In trying to understand what I’ve called a ’conceptual economy’, I’m attempting to avoid using any words that would not be immediately recognisable to an ordinary reader. By ‘conceptual’ for example, I mean to do with the world of pure ideas, not normally seen in action in the ‘real’ world; by ‘economy’ I mean something relatively dry and commonplace like ‘the state of a country or region in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services’. So a ‘conceptual economy’ would be ‘the state of a country or region in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services at an ideal or purely conceptual level’.
More concretely, by ‘conceptual economy’ I mean a state of affairs in which needs were satisfied through giving without a price tag attached. Marx described communism as a society in which each person contributes and receives according to ability and needs, but I am not a Marxist: I simply want to explore the possibilities of a community operating with a focus on gift-giving as a way of satisfying need, rather than basing everything on ‘exchange’.
We have seen in an earlier article how this could easily slip into a money-based economy if givers became introverted and lost confidence in having their own needs fulfilled. Soon, the system would place confidence in a transferable abstract symbol called ‘money’, which would measure giving and receiving and tie the two together.
But what if we were to stay conceptual for a moment and look at some of our standard assumptions in a new light?
In our ordinary economy, it’s possible to define a ‘customer’, for example, as someone with an unsatisfied need. I have elsewhere used the word ‘vacuum’ to convey something about the make up of a customer: a customer’s ‘need’ could be defined as an inner emptiness which pulls in or sucks the customer towards the thing that will fulfil a need, or that seems to suggest that it will. A vacuum in this sense is a gap, or hole, or loss, or threat, which drives customers into motion.
In our economy, vacuums of various kinds draw customers into proximity with entities that we call ‘businesses’, who then fulfil needs in exchange for the abstract symbol of money. But how would it be if instead of businesses, we viewed such operations as ‘gift-giving organisations’?
‘Customers’ as a word would need to be changed, because ‘custom’ suggests an exchange. Instead, let us call these creatures ‘recipients’. Recipients would be drawn to gift-giving operations by their own needs; gift-giving operations would simply hand out gifts according to the needs of anyone who turned up.
At first glance, this would appear to break down very quickly on a number of fronts: the stream of recipients would be endless; the gift-giving would be finite; the distribution would be unfair, with some recipients claiming more need than was actual, and so on. This is quite so, until we see that each giver is a recipient also, and each recipient a potential giver. Those running a gift-giving centre would themselves use other gift-giving centres as recipients, and so on.
The main point of breakdown comes when we see that everyone is a recipient by their nature: we must all eat, and be sheltered, and be clothed, not to mention education, entertainment and other, less basic needs. But gift-giving is only a potential: not all can give, not all want to give. A conceptual economy appears to founder on this one point: receiving is endless; giving is finite. We can police our needs to some degree, perhaps restraining the receiving end or making it fairer - but can we police our production to a similar extent? Can we make sure that all give as much as the greatest givers?
Our first observation is that we have again, apparently without noticing it, tied giving and receiving together. Let’s try to keep them apart, difficult though that might prove, in our minds: the giver gives, the receiver receives, there is to be no condition attached to either, for the moment.
The second point is that the inability or unwillingness to give, which we may suspect will arise almost immediately in any attempt to play out this conceptual economy, can itself be viewed as a vacuum. In other words, there is a particular type of customer or recipient who is in need of an ability or willingness to give.
What can even the most powerless amongst us - the children, the disabled, the sick - give?
What can the resistive, the criminal, the greedy, give?
Unlike many customers, these wear their vacuums on their sleeves: they display their need immediately. Their need is their inability to give: they are trapped as recipients, without hope of becoming givers, until they grow or change.
The inability to give, freely and without expectation of return, is a trap.
Children grow rapidly into giving - even a baby tries to give trivial gifts. The sick can recover. Only those from whom the faculties necessary to giving are removed, through disability, or atrophied through intentional or unintentional lack use, are caught in the trap seemingly forever.
But we have disconnected giving from receiving. So the fact that these recipients are frozen into receiving should make no difference in a conceptual economy. They are simply another, special kind of target audience. In fact, if giving is entirely unrelated to receiving, they won’t be singled out in any way.
Such a society may be impossible to construct, but if we made an attempt to do so, then we could design a conceptual pyramid in which the top of the pyramid is the central idea or theme of giving.
All successful giving, even the most complex, could be encapsulated in two poles - there is always a spectrum in anything, as I have said elsewhere. In a gift meeting a need we see the two poles at work. Gifts would always meet needs, even if they invented more needs in the process: there would be a need as simple as hunger which could be met by the gift of food, and a need as created as a child’s need for a new toy.
The job of the gift giver would be to captivate our attention to the degree that we would be pulled toward the gift by him or her, and one of the ways that such a person would do this is would be by being living embodiments of the theme of the gift. The job of the recipients would be to magnify and clarify the vacuums in any society and thus create the motion of the gift towards a need - remembering that givers would become receivers, and vice versa.
Putting this into action creates the outline of a conceptual society, engaging the whole either as both givers and receivers.
In fact, there would be classes of each: some would be find themselves in positions of being able to fulfil needs almost without limit; others would regularly emerge from receiving into giving as their basic routine. Some would juggle both, while others would find themselves mainly on the receiving end. At the far end of the spectrum would be those who would take endlessly and inordinately, in effect trying to distort the society as a whole.
Down from there are the actual episodes or transactions of a community, the ‘interface’ between the giving and receiving worlds. Outwardly, a society might look similar to our own, with people moving in and out of shops, or making transactions online. The act of receiving more than one needed would become all too transparent, though how a society would react to that is harder to see. If giving and receiving remain unconnected, there could hardly be the stigma of guilt attached: soon the thing might be controlled simply by practicalities of usage and storage. Why would one take more than one needed, in a society in which one could freely have whatever one wished? The oddity would be clear, the insanity delineated for all to see.
In the end, criminality might be destroyed by logic, rather than punishment. And the joy of creation, in the upper reaches of the pyramid would sustain all.