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Development Aid, the Gift and the Demise of Solidarity

[Kaarina Kailo] The Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs recently stunned solidarity-oriented citizens, when delivering its news on new austerity measures, extended now to the world’s poorest countries. By cutting development cooperation aid, it is sending a disturbing message; the breach of promises by the richer nations to mitigate climate change as it affects the over-exploited, poor countries of the planet. The “aid”, after all, has not been charity, but a token contribution to countries to which the Western world owes a huge historic debt. It is the colonized world that has and continues to give gifts to the West in the form of vulnerable cheap labor, migrant workers, asymmetrical trade deals, cheap products and much more.

What are the deepest roots of the crises of civilization reflected in the many social and ecological disasters we are witnessing? Now that the world economy is crashing around us, with Polar ice crashing into the warming sea, the defects of capitalist patriarchy should be obvious to all. But are they? The “enlightened” activists often blame the greed of capitalism that always takes more resources and gifts of nature and labor than it needs, in order to make profits. They blame the totality of the unsustainable neoliberal politics of endless economic growth on a planet of finite resources. They are right. However, from the perspective of the critics of the so-called exchange paradigm and logic, underlying our values and understanding of the world (capitalism), they are not the deepest core of the problem. Rather, they are only one more devastating turn of the screw.

A wealth of books have been published recently that critique neoliberalism and capitalism and suggest alternative economic and, at the same time, humanistic models. Some examples are Charles Eisenstein’s The Sacred Economy, Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life and the many books on the gift economy. I find Genevieve Vaughan’s Gift in the Heart of Language (2015) to be a radical, mind-sobering analysis of the roots of the global dysfunction which also addresses the causes of the climate change.   

Feminists for a Gift Economy

I belong to an international network of activist-scholars, the International Feminists for a Gift Economy which the philosopher and social activist Vaughan initiated. While collecting information on sustainable, non-capitalistic, egalitarian and peaceful societies in the past and present, we have become convinced that the civilizational crises cannot be solved from within the same paradigm and worldview that caused it. No government can accomplish more than modest, light damage control regarding the problems of the “developing world” if it merely revises the prevailing economic policies or seeks to render capitalism more green. Nothing major will change unless we understand and recognize the psycho-social roots of the problems that have a strong ideological basis in masculated socialization. I don’t question the importance of development “aid” and the smallest acts of kindness towards the poorest countries. But I think it is high time to seek solutions in an opposite direction from the alleged “developed countries” whose politics are the root of the misery in the overexploited countries.

I turn my focus to the Indigenous populations that have been forced to give up their traditional, sustainable way of life, to enter “global trade exchange” on capitalistic principles. Something major would happen, if the model of progress and “development” came to change so that the developed world itself would begin to learn from and listen to the knowledge-related gifts of the peoples it has subjugated. We need traditional ecological knowledge and the wisdom it contains, its best practices, not more Western-style “creative destruction” in the name of progress.

Austrian deep ecologist, Claudia von Werlhof states bluntly: we have to walk away from the impending “West End,” the Western civilization, based as it is on a war economy and system that cannot but damage and destroy the planet. Now Mother Earth, the very planet, is being used as a weapon of mass destruction. Von Werlhof urges anyone interested in knowing the deepest roots of the climate change and the global problems like migration that it causes to read the brave revelations of Rosalie Bertell, anAmerican physicist/nun who has been given alternative prizes for her efforts to save Mother Earth.

While I agree on the importance of considering Bertell’s revelations—that CO2 emission are nothing compared with the impact of ecomilitarism and the space weapons used to control the planet, the weather, the storms, I will focus on what has led humans, masculated humans brought up on the model of individualistic, independent, competitive homo economicus to cut down the world tree, the very Earth on which they depend.

Beyond Homo Economicus

Genevieve Vaughan takes issue with patriarchy, capitalism and peace, urging men and women to get beyond its ideology of homo economicus and to base our concept of the human on giving and receiving. Sounds simplistic, naïve and idealistic. But no, this is where it starts.

With the Gift Economy, still in vigor in many parts of the world, we are dealing with a mode of living and a worldview of values that offer a true alternative to the current rat race to the bottom.  The naturalized norm of the human is the very first aspect of mind-colonization that needs to be tackled. This has nothing idealistic, utopian or romantic or essentialist about it. It is a logic and way of living, still practiced in “hidden” corners of the world.  

