The notion of a gift economy was suggested by the eccentric Parisian thinker and social philosopher Georges Bataille in the early 20th century, based upon the notion of gift as it was understood by Marcel Mauss, another Frenchman, a sociologist and anthropologist who developed the theme of the gift as an alternative and antidote to the scarcity-based economics which he felt characterized the capitalist system of the times.
The gift economy overturns most of our accumulated economic wisdom, principally because there is not a historical precedent of a society which has existed solely by it, although temporary manifestations crop up almost universally from cultures as diverse as the Aztec and Maya to that of modernity as it often behaves in times of prosperity. Fundamentally, the work of Mauss (who was a disciple as well as a nephew of Emile Durkheim) in exploring the nature of "The Gift" is less a science or a workable theoretical system than the observation of an interesting common cultural behavior by a gifted social scientist.
Central to the gift economy is the assumption of economic surplus rather than scarcity of resources. If it is assumed that society produces far more than it can actually consume, then it's quite logical that what is done with that surplus will determine to a great extent the nature of that society. In dealing with surplus in this type of economic system, value accrues with gift-giving, rather than with possession -- your contribution, rather than your consumption, is of social significance.
Bataille, a surrealist who denigrated the value of reason and valued irrationality, states of madness and emotional frenzy, and the achievement of homeostasis over economic progress, was a champion of "living in the moment" and its corresponding irresponsibility. He embraced Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence (an idea abhorrent and even frightening to Nietzsche himself) as a validation of this idea of escape from the artificial pressures of time and our insatiable hunger for progress through removing the telos which drove man relentlessly toward the pursuit of ever-changing goals. Bataille's notion of the gift is closely related to his idea of sacrifice. He saw the phenomenon of the potlatch as an expression of a human need to annihilate excess, rather than hoard it, considering the gift as a primary means of expunging excess, a loss rather than an exchange. A fundamental need which sought to liberate man from the endless cycle of consumerism, this "destructive" behavior was seen by Bataille as a way to disconnect expenditure and meaning. The subjecthood, he reasoned - the loss of personal power which a gift represented in primitive societies - was a factor altogether forgotten when goods became simply an depersonalized commodity to be anonymously given to consumers.
Potential Problems with a Gift Economy
It's interesting to note that economic competition doesn't actually stop within a gift economy. Rather, the paradoxical logical phenomenon of the potlatch occurs - you cannot give what you don't already own, so the individual with the most property still is accorded a higher status (even if he loses it in giving the gift). As much as there is political pressure to accumulate property in economic scarcity, so there is similar social incentive to give it away in a surplus economy. The implicit problem, of course, is that when the prosperity cannot be taken for granted, the socioeconomic mechanisms will be in conflict with material conditions and it would probably be very difficult to accomplish the radical alteration in culture in sufficient time to ensure economic survival.
The idea of a gift economy seems fairly inapplicable at least to manufactured goods, which definitely do not posess an inherent abundance and are rarely the product of an individual. In principle, the assigning of productive value to the gift is interesting and useful if we are talking about the productive labor of an individual which allows him to bestow that "gift" on the larger community and to gain status from that giving, in the sense of a craftsman and his craft.
But I simply don't see it as being a useful concept at all when dealing with scarce material resources or with productions which are largely the result of organized labor. Although the nature of our economy has shifted greatly from agrarian, industrial, and even retail sales towards a service orientation in the past century, we are simply far too dependent upon our production of material goods to consider this as a feasible universal alternative within a complex, global society very much rooted in the economics of scarcity.
"Georges Bataille and the Notion of Gift" (http://www.lemmingland.com/bataille.html)
Graeber, David. "Marcel Mauss -- Give it Away" (http://slash.autonomedia.org/analysis/02/10/11/1246214.shtml)
"Marcel Mauss" (http://emuseum.mnsu.edu/information/biography/klmno/mauss_marcel.html)