I’ve just finished reading Take Back the Economy, an innovative and practical book by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy. It’s a great follow on from J.K. Gibson-Graham’s The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) and A Postcapitalist Politics, as we see many of the themes and ideas taken up and extended and adjusted to keep them relevant for the contemporary economy. Crammed full with examples, illustrations, and action points, Take Back the Economy (TBTE) works to ‘take back’ the economy by reframing it as a space of possibility and ethical action that is affected by our everyday decisions and activities, rather than simply an overarching machine that must be obeyed. This reframing of the economy as ethical and processual begins with a concern for others, as well as ourselves, in order that we might engender modes of surviving together well and equitably. Further ethical action concerns how to distribute surplus, encounter others, consume sustainably, care for the commons, and invest our wealth for the future. An economy centered on these ethical considerations is what Gibson-Graham et al call a community economy – a space of decision making where we recognise and negotiate our interdependence with other humans, other species, and our environment. They claim that it is in this process of recognising and negotiating that we become a community.
Right from the outset, then, readers are encouraged to think about the economy outside of a monolithic capitalism by looking at the abundance of economic diversity in the world. The authors argue that the economy is much like an iceberg, with the vast majority of both hidden from view, yet always providing a vital role in keeping the top portion afloat. In such an analogy ‘economies’ between friends, relatives, cooperatives, and self-employment sit below the waterline of mainstream economic accounts, all of which contribute to our well-being at a whole range of scales. By accounting for that which is usually taken for granted, or below the waterline, we are able to expand our prospects for taking back the economy by developing strong and relevant strategies to support people and planet.
‘The economy as an iceberg’ – p11
Having set out the basis of the reframing mission in the first chapter, subsequent chapters of the book move to examine in turn how we might start to take back various components of the economy; work, business, markets, property, and finance. This begins by firstly presenting dominant understandings of each element, before showing how it is countered by the real world community action that is working to take back the economy as a space of ethical decision making.
Rather than offer a comprehensive summary of the book, what follows will be a brief engagement with how I see one or two of the key ideas from each chapter relating to my personal interest in craft and some of the research that I have conducted so far. It is by no means extensive, but instead a start at making some connections between theory and empirics.
In ‘take back work’, for instance, one of the main topics covered is a discussion on ‘downshifters’. These are people who have made the conscious decision to reduce their income but improve their quality of life. This is certainly something many of the craftspeople I’ve spoken to recently have done, either leaving their full-time jobs to pursue a creative career, or cutting down on their hours at work to free up time during the week to make their wares. These actions help to achieve a balance of different types of well-being (material, occupational, social, community, physical etc), and as people are often making what they need instead of buying it their efforts are able to help to reduce the planetary impact of consumption as well.
The next chapter, ‘Take back business’ was primarily concerned with how we might better distribute the benefits bestowed by surplus to the well-being of people and planet. As something ‘extra’, ‘left over’, or not immediately needed following a business transaction, surplus can be selfishly seized for personal gain, or creatively shared amongst others. One method for creative sharing is through social enterprises; organisations which use business as a vehicle to produce a direct social or environmental good. Recently, as mentioned previously, I’ve become involved with a craft shop in Southville which operates as a social enterprise. The owner, Vicky, not only runs classes and community based projects (see the coral reef), but aims distributes profits to meet community needs. The intention of social enterprises under the task of ‘taking back business’, then, is to produce people and planetary well-being, rather than reserving the good life for a select few.
‘Take back markets’ was my favourite chapter, and the one which resonated most with me. Markets are one way in which we connect with others to obtain the things that we need but can’t produce for ourselves. What is at stake, however, is the type of encounters that are produced in these connections. Taking back markets means promoting economic encounters that help us survive well together, and enact a space of care rather than thoughtless consumption. As such, the reader is asked to think about their purchases and ask questions such as ‘where did it come from?’, ‘who made this?’, ‘in what conditions?’, and ‘what was the environmental impact?’ In becoming more ethical shoppers we can not only extend care to distant others, but also start to explore other ways of meeting our needs which perhaps involve more direct forms of encounter and thus work to connect people more deeply with one another and the environment. The immediate way of doing this which sprung to my mind was through knitting and sewing clothing. Increasingly, people are beginning to say no to cheap disposable fashion and instead taking the time to craft durable wares in the style, material, and fit of their choice (see this blog post for a great example). By refusing to support corporations who produce cheap clothing, pay unfair wages, use unsustainable materials, and provide unsafe working conditions, consumers-cum-crafters can promote encounters that help us survive well with other human beings and natural environments (especially if they are involved in the whole process – e.g. a knitter who shears, washes, dyes, spins and knits the wool). Markets are not natural forces, but spaces of encounter which can be based on care as well as consumption. Other examples include the FairTrade movement, or the gift economy (which is also a key component for many crafters).
