Supposedly, a gift is the free act of willingly donating to someone something that was yours without expecting anything in exchange. It is a thus doubly a free act for it is up to the giver to decide whether he wants to make a gift or not and the receiver has no obligation to reciprocate. The fact that is done willingly is of course essential, if one gives something to someone else reluctantly, then this act becomes extortion. A gift may be any object at all, and can even be something intangible: for example, you can give your time to somebody, meaning that you spend willingly your time helping someone without being paid for it. The act of giving is thus a complex act, and it seems that it has been a human tradition for a very long period: the French writer Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) quotes a poem from the Eddas in the beginning of his work, The Gift.
This poem is all about the act of giving, and, in opposition to the definition of a gift, evokes the fact that we have to reciprocate the gift. This is the main paradox of the gift, which is at the heart of Mauss' work: we do not have in theory the obligation of giving back, yet we feel implied to do so. Mauss asks the simple question of why and studies primitive people in Polynesia to give an answer. We can thus first wonder what a gift is really, and follow Mauss' lead in thinking about the need to reciprocate. Moreover, seeing that gifts are used in all aspects of life, whether they are political, economic or social, we can wonder what its implications in these aspects of life are.
First of all, it is necessary to try and go beyond the traditional definition of the gift and analyze the behaviors that imply a reciprocation of the gift. This can be seen in the fact that charity is considered as an act of pity (or compassion? The frontier is most of the times blurred) and that thus, the person asking for charity and receiving it is inferior to the charitable person. This is described by Mauss in his conclusion, citing Emerson, On Gifts and Presents.
[...] A social fact for Durkheim is an action determined only by values, cultural norms, and social structures external to the individual – these values, norms and structures can thus exert a constrain on the individual. The “prestation” for Mauss is in fact the durkheimian social fact: indeed, a “total prestation” can be called a “total social fact”, as it combines all the characteristics of the social fact. Thus, if we subtract the word “total” from both sides of the equation, we are left with “social fact” = “prestation”. This leads to the simple conclusion that gifts are a social fact. And indeed, this simple observation had yet to be done. [...]
[...] The political link is, as we can see, only based on a reciprocated gift. One could go as far as to say that democracy is based on the exact same principle. The people unite and offer to one leader the right to rule. In exchange, this leader has to rule correctly. He has to offer correct politics in exchange for the gift of being in charge and having the supreme power. This is of course at the basis of all the deduction of the State theories: from Hobbes to Fichte, not forgetting Locke and Rousseau, all these philosophers who have taken an interest in the construction of a State declare that the people have to renounce to their right to decide in order to give it to the State. [...]
[...] This has a meaning only in money-based economies, more precisely in the occidental societies. Sacrifice as a social gift is the action to renounce to something that was very meaningful to you in order to give that thing to another or to make another benefit from the consequences of this renouncement. The most standard example is the carrier sacrifice for love, which is often committed, especially by women following their husbands in foreign countries. Nietzsche talks about such a sacrifice in Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter Paragraph 220 (1886): “But whoever has really offered sacrifice knows that he wanted and obtained something for it, [ ] that he relinquished here in order to have more there, perhaps in general to be more, or even feel himself “more””. [...]
[...] It is an act accompanied by many other symbols and relationships that make it total. For example, if we go back to the primitive people, it is also an interaction between two clans: we thus go beyond the individuality of the gift to make it demographically total. Moreover, the exchange goes beyond the simple giving of a gift and the reciprocation of this gift. The people exchange stories, feasts, children, wives, courtesies etc. It is thus a “total prestation” in the way that it involves all aspects of social life. [...]
[...] Indeed, these public personalities represent the country and the fact that they are being honored by beautiful presents, or that they are being honorable by offering such major gifts, gilds the country's image and creates a feeling of pride that helps solidify the feeling of belonging to a nation. This effect is enhanced by the media coverage made out of it. Moreover, gifts have a major impact on politics. We could go as far as to say that our political system is based entirely on the reciprocated gift system. This is explained by Pierre Clastres in his book Society against State (1974). He takes the example of a primitive Amerindian tribe. In these tribes, the chief has the power by mutual consensus. [...]
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