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On the Importance of Recognising Post-Capitalist Spaces in Capitalist Society

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
24th July 2013


* Article: Towards a Post-Occupy World: the importance of recognising “post-capitalist” spaces in “capitalist” society. By Richard J White.

Here are 3 excerpts from this interesting essay:

1. From the Introduction:

“Running deeply through radical critiques that have emerged across dissident academic, activist and public communities – critiques that have pricked the mainstream consciousness through their repeated denouncement of both the legitimacy and the desirability of the current orthodox economic and political system -is the spirit of Ya Basta! (‘Enough! Now for something else!’ ). As Wight (2012: 161)argued:One thing is clear, irrespective of how it will all end, the Arab Spring,looting in London, riots in Greece, wars across the Middle East and beyond, the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and the Occupy Movement are all connected in some way. What connects them is a corrupt,degenerative, immoral, sexist, (specieisist) and racist global capitalist political-economic system.”It is of great significance that these popular demonstrations (captured by the rallying cry of The Occupy Movement “We Are The 99%) are increasingly being played out within the countries of the Minority World (Global North) – who are finally beginning to understand something that has long been apparent in the Majority World (Global South): that capitalism isn’t in crisis,capitalism is the crisis.

This increasing disillusionment with the grand narrative of capitalism, endorsed and promoted fully by the political elites (e.g. that economic growth will bring wealth and prosperity to all) cannot be underestimated. Though the concerns of this paper are principally considering post capitalist economics, and thus an extended focus on “the political” is something beyond the scope of this paper, it should be understood that the crisis of legitimation for our dominant political elites may be terminal: there can be no more ‘business’ as usual.Their naked authoritarian underbelly and recourse to violence has consistently exposed for all to see to seek to suppress all dissent (exemplified by the repression in Greece) and one cannot forget this. And yet, such a response is wholly expected.

As George Orwell argued:

- “A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.”

The fraudulence of political economic elite has been exposed for all to see; now they look to consolidate their power through sheer brute force. In this way, The crisis is not simply material, but it is also a deep and searching crisis of faith in the formal political and economic spectrum, the extent of which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: indeed less than an a year ago if one interprets the emergence of Occupy Movement as a catalyst for challenging this anger and frustration.

And yet as the capitalist-centric ideology cracks and splinters this brings with it a springtime of renewed optimism about what possible economic and political possibilities should and can be harnessed instead. How for example can we look to create new heterodox “post-capitalist” spaces from the bottom-up? How should our economic spaces reflect – and be reflective of – what should be valued, promoted, protected and pursued in society.The main purpose of this short article is add further momentum to those dissident academic and activist communities who continue to exposing the myths, falsehoods and illusions that underpin the current neoliberalism-as-ideological hegemonic project. This will be tempted by drawing attention to the pervasive nature of non-commodified spaces in “capitalist” society, and considering the implications that this has for taking purposeful steps forward to toward the “post-capitalist” society. Indeed, more accurately, the findings suggest that we don’t have to travel anywhere to envisage the pluralistic, non-capitalist economic forms of production, exchange and consumption that will be valued and nurtured in such a society. What is still required is the need to further, and more completely isolate, deconstruct and delegitimise the capitalist indoctrination and move confidently beyond. One way of doing this is to confront invasive and invidious strain of economic propaganda that seeks to play upon people’s fears and vulnerability, by for example, insisting that alternative forms of economic and political visions are at best misguided fanciful and utopian, and at worst nihilist.

As Duncombe (1997: 6) argues:

- “The powers that be do not sustain their legitimacy by convincing people that the current system is The Answer. That fiction would be too difficult to sustain in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. What they must do, and what they have done very effectively, is convince the massof people that there is no alternative.”

This myth which interestingly speaks to the inevitability of capitalism as the least worst option rather than its intrinsic desirability is not new. Indeed the highly influential British economist John Maynard Keynes (1933) remarked.”The decadent international but individualistic capitalism in the hands of which we found ourselves after the war is not a success. It is not intelligent. It is not beautiful. It is not just. It is not virtuous. And it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.”It is in direct response to the supposed perplexity of “what to do” instead that the paper takes particular issue with here: we must instinctively dismiss with the contempt that it deserves the idea that our imagination is so poor that we cannot imagine a better economic system for a better world. Indeed, happily, when a closer look at the contemporary nature of economic production, exchange and consumption is made it becomes apparent that not only can we imagine better ways producing,exchanging and consuming goods and services in society than through capitalism, but we are already practicing these forms of economics in society at the present time.

