Towards a post-Occupy world
by Richard J. White
Running deeply through radical critiques that have emerged across dissident academic, activist and public communities — critiques that have pricked the mainstream consciousness through their repeated denouncement of both the legitimacy and the desirability of the current orthodox economic and political system — is the spirit of Ya Basta! (‘Enough! Now for something else!’). As Wight (2012: 161) argued:
One thing is clear, irrespective of how it will all end, the Arab Spring, looting in London, riots in Greece, wars across the Middle East and beyond, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and the Occupy Movement are all connected in some way. What connects them is a corrupt, degenerative, immoral, sexist, (specieisist) and racist global capitalist political-economic system.
It is of great significance that these popular demonstrations (captured by the rallying cry of The Occupy Movement “We Are The 99%) are increasingly being played out within the countries of the Minority World (Global North) — who are finally beginning to understand something that has long been apparent in the Majority World (Global South): that capitalism is not in crisis, capitalism is the crisis. This increasing disillusionment with the grand narrative of capitalism, endorsed and promoted fully by the political elites (e.g. that economic growth will bring wealth and prosperity to all) cannot be underestimated. Though the concerns of this paper are principally on post-capitalist economics, and thus an extended focus on “the political” is something beyond the scope here, it should be understood that the crisis of legitimation for our dominant political elites may be terminal: there can be no more ‘business’ as usual.
Their naked authoritarian underbelly and recourse to violence has consistently exposed for all to see that they seek to suppress all dissent (exemplified by the repression in Greece), and one cannot forget this. And yet, such a response is wholly expected. As George Orwell argued: “A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.” The fraudulence of political economic elites has been exposed for all to witness; for they look to consolidate their power through sheer brute force. In this way, the crisis is not simply material, but it is also a deep and searching crisis of faith in the formal political and economic spectrum, the extent of which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: indeed less than an a year ago if one interprets the emergence of Occupy Movement as a catalyst for channeling this anger and frustration.
And yet as the capitalist-centric ideology cracks and splinters this brings with it a springtime of renewed optimism about what possible economic and political possibilities should and can be harnessed instead. How for example can we look to create new heterodox “post-capitalist” spaces from the bottom-up? How should our economic spaces reflect — and be reflective of — what should be valued, promoted, protected and pursued in society.
The main purpose of this article is to add further momentum to those dissident academic and activist communities who continue to exposing the myths, falsehoods and illusions that underpin the current neoliberalism-as-ideological hegemonic project. This will be tempered by drawing attention to the pervasive nature of non-commodified spaces in “capitalist” society, and considering the implications that this has for taking purposeful steps forward toward a “post-capitalist” society. Indeed, more accurately, the findings suggest that we do not have to travel anywhere to envisage the pluralistic, non-capitalist economic forms of production, exchange and consumption that will be valued and nurtured in such a society.
What is still required is the need to further, and more completely isolate, deconstruct and delegitimise the capitalist indoctrination and move confidently beyond. One way of doing this is to confront invasive and invidious strain of economic propaganda that seeks to play upon people’s fears and vulnerability, by for example, insisting that alternative forms of economic and political visions are at best misguided fanciful and utopian, and at worst nihilist. As Duncombe (1997: 6) argues:
The powers that be do not sustain their legitimacy by convincing people that the current system is The Answer. That fiction would be too difficult to sustain in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. What they must do, and what they have done very effectively, is convince the mass of people that there is no alternative.)
This myth which interestingly speaks to the inevitability of capitalism as the least worst option rather than its intrinsic desirability is not new. Indeed the highly influential British economist John Maynard Keynes (1933) remarked.
The decadent international but individualistic capitalism in the hands of which we found ourselves after the war is not a success. It is not intelligent. It is not beautiful. It is not just. It is not virtuous. And it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.
It is in direct response to the supposed perplexity of “what to do” instead that this piece takes particular issue with here: we must instinctively dismiss with the contempt that it deserves the idea that our imagination is so poor that we cannot imagine a better economic system for a better world. Indeed, happily, when a closer look at the contemporary nature of economic production, exchange and consumption is made it becomes apparent that not only can we imagine better ways producing, exchanging and consuming goods and services in society than through capitalism, but we are already practicing these forms of economics in society at the present time.
