Abstract: This is a symposium of 3 reviews of the book ‘Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities’, by JK Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy. The reviews are written by Steffen Böhm, Peter North and Massimo de Angelis. The book authors also offer a response.
The news today is dominated by business and the economy: the latest job and GDP growth figures, company takeovers, bank bonuses, company financial news. The presenters of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 now routinely give airtime to the bosses of supermarkets presenting their latest annual, or even quarterly, financial results.It is rather comical and sad to see John Humphries being reincarnated as business journalist. That the annual profits of supermarkets are presented as ‘news’ shows how far the financialisation of the economy and our lives in general has come – with even public broadcasters, such as the BBC, largely being the mouthpieces of the economic and business elites in the UK and elsewhere. As Gibson-Graham, Cameron and Healy, the authors of this very readable, practical,yet radical book, rightly say, the economy is mostly represented through numbers and other abstract data: GDP figures, jobless rates, wage rates, etc. The economy is imagined to be a machine that is programmed and controlled by the Treasury (or government finance department), perhaps with input from the big banks and other financial institutions. Most people have internalised the image of the economy being something that is ‘out there’, something that is done to us. We are simply small cogs in a large wheel that is too big to control.The premise and important message of this book is that it is within our grasp and interest that we don’t let ‘them’ dictate to ‘us’ what the economy and business are about.We don’t have to wait for a revolution. Capitalism is not an all-encompassing system that dominates everybody and everything on this planet. Instead, it has many holes, allowing alternative economic practices to exist alongside capitalist interests. The very practical task of Take Back the Economy is to give airtime to such ‘alternatives’. These include, for example, a number of alternative market relations, such as fair trade, cooperatively run factories and community supported agriculture and business, as well as a range of non-market economic practices, such as household flows, gift-giving, hunting, fishing and gathering. With very useful illustrations and ‘how-to’ guides, the authors convincingly show that we can run economic ventures and our livelihoods ourselves.
Take food, for example. Why should our food system be dominated by multinational supermarket corporations? Many people are taking back control of the food they consume by either growing it themselves (in back gardens, allotments or community gar-dens) or sourcing it from trusted, local sources, such as community-supported agriculture schemes – with many benefits for people, communities, local businesses and the planet.While the book sends out a very hopeful message, which I support, many questions remain about the impact such alternative practices may have on the wider truths of ‘real existing capitalism’.First, there is the question of scale. Most of the book’s examples work at local levels:local food, local currency, local and small-scale business. As neoliberal capitalism and globalisation make business ever more impersonal (supermarkets being the champions of the disconnection and dislocation economy), it is very understandable that people are trying to compensate for that – for example, by getting involved in a community farm.Yet, capitalism can exist quite happily with a plethora of local alternatives, even explicitly anti-capitalist economic relations. Many people who are involved in local food projects, for example, are still shopping at supermarkets, seeing their ‘alternative’ practices more like a leisure activity that is good for their health and good for meeting other people. In this way, one could see local food as an ‘alternative’ social activity that nevertheless helps workers reproduce themselves. Are allotment communities perhaps the life-support mechanism for supermarkets?As many feminists, including Nancy Fraser, have argued for a long time, alternative market and non-market relations, such as household work, including food growing, preparation and cooking, have always played a vital role in how workers are able to reproduce their labour power that is then harnessed by for-profit enterprises. The secret of capitalism’s ‘success’ does not only lie in the way production and work relations is structured. Without a clean house and environment, childcare, and a healthy population, to name but a few examples, capitalism could not function. These ‘services’ are often not paid for by capital; instead the state, the housewife or house husband, or communities provide these services for free, without which, however, (supermarket) workers could not reproduce themselves, so that they can work effectively on their shift again the next day (or night).Local food projects and other alternative economic practices – however well-meaning and necessary they are – do not change the exploitative and unsustainable logics of the global food system, driven by for-profit interests and financial markets. Colchester, in the East of England, the town I live in, is already dominated by supermarket chains, yet more are planned. There is no rational need for more gigantic superstores or convenience shops, yet the blood continues to be sucked out of our town and city centres by multinational companies seeking to impress The City and the global financial markets. This is the logic of compound growth, as discussed by David Harvey (2012) in his latest book,which means that capital has to find ever bigger investment and profit opportunities in order to reproduce itself.This is not to say there is no hope. Of course there is. In Rebel Cities, for example,Harvey talks about the need to connect a range of alternative, local practices of value creation to produce a revolutionary impulse that is able to threaten the logic of global,financial capital. But let us be clear about the challenge. Global supermarket chains and
all the other multinational corporations engaged in the global food system, to use just one example, will not simply give up their terrain without a fight. There are vested interests that extend to the political, legal and military system that hold current unsustainabilities in place. But there is the soft power of recuperation too. Supermarkets are making billions nowadays with ‘alternatives’: organic, local, fair trade and other healthier or more sustainable food-buying options. Yet, industrialisation, exploitation and unsustainability remain at the heart of today’s food system and global corporate capital in general. It is perhaps no coincidence that in times of capitalist crisis, alternative ideas and practices emerge. Marx’s contribution has been to show that capitalism is dependent on these crises and alternatives for its own reproduction. This includes the non-capitalist spheres of the informal economy and the innovative spheres of anti-capitalist alternatives and struggles for local reconnections to communities and the environment. While every alternative to capitalism will inevitably start at a local level somewhere, we must not disavow the importance of many local, non-market practices for the social, cultural, environmental and economic reproduction of capitalism. While many of us think and hope that alternatives can displace capitalism from within, it may just be that our resistance is the very incubator capital is dependent on to renew itself.
Categories: Reviews and Interventions