Almost every week, there would be news about the sharing economy. From Airbnb and Zipcar, to tool libraries and cooperatives, the authors would point out we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Yet, I have a nagging sense that this trend needs to go deeper. Afterall, the phenomenon is essentially a variation of peer-to-peer businesses (exemplified by eBay). No wonder this type of sharing economy is often associated with “collaborative consumption,” narrowly confined to a slice of the middle class in post-industrial countries such as the United States and Western Europe.
Source: Designers of Things
The most optimistic projection is that this sharing economy is beginning to restructure our post-2008 world. But to what extent is it confronting structural inequalities, social justice, or environmental degradation? When the global economy is buoyant again, can anyone say that we won’t be returning to the extravagance that characterizes the 1990s? Undeterred by critics, proponents like to point that the sharing economy create opportunities for more social interactions. But how is this increase in social interactions any different than chatting up the cashier at the grocery checkout or getting to know the name of your mail carrier? The bottom-line is, is it a game-changer? The answer it is unfortunately no.
There is a compelling case, however, that ordinary citizens do hold the power to contribute to the growth of a New Economy. (Here, I’m using the term as a catchall concept from the New Economy Coalition.) Suppose we drop the economic angle to this sharing economy for a moment, we would be left with just “sharing.” Put it another way, if this goes beyond changing players in the production and consumption cycle, but emphasizes the social factors that enable the transactions, then the social aspect is no longer a byproduct. Hence, we would be looking at a fundamental shift in social relations as the primary objective of a “new” economy.
How then, could social relations be reconfigured in the context of economic relations?
We need to look no further than the “old” economy — the world of gifts. Philosophers and social scientists have grappled with the complexity of gifting since at least Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In arguably the most famous anthropological work, The Gift (1925), Marcel Mauss contends that social relationships thrive on gifts and counter-gifts, or more precisely, according to Alain Caillé, a “triple obligation to give, take and return.” Gifting is related but entirely different than barter. In fact, Mauss didn’t think that barter ever existed before money, which is contrary to conventional wisdom.
In recent years, anthropologists and sociologists are re-looking at Mauss. Dubbed the “gift paradigm,” some social scientists are eager to offer alternative models to utilitarian theories about socio-economic relations. This is exemplified by the term homo economicus. For far too long, we have put on a conceptual straitjacket – pitching self-interest against altruism in all sorts of research about gifts and giving. In summarizing Mauss’s insights on exchanges in archaic societies, David Graeber writes:
…[A]lmost everything we would call “economic” behavior was based on a pretense of pure generosity and a refusal to calculate exactly who had given what to whom. Such “gift economies” could on occasion become highly competitive… Instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who managed to give the most away. …[E]ven when objects of great value change hands, what really matters is the relations between the people; exchange is about creating friendships, or working out rivalries, or obligations, and only incidentally about moving around valuable goods. As a result everything becomes personally charged, even property…
Margaret Visser observes that the notion of freedom, or at least the pretense of freedom, is key. Noting how we carefully calibrate what and how much to give and to whom in contemporary gifting. How much importance do we place on the recipient’s expression of gratitude? And how much, as recipients, we feel obliged to express gratitude until the gift is somehow reciprocated? An invisible link connects the giver and the recipient until the cycle starts again when the recipient becomes the giver. As James Laidlaw titles his study of Jain alms-giving in India: “a free gift makes no friends.” While reciprocity does not always imply equality (as in the case of asymmetrical reciprocity), gifts of materials, or labor, and sometimes people, are always interpreted as demonstrations of social connectedness.
Where the Personal meets the Communal
My interest in gifting starts where the personal meets the communal, in particular, practices that generate social capital. Last year, I had a chance to co-design a concept for a South-South collaborative arts platform using indigenous communal exchange practices from Central America as a jumping off point. In particular, I drew on a rich body of anthropological research on the people who live in the highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. In the following sections, I summarize the research(see the end of this blog for a list of publications consulted) and explore implications to art practices.
Historically in Oaxaca, gifts have been exchanged between households. When individuals participated in the gift economy, they often do so as representatives of ritualized positions or roles. As we shall see, systems of collective labor and gift exchange are not exclusive to indigenous people in Mesoamerica, but this is a convenient place to begin our exploration.
