A Radical Geography Community
“What if we were to accept that the goal of thinking is not to extend knowledge by confirming what we already know, that the world is a place of domination and oppression? What if instead we thought about openings and strategic possibilities in the cracks?” (Gibson-Graham 2012: 37)
To celebrate Katherine Gibson’s 2012 Antipode RGS-IBG lecture (the video of which is now available online), ‘Take Back the Economy, Any Time, Any Place: Pedagogies for Securing Community Economies’, we’re pleased to present this virtual issue, ‘Imagining and Enacting Community Economies’. Katherine’s work is well known within and beyond Anglophone human geography. From The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), through A Postcapitalist Politics (both co-authored, as J.K. Gibson-Graham [2006a; 2006b], with Julie Graham), to her latest book, Take Back the Economy (Jenny Cameron, J.K. Gibson-Graham and Stephen Healy, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press [read a review here]), Katherine’s theorisations, discussions, and representations of what she calls ‘economic diversity’ have been, and remain, inspiring for those struggling to imagine and enact more sustainable, socially just, and – frankly – sane futures.
We hesitate to reduce such a wealth of work to an epigraph – not least because Katherine is a strict anti-reductionist! – but the one above captures the sheer ambition of the project so well, a project about nothing less than rethinking radical academic labour and its effects. Despite all the ink spilled over the irrelevance and obscurity of so much academic discourse, our anatomisations of ‘the capitalist economy’, ‘neoliberalism’, and the rest, Katherine and colleagues in the Community Economies Collective argue, are formidably consequential. Why? Because they produce a rather too exclusive understanding of ‘the economy’ – one indifferent, or blind, to the extent and contribution of alternative ways of economic life. When we discover that a dominant and oppressive capitalism ‘out there’ in the world is the only game in town, what we create ‘in here’ in our heads is a sense of hopelessness; noncapitalism is improbable (if not, perhaps, impossible), right?! Our tools for reflecting capitalist presents get more and more sophisticated, yet when it comes to effecting noncapitalist futures the anti-capitalist imagination is arguably impoverished. Our store of techniques is seriously – embarrassingly – understocked; we search for alternatives and come up empty-handed. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of…
So Katherine and colleagues urge us to do something which seems straightforward enough, but is in fact incredibly difficult: to see landscapes of real and credible economic difference; to see all kinds of viable and vital economic life in the world. Community economies where interdependence is recognised and respected and a commons produced and sustained, are not just possible – they’re present and proximate. Other values such as mutual aid, reciprocity, co-operation, and collaboration aren’t just ludicrous or utopian future goals – they’re perfectly realistic, here and now. And this is what taking the economy back means – reclaiming it, framing and constructing it as something open to our interventions, amenable to our ethics and politics, responsive to our contestations. Rather than either ignoring actually existing noncapitalisms as ‘peripheral’ and ‘marginal’, or disparaging them as ‘unconvincing’ and ‘inconsequential’, what about focusing on, and learning from, them? Rather than dismissing them, or writing them off, as inadequate vis-à-vis (or always already co-opted by) that which is ‘dominant’, what about struggling to make them more real, more viable? This is an academic practice which doesn’t judge and condemn but, rather, comprehends; one which is open, welcoming, receptive, and hospitable to economic diversity. What if the Left’s task were not – or not just – to criticise and undo, but to experiment and develop? What if social research was less about capturing and assessing one sort of reality than about bringing other sorts into existence? What if, that is to say, it was intentionally, and radically, performative?
The Marxist cultural theorist Terry Eagleton once said, in his book Ideology, that “any practice of political emancipation…involves that most difficult of all forms of liberation, freeing ourselves from ourselves” (1991:xii-xiv, emphasis added). And just as we shouldn’t have our heads in the sands about the possibility of alternative economies, so too we shouldn’t have our heads in the clouds about their difficulty. Gibson-Graham answer their own question, “[h]ow do we become not merely opponents of capitalism, but subjects who can desire and create ‘noncapitalism’?” (2006b: xxxv-xxxvi) with the concept of ‘resubjectivation’. “[T]he difficult process of cultivating subjects (ourselves and others) who can desire and inhabit noncapitalist economic spaces” (Gibson-Graham 2006a: x) involves the production of new dispositions to act and, perhaps more importantly, be acted upon. It’s hard work, lest we underestimate it, to be affected, put in motion, by noncapitalist alternatives: “opening to what can be learned from what is happening on the ground…we are being called to read the potentially positive futures barely visible in the present order of things, and to imagine how to strengthen and move them along” (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2010:342). This inclination to interpret the world differently, asking not ‘what is to be done?’ but, rather, ‘what is already being done?’ (2010: 331), and propensity to proliferate possibilities is hard won: “representations of existing and potential alternatives to capitalism may begin to resonate, to generate affect, to interpellate subjects, to ignite desire. In other words, they may become compelling” (Gibson-Graham 2006a: 21), but, of course, they may not. We’re too often “reluctant subjects” (Gibson-Graham 2006b: 23), unwilling or unable to experiment and develop.
