Economy has been described as a practical and prudent art of household management; as a strategic arrangement of goods (broadly conceived) for a specific purpose and intent; as a reduction or accommodation for the sake of efficiency and expediency; as a market; and as a system of exchange. It is this latter association that I want to focus on here, without losing sight of the other valences. It is common today for economy, in a general sense, to be invoked in relation to exchange. At the heart of this exchange economy is often an assumption of reciprocity or balanced and equal swaps. I want to explore the conceptual challenge of thinking about such balanced or equal exchanges coupled with the fundamental inequality of exchange as such. This invites consideration of what just exchanges might involve.

When exchange is brought up, the question of reciprocity is also often raised. Yet, exchange and reciprocity do not appear to be the same thing. Exchange indicates the giving of one thing and the receipt of another, in ways that these two are related. The giving and receipt of one good somehow impel the giving and receipt of the other. Exchange does not speak to motivations or to background assumptions or conditions. It is the act, or the system that enables the act. Reciprocity verges into moral territory and partakes of a notion of adequate or acceptable balance and even fairness or justice. Reciprocity is one reason why exchange may happen, but reciprocity is not the only condition or driver for exchange. If anything, reciprocity seems to be an addition, a rider attached to exchange, to direct it in ways that appear fair.

Whether or not reciprocity is invoked, however, we tend to conceive of exchange in terms of equivalences. The language of “tit for tat,” for instance, conjures to mind a balancing act. One thing is given in exchange for another under the assumption that this exchange is somehow equal. We agree to exchanges with the assumption that we are getting back that which is equal to what we are giving. Reciprocity and the language of reciprocal exchanges underscores this.

But, as is plain, exchange is predicated on difference and inequality. An exchange is the swap of dissimilar objects, services, or goods. The basis for an exchange and the need that propels it are precisely that others have what we don’t have and what we need or want more of. It assumes we have something to give in return, which they lack or desire for some reason. Exchange would be meaningless if the items exchanged were actually identical and equivalent.

I’ve written elsewhere about the sense of false equivalence that money perpetuates, masquerading as a way to settle a debt but in reality carrying it forward. We think handing over currency in exchange for a good or service somehow satisfies that obligation and balances accounts. But what it really does is now obligate the recipient of money to undertake another exchange with someone else in order to get the value we were supposed to give them when we gave them money instead. In the case here of economy as exchange broadly construed, what I’m getting at is the misrecognition that appears necessary to partake of exchange at all. Exchange and the reciprocity that supports it are carried out under a pretense of equivalence.

This is, of course, the problem of exchange value, although it long precedes the age of commodity fetishism under capitalism. Before the money form and the market for seemingly identical, mass-produced commodities obscured the social relations of laborers behind them, humans sought to make sense of and make peace with the fact that mutuality and interdependence required the unequal give and take of material and nonmaterial goods. One longstanding way to accommodate to this inequality has simply been to misrecognize exchanges as equal—in other words, simply to believe exchanges can be equal despite the fundamental inequality at the heart of exchange, and to act as if this equality was so.

Since the advent of complex civilizations and the related, co-emergent concerns over balance, scale, and measurement, humans in society have long become accustomed to dealing with the ambivalences and lack of equivalences that exchange involves. Gifts, debts, and sacrifices are examples of ways we approach exchange with the acknowledgement that it “may” involve inequality and difference. Gifts invoke temporal delays and nonreciprocal or nonidentical forms of return; debts mark one-sided giving with explicit terms of repayment; and sacrifice can—although need not—indicate one-sided postures of giving where no return is guaranteed. But the problem of speaking in terms of gifts, debts, and sacrifices is that it perpetuates the misrecognition that there are some types of exchanges that are identical and equal. In other words, if we use gifts, debts, and sacrifices to speak of imbalanced and unequal exchanges this reinforces for us the mythology that there really is a realm of balanced and equal exchanges.

This opacity around the inequivalence of exchange appears to be part of the set of fictions necessary for social existence. Life together includes negotiating this absence of identity and equality and in some cases eliding very obvious differences and disjunctions in the name of stability and perpetuity. Evidence suggests that some of the earliest law codes, dating from around 2000 BCE, already establish equivalences between insults and injuries, on one hand, and the material objects of value accepted as compensation for them, on the other. In other words, silver, gold, or other precious objects could be given to balance out an injury or offense. The giving of one radically different item could conceivably equal the wrong committed. We as humans in complex societies apparently have learned to require a notion of equivalence and balance as a baseline in order for society to exist. We need to maintain the guise that our vulnerabilities, porous selves, needs from and for others, all net out in order for us to justify our presence in and participation in society.

It may be that this assumption of equivalence, which I have approached as something of a baseline for exchange, is actually an idea that has emerged late in the development of civilizations. Perhaps it’s a shift from millennia of living with patently unequal, qualitatively different, and non-quantified exchanges. In other words, things like gifts and sacrifices probably were the norm for exchange for a long time; exchanges were marked by clear imbalances in power and obligation. Perhaps the notion of equivalent reciprocity that now dominates our notion of exchange is the result of subsequent millennia of attempts at disciplining economy with the power of quantification and measurement, and accompanying aesthetics of balance and proportion. As the early law codes suggest, such measure and balance support a sense of justice.

Invoking this misrecognition and false notion of equivalence is not necessarily to speak of an injustice, unless our idea of justice always requires identity, balance, and equivalence. It certainly has included this as a core value for millennia. But the fact that exchanges can never be equal does not need to mean they are always unjust. At the same time, noting the inherent presence of difference and nonequivalence in exchange is not a license to abuse exchange relations and relieve oneself of the claims of just exchange. This invocation is rather to highlight the delicate social balancing act between the reality of non-equivalence as the baseline for all exchanges, on one hand, in relation to our commensurate insistence that exchanges can—and, very often, should—be equal, on the other. Whether this fiction is actually necessary for the social fabric or a deep occlusion that prevents other forms of sociality from developing remains to be seen.