To support this claim the article begins by drawing attention to the pervasive nature of non-commodified practices that are embedded in our “capitalist” world. In doing so it will further expose the meta-narrative that we live in a capitalist society: one which is fundamentally “organised around the systematic pursuit of profit in the market place” (Williams, 2005: 13). Needless to say that the recognition of the importance of these multiple, non-commodified economic spaces, and the centrality that they have in our economies has many important implications for thinking and enacting a post-capitalist praxis. The final section acknowledges the importance of the non-violent Occupy Movement, not least in helping to promote dialogue and exchange about new political and economic imaginaries and possibilities beyond the academy. In the spirit of academic-activist praxis that Hozic (2012: 151) advocates: “The #occupy movement calls upon the salaried professoriate to step out into the streets, be counted and confront the Real.” I want to briefly reflect on the conversations that took place when I shared the main thesis and arguments of this piece in a presentation at the 3rd International UK Occupy Conference in Sheffield earlier this year.
Recognising the Diverse Economic Spaces in “Capitalist” society
Associated with the “cultural turn” in the late 1990s in geography there was a discernible shift away from ‘thin’ readings of economic exchange favoured by market-based analysts (i.e., that all exchange is market based and motivated by profit). In its place ‘thicker’ readings of exchange which interpreted the economic as being embedded in cultural and social relations were privileged. Two of the most influential and important writers were J.K. Gibson-Graham (the pen-name of Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham) through the publication of The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006). In seeking to reinvigorate their economic imaginations while also enacting an alternative economics they outlined a collaboratively designed project, with four distinct yet overlapping phases:
The first, addressed in The End of Capitalism, involves deconstructing the hegemony of capitalism to open up a discursive space for the prevalence and diversity of non-capitalist economic activity worldwide. The second, tentatively begun in The End of Capitalism, requires producing a language of economic difference to enlarge the economic imaginary, rendering visible and intelligible the diverse and proliferative practices that the preoccupation with capitalism has obscured; we see this language as a necessary contribution to a politics of economic innovation. The third, explored in subsequent action research, is the difficult process of cultivating subjects (ourselves and others) who can desire and inhabit non-capitalist economic spaces. To frame this cultivation process, we step aside from the familiar structural vision of capitalism with its already identified and interested subjects, developing a vision of the “community economy” as an ethical and political space of becoming. In this communal space, individual and collective subjects negotiate questions of livelihood and inter-dependence and (re)construct themselves in the process. Finally, there is the actual practice, under way in ongoing action research, of building community economies in place. (Gibson-Graham, 2006a: x)
In an attempt to capture and re-present the diversity of work practice — as well as highlighting the comparative invisibility of non-capitalist forms of exchange — Gibson-Graham used this iceberg model (Figure 1). This analogy has been particularly influential as a visible means of helping to contextualise those capitalist-based modes of production (which we are told are all pervasive, all-powerful and all-dominant in the capitalist economy) alongside alternative economic means of engagement.
Figure 1: The Diverse Economics Iceberg Model
What this model forces us to pay more attention to are those diverse economic activities that are evident within contemporary society. Compared with the narrow orthodox belief of “what” constitutes the economy, and “where” the economy is then, this broader more inclusive and ‘thicker’ reading of economic exchange brings with it many implications. This necessitates us to rethink our understanding — and relationship to an “economic” one which interprets capitalism as just one more form of economic organization we can point to in our pluralistic economic system. There are alternatives to capitalist forms of production, and indeed we engage within them often in our daily lives.
But it is one thing to recognize these other forms of economic production, exchange and consumption, and another to argue that they are still pervasive and relevant within a “capitalist” society. To be able to make a convincing argument to this end would again be to puncture a hole in a commonly held axiom: that the Market is becoming all powerful and all pervasive. Here the contribution to the heterodox economics literature made by Professor Colin Williams, attempting to map the limits of capitalism and expose “the view of a hegemonic, all-encompassing, totalizing and victorious capitalism” (2005: 275) as an illusion has been highly significant. It is with respect to his application of the Time Budget Study as evidence shows the relevance of non-commodified activities that I want to pay attention to here.