The penultimate chapter of the book is titled ‘take back property’. The primary focus here is on common, those biophysical, cultural, or social resources which are accessible to all members of a given community. The practice of ‘commoning’ revolves around making sure resources are claimed for a community and is motivated by an ethic of care for what nourishes and sustains people and the planet both now and in the future. An example of a craft commons that I’ve encountered is the online community site for knitters and crocheters known as Ravelry. As well as being an organisational tool, Ravelry hosts extensive yarn and pattern databases, alongside a series of forums. Ravelry is free to join, and open to anyone who is interested. The forums in particular strike me as falling well into the category of commons, for it is here that people can be seen sharing ideas, giving advice, asking questions, and making use of one another knowledge, whether that be technical, cultural, or educational. Like communing more broadly, Ravelry is motivated by an ethic of care for what nourishes and sustains people, and to some extent the planet (see example of making clothes above). However, the commons of Ravelry is difficult, for the more it grows, the further we diminish other commons, for the technology upon which it relies (computers, tablets, electricity), relies on our planet’s non-renewable resources. Ultimately we need to find a way of balancing the two, so that the balance between cultural, social, knowledge, and biophysical commons can be better managed for a sustainable future.
Finally, in ‘take back finance’, the authors contend that investment within a community economy takes many forms, and money is just one way in which it is stored, circulated, and magnified. Other forms of investment include time, energy, and imagination, into things such as memory, arts, culture, and social networks. Taking back finance is about recognising these other investments in life and ensuring we invest in the future to ensure our descendents are able to survive as well, if not better, than we do. Community economy investments often come in the shape of social services that support health, education and care; technologies that help us to consume less; ethical trade that can help us encounter others more directly; and repair, care, and expansion of the commons. Teaching craft is another way of investing in futures, through sharing skills and building social networks that can offer care and support. Frequently, one-off courses can spark the excitement in someone to start taking back other aspects of the economy, as they may downsize, create more ethical encounters, and invest in knowledge sharing themselves. One-off ventures also break down barriers of exclusion that may have prevented someone from previously taking an expensive and time consuming college course for instance. I’ve met makers during my interviews who have taken one evening class in a craft and since then worked to improve and build it up into a small business and have begun to teach others. Here we see an investment in personal well being, investment into teaching future generations, and investment into cultural production.
From a personal point of view, I would have liked to have seen the term ‘community’ unpicked and interrogated a little more. In A Postcapitalist Politics J.K. Gibson-Graham outline the suspicion that shrouds the ‘c-word’, given the negative connotations it has with suppressing difference, creating mutual identification and promise of being able to do good in any situation. In the process of liberating ‘economy’ from traditional conceptualisations then, ‘community’ too is up for grabs. JKGG draw on the work of Nancy here, a thinker who is eager to avoid the sense of community that is built on already constituted subjects who are brought together in a constructed oneness, for this notion of ‘being’ precludes ‘becoming’ of as yet unthought modes of being. Instead of constituting something made, gained, or lost, then, community is a condition of being itself – thus community becomes not a ‘common being’, but a ‘being-in-common’. The implication of this is to keep open all possible and potential economic forms, and paired with their notion of the economy as multiple and processual we are left with permanent disruption – a force that is both problematic and transformable. Although this idea of an economic being-in-common does come through in TBTE, it could perhaps do with some more explicit grounding for those readers less familiar with JKGG’s previous work and their feminist standpoint. The overall impression of community in TBTE does feel somewhat romanticised and static overall which is a shame given how diverse the authors have previously acknowledged the term to be.
My only other minor niggle with TBTE regards the role of the nonhuman in this reclaimed economy. Although the book stresses the importance of taking the nonhuman into account this feels like quite a cursory addition, something which is lurking in the background but not elaborated upon. My reading of the text understood their discussion of the nonhuman to be limited to living organisms, such as animals and plants, rather than extending ethical and political capacities to matter more broadly. The nonhuman world is an active participant in crafting collective economies, responsible for enabling social beings to develop ethical relationships towards others. This includes everything from books to rocks, and from wool to tables. Furthermore, this matter isn’t static, it’s not waiting around to be given a purpose by humans. Following the new materialisms school of thought, matter becomes viewed as vital, self-creative, productive, and unpredictable. I found that throughout TBTE the sheer ‘vibrancy of matter’ (Bennett, 2010) was subsumed within human relationships and community economies, rather than theorised as being an active participant in fostering them.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading TBTE and devoured the whole text in a few short sittings. The book comes across as a text that has been written with a great deal of care, attention, and passion, so much so that it becomes an infectious force for thought and action. The authors state at the beginning of the book that it is for students, community members, interest groups, nongovernmental organisations, unions, governments, and businesses that want to create community economies. I’d argue that they’ve succeeded in making it accessible and interesting for all of these groups, and as such there is no excuse not to read it.
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, Durham, DC.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006) The End of Capitalism (As we knew it): A Feminist Critique of the Political Economy University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis.
Gibson-Graham, J.K. (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics University of Minnesota Press Minneapolis.
Gibson-Graham, J.K., Cameron, J. & Healy, S. (2013) Take Back the Economy. An Ethical Guide for Transforming our Communities University of Minnesota Press, London.