I feel a bit embarrassed to admit that it is only in the last year that I have become aware of the writings of Gibson-Graham. This is actually an authorial duo. One of the two authors is an Australian geographer, so this body of theory is quite well known in geography circles in Australia but so far as I know seems to be totally unknown in sociology. I have to suspect that this is because the orientation of their work is to a large extent on strategies for social action and theorizing what might actually work in the present situation. They point out that new left marxism has arrived at a bit of a cul de sac politically in that it seems that nothing other than “the revolution” could possibly work to do anything significant – so academic work is left to the critique of capitalism and has nothing helpful to say to those who want to conduct a political struggle now. They equally eschew the view that the realistic thing to do is to accept the inevitability of the dominance of capitalist society and to work on realistic reforms within that context – which seems to be the orientation of most sociologists when they are not involved in descriptive critique for its own sake.
Instead Gibson-Graham argue that it is important to realize that “capitalism” is not as omni-present in the modern world as its supporters and its opponents claim. The “capitalist firm” is in fact just one kind of organization in the modern “diverse economy”. It exists when employers exploit free labour, realize a surplus product in a monetary form and distribute the surplus to the owners of the company. However many economic forms in the modern world are not like this – ranging from cooperatives, the self employed, family businesses, the household economy, NGOs, not for profit organizations, slavery, feudal organizations and even state departments. While modern marxists have traditionally emphasized the way all these forms are subordinate to the logic of capitalism and to the market, Gibson-Graham argue that this is not necessarily the case and that both production and the distribution of surplus do not necessarily promote “capitalism” in these sites. Moreover, in their view these sites are prime targets for an alternative politics in which ethical considerations influence economic conduct and in which people build real social relations with each other through their economic activity. The anonymous market can be replaced with economic activity that is oriented to particular social relationships and allows an ethical choice rather than blind market forces to dictate outcomes. They refer to this option as “building the community economy”. This is their strategy for social change. Overall, both the operation of this strategy and the reconceptualization of capitalism is referred to as “the end of capitalism, as we knew it” – a title of their 1995 book. They try to avoid perceiving this as a recipe for moving to a new utopian post-capitalist condition, and in various instance say both that capitalist class processes are not necessarily unethical and that they do not see “the capitalist firm” (as such) as being wiped out if their political program was successful, although clearly it would have a less significant role than at present.
In relation to class, Gibson-Graham argue that “class processes” involving the extraction and distribution of surplus cut through people as individuals. They here use as a metaphor the poststructuralist concept of people’s engagement in a variety of discursive positionings within different discourses. So the same person who is involved as a wife in a process of extraction of her surplus labour may also be involved as an employee in a capitalist class process, as a shareholder in another capitalist process and as a member of a community group in a non capitalist class process. In the latter instance she is someone who donates productive labour to the group and her community.
There is much about this position which is remarkably parallel to my own theorizing of strategies for social change, developed during the same period. The initiation of forms of economic activity which take part in the market economy but which also carry a radical strategy of ethical production and distribution is referred to in my writings as the strategy of “hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism”. Like Gibson-Graham, I identify class processes as those in which surplus labour is extracted and like them I think this takes a variety of forms both historically and in capitalism today. Like them, I think that individuals can be participants in a variety of different class processes and take up different positions (as exploiter, as exploited, as an equal) in these. Like them, I believe that there is a lot of meaningful political work that can be done now and does not wait on a revolution. These positions are spelled out in detail in “Anarchist and Hybrid Strategies” and “Philosophy of the Social Sciences” on this website. What I want to write about now is some of the problems that I see in the way Gibson-Graham set this up and some of the differences between my analysis and theirs.
The concept of “surplus” in Gibson-Graham
This is clearly a central concept in their writing in so far as the extraction of a surplus is what defines a “class process”. Equally, within marxist analysis this is what also defines a situation as “exploitative”. As we will see, it is not entirely clear whether Gibson-Graham think that these are necessarily linked. In their view, a class process also takes place when the surplus is redistributed back to the producers or to the community at large.
