Monday, March 19, 2012

Gifts and Giving (2012)

Book Review from the March 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Life without Money edited by Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman (Pluto Press)

Several of the chapters in this volume are based on work which has appeared elsewhere. For instance, the chapter by Socialist Party member Adam Buick re-uses passages from the Socialist Standard.

It is certainly refreshing to come across a book that deals seriously with the idea of a world without money. As the editors say in the first chapter, ‘for us non-market socialism means a money-less, market-less, wage-less, class-less and state-less society that also aims to satisfy everyone’s basic needs while power and resources are shared in just and “equal” ways.’ A number of different perspectives on such a society are presented, some of which are more persuasive than others.

Two chapters look at small-scale attempts to live without money. One deals with the Twin Oaks intentional community in Virginia (, which relies on a very complex system of labour credits. The other covers the squatter community in the Barcelona area. The squatters live by, for instance, recycling food (which would otherwise be dumped) from the port area, but they do need small amounts of money.

John O’Neill and Adam Buick deal with the economic calculation argument that in socialism there can be no single unit by means of which alternative actions can be compared (such as prices supposedly provide under capitalism). They point out that no such unit would be needed, since decisions can be taken by considering alternatives directly. Nor is some vast central plan needed.

Terry Leahy contributes an interesting essay on a gift economy where ‘products are either consumed directly by producers or made available to others as gifts’. This is a standard concept in the work of anthropologists looking at pre-modern (and some modern) societies, and it’s worth entering ‘gift economy’ in an internet search engine. It might be acceptable as a partial characterisation of socialism, except that in a complex industrial society producers cannot consume much of their own products, and most goods are produced by many different workers co-operating at different stages. Leahy also emphasises the role that might be played by hybrids of a gift economy and capitalism, developments which involve increased control of production and distribution by producers on some basis other than profit. The idea is that these hybrids could gradually be expanded so that ultimately a gift economy could take over from capitalism completely. Now, it’s possible that, as the socialist movement grows, hybrid-type arrangements will become more common, as people increasingly reject wage labour, but it will hardly be possible for this to replace a revolution to make the world’s resources common property.

A final chapter by the editors reinforces this notion of a gradual changeover, including the idea of ‘non-monetary exchange’ (as opposed to the socialist proposal to abolish exchange entirely). Despite this, though, the volume as a whole offers a refreshing look at alternatives to capitalism.
Paul Bennett

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