It seemed like this would be an easy way to share the response I wrote for this week’s class.
Crawling out from under the specter of capitalism.
Our readings this week consider the development of alternative economies and also try to draw attention to the many activities in our lives that lie outside the bounds of capitalism. In Aftermath, Castells et al list some of the many activities that people commonly engage in without expecting payment: fixing a bike or a car, watching a neighbor’s children, growing one’s own vegetables, creating a mesh-net for affordable internet access. Whether for barter, ideology, or just done out of neighborliness, none of these activities can be defined by capitalist social relations. In Aftermath, the authors note that people often do these things without consciously considering their ideology, though in this case the authors tried to draw attention to those who took on the development of co-ops, trade economies, or consensus-based organizing strategies as an attempt to build a different type of world. As they put it, it is constructing a better future from as many meaningful presents as possible.
Pablo Guerra, in his article, “La economía solidaria en Latinoamérica,” focuses more on the institutional development of alternative economies. While he argues that Brazil has gone further than other countries to develop the solidarity economy (they have even appointed a minister to the task), many countries throughout Latin America have encouraged their development as well. Solidarity economies, following the motto of the World Social Forum, seek to create better worlds through better economies. They embody forms of production and consumption based on social and environmental well-being, not simply profits.
One idea left underdeveloped by the authors is the persistent exaggeration, on both the left and the right, of just how pervasive capitalist social relations really are. While capitalism aptly defines the macro-structure of nearly all the dominant economies in the world, many of us regularly embody and enact social, economic, and political relationships that should not be thought of in terms of capitalism. As graduate students, of course, we participate in a publicly funded institution. The residents of the state choose to invest in the University system out of a commitment to the public good, not because of the profits that it generates. The outrage directed at the crass and stupid attempt of the Walker administration to redefine the University as a trade school demonstrates the widespread public support for this good. Further, much of what we do to sustain ourselves also falls outside of capitalism. Sometimes referred to as social reproduction, cooking food, raising children, and cleaning our houses are rarely governed in terms of wage relations.
JK Gibson Graham, who Castells et al cite, have written extensively about the exaggeration of just how deeply capitalist social relations penetrate our daily lives. By reifying capitalism—understanding it as a thing, not a process—we come to see and fear it as something perhaps more powerful and gripping than it really is. In their book, The end of capitalism (as we knew it): A feminist critique of political economy, they outline three fictions of capitalism. First, that it is a unified system. What is called capitalism of course manifests in many diverse ways around the globe. Second, that it is singular and has no peer. This has perhaps been argued most infamously by Francis Fukuyama when he claimed that the fall of the Soviet Union meant that we had arrived at the ‘end of history,’ suggesting that capitalism represented a pinnacle of human achievement. Finally, they argue that the ‘totality’ of capitalism is a myth. This is its reification. By treating capitalism as an “embrace,” it is understand as a container with no outside, something in which all human activity is contained.
While Gibson-Graham acknowledge the importance of radical critiques, such as David Harvey’s, that have painstakingly described the dominations of capitalist social relations, they also argue that it can limit our imagination. For example, Harvey cautioned in, Rebel Cities, that radical social movements may ultimately fail if they do not produce systemic revolution because they may be absorbed into the state or economic apparatus. Guerra shares a similar concern in his article, worrying that the solidarity economy may be adopted in name, but not in substance, by corporations or governments. What Gibson-Graham’s work points out is that the performance of these alternatives, both on the ground and in academic imaginations, loosens the stranglehold of capitalism in our imaginations, even if no single alternative has yet led to global revolution.
By pointing out the extent and diversity of social and economic relationships that can not accurately be defined in terms of capitalism, this week’s authors help us to see that we already live in a world exemplified by many alternatives to the narrow, objectifying, lens offered by capitalism. It is certainly important to acknowledge and encourage the efforts people make to consciously enact alternative economies, but I suggest that it is also important to consciously describe the many non-capitalist relationships in which we are already engaged, regardless of the professed ideology behind those choices. Education funded in large part by taxpayer support is a public good that has carried on with widespread popular support 150 years. When we cook dinner for our friends, fix their cars, and share our extra tomatoes with them, we show our affinity for a society based largely on mutual aid. By describing these activities in these terms, academics can demonstrate that successful alternative economies already exist and make up the bulk of our daily lives. In doing so, they can undermine the mythology of capitalism as a totalizing system reaching deep into our lives.