Is Anti-Work the Gift that Keeps Giving?

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida

A few months back I posted this article called Creativity Loves Constraints’: The Paradox of Google’s Twenty Percent Time, by Abe Walker and it explored this concept of “the gift” via the philosopher Derrida.

Walker describes the gift via Derrida as such:

…the genuine gift is aneconomic, that is, its logic is beyond – though perhaps not wholly separate from – the economic cycle. If the Maussian gift obeys a circular logic, the Derridean gift is open-ended and nonreciprocal.

But Derrida goes even further, suggesting that since the mere acknowledgement of the gift would imply a sort of reciprocity, the gift must go unacknowledged by both the giver and the receiver. The pure gift cannot even speak its own name; it must not be recognized as a gift at all. The gift that does not embody all these characteristics descends rapidly into mere market exchange.

As a market anarchist, I don’t have the issues that Walker or Derrida may have with “mere” market transactions but at the same time, I also recognize there’s certainly value to having a wide variety of interactions in society.

My ideal anti-work world includes things like markets but also gift economies and any mix of these and concepts that transcend either of these ideas. I leave it up to the individuals involved to decide for themselves what works best and create mechanisms and incentive structures that will give them the best guidance possible so they can always improve.

But this concept of “the gift” is interesting and I thought might deserve some of its own commentary on how it’d relate to an anti-work society. Would an anti-work society facilitate this type of interaction or would it downplay it to the benefit of alternatives types of interaction? Is there any appeal to this notion of the gift from Derrida for anti-work folks to begin with?

First, it seems to me that an anti-work society wouldn’t only have a gift economy in the sense that Derrida desires. People need specifics (especially if you have communication issues) and making agreements narrowed isn’t always a bad thing when constraints can at times be liberating.

Constraints being “liberating” sounds oxymoronic but all I mean by that is sometimes people just need the right set of choices to excel in their will as much as they’d prefer to. If you give someone an open-ended agreement I can easily imagine that anxiety could set in for a non-negligible amount of people. This seems problematic because either we then make the gift “impure” and recognize others needs, or we selfishly ignore them for our own political ideals.

In addition, given that an anti-work society would likely be made up of play to a large extent it seems unlikely that most transactions would happen in such a “pure” way as this. Play isn’t something that is totally open-ended and typically has constraints involved that are part and parcel of what makes it a game to begin with.

Recall the philosopher Bernard Suite’s definition of a game, “The voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

And two of the things that make up Sute’s notion of the game include a narrowing of choice:

Constitutive Rules: These are the rules that determine how the prelusory goal is to be attained. According to Suits, these rules set up artificial obstacles that prevent the players from achieving the prelusory goal in the most straightforward and efficient manner.

Lusory Attitude: This is the psychological orientation of the game players to the game itself. In order for a game to work, the players have to accept the constraints imposed by the constitutive rules.

These two things are integral to playing a game, yet they obviously constrain our choices and would never be considered a “gift” and certainly not in the sense Derrida and Walker.

On the other hand, neither Derrida nor Walker were after what the role of “the gift” would play in an anti-work society in their respective pieces and I recognize that. But I also think that the anti-work society is likely the best kind of society to facilitate people’s wild dreams and ideas and if these notions are going to survive and thrive anywhere, it’s likely there.

None of what I’ve said is to express that Derrida or Walker’s idea of “the gift” is bad or shouldn’t be included in an anti-work society. I think the notion of a gift economy where people cultivate a value of non-reciprocal relations on a temporary and decentralized basis (see: The Really Really Free Markets for a popular example) are a great idea.

There are problems however, because these sorts of networks and exchanges tend to rely on a lot of personal intimacy between the people who are conducting the exchanges. In the more temporary and decentralized experiences this may not be as big of a deal, but on a larger and society wide scale, it can be problematic.

This is partially because people need to get to know each other to have access to certain resources. Gaining things to live and flourish becomes a game of social capital instead of individual effort and prowess. Which isn’t to say that everything in life needs to be a struggle (especially not in an anti-work society!) but to say that social capital can be just as oppressive (if not more so) in a very interconnected community that more or less relies on good will.

Good will can be a great facilitator of exchange and I’m all for people using reputation markets (economic or otherwise) to create solutions and resolve disputes effectively. But the concentration of these types of exchanges is something I think that would be a mistake for anti-work advocates to desire. It may seem tempting for the more anti-market anti-work folks but I think there are some pitfalls with this idea that need to be addressed.

My friend Jason Lee Byas sums up some of those problems:

When your source of food is either owned jointly by everyone or by no one in particular, difficult decisions must be made on its use. To prevent shortages, not everyone can always have as much as they want, and there must be a mechanism in place to keep enough for everyone. Given that social problems and oppressions can’t just be reduced to either the state or capitalism, such an arrangement is problematic.

In no small way, a communist society ties one’s ability to live – and one’s ability to live the kind of life they want – to their ability to maintain good social standing.

By the same token though, I don’t think market transactions should be the end all of interactions in an anti-work society. I think solidarity is important so is gift-making, mutual aid and other forms of non-economic interaction. An over-reliance on markets could potentially lead to material oppression via inequality and services catering to the wealthy, etc.

So would an anti-work society facilitate a gift economy? It likely would to one extent or another, but I don’t think it’s necessary (or even desirable) to make it the center of such a society.


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