Exchanges in Oaxaca can be divided into four types: intrahousehold, interhousehold, community, and more recently, an expanded arena that includes cooperatives and migrants. While the origins of some of these practices pre-date Spanish colonization, some either began with Catholic missionaries or became integral to Catholicism:
- Cargo. As its literal meaning is “burden,” the cargo system prescribes how members of a household must serve in a civil-religious hierarchy in order to maintain their status in the community. Depending on the nature of the cargo, one adult member of any household must serve in a local committee for a period of time (e.g. for a year every other year). Both the structure and the functioning of the cargo system vary between communities.
- Tequio. The word comes from the Nahuatl word cuatequitl. Often translated as communal labor, its literal translation is tribute, labor, work, or duty. Tequio is obligatory unpaid service by male members of a household on public works projects organized by the civil-religious officials in each community (e.g. the cargo system). An assignment could last for a few days but could be as long as a few months. Typical tequio projects are: making or repairing roads, bridges, public buildings, water system, churches, schools, clinics, covered markets, etc. In remote villages, these are often projects that would be difficult to put into execution with paid labor or funded by the government. When a village member takes on burdensome tequio assignments, he signals that he is ready for leadership because he is accepting arduous assignments that benefit the village as a whole.
- Cooperacíon. Households are assessed fees throughout the year to cover expenses associated with rural development and community celebrations (e.g. ranging from 10 pesos to 300 pesos). Households that can’t afford the fee would serve extra tequio to cover the difference.
- Fiestas. It is said that fiestas originated in the 16th century, when the Catholic Church imposed this system in order to draw off resources from the indigenous population. While most Oaxacan villages have several celebrations a year, the most important is the annual fiesta commemorating the patron saint of the village. These fiestas can last a week, and it is common for relatives from other villages, migrants working in the U.S. and other invited guests to attend. Fiestas and other communal celebrations often require extended time and labor from women, e.g. in the preparation of food.
- Mayordomía. Hosting a fiesta is an expensive undertaking. Mayordomía refers to the sponsorship system. A mayodomo, often a wealthy individual, serves for one year. He organizes the event and pays for the majority of expenses, with the remaining costs distributed equally among village residents.
- Compadrazgo refers to ritual kinship that binds families together in lifelong relationships and ritual commitments (e.g. godparenting). In Oaxaca, a compadrazgo could also occur between merchants and craft-making households.
Source: Enciclopedia de los Municipios y Delegaciones de México: Estado de Oaxaca, San Pedro Ocopetatillo
- Guelaguetza comes from a Zapotec word referring to kinship ties. It is more narrowly defined than compadrazgo. In Teotitlán, it refers to long-term interest free loans of goods, cash, and labor between households. Money and goods would be used exclusively for ritual consumption (e.g. weddings, baptisms, funerals), while labor can be performed for ritual or production activities. Guelaguetza transactions are documented in notebooks; sometimes women who are illiterate commit them to memory. In areas where cash is scarce, wedding hosts and fiestas sponsors would use guelaguetza to pool much needed labor and resources together. Adhering to a system of balanced reciprocity, these “debts” can be inherited and collected by future generations. A researcher has documented guelaguetza collected from up to fifty years.
Through “Thick” and “Thin” Trust
Exchanges of labor and goods between women, between men and village committees, and between households affirm a crisscrossing network of social ties in rural Oaxaca. These communities enjoy what social scientists call “thick” trust. In effect, the welfare of the entire community cannot be separated from the individual’s obligation to give, take, and return. In contrast, large urban communities have both thick and “thin” trust. While thick trust exists in small, closely integrated groups such as churches, thin trust exists in looser secondary relationships such as schools, voluntary associations, workplace, and professional organizations. Thin trust is the product of weak ties, which, according to Mark Granovetter’s landmark research “The Strength of Weak Ties,” actually constitutes a powerful and enduring basis for social integration. Weak ties allow individuals to find jobs, and circulate ideas outside of their immediate circles. Granovetter even documented how weak ties, rather than strong ties, are instrumental in facilitating community organizing.
