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The Gift Economy and Schumacher College?

by Jonathan Dawson

We are a gift-giving species. This much is clear from over a century of anthropological reports from around the world and across the centuries. It is a core mechanism by which food and fabric and the stuff of life has circulated within our communities.

Picture the scene – a stone-age hunter returns to the village with a fresh kill draped over his shoulder. He sets up a stall in the market square and offers the meat for sale, plenty for the monied, none for those without. Ridiculous, of course. The hunter’s reputation is dependent on his generosity and the young, elderly and needy are fed, often as a priority. Nor, as I have already proposed in this blog series, does one need to be a starry-eyed idealist to see the truth in such a story. In a society without a welfare state – all but the tiniest last fragment of the long haul of human history – being tied into webs of reciprocity through lavish acts of generosity is the most effective survival strategy.

Our modern market economy, of course, works in exactly the opposite way. The use of money for most transactions obviates the need for any ongoing relationship. The acquiring of a reputation for generosity becomes irrelevant. About half of humanity is either stuffed or starved.

I recently heard a story of an anthropologist working somewhere in rural Africa where most transactions were made on the basis of gift and reciprocity. At first she found this confusing and unsettling, not being able to decipher the web of relationships and indebtedness or to gauge what level of contribution on her part was appropriate. Over time, however, she grew more comfortable and on occasional return visits to her native New York, felt a deep pain of deprivation and isolation arising from her lack of such webs of obligation and connectedness with anyone in the vastness of the city.

So, is there anything we can do to bring our economic behaviour into greater alignment with who we are as a gift-giving species? A number of interesting experiments are emerging. Here in Totnes, for example, Dr Bike (who moves under the alias of Ben Brangwyn) sets up his pop-up bicycle repair studio in a corner of the weekly market every Saturday. He accepts many currencies – hugs, pies from the organic food store around the corner, good conversation……but absolutely no sterling! We had him and his partner round last week for brunch in exchange for a repair job he did on one of our bikes. A rich exchange indeed.

Then again, there is the ‘paying forward’ model, where people are invited to pay not for what they themselves have consumed but for the next people up. Check out this short video and feel the happiness through connectivity generated by a pop-up restaurant in the US that operates through this principle. The secret? Simple – the model reconnects participants with who we are as a species.

I came across another variant on the theme a couple of months back while visiting the Eden Project in Cornwall. At the restaurant we ate in, we were free to take what we wanted and then pay at the end of the meal, declaring what we had taken. I left feeling good and realised that at a subtle but deep level, I was being treated as a stakeholder of the Eden Project rather than as a client. I continue to feel strong bonds of affection towards the place – in a sense it is now part of my family of inter-connectedness.

So, how could we take these principles and begin to play with them here at Schumacher College? A couple of weeks back, we had the privilege of playing host to Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economy: Money, Gift and Scarcity in the Age of Transition and champion of the gift economy and we used the occasion to explore issues surrounding gift, reciprocity and higher education. Charles cited the extraordinary case of a firm of lawyers that caters for Fortune 500 companies in the US and that gives on its invoices the commercial price for the service provided on one line, with a blank line underneath in which clients are invited to add or subtract any amount they wish on the basis of the quality of the service they have experienced. If this model can work in such shark-infested waters, surely in the warm and gentle streams that circle round Schumacher College, it ought to be a sinch!

A first observation made in our discussions was that already the gift economy is strongly in operation here; the College simply could not exist without the great generosity of volunteers, of staff working well over their hours, of students and course participants willingly getting stuck into cooking, cleaning and gardening and of the Dartington Hall Trust that has provided an ongoing subsidy over many years.

And yet despite this, we are all too painfully aware of the many people – poor, young, disadvantaged in a multitude of ways – who are excluded by the fee levels required to run the College. As the economic recession kicks in and the cuts begin to bite, this problem is only likely to get more serious.

While it is true that the College manages to build generally strong relations of affection with those who come to do courses, still our practice of packaging and pricing educational products for sale is pretty conventional by gift economy standards – participants pay off their ‘debt’ with a swipe of the card.

So, are there any other ways we could experiment with in terms of our pricing and payment policy that could draw on the great well of generosity at the heart of the human condition? Many Buddhist teachers operate on the principle of dana, pricing a retreat so as to cover core costs but with no fee for the teacher. Participants are then invited to offer a gift. An important element of this practice is that it contributes to one of the ‘perfections’ in Buddhism: the perfection of giving, characterized by unattached and unconditional generosity, giving and letting go.

Could it be that if we started experimenting with this principle on selected short courses, the word would begin to circulate and we could attract substantial acts of generosity in return? It is certainly plausible. Already one of the participants on the Charles Eisenstein course has pledged to pay the fees for a participant who would not otherwise be able to afford to come on the next course Charles runs at the College.

Another possible route is to develop relations of reciprocity with neighbouring organisations that have spare capacity. To, for example, offer places on courses or research expertise in exchange for food, or field trips, or access to mini-buses. This is an avenue we are already starting to explore.

In short, at this stage there are still far more questions than answers. What is becoming clear, however, from a growing range of initiatives is that enabling the giving of gifts and weaving of reciprocal relationships makes us happy and has the potential to turn us from consumers into stakeholders. At a moment when we at Schumacher College need to remain relevant and accessible to those marginalised by the market economy – especially our debt-laden youth whose talents we so urgently need to mobilise and empower – there is much here to be considered.


Jonathan Dawson is co-Head of Economics at Schumacher College and teaches on the MA Economics for Transition

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