It is worth saying that two methodological approaches in particular have been significant in providing a robust evidence base to cite the importance of work beyond profit-motivated monetary transactions. These are the more qualitative-based approach captured in Household Work Practice Surveys (see for example Williams, 2005; White 2011) and the quantitative based Time Budget Studies. Essentially, the Time Budget Survey monitors an individual’s time-use employing detailed records that indicate how people have allocated their time over a set period. Using such a methodology then allows the comparative proportion of time that people have spent in formal work, and non-exchange work (i.e. unpaid domestic work) to be evaluated. The results run counter to the capitalist hegemonic thesis in many ways, most notably that (1) paid work is the dominant form of work and (2) non-exchanged work is contracting relative to paid work: i.e. western countries are becoming more commodified over time.
The collated results from time-budget studies conducted across twenty western countries (including UK, USA, France, and Canada) show that the time spent on non-commodified work as a percentage of all work undertaken is 43.6%. Indeed, France (45.3%), Norway (46.7%) and Finland (44.6%) all exceed this figure. This surely then suggests that a far higher proportion of working time is engaged in non-commodified work then one which is suggested by those commentators who take for granted the “fact” that we live in a commodified, capitalist world (see Williams, 2005: 42 for further discussion).
Taken individually or collectively, such figures not only counter those who celebrate the encroachment of ‘the market’ into daily life as natural, but also those who see it as inevitable even though they view the spectacle of a commodified world as having negative consequences. Indeed, the core assumptions upon which the commodification thesis arises are further undermined when we look at how the allocation of working time in western economies has changed in recent decades
Furthermore we could fully expect, if the commodification thesis is to be empirically true, that a transition away from unpaid work and towards paid formal work would be clearly portrayed in a longitudinal survey of time use. However, when subsistence and paid work as a percentage of total work time is looked at across 20 countries (from 1960-present) such a linear trajectory toward commodification is not supported. Indeed, the findings are the opposite. Paid work as a percentage of total working time across the 20 countries is diminishing. What I want to consider is how to ensure that this trajectory is sustained and increased, as we seek to embrace and develop more extensive non-capitalist spaces in future society. In particular, I wish to focus on those informal economic spaces that constitute ‘community self-help’.
Focussing on Community Self Help
Various forms of non-capitalist exchange which are embedded at the household and community level have been addressed under the collective title “community self-help” (see. Burns et al 2004). These are essentially:
- ‘Self-provisioning’, or self-help, which involves unpaid household work undertaken by household members for themselves or for other members of their household; and
- Mutual Aid, or unpaid community work, which involves unpaid help provided for and by friends, neighbours or other members of one’s community either on an individual basis or through more organised collective groups and societies.
The emphasis and importance of focusing on community economics is an important means of challenging and deconstructing the dominant capitalo-centric representation of “the economic”. Moreover, because the types of informal coping strategies which are relevant to community self-help are already familiar to many of us, and which we actively participate in: this becomes even more accessible to us in terms of envisioning and enacting how these could be harnessed more fully to enact a “post-capitalist” future. Once again, I submit the argument that it is not necessary to imagine some more empowered, inclusive and fairer economic mode of production exchange, and consumption. We do not need to build something new out of the ruined shards of capitalism, because the “post-capitalist” non-commodified practices of exchange that we should be looking at turning to are much in evidence in the present.
The focus of attention toward the familiar “everyday” non-capitalist economic practices at the community level is extremely important, and empowering, for other reasons. Burns et. al. (2004: 6) for example, advocated such practices as a strategy for survival and a model for a better society, because:
- They are the basis upon which communities survive, thrive and evolve
- The moral foundations of society are built upon reciprocity
- The dependency culture is corrosive of society
- The state as a welfare provider is in crisis
There is certainly much overlap with this emphasis on community self-help, mutuality, non-coercive relationships and anarchist writings on economics (e.g. see Shannon et. al., 2012). As Burns, et. a.l (2004: 7) elaborate:
One of the strongest arguments for community self-help in general and mutual aid more particularly, is that reciprocity is fundamental to human development. Whatever the ‘nature’ of people (individualistic, altruistic or otherwise) they undoubtedly live in relationship to each other. They are interdependent and both their survival and their happiness depend on that interdependence.
