Lewis Hyde & The Tyranny of the Gift

Editor’s Note: The transformation of our economic model from one which values extraction for the purpose of monetization, securitization, and privatization requires a rigorous revision of the values we associate with money. Philanthropy as an element of an extractive economic model values a charity downstream which does not serve to prevent people from falling into a river upstream. We need no more gifted tyranny and bootstrap diplomacy. Let our work go instead towards addressing root causes rather than performative sympathy which treats symptoms at the surface. There is a solution to difficult problems, but we must resist the urge to attempt fast fixes where deep and sustained treatment is required.

But market relationships and capital let out at interest do not bear the increase-of-the-whole that gift exchange will bear. Equable trade is not an agent of transformation, nor of spiritual and social cohesion. With the vector of increase reversed, interest is self-interest: it does not join man to man except in the paper connections of contract. And where the spirit of the gift has been suspended, legal contract replaces the felt bonds of gift exchange and a skeleton of law and police must appear to replace the natural structure and cohesion of faithfulness and gratitude (so that perfect law and order are perfect alienation). The liveliness that Dana speaks of is the bustle of trade, not the bustle of life. As we all know, it is possible to have a lively factory in which no one feels any personal energy. And as for Dana’s “poor, honest debtor” who has no access to capital, the fact that the poor are trapped in a net of property rights that would have them suffer more deeply if they didn’t participate is hardly an argument for that system to continue. Nonetheless, it is true that once the premises of the post-Reformation argument in favor of usury are in place, commodity exchange can begin its alluring imitation of gift exchange. A still odder thing happens: with the rise of the commodity as a form of property, the giving of gifts starts to look suspiciously like the old way of dealing with strangers! Gentlemen, after all, loan money to each other, not to the truly needy. How is it that the needy poor survive? Here is the way the word “charity” comes to be used by William Paley in a book on morality dated 1825:

I use the term Charity … to signify the promoting the happiness of our inferiors. Charity in this sense I take to be the principal province of virtue and religion: for, whilst worldly prudence will direct our behavior towards our superiors, and politeness towards our equals, there is little beside the consideration of duty, or an habitual humanity which comes into the place of consideration, to produce a proper conduct towards those who are beneath us, and dependent on us.

Such charity is not gift. The recipient of a gift should, sooner or later, be able to give it away again. If the gift does not really raise him to the level of the group, then it’s just a decoy, providing him his daily bread while across town someone is buying up the bakery. This “charity” is a way of negotiating the boundary of class. There may be gift circulation within each class, but between the classes there is a barrier. Charity treats the poor like the aliens of old; it is a form of foreign trade, a way of having some commerce without including the stranger in the group. At its worst, it is the “tyranny of gift,” which uses the bonding power of generosity to manipulate people. As Huddie Ledbetter sang in his song “The Bourgeois Blues”:

The white folks in Washington, they know how
To give a colored man a nickel just to see him bow.

To argue over usury after about 1800 misses the point. By then the usury question is a subtopic in the more central issues of individualism, the ownership of capital, and the centralization of power. All of the pro-usury arguments assume private property and exchange trade, and they must be answered in those terms, not in terms of the usury debate.

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (Kindle Locations 2665-2682). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

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