“There is no such thing as free lunch.” To this, Mauss would add ‘free gift‘ For him, free gift is an oxymoron. A gift comes with three obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. A person must give, and the other must receive, and give back something of equal, if not greater, value.
Prima facie, gift loses all its meaning because it demands repayment. Conventional wisdom says that a gift represents a well-wishing desire of a party that expects no repayment from the other party. It is an expression of intimacy and above all, selflessness.
We must lose our modern prejudices to understand the significance of gifts. Mauss surveys and compares the idea of gifts in several cultures and communities (Polynesia, Melanesia, Northwest America) and arrives to the conclusion that gift represents a debt of giving oneself to the other party.
For example, in the Polynesian culture, there is a ‘hau’, magical spirit representing the giver, residing inside the gift. The recipient must give the gift to another party because he cannot own the ‘hau’ forever, otherwise it will bring bad luck and disaster. In other words, the ‘debt’ is not the cool calculating economic repayment in nowadays sense. It is much richer insofar it represents the giving of self to someone else, who should recompense this giving with something greater. In more graphic details, it is like Antonio did give his pound of flesh to Shylock. He literally partakes part of himself to the recipient.What can the recipient give back in return for that pound of flesh?
In more extreme circumstances, gift-exchange is a form of power struggle. Some aboriginal tribes in Northwest America engage in potlatch: gift-exchange ceremony where chiefs among tribes compete for power. A chief showers valuable gifts like copper, and whalebone jewelry to rivals who make a counter move by offering even more gifts. The exchange escalates to a level where destruction of the gifts is the only logical conclusion. Copper ornaments are broken into pieces, and blankets of fur are thrown into sea. Here, the core of the gift exchange is chiefs’ honors: whoever loses, he loses his honor.
As David Graeber has explained in Debt: The First 5000 Years, gift is a debt. Members in a community exchange gifts with each other and so everyone is in debt with each other. I give a few eggs to my neighbor in return for a pinch of salt when I am in need of it. However, this is not done in the cool calculating framework. Mauss has shown that every gift-exchange involves many rich layers of meanings. Ultimately, debts, in the form of gifts, encourage sharing, and lubricate relationships.
We are so enwrapped in our modern prejudices that we fail to understand the core meanings of something as simple as a gift. After all, understanding gift as a reciprocal obligation will not tarnish its significance. Rather it enriches the gifts because, if we were to believe the Polynesian ‘hau’, every one of them represented a valuable part of ourselves.