BECKY EARLEY, BRIDGET HARVEY AND LUCY NORRIS
In her introduction to Mauss’s The Gift (1990), Mary Douglas says the recipient of charity does not ever like the giver, and that “foundations should not confuse their donations with gifts.” She suggests the problem is the giver wanting “exemption” from reciprocation: “Refusing requital puts the act of giving outside any mutual ties... According to Marcel Mauss that is what is what is wrong with the free gift. A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.”
Clothing Loathing at the School Gates:
It was the image of the small, drowned boy Aylan Kurdi, in August 2015 that made me want to do something. Through Facebook – where I first saw the image – I found friends wanting to act too. We agreed to set up collection points for material goods urgently needed in Calais. It was not difficult to fill the car several times over with the goods I collected. In fact, it was something about this abundance that began to make the voluntary action feel repugnant. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first. Why did this generosity seem obscene? Why this overwhelming negative feeling to the mini, local campaign I instigated?
Collecting one morning at the local West London school gates, I experienced both positive and negative extremes of responses to the refugee crisis. I stood by the open car boot, whilst a flood of donations arrived. The school run is a hurried, intense affair, so maybe that was why this twenty minutes seemed to me to be so wrought with emotions.
I felt guilt (for only being able to do this small act, yet being praised and revered); I felt revulsion (at the gluttony of over consumption and resulting need for weeding out inappropriate donations); I felt grateful and compassionate to those saying kind things (and who came with essentials purchased for the appeal, or carefully sorted items.) I also felt fury (at the mother who brought nothing but vented her anger at the unwelcome ‘immigrants’). I felt further guilt for noting and feeling this seemingly inappropriate range of emotions. Man up, I thought to myself.
Kleiderkammern in Berlin: the poison in the gift:
With over 90,000 refugees arriving in Berlin in 2015, local volunteers have had to support failing state services. An emergency shelter was established in our local sports hall opposite the primary school. Engaged parents and teachers began organizing donations of clothing and toiletries, providing assistance with bureaucracy, establishing a children’s class, running social events, and winning a prize for their efforts.
Yet the initiative creating tension is the Kleiderkammer,1Kleider means clothing, Kammer is a small room or chamber. Kleiderkammern are run by charitable institutions, and mediate clothing donations in Germany. They distribute to those in receipt of social benefits or sell for a nominal amount, unlike the contemporary UK charity shop model which now aims to sell used goods at the highest possible price to fund their (mostly unrelated) core aims (Norris 2015). run by local mothers who sort donations and hand out garments directly to the refugees. Sorting donations can be unpleasant – clothing may be dirty and some bags seem full of rubbish – paint-splattered Lederhosen, worn-out socks. Others are embarrassingly full of nearly-new children’s wear, over-large men’s clothing, ski-wear, shoes lacking laces, or unsuitable women’s clothing. Such experiences are common amongst charity shop workers and textile recyclers, who render the realities of our consumption and disposal practices invisible to us,2(Norris 2012) (Hawley 2006)(Gregson et al. 2014) but for these mums it is a shock: the donors are our peers.
Inviting the refugee visitors into the Kleiderkammer is awkward: the conflicting values of the refugees’ hosts exposed through their material offerings. As gifts between unequals with no expectation of return (Graeber 2001), Parry calls this type of charity ‘pure gifts’ – the recipients’ ensuing dependency is the ‘poison in the gift’ (Parry 1986). However, exerting agency, refugees may only take what they want, or simply discard donations previously taken, lacking washing machines or storage. This behaviour led to some confused volunteers feeling the refugees needed to ‘integrate and learn German cultural values by showing that they valued these gifts appropriately’, and others feeling the kleiderkammer should be shut down. The kleiderkammer offers a microcosm for understanding the ambiguous attitudes of local residents to the presence of refugees in their community through the thoughtful – and thoughtless - ness of their gifts, and the stresses and strains of volunteering to make a difference.
(Dis)Obedience - Generosity - Well-Being:
My volunteering focuses on repair - teaching people how to mend textiles, mending textile donations for a charity, facilitating repair workshops, and planning/organising with the Hackney Fixers group. It is driven by me, I step up and step back as I wish. To me, volunteering is a form of mutual aid - an anarchist principle of “cooperation and generosity” (Portwood-Stacer 2013, p25), “an ethically mandated expression of solidarity with fellow activists” (Ibid, p165).
