Postcapitalist Politics

Julie Graham, who constitutes one half of the feminist economic geographer author-function known as J. K. Gibson-Graham, gave an excellent talk tonight about her/their new book, A Postcapitalist Politics. And as I struggle/race/work to finish the final chapter of my dissertation, my head’s abuzz with their ideas. Some are familiar from The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), which — by the way — is in print again, in a new and more affordable edition, in case you missed it the first time. But I won’t here try to sort out the old from the new: suffice to say it’s all good, and if you’re interested (and maybe even if you’re not) in alternatives to mainstream discursive constructions of the all-consuming all-commodified wholly market-based economy, they’re well worth your attention.

Here’s why.

Various economic time-use studies demonstrate that household economic transactions plus government economic transactions equal at least fifty percent of all economic transactions. When we take into account non-capitalist economic transactions (think co-ops, collectives, bartering, payment in kind, independent transactions, gift transactions, et cetera), considerably less than half of all economic transactions can be described as instances of commodified market-based capitalist economic exchange. In other words, if you draw economic activity as a pie chart, capitalist market transactions represent less than half of that pie. In such a circumstance, Julie argued, calling the economy “capitalist” is an act of discursive violence.

If we understand this, we also understand that capitalism is not co-extensive with social space, but rather exists as one type of transaction scattered over a heterogeneous economic landscape. This is not, however, a value judgment, or a way to say, “look how bad capitalism is.” It simply says: there are other types of of economic activity. Capitalism is not some monolithic and irresistible juggernaut.

Given such a circumstance, and given the injuries that capitalist market transactions can and do inflict upon individuals, we need to re-invigorate our economic imagination. We need to stop saying, “Well, the market made GM and Ford lay off those workers.” We need to stop saying, “Well, Enron had to happen someday.” We need to stop telling ourselves that the market is beyond human intervention, and we need to stop telling ourselves that layoffs and bankruptcies are signs of a healthy and competitive capitalist economy while at the same time shaking our heads at the co-ops and self-provisioning economic activities and gift economies as poor deluded pipe dreams doomed to fail. Alternatives to market transactions often thrive, and in fact thrive systemically, even as mainstream economists admit to systemic market failures. One is not better than the other, although it’s convenient for those who shape and control and benefit from certain types of economic discourse to claim as much.

Economies are always local and embodied in their emotional and affective and discursive connections and effects: they are, in fact, relational networks, with actions and consequences playing out in the individual nodes of those networks. (I’m here using “networks” mostly in the non-digital sense of the term, but also obviously with a self-conscious nod towards social software, digital economies, and Yochai Benkler’s new book. I’ll let the connections remain implicit for now, but they certainly constitute a topic to which I’ll be returning.) Community economies recognize and strengthen those networked interdependencies by generating and marshaling surplus, by creating well-being directly (think self-provisioning activities), and by restoring and enlarging the commons.

For composition, the generation and marshaling of surplus is deeply local, and it doesn’t flow only from the teacher to the students. Collaborative work is what generates and marshals surplus intellectual capital for reinvestment in the classroom labor cycle. That intellectual capital overflows from week to succeeding week, but also from semester to succeeding semester, and benefits the local and ongoing economies of writing and research. A community — which, Julie argued, is not necessarily spatially bound — makes and shares a commons (common property, common space, common knowledge) and so in that sense, the commons (might that include a rhetorical commons, with all its emotional and affective work?) is what helps to constitute a community.

Believe it or not, I got the compressed version of all those notes on the two sides of a single 3 x 5 index card. And then some.

More tomorrow on how this connects to teaching writing.

Postcapitalist Politics

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