Let’s hope the papers collected together here loosen us up (at least a bit), help us see openings, and provide a space of freedom and possibility. They will be freely available, without subscription, until the end of the year (see here also). Thanks are due to Wiley-Blackwell’s Rhiannon Rees for all her help.
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We open with Julie Graham’s (1990) ‘Theory and essentialism in Marxist geography’. It’s an excellent example of what we might call, borrowing the philosopher Roy Bhaskar’s words, philosophical ‘underlabouring’ for diverse economies. Oriented to their flourishing rather than mere existence, it clears the ground, removing some of the blocks that lie in the way to imagining and enacting them, and creating what Gibson-Graham will later call a ‘discursive space’. The critique of essentialism, of the presumption that a complex reality can be reduced to a simpler, ‘essential’, one, its essence or origin, lies at the heart of the community economies project. Rather than trying to identify a single cause or reason – ‘Capitalism’, for example – anti-essentialism explores multiple determinations. Places are emergent from and irreducible to myriad processes; they’re totalities where each process is constituted by and constitutive of (‘overdetermined and overdetermining’) all other processes, where every cause is an effect and vice versa.
Graham’s paper proved controversial, and next we move on to some responses and replies. Richard Peet (1992), for one, posed some difficult questions. To Peet’s mind, arguing for an understanding of causation in which ‘everything affects and is affected by everything else’ might well be a useful reminder for an essentialist/reductionist straw-man, yet unhelpful for the rest of us insofar as it’s rather too monist. One can accept the existence of a differentiated world – a world where each process constitutes and is constituted by all others – but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the language of ‘significant’ and ‘less significant’ determinations be abandoned. (As Jim Glassman  puts it in his contribution to this virtual issue, social phenomena are both overdetermined [the product of many determinations…] and overdetermined […the relative efficacy of which can be practically evaluated – always an empirical question].) In other words, the critique of essentialism isn’t very dialectical: saying that some things ‘matter’ more, are more ‘important’, than others in the determination of a phenomenon isn’t necessarily reducing it to – or, if you prefer, identifying it with – them. It’s plainly not a matter of some things being ‘essential’ and others ‘inessential’; one can be hierarchical without being essentialist, that is, and still eschew the discourse of singular ‘essences’ and ‘origins’?
Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff’s (1992) reply to Peet argues that while he focuses on the question of ‘significance’, anti-essentialists are more concerned with meaning: a process – again, think of ‘big C’ capitalism – means nothing, practically, without (or independent of) all other processes. As they see it, anti-essentialism creates rather than destroys: to relate processes to each other and investigate their interaction and interdependence is not to see them blur and lose definition as they sink into a flat mire, but to see them concretised, to see them with content. Only through interaction and interdependence do processes ‘live’ and become causal forces in the world.
Julie Graham’s (1992) reply waxes epistemological as well as ontological: “I understand knowledge as effective (rather than reflective) and social life as decentered and infinitely complex” (p. 149). Our knowledges don’t just represent the world – they’re implicated in it also, and we do ourselves, and it, a great disservice when we forget that. Compare Ronald Horvath and Katherine Gibson’s (1984) ‘Abstraction in Marx’s method’ – an early piece on the ‘reconstruction and extension’ of Marxism to help social scientists complete concrete analyses of concrete situations, in particular crises of and transitions within/between modes of production. It’s a good example of work seeking to understand and explain in order to change, struggling to see things ‘as they really are’, which is very different from Katherine and Julie’s later interventions.
