What the hopeless may learn from the homeless.


dublin (Photo credit: François F.)

Comment: Our present incumbents within the chambers of power have done much to protect the ‘haves’ while denigrating the ‘have-nots’. Listening occasionally however, might afford them the insight they are seemingly so incapable of.

Without saying too much about my place of employ or the nature of my work, when I am not espousing less than universal truths through this blog, I work within the homeless services sector in a facility that houses some eighty gentlemen presently experiencing ‘rooflessness‘.

The problems faced by these individuals are myriad in scope and the reasons for their predicament are similarly manifold, encompassing addiction, substance abuse, marriage/familial breakdown, mental illness, bereavement, criminality, sexual abuse and increasingly, redundancy, debt and financial fragility. The juxtaposition of so many men, and such a multitudinous array of issues invariably leads to confrontation and manipulation. As one might expect, money – both lending and owing – is an all too frequent catalyst for these incidents. A recent conversation about economics however with a group of these unheard voices I felt was worthy of mention on here, given that it summarised our current plight with a cogency our leaders[sic] might only dream of.

During a rare moment of quietude, albeit after yet another altercation that had been ignited by an unpaid debt – sound familiar? – my thoughts turned to the question of whether the principles of gift economics or the sinister tenets of the market economy were more prevalent within the centre and how understanding which practice the clients were engaging in might lead to a better understanding of their situation.

Firstly some distinctions. And please, any students of economics, feel free to correct me on my interpretations.

A gift economy is one where an arrangement has been entered into for the transfer of goods or services without the need for an explicit quid pro quo. Within this lack of expectation or absence of any mechanism for exchange lies the ‘gifting’ nature of the transaction. An expectation of some degree of reciprocation might still exist, however this may occur later on and quite often will be passed on to someone else for the benefit of the society or group as a whole.

(The gift economy might translate as: You scratch my back… and I will tickle that old lady over there later if she needs cheering up type-of-thing)

The casual observer will immediately see the inherent opportunity for corruption within such a Utopian policy but much was done within early gifting societies to ensure ‘cheating’ did not become the prevalent response to the gift. Indeed, folk tales the world over invariably have those who hold onto a gift punished by death. Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book, ‘The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property’ tells the story of two Brahim women in Kashmir who attempted to fulfil their gifting obligations by simply passing alms back and forward between one another. Suffice to say, upon their deaths they were each turned into poisoned wells from which no one could drink, reflecting the hollowness of their gestures.

As outdated as gift economics might appear, they still exist in many societies today and examples of gift economies are to be found in charitable donations, with ‘buyer sets the price sales’ and cooperativism such as Open Source Software and resources such as Wikipedia.

A market economy, where reciprocal exchanges are weighted by the value of the product is more self-serving and arose out of the feeling that within gift economies individuals would eventually feel obligated to provide for the greater good irregardless of the value of their own contribution and therefore, feel less free. They would become prisoners of their own generosity. Market based economics focuses on the value of the exchange. This is measured in many ways such as effort in production or manufacture, emotional reward for the recipient and factors such as scarcity and abundance.

To illustrate within the context of what was discussed with the clients and with particular focus on scarcity and abundance… the price of a spare cigarette will always rise markedly by the time Sunday comes around, or ‘waiting day’ as it is more commonly referred to in these parts.

(The market economy might translate as: You scratch my back… and I will pay you dependent on how you value your ability to cure my itch and how many others are around who might equally cure me of my itch and whether they will do it less well or better than you type-of-thing.)

One can find examples of both economic models operating within any emergency accommodation in the city centre and perhaps herein lies the crux of the problem. Without accurately defining which model to which we all belong we allow ourselves to have conversations with one another that begin with misunderstanding as their basis. Imagine if you will the problems that will occur if a client is a market economist offering a cigarette, fully expecting that cigarette to be returned with interest or paid for in full at point of exchange while the second client is a pupil of the gift economy who accepts the cigarette with that mindset instead. Now imagine someone who jumps between both economic models depending on the circumstances.

Chances are, you are now imagining the current Minister for Finance.

There is a misconception within government that the homeless are entirely disengaged or uninterested in the lofty ideals that they brandish with such alarming lack of comprehension. As I have already mentioned in a previous blog, an Taoiseach Enda Kenny considers such matters above even his fellow T.D.’s comprehension. The men I speak to however, are all too keen to engage in such discussions. What they lack is the voice to do so and an ear that will hear them. In my subsequent conversations with the clients concerning the problems that arise when two individuals are singing from different economic hymn sheets, the point was made that therein lay the country’s problem, ‘The cunts supposed to be running the place don’t know what song they’re singing. They’re not even arguing with the opposition. They’re too busy arguing among themselves about the bleeding lyrics‘.

Nail on head.

Free enterprise must include freedom to fail also. Failure to countenance this outcome for the basket-case of a bank that was Anglo and a pathological aversion to saying no to our puppet masters in the Troika fundamentally undermines the entire system under which we purport to operate. By denying the core tenets that underpin capitalism, this government of gombeen gobshites has brought Ireland to it’s knees and is now lining up the kick to the back of the head that will finish the job.

As our conversation returned to the centre’s own economic models, the men found new merit in the gift economy, not simply for it’s more selfless, positive and altruistic ethos but because it encouraged togetherness and a sense of communitarianism. Moreover, it encouraged us to think more about the values that we place on those things we so often take for granted. Ultimately, the true value of a gift is directly linked to it’s transformative power. It’s ability to promote change. There is a Portuguese proverb that claims that what is bought is cheaper than a gift. A monetary gift is easily bought but may not have any lasting effect on the recipient.

As the men I spoke to can attest however, the gift of an hour of your time to someone who seeks reassurance or simply needs to know that there are others who will stand shoulder to shoulder with you, may be enough to help that person achieve all that he once thought impossible. The American essayist and leader of the transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that ‘the only gift is a portion of thyself’. To this end, the men in this particular shelter aim to make a gift of their ears this month and grant their understanding as their offertory.

If only our esteemed leaders in government would stoop so low as to do the same.

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