Further to a conversation with tigtog about “The Economy” and its meanings, I’d like to talk about “alternative” economies, if such a word can be applied: gifts and barter. In particular, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences. A few jumping-off points:
* Charity: Pretty much everyone I know is familiar with dumping their old clothes in a Good Sammies bin. Do you get involved in other formal charitable pursuits? How much of a gift economy is it these days? Many people are conflicted about the big business of charity nowadays: how do you know how much of your donation is going to the people you think you’re helping? Usable clothes get diverted to the rag trade, breastmilk donated for African orphans gets diverted into the big-business for-profit pharmaceutical industry, commissions and salaries skim off huge amounts of money from cash donations.
* Freecycle and similar systems: I’ve been actively involved in Freecycle for a long while, and now as we’re moving house it’s been fantastic. Place an post, arrange by email, and the stuff gets picked up, usually within 24 hours. A general sort of reciprocity is expected by some, but not by all, leading to conflicts and complaints at times on discussion lists, about who should be “allowed” to collect goods (“If you’ve never made an Offer, can you post a Wanted?”, and so on). Are you involved? Would you rather donate to a registered charity, have a garage sale, or give your unwanted stuff away to people in your local community? Why? Are you involved in other formal goods-rearrangement systems, like Bookcrossing?
* Barter: Another thing I’m keen on. Handmade goods, services (like simple babysitting swaps or more complicated club systems), skills swapped for other skills. I might be good at soapmaking, and a friend terrific at sewing: why should I spend four times as long producing awful seams when we could trade instead? There are more formal barter-for-points systems about, though they seem to come and go. Have you been involved in any of these?
* Gifts: I’m not talking about obligatory gifting, like birthdays and Christmas, but less organised gifting of both goods and services. Do you give and receive non-obligatory gifts from time to time? Been given something, offered to pay for it, and been told “Oh, just pay it forward”? One person in a loose friends network helps another move house, someone else helps them with babysitting when they’re stuck, a third person offers professional information gratis, someone else passes on all their baby gear when they’re done with it? Or mixed systems, where you get charged mates’ rates on a professional service, and slip the provider a bottle of something nice? This is the sort of thing most of us in connected social networks take for granted. Is this part of “The Economy”?
* Information: Information websites, Usenet, mailing lists and forums, blogging: we’re all giving away and receiving information, a whole lot of intellectual work. We give it away for free, or we get involved in very informal reciprocal systems based on exchanging our particular areas of knowledge with others, or we pay it forward down the track. The information economy is not all completely outside the monetary economy, of course; we’re being flogged “Monetise your blog!” schemes right left and centre, and many (but not all) volunteer-run informational websites take advertising. But a whole lot of the stuff is just plain given away, to anyone who wants it. The dripping scorn from some journalists’ pens about bloggers shows that this isn’t welcomed by all. What information do you give away? What do you receive? Do you think the balance is right? Does the push for “monetisation” (gee I hate that word) annoy you, or do you think it’s just fabulous and want to know where you can sign up? (Or both?)
* Collectivism. Not something I know a lot about from personal experience. Aboriginal communities are probably the biggest example of collective (non-State, non-Federal) ownership, and their systems are highly contested right now with the NT Intervention in full swing and its challenges getting underway. Co-housing schemes and eco-communities might be another example. And, less formally, share-housing. I know we have at least a couple of commenters who may have stuff to say about share-housing.
* Etiquette: How do you negotiate the etiquette of it all? I know that people new to the Freecycle network often become deeply uncomfortable when receiving an item for free. They try to offer money, goods in trade, they fidget and over-thank. They’re simply not used to people giving “good stuff” away when they could have charged for it. And then there are the freeloaders of course.
* Feminism: I suspect that women participate disproportionately in all of these systems, except, perhaps, the information economy. There is a lack of wealth accumulation in all of these systems. They’re not part of Howard’s “real” economy. Women are very disproportionately represented in charity work in particular, and there have been substantial feminist critiques of volunteerism as part of a social system functioning to keeping women poor. Women who are seeing doctors or psychologists who assess them as needing more to do with their time are told to go do Meals on Wheels or volunteer for a hospital charity; the same doesn’t tend to happen with men. And I have witnessed over and over the outrage some women encounter for their temerity in moving a domestic hobby into a profit-making business.
* Where is it going?: Do you find yourself more involved in these systems, or less so, over time? Do you think the levels of giving and bartering are changing in your wider community? How, and why? I’m especially interested in your thoughts on the giving and bartering of information.