The Gift Economy, Anarchism and Strategies for Change
Terry Leahy's website
The New Environmentalism and its Critics
A Little Bit Pinker: Human Nature and Sociology
Bringing The Body Back: The New Opening To Biology In Sociology
The Social Meaning of the Climate Crisis
Letter to Greg Combet
Environmental Despair
Climate Code Red: A Timely Suggestion
Checkmate: Why Capitalism Cannot Survive Global Warming
Exploitation, Surplus and the Community Economy - 2013
Religion and the Environmental Apocalypse
Options for a Sustainable Future - Four Models of Utopia
Anarchist and Hybrid Strategies
The Reformist and Radical Restructuring Approaches to Environmental Problems
For the Eighty Percent - A Rap Poem
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 1)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 2)
Sustainable Cities in a Low Energy Future (Part 3)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part A)
On the Edge of Utopia: A Letter to the Green Parties (Part B)
Sustainable Agriculture: A Marketing Opportunity or Impossible in the Global Capitalist Economy?
Ecofeminism Part One: Different Positions within Ecofeminism
Ecofeminism Part Two: Gender and Environment in Culture and Politics Today (Part A)
Ecofeminism Part Two: Gender and Environment in Culture and Politics Today (Part B)
Apocalypse Most Likely: Agency and Environmental Risk in the Hunter Region
Women's Responses to Environmental Issues (Short Version)
Second Wave Feminism - The Opening Debates
Second Wave Feminism - Since the Mid-Seventies
What is the Difference between Anarchism and Socialism anyway?
Food, Society and the Environment - 2003
Options for a Sustainable Future - Four Models of Utopia

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Broadly speaking, four models of social-political structures for a sustainable future have been proposed, whether by environmentalists or by branches of the left. Each of these can be regarded as an ideal type so authors of actual proposals may draw on one or more models.

Model One: Regulating the Capitalist Economy

In this model, environmental sustainability is achieved by regulating the mechanisms of the capitalist market place. One method is interdiction - rules, laws, administrative principles which ban certain kinds of conduct. Another is adjustments to incentives - systems of taxation, subsidies and tariffs. Amory Lovins is widely known for this position (Hawkens, Lovins, Lovins 2000) But many others propose some version (Andersen 1994; Beck 1995a; 1995b; Goldsmith 1988; Pearce, Markandya, Barbier 1989; Sachs, Loske & Linz 1998).

The structure of capitalism as an economy based on competitive private ownership is a problem for this model (McLaughlin 1993). Managers of any business are required to maximise profitability. They can do this by expanding markets, cutting costs, bringing in new technology, saving on labour costs. In a competitive environment, any failure to maximise profitability may result in the collapse of the business. Accordingly, every manager tries to externalise environmental costs. They will do their utmost to avoid environmental regulation. Adding to this, shareholders and managers of private firms are the most wealthy people, the ones who can most readily afford political campaigns and control most media. They can well afford political and media campaigns to pressure governments for non-binding and minimal regulations in efforts to retain profits. All this makes it very hard to get the political will to regulate the capitalist economy. The structure of the economy itself works against what this model proposes.

This economic structure also creates galloping and inevitable growth — firms compete to reduce labour costs by bringing in more productive technology and increasing markets. The result is constant expansion and the threat of growing unemployment if growth slows.

Another problem for the regulated capitalist economy is the political interests of consumers. When marxists say that labour in a capitalist society is 'alienated' they mean that people do not take creative pleasure in their paid work, what they do at work is dictated by those who own the company or direct the public body in which they work. In capitalism, to have access to goods and services, ordinary people must sell their labour power (Marx 1978, 66-125; 203-217). Hence the cultural dominance of consumerism. Material consumption is an arena of choice and power that is valued precisely because of the absence of choice, creativity and power in the world of paid work.. In turn the capitalist economy has come to depend on the expansion of the market in consumer goods that comes from continuous pressure on wages (Cardan 1974).

Any serious regulation of the capitalist economy would mean increasing regulation of leisure and consumer choice with lower real wages and fewer consumer goods. This would be experienced as a strangling of freedom of expression. In the regulated capitalist economy, people would still have little control over their work. As today, this experience would provide a powerful motive for the accumulation of private consumer goods as a compensation for paid work. As in the present economy, consumers would have lots of reasons to resist environmental policies.

Summarising these objections to the first model; the model leaves intact the key structures of ownership and paid work which are at the heart of capitalism. Yet it is these very structures which are the wellsprings of the resistance to environmental regulation and explain the political force of this resistance. Any serious attempt to implement this model could either founder on this resistance - with a return to business as usual - or be forced to move on to deeper attacks on the structures of capitalism, thereby changing into one of the other models I will consider.