Gibson-Graham define the concept of a surplus through the distinction of “necessary” and “surplus” labour. Necessary labour is that which produces the amount of product which is considered necessary in a given social context for survival. A “surplus” is that which goes above and beyond that amount. This relates to Marx’s classic definitions of this in “Wage Labour and Capital”. As he portrays the capitalist firm, the worker works a certain number of hours to produce the value which is equivalent to what he is paid and in the next set of hours works to produce the surplus value which is what the owner of the firm appropriates. Marx (and Gibson-Graham) make an analogy between this and other class processes. The easiest example to explain is feudalism – the peasant works on their own field for four days a week producing the food which is necessary to their survival, and on two days a week they produce food on the lord’s land as a “tribute” – the surplus product.
However there is a trick here, which is very germane to this discussion. “Necessary” means both “necessary for survival” and also “what in fact the worker gets in return for the production that they carry out”. I have to say that my own theory of how these get linked like this is as follows. Marx and later marxists believed that in early class societies (slavery, feudalism) the slave, peasant or whatever was in fact only allowed to hold on to that part of what they produced which was vitally necessary for biological survival. Marx also believed initially that competition between capitalist firms would drive down the price of labour to the point at which workers could only be paid survival wages. Later, Marx modified this as it became clear that wages could rise above this bare minimum if workers successfully applied political pressure to the capitalist class. He initiated a fudge, which Gibson-Graham have followed, by which “survival” means what has been politically fought for as necessary for survival – which just happens to equate to whatever it is people are actually being paid, with the rest being the surplus. In fact, in my view the concept of surplus and necessity has actually two different definitions:
1. Necessity is what is necessary for survival and the rest is surplus.
2. Necessity is what is actually received in exchange for what the worker produces and the surplus is what is over and above this value which is not compensated.
Note that the second definition equates the surplus/necessary distinction to a definition of exploitation – this is an exploitative class process.
To my mind the fudge that solders these two definitions together leads to certain problems in Gibson-Graham’s account. To begin with the definition of what is defined as “socially necessary for survival” is problematic. On the one hand, if survival is to mean anything it has to equate to biological survival – the satisfaction of basic material needs – food, health, reproduction. But it has to end up by being the same as whatever it is that you are getting paid. So you are forced to pretend that what people are getting paid is seen as socially necessary to biological survival. Otherwise you cannot keep these two parts of the definition in synch. If “survival” does not mean “biological survival” then “socially necessary to survival” just ends up meaning – whatever the worker is paid. So why bother claiming that it is seen as necessary to survival?
There is in fact no coincidence in today’s rich world between what people are being paid and their survival needs. It beggars belief to suggest that a 4WD (SUV) and a plasma TV are necessary for survival or that they are considered “necessary for survival”. Yet this is the absurd conclusion that Gibson-Graham reach. In fact, wages like this are a product of political pressure and the accomodations between the capitalist class and the proletariat in the rich countries. They go way beyond mere survival. What makes a lot more sense in this situation is to use the second definition and talk about how the proletariat are still exploited in so far as they produce more wealth than they are paid, they have no control over how this surplus is allocated and used, and have little control over work processes.
To call Gibson-Graham out on this account, let us consider why they never suggest that workers in capitalist firms are being paid some of the surplus, that they are being paid more than what is required as socially necessary for survival. No, it just so happens that every time, the capitalist boss takes all of the surplus that is not required for socially necessary survival. The real reason why this can never happen in Gibson-Graham’s account is not anything in the real world. It can never happen because then the distinction between necessary and surplus labour would not map on to the distinction between what you are paid and the value which is extracted from your work and appropriated.
The end result of the use of this definition in Gibson-Graham is to find class processes and exploitation everywhere, even when it makes no sense to do so. For example in a classless indigenous society (pre-contact) people exploit themselves because after they have done their necessary labour – to satisfy their survival needs – they invest a surplus of productive energy in art. They extract a surplus from their own labour and distribute it to themselves as art. In this analysis the first (biological) meaning of surplus suddenly comes into its own because the second part of the definition makes no sense. They are not producing a surplus product which is appropriated by someone else at all but are getting back (as time off work producing material necessities) all that they produce. In other words, there is no exploitation and no surplus. I might add that we can still analyse these societies as exploitative and including a class process where gender is concerned. But there is no “class process” that takes the form of “social class” in its usual narrow sense. And we could also add that people in these societies do not seem to make this distinction between survival and non survival work themselves – both are invested with religious significance and also experienced to a large extent as a creative and autonomous activity.
