The Law of Reciprocity – The Gravity of Human Relationships

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In 1925, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss published his seminal work “The Gift” (Essai sur le don). The essay focuses on the ways in which humans exchange objects between groups and individuals and how this practice builds or destroys relationships.

Mauss analyzes the economic practices of archaic societies and finds that they have a common practice centered on reciprocal exchange. He shows that early exchange systems center around the obligations to give, to receive, and, most importantly, to reciprocate. They occur between groups, not only individuals, and they work to build not just wealth and alliances marked by economic wants, needs, and desires but they also build social and political solidarity because giving and reciprocating pervade all aspects of society. He uses a comparative method, drawing upon published secondary scholarship on peoples from around the world, but especially the Pacific Northwest potlatch phenomenon.

A potlatch is a gift-giving feast practiced by indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and the United States, among whom it is traditionally the primary governmental institution, legislative body, and economic system. This includes the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakiutl, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Coast Salish cultures. A potlatch involves giving away and/or destroying wealth or valuable items in order to demonstrate a person’s superior social status. In reciprocation for this “gift” the recipients bestow political leadership and power upon the giver/destroyer of wealth.

The underlying social driving force for this behavior is the irresistible urge of humans to reciprocate, to give something back when receiving something. Mauss believed that giving and reciprocating is the very mortar that holds together sociality.

This seemingly iron-clad law of social relationship works in surprising ways. In South America, the rubber traders pay the Indians, who are collecting the raw rubber from the rubber trees, in advance. This way, the Indian continues to feel indebted to the trader. He feels obligated to continue to work for the trader, because in his mind he is always paying back a debt. The result is a form of “soft enslavement”. In the Indian societies of the Amazon region the notion is common and strong that one must not accept something from somebody without giving something in return.

Worldwide, this notion is recognized and implemented in virtually all trade and payment transactions. Not paying the appropriate price or not delivering the appropriate good or service is considered a fraudulent breech of a basic social law, the law of reciprocity.

Among the Pacific Islands, a tradition existed called “Kula”. One group of Islanders filled a boat with an assortment of goods and sent it to the neighboring island as a gift of peace and good will. The recipients would consume perishables, replace them with fresh ones and then send the boat over to the next island, where the recipients would do the same. In this manner, the gift-boat was sent from island to island until it finally arrived back at the same island from which it originated. All islanders end up being givers and receivers of gifts. The reciprocity cycle is closed, and friendly relationships are maintained.

Have you ever wondered why we feel so strongly about social balance, when the Johnsons have already invited you and your wife several times and you have not “reciprocated”? You or your spouse might say “Honey, we need to invite the Johnsons over for dinner. They have now had us over three times already and we have not reciprocated.” Why do we feel uncomfortable with this situation? We do, because, as Mr. Mauss also pointed out, giving gives the giver a higher social status while receiving lowers the social status of the receiver. Even if most people do not realize this, they reject subconsciously to accept a lower social status by accepting gifts or favors.

Therefore, one should not do a friend too many favors or give him or her expensive gifts. The giving party elevates its social status while lowering that of the receiving party, until a point is reached, where your generosity begins to undermine the emotional basis of the friendship. Have you ever experienced that you want to give something to a friend and he or she responds with “Oh, no, I cannot possible accept this.”? Or if the recipient accepts the gift, that he or she responds with saying “Oh my God! How can I make up for this?” subconsciously interpreting your gift as an obligation?

Or think of the Southern “Much obliged”. The words imply that the speaker feels or pretends to feel obligated to reciprocate, as if the person he addresses had done something good for him or her, even if this is not the case.

Or consider the old Mafia “You owe me!”. It’s the basic principle of corruption. Somebody does you a favor and later comes back to cash in on it. If you accepted the favor (the bribe), you must reciprocate. Corruption generates loyalty.

It’s also the inverse basic principle of blackmail. If you get a letter in the mail saying “I know you are cheating on your wife with your boss’ wife. If you do not want me to tell your wife and your boss, you must deposit 5,000 Dollars in cash at … no later than …”. Here the trade is: cash against the cancellation of bad action against you. The non-performance of a hurtful deed is turned into a positive.

The same approach is often used in pseudo win-win negotiations. You create a very unpleasant alternative to the proposal you want the other party to accept. By accepting your proposal (the one you want them to accept in the first place), they can still feel like they also won, because they got you to scratch the bad alternative.

Reciprocity demands that everybody, who accepts anything from somebody else, reciprocate in some manner or form. This is a potential downside of charity. Those who receive charitable gifts or donations are mostly or typically not in a position to reciprocate and give something in return. This is why the beggar who, by definition, is at the bottom of the reciprocation hierarchy, is allowed to hate and curse those who give him/her alms. The beggar has nothing to give in return aside from hatred.

Now let’s think about where our society is headed. Our government is clearly attempting to destroy capitalism and our free market economy. Large parts of the US population are already mainly dependent on government subsidies and the number is rising steadily. If this strategy succeeds, soon, most people and finally all people will depend on government support. When this happens, there will be only one single giver left: the government. And the rest of us will all be takers who cannot reciprocate. We will become a society of beggars and I predict that, like all beggars, we will hate those who give to us. The only reciprocate exchange left will be between an all-powerful elite of world and climate saving illuminati and an all-provided-for mass of mind-manipulated serfs, who have nothing to trade for total safety and equity but their total servitude.  

This may be the root cause for why all attempts at implementing socialism and communism have so far failed. When people have finally satisfied their hunger for security and equity, they begin to realize that they have lost their liberty, their freedom, and their dignity, because they can no longer reciprocate among each other with anything they own or created.

If Mr. Mauss is right, the joint ire of the frustrated beggars that we will all become in Mr. Schwab’s new world order may ignite a firestorm that might devour millions of us deplorables but it would also likely eliminate those illuminated self-appointed saviors of mankind and the climate, who brought this disaster upon us.

Remember, you socialists: just as mechanical engineering must respect the laws of physics, social engineering must respect social laws. And until genetic engineering produces a new artificial human, the law of reciprocity appears to be one of them.

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