THE BONES OF THE DEAD

In the present century the opposition between negative and positive reciprocity has taken the form of debate between ‘capitalist’ and ‘communist,’ ‘individualist’ and ‘socialist’; but the conflict is much older than that, because it is an essential polarity between the part and the whole, the one and the many.  Every age must find its balance between the two, and in every age the domination of either one will bring with it the call for its opposite.  For where, on the one hand, there is no way to assert identity against the mass, and no opportunity for private gain, we lose the well-advertised benefits of a market society – and its particular freedoms, its particular kind of innovation, its individual and material variety, and so on.  But where, on the other hand, the market alone rules, and particularly where its benefits derive from the conversion of gift property to commodities, the fruits of gift exchange are lost.  At that point commerce becomes correctly associated with the fragmentation of community and the suppression of liveliness, fertility, and the social feeling.  For where we maintain no institutions of positive reciprocity, we find ourselves unable to participate in those ‘wider spirits’ – unable to enter gracefully into nature, unable to contribute toward, and pass along the collective treasures we refer to as culture and tradition.  Only when the increase of gifts moves with the gift may the accumulated wealth of our spirit continue to grow among us, so that each of us may enter, and be revived by, a vitality beyond his or her solitary powers.

Lewis Hyde, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.

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