Review of Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics

J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics. 2006: U Minnesota.

This book finds a new way of thinking about and working on economic development based on a critique of “capitalocentrism”, a sophisticated and useful concatenation of theories of resistance, and a surprisingly practical approach.

The critique emphasizes that “capitalocentrism” is endemic to both neoliberal and left economic discourse. Capitalocentrism privileges “commodification (marketization), the concentration and centralization of capital, capitalist expansion (capital accumulation), labor-saving technological change”. It has also “devalued and demoted” “precapitalist economic forms”, “self-employment”, and the “creative transformation and proliferation of indigenous economies.” [193] It is the

tendency to represent economy as a space of invariant logics and automatic unfolding that offered no field for intervention; the tendency to theorize economy as a stable and self-reproducing structure impervious to the proliferative and desultory wanderings of everyday politics; the tendency to constitute ‘the’ economy as a singular capitalist system or space rather than as a zone of cohabitation and contestation among multiple economic forms; and the tendency to lodge faith in accurate representation that guaranteed and stabilized the prevailing substantive framings.” [xxi-xxii]

Capitalocentrism involves the “naturalization of ‘the economy’”, and the “shift from an understanding of the economy as something that can be transformed, or at least managed (by people, the state, the IMF), to something that governs society…not just separate from but outside of society.” [53]  This logic becomes omnipresent and inescapable through Toring’s 1999 “condensation” and “displacement”. Condensation conflates “a variety of significations and meanings into a single unity,” eliminating difference. Displacement “ ‘extends and transfers the signification of meaning of one particular moment to another moment,’ producing… equivalence between what had been quite different meanings.” [Toring 1999: 98 in Gibson-Graham  55]. So, “capitalocentric discourse condenses economic difference, fusing the variety of noncapitalist economic activities into a unity in which meaning is anchored to capitalist identity.  [56]

The impact of capitalocentric thinking for development discourse is an obsession with “bringing capitalist economic development to those spaces that are ‘lacking’ its dynamic presence and lure of benificence’, in the absence of which “a whole set of unfulfilled ‘needs’ ”are observed. [166, 169] Presuming that “promoting capitalist enterprise will bring social and economic dividends to the whole community”, economic development advocates encourage the “retraining of labor”, “enagement with the global economy”, “industrialization”, “export-base”, and growing the output of the capitalist commodity-producing sector”. [167] While precapitalist forms are devalued, as mentioned above, “the crucial role of what Marx called primitive accumulation…the expropriation of the commons that fueled western industrialization…in the “successful” realization of this particular model of development has never been fully acknowledged.” [188]

The impacts of capitalocentric thinking for the left is discussed in Chapter 1, which is about affect. The authors ask “What was this all-knowingness about the world? Where did this disparaging sense of certainty come from, the view that anything new would not work? Why were experimental forays into building new economies, movements, and futures greeted with skepticism and suspicion?” [3] They look to Eve Sedgwick and Walter Benjamin for answers. Sedgwick argues that the reductiveness and confidence of “strong theory” inculcates a kind of paranoia: “while it affords the pleasures of recognition, of capture, of intellectually subduing that one last thing, it offers not relief or exit to a place beyond.” [4] Benjamin points to “left melancholia”, whose “attachment to a past political analysis or identity is stronger than the interest in present possibilities for mobilization, alliance or transformation (Brown 1999, 20)… ostalgia for old forms of political organization (like international movements of worker solidarity or unions that had teeth) and attachment to the political victories of yesteryear…blinds us to the opportunities at hand.” [5] The authors conclude that the left has its own immobilizing subjugation  “within potent configurations of habit and desire”, a “habit of thinking and feeling that offered little emotional space for alternatives, and that instead focused the political imagination –somewhat blankly–on a millenial future revolution.” [xxi-xxii]

Respecting Marxism’s inspiration of “economic experimentation” to people all over the world [59], Gibson-Graham find that feminism and aspects of poststructuralism, and queer theory provide useful elements of economic resistance. They observe three useful aspects of feminism:

  • The practice of feminism as “organizational horizontalism” fostered alternative ways of being (powerful), including “direct and equitable participation, non-monopoly of the spoken word or of information, the rotation of occasional tasks and responsibilities, the non-specialization of functions, the non-delegation of power” (Alvarez, Dagnino and Escobar 1998: 97)…
  • the loosely interrelated struggles and happenings of the feminist movement were capable of mobilizing social transformation at such an unprecedented scale, without resort to a vanguard party or any of the other “necessities” we have come to associate with political organization…
  • the strikingly simple ontological contours of a feminist imaginary: if women are everywhere, a woman is always somewhere, and those places of women are transformed as women transform themselves. … another ontological substrate: a vast set of disarticulated “places” – households, communities, ecoysystems, workplaces, civic organizations, bodies, public arenas… [xxiv]

From poststructuralism, they use three concepts. First, they draw on Laclau & Mouffe’s theory of politics “that situates discourse (and therefore language) at the center of any political project” [54-5]

Second, they use the idea of overdetermination and absence.  Althusser’s [1972] concept of overdetermination proposes that “each site and process is constituted at the intersection of all others, and is thus fundamentally an emptiness, complexly constituted by what it is not, without an enduring core or essence.” [xxxi] Santos [2004] argues that “monocultures” define the impossible; in contrast a “ ‘sociology of absences’…excavates what has been actively suppressed or excluded, calling into question the marginalization and ‘noncredibility’ of the ‘nondominant’.” [xxxii]

The most important absence is the subject, who has been subjected, but who can form a new, resistive subjectivity in the space of her subjected absence. “The saliency of the subject derives from our reading of feminism as a project that explicitly affirmed women while implicitly affirming a new political being…To the extent that the figure of a woman signals unfixed or incomplete identity, she is the subject to be constructed through politics. Her ‘failed’ identity stands for the possibility of politics itself.” [xxxiii] Poststructuralism’s new subjects may have “different desires and capacities and greater openness to change and uncertainty. [xxiv]

For us a politics of the subject addresses not only the emptiness of the subject that is the ultimate ground of our ability to change, but also the fullness beyond the level of conscious feeling and thought: whatever enables us to act prior to reflection, the habitual, the embodied knowledge, the ways of being in the world that we almost never think about….”A politics of the subject”…a process of producing something beyond discursively enabled shifts in identity, something that takes into account the sensational and gravitational experience of embodiment, something that recognizes the motor and neural interface between self and world as the site of becoming of both. If to change ourselves is to change our worlds, and the relation is reciprocal, then the project of history making is never a distant one but always right here, on the borders of our sensing, thinking, feeling, moving bodies… As Spinosa, Flores, and Dreyfus see it, history-making acts involve the emergence of new “disclosive spaces,” that is, “organized set(s) of practices for dealing with oneself, other people, and things that produce a relatively self-contained web of meanings”.  [128, 127]

Having presented the results of some focus groups in a deindustrialized (privatized) valley in Australia, Gibson-Graham investigate how this subjectivity is supposed to change:

In Varela’s view, the analytic process explodes the “self into pieces” and, in the therapeutic space of analysis, suspends the desire to reconstitute the self in old ways  (64). From a Lacanian perspective, the role of the analyst is to interrupt the analysand’s project of shoring up her fantasies, which lock her into fixed structures of desire and identity. An interruption by the analyst can provoke the analysand’s curiosity and begin the exploration that unravels fantasy and reveals  it for what it is.

The Eastern teaching traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism offer a different set of transformation practices, or disciplines of the self, in which embodied actions are undertaken so as to constitute new microworlds of affect and behavior. Buddhism, for instance, offers ethical training in disciplines “that facilitate the letting go of ego-centered habits and enable compassion to become spontaneous and self-sustaining” (Varela 1992,73). …  At the same time that Buddhist practice cultivates the emptiness of self, meaning freedom from ego and the pulls of desire and aversion, it also cultivates the positive capacities of the self … through awareness and reflection, patient practices that involve observing feelings and thoughts and letting go of the negative ones nonjudgmentally, while receptively fostering and nurturing the positive. As a discipline of the body/mind, for example, the practice of lovingkindness requires consciously abiding in the heart, extending friendly feelings first to oneself and then radiating them outward in ever widening circles to eventually embrace all sentient beings (Varela. 1992) 130


In a community intervention project in the same valley, they use both approaches, engaging research assistants to encourage new forms of identification after inviting expressions of affect about economic loss from interviewees; they also create communal contexts which nurture positive feelings and relations. [131-163]

Gibson-Graham also investigate how subjects can be encouraged “to promote ‘collective disidentification’ with capitalism, much as Judith Butler and other queer theorists have tried to do with heterosexuality and the binary gender categories that are its support (1993, 4).” [54] They do a lovely comparative analysis of subjection and subjectivity in the films Brassed Off and The Full Monty in pages 9-21.

Final point on the subject of the subject. Drawing on Jean-Luc Nancy, Gibson Graham become interested in what they call “being in common”. [88] Nancy argues “We compear: we come together (in)to the world… To come into the world is to be-in-common.” (1992, 373-74) Western philosophy has elevated an “abstract singularity (2000, 34) the ‘I’, or ‘one’, who  ‘knows’; while “the very production of a common logos depended on  the circulation and communication of meaning among people.” With such individualism, “the problem of the city” emerges; how shall we “share meaning and find ways to be together in the world”? – a problem that would be conceptualized differently without the “suppress[ion] of the original alterity…of Being.” [81-82]

methods of getting there

In addition to promoting new kinds of subjects, as described above, Gibson-Graham identify a number of useful (perhaps necessary) tools for moving away from capitalocentrism and building new economies.

They identify the importance of affect, writing that “if our goal as thinkers is the proliferation of different economies, what we most need is an open and hospitable orientation toward the objects of our thought. We need to foster a ‘love of the world’, as Arendt says, rather than masterful knowing, or melancholy or moralistic detachment. To do this, perhaps we need to draw on the pleasures of friendliness, trust, conviviality, and companionable connection. our repertory of tactics might include seducing, cajoling, enrolling, enticing, inviting. there could be a greater role in our thinking for invention and playfulness, enchantment and exuberance. and we could start to develop an interest in unpredictability, contingency, experimentation, or even an attachment to the limits of understanding and the possibilities of escape.” [6-7]

Drawing on Ernesto Laclau [1990] Gibson-Graham search for a method of “dislocation”, enabling a recognition that “other economies are possible.”….[xxxiv] Their primary method for this has been to define a weak theory:

that cannot encompass the present and shut down the future (Sedgwick 2003: 134)…Weak theory couldn’t know that social experiments are already coopted and thus doomed to fail or to reinforce dominance; it couldn’t tell us that the world economy will be transformed by an international revolutionary movement rather than through the disorganized proliferation of local projects. [8]

The weak theory takes the form merely of an “economic language that cannot be subsumed to existing ways of thinking economy, and instead signals the ever-present possibility of remaking economy in alternative terms.” [xxxiv] To do this they create simple charts categorizing different types of labor, transactions and enterprises as market, nonmarket and alternative market. They track “modes of compensation” and “rules of commensurability” of each. [61-76] One of the charts categorizes the labor, transactions, and enterprises of a place [71], another, of an industry/function (childcare) [73], another, of a person [76], and another, of a company [75]

They also emphasize the importance of thinking:

if politics is a process of transformation instituted by taking decisions on an ultimately undecidable terrain, a politics of possibility rests on an enlarged space of decision and a vision that the world is not governed by some abstract, commanding force…our practices of thinking widen the scope of possibility by opening up each observed relationship to examination for its contingencies and each theoretical analysis for its inherent vulnerability and act of commitment. [xxxiii]