Model Two: The Mixed Economy Model

In the mixed economy model, the problems of regulating capitalism have been overcome. There is popular support for very radical changes. In this model a democratic government supervises three economic arenas. It regulates the private sector which produces consumer goods and provides inputs to public works. Second, the government handles environmental repair and public infrastructure. Third, the government funds (through a "Guaranteed Adequate Income" and direct grants of equipment) an "autonomous" sector of the economy. People in this sector are not employed by the government but may engage in voluntary work. In this autonomous sector, products of the other two sectors are used in community projects such as community gardens or childcare.

This attractive model has been very popular both with environmentalists (see Goodin 1992; Leahy 2001; Porritt 1990; Tokar 1987; Trainer 1995) and before that with the new left (Gorz 1982). It is expected in this model that many firms currently operating would not be able to survive strong environmental regulation. However the government sector would expand. Unemployment would not be a problem. The government would find people a job in a government owned industry, fund them on a "guaranteed adequate income" or shorten the working week.

Some early criticisms of this model still seem apt. Frankel (1982; 1987) points out that capitalist companies could not easily cope with the higher taxes and greater controls that the model proposes. For example, even in today’s capitalist world, companies are faced by problems of international competition and overproduction. The most likely result of the mixed economy model would be bankruptcy for most companies, with capital flight likely. While displaced workers could be employed by the government, it is probable that taxation of a struggling private sector could not provide sufficient funds for this.

Sustainability requires zero or negative growth. Given increasing productivity, the only way to achieve zero growth would be to continually reduce employment in the private economy. However, this private economy would be the source of consumer goods and inputs to the other sectors of the economy. So the number of people fully employed in the private economy falls - at the same time as the distribution of its products, to people who are not part of its paid workforce, must continually increase. This situation would be very difficult to handle politically.

Another problem with the mixed economy model is the role of the guaranteed adequate income or voluntary sector. While people receiving the guaranteed adequate income could be expected to volunteer for socially useful work, they are not supervised or made to work. The problem can be viewed as a dilemma.


The guaranteed adequate income enables a comfortable lifestyle and people are provided with tools and resources to help them make a useful contribution.

  • The GAI draws people out of the consumerist lifestyle and soaks up unemployment - as is intended.
  • Yet many people leave paid employment and take up the GAI to escape hierarchical supervision - draining the other two economic sectors of employees.
  • The experience of the democratic control in GAI community groups undermines discipline in the paid workforce.


The guaranteed adequate income is less than the lowest wage and does not allow a comfortable lifestyle.

  • Those forced onto the GAI through contractions in the private economy remain disaffected.
  • The GAI is experienced as low status.
  • There is insufficient funding for the voluntary sector to make a meaningful contribution.

While strong commitment may lead to progress in resolving these concerns, a central problem remains. At least two thirds of people’s experience of work in this model is still an experience of taking orders, whether within private firms or government bureaucracies. Because consumer spending is always the legitimate reward for alienated work, the pressure to expand spending and growth would continually plague the model in practice.

Model Three: The Nationalization Plus Democracy Model

In the nationalization plus democracy model, democratic control guides a Soviet style economy (1993, see also (Commoner 1990; Martell 1994; Pepper 1993, Resistance 1999; Weston 1986). Government would own most businesses, but they would not be organised completely by government direction. Workers would also participate through some degree of control in their own workplaces. Whereas representative democracy was quite nominal in the Soviet Union, current proponents of this model envisage representative democracy as substantial and central. The community at large democratically directs major production decisions and environmental planning.

In this model there would be no problem with businesses going broke and laying off employees or with capital flight. While some industries would be abandoned, others would be taken over by government ownership. Industries which were not socially useful would be abandoned. New government owned enterprises would create environmentalist infrastructure. Taxes would not come from private businesses — as in the mixed economy model. Instead the government would use its control over the money supply to ensure the funding of central planning decisions. The problems of the guaranteed adequate income in the mixed economy would vanish as there would be employment for community tasks, not voluntary work on a guaranteed income.

Most people today believe a nationalized economy cannot work efficiently and would curtail political freedom. Every productive organisation that could disseminate ideas would be owned by the state.

A more central problem is whether it is actually politically viable to mix local democratic control of production with national control of the economy. As Cardan (1974) Castoriadis (1987) and Hardt & Negri (2000) have pointed out, capitalism faces a problem like this continuously. Modern production requires producers to constantly make decisions and participate responsibly. Yet these elements of workers' control have to be continually monitored and squashed lest they get out of hand - calling the necessity of management control into question.

The nationalisation plus democracy model merely replicates and intensifies this problem, presenting its own dilemma.


