Economy as Ecology, Postcapitalism in the writings of J.K. Gibson Graham

Water Mill, photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

Water Mill, photo courtesy of Pennine Horizons Digital Archive.

“What if we were to see the economy as ecology -as a web of human ecological behaviors no longer bounded but fully integrated into a complex flow of ethical and energetic interdependencies: births, contaminations, self-organizings, mergings, extinctions, and patterns of habitat maintenance and destruction?”

J.K. Gibson Graham is the joint pen name for feminist economic geographers Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham.  My purpose here is flag up their writings as a source of ideas on cultivating postcapitalist enclaves, and selves. “When we begin to recognize that we are not alone in our livelihoods, and that our human economies are inextricably linked with the economies of more-than-human others, might our ways of understanding and experiencing economic crisis, development and well-being begin to fundamentally shift? … Can we, for example, begin to see the chickens, bees and fruit trees of a cooperative farm not as part of that farm’s commons (as shared resources), but rather as living beings participating in the co-constitution of the community that, together, makes and shares the farm?”(1)

Whilst I found myself enthusing about some of this recent writing about economy as ecology, I was troubled by A Postcapitalist Politics.  Geared towards an academic readership, this quite densely theoretical tome claims to be influenced by ‘the postcapitalist indigenous communalism’ of the Zapatistas, by anarchic situationism -with its ability to ‘send affective shockwaves that reverberate through the brittle architecture of established forms’, by second wave feminism -with its organisational horizontality and insistence on non-monopoly of the spoken word or information, by Mondragon -with its extensive network of worker-owned co-operatives, and by the World Social Forums -that bring together local social movements that co-create a politics of possibility.

I was not at all sure, however, how this rousing chorus of influences informed some of the material from their own local action research projects. In an opening chapter dealing with ‘affects and emotions for a postcapitalist politics’ I was uncomfortable with the use of medicalising and/or psychologising terms (‘paranoia’ and ‘melancholia’) in relation to an impulse to locate and defend rigidly ‘politically correct’ theories.  Whilst it may well be useful to examine our emotional investment in adopting certain kinds of political position, my background in the critical mental health movement alerts me to the need, at the very least, to acknowledge the historical and present day consequences of the medicalistion of distress and madness.

The authors invite us to dis-identify with the subject positions offered by hegemonic ‘Capitolocentric’ discourse, and establish alternative identities related to active participation in community economies.  I was even less comfortable, however, with their reccomendation of the work of narrative therapists, who have seemed uninterested in historical or political contexts, in the process of reframing and re-storying the life of a community damaged by economic disinvestment.  The resulting community research looked, to me, rather like an excercise in mass Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Outo Kumpo stainless steel mill, Sheffield.  Geograph.org.uk c.c.

Outo Kumpo stainless steel mill, Sheffield. Geograph.org.uk c.c.

Worse still, the authors resort to theories from the dominant and conspicuously de-politicising power-knowledge discourse of neuroscience about the role of the amygdala in panic, in the context of ‘producing and sustaining positive affect’ in a community that is expressing ‘aversive reactions’ of hostility and anger, and a deep sense of powerlessnes.  Aaaagh!  In my experience, as a community development worker, personal empowerment and political understanding emerges of its own accord, organically (and far more effectively), through mutual-aid, self-advocacy, ‘consciousness raising’, and collective action of various kinds, led and managed by community members.  There is no need to impose expert models and ‘techniques’, let alone ones that psychologise economic deprivation.

That said, other aspects of these community research projects seem positive and valid (facilitating ‘a wide range of economic practices that support well-being directly, offer a social safety net, and are vehicles for community celebration and civic engagement’, and fostering alternative identities around these newly diverse activities).  Whether they, or The Full Monty, constitue a sufficient post-capitalist alternative is another question.  It will, nevertheless, be interesting to see how J.K. Gibson Graham’s ecological perspective is integrated into community development projects.

B.T. 24-7-15.

Sources: J.K. Gibson-Graham Economy as Ecological Livelihood, from ‘A Manifesto for the Anthropocene’, Puncus Books, Brooklyn, New York.
A Postcapitalist Politics, University of Minnesota Press.
The Nitty Gritty of Creating Alternative Economies.

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3 thoughts on “Economy as Ecology, Postcapitalism in the writings of J.K. Gibson Graham

  1. ‘Can we, for example, begin to see the chickens, bees and fruit trees of a cooperative farm not as part of that farm’s commons (as shared resources), but rather as living beings participating in the co-constitution of the community that, together, makes and shares the farm?’

    – I do like the sound of this 🙂

    But would have also found the dis-interest in historical and political context worrying.

    I’m quite keen on the notion of distinct localities developing their own unique economy from their ecology in an organic manner rather than it being imposed by a hegemonic system of capital… I wonder how we could start working toward this?

    I’m thinking about this myself in regard to whether community arts groups should be applying for funding through the system (ie. local government, Arts Council) or trying to grow their own grass roots ways of supporting artists… I’m favoring the latter at the moment whilst most other members of the poetry partnership I’m a member of are supporting the funding route…

  2. Hello Brian, I’ve taken the liberty of linking to your post on my latest blog post. Hopefully this is acceptable, if you would rather I didn’t, please let me know.

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