The gift

With its glass frontage Stapleton House on Cork’s Oliver Plunkett Street is an unlikely Bastille. However, like the Bastille, this NAMA building serves as one symbol of the illegitimacy of the regime, and contrary to myth the Bastille was almost equally empty.

Unlike the Bastille, this building was taken peacefully, and rather than opposing the state it is intended to supplement it; to give where the state cuts back. Briefly, the centre is intended to house various public amenities, from debt and mental-health counselling to a ‘Youth and Wisdom’ café run on a voluntary basis and a ‘pop-up’ soup kitchen.

Apparently the key to the building was found under a Christmas tree at the Occupy Cork camp on 25 December, so there was nothing illegal in the group entering the building. Whether they are tenants subject to a nominal rate or squatters ignoring eviction notices is in dispute.

Indisputably, there are some benefits to the public in this development, in that the group are dedicated to facilitating public services on a pro bono basis. Yet what is most significant here is the taking of private property for public use. How can this be justified?

Anthropologist Marcel Mauss argued that giving is fundamental to all societies. Societies without money are based on giving, which doesn’t create debt, but obligations. If you have something to give, then you should; if you don’t, people forgive you. Giving is matched by receiving; both require grace and inspire reciprocation, creating mutual benefits. As opposed to contracts - which are legally defined, precisely remunerated and can be discharged without creating any relationship - gifts bind people together. Without give and take there are no relationships, no families, no friendships, no communities and no society. Gift relationships create social trust. They can lead to corruption, but the alternative – a world based on contracts for everything – is inhuman.

Idealistic? Consider Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, which confirms that where people give their time and effort to voluntary associations there is a clear social dividend for everyone. Furthermore, the state can be understood as an agent of gifts – it receives the gift of wealth and abundance in the form of taxation from those who can afford it and gives education and care to all who need it.

As Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level proves, states which facilitate greater gift relations create better outcomes for everyone; even the rich have better health and quality of life in more equal states such as Sweden and Japan.

All across Europe the response to the crisis has been austerity; the alternatives are to default on debts – that is, debt-forgiveness, or for central banks to print more money - a gift that minutely decreases the value of existing cash or deposits. Either course would get the cycle of giving going again. Austerity entails that states reduce their gift giving, which depresses the economy, compounding recessionary problems. Compounding austerity is the insistence by many – the Troika, European and local politicians, Timothy Geithner – that debts be repaid in full, on time. Yet sometimes loans amount to a gamble or even a poisoned chalice.

Worse again, in Ireland, unlike in Greece, the public is paying off vast private bank debts. Without the bank bailout, from the promissory note to the unsecured bondholders, Ireland would be in the black. This turns the state from the handmaiden of gifts into the agent of theft, transferring wealth from the many to the few, the poor to the rich. Though this policy is enshrined in law, it is illegitimate, unjustifiable and imprudent.

Regardless of the legal position, it is this which justifies taking over a NAMA building as a public resource. For the moment, austerity is state policy. However, in the Cork Community Resource Centre, giving is the philosophy. From the generosity of local people and businesses supporting the centre to the pro bono gift of time and care by its staff and affiliates, everything is freely given. This is a place where people can share their talents and experience. It enables people to use their potential, rather than job-seeking, emigrating or being unconcerned with public life.

Imagine empty NAMA buildings being used to cut down the numbers on housing lists, or to provide relief from negative equity. Or being used to provide alternative business locations, in particular to those with upwards only rent clauses. Clearly, the gift undercuts the market, but mainly because the market is distorted by NAMA. What if centres like that in Cork appeared throughout Ireland? Rather than a black economy it would be a white economy, meaning that more people receive more as gifts and hence more money to spend on other things. Despite economic austerity, it would begin the regeneration of our society.

Tom Boland lectures in Sociology at Waterford Institute of Technology and is a member of Debt Justice Action - see


Image top: ash-s.