The idea that human beings are held together by the exchange of gifts is forever associated with the name of Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), nephew of Émile Durkheim and author of Essai sur le don, forme archaïque de l’échange (1925). In that brief but pregnant sketch, Mauss showed how the people of the South Seas, the Pacific Northwest, and other “archaic” societies transferred many goods and services to each other by gift, rather than by commercial contracts. Those gifts purported to be free and voluntary, but were in fact obligatory. A strict code of reciprocity imposed a threefold obligation: to give, to receive, and to repay.
Mauss believed that, in the absence of the state, this practice of gift exchange was a way of binding people together and creating human solidarity; though he also showed how in the potlatch, the competitive destruction of goods among the Indians of Northwest America, the practice could take on a more aggressive form. For Mauss the act of giving was inherently ambivalent, at once generous and self-interested.
Mauss was not the first to reflect upon this ambivalence. Nearly four hundred years earlier, Thomas Hobbes had asserted in Leviathan (1651) that “no man giveth, but with inten-tion of good to himself.” In his remarkable essay “Gifts” (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that charity wounded those who received it, while Friedrich Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) warned that the unreciprocated gift left the recipient feeling inferior and revengeful. Gifts might appear to be generous, but they were often a way of asserting superiority and creating dependency.
Mauss believed that, with the expansion of the market, the sphere of gift exchange had contracted. Roman law drew a distinction between persons and things, a distinction that dispelled the primitive notion that a gift contained the spiritual essence of the giver and could not go unreciprocated without danger. The gift was redefined as a unilateral act, different from a loan or a contract in that it required no reciprocity. The growth of the state created an alternative form of solidarity, making unnecessary the bonds created by the exchange of gifts. There were survivals of the rite, of course: alms-giving; tips and gratuities; the exchange of invitations and courtesies; and potlatch-like acts of conspicuous consumption. Within the family and among friends, presents and hospitality retained their importance. But although large-scale philanthropy helped to make capitalism more acceptable, modern society was no longer held together by the exchange of gifts.
Mauss seems to have regretted this. He was a socialist who was hostile to the market and to usury. He believed in the duty of giving and the social responsibilities of the rich. His portrayal of primitive society as governed by reciprocity rather than profit was an explicit critique of Western civilization, which, in his view, had turned people into inhumane calculating machines. The essence of the gift had been that it united self-interest and moral obligation, whereas the crime of the market was to create an unprecedented …