According to Jacques Godbout, in his The World of the Gift, the distinctive form taken by the gift in the modern world is the gift to strangers—everything from philanthropies to blood and organ donations. The specifically modern gift, in other words, to quote the title of a bad movie, based on a good idea, from several years back, pays it “forward” instead of “back.” Rather than reciprocate directly, modern giving prefers acknowledging a gift by giving to someone else with the same needs or potential as that gift enabled one to realize in oneself. This helps avoid the competitive gift giving and compulsory reciprocations which leads the traditional gift economy into the debacle resulting in the seizure of power of the Big Man, who imposes an asymmetrical gift economy on everyone. And giving it forward may also provide the basis for supplanting the modern state behind which, however free and democratic the guise, the contours of the Big Man imposing not only his rule but his inevitability remain visible.
The modernity which has actually become dominant, and led in turn to the romantic and victimary reactions of postmodernism is the one which deployed the emergent market model of early modernity against the gift economy. The best way to bury the gift economy is to insist upon self-origination—anything in the past which has determined what one is now must be some gift demanding repayment; if we are all originators of ourselves, including the past we choose to acknowledge, then there are no gifts from the past—no one has paid forward to us. There are just nagging importunities and unjust exactions demanded by hysterical ghosts, and we must summon up the courage to reject those claims, and accept only those obligations we, like players on the market, have explicitly and voluntarily agreed to.
But history is no more than the gifts we accept from those who have come before—if we reject some it is because we have accepted others. The reason why we need to ground ourselves in some kind of gift economy stretching back in time is suggested by Hermann Lotze’s observation, cited by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on History,” that “One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.” I think this is absolutely true, and while it applies to the present’s attitude toward the past as well, it is especially remarkable in our attitude to the future, which we have every reason to believe will have be better than the present. We simply don’t share the same scene as other time periods, are incapable of desiring the same objects—we can therefore love those who came before and those who will come after unreservedly. We can also, therefore, accept the gifts from the past freely and give freely to those to come after us. And, finally, this gifting relationship across time periods is, as Benjamin goes on to say, an index which refers us to redemption: it is this continuum creating by the gift that enables us to stand back while everyone else is rushing towards the present object of desire and exemplify a possibility not immediately visible.
We could, much more modestly, see modernity as simply the condition in which our relations with strangers outweigh our relations with kin, friends and confederates. The market relation comes to the fore under such conditions, and helps to create them in the first place, because the exchange of commodities for money is ideally suited to maintain the relations between strangers. Modernity in this case would also mean many things we like to associate with it—an openness to the new, to differences, a pleasure in anonymity and privacy, and so on. But modernity in this sense would also allow for acknowledging the gifts we accept and pay forward to some of those strangers, gifts that often circulate centrifugally from more traditional gifts circulating among family and friends—like the use of family wealth to establish charitable foundations. The market and economy could then proceed in concordance with one another, each enriching the other. As soon as we find a way to displace the imperial/ecumenical Big State, which increasingly demands all gifts flow to and from it.