The Political Gift Economy

Economies fall into one of several categories: market, barter and gift. In market and barter economies, exchanges are made contemporaneously between the parties, in one case for money and in the other for acceptably equivalent goods or services. In gift economies transfers are made without an explicit agreement for a return, either in the present or the future. These economies rely on honor or shame or some similar non-cash basis that creates an obligation for the donee to provide something of equivalent or greater value to the donor at some other time. Bourdieu studied a gift economy in his early field research. He observed that exchanges are driven by self-interest like any other transaction. According to David Swartz in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, Bourdieu says that these practices would not occur if people saw them as motivated by personal interest.

“The operation of gift exchange,” for example, “presupposes (individual and collective) misrecognition (meconnaissance) of the reality of the objective ‘mechanism’ of the exchange.” P. 91.

Isn’t this a perfect description of our legislative economy? Politicians and their staffers do favors for rich people. That translates to giving gifts to rich people, gifts that only governemnt can give such as favorable laws and regulations, litigation positions, and choices not to prosecute. Politicians and staff do not see themselves as self-interested, and do not have enforceable expectations of a return. The rich do not see themselves as doing anything wrong. They don’t make a promise of any return of the gift, and there is nothing to force them to do so.

Then, when government officials retire, the rich give them lavish gifts , meaningless jobs, exorbitant speaking fees, positions in the non-profit sector. These gifts are justified on other grounds, such as expertise or influence. But they are still gifts.

Each side hides the reality of the situation from themselves and from their opposite numbers, and from the public. The task of hiding reality falls to third parties, mostly lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations firms, and a cadre of people labeled as scholars or experts. The lobbyists and lawyers come up with fake justifications for the favored policies. The scholars create rationales that fit some version of the conventional wisdom. The PR teams translate those into pretty words. These are fed to donors and staffers and the politicians who mouth them to the public as their positions and justifications.

The rich people get to pretend, and may even believe, they are doing the right thing, because after all their experts support them. The legislators and staffers get to pretend, and may even believe, that they are acting in the public interest. The media report these lines as if they constituted genuine public discourse. In so doing, the media helps conceal the gift economy from the public. And the courts pretend this is normal. There is no quid pro quo by definition, so therefore there is nothing illegal.

The whole thing depends on the misrecognition of what’s happening. The people who see through it, and there are plenty, are either attacked as naïve or stupid, or completely ignored.

Bourdieu says that the role of the sociologist is to detect the underlying principles of this kind of economy through statistical analysis. Maybe it’s time for someone to apply his ideas, or similar frameworks from other fields, to look at this form of corruption. Until then, we have an explanation for how people avert their eyes from Zephyr Teachout’s principle that corruption is the use of public position for private gain.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

16 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Another description for gift economy is credit economy, discussed at length in David Graeber’s, Debt: The First 5000 Years. Graeber is an anthropologist, Bourdieu a sociologist.

    Unlike the supposed barter economy, which Graeber argues existed rarely, credit economies were prevalent. A bit like Wimpy and his burger, value was given today and repaid, if not Tuesday, then later. The exchange presupposed the presence of little specie, generally used only among the elite, and a settled existence with little change. Existing relations were assumed to continue far into the future, which would make waiting for repayment in kind reasonable.

    The legislative economy you describe seems to be a form of legalized bribery. As you say, it was legalized by its practitioners to avoid criminal liability for an ancient practice – practiced to perfection by 19th century Robber Barons, notably Collis Huntington – and to create an Orwellian euphemism, to allow its practitioners to hide what they are doing.

  2. pseudonymous in nc says:

    Gift-giving is an expression of the power to give gifts and the power to stop giving them.

    In practical terms, the congressional GOP has been chewing over the ban on earmarks, because it removed a carrot for lawmakers to support policies, while leaving the stick of primary challenges from the right. The result is the “Freedom Caucus”. The counterintuitive conclusion might be that a strictly-defined domain of authorized corruption (e.g. the awarding of titles and gongs in the UK) is a necessary lubricant for political coalitions.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I don’t think corruption stays within bounds; wherever they’re set, they never hold.

