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Anthony Fassi on "A Postcapitalist Politics"

Cover of "A Postcapitalist Politics": Beige cover. letter "A" looks like turning page

J.K. Gibson-Graham

A Postcapitalist Politics

University of Minnesota Press, 2006
360 pages
$25.00 paper

Reviewed by Anthony Fassi

A Postcapitalist Politics, the newest book by Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, shares its central argument with the duo’s 1996 The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It). In their earlier work Gibson and Graham (feminist economic geographers who publish under the pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham) apply feminist and queer theories to deconstruct the notion that capitalism is an impenetrable economic system. Gibson-Graham demonstrate that non-capitalist modes of production often exist alongside capitalism and that people who participate in capitalist wage labor frequently participate in alternative economic practices as well, such as housework, bartering, even theft. Distancing themselves from socialist alternatives to capitalism, such as state-sponsored communism, the duo maintains that the most effective resistance to capitalism comes in the form of interdependent community economies like the ones they have researched in the United States, Australia, and the Philippines. In A Postcapitalist Politics Gibson-Graham propose to construct a new “language of economic diversity” that might be used to cultivate solidarity among far flung community economies.

In their first chapter Gibson-Graham offer a critical interpretation of the film The Full Monty (1997) to demonstrate that economic agency can be found in unexpected places. Set in deindustrializing Sheffield, England in 1998, two unemployed workers happen upon a Chippendale’s show popular with local women. They then convince fellow out-of-work friends to join them in performing a striptease act. Gibson-Graham are inspired by the film’s characters, who are heavily invested in so-called masculine, gender-affirming occupations, but who reinvent their identities within a changing economic landscape. For Gibson-Graham the film demonstrates that individual identity and sexuality can become key elements in creating new forms of economic agency. 

Next, the authors critically read the history of economic development in Australia’s Latrobe Valley to argue that there is nothing inevitable about the way a region’s economy evolves. The development of the Valley might have taken wildly different turns, for example, had Charles Merz not been consulted to write a report on its power-generating resources in 1908. Merz concluded that the state of Victoria could best provide the then-burgeoning city of Melbourne with electricity by building a power-generating station in the coal-rich Latrobe Valley. According to Gibson-Graham, Merz’s report “first enlisted the Latrobe Valley…into an explicitly economic frame of reference and constituted it as a potential site of governmentality.” It is, of course, impossible to say whether the invention of electricity was more of a determining factor in the Valley’s history than the hiring of Merz or the location of Melbourne. Gibson-Graham hope that their historical analysis of the Valley’s development will inspire other economists to join them in “denaturalizing the Economy and its capitalist forms of subjection.” 

Moving away from film analysis and historical narrative, the authors begin to construct their “language of economic diversity” in chapters three and four. In chapter three Gibson-Graham employ the familiar iceberg metaphor to suggest that capitalist wage labor is only the visible part of a much wider range of economic relations. Beneath the waterline are a vast number of alternative economic practices including self employment, producer cooperatives, illegal work, under-the-table wage labor, and unpaid labor. Gibson-Graham argue that challenging capitalism’s stronghold on economic thought without condensing alternative economic practices into a single category like “non-capitalist work” requires a whole new language of economic relations. In chapter four the authors extend their discursive project from the realm of the individual to that of the community. If we allow that individuals need new languages to make sense of their diverse economic identities, it follows that cooperative or community economies (such as farmers’ markets and fair trade agreements) would likely benefit from a shared discourse that is neither capitalocentric nor dogmatically anti-capitalist. Gibson-Graham claim that community economies are “explicitly about resocializing economic relations” and that in such communities “economic decisions (about the prices of goods, wage levels, bonus payments, reinvestment strategies, sale of stock, and so forth) are made in the light of ethical discussions.” In defining the community economies they study according to ethical criteria, the authors shift the focus of economic agency away from competition and towards cooperation without disavowing capitalism or embracing communist revolution. 

The problem with creating a language of community economy and ethical cooperation, as the authors point out, is that the theoretically-informed discourses one might produce in the academy will have little relevance for actually existing communities. To avoid the risk of creating a “private language” of economic alternatives to capitalism, the authors root their discursive insights in lessons they’ve learned while conducting “action research projects” in Australia, the United States and the Philippines. In these projects, Gibson-Graham attempt to destabilize power relations between academically-affiliated researchers and research subjects by employing local members of each community to help conduct interviews, compile data, and provide results. The authors feel that listening to the way local residents of community economies talk about their economic agency helps economists like themselves better understand and represent new forms of economic participation. Of particular interest is Gibson-Graham’s research in the Janga municipality of the Philippines. According to the authors, Janga has only a tiny capitalist economy that fails to meet the needs of most of its inhabitants. While some inhabitants work in informal sectors of the local economy, many are forced to join the global workforce and support their families by sending money home from abroad. Gibson-Graham argue that such arrangements, where centers of global capital essentially fund underdeveloped regions, are neither necessary nor desirable. They claim that economists should begin recognizing the work of groups like the Asian Migrant Center which helps migrants invest in local cooperative investment projects. The authors note that Janga already has a “diverse community economy” comprised of small farms and businesses, individual entrepreneurship, local family networks and other forms of economic cooperation that can benefit from local investment programs. In Gibson-Graham’s estimation, the Janga municipality has the kind of informal and cooperative economic infrastructure that could eventually provide for its economic stability and enable it to distance itself from both the authoritarian government of the Philippines and centers of global capital. 

Most readers will likely admire Gibson-Graham’s attempt to think beyond the confines of capitalism without succumbing to nostalgic ideas about leftist revolution. However, while the authors hope to empower people to speak clearly about alternative economies, they fail to dispense with poststructuralist jargon. It is not clear how many everyday practices like shopping at the farmers’ market, cooking a meal for the babysitter, or trading labor with friends, fit into the new economic language of community economies that Gibson-Graham advocate. Nevertheless, large-scale events drastically alter how we conceive of capitalism and socialism, as well as alternative forms of economic practice. Consider the current fiscal crisis. Finding themselves in dire economic straits, many Americans are likely to question American capitalist practice or the nature and scope of federal economic regulation. In failing to demonstrate how their new language of economy is affected by widespread economic and political change, Gibson-Graham leave this reviewer wondering how the crisis will impact community economies. Is there an inverse relationship between the state of the economy and the non-capitalist initiatives Gibson-Graham describe? Or, will the global credit crunch adversely affect community investment initiatives? While Gibson-Graham do little to help answer these questions, they undoubtedly provide readers with numerous examples of how local communities sustain themselves by creatively forging new kinds of economic relationships and economic agency. During the current economic downturn perhaps more American communities will find inspiration and hope in Gibson-Graham’s message. Like The Full Monty’s victims of deindustrialization and migrant workers the world over, Americans would likely do well to cultivate new sources of local sustainability.