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J.K. Gibson-Graham, Take Back the Economy

by Oliver Mispelhorn on June 19, 2018
Past & Present

I first became aware of the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham a few years ago, when a friend recommended that I read their seminal work The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A feminist Critique of Political Economy. Being instantly fascinated by what the book suggested, I bought a copy and began reading. Upon first attempt, however, I found it impenetrable. Over a year later, on second attempt, I managed to get through the book cover to cover. I found it an incredibly engaging and stimulating read. This is where Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson lay out their ontological and discursive agenda:

Theorising capitalism itself as different from itself – as having, in other words, no essential or coherent identity – multiplies (infinitely) the possibility of alterity. At the same time, re-contextualising capitalism in a discourse of economic plurality destabilises its presumptive hegemony.

A key insight from this work – capitalism’s ability to colonise discourse and effectively limit our ability to consider alternatives to capitalism – stayed with me, and informs my approach to researching and building alternatives to capitalism in my own academic and personal life. It is from this position that I was so interested to read their more recent work, Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming our Communities (here J.K. Gibson-Graham are joined by Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy as co-authors).

Moving from their ‘thick’ earlier discursive work, Take Back the Economy is a decidedly ‘thin’ work – almost all discussion of theory is conspicuously absent from this book. Indeed, this book is written as a straightforward, empirical guide for those on the left (or anyone really) who are tired of getting mired in theoretical debates and actually just want to get out there and start building a new economy. In this sense, this book is an admirable project. Pushing back against the logic of ‘there is no alternative’, the book, by providing lots of real-world examples of practicing alternatives, shows that there are in fact ‘many alternatives’.

The members of the Past & Present Reading Group were all broadly sympathetic with the book as an attempt to provide a road map for individuals or groups interested in alternatives to capitalism. This is a difficult task, to be sure, and it is commendable for anyone to attempt to provide a holistic vision for doing so. However, almost all members of the group were critical of some or most of the particular methods by which the authors advocate for taking back the economy. And it is through these specific instances where unfortunately the book falls down as a realistic guide to building alternatives to capitalism.

Take Back the Economy opens with the metaphor of the community garden, which frames the analysis that will follow:

The community garden offers a simple vision of interdependence among the gardeners, other people, and the natural world. The gardeners make decisions about the forms this interdependence will take…Economies are basically no different from this garden – each economy reflects decisions around how to care for and share a commons, what to produce for survival, how to encounter others in the process of surviving well together, how much surplus to produce, how to distribute it, and how to invest it for the future. These decisions are made under varying conditions of plenty and scarcity.

After an introduction to the project, the book is split into five chapters addressing how to take back different facets of the economy: work, business, the market, property, and finance each in turn. The chapters of the book do not provide one particular vision for taking back each part of economic life, thus they do not build towards any particular central thesis of a coherent strategy on taking back the economy. Rather, the chapters provide different examples from around the world of individuals and groups practicing alternative economics. Throughout, the authors pose questions, asking the reader to consider whether any of these examples would be applicable in their own life. Fitting with its positioning as a guidebook, the book is full of pictures, diagrams, tables, and other different visual tools to help support and simplify the points being articulated.

In the second chapter, the authors ask us to rethink work by reconsidering the mix of paid work, ‘alternatively’ paid work, and unpaid work that we take on. The underlying idea being that community economics requires a shift towards valuing ‘alternative’ and unpaid work more than we do in modern capitalist economies, where the emphasis tends to be centred on paid work. Examples are given of three individuals – an American lawyer, an Australian disability pensioner, and a Filipino farmer – to show that more material prosperity doesn’t necessarily lead to greater life wellbeing. At face value this is a fair point. But in emphasising the need to reconsider work-life balance, the authors fail to consider the role of class. It is easy for someone in a dominant class position to be able to make ‘ethical’ choices. The authors take a normative position that we should all consider ‘downshifting’, without any consideration for how class plays into these processes. Indeed, many of us simply cannot afford to downshift.

In our discussions on Take Back the Economy, many in the Past & Present Group were frustrated by the book’s lack of consideration of class and also of the State, in thinking about post-capitalist possibilities. The theory of change being put forward by the authors here is very individualistic. On one hand, this gives agency to individuals in terms of being able to consider and practice alternatives to capitalism. One thought I had while reading it was that maybe if the authors were more critical along the way, it would be dissuasive to readers considering these types of approaches. I thought that maybe they’ve tried to keep it simple in order to be encouraging, rather than repelling potential readers or converts with lengthy theoretical debates. It also fits within Gibson-Graham’s post-structuralist ontology not to give particular weight to the state structure within capitalism. To them, emphasising the structure of capital would be indulging in a ‘capitalocentric’ framework.

On the other hand, though, this leaves a lot of the examples provided in the book open to criticism, particularly for failing to consider systemic problems that may lead to initiatives not actually taking back the economy, but rather just perpetuating the status quo. For instance, the worker-cooperatives discussed in the book provide great existing examples of alternatives to capitalism. However, the book fails to discuss the many instances where successful co-ops convert back into capitalist firms. Or the difficulty co-ops have surviving in the capitalist marketplace. Indeed, that they have to survive in the capitalist marketplace indicates a condition of market dependency, something that is not addressed in the book. A similar point can be made with the example of credit unions or community banks as a means to take back finance. They do work well at a small scale but nothing is said here about how, as credit unions increase in size, they tend to behave more and more like commercial banks.

Building from capitalism’s ability to colonise discourse, is capitalism’s ability to colonise and co-opt existing alternatives to capitalism into the capitalist system. Considering the depth of Gibson-Graham’s earlier work, it was surprising that there was no discussion or even mention of this point anywhere in the book. From the chapter on taking back the market, the question was asked in the group as to whether fair trade and ethical consumption can really be seen to be alternatives to capitalism. A major critique that arose out of our discussion on this book was the issue of how to scale-up things that work well at a local level. Because many of the examples in the book are actually good examples, of things that many of us support or would support, given the opportunity. The truly difficult obstacle to these small-scale community projects becoming actual alternatives to capitalism, though, is size. Along with this, the book fails to mention the necessity, at some point or other, of engaging with the state, either directly or as a social relation.

The whole premise of the book, by proposing to ‘take back the economy’, instantly begs the question, ‘take back for who?’ There is an irony underlying this project. This is that those who may be best able to ‘take back the economy’, in an individualistic way, are likely already to be those who benefit the most from the current economy as it were. By focusing on individual agency and decision-making, there is almost a neoclassical undertone to the book’s methodology. The book proposes that as rational agents making ‘ethical’ decisions, our individual choices will affect change in the aggregate. I do agree that it is an important part of any progressive project to empower individuals to see themselves as agents of change. But by not considering questions of class and the role of the state and capital in the ability to command or curtail alternatives to capitalism, Take Back the Economy limits itself to being a survey of some of the existing alternatives to capitalism, rather than a real guide of how to build these disparate practices into a broader social movement.

If this is the best we can do in the current political-economic context, then this book is a comment on the role of progressive movements and resistance to capitalism in the current moment. If, however, you hold onto the belief that we on the left are still capable of organising broader social movements in opposition to capitalism, Take Back the Economy is not going to be a guide to help you furthering these societal goals.

Many thanks to Llewellyn Williams-Brooks for his helpful comments on this post.  

Oliver Mispelhorn
Oliver Mispelhorn is a Master’s (coursework) student in Political Economy at the University of Sydney. His research interests include finance theory, the political economy of Australian capitalism, and worker cooperatives. He is currently completing a Master’s dissertation on the structural barriers to building worker cooperatives in the Australian context.
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  • D Kuch
    June 20, 2018 at 11:38 am

    A decent review until you dismiss Gibson’s approach as ‘individualistic’ – an absurd claim about the Diverse Economies ontology articulated in the book and related Community Economies Research Network. I strongly suggest you revisit the projects on the companion website

    What this review also leaves begging is the question of _how_ the author’s favoured approach focused on concepts of the state and capitalism can create the grounds for an alternative. Or is the left just doomed to a didactic, masochistic relation to capital? The author seems happy with this fate…

  • Oliver Mispelhorn
    July 1, 2018 at 12:47 pm

    I do think that the project is individualistic in the sense that it draws no connection between individual or smaller-group projects with wider societal movements and considerations, such as class and the state. This point reflects the general opinion of the entire group that read the book, so I am not alone in holding this view. In group discussions we were constantly asking ‘where is the state’ or ‘where is class’ in many of their examples. So I do think this is a problem with this book.

    If you read my points at the end, I don’t see my critique as being a resignation of any kind. I just think that the left needs to work towards broader social movements, engage with the state and state institutions in pressing for change, and to consider questions of class throughout. In short, more collective considerations than small local projects, although local projects are still important. The issue isn’t that the authors’ approach or the project they focus on aren’t good – indeed they highlight many good projects. The issue is the lack of connection drawn between different diffuse projects and with broader social processes.

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