They encourage practices of thinking that tolerate “not knowing” and allows for contingent connection and the hiddenness of unfolding [xxxi]. By “reading for difference rather than dominance”, a tool of queer theory, Gibson Graham pursue a “subversive ontological project of ‘radical heterogeneity’…to bring into visibility the great variety of noncapitalist practices that languish on the margins of economic representation.” [xxxii] In other words they encourage noticing all of the non-capitalist activity going on all around us. They point out that thinking has an affective dimension, and encourage the following intellectual emotions: [xxix]




The final, and perhaps least developed, aspect of their method is the focus on place. “Place became that which is not fully yoked into a system of meaning, not entirely subsumed to and defined within a (global) order; it became the aspect of every site that exists as potentiality…a ‘dislocation’ with respect to familiar structures and narratives. It is the eruption of the Lacanian ‘real’, a disruptive materiality. It is the unmapped and unmoored that allows for new moorings and mappings. Place, like the subject, is the site of becoming, the opening for politics.” [xxxiii] Their specific practices of place are to reject the hegemonic methods of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats) needs analysis [170] and instead use Kretzmann & McKnight’s 1993 Asset-Based Community Development method [145]. Assets mapping can “restore visibility and credibility to what has been coded as backward, insufficient, or ‘nonexistent’ as a contribution to development.” [169] Gibson-Graham point out that they include in all of their analysis taboos like theft and indentured servitude, which they insist is necessary in any development method that starts, properly “where you are” [98].

The goal of the new form of economic development and vision is economic diversity, which is already existing and which can be developed in current, existing contexts. This is possible because each context is both specific and empty (overdetermined), because place, although ill-understood, has gravitation for meaning, and because economic development is contingent: “as we begin to conceptualize contingent relationships where invariant logics once reigned, the economy loses its character as an asocial body in lawful motion and instead becomes a space of recognition and negotiation.” [xxx]

Existing and future diverse economic projects can be usefully explored and innovated using the following analytic concepts:  

  • Choosing to meet local needs by delivering increased well-being directly (rather than relying on the circuitous route of capitalist industrialization) and recognizing and building on the diversity of practices that support subsistence and sustain livelihoods.
  • Using surplus as a force for constituting and strengthening communities – defining the boundary between necessary and surplus labor, monitoring the production of surplus, tracking the ways in which it is appropriated and distributed, and discussing how it can be marshaled to sustain and build community economies. (For an extended discussion of surplus, see the section on Móndragon, 101-126)
  • Recognizing consumption as a potentially viable route to development rather than simply its end result, and defining and making decisions about consumption versus investment on a case-by-case basis, rather than privileging the latter as the “driver” of development.
  • Creating, enlarging, reclaiming, replenishing, and sharing a commons, acknowledging the interdependence of individuals, groups, nature, things, traditions, and knowledges, and tending the commons as a way of tending the community [193]

Chapter 7 provides examples of community economies organized around need, surplus, consumption, or commons. Chapter 5 provides a detailed analysis of Mondragón as an example of the possibilities of surplus.

In implementing (start now!) these new forms of economics, they emphasize four dimensions of action, which are essentially types of social movement activity:

  • the centrality of subjects & ethical practices of self-cultivation
  • the role of place as a site of becoming
  • the uneven spatiality and negotiability of power, which is always available to be skirted, marshaled, or redirected through ethical practices of freedom
  • the everyday temporality of change and the vision of transformation as a continual struggle to change subjects, places, and conditions of life under inherited circumstances of difficulty and uncertainty [xxvii]

They use the phrase “ethical practice”, by which they mean “the continual exercising, in the face of the need to decide, of a choice to be/act/think a certain way. ethics involves the embodied practices that bring principles into action. through self-awareness and transforming practices of the self that gradually become modes of subjectivation, the ethical subject is brought into being (Foucault 1985: 28).”  [xxviii].  A particular “ethical practice” is “being in common”. [88]