The takeaway is that we don’t have to be living in rural communities to have the kind of trust that sustains our daily needs. Ostensibly, we could do more to counteract the erosion of connectedness by addressing our addiction to digital technology. But the human need to give, take and reciprocate is ingrained in our genes and regulates our tolerance for separateness and connections. This shows up in many different variations and scales, from baby showers to neighborhood potlucks, from community gardens to crowd funding, etc.
One of the most extravagant modern displays of the triple obligation to give, take, and reciprocate occurs every year in Iran. Farideh Sakhaeifar, a New York-based artist from Tehran documented different perspectives of nazri. Nazri refers to food prepared and distributed freely in honor of God and/or Shi’ite Imams. The most famous one occurs during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. This nazri is so elaborate that according to a 2012 count, nearly 13,000 kiosks were registered to making offerings of food or drink in Tehran. With the help of technology, some have set up an online Nazri Finder, which lists the date and time as well as the type of food offered. Ostensibly, these are occasions for the less fortunate to get free food and for young people to roam around crashing parties, but more importantly to the gift paradigm, this is an occasion for both the hosts and the guests to renew their social contracts. Moreover, food cooked and consumed in honor of God/saints are, at the spiritual level, a dialogue with the divine.
“Nazri is folklore,” Sakhaeifar writes, after videotaping nine individuals who told their stories about nazri.
People give Nazri when they have problems or [after] their problems are solved. It is a contract between the person who has a problem and God: If you (God) solve this problem, I will cook food every year and give it to people; or, if you give me a healthy child, then I will give $1000 to charity.
It is through rituals such as public feasting that the personal engages the communal and other transpersonal dimensions. This is part of what might be called full-spectrum economy – combining household economy, volunteer economy, market economy, etc. The nazri host, similar to the mayodomo in Oaxaca, leverage human connections such as family members and friends, and with financial resources, makes and distributes a gift that’s free for the public. As Mauss observed almost a century earlier, the gift economy is about relations between people — about creating friendships, working out rivalries – fulfilling obligations that could be political, social, and spiritual at the same time. More importantly for a “new” economy, it does not get counted in the national Gross Domestic Products (see also a history of GDP through comparative perspectives).
A Gift Paradigm in the Arts?
Coming back full circle to the arts. Since many creative outputs cannot be monetized (i.e. free public performances), an exchange of materials/labor still has to take place. That exchange could be underwritten by a donor, or a gallery owner pays out of her own pocket. At every stage of the exchange process, institutions are still bounded by the limitations of time and money. Hence the irony — in the art world, artists are often being asked to donate their skills and efforts for free. Rather than a gift paradigm, a structure of unequal relationships between arts institutions and artists contribute to precarious livelihoods of many artists. A recent symposium at UC Berkeley, Valuing Labor in the Arts: A Practicum, articulates the multifaceted issues facing performing and visual artists.
Although the gift paradigm is all around us – in Oaxaca’s fiesta, Tehran’s nazri, but also in barn raising, and potluck fundraisers, we are still far from being able to envision organizational models that take advantage of the generative potentials of our innate social need to give, take, and reciprocate. Does the gift paradigm only work for people, but impossible for institutions to practice?
As a development question, we have known for decades that projects that aim to improve people’s lives end as soon as funding runs out (of course, some projects fail even with funding). Could we hold a wide enough space for a gift paradigm to emerge when we design projects? What are some of the ways to generate from existing socio-cultural capital? Or put it simply, how many ways can our projects live up to the phrase “the gift that keeps on giving”?
Further readings on indigenous communal exchanges in Oaxaca, Mexico
Cohen, J. H. (2004). The culture of migration in Southern Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press.
De la Fuente, J. (1966). Participation of the population (Trans.). Seminar on Social Research and Problems of Rural Life in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean Region, Mexico City (Oct 1962). Paris: UNESCO.
Gallaher, C. (2007). The role of Protestant Missionaries in Mexico’s indigenous awakening. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 26 (1), 88–111.
Stephen, L. (2005). Zapotec women: Gender, class, and ethnicity in globalized Oaxaca. Durham: Duke University Press.