  4. Ed Walker says:

    The key point from Bourdieu’s perspective is the misrecognition of the actual situation. Again, his analysis is based on his field work in Algeria with a peasant society he identified as a gift economy, one not well-connected to the market economy. He says it only worked because people mis-recognize their interest in the gifts and assign motives besides personal interest as explanations for the giving.

  5. Christopher says:

    Interdependent relationships discerned motives avoid recognition utilizing hyper normalization decorated with hyper distraction in the swamp today. Few and far between are individuals/groups with perceived reality capable of identifying, gifts, funding-speech foundations, distorting our political transactions, exchange mechanisms, away from founding ideals.

  6. John Newman says:

    Trump has just begun a Potlatch War among Plutocrats with the Tax Bill. Now all the other Chiefs have to reciprocate or loose prestige.

  7. Alan says:

    Bourdieu did anthopological field work in Algeria. Outline of a Theory of Practice is a text that is widely read by anthropologists. One of the best descriptions of habitus, dicussed previously, appears in one of the early chapters (Chapter 2, if I remember correctly).

    Your discussion of the gift economy is invoking a massive and complex anthropological, a foundational text being Marcel Mauss’s The Gift probably closely followed by Malinowski’s writing on the Kula ring. A massive amount of the anthrpological literature is taken up with systems of exchange, including systems of marriage and kinship (e.g. see Lévi-Strauss). Graeber is just one of the more recent and currently well-known. This vast literature is ignored by economists, and for good reason, as it blows apart many of their most cherished beliefs.

    I don’t think it is necessarily useful to describe economies falling into different types. There are different types of exchanges in different contexts. While we live in a market economy a lot of exchanges involve gifts. What is bought as a commodity can be given as a gift (Christmas just past, Valentines coming up…). In some societies gift exchanges predominate, in others gift exchange.

    A useful way of discussing exchanges is to relate them to the moral dimension of relationships. A famous paper on types of reciprocity written by Marshall Sahlins and appears in the book Stone Age Economics. You should read that book if you want to pick up on how the ideas of Karl Polyani, that you previously discussed, were taken up into anthopology (from which Polyani himself borrowed) and debated. Anyway you can relate different types of exchanges and their moral meaning to relationship distance. You can go back and read Adam Smith, a moral phiosopher acutely aware of the moral dimensions of exchange, and you’ll find this notion nascent in his writings as well.

    I’m not happy with the idea of misrecognition as it is used here. It presupposes that there is some objective position from which one recognize things which strikes me as a form of misrecognition in itself! There is no outside to culture, habitus, or whatever you want to call it. If we wanted to be Foucaultian, one might just acknowledge that one is always caught up in some structure of knowledge/power. And quite honestly I don’t think anyone misrecognizes the moral (or immoral, if one must) meaning of the gift. That’s how it works!

    “He [Bourdieu] observed that exchanges are driven by self-interest like any other transaction.” Yes, but self-interest isn’t an objective thing (or are you fully immersed in the habitus of neoclassical economics?). What is your self-interest in a given place or time is a cultural fact. See Sahlins (which includes a nice bit on Bourdieu). A lot of Bourdieu involves discussion of how people manipulate/create symbolic/cultural capital to create distinction and produce/reproduce social order.

    For anyone interested in the gift economies and how they relate to economies of commodities, I would suggest reading Chris Gregory’s classic Gifts and Commodities (free online).

    • Ed Walker says:

      Very helpful comment. When I re-read this post this morning, I recognized that my first sentence is not well thought-out, and I agree that all sorts of exchanges take place inside every economy. As I see it, gifts are predominant form of exchangein politics, though, because direct payment is illegal.

      The word mis-recognition comes from Swartz. I don’t know enough French to translate “meconnaisance”, but it doesn’t look much like mis-recognition. I suspect is is something equivalent to Sartrean bad faith, a wilful refusal to reflect on one’s actions, to become actively conscious of ones actions; or to Marxist false consciousness. As I argue in this post, there are layers and layers of smoke and obfuscation to make it easier to avoid the substance of the exchange. As to the return gifts, there are plenty of justifications that don’t carry the implication of return gift, such as expertise and potential influence.

