Review: Take Back the Economy

Take Back The Economy by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy is a practical guide for the transition toward a postcapitalist society suited for amateurs, students, citizen, and activists alike. Through tools, tips, and examples from around the world, the book engages its reader in a very accessible way, dismantling the idea that the economy is separate from us and better left to experts.
It starts out with the demand to reframe not only the economy and its production modes, but also ourselves, our communities, and our world, in order to achieve a new understanding of the different spheres of economic life: work, business, market, property, and finance.

Why now?

In the introduction, the authors reflect why taking back the economy NOW is just the right moment: in the aftermath of the financial crisis, many people around the world have come to understand that the mantra of continuous growth has come to an end. Individuals and communities have started experimenting with alternatives, based on the idea that we can influence our economy through “the decisions we make and the actions we take”1. This underlying premise of the book gives hope that we can all ‘take back the economy’ to help create healthier and juster worlds for people and environments. The authors identify the following shared concerns, to which people try to respond with their efforts:

– What do we really need? How is surplus distributed?
– How do we relate to each other whilst seeking for survival?
– What do we consume?
– How do we care for our commons?
– And how do we invest for the future?2

So far, we have ignored most of these concerns and eroded not only our connatural world, but also our human relationships and societies, where massive wealth for a small fraction of the world’s population stands opposed to the exploitation of many others.

Thinking big, ethically, and small

The authors encourage the reader to think in a range of scales, moving from the bigger picture of planet Earth as “our life-support system”, “one big garden”, “our commons – what we and all other living species share (and should maintain and safeguard)”3 to cities and communities, which can, according to the authors, be also seen as gardens. This metaphor is used throughout the book to depict a sustainable and caring economy, where surplus and knowledge are generated and grown through its gardeners. “The community garden offers a simple vision of interdependence among the gardeners, other people, and the natural world”4, giving possible answers to the concerns mentioned above. Also, it offers a simple comparison with the current state of our ‘planetary “garden”’, where it has become obvious that it can no longer support economic systems that ignore its needs for care and restoration.

Furthermore, the authors stress the importance of changing our way of thinking towards a more ethical stance – away from the growth mantra and the value of private enterprise to generate individual wealth towards “thinking and acting in the economy with concern for others along with ourselves (…) in terms of “we”, “us”, and “our””5. In response to the concerns listed previously, the following ethical means are what the authors call a ‘community economy’:

– Surviving together well and equitably;
– Distributing surplus to enrich social and environmental health;
– Encountering others in ways that support their well-being as well as ours;
– Consuming sustainably;
– Caring for – maintaining, replenishing, and growing – our natural and cultural commons; and
– Investing our wealth in future generations so that they can live well.

The authors define such a community economy further as “(…) a space of decision making where we recognize and negotiate our interdependence with other humans, other species, and our environment. In the process of recognizing and negotiating, we become a community.”6

Zooming even further in with our thinking, from cities to individuals, the authors observe that most people don’t recognise their role as significant actors and shapers in the economy. Nevertheless we all know that we can help grow the economy through increased consumption – as it is often told by governments – and also, we can have an effect by consuming less or differently. But the authors stress that they want to introduce more strategies than merely ‘consuming our way out’ – we work, we care for one another, we participate in organisations, some might have their own business and employ people. The economy is being framed as a ‘diverse social space’ of interaction at different scales: at home, locally, and globally. As soon as we start seeing ourselves as “economic actors with multiple roles”7, we can begin to redesign, shape, and ‘take back’ our economies little by little.

Each chapter starts with a mainstream understanding of the different spheres of the economy mentioned at the beginning (work, business, market, property, and finance), and illustrates alternative ideas to these concepts with stories by real people around the world that reveal their ways of taking back the economy, additionally helped by visual tools. For those who are still sceptical towards the possibilities of changing our world and dominant economic system towards the better, the authors provide ‘grounds for hope’ drawn from major social transformations that have already taken place in our lifetime, and also from nature’s teaching, which they come back to at the end of the book:

– “Diversity produces resilience
– Maintaining habitats sustains life, and
– Changing one thing creates changes in others.”8

Reframing the Economy as an iceberg

The act of reframing plays a crucial part in the move towards a more sustainable and just economy. So far, we’ve understood the economy as “an engine that must be fueled by growth” and ourselves as “individual cogs – economic actors only if we work to consume”9. To overcome these understandings is what the authors call ‘reframing’: to imagine the economy and its actors differently. It means to also consider all the things and actions that make our households, communities, and nations work, which are not only the material outputs, but also the immaterial labour so necessary for our environments and social well-being. To imagine the economy as an iceberg is the first step to visualise those economic activities that are usually not considered in mainstream economies: taking care of children, giving gifts, volunteering, between friends, bartering, informal lending, etc.

“We use the idea of an iceberg economy to acknowledge the economic diversity that abounds in this world. The iceberg also allows us to explore interrelationships that cannot be captured by mechanical market feedback loops or the victories and defeats of class struggle. Once we include what is hidden below the waterline – and possibly keeping us afloat as a society – we expand our prospects for taking back the economy. We potentially multiply the opportunities for ethical actions.”10

J.K. Gibson-Graham’s iceberg model

The five different aspects of the economy (work, business, market, property, and finance) are drawn from this image to establish a more systematic view on the diverse economic practices. To each of these practices, the authors dedicate one chapter as follows.

Work

Reframing work is an important but difficult step – in our cultures, work is a way of defining who we are. Work can be fulfilling, but also take over people’s lives. Work conditions differ widely depending on the field and context, and some work is well-respected while other work is not even considered as such (compare the iceberg model). Work is a way to earn a livelihood that should enable us to survive well. But, opposed to the widespread belief, well-being is not only secured through material means, but through the interactions between material, occupational, social, community, and physical well-being. According to a global study, we need to achieve a mix of these five different types of well-being:

“Well-being is about the combination of our love for what we do each day, the quality of our relationships, the security of our finances, the vibrancy of our physical health, and the pride we take in what we have contributed to our communities.”11

In order to help us understand how we spend our everyday lives, the authors suggest three tools:

1. A 24-h-clock on which the total hours of different kinds of activity are recorded.
2. A well-being scorecard on which the five types of well-being are rated on a scale from 1 (poor) to 2 (sufficient) to 3 (excellent).
3. A balance scale on which labor time spent earning money is balanced with labor time spent on other sorts of well-being is represented.*

Furthermore, the authors discuss the ecological footprint as a tool to analyse how our labor and connected lifestyles affect our planet. According to the New Economics Foundation, working less hours a week can have a positive affect to address both ‘work-life and work-planetary survival imbalance’, and other problems such as the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, and people overworking themselves while others are desperately trying to find a job.12

The authors conclude the chapter by looking at ethical actions to take back work to produce well-being for both people and the planet:

– Making sure people work in safety and have enough to meet their needs
– Making sure governments provide the basic supports that everyone benefits from
– Minimizing our use of resources and directly providing for ourselves and others
– Minimizing our use of resources by sharing with others
– Volunteering to help meet the needs of others13

Business

In this chapter, the authors attempt to define business beyond its mainstream conception of profit-making ‘fonts of economic growth’. The capitalist firm as a way to achieve the most efficient production and organization of wealth is widely respected, where profits are privately accumulated by the business owner or shareholders, as an incentive to take risks and compete with others. The authors identify a major flaw in this conception: the depletion of our resources and environments. Furthermore, the wealth created by capitalist business is not distributed equally at all: in 2000, 1% of the world’s population owned 40% of global wealth, while 50% of the world’s population barely owned 1%14, giving rise to the Occupy Wall Street movements infamous slogan: “We are the 99%”.

How wealth is held or shared and distributed seems to have a great influence on the problems we are currently facing, so taking back business by shifting decision-making power, by negotiating between producers and non-producers, by re-distributing surplus to social and environmental ends, and by being transparent about numbers and wages, can contribute positively to the well-being of people and the planet.

Market

What are markets, and what are the dynamics behind? Markets are heralded as the ideal system to manage complex transactions between producers and consumers, regulated by price setting, supply, and demand. Market dynamics are often described as naturally operating and useful to allocate scarce resources in very efficient ways. The freedoms of the market are usually seen as preferable to the regulation met by the state. With globalization and an increasingly connected world, most products we consume today come from far distances where the nature of trade becomes abstract and blurred. We don’t know about the conditions under which things were produced and how prices were put together. How can we encounter these ‘distant others’? The authors suggest a range of tools such as:

1. A Where From? Inventory,
2. A Distant Others Dandelion,
3. A Shopper’s Checklist, and
4. An Ethical Shopper’s Checklist.15

They point to ethical guides and rating agencies to help use these tools, such as the Ethical Consumer Group in Australia16 or Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics17. Like this, we can make more informed decisions on what or whether to buy. With the Ethical Interconnection Checklist provided by the authors, one can consider how others are affected through encounters to meet our needs.18 Other ethical actions suggested include supporting fair-trade networks, joining or starting a consumer cooperative, supporting buy-local campaigns, promoting ethical consumer guides, supporting new markets that address sustainability, boycotting unethical trade, becoming part of community-supported organizations (such as CSA), using complementary currencies (such as time banks or local money), bartering and swapping, gifting, and gleaning (such as dumpster diving).19

Property

The first association most people have when it comes to property is private ownership and the laws connected to it, giving us the right to use and control what we own. It gives us a sense of security, but it also excludes others. That which belongs to everyone, the commons, is not being formally owned, and therefore often lacks formal rules of use and governance. Our water, sunlight, atmosphere, and shared intellectual property, for example, are essential to us all but can easily be exploited and abused. In order to take back property, to better care for our commons, we need to reconsider our relationships to the things and resources around us and what private property means to us. The authors describe the commons as a key concern of a community economy, meeting the traction current commons debates and initiatives around the world are gaining.20 “A commons is a property, a practice, or a knowledge shared by a community”, further detailed as such:

– Biophysical commons like rocks, soil, sunlight, water and air, and plant and animal ecologies;
– Cultural commons like language, a musical heritage, sacred symbols, and artworks;
– Social commons like educational, health, and political systems; and
– Knowledge commons like Indigenous ecological knowledge and scientific and technological advancements.21

Commons experts such as Silke Helfrich usually stress that commons are a process rather than a resource: water becomes a commons only through the practice of commoning, by establishing rules around its shared use, maintenance, and care22. The authors of this book continue this thought: “We need to reconsider property as a relationship between people with respect to things. All forms of property can be potential commons.” According to them, commons and community go hand in hand, and therefore rules and protocols need to be developed for the management of the commons, considering both current and future generations, and our connatural world:

– Access to property must be shared and wide
– Use of property must be negotiated by a community
– Benefit from property must be distributed to the community and possibly beyond
– Care for property must be performed by community members, and
– Responsibility for property must be assumed by community members. 23

Finance

Financial institutions are usually a way to manage and increase monetary wealth. How our wealth is managed, distributed, and spent can be devastating for humans and nature, particularly if only a small fraction of the world’s population gains from it. The authors invite the reader to look at investment from a different point of view: investing in our future to ensure the survival of following generations, not as an end in itself. Combining monetary investment with all the other kinds of non-monetary investments such as time, energy, and imagination, can help build more secure futures with social and individual benefits.

Again, the authors look at the economy as a community garden, and what investing in the maintenance of the nutrients taken out of the soil and in the relationships between the people who take care of the garden means and produces in terms of returns.

In a community economy, the authors write, pooling wealth as investment funds become a ‘huge potentiating force’ when they can be used towards creating social returns that can be shared in transparent and ethical ways. To make sure that investments made are actually building better futures, it is necessary to regularly draw a balance on what impacts they have. In the global financial system, it seems impossible to retrace what invested money has produced, and the demand for more transparency and more ethical investment possibilities has increased in the past years. A new tool has been developed to calculate the social return on investment (SROI)24, which has been widely discussed as reducing all benefit to monetary values – so, the authors propose a version of the ROI, the Community Economy Return on Investment (CEROI), where investments and returns are not necessarily measured in monetary terms, expanding our idea of finance towards social and environmental ends.

The authors conclude in the final chapter, that taking back the economy can take place ‘any time, any place’ – with the tools and insights this book provides to the reader one can easily start the process now, and here, “to move together toward a more sustainable, equitable, and just economy.”25

 

*All of the tools mentioned in this text can be found right here on the website of this book.

Footnotes:

1 Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J., Healy, S. (2013): Take Back The Economy – An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. xiii

2 Ibid, pp. xiii

3 Ibid, p. xv

4 Ibid, p. xvi

5 Ibid, p. xviii

6 Ibid, p. xix

7 Ibid, p.xx

8 Ibid, p. xxiii

9 Ibid, p. 3

10 Ibid, pp. 10-11.

11 Rath, T. & Harder, J. (2010): Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. New York: Gallup Press.

12 Coote, A., Franklin, J., and Simms, A. (2010): 21 Hours: Why a Shorter Working Week Can Help Us All to Flourish in the 21st Century. London: New Economics Foundation.

13 Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J., Healy, S. (2013): Take Back The Economy – An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 39-48.

14 Davies, J.B., Sandstrom, S., Shorrocks, A., Wolff, E.N. (2007): The World Distribution of Household Wealth. Helsinki: World Institute for Development Economics Research.

15 Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J., Healy, S. (2013): Take Back The Economy – An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 89-94.

16 More info: http://www.ethical.org.au/3.4.2/about/ethical-consumer-group/

17 More info: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/cool-it/Campaign-analysis/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/

18 Ibid, p.112.

19 Ibid, pp. 112-122.

20 See, for example, the work being done around the world towards a European Commons Assembly: https://europeancommonsassembly.eu.

21 Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J., Healy, S. (2013): Take Back The Economy – An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 130.

22 An example made by Silke Helfrich during the conference UTOPIKON in Berlin, Nov. 2016, visited by the author of this review.

23 Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J., Healy, S. (2013): Take Back The Economy – An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 131.

24Measuring Social Impact: The Foundation of Social Return on Investment (SROI) (2004). London: New Economic Foundation.

25 Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J., Healy, S. (2013): Take Back The Economy – An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 197.

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