Deconstructing, demystifying, and taking back the economy
Katherine Gibson is an internationally renowned Feminist and Marxist economic geographer conducting innovative research on economic transformation. She has over 30 years’ experience of working with communities to build more resilient economies. With the late Julie Graham, she has shared the collective authorial presence J.K. Gibson-Graham. Their books include ‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ (Blackwell 1996), ‘A Postcapitalist Politics’ (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and ‘Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities’, co-authored with Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). She is based in Australia and works as professor at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. During an early fall day in 2017, we met on Skype to talk about her work, motivations and research approach.
Katherine, how did your first book ‘The End of Capitalism As We Know It’ come about? Could you tell me a bit more about the story behind?
The book itself is a collection of some articles that were previously published and some chapters that were written specifically for the book. In terms of the intellectual project it started maybe 8 or 9 years before the book came out. It was really an attempt to distance ourselves from our training in political economy which was very focused on crisis, restructuring and structural change of capitalism. Early on we had focused our attention on different forms of capitalism and how it changed itself. We became more concerned with how that analysis wasn’t leading to any kind of transformational politics, and started to get involved more with an anti-essentialist understanding of Marxism. What really galvanised the book was the keynote that Julie gave at the ‘Rethinking Marxism’ conference in Massachusetts in Amherst, which was our co-authored paper ‘Waiting for the revolution or How to smash capitalism while working at home in our spare time’. That kind of became the signature for the book.
You were writing together under the pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham as if you were one person, while you were both based in two different continents – Julie in the States, and you in Australia. How did you manage the collaborative writing process?
We had been graduate students together in the US, but I came back to Australia. We finished graduate school in the early 80s, and then we started to meet up once a year pretty much. Basically, we’d always be in two different places, but we would spend a month in each other’s place every year. We first decided to put our names together in 1992, and I think the first thing that came out was in that era, so 4 years before the book. Around that time we decided to write a book by ‘J.K. Gibson-Graham’. It was surprising for people to see that when we put our names together. Everyone would say: oh, what will this mean for your career? But at that stage, we both had 10 years at our respective institutions, so we weren’t really worried about that kind of thing. We were more interested in being more playful about authorship. That’s how it began…
A lot of the writing we did when we were visiting each other. There were some drafts that each of us would write on and the other one would do the editing. Other ones were much more back and forth in terms of writing and editing. We had a mixture of different modes. You’ve got to remember in these days there was no easy email or anything like that, so it was much harder to get the turnaround. It was a good discipline in some ways!
What is your main critique of the economic system?
Well, I think we share the critique of our economic world with many other people on the left, but it’s a matter of what to do about it and where to put our intellectual efforts. We became increasingly dissatisfied with putting our intellectual labours into documenting the ever resourceful ways in which capital seems to come up with new ways of accumulating or side-stepping any kind of restraints and so on. It seemed to us that a lot of the work that was going on was just continually studying the latest aspect of capitalism and in a sense showing up its strengths. As we became more interested in post-structuralism, we were bringing that kind of understanding to our thinking about economy, realising the more we documented the ways in which neoliberal capitalism was developing, the further we were getting away from trying to theorise other kinds of economies that were more desirable. In effect, once we started looking at the diversity of economic processes that co-exist, both good or bad or desirable or undesirable, we realised that what was dominant was a hegemonic discourse of capitalism rather than the actual practices that were all over the place. Our attempt to deconstruct that kind of dominance, which was a similar project that was going on with feminists trying to deconstruct male dominance, was to both unravel this monster called capitalism and then start looking at how to strengthen the kinds of ethical relationships that are more sustaining.
What is your counter proposal?
I think there is a need to do both kinds of work. We’ve tended to direct ourselves towards the openings and the possibilities. We get criticised for that, for being too optimistic and hopeful, but we saw that there was this way in which critique had taken over. There was a very depressing heavy kind of feel to a lot of the work that was going on. It seemed to be continually handing power to capitalism or capital.
I think the whole theorising of diversity was really inspired by the work that Steve Resnick and Rick Wolf 1 did in the anti-essentialist class analysis. As Marxist economists, they were interested in looking at class as a process rather than a category, arguing that there are many different ways that surplus labour is accumulated and distributed. The capitalist version through wage labour is one way, but the other forms of class process, whether it’s cooperative or slave or communal or independent are still coexisting in the world. That was an insight that we then took into other areas of the economy: when there is many different kinds of transactions that aren’t just a certain kind of commodity exchange. This thinking resonated with a lot of the work that was already going on in other fields, such as in feminism about unpaid labour, anthropologists looking at informal economic relationships. Our work really tried to tie all these things together in order to deconstruct capitalism.
