Guide Give It Away

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Red Hot Chili Peppers - Give It Away - 7/25/1999 - Woodstock 99 East Stage (Official)

By all accounts, though, Mauss was never taken completely seriously in his role of heir apparent; a man of extraordinary erudition he knew at least a dozen languages, including Sanskrit, Maori and classical Arabic , he still, somehow, lacked the gravity expected of a grand professeur.

A former amateur boxer, he was a burly man with a playful, rather silly manner, the sort of person always juggling a dozen brilliant ideas rather than building great philosophical systems. He spent his life working on at least five different books on prayer, on nationalism, on the origins of money, etc.

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Still, he succeeded in training a new generation of sociologists and inventing French anthropology more or less single-handedly, as well as in publishing a series of extraordinarily innovative essays, just about each one of which has generated an entirely new body of social theory all by itself.

Mauss was also a revolutionary socialist. From his student days on he was a regular contributor to the left press, and remained most of his life an active member of the French cooperative movement. He founded and for many years helped run a consumer co-op in Paris; and was often sent on missions to make contact with the movement in other countries for which purpose he spent time in Russia after the revolution.

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Mauss was not a Marxist, though. His socialism was more in the tradition of Robert Owen or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: He considered Communists and Social Democrats to be equally misguided in believing that society could be transformed primarily through government action. Rather, the role of government, he felt, was to provide the legal framework for a socialism that had to be built from the ground up, by creating alternative institutions.

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The Russian revolution thus left him profoundly ambivalent. It was time to bring the results of historical and ethnographic research to bear. In the beginning, goes the official version, there was barter. People were forced to get what they wanted by directly trading one thing for another.

Since this was inconvenient, they eventually invented money as a universal medium of exchange. The invention of further technologies of exchange credit, banking, stock exchanges was simply a logical extension. The problem was, as Mauss was quick to note, there is no reason to believe a society based on barter has ever existed.

In some notorious cases, such as the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, this could lead to dramatic contests of liberality, where ambitious chiefs would try to outdo one another by distributing thousands of silver bracelets, Hudson Bay blankets or Singer sewing machines, and even by destroying wealth sinking famous heirlooms in the ocean, or setting huge piles of wealth on fire and daring their rivals to do the same.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Give It Away”

All of this may seem very exotic. But as Mauss also asked: How alien is it, really? Is there not something odd about the very idea of gift-giving, even in our own society? Why is it that, when one receives a gift from a friend a drink, a dinner invitation, a compliment , one feels somehow obliged to reciprocate in kind? Why is it that a recipient of generosity often somehow feels reduced if he or she cannot?

Are these not examples of universal human feelings, which are somehow discounted in our own society but in others were the very basis of the economic system? And is it not the existence of these very different impulses and moral standards, even in a capitalist system such as our own, that is the real basis for the appeal of alternative visions and socialist policies?

Mauss certainly felt so. In gift economies, Mauss argued, exchanges do not have the impersonal qualities of the capitalist marketplace: In fact, even when objects of great value change hands, what really matters is the relations between the people; exchange is about creating friendships, or working out rivalries, or obligations, and only incidentally about moving around valuable goods. As a result everything becomes personally charged, even property: In gift economies, the most famous objects of wealth heirloom necklaces, weapons, feather cloaks always seem to develop personalities of their own.

As a consequence everything, even people, start being treated as if they were things too. Mauss was never entirely sure what his practical conclusions were. Work could be co-operatized, effective social security guaranteed and, gradually, a new ethos created whereby the only possible excuse for accumulating wealth was the ability to give it all away. Even more oddly, they assumed that this selfish strategy was always, necessarily, the real truth of the matter; that it was more real somehow than any other motive in which it might be entangled.

Ancient Rome still preserved something of the older ideal of aristocratic open-handedness: Roman magnates built public gardens and monuments, and vied to sponsor the most magnificent games. But Roman generosity was also quite obviously meant to wound: One favorite habit was scattering gold and jewels before the masses to watch them tussle in the mud to scoop them up.

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Early Christians, for obvious reasons, developed their notion of charity in direct reaction to such obnoxious practices. True charity was not based on any desire to establish superiority, or favor, or indeed any egoistic motive whatsoever. But this in turn led to endless problems, since it was very difficult to conceive of a gift that did not benefit the giver in any way.

Even an entirely selfless act would win one points with God. One sees the same move reproduced so consistently in modern social theory.