Another example is the way Gibson-Graham treat the class processes involved in cooperatives or self owned firms. These become processes of exploitation in which people exploit themselves. They provide for their material necessities (what is considered socially necessary for survival) and extract a surplus product which they then distribute back to themselves. But in my view, this is not a process of exploitation or a class process and it is confusing to see it this way. On the second definition, the one that I am defending, there is no extraction of surplus product because the workers get back all the value they produce.
In terms of the first definition, there are two issues here. The way that Gibson-Graham treat these cases is like this. For a cooperative, they argue that the workers get paid what is socially necessary for survival and the rest of the surplus is used for community purposes (like a cooperative of coffee growers might fund a school bus). For a self employed worker or family business there is different reading of the surplus/necessary distinction. That which is necessary is that which the worker/owner pays themselves or their family for their everyday family spending (equivalent to a wage) and the surplus is what is spent to make the business work. In either cases these are class processes and in a sense in each case the workers are exploiting themselves by taking a surplus product from their work and investing it.
To my mind these are complicated and counter intuitive ways of describing things. For a start, the money used to run a small firm, which is surplus on this account, is in fact just as necessary as the money spent by the family on its housing, if we are looking at what is necessary for survival as it is socially defined. Without saving to spend on the business, it would go broke. In the first case, what the distinction really comes down to is individual versus group spending. Who is to say that a community bus is not necessary for what is socially defined as survival? Is every bit of spending by members of the cooperative on their own personal needs socially defined as survival in a way that a school bus is not? What if they spend their income on a TV? In short, using the second definition there is no class process here and no exploitation. There is no one to play the role of the upper class and to appropriate the extra surplus that the labour of the lower class produces. Instead what we have is different uses of the wealth that is produced by the producers themselves to satisfy their various needs – to buy a house or to buy new stock for the business; to buy a meal or a TV or a school bus.
Productive and unproductive labour
Related to this is the way Gibson-Graham replicate the unhelpful marxist distinction between “productive” and “unproductive” labour. Within this framework, line workers actually produce the commodities that a firm sells and administrative staff are “unproductive” in that their work contributes nothing to the actual making of products. One way of conceiving this is to say that unproductive workers are funded out of the surplus value produced by productive workers. This distinction leads Gibson-Graham to the paradoxical conclusion that administrative workers are “unproductive” but actually necessary to the firm to produce and sell commodities. Go figure. To my mind this whole distinction is part of the same “materialism” that drives the first definition of necessity and surplus. What people work on physically to alter the material world is real work and produces real value whereas administrative work that does not alter the material world in this way is not real work. Consequently, administrative workers must be funded from the surplus produced by real work. This seems really hard to defend in an era of computer mediated production. The capitalist firm is a whole and work that is necessary to organize production (and to create political order within the firm) is integrated into every process; not restricted to a special administrative domain. All of this work produces value, and the surplus is creamed off by shareholders.
Within the second definition or surplus, the key issue is unequal exchange. Do administrative workers get paid the full amount of the value that their work creates for the firm? And how much are they exploited in comparison to other workers? At the most basic level, how many hours of work are they putting in and what kind of rewards are they getting compared to other workers? Unequal rewards for similar labour investments suggest a process of exploitation and that should be the focus of investigation; not whether people are involved in a material or non material process of value production!
Ethics and exploitation
For me the biggest problem of the definitions of surplus and necessary labour used by Gibson-Graham is one of ethics and political approach. Within the second definition of this distinction (the one I am defending) there is an obvious ethical problem with class processes in which one group of people appropriates a surplus from the labour of others. This is a process of unequal exchange. One person gives more in terms of frustration of the desires that make up human nature and the other person gets more in terms of satisfaction of the desires that make up human nature. What is worse, these processes are usually part of a structured inequality where repeated instances of unequal exchange lead to a situation in which chances for a good life are unequally distributed. Capitalist owners of firms build up wealth and control social life. Men gain social prestige, autonomy, spending power, leisure and so on at the expense of women’s work. The central political project is to unlock and oppose these structural inequalities and the unequal exchange relationships on which they are built.
However Gibson-Graham cannot fall back on any simple notion of this kind. For them, there are class processes everywhere and self exploitation, where a surplus is extracted and given back to the producers, is always a possibility. There is no clear distinction between economic processes that are “exploitative” in the normal sense and those which are not. So to explain their political project they have to insert ethics into it. Their political project is that all class processes should be examined in terms of whether the parties involved are treating each other ethically. Unethical conduct has to stop and what we have to argue for is a more ethical outcome for these economic relationships. In what I have read so far I have not found much in the way of a definition of what ethics may involve. But they really need this for their account.
Briefly, to outline the kind of ethics that I use myself and which goes along with the definition of exploitation I am defending (see Philosophy of the Social Sciences for more on this).
1. An equality of life chances. Why should some people be radically better off than others? We all have similar needs as humans. What makes it acceptable that some repeatedly exploit others to create a better life situation at the expense of the life situation of others? Or taken in another way, equality is simply a situation in which all individuals are living the best possible life.
2. An ethical life is looking after the interests of other people, at the same time as cultivating and expressing your own interests.
The interests which make up human nature can be called drives or capacities. Drives are desires which arise and push to be satisfied; capacities are desires to be involved in activities that give pleasure and have been cultivated through personal experience. All of these are innate to an extent and also socially constructed in a particular way in a social context. For example the desire to eat is clearly innate but what is regarded as nice food is very variable socially. My current list is hunger, health, creativity, autonomy and social pleasures. The good life is the satisfaction of these desires. What motivates people to care for others is both self interest and also the enjoyment of the social pleasure of looking after other people’s well being.
The Gibson-Graham concept of alternatives to capitalism
One way that Gibson-Graham talk about alternatives is to list alternatives to the capitalist firm. So a cooperative is an alternative because the full value of the commodities which are sold on the market goes back to the producers themselves who work out together how to distribute and use this value. But as they explain, not all alternatives in this sense are actually good. For example housework is an alternative to capitalism that is actually similar to feudal social class relations. The wife produces more value than she gets back herself and the husband appropriates the difference. But this is not a capitalist class process, since the wife does not work for the husband and she is not paid a wage. Because of this, the political project of Gibson-Graham cannot be simply to multiply and extend the “diverse economy”. Because, while this may certainly diminish capitalism the outcome is not necessarily preferable. Instead, the citing of diverse economies is more to lay the groundwork for an ameliorative project. It is these alternative economic forms which are a more likely target for progressive interventions than most capitalist firms.
So what is the alternative that is preferable to capitalism and to other forms of oppression? It is what they call the “community economy”. It is an economy in which people look after each other as individuals and act ethically within their economic exchange rather than allowing the supposedly unseen hand of the market to determine their economic activity. It is an ethical use of surplus to build community with other people – to create economic relations in which an ethical perspective can be expressed.
I do not have a problem with this goal but I would like to suggest that it actually equates to the gift economy. What I mean by this is that if this project were to become dominant and successful what we would end up with is a gift economy. Goods and services are produced by people as gifts. Or they are produced by people for their own use. There is no money and no wage labour. People express their creativity and autonomy by producing the things that they think are necessary for themselves and their community and express their social capacities by offering these gifts with the aim of looking after the well being of other people, and other species. In other words, I do not think Gibson-Graham can avoid a utopian project. Their account of the community economy is an account of a utopia. If what they are talking about was to be realized we would have a utopia. Of course what they are trying to avoid is the emphasis on a revolutionary break, a planned utopia that animates all actions in the now at the expense of working on what is actually possible. Their definition of the community economy is meant to take into account what is actually possible now – for example cooperatives of peasants producing coffee for Fair Trade, or egalitarian marriages where housework and childcare are shared and so on.
My way of handling this issue in my own writing has been to talk about “hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism” as a stage of transition on the way to a gift economy. My view is that a sufficient intensification of this strategy will actually end up with a gift economy as described above, although at the moment is neither realistic nor even possible to implement this fully and what makes sense are hybrids. A hybrid of the gift economy and capitalism functions within the capitalist society we have now and makes use of various capitalist forms and institutions (such as the market, money, paid labour, the state or whatever) as well as developing various aspects of gift economy production (for example creative and meaningful work, some control by the producers of the process of production, redistribution of wealth to those most in need and so on).
In its ultimate realization the gift economy is a society without alienated labour and without exploitation and structured inequality.
The issue of markets.
According to Gibson- Graham, markets are quite benign and should not be confused with capitalism, though even that may not be a problem, so long as it is sufficiently mixed in an economy with a good variety of economic forms, and so long as the shareholders are ethically inclined to distribute the surplus wisely. After all, every enterprise generates a surplus and who is to say the workers make a better sense of how to distribute this than others?
But joking aside, markets according to Gibson-Graham (and money that goes with that) are a neutral linking device that could link up cooperatives that do not exploit their workforce (like Mondragon). Family firms or self-owned entreprises do not have to exploit their workforce either and yet they may want to sell their products on the market.
My objections to this are as follows.
Markets, the need for money and alienated labour are three sides of the same coin, so to speak. What a market dominated economy means is first that the producer does not have the freedom to distribute the product according to what is ethically correct but has to get a good price from those who can afford to pay. This is a limitation on their freedom to behave ethically in relation to other people. Ethical considerations can of course play a part but only after the bills have been paid. Secondly, and along with this, their freedom to choose the most interesting and socially useful occupation is limited by market demands. You would be an idiot to choose to do something that does not pay well or at least pay a living wage. This is alienation from work – work does not express the creativity and sociality of the worker but estranges them from these needs.
The side effect of this is environmental damage. People work at whatever the market wants and sacrifice their pleasure in daily life at work. They require and seek ever increasing amounts of compensation in consumer goods.
A market dominated economy means that those with the most money dictate what is most likely to be produced. This leads to all sorts of distortions that are not good people or the environment. Poor people do not get their basic needs met while the rich buy absurd gadgets that do not add much to their happiness. In order to have the power to make these consumer choices, people are enticed to sacrifice their pleasure at work, reinforcing the pressure towards alienated labour.
Of course, if these people are ethical they will distribute this largesse to the community and in this process lose their money. The other thing such generous behaviour would do is to undermine the relevance of markets to economic conduct. If a generous rich person can be relied on to give you money if you need money to live well or if you are involved in a socially useful project, why do only those things that will make the most money? In other words, the presuppositions of Gibson-Graham – that markets do not have to be operated acquisitively and competitively – is absolutely correct in one way. There is no legal compulsion on anyone to treat markets in this way. But this does not make markets a neutral medium. What it means is that if markets are not operated as intended (competitively and acquisitively) they cease to operate to constrain conduct – and through that money and markets progressively become irrelevant to what actually takes place economically.
The whole idea of a market goes against what Gibson-Graham say is their aim in relation to the community economy. The point of the community economy is to foster and reveal the real personal social relationships between people that lie beneath economic transactions. In doing this, a space opens up in which people can make ethical decisions about what to do with their productive activity and their control over distribution. Instead of doing automatically whatever is the most profitable course of action, people are asked to think about what the action might mean to the other people caught up in that chain of events and to make an ethical decision. Yet as argued above, markets and the force which they have to constrain conduct, are an example of a situation in which these decisions are not being made ethically. The minute people in general, and not just a few alternative or altruistic subcultures, start to use markets and money to make ethical choices is the moment when they start to undermine the coercive force and indeed the point of markets. The logical outcome of people deciding what production and distribution to undertake in terms of their own needs and those of other people is the gift economy, not an economy dominated by markets.
As often with this kind of thinking, which is not just that of Gibson-Graham, but of large sections of the environmental movement, is to mistake hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism now for the utopia that would come about if these became general and dominated the economy. Yes, ethical investment, socially responsible cooperatives, LETS money, and right livelihoods are all possible now and can function within the capitalist economy making use of money and markets. This leads to the false conclusion that we could all be behaving like this and we would still have a market economy. It would not be a market economy because no one would ever be making the decision to act in a certain way because they had to do that or they would starve for lack of money and market opportunities.
Finally, while Gibson-Graham are right to emphasize the flexibility of the market and other economic institutions normally associated with capitalism, it is equally relevant to point to the difficulty of making the economy work the way ordinary people might want when a huge part of the wealth of the economy is owned by an elite. Of course things could all change if they behaved differently by dispersing and distributing that ownership. But in the mean time, experiments like Mondragon that depend on start up capital do not have an easy time accumulating this from the wages of ordinary workers. Which is not to say it is impossible or should not be tried. But then I suppose this could come down to the standard Marxist critique of Gibson-Graham’s position, which is that there is nothing that can be done without a revolution. A position that I do not agree with. I tend to think that the issue here is really about the social imaginary (Castoriadis). The social imaginary of capitalism makes it hard for ordinary people and capitalists alike to imagine operating outside the norms which govern capitalism and its use of the market – competition and private acquisition for private use. It is equally difficult for workers to imagine spending their small savings on developing a cooperative as it is for capitalists to imagine giving away their fortunes to the poor.