You mentioned the rich diversity of economic interactions that already exists – as a representation of this diverse economy, there is the infamous iceberg image which is often quoted and widely used in the context of your work. I was wondering how it came about and if there are any relations to the iceberg model developed in the 80s by Maria Mies?
There is probably an unconscious relationship because we definitely knew Maria’s work and drew on it. I don’t personally remember seeing her model, but the way the iceberg came into our work was in the ‘Rethinking Economy’ research project that Julie ran in Pioneer valley in Massachusetts in the early 2000s. In their community economy workshops they used the iceberg that Ken Byrne had redrawn to represent the diverse economy.
Img. 1: The iceberg image drawn by Ken Byrne, www.communityeconomies.org.
The iceberg is an image that is part of our culture in terms of showing something that’s visible and something that’s invisible. We just picked it up and used it without much thinking, but it has certainly been associated with our work. As you said, there are plenty of other people who use icebergs in different ways, including in terms of the economy. The other big image we knew was Hazel Henderson’s layer cake vision (see Img. 2), but we weren’t interested in using that because of the way in which the layers become separate economies, whether there is love economy or care economy or capitalist, public or state economy. We wanted to break down those ‘economies’ into their constituent practices. That was our attempt to deconstruct so as to not just produce another binarism or category that’s the same as the master term, but to actually undo everything and make it into something smaller, more malleable in a way. The iceberg for us is really a chaotic conception of all sorts of practices, some of which people would associate with economy and some of which people wouldn’t necessarily.
We’ve had an interesting set of workshops recently with community groups in countries where our book ‘Take Back the Economy’ has been translated. There, people used the iceberg as an inspiration. They came up with all sorts of different images of how to map the economy, including a cactus with a bigger root system underneath, or an ant house… but all of them had that same kind of image of certain things that are visible and others that are invisible that are actually important, or more important than what we see as visible.
Img. 2: Layer cake by Hazel Hendersen, 1981.
You mentioned the book ‘Take Back the Economy’ which is, particularly in regards to language, very accessible to everyday people. On top of that, you provide the reader both online and offline with teaching material to understand better how the economy works2. What was the motivation behind this book and how was it perceived so far?
We wanted to write a more popular version of ‘The End of Capitalism’ and ‘A Postcapitalist Politics’. This was a project that started before Julie died. We were already working with Stephen Healy and Jenny Cameron, both of whom were ex-students of ours and great colleagues. We had done other kinds of workbooks or manuals coming out of action research projects, so we were always interested in a more popular kind of version to incorporate more people into this debate about what an economy is and what can we do with it.
It took a long time to get the right formula for how to do it and how to make the theoretical into something more accessible. We started about a year or two before Julie died and then we continued and did most of the writing after she passed away. We were able to do it because it was based on years of theorising and writing more complex academic pieces that could then be broken down into more simple language. Interestingly, the chapter on ‘property’ and ‘finance’ were the two that were really written with less previous writing to back them up. They were really fun to do and were kind of new works. Originally, we thought it was just a popular version of already existing work, but as it turned out it became more than that, a theoretical development in itself.
So far, it seems to have been very well received by people. There are quite a lot of people using it in teaching and finding it a fun way to work with students to demystify the economy. It does have a lot of how-to exercises about what people can do. It also has a lot of examples, and you can start to proliferate examples of things that are taken back in various parts of the economy.
There’s been a great interest in getting translations done – a Spanish version has just been launched in Colombia, and there is a Korean translation that has been out since a few years, even in neighbourhood houses they’ve been kind of using it to strategise what they do next. There is a Finnish version that’s about to come out next, and hopefully, a French version sooner or later… and a Greek version! A lot of these countries were in the economic crisis with many people already taking back the economy, so when there is a book that kind of helps back up what they are doing, it’s kind of exciting!
You’ve been working with communities since over 30 years to build more resilient economies – could you describe in more detail what you do exactly and give some examples?
The main thing I’ve done has been work with community researchers on action-research projects trying to develop alternative pathways for regional development in place-based communities. Other people in our network do action-research at different scales, so I don’t want to give the idea that the only way to do action-research is this more place-based work.
