Gibson-Graham_PostcapitalistPolitics

Beyond Capitalism: Alternative and Non-Capitalist Political Ecologies

Political Ecologies Beyond CapitalismUpdate January 2013: Boone Shear and Brian Burke publish Beyond Capitalism: Beyond Critique in Anthropology News. Thanks for a very nice reference to Living Anthropologically! Be sure to check out the other pieces in Anthropology News: Beyond Capitalism issue. I’ve made updates in brackets below and see Anthropology Beyond Capitalism at Anthropology Report for a round-up.

At the Society for Applied Anthropology 2012 meetings in Baltimore, anthropologists Boone Shear and Brian Burke organized a special track of events on alternative political ecologies, grouping together a plenary session, panels, papers, and related events. This post focuses on the opening plenary, featuring talks from Stephen Healy, James Igoe, Kevin St. Martin, and Paige West.

Boone had contacted me about possibly participating in the track after I wrote Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto. While this piece was far and away my most viewed blog-post of 2011, almost no one liked my list of ten things that “anthropology urges.” Some people felt it was fine for anthropology to critique but not propose. Others said it would kill capitalism. But Boone said there was nothing non-capitalist about the proposals–that they were proposals to modify or reform, but not to go beyond capitalism, which is what this special track proposes.

At the time I was certainly drawing on critiques of capitalism which stressed a need to move beyond criticisms reproducing notions of capitalist invincibility. My main sources for this re-thinking have been Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Both these books speak of capitalism’s destructive record–but they also speak of new imaginations and desires, of potential and possibility within and alongside capitalism. [Sadly, Trouillot passed away July 2012. See In Memoriam, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 1949-2012]

I was less familiar with what the alternative political ecologies framework has been drawing upon, the work of J.K. Gibson-Graham The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy and the follow-up A Postcapitalist Politics. From their website Community Economies, J.K Gibson-Graham is the pen-name of Katherine Gibson and the late Julie Graham, feminist political economists and economic geographers based at the University of Western Sydney, Australia and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. [See My Trouble with the Anti-Essentialist Struggle by Elizabeth L. Krause for some similar reflections on juxtaposing a political economy in the tradition of Eric Wolf with that of Gibson-Graham; see also Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires.]

First up at the plenary was Stephen Healy. Healy’s co-authored book, Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities (available May 2013) aims to provide concrete metrics of the community economy. The idea is to “desire and enact post-capitalism in the present moment” and he stressed the use of mapping and linking technologies for self-consciously alternative economies. The book aims to make this re-evaluation of economic life into a habit, providing ethical questions toward the goal of “negotiated interdependence.”

Next was Kevin St. Martin. St. Martin brought in the idea of the commons, but again linked these ideas to the role of mapping and data collection. He initially set up an opposition between Community Supported Fisheries (CSF) and Marine Spatial Planning (MSP)–that on their face, the CSF is an effort to establish community and a commons-like fishery, whereas MSP looks like a typical neoliberal project to enclose and privatize marine resouces. However, his own research has mapped a community using GIS technologies, so that in some ways MSP data is actually foundational to the CSF, that by making a map the people were able to “perform the commons.” This is therefore an effort to go “beyond alternative binaries” of markets as automatically opposed to commons. These kinds of ideas have been very important to my own collaborative work with Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld, pushing toward ideas of how marketplaces and economic activity can be reconceputalized in the framework of a commons. [See Who's on the Map? by Janelle Cornwell.]

Paige West followed, speaking about her work on the themes of how new worlds can emerge. However, she then shifted more toward talking about new worlds in the context of social reproduction and academic reproduction. West seemed perhaps to be something of an outlier here–in a later paper titled “Moving Beyond Reform,” Vincent Lyon-Callo would say that assigning West’s book made the students even feel bad about fair trade–and West’s main point seemed to be talking about making our scholarship and theory more accessible. [See Lyon-Callo's Teaching for Hope? in the Anthropology News: Beyond Capitalism issue.]

In a memorable final quote, West said that “to build new worlds, we have to understand the one we’re in” and she criticized excessive theorizations based solely on inaccessible Western traditions. This point blended quite nicely with a point Daniel Lende would make at 8am the next morning: that we need not just open access to our publications, but open access to our theory (Lende’s comments reminded me of my guest post for Savage Minds, The Bongobongo and Open Access).

The final plenary speaker was James Igoe, who wove together anthropology with his work on anarchist collectives in Detroit. Igoe talked of how anarchism and anthropology go well together: both are concerned with diversity, with challenging authority, and naturalness, with alternative forms of organizing. Igoe also discussed the influence of a “feminist uptake of the Boasian tradition,” an alternative and salutary influence Boas might not have predicted. [See Paige West and James J. Igoe, Imagining and Actualizing an Anthropology of Non-Capitalist Possibilities, which also locates this activity in a Boasian tradition.]

I here hope to have conveyed a selection of ideas and influences from the opening plenary. My follow-up post, Development, Reform, Revolution–and the Bridge, talks about the special track in relation to other panels and papers at the Society for Applied Anthropology 2012 meetings. For published reflections, see the Anthropology News: Beyond Capitalism issue.

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