In January 2012 I presented many similar arguments (about the need to recognise “post-capitalist” spaces within our current “capitalist” economy and the call to harness these forms of community self- help) at the 3rd National Occupy Conference in Sheffield, UK. Having made some contextual reference about the on-going relevance and significance of The Occupy Movement in helping to embody and enact these (radical) new forms of political and economic organisation, I want to then briefly reflect on the discussions on my presentation that emerged from this Conference.
The Importance of the Occupy Movement
The relevance and importance of the Occupy Movement cannot be overestimated. While recognising the diversity of those participating and engaging in this movement, there are clear common issues which many identify with. There is certainly a deep frustration, anger, and resentment focused on the dominant political and economic elites, and their accountability in allowing such an extreme polarisation of wealth not only to accumulate, but to be maintained in the face of the very public crisis of faith in our economic and political leaders.
The Occupy Movement through their collective presence, their energy, the refusal to conform to type; their willingness and desire to challenge the orthodox ways of doing thing, of engaging in direct action has inspired these debates in new and unexpected ways. As an anarchist geographer, whose own discipline is experiencing a return to Anarchism (see Antipode 2012) it is interesting to note that the congruence between core foundations and ideals of the Occupy Movement are ones which anarchists share: the commitment to actively question political/economic authority and action and, where this cannot be justified, to confront these though creative and constructive spaces of direct action. For example, in “Thank You, Anarchist” Schneider (2011) writes:
The anarchists’ way of operating was changing our very idea of what politics could be in the first place. This was exhilarating. Some occupiers told me they wanted to take it home with them, to organize assemblies in their own communities. It’s no accident, therefore, that when occupations spread around the country, the horizontal assemblies spread too.
Seen in the context of the discussion of community self-help it is significant that the Occupy Movement has sought to embrace new, alternative, forms of future ways of organising that bypass the need for reliance on the Market and the State, and seek out coping strategies that make more sense, that are more empowering, are more democratic and inclusive — particularly at the local and community level. As Chomsky (2012) observed:
One of the main achievements has been to create communities – real functioning communities of mutual support, democratic interchange, care for one another, and so on. This is highly significant, especially in a society like ours in which people tend to be very isolated and neighbourhoods are broken down, community structures have broken down, people are kind of alone.
This enthusiasm for exchanging ideas concerning post-capitalist visions of work and organisation was apparent at the 3rd UK International Occupy Conference, held at the Citadel of Hope in Sheffield (20-22 January) and I will make some reflections on this now.
To give a brief review of the 3rd Occupy Conference:
Around a hundred Occupiers from the north, south, east and west of Britain, plus visitors from Geneva and Australia, came together to share experiences and plan future strategies. The conference was, for many, a much needed fire-lighter, invigorating and inspiring. A place where passionate individuals, usually dispersed around the country, could find each other and create networks…Discussions ranged from direct action, to the autonomy of Working Groups, to community outreach and dreams of a changed future. (Dale 2012)
On the Saturday afternoon I delivered a short presentation entitled “Exiting The Market: a call to unleash our economic imaginations and recognise non-capitalist economies of difference”. The presentation emphasised many of the key arguments that have been introduced here. In a conscious attempt to avoid a dyadic approach, and to enable a more critical and inclusive pedagogy, the ‘formal’ part of the presentation opened up toward a communal group discussion and question and answer session. Two questions were suggested for small groups to consider: (1) “What key barriers prevent us/ more people from exiting the State and the Market and (2) What can be done to effectively address these barriers.” However, most importantly, the hope was that this would serve as prompts to open up a more expansive discussion that could, theoretically, include anything that was seen to be of relevance and importance to the group in light of the presentation.
