Saturday, 28 November 2009


One of the very few things I miss from England is its plethora of charity shops, which for many years kept me supplied with books and clothes and all sorts of weird and wonderful things, most of which eventually found their way back again to whence they'd come. One of the things I don't miss, however, is the concept of charity that lies behind them.

I don't think of myself as being a particularly uncharitable - as in mean spirited or ungenerous - being. But nevertheless I do have huge problems with the notion of 'charity'. It's divisive: it divides those who have the means to give from those who receive. It creates a distance. It creates inequality, and therefore classes. It sets up a situation where I do something for you, not with you or alongside you; in doing so I fail to offer you the chance to be an equal partner in our encounter and therefore I disempower you. And so it encourages and perpetuates paternalism: something which, however well meant, I find intolerable.

To me the concepts of justice and equality, of exchange, and of mutuality and reciprocity are the crucial ones. So, for example, I don't offer a concessionary rate to therapy clients, but because I see money as simply a form of energy, I do offer the opportunity to take sessions on the basis of energy exchange, as in 'I offer you therapy, you offer me gardening or woodwork or produce from your land or whatever skill you have that I can use'. That way, I don't turn into the magnanimous bestower of favour and the power balance between us starts, and stays, equal. (Interestingly, and to my surprise, very few people have ever taken me up on it, although I'm frequently asked for concessions ...).

And then of course there's the particularly French notion of solidarité. Not the same as the much more political (and oft-maligned) use of the word in the UK, la solidarité is not only a much-used word but also an accepted part of day to day community life here. But what is it? Strangely enough one of the best attempts I've found to define it comes from Martine Aubry, the president of the Parti Socialiste, who isn't, it has to be said, one of my favourite politicians, if using those two words together isn't too much of a contradiction in terms. But she writes:

"Solidarity is first and foremost a behaviour that we can all embody in our everyday lives. It's supporting other people when they need it. But then it's also a collective value. So that we can all live better together, and so that each one of us feels comfortable in our society, we need to help each other on a mutual basis. To be in solidarity with someone is to be 'with' that person; to feel their problems and their pain as if they were our own. And solidarity is also doing our best to live better together as a part of our country; to accept the other person as they are, whatever their origin, their neighbourhood, their differences".

Heavens. You could almost believe she's been reading Carl Rogers ...

And so (finally getting to the point ...), now you'll understand why I was truly delighted to encounter the new espace non marchand - non-trade area - at the market in Saint Girons this morning. Basically, the espace non marchand is a higgledy piggledy collection of trestles, stands and simple tarps laid out on the ground, covered with all manner of goods from books to boots to bottles of apple juice, from surplus produce to craftwork to clothes to tools. And people are also there milling around (it's a very convivial spot) offering their services on the same basis. The philosophy here is that you take whatever you need or want when you need or want it, and/or leave whatever you no longer need or want. Need some new working boots? Take them. Fancy a cup of tea? Pour yourself one. But - and here's what makes it radical - no money is involved. At all. Ever. Period. Nor is a tit for tat on the spot exchange required. It all works on the concept of there being sufficient resources for everybody, and it works on responsibility and trust: it's Freecycle (without the begging emails) and freeganism all rolled into one and then some. You don't have to prove your pitiful income or be a - gulp - 'person in need' to be able to benefit, nor is there any monetary value - even in the LETS / SEL* sense - put onto your giving or your taking. It's all very karmic, in the simplest sense of what goes around comes around. All that's expected of you is your willingness to engage in the process, and with the other people involved in the process, as a person.

Charity it ain't. So if this sounds like your thing ... the last Saturday of every month, at St Girons market. See you there.

* LETS: local exchange trading scheme. SEL is the French equivalent, système d'échange local.

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