      So far, there are two  main things that bother me in Bourdieu’s thinking as described by Swartz. First is his claim that all actions are driven by interest. Second is his view that the reality of social change can be detected by careful observation and analysis by scientist outsiders. The first is, as you point out, a basic tenet of neoliberal economics.

      The second has an elitist ring that makes me uncomfortable; and remember that I am quite new to all this. I will note that Bourdieu turns the same analysis on the activities of scientists that he does on the things being studied according to Swartz.

      With that in mind, think of this post as looking at a small group of rich and powerful people and examining their behavior as an outsider with no direct contact with their little enclave. The category of gift exchange is in the toolbox of descriptions of small societies. And it seems to fit….


      • Alan says:

        I’m not an expert in Bourdieu either. My reading is limited to An Outline of a Theory of Practice, which I read as an anthropology grad student. For two critiques (both bring up the issue of reduction of action to self-interest, a hole he seems sometimes close to falling down):

        Ilana F. Silber. Bourdieu’s Gift to Gift Theory: An Unacknowledged Trajectory. Sociological Theory 27, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 173–90.

        Smart, Alan. Gifts, Bribes, and Guanxi: A Reconsideration of Bourdieu’s Social Capital. Cultural Anthropology 8, no. 3 (August 1, 1993): 388–408.

        Discussion of gift behavior is all part of a much larger and fruitful intellectual conversation. In discussing Polanyi, and now Bourdieu, you are tapping into a huge ‘economic’ literature in the social sciences, that exists particularly in anthropology and sociology, in an  intellectual universe outside and mostly unacknowledged by neoclassical economists. They can’t actually acknowledge it, as it requires engaging with Marx, actually bothering to read Smith rather than inventing arguments he never made, and reading Mauss (who I would suspect most have never heard of),  Polanyi and many, many more. It requires putting culture, history, social and political relations back into economics. But they can’t do this as it involves burning down much of the Benthamite edifice of neoclassical economics. All those mathematical models and their pretensions of being the only true social ‘science’? There are over a 100 years of ethnographies, a mountain of empirical data, that make those models look very limited in their applicability if not out-right nonsense.

        For a discussion of the “mindless theoretical imperialism” of neoclassical economics and how it relates to classical political economy and anthropology see Gregory, C. A. Anthropology, Economics, and Political Economy. History of Political Economy 32, no. 4 (2000).

      • Alan says:

        Mis-recognition seems to be something that neoclassical economists are expert in. They claim what they do is a true science!

        For amusement, here’s a wonderful example: A hilarious piece in the Guardian by Thomas Frank on Krugman. Read the comments below. They both get beaten up.

  8. Galactus-36215 says:

    Somehow Gift Economy doesn’t quite feel right when speaking about politicians and the favors given to donors. That relationship is more like an addiction rather than an economy.

    Addiction is defined as: the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

    Of course, politicians don’t suffer personal, physical trauma if they stop, however, they do stop being politicians as they lose elections from not receiving their ‘fix’.

    • SpaceLifeForm says:

      The addiction to money is the worst.
      The only withdrawal symptom is the craving for more money. Normally only when awake.
      And the love of money is the root of all evil.
      Fascists are addicted to money.

  9. joejoejoe says:

    The City of Chicago was under a supervised court decree to scrutinize and route out political patronage hires in government for many years. The decrees were referred to as Shakman Decrees after the court case. I’m convinced that we need a similar kind of foundation/non-profit Shakman arrangement. Elite corruption today is about placing your friends into no-show foundation or non-profit jobs masquerading as public service. The Aspen Institute is a good example — it’s a free tax deductible trip to a mountain resort for elites masquerading as public service. Foundation philanthropy is a basically a way for an elite class to live off of investment proceeds from tax free donations and call it good work. It’s horseshit.

    • Trip says:


      Crony capitalism, no bid contracts, and so on, fall into the same corruption.

      Bribery and quid pro quo are all but deemed legal in US government in most circumstances. The practice is accepted and anticipated.

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