The first project I did was working with women in Australian mining communities, trying to look at the different kinds of subject positions they occupy, how they are locked out of the restructuring process that was happening in the industries their husbands were working in, and what that meant for their household dynamics. That was the beginning of modelling a kind of working in a community where you actually employ the very research subjects you’re interested in talking to as community researchers. There, I employed three women of different ages and at different stages of family life in each of four towns in the mining regions of Northern Queensland. The project came out with a little cartoon booklet that was co-funded with the miners’ union that people were able to use in the community to start to try to engage with the corporate sector about more family-friendly work practices. Many of the women that got involved in the project ended up doing very interesting things afterwards.
We used the same method in another de-industrialising mining region in the Latrobe Valley in the State of Victoria. There, it was really not just looking at the representations and the subject positions that retrenched workers, young unemployed people or single parents were forced into, but looking at the possibilities for other kinds of economies in the region. We got involved in actually developing community-based enterprises that older people or younger people and others were interested in forging.
That model became a model for other action-research projects that we used in different contexts, for example in Asia in more rural communities where many people leave their community to work overseas as a domestic labourer or construction worker to be able to send some money back. We’ve worked in communities that are trying to stem that flow of labour flow out, using an asset-based community development approach. There, we look at local assets and what kinds of new economic practices could be developed by community-based enterprises.
We always work closely with NGOs, and the basic principle is to always work in research partnerships, with groups that are already embedded in the region, and then also residents or citizens who are already embedded within the context. That’s how we try to break down that abstract relationship between the academy and the community. It has worked really well in terms of a form of practice. The hard part is just getting the funding to continue doing that kind of work, but a lot of people seem to have picked it up and taken on that method.
Img. 3: Katherine Gibson a conducting a workshop in the community of Tome, Chile. November 2017 (photo by Hermann Ruis)
The Community Economies Collective was what we started with somewhere in the late 90s, and one of the first publications of the collective was a paper that came out of the project that Julie worked on in the ‘Rethinking Economy’ project with her students and other community members. The collective was initially Julie and I and our students, a smaller group that were all on the same page in terms of intellectual training and political interests. As things have evolved, that collective has grown by including our students’ students, and other individuals who’ve been interested to work with community economy thinking. The collective is a relatively small group, around 40 people who have that kind of committed interest in developing theories of the community economy in all sorts of directions.
As our work became more well-known, we organised reading groups in each of our locations with people who weren’t members of the collective, but who were interested. Organising conference sessions also brought in a lot of other people. We realised it would be good to have a wider network, as there was a wider range of people across the world who were interested in thinking about alternative economies. There are around 180 people in the Community Economies Research Network and it seems to be growing steadily. It is scattered across the world in multiple locations, still dominantly in the Anglo-world, but there is a growing contingent of people in Latin-America and Asia. It’s really a network to share research, but also organise conference sessions and get-togethers in different places.
If a person would walk up to you who has never heard of the community economy, how would you explain this term?
That’s a hard thing! You might want to look at our essay in the ‘Next system project’, which is called ‘Cultivating community economies’5 – we tried to summarise it in there. I guess if someone came up to me, I would say the community economy is the kind of collection of interdependent practices that sustain life. We are interested in recognising that kind of interdependence that we have with each other, with people at a distance, with nature, and putting that at centre stage of what our economy is. In the end, the economy is what helps us survive. We need to be thinking about how we care for each other and how we care for the planet. The community economy puts care at its centre. It doesn’t mean that everybody has to know each other, but there has to be a sort of commitment to a responsibility for another, including the non-human other. A community economy really puts these kinds of values at the core and then looks at the kind of economic relationships that we have in the current world and tries to see how we can put them together in a different way or eliminate some of the most exploitative ones. Which are not only destroying the planet, but also undermining trust and interdependent relationships that are sustaining people. It’s hard to explain!
You mentioned you’re doing a lot of action-research on the ground with people. Do you have other methodologies to research the economy and economic activities?
We draw on a range of social science approaches and techniques. At the moment, I’ve got a large research project with Stephen Healey, Jenny Cameron and Joanne McNeill about the future of manufacturing in Australia. That project is using classic interviews and observation with different stakeholders in a certain number of firms, where we’ve included social enterprises, capitalist firms and cooperatives. Now, we’re having workshops with all the participants together, where people will start having interchanges with each other. It’s not a classic action-research project at all, but it’s very much engaged with our research subjects.
At the same time, I am doing another project on economic resilience in Monsoon Asia, and that has got more aspects of an anthropological field method. We are working with community researchers in particular localities to document the economic practices that communities have used over many centuries to try and deal with typhoons and climate change. We will have a workshop with all the people that have been writing on the key words and the community economies of Monsoon Asia. Most of them are writing in collaboration with a researcher in the region. The hope is to build a wider community that can try to represent the economic geography of Asia in a different way, one that hopefully might be more useful for thinking about the future in terms of how to adapt to the climate change issues.