  • Local democracy really means something. Workers use their discretion to subvert and sabotage government directives - getting extra income through corruption or making their own decisions about what is useful production.


  • Government control is sufficiently far reaching to prevent any sabotage or subversion. It also prevents any significant workers' control. There is the same disaffection that plagued the Soviet economy.

Another issue is that the economic problems of the Soviet Union would be replicated by any form of nationalisation. Feher, Heller and Marcus discuss the problems of Eastern Europe in the Soviet era (1983). At the local level, each management unit tries to increase their share of national resources, in de facto competition with other units — to make sure they can carry out the tasks government has set them. They inflate their estimation of the necessity and importance of their projects. They understate the costs of their intended projects. The aim is to get central government to become committed. Then later, it will make sense to put more into the project. The bureaucrats respond by discounting all claims. But by how much? The end result is massive inefficiency in the allocation of raw materials, the determination of markets and the estimation of social needs. Systematic hoarding becomes the norm - government may not be able to supply resources when needed.

As in the Soviet societies, a common tendency would be for top planning authorities to favour projects which they could most easily monitor and were guaranteed to work out as predicted. This would work against local democracy, which would introduce an unpredictable element. Producer goods and large state projects would get most funding because success would be easier to predict than in the case of consumer goods. The quality and durability of all goods and services would suffer without marketplace competition. None of this would help to reduce waste - a key issue for any environmentalist utopia!

In this model, control over labour through the wage would be the key to reliable implementation of central planning decisions. People would be working for a wage to get access to goods and services produced by other units. Wages, private income, or income from corruption would still be seen as the main compensation for the submission that goes with paid labour. Environmentally, this would be disastrous. Each individual worker would aim to consume more while the government would want to cut back to attain environmental goals. More responsible and trusted managers of the economy would have to be rewarded for their loyalty by being paid higher wages, sending the message that the consumer lifestyle is desirable and a mark of social status, power and community trust.

Model Four: The Gift Economy Model.

In a gift economy people do not work to get money to buy things. What people get in the way of goods and services is either what they make themselves or what is given to them free of charge. So why would people work? People would volunteer their work because they realised that some job needed to be done and they could help to do it. They would work on something because they thought it was enjoyable and interesting work. They would do work to get the social status that goes with giving something to other people. In the gift economy, the economy is not owned by private shareholders or by a government. It is owned by a patchwork of clubs, societies and federated hobby groups.

The gift economy model is one kind of anarchist stateless utopia (Guerin 1970). This use of the term gift economy comes from the writings of the Situationists (Debord 1977, Vaneigem 1983, Plant 1992. For more recent authors in this vein see P.M. 1985, Wilson 1998 and Bey 1991, 1994). In relation to environmentalist thinking the writers whose thinking is most close to this model are Bookchin (1971) and Purchase (1994) . However, other anarchist models favour a more decentralised commune based society (Bahro 1986; Allaby & Bunyard 1980) or a return to a hunting and gathering existence (Zerzan 1994). These latter perspectives are usually addressed in critiques of anarchist utopias (Pepper 1993, Dobson 1990, Plumwood 2002)

The gift economy model would occur if the mixed economy or the nationalised economy was attempted but, unable to contain its contradictions, moved to new ground rather than back to capitalism.

A gift economy could be more compatible with ecological imperatives than capitalism or nationalization for several reasons.

  • Useless production would be reduced by the producers themselves - to save effort. It would make no sense to work hard producing useless items that no one else needed and that you did not enjoy making.
  • With complete control at the point of production, workers in a gift economy would be able to take steps to avoid environmental harm to themselves and their communities.
  • Producers in a gift economy would produce environmentally sensible items and services in order to maximise the social value of their gifts; there would be no acclaim if they damaged the environments of their own and other communities.

The gift economy would make it easier to transform technology and infrastructure for sustainability and to accept the sacrifices of material consumption that would go with this. In a gift economy, work itself would be the key arena for creativity and participation. Fulfilment through consumption would be less relevant than in today's economy. Creating an environmentally sustainable infrastructure would be a fulfilling and exciting task.

If producers organized and controlled the distribution of their products and directly organized this, there could be no state. A state depends on a body of executants. These are employees who obey central directives to implement decisions made by the state. In a gift economy there would be no group of people with any particular reason to obey orders. All people would be supplied by the gifts of a multiplicity of independent producers, and each of these producer groups would be making their own decisions about how products would be distributed.

For such a system to work to produce roughly equal outcomes there would have to be a cultural commitment to equality. Equality could not arise from a rationed out impartiality - there would be no central authority to determine equal shares. Instead it would come about through relations with particular others that in aggregate were not balanced to the disadvantage of any sex, sexuality or cultural/ethnic group. So people would have to be motivated by a generous and sympathetic benevolence. Empathy and aesthetic appreciation would also guide our responses to other species.

