The Gift: rebuilding society after coronavirus

“A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.”

Ian Hughes Kieran Keohane
14 June 2020, 9.08pm
Flickr/Alan Levine. CC BY 2.0.

COVID-19 is a crisis in the original medical sense of the word, for ‘crisis’ means a turning point in an illness: either things get worse and the patient dies - with society deteriorating further towards authoritarian neoliberalism - or they get better and the ‘patient’ lives by rallying around a renewed social solidarity.

Some countries like the US seem to be on the former path, as manifested in the scapegoating of China, attacks against migrants and refugees, the spread of 'emergency powers,' language that emphasizes a 'war' against an 'invisible enemy,' and angry crowds, some armed, demanding that the economy be re-opened.

Others like New Zealand and Germany are moving in a more hopeful direction through the mass mobilization of power and resources for the common good. Many employers continue to pay employees, banks are giving mortgage holidays, and utility bills, rents and evictions have been at least partially suspended.

Such responses illustrate a set of principles that were set out a century ago in Marcel Mauss’s classic Essay on the Gift, which was written in the immediate aftermath of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. His ideas offer us a route-map for a post-pandemic world which is just as relevant today.

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Mauss defined ‘gift exchange’ as an anthropologically-universal, socially-integrating, general economy of material and moral relationships that are reciprocal, obligatory and incremental. Through gift-exchange we give one another what the Maori call ‘hau’ - the spirit of the giver in the gift, and a force binding receiver and giver. In this exchange all of us gain legitimacy and honour, or what they call ‘mana,’ the spiritual energy and power of good that animates the whole.

Through these principles we recognize and reproduce our common wealth, which is intangible but of real and incalculable value. Gift exchange turns a vicious circle of downward-spiraling competitive individualism towards violence into a virtuous cycle of upward-spiraling cooperative social solidarity. As he put it, Mauss uncovered “one of the human bedrocks upon which societies are built,” and gift exchange became the foundation of the post-WWII reconstruction of Europe.

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS), for example, was founded on the Beveridge Report, a core social policy framework produced in 1942 at the height of the War in a moment of crisis, when the future of modern civilization was in the balance. Beveridge understood how essential it was that the gifts of sacrifice, duty and dedication of millions of ordinary people should be fully recognized and generously reciprocated.

As an alternative to a future of Fascist or Communist totalitarianism, the UK’s ‘new deal’ (like FDR’s New Deal in the US and today’s prospective ‘Green New Deal’) was based on the principles of gift exchange. “Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity,” as Beveridge wrote in his report, “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.”

As Nye Bevan once remarked, the UK Minister of Health who founded the NHS:

“Society becomes more wholesome, more serene, and spiritually healthier if it knows that its citizens have at the back of their consciousness the knowledge that not only themselves, but all their fellows, have access, when ill, to the best that medical skill can provide...No society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”

Now, a century later, the coronavirus crisis has revealed how, in spite of many decades of utilitarianism in between and neoliberalism’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society,’ society is both resilient and very much alive. Some well-publicized exceptions notwithstanding, the vast majority of people are freely, willingly and generously giving of their time, attention and compassion.

They give their confidence and trust to medical experts and good leaders; they give their consent to restrictive rules and measures; they give up their freedoms and personal liberties, along with the pleasures of sociability, family and friendships; and they give up their work and livelihoods, all for the benefit of others who are mostly unknown to them. They are willing to make personal sacrifices for the common good.

This is the deep source of gifting that New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has tapped into in his daily news conferences by reminding New Yorkers (and the rest of us) that “Blue and Red states subsidize each other,” and that “New York is the number one giver” to the Federal “pot.”

“But now is not the time to make a tally of the accounts in dollars and cents. What really makes America great and beautiful and good is when people are working together and sharing, and sending ventilators across the nation to be helpful, and 60,000 people are volunteering, and they’re showing love and they’re showing unity.”

People’s benevolence and good behaviour at times of crisis cannot be explained exclusively in terms of docile compliance, nor merely as an individual, self-interested calculus of what is ‘for one’s own good,’ because when they are asked most say that what they are doing is ‘right’ and ‘moral,’ ‘a civic duty,’ and ‘good for us all.

If it were the case that we were fully in the grip of materialism, utilitarianism and individualism - that we are, or have become, selfish, utility-maximizing, rational-choice-calculating machines, then a Malthusian or social Darwinian logic would dominate both political rhetoric and collective action.

Such logics are present, of course - in the UK’s proposal of ‘herd immunity’ in response to COVID-19, for example, and the suggestion that “elderly people should be willing to sacrifice themselves to save the American economy.” But this rhetoric finds limited resonance in society at large, and no broad purchase on hearts and minds. Instead, beneath the superficial frenzy, what the coronavirus crisis has brought to the surface is the anthropological substratum that Mauss described - the moral foundations of both economy and society.

Underpinning the ‘financial’ and ‘real’ economies is the ancient, deep-seated and universal ‘gift economy’ wherein people exchange something much more than the material products of their work, calculated in terms of money. Instead, they give something of themselves – their time and care, and part of their spirit. In return for these intangible but hugely-meaningful gifts they expect to be recognized, respected and rewarded.

The exposure of this underlying gift economy by the pandemic is providing an opportunity to enact concrete policies that could shift our economies and societies away from destructive and hypercompetitive capitalism and towards a greater emphasis on gift exchange as a more rewarding and sustainable alternative.

For example, health-sector reforms to reward nurses and carers adequately for the essential work they perform are already underway. Proposals under the Green New Deal to accept short term pain for the sake of future generations and the planet are gaining traction - like closing polluting industries and changing high-consumption lifestyles - as are policies for reducing inequality and enabling greater worker ownership and stewardship of firms. Some governments are moving to replace the single metric of GDP growth with more holistic measures of societal equity and wellbeing. All these and more are becoming a reality.

Re-building the world after COVID-19 will mean re-imagining and re-inventing the traditions that Mauss identified as the moral foundations of any civilisation worthy of the name. As he put it in his essay, “Rather than the egoism of our contemporaries and the individualism of our laws…we need a ‘new ethics’ founded on mutual respect and reciprocal generosity.”

Whether society lives or dies as a result of the coronavirus crisis depends on the widespread recognition that it is only by giving that we receive.

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