Volunteering is both “obedient” to my own “reason or conviction (autonomous obedience)” of being anti-waste and pro-circularity, and disobedient to those of our consumer culture, where “obedience to a person, institution or power (heteronomous obedience) is submission” (Fromm 1981, p19).
Arguably our dominant culture is what Erich Fromm describes as having - with principles around ownership, gains and growth. To volunteer is to push back (that act of obedience/disobedience) against capitalist consumerism and embrace Fromm’s mode of being – “to share, to give, to sacrifice - that owes its strength to the specific conditions of human existence and the inherent need to overcome ones isolation by oneness with others” (1981, p108).
This in turn cultivates the key elements for well-being (Seligman 2011, p24-25) - positive emotion, engagements, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Both subjective and objective, in order to fulfill these elements, one must engage positively with others. Neil Cummings suggests generosity as a way to “overwrite scarcity with abundance”, advocating we “keep giving and receiving. This is radical generosity.” (Cummings 2015, p325). Volunteering is a form of generosity that can overwrite emotional and material scarcity, and create the connections needed for well-being.
We can cultivate the generous, connected mode of being: through volunteering we chose to do so.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Kleider means clothing, Kammer is a small room or chamber. Kleiderkammern are run by charitable institutions, and mediate clothing donations in Germany. They distribute to those in receipt of social benefits or sell for a nominal amount, unlike the contemporary UK charity shop model which now aims to sell used goods at the highest possible price to fund their (mostly unrelated) core aims (Norris 2015).|
|2.||↑||(Norris 2012) (Hawley 2006)(Gregson et al. 2014)|
|3.||↑||Gregson, N., Crang, M., Botticello, J., Calestani, M. and Krzywoszynska, A. (2014). “Doing the ‘Dirty Work’ of the Green Economy: Resource Recovery and Migrant Labour in the EU.” European and Regional Studies 10. doi:10.1177/0969776414554489.|
|4.||↑||Douglas, M., in Mauss, M. (1990) The Gift: The form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Routledge: London|
|5.||↑||Cummings, N. (2015) in Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, steirischer herbst and Florian Malzacher. Berlin: Sternberg Press.|
|6.||↑||Fromm, E. (1981) On Disobedience and Other Essays. New York: The Seabury Press.|
|7.||↑||Graeber, D. (2001) Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave.|
|8.||↑||Graeber, D. (2012) ‘Afterword: The Apocalypse of Objects - Degradation, Redemption and Transcendence in the World of Consumer Goods’. In Economies of Recycling. The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations, edited by Catherine Alexander and Josh Reno. London: Zed Books.|
|9.||↑||Gregson, N., Brooks, K., and Crewe, L. (2000) ‘Narratives of Consumption and the Body in the Space of the Charity/Shop’. In Commercial Cultures: Economies, Practices, Spaces, edited by Peter Jackson, Michelle Lowe, Daniel Miller, and Frank Mort, 101–21. Oxford: Berg.|
|10.||↑||Harvey, B. (2015) Department of Repair, http://bridgetharvey.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-Department-of-Repair-an-expanded-form-of-remaking.pdf (accessed April 2016)|
|11.||↑||Hawley, J. M. (2006) ‘Digging for Diamonds: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Reclaimed Textile Products’. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal 24 (3): 262–75.|
|12.||↑||Norris, L. (2012) ‘Economies of Moral Fibre: Materializing the Ambiguities of Recycling Charity Clothing into Aid Blankets’. Journal of Material Culture 17 (4): 389–404.|
|13.||↑||Norris, L. (2015) ‘The Limits of Ethicality in International Markets: Imported Second-Hand Clothing in India.’ Geoforum 67: 183–93. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.06.003.|
|14.||↑||Parry, J. (1986) ‘The Gift, The Indian Gift and the “Indian Gift”’. MAN (N.S.) 21 (3): 453–73.|
|15.||↑||Portwood-Stacer, L. (2013) Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism, Contemporary Anarchist Studies. London: Bloomsbury. p25|
|16.||↑||Sankey, B. (2015) The real crisis in Calais, Liberty, 07 August, https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/blog/real-crisis-calais (accessed 25.4.16)|
|17.||↑||Seligman, M. (2011) Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being and How to Achieve Them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.|