Why kindness is the key to a new economy

We learn kindness from our mothers - could we use it to replace the free market with a gift economy?

Genevieve Vaughan
18 September 2015

The economy of kindness: a maternal gift economy. Credit: Shutterstock.Kindness is not a virtue, it's an attitude. The economy we live in today is a form of capitalist patriarchy – which means that our economic system is based on domination.

An economy built on kindness would be radically different. It would be a gift economy.

Today, the values of patriarchy and the market have merged. Patriarchy provides the psychological motivation towards competition that moves the market, the desire to be the one at the top that drives people to continually increase what they have. It impels people to want to become superior to others, fomenting sexism, white supremacy and imperialism as well as greed.

This motivation makes the market mechanisms expand. Accumulating money becomes an unacknowledged instrument of cruelty towards the majority of the world's population.

There is another option: an economy of kindness. This might be described as a 'maternal gift economy'. This economy is based in the original social interaction: the care of young children, in mothering and in being mothered.

Recently, infancy researchers have focused on the interaction between caregivers (usually mothers, but also fathers or other community members) and young infants and they have found that differently from what Freud, Skinner and Piaget supposed, infants are not passive solipsists but are higly interactive social beings. This makes us change our view of mothering as well. The interaction between motherer and child, which at first is mainly based on nurturing and being nurtured, is the first template of economics and it also lays down the pattern for the child’s identity.

Faced with a little being, who cannot speak, motherers have to guess what the infant’s needs may be. They have to focus attention on the child and explore all the cues to be found in the child’s behavior and in the environment. Is the child hungry or sleepy? Are they cold? Do they need a diaper change? If the motherer does not guess correctly the child will keep crying, loudly expressing discomfort. 

In other words, the motherer's action must be actively other-oriented. It is this attention to the needs of others that I believe is the basis of the gift economy, an economy of provisioning, where goods and services are given to satisfy needs without expecting the payback of a counter-gift. 

If everyone is following this principle in an egalitarian way, everyone will receive as well as give. It is difficult, if not impossible, to practice gifting alone in a context of the market economy, because individual resources and capacities are limited. In a maternal gift economy there is no quid pro quo exchange but gifts are given forward by everyone and a mutually supportive community is created.

In communities of this kind, attending to the needs of others is a normal attitude. But in a market economy, it is thought of as a virtue, as kindness. We consider it unusual because so many people are forced to engage in its opposite for survival: exchange – giving only in order to receive. In fact, free market logic is diametrically opposed to the maternal gift-giving-and-receiving by which our early identity is established. Markets create cruelty, scarcity and deception by satisfying needs only through a so-called ‘equal’ exchange. Profit is actually a ‘gift’ taken by the exchangers, even if it is forced from the other party. The flow of gifts goes from the many to the few. 

Governments gift to banks, propping them up, while most people remain with nothing. CEO’s huge salaries and “golden parachutes” seem to be a payment for work accomplished, but are actually the gifts of the patriarchal capitalist system to those who reach the top of the pyramid. The one percent has taken possession of the gifts of the ninety-nine percent as well as those of Mother Nature.

Exchange does not create relations of mutuality and trust as mothering-gifting does. Instead it creates equal stances of mistrust, as each person tries to get more from the other in the so-called equal exchange. The gift economy promotes bonding while the exchange economy promotes separation. 

Kindness becomes dysfunctional to the profit motive. Free gifts seem anti economic. But free gift giving is just as much a mode of distribution, of satisfying needs, as the market is. And it has positive community-building consequences that the market does not have. 

I believe that kindness comes from the practice of the gift economy, even inside an economy based on the market and exchange. Kindness requires us to look at the real needs of others, which may be psychological as well as material. It stimulates us to try to satisfy them. Kindness means we have not given up our maternal heritage entirely. 

By considering it an individual virtue however, we deprive kindness of its revolutionary potential. It is only by generalizing the gift economy and diminishing the exchange economy that we can create a society where everyone’s needs are satisfied. 

Patriarchal capitalism is an economy of plunder of gifts. We need a direct maternal gift economy to take its place. The very act of exchange of products is a gift denying and gift taking mechanism. It is anti gift, anti maternal and as it is mediated by money, it imposes a monolithic or singular anti-gift ideal in our every economic interaction. 

I believe this has created a social patriarchal archetype. At its most extreme, this leads men try to achieve ego validation by being shooters, being the one who kills many, taking from them the gift of life. The murderous actions of racist police are also consistent with the values of the market and patriarchy. The one empowered to dominate and shoot asserts the importance of his white ego over the lives of those in another racial category.

It is not by chance that our society is becoming more cruel. Valuing independence, competition and domination means that generalized cruelty is promoted in our society, although it is not recognized as such. Even though the media continually broadcasts news about mass murders and wars, these events seem far away. We do not realize how much our economic system and its values are responsible for the suffering. Like drivers of drones we can distract ourselves from our part in the devasation by immersing ourselves in our daily lives, in drugs or in video games.

In my books I have tried to show that language itself is based on gift giving. Using language requires us to understand and satisfy the communicative and cognitive needs of others. Structurally, it requires kindness. If language is based on gifting and kindness, then we are homo donans, the giving being, not just homo sapiens, the knowing being. We have to give and receive before we can know. 

It is in accessing our maternal giving and receiving heritage that we can begin to create social change towards a kind society, generalizing the values of gifting and eliminating the cruel ego-centrism of patriarchy and the market.

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