So yes, I draw on lots of different research techniques, and all research is a form of action-research as it has a performative effect. It’s just a matter of recognising that that’s the case, and then seeing how you want your research to relate to the world. A lot of our research is about incorporating people into some kind of reframing conversation that will be enabling new kinds of actions.
So in a way, it’s always driven by change or the possibility of change.
I think so, at least some idea about how to understand things and take action in one way or another. There is a way in which we just have to listen to things, too. It’s not like all of our projects end up in action, but they certainly end up in listening in new ways and recovering knowledge that people already know but that has been devalued. So, hopefully it shifts power dynamics a little bit. Ultimately, I’d say I am interested in some sort of transformative relationship that research plays in the world.
I have a more personal question for you – what was your initial motivation to study economic geography?
I did an undergraduate degree in geography and geology, actually. My first piece of research was looking at urban transformation and the role of the old working class community that was right next to where I was living in Sydney University. There were threats to that fabric of society and there was a lot of activism at that time in the mid-70s around opposing express-way development and the kind of modernist reshaping of the urban centre, especially the old Victorian streetscapes. There was a lot of political intervention to save the old working class community that lived closed to the city. I ended up doing participant observation with lot of elderly people who were working class inner city residents. So I always had an interest in more qualitative, participatory and phenomenological research, but my interest in the whole movement in geography that was happening under the influence of David Harvey and other people and the more radical shift towards looking at non-systemic understandings of the city. I shifted and felt quite embarrassed that I actually talked to people when I thought, oh, I could have just looked at the catalogue of rent changes and bank mortgages and I could have understood urban dynamics that way (laughs). So when I went off to graduate school I was still torn between a more phenomenological humanistic approach to geography, and a more Marxist structural economic approach, and ended up getting drawn into the latter – which was very exciting at the time, when I was in Clark University where Antipode published the Radical Journal of Geography6. So, there was a period of almost 10 years there where I was basically trained as a Marxist economist.
But in general, my motivation to study economic geography was an interest in the world, in people and in social justice. That was probably something that predated university. I was always interested in geography as a study. My father worked in the fishing industry, at the management level, but we were very much out about visiting factories and communities. As a family, we were engaged in the world, and there was a line of people who were clerics and medicos who were interested in service to a wider good. I got more committed to a kind of leftist approach to thinking about society. It took me various detours, but I think those kinds of interests were probably nurtured from a young age. Just an interest in the world and caring for it.
One last question – are there any books on your shelf that you can recommend for people who are interested in these topics?
Obviously, the books that we’ve written (laughs)! There is a range of things – I am very interested in books that are coming out of at the moment in the environmental humanities, e.g. by Deborah Rose7 and Thom Van Dooren8 and people who think along the economy to think about ecology in a new way. I’ve always found William Conolly’s9 work on political theory very interesting and helpful to think about possibilities, and think Laclau’s and Mouffe’s work is still very relevant to thinking about politics. One of the problems with doing what I am doing is that I am not reading enough! Jean-Luc Nancy’s work has always been helpful for me. Books around commoning, the work of David Bollier and others, all that group is fascinating.
Thank you for the interview, Katherine!
1 American heterodox economists well-known for their joint work on anti-essentialist Marxian economics, economic methodology and class analysis (see for example Resnick, S. and Wolff, R. (1987) Knowledge and Class).
2 More info at: http://takebackeconomy.net.
3 More info at: http://www.communityeconomies.org/community-economies-collective-cec
4 More info at: http://www.communityeconomies.org/community-economies-research-network-cern
5 See more here: https://thenextsystem.org/cultivating-community-economies. Accessed Feb. 27th 2019.
6 More info at: https://antipodefoundation.org/about-the-journal-and-foundation/a-radical-journal-of-geography/
7 Deborah Rose is a founding figure in the environmental humanities in Australia carrying out research on multi-species relationships at the edge of extinction. Source: https://hal.arts.unsw.edu.au/about-us/people/deborah-rose/, accessed Oct 9th 2017.
8 Thom van Dooren’s work is situated in the interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities, exploring the role of an interdisciplinary humanities approach to understanding and addressing environmental change. Source: https://hal.arts.unsw.edu.au/about-us/people/thom-van-dooren/, accessed Oct 9th 2017.
9 William E. Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism. Source: Wikipedia.org.