A gift economy is sometimes put forward as some kind of alternative, or at least a humanizing supplement, to contemporary capitalism, particularly by Christian theologians. Yet anthropological research, going all the way back to Mauss’s classic study, confirms that a gift economy is a debt economy — though normally without precise quantification. Certainly everything is presented as “officially” voluntary, but we maintain the same fiction in our contemporary debt economy insofar as every contract is formally “freely entered into.” Gift economies can easily be deployed to ruin rivals who cannot return the favor, and even enslave them.
What’s more, Christians should be more aware than anyone of the tendency of gift to become debt — all we have to do is read literally one of the most famous and influential texts in the Christian tradition, Cur deus homo. One can perhaps read certain key texts in the Christian tradition as trying to escape the logic of the gift (as I do with Augustine’s De trinitate [PDF]), but the slippage is right there from the very beginning, as Derrida shows in The Gift of Death.
Since Derrida is often evoked in the moralizing appropriations of the gift, it seems fair to point out that Derrida’s goal in Given Time is to demonstrate the rigorous impossibility of the gift — how the gift, when pushed to the extreme, transforms into something else, something no longer recognizable. Think of his standards for the perfect gift: it must be completely gratuituous and completely unconscious, because knowledge of one’s own generosity would also count as a return on one’s investment. Using this concept of the ultra- or arche-gift, I’d venture to say that capitalism occurs between two great “gifts” — the “gift” of primitive accumulation, the pure expenditure of those who don’t even realize they’re giving anything away, and the “gift” of crisis, the pure expenditure of surplus value that one gives precisely to no one.
It is no coincidence that the gift becomes such an important theme precisely under neoliberalism: it holds out the prospect of financialization with a human face.