What was interesting and constructive was just how well received the ideas were. There was a clear enthusiasm among many that these ‘ordinary’, ‘everyday’, ‘routine’ household and community-based spaces of production, exchange, and consumption were central to “the economic”, and perhaps contained in them the means with which to harness a post-capitalist future. The conversations that I engaged in — both on a one-to-one level and as a participant in small groups – dealt enthusiastically with the way in which they got work done outside of the formal economy: for themselves, for family, friends and neighbours. For many, being asked to reflect on their own forms of community self-help caused them to realise just how much (and how significant) the work was that they actually undertook, or how they were helped in turn by other people to get jobs done: or rely upon for wider emotional and social support. A great deal of the discussion about real and potential barriers to participation was also positive — with ideas about how to overcome these being enthusiastically shared and debated.
Ultimately, many of those within the group felt that they could take something new and important away to help communicate and influence the debate that they had with other people. A new consciousness then emerged, focused on how much of what we value and appreciate in our economic relationships are very much woven into the economic fabric of “capitalist society”, and that envisaging the post-capitalist future is not nearly as utopian or fanciful as (powerful) detractors would have us believe. Importantly, the experience also served to further expose the baseness and poverty of the thin capitalist (mis-)reading of exchange as mechanistic, atomistic, quantitative, abstract, and predictable, and its associated reduction of the complexity and beauty of people to the amoral self-interested, profit-motivated homo economicus.
It is to be hoped that these new insights and perceptions of what the economics is — and what it could become — will gain momentum not only in the everyday worlds, but within the academy as well. Encouraging signs are there, for example, with the call to Occupy Economics.
We are economists who oppose ideological cleansing in the economics profession. Equally we oppose political cleansing in the vital debate over the causes and consequences of our current economic crisis. We support the efforts of the Occupy Wall Street movement across the country and across the globe to liberate the economy from the short-term greed of the rich and powerful “one percent”
We oppose cynical and perverse attempts to misuse our police officers and public servants to expel advocates of the public good from our public spaces. We extend our support to the vision of building an economy that works for the people, for the planet, and for the future, and we declare our solidarity with the Occupiers who are exercising our democratic right to demand economic and social justice. (Occupy Economics Statement)
To Occupy Economics as a means of preventing the further domination of neoliberal prejudice, to the detriment of all other heterodox forms of economic expression is of great importance. Given the renewed optimism, energy, conviction, hopes and aspirations of those that can — and indeed are — imagining and enacting a “post-capitalist” world there is every reason to belief that desired future is not simply possible, but probable.
Some final thoughts
The insistence on the “business as usual” approach repeated by increasingly exposed political-economic elite in response to the global crisis of capitalism has never sounded so hollow or irrelevant as it does now. And yet, these potential end of times — saturated in violence, threat and intimidation are still times of uncertainty: nothing is impossible, and the renewed resolve and determination of the people to ensure that a better economic and political future is brought to fruition is desperately needed.
Economic neoliberalism now comes at society with fangs bared: its nature exposed as red in tooth and claw. Its passing cannot come soon enough. Unhappily, until then capitalist economics will continue — as they always have done — to wreck yet more havoc, misery, devastation and destruction across economic, political, social, cultural and environmental landscapes on all scales. This is not hyperbole, the perpetuation of an economic system where people and more-than human worlds do not matter, will ensure that structural genocide remains. As Leech (2012: 149) argues:
While more than 10 million people die annually as a result of capitalism’s structural genocide, hundreds of millions suffer non-fatal forms of structural violence such as trying to survive on a non-living wage or no wage at all, a lack of housing, hunger, sickness and many other social injustices…At the core of this structural genocide is an inequality in power and wealth that ensures the interests of capital are prioritized over those of the majority of human beings and of nature.
The main intention of this article has been to demonstrate that many overlooked, non-commodified economic practices in the contemporary world of production, consumption and exchange are very much part of the economic worlds in which we identify with and engage in within so-called capitalist society. This should give us great hope moving forward in these difficult times, particularly in terms of envisioning and engaging with “post-capitalist” futures.
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[Thank you Richard for this contribution]
The writer is a Senior Lecturer in Economic Geography at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. His main areas of research have focused on re-thinking ‘the economic’ in economic geography; exploring the geographies of commodification; and mapping the limits of capitalism in contemporary society. As an anarchist geographer Richard is also actively engaged with anarchist praxis focused on harnessing post-capitalist/heterodox economic futures. He can be contacted at Richard.White@shu.ac.uk
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