Now we slide from the slippery ice of philosophical debate to the rough ground of actually existing noncapitalisms. Andrew Leyshon (2005) introduces a symposium on diverse economies with what is from the current conjuncture a very interesting discussion of what he calls “alternative economic repertoires” (p. 858) mobilised during crises. (Economic diversity mitigates the effects of market and state failure, he argues.) Writing in the mid 2000s, he asks “what is the prospect for diversity initiatives in a world where neoliberalism is so strong, both materially and ideologically?” (p. 860). How might we, one wonders, be sensitive to “the proliferative nature of economic life” (p. 859) now it’s on the ropes? Ann Oberhauser’s (2005) ‘Scaling gender and diverse economies: Perspectives from Appalachia and South Africa’ presents a concrete analysis of a concrete situation in which “diverse livelihood strategies” (p. 867) are rolled out, and proliferate, in times of crisis, while Michael Samers’ (2005) contribution to the symposium, ‘The myopia of “diverse economies”, or, A critique of the “informal economy”’, explores whether Leyshon, Oberhauser, and others are making a virtue out of necessity. Is ‘alternative’ synonymous with ‘progressive’? Is diversity always a good thing, something to be celebrated?
Kevin St Martin’s (2007) paper explores the persistence of noncapitalism in the fishing industry of New England. What are too often seen as ‘barriers’ to neoliberalisation (or, worse, as ‘archaic’ or ridiculously ‘deficient’, hopelessly ‘problematic’, etc.) might well be seen as foundations of an alternative economy (such as a share system of compensation and a common property resource in fisheries) – an alternative class process of surplus production, appropriation, and distribution. St Martin’s conclusion is particularly powerful: “While…[studies of enclosure, privatisation, neoliberalisation, etc. – Antipode’s bread and butter?!] are important and vital studies by which we can better understand the formation of capitalist futures in fisheries, they tell us little about the existing and persistent noncapitalist economy of fisheries and its potentials, nor do they tell us what, precisely, is lost with the transition to capitalism or how that transition happens in terms of class processes or economic subjectivities” (p. 544).
Janelle Cornwell’s (2012) ‘Worker co-operatives and spaces of possibility’ presents a project “to uncover or excavate the possible” (p. 728) – a study of the production of space and time, through practices rooted in consensus-based decision-making and negotiation, in a collectively-owned shop. Her argument is that “co-operative/communal work spaces…cultivate powerful subjective transformations” (p. 741): practices like consensus-based decision-making ‘interpellate’, to use an Althusserian word, subjects, bringing them into existence.
Kelvin Mason and Mark Whitehead (2012) don’t use the language of diverse economies but their work on ‘the contested politics of ethical place making’ is nonetheless interesting and important. They present a constructively critical engagement with the Transition Culture movement – that is, a movement concerned with the production of resilient places at a time when the related problems of peak oil and climate change loom large. Transition Culture institutes an urbanism where care at a distance means decreasing dependence on distant places, and a moral geography of increased care for vulnerable proximate others is emphasised. Mason and Whitehead stage a dialogue between critical-geographic theory and the movement, mobilising what they call a ‘supportive’ critique.
We close this virtual issue with J. K. Gibson-Graham and Gerda Roelvink’s (2010) contribution to Antipode’s 40th anniversary issue, The Point Is To Change It. With Gibson-Graham, Roelvink – who’s a Community Economies Collective member like Cornwell – sketches out ‘an economic ethics for the Anthropocene’. They argue that “…we are being called to read the potentially positive futures barely visible in the present order of things, and to imagine how to strengthen and move them along” (p. 342). All manner of ‘community researchers’ and ‘economic activists’ are learning from each other, transforming what are sometimes glimmers or murmurs of difference, making them ever more legible as they’re amplified through integration. The economic ethics they adumbrate is sensitive to: how a commons is produced and sustained; whether and how products and surplus are to be consumed; what is necessary to personal, social, and ecological survival; and how surplus is appropriated from and distributed to humans and the more than human (p. 331) – questions numerous researchers/activists ‘doing’ community economies ask themselves every day, and ones that humanity as a whole, faced with daunting threats like global warming, badly needs to think through.
Eagleton T (1991) Ideology. London: Verso
Gibson-Graham J K (2006a) The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (new edition). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Gibson-Graham J K (2006b) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University f Minnesota Press
Gibson-Graham J K (2012) Diverse economies: Performative practices for ‘other worlds’. In Barnes T J, Peck J and Sheppard E (eds) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Economic Geography (pp33-46). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell