ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Commodification of 'Giving Back' in a Neo-liberal World

New ways of organising gifting of time and/or money are growing at unprecedented rates. They legitimise the capitalist system by providing the "human face" of the market. This article examines the trend of "philanthropic consultants" and "volunteer tourism" and how these practices fit into the capitalist system as a whole.

Theorising the act of giving is not new; in the social sciences it has been approached from different perspectives—economic, sociological, anthropological, etc. Marcel Mauss’s influential work argued that it is a mistake to look at the market economy (a characteristic of “modern” societies) and the gift economy (a characteristic of “primitive” societies) as segregated and mutually exclusive. Rather, this dual ontology that was particularly vivid in the enlightenment rationality of the 18th century (Muehlbach 2012: 21) is an attempt to delink the individual from society, show the movement of development towards economic individualism and conveniently forget that capitalist societies too operate on cultural designs (Appadurai 1988: 11). All principles of exchange are based both on self-reliance and social relationships. In fact, gifts can be argued to be underlying some of the most central contracts of capitalism, such as wages (Hart 2000: 184).

Mauss also pointed out that the act of giving gifts is not simply an act rooted in selflessness and affection; it is based on social obligations and an inherent sense of reciprocity. According to him, “a gift necessarily implies the notion of credit” (Mauss 1954: 35). The act of gifting is embedded in social relations and links between the individual and society, just like other forms of exchange (Hart 2000: 184). In this article I argue that the gift economy is more embedded in the capitalist market system than before, and new forms of “gifting” are growing at unprecedented rates. These new ways of organising “gifting” of time and/or money are systemically rooted in capitalism, serving as legitimisation for the system by providing the “human face” of the market. I consider this argument specifically in relation to the growing trends of philanthropy and volunteerism, and how these practices fit into the capitalist system as a whole.

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