, is more than the simple exchange of objects with monetary value; one is relinquishing part of oneself and thereby forming an enduring bond with another. Again, however, Mauss seeks to contain this within a strict economy of self-interest, noting that it is this very investment of personality in an object that makes it dangerous for the receiver not to reciprocate. As David Graeber argues in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, despite seeking to explore alternative economic systems, Mauss belongs to a long tradition of seeing ‘the logic of the marketplace’ lurking beneath diverse cultural practices.

There is, however, another perspective on the gift in its vitality and uniqueness, one that would concentrate not on the containment of the gift within a system of exchange, but conversely on the excess of the gift, the refusal that it should be reciprocated in kind, or moreover that the kinds of bonds the gift creates, such as those between parents and children, cannot be defined by rational self-interest. This is derived from Mauss’s contemporary, Georges Bataille, for whom it was the irrational aspect of the gift that deserves our attention – its capacity to disrupt any such uniform system. Theodor Adorno notes the decline of gift-giving in this excessive sense in the, now well established, principle of the exchangeable present, ‘which signifies to the recipient: take this, it’s all yours, do what you like with it; if you don’t want it, that’s all the same to me, get something else instead’.

The difference between these two perspectives on the gift is, I think, informative for our considerations of participation. On the one hand one may see participation as the repayment of a debt; the return on all the benefits the community, state or particular institution have afforded the individual over their life. We participate in something external to us, returning to our proper lives when this debt is repaid. On the other participation is something personal, unique and excessive. To say that the gift is not inert is to recognise that it breaks out of the system of exchange: the value thus produced in such acts is not measurable with reference to debts accrued elsewhere, but is a value in itself. The statement that the gift bears a personal element, rather than a recognition of the duty to reciprocate, is a recognition the extent to which we are personally invested, and personally transformed, in the labours of kindness and generosity that constitute participation. In sum, participation is less an act of duty than one of love.

It is clear, however, that the former perspective dominates discussion of participation, circulating around means of forcing people to recognise their civic duty, and it is worth placing this in the wider expansion of indebtedness as a cultural condition. David Graeber argues that the interplay between debt and love was at the heart of the socio-economic system of endless credit and consumption, and as such upon the deepening indebtedness of those who dared to live beyond the parameters of mere survival. If people continued, stubbornly, in their ‘insistence on continuing to love one another’, sharing their houses with relatives and their alcohol with friends, the tendency to replace financial supports with proliferating means of credit responded by ‘continually converting love into debt’. As debt became ubiquitous, Graeber notes the emergence of a new moral doctrine of debt repayment, one used to stigmatise the poor and also to urge them into more productive acts in ‘the community’.

In the United Kingdom, this latter tendency, reaching its nadir with the concept of ‘The Big Society’, can be seen in the extent to which ‘participation’, whether in the affairs of the community, the city or the nation, has come to be considered a responsibility of citizens. This sentiment was most clearly expressed in a key phrase adopted by ‘New Labour’, one chosen to express its drive to make the services provided by the state conditional upon one’s participation in civic life: “no rights without responsibilities”. Citizens were posed as being originarily in debt to the state, their participation being less an act of generosity than the reciprocation of accumulated favours.

The poverty of this approach is made clear by any attempt to draw equivalences between services and participative acts; could one say, for example, that a day of education enjoyed by one’s children, might be worth two hours of repairing the benches in a local park? That unemployment benefits should be conditional upon voluntary activity in the community? It is an approach that severs individuals and acts from their contexts; we are no longer people, with interests, cares, loves and anxieties, but interchangeable agents within a general system of exchange. Acts of kindness, generosity and love become reduced, as in Mauss’s study, to the reciprocating of favours, always ‘given and repaid under obligation’.

In contrast to this, we might reaffirm an ethos where participation is a gift given under no obligation, and where its product is a value in itself. This entails a reformulation of the questions upon which the participative field is based. Rather than asking how individuals can be made to recognise their civic duty, we might ask how individuals, considered in the context of their work and care commitments, can be better supported in their existing practices of participation. Rather than asking how participation can better ‘fill-in’ for existing services, we might ask how participation can enrich and transform individual personalities. Rather than asking, under the rubric of regeneration, how participation can ensure local economic growth, we might ask how it might create enduring spaces for continuing the long history of gift-giving.


This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.

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