To acquaint ourselves with the philosophies of the people that have been turned materialistically poor by the Western worldview (itself poor in values, morality and solidarity) is a precondition for the global community to start healing from the naturalized ethos of violence, conquest and a self- and other-destructive way of life. After all, the planetary crises are a symptom of generalized dysfunction affecting peoples, individuals and the planet.

To acquaint ourselves with the people that have an opposite conception of the world and of humans and “human nature” promises healing and politically sobering insights. This will give westerners the radically different concept of ourselves that has much promise for the renewal of our broadest cosmic contract across species, nations, genders, generations. One solution to today’s lack of solidarity with the poorer nations is an honest look at the kind of irresponsibility and abuse of power that flows from the exchange economy and its crude, misleading concept of the human being.

The problems start with the division between the two modes of perceiving and living, the worldviews and logic called gift and exchange paradigms. More women and non-western people identify with the Gift for reasons of cultural values and/or upbringing.

However, because of the hegemonic status and impact of missionary neoliberalism, the remaining matriarchies and life-oriented cultures of the world (the Mosuo of China, the Khasi of India, to name some, (see Gift Economy website)  are being converted into the “theology of capitalism”. Its craziest creed is that of “creation through destruction” (Schumpeter) which applied to the Earth is this: privatizing and destroying this planet is an opportunity—the restructuring and demand created by this annihilation results in job creation, business opportunities…unless we are then all moved to another planet, yet another colony.

Capitalism vs. Gift Economy

One might argue that climate change is the end result of a long historical process whereby poor, dependent countries have been colonized and forced to fork out a living on the basis of the same unsustainable model of exchange as those abusing their vulnerable status. Capitalism destroys ecologically sustainable modes of life and then creates a scarcity that makes gift giving difficult. In abundance, the Gift economy functions the best, as still attested to by the Iroquois of Canada and the US. One example of the gift is the ancient potlatch ceremony whereby Indians of the North West territories in Canada gave away their property to prevent accumulation and to share the Commons. It was outlawed by emerging capitalistic forces that saw it as a form of communist threat to capitalism.

 When more and more nations adopt the short-sighted, planet-plundering ethos of capitalism, the gifts of Nature get ultimately depleted, while the unsustainable, consumerist way of life gets the upper hand. As the ecosocially sustainable ancient civilizations and gift-circulating subsistence economies adopt the Western capitalistic ways and beliefs, the critical mass of those understanding ecological balance and life in healthy alignment with the planet is also downsized, thinned out. Accompanied by the ever more predatory plans of corporations like Monsanto, now wishing to make even weather and climate data a private for-profit-business, it is obvious that the very planet risks becoming private property.  More development aid would not change the extreme havoc that Monsanto, for one, has caused by privatizing and patenting seeds, fertilizes, life forms, and as it hopes, more of the same.  Instead of damage control, we need a radical change. But it needs also money, to turn development aid to a learning opportunity for the creators of the problems.

The many oppressions that permeate our world can be understood in terms of the oppression of gift giving by exchange. In fact, there is an ancient and ongoing struggle between the gift economy (mostly women and indigenous cultures) and the exchange economy (the imperial, colonizing West, patriarchal capitalism), which until now the exchange economy has won. Some of its weapons have, according to Genevieve Vaughan been: discrediting and dismissing the gift economy, making it invisible while taking from it, creating scarcity where abundance should have been, forcing some groups to give while others take, hiding the nefarious taking while enhancing and over-valuing the successful takers, etc.

Oppression of Women, oppression of Gift Economy

Vaughan argues that the oppression of women and mothers is connected to the oppression of the gift economy by the market. This gives a new twist to the old view of sex/gender systems being based on asymmetrical power relations. It is not just power as an abstraction but the two types of “economies” with which men and women are socialized, and which separate Western and other cultures. One does well to also recognize the “war within” individuals’ hearts and minds caused by the difficulty of reconciling gift and exchange, which is being won by exchange as supported by the market ideology.

