Gifts are universal. Every culture on Earth has and will always exchange gifts. The effect of gifts is to tie people together; to connect them. This is their ultimate meaning and significance. Many features of gifts are immune from changes in cultural context and time. They stay the same in all circumstances. They are traditional everywhere.
Marcel Mauss’ The Gift is an anthropological study of gifts. He hoped to show that gift-giving precedes mere economic transactions in chronology and significance. Successful businesses often combine gifts with the more prosaic monetary exchanges.
Introduction. A correspondent who has made a notable success in the financial world recently sent me two essays – of which he was the author – that revealed a keen sense of history, anthropology, and literature, as applied to the analysis large-scale economic trends. Whereas my own extremely limited economic knowledge inclined me at first to trepidation, I soon found the writer’s insistence on the human character of markets and money refreshing. I had recently taken over my department’s “Business in Literature” course, in the context of which, at the beginning of the semester, I asked the students to read The Gift (1925) by Marcel Mauss. The Gift proposes, among other theses, that the modern market remains human only insofar as it preserves certain archaic customs related to gift giving. Why does a restaurateur put bread on the table as soon as the guest sits down? When the guest takes the bread, he has accepted a gift, and he must reciprocate the gift-giver somehow – say, by buying a meal. No doubt in a “planned economy,” the planners would reject le pain à volonté as an inefficient allocation of resources, whereupon the transaction would become purely transactional and less-than-fully human. The restaurateur’s gesture contributes, in its gentle way, to civilization. The planner’s rational objection de-civilizes. Indeed, the planner is likely a plunderer also, with a covetous redistributive interest in the guest’s domestic larder.
Like Mauss’s idea of archaic exchange, my correspondent’s idea of finance refused to isolate economics from other institutions including religion. The human element will appear to efficiency experts as exiguous to the economic paradigm when in fact it is essential. By a coincidence, I was also teaching my “Science Fiction” course during the same semester, where a number of the texts dealt with history on a large scale, using the actual historical knowledge as the basis of speculating about the future, near and far. The same texts insisted that civilization tends to be a transient affair – canceled fairly regularly by catastrophes of various kinds, human and natural. My correspondent in his writings indicated a similar intuition. His vision of economic promise found its balance in his wisdom about political miscalculation, ideological perversity, and the unforeseen. I wanted to respond to the writer’s two rich texts. What follows, protecting the correspondent’s anonymity, is that response. I tried to place my appreciation of the essay-writer’s vision in context of my own recent reading, with the emphasis on one or two new titles by the literary anthropologist René Girard, Emmet Scott’s re-consideration of Henri Pirenne’s claim that Classical civilization survived until about 650 AD, in Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), and the works of two Edwardian futurists whom I particularly cherish, H. G. Wells and W. Olaf Stapledon. I ask my readers to trust me. The mixture is not as arbitrary as it sounds.