Homo Donans

On Discovering a Life-Friendly Civilization of the Gift

Author: Dr.in MMag.a Simone Wörer
Category: Economy
Issue No: 88

Matriarchal societies also show a life-friendly way in economy and lifestyle, in which not exchange but gift is the central element. The basic principle of the gift considers the human being as what he is: a giving and receiving being, integrated in manifold relationships, which is able to accept the gifts of life and also to give them back.

It is no coincidence that in times of crisis, the examination of the gift as a social and cultural, and especially as an economic phenomenon, seems to be of great interest. Indeed, in the past 15 years and in view of the escalating multiple crises that the Critical Patriarchy Theory founded by Claudia von Werlhof identifies as a planetary civilization crisis, a renaissance of gift theories could be observed within the scientific discussion. This has found expression in a veritable flood of new publications on the subject as well as the emergence of numerous projects on exchange and gift practices.

While in the 1960s, and especially with the publication of the groundbreaking work of Marcel Mauss, a lively and broad interest in this complex subject area developed in connection with anthropological studies and with the exploration of the “foreign,” it now seems, after a few philosophical excursions into this subject area, that the gift, its logic, its mode of action and meaning are now to be discovered in the “own” across disciplines. Thus in many places also gift circles developed, “Umsonstläden” and other initiatives were created or it flared up for instance also discussions approximately around the honorary office or “Care” as basic columns of the capitalist society.




Very few authors who deal in depth with the gift distinguish between the quite fundamentally different logics and modes of operation of exchange and gift as forms of social interaction; they essentially limit themselves to describing economic circulation movements of material and/or immaterial goods and services. This not only dilutes or even alienates the concepts that are sometimes used as synonyms in this context, but in particular also fails to recognize the community-founding function of the gift, which functions as an anthropological constant, indeed as a primordial logic of the human (and presumably also non-human) context of life. Exceptions here are some publications from the environment of modern matriarchal studies as well as around a feminist research network on gift initiated by Genevieve Vaughan (International Feminists for a Gift Economy). Indeed, it was also Genevieve Vaughan who produced a seminal work on the gift.

She locates the archetype of an economy of gift in the mother-child relationship, which finds expression in nurturing, maternal attention to the concrete needs of the other.

It is also she who developed the human image of Homo donans and thus opposed Homo oeconomicus with a powerful image, which is able to substantially touch our thinking and understanding of civilization and culture. Finally, the findings of modern matriarchal research show that matriarchal societies as life-friendly civilizations are essentially oriented to the central element of the gift.

If we want to understand the basic principle of the gift approximately, then we cannot avoid, in my opinion, to contrast this with the logic of exchange.




The concept of ‘Homo donans’ was coined by Genevieve Vaughan who, in her many years of theoretical and practical work, has dealt with the gift and the question of the possibilities of a gift economy. She establishes a model of the human being as a giving and receiving being, and in doing so she succeeds first of all in opening up a new perspective that is oriented toward primary human experiences and thematizes the giving of gifts to the other. In doing so, she takes into account the fact that from the very beginning of our lives we experience that we may, indeed must, receive gifts if we are to survive; likewise, we must care for others so that they may live and grow.

Vaughan starts primarily from the mother-child relationship, which she grasps as the archetype of an economy of the gift, oriented to the concrete needs of the child.

Indeed, as infants we are dependent on care for a very long time and are not at all able to return the material and immaterial gifts received to meet our needs and thus enter into a kind of relationship of reciprocity. In the course of our lives and in view of the complex networks of relationships that we build up and maintain in different ways, we will repeatedly experience that this reciprocity does not or cannot exist.

After all, we are born into a world of gift, in which we are allowed to receive and (pass on) material and immaterial gifts day after day.

Yes, I go one step further, or better “back”: We are born out of a world of gift, out of the womb as the first life context and place of experience, in which we were allowed to experience the connectedness of all being and, in our dependence, the unconditional satisfaction of our needs.

Following the original meaning of “mater arché,” Critical Patriarchal Theory translates matriarchy as “In the beginning, the mother,” referring to the concrete experience and observation that life comes from mothers, that is, their creative bodies, and precisely not from fathers (“pater arché”). Matriarchies are characterized not only by their pronounced friendliness to life, but above all by their friendliness to gift. On the economic level, matriarchies are mostly subsistence-autonomous agrarian societies in which private property and territorial claim seem unknown, but the right of use is decisive. The circulation of goods corresponds most closely to an economy of the gift, whose goal is not the accumulation of material and immaterial goods, but the balancing distribution to create social and economic equilibrium in the sense of the well-being for all, the community, as well as a sustainable, respectful and friendly relationship to nature and its phenomena as a creative context of life.

This can still be seen today in indigenous cultures and world views which, although increasingly patriarchalized in the course of colonization, seem to lean on matriarchy as a model of civilization at their core. In particular, this is visible in terms of a cooperative relationship with nature that presents itself as friendly and almost kinship-like. Nature, presented as maternal and not for nothing called “Mother Earth” or, as for instance in South America “Pachamama”, is respected as a living being with whom a relationship can be cultivated in various ways in the light of the gift. As an autonomous and empowered subject, nature is characterized as both giver and receiver, and a gift relationship is cultivated with her in various ritual and everyday practices. Mother Earth is recognized as the Great Giver par excellence.



About the author: Dr.in MMag.a Simone Wörner

Dr.in MMag.a Simone Wörer, born 1981 in Bruneck/South Tyrol, lives and works in Innsbruck. Studied political science (main focus: Women’s and gender studies, political theory and history of ideas) and educational science (focus: anthropology, psychoanalytic educational science) at the University of Innsbruck, doctorate in political science with Univ.-Prof. Dr. Claudia von Werlhof. Besides working in the event sector as a freelance researcher and lecturer; collaborator of the “Research Institute for Patriarchy Criticism and Alternative Civilizations FIPAZ e. V.” and the “Planetary Movement for Mother Earth – PBME”. Author of publications in German, English and Italian. Main research interests: Critical patriarchy theory, theories and practices of gift, alternatives of/to economy and politics, critique of science, social movements, ecofeminism.

This article appeared originally on the German Homepage of Tattva Viveka: Homo Donans

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