It may well be that there is no way of rescuing the planet other than to replace exchange by gift—exchange, patriarchy, capitalism, after all, stand for the cancellation and domination of the positive gifts of humans and Nature. Can we afford to outsource the planet itself the way biological motherhood is “outsourced” and commodified, and transformed by male-womb experiments, reproductive technology and other innovations? Do we want a future of clones, robots and digital innovations as the “higher” creation beyond biological beings? Because the leading patriarchal and capitalistic elite denies the giving, care-oriented human as the norm for both men and women, they label the gift “morality”, “kindness”, “love” or “ethics”. Much of it is delegated to the “subaltern”, mothers and migrant nannies.  In the Gift economy, ecosocial responsibility and action is not an individual choice, an abstract moral principle, instead, they are integrated to the core of the worldview and daily life.

The many global movements opposed to the mastery over Nature, women and vulnerable populations could form a much-needed critical mass, if the exploitation of the “maternal” economy of giving by capitalism and patriarchy is recognized as the oppressive process at the root of their diverse problems. By maternal economy Vaughan does not mean biological essentialism or patriarchal idealizations of maternity; on the contrary, it is a censored epistemological system of gift-circulating cultures based on responding to peoples’ needs and creating bonds. It is a little known fact that many matriarchal or Mother Earth- cultures were destroyed and/or transformed into patriarchal systems, meaning that the Gift- based ecofriendly and egalitarian cultures became dominated by patriarchy and exchange, accompanied by the devaluation of the Gift philosophy and likewise, of the women and Indigenous people that identified with the former.

Exchange, the logic of capitalism, is a competition-based model of interaction where the exchanger is only or mostly motivated by self-interest, profit, getting more out of the deal. In capitalism, people’s basic needs are not met while the system allows the creation of artificial needs in the name of profit and demand. Such an ego-centered, individual-oriented and ruthless system is bound to exhaust the planet’s resources, as ecoresponsibility, planetary health and long-term humanitarian foresight are hard to reconcile with me-first capitalism. In contrast, the Gift is what has prevented the world from collapsing; children would not survive without the gift attitude of their “motherers” of either gender.  

Russian Roulette with the Planet

The mind colonization by patriarchy has led most people to internalize that non-constrained giving with no strings attached really is primarily the biologically legitimated responsibility of women and mothers. The gendered hierarchy and separation of women, the gift and caring on the one hand and hardcore business, exchange, men, westerners and economics on the other represent the schizoid core behind the civilizational crises. Those who most care about Earth democracy lack the power to protect it while the powerful elite willing to turn the very last of the remaining Commons and gifts of Nature to private property threaten all forms of life through the moral hazard this divide has created.

The developing world at large can be compared to “woman” as the subaltern other of capitalist patriarchy, as the one providing the surplus labor and care work that forms the pillar of the exchange based regime.

Although neither women, nor Indigenous people are a unified category, Woman and the Developing world are the abused other of colonial politics. Like the developing world, women are blamed for their dependencies and poverty, even though it is structurally, historically and politically created and must be understood as the result of asymmetrical power relations.

The Gift economy network is agreed on what needs to change — the norm of the human and the system that allows power- and money-hungry elites to play Russian roulette with the very planet. It is well-known that the world would already have collapsed, if it weren’t for the gift labor of women or “motherers” of all genders, and all those activists and others volunteering to protect the Earth. Without women and the maternal economy, babies would not survive. The exchange logic would and does deprive those of basic care, who cannot buy or exchange. The poor, for example, survive mostly through the help of other non-wealthy people, with migrants sending home remittances being the prime example. This gives hope against the odds. The planet cannot be saved unless the Gift imaginary, logic, ethos, paradigm gets stronger, more valued and ultimately replaces the logic of profit, plunder, conquest, self-interest, greed and masculation that all can get assimilated into. Fortunately, the gift as an attitude of interconnectedness and Earth democracy, as a way of life rooted in balanced relations with self and Another, a cosmic consciousness of ecoresponsibility, fortunately this gift cannot be seized and privatized. People may be forced to give gifts to capitalist patriarchy in sweatshops as in private homes, but human nature as HOMO DONANS; maternal humanity cannot be bought or sold.

Vaughan has said: “I had a mother, therefore I am.” I might add “We receive gifts from Mother Earth, therefore we are.” 

Kaarina Kailo, 16.11.2015
Docent, Oulu University & City Councellor, Oulu