Of course such a model is not without its critics, and in fact the impossibility of the gift economy is the stock in trade of capitalist ideology. To consider just a few issues.

A common objection to stateless utopias is that coordination in a modern industrial economy requires authoritative and coercive centralised organisation of production (Pepper 1993). The gift economy achieves coordination through two factors. First, independent and multi-pronged collectives of media, research and administrative workers keep other producers' collectives up to date with what is required and by whom. Second, the aim of the producers' collectives is to ensure an equitable outcome for society as a whole.

Another critique of stateless utopias is that they imply a socially divided populace (Frankel 1983) where an insular and smug parochialism would prevent an even handed distribution. The gift economy is not a communalist utopia of this type. It is not "bioregionalism" as that term has been explained by Sale (1991). In the gift economy model, society is organised into networks of producers' collectives which are geographically overlapping. Together, these collectives would secure a fair share and sort out problems.

It is argued that only a democratic state can ensure the rights and well being of minorities. However, in today’s liberal democracies these rights are supported by the majority. A gift economy would do no worse. In a gift economy the same majority would be implementing these same policies: through their participation in producers' collectives to ensure just distribution; through the defence of minorities from violence through voluntary organisations of peace keepers; and through community processes of justice and social work.

Critiques of the gift economy in terms of human nature are common. Many people assume that a competitive human nature would destroy any society that had to depend on egalitarian generosity to work. We can accept that human nature as it is now socially constructed operates to prevent a gift economy. For a gift economy to work, a cultural shift must take place.

Socialisation for the Gift Economy

1. As Hamilton (1981) argues, being indulged one's infant and childhood needs is the prerequisite for becoming a generous adult who feels confident that their needs will be met by other people. Western child raising practices have emphasised the practice of denial as a preparation for adulthood and a lesson in self control: separation from the mother for days after birth in hospital wards; scheduled infant feeding; prohibitions on dummies or even thumb sucking; children left to cry because picking up a child is supposed to encourage them to manipulate adults; ruthless childhood competition over toys. Hamilton concludes from this that Western adults grow up to be extremely and continuously anxious about their needs being met by other people. They amass and hoard consumer goods and property in an attempt to stave off these anxieties.

What we are currently seeing in the culture at large is a gradual process of reversal of these aspects of socialisation in western societies.

2. The involvement of men in the care of young children is necessary to prevent boys from becoming anxious, competitive and insecure adults who seek to gain advantage to establish their masculinity. Chodorow (1974) has argued that a universal feature of patriarchies is that men avoid most care of young children - while mothers and other adult women relate closely to young children. Initially, boys identify with their mothers and have a close emotional link with women. As patriarchal society increasingly insists that they are to 'become' men, they try to develop their masculinity in a situation where adult males are not intimate company in their daily lives. They solve this problem in three main ways - by denying their ties to women and their identification with women; by rejecting the qualities of nurturance associated with adult female role models; by developing the ability to compete with other men and prove their masculinity competitively in relationship to adult males. This becomes the basis of status competition between men and a psychological prerequisite for all hierarchical social structures. So, these psychological conditions work against a gift economy.

This competitive masculinity could be undone if men were to develop a close nurturing relationship with their children.

3. An experience of family life in childhood in which close familial adults are equal partners negotiating daily life is necessary if people are to grow up without expecting someone to always be the boss. Following the arguments of Freud and his radical follower, Reich, Firestone (1972) suggests a connection between authority in the family and the widespread acceptance of authoritarian structures in society. The father in the family becomes the psychological model for a figure who demands love and obedience, and whose authority must be accepted. In class societies, the leaders of society find it easy to represent themselves as the 'fathers' of society, this becomes an ideology behind which exploitation is concealed.

To overturn this mass psychology of hierarchy and submission it is necessary to support the feminist goals of equal power to men and women in the interrelated realms of domestic life and the wider economy.

These keys to socialisation for the gift economy can be regarded as practices which are being gradually implemented now as part of a current cultural transition.

Getting to the Gift Economy

Organisations and practices which include aspects of the gift economy operate today - and these modifications to capitalism are indeed the embryo of a new social order. Yet it is not helpful to see these as pure enclaves of the gift economy or even to hope and expect that they will be. Capitalist culture, as well as the economic requirements of effective operation within a capitalist economy, produce a variety of hybrid situations. In these, some aspects of a gift economy operate to further the goals of the left social movements while other aspects of the capitalist authoritarian mode of production are also present (Leahy 2004; Mollison 1988; Trainer 1995).


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