To support this claim the paper begins by drawing attention to the pervasive nature of non-commodified practices that are embedded in our “capitalist” world. In doing so it will further expose the meta-narrative that we live in a capitalist society: one which is fundamentally “organised around the systematic pursuit of profit in the market place”(Williams, 2005: 13). Needless to say that the recognition of the importance of these multiple, non-commodified economic spaces, and the centrality that they have in our economies has many important implications for thinking and enacting a post-capitalist praxis. The final section of the paper acknowledges the importance of the nonviolent Occupy Movement, not least in helping to promote dialogue and exchange about new political and economic imaginaries and possibilities beyond the academy.

In the spirit of academic-activist praxis that Hozic (2012: 151) advocates:

- “The #occupymovement calls upon the salaried professoriate to step out into the streets, be counted and confront the Real.”

I want to briefly reflect on the conversations that took place when I shared the main thesis and arguments of this paper in a presentation at the 3rd International UK Occupy Conference in Sheffield earlier this year.”

2. The commodification thesis is wrong

Richard White:

“It is one thing to recognize these other forms of economic production, exchange and consumption, and another to argue that they are still pervasive and relevant within a “capitalist” society. To be able to make a convincing argument to this end would again be to puncture a hole in a commonly held axiom: that the Market is becoming all powerful and all pervasive. Here the contribution to the heterodox economics literature made by Professor Colin Williams, attempting to map the limits of capitalism and expose “the view of a hegemonic, all-encompassing, totalizing and victorious capitalism” (2005: 275) as an illusion has been highly significant. It is with respect to his application of the Time Budget Study to evidence the relevance of non-commodified activities that I want to pay attention to here.It is worth saying that two methodological approaches in particular have been significant in providing a robust evidence base o cite the importance of work beyond profit-motivated monetary transactions. These are the more qualitative-based approach captured in Household Work Practice Surveys (see for example Williams,2005; White 2011) and the quantitative based Time Budget Studies. Essentially, the Time-Budget Survey monitor an individual’s time-use using detailed records that indicate how people have allocated their time over a set period. Using such a methodology then allows the comparative proportion of time that people have spent informal work, and non-exchange work (i.e. unpaid domestic work) to be evaluated.

The results run counter to the capitalist hegemonic thesis in many ways, most notably that

(1) paid work is the dominant form of work and

(2) non-exchanged work is contracting relative to paid work: i.e. western countries are becoming more commodified over time.

The collated results from time-budget studies conducted across twenty western countries (including UK, USA, France, and Canada) show that the time spent on non-commodified work accounts as a percentage of all work undertaken accounts 43.6%. Indeed France (45.3%), Norway (46.7%) and Finland (44.6%) all exceed this figure. This surely then suggests that a far higher proportion of working time is engaged in non-commodified work then one which is suggested by those commentators who take for granted the “fact” that we live in a commodified, capitalist world (see Williams,2005: 42 for further discussion). Taken individually or collectively, such figures not only counter those who celebrate the encroachment of ‘the market’ into daily life as natural, but also those who see it as inevitable even though they view the spectacle of a commodified world as having negative consequences. Indeed the core assumptions upon which the commodification thesis arises are further undermined when we look at how the allocation of working time in western economies has changed in recent decades. Furthermore we could fully expect, if the commodification thesis is to be empirically true, that a transition away from unpaid work and towards paid formal work would be clearly portrayed in a longitudinal survey of time use. However, when subsistence and paid work as a percentage of total work time is looked at across 20 countries (from 1960-present) such a linear trajectory toward commodification is not supported. Indeed, the findings are the opposite. Paid work as a percentage of total working time across the 20 countries is diminishing . What I want to consider is how to ensure that this trajectory is sustained and increased, as we seek to embrace and develop more extensive non-capitalist spaces in future society.”

3. The importance of Community Self Help

Richard White:

“Various forms of non-capitalist exchange which are embedded at the household and community level have been addressed under the collective title “community self-help” (see. Burns et al 2004). These are essentially:

•‘Self-provisioning ’, or self-help, which involves unpaid household work undertaken by household members for themselves or for other members of their household, and

• Mutual Aid, or unpaid community work, which involves unpaid help provided for and by friends, neighbours or other members of one’s community either on an individual basis or through more organised collective groups and societies.

The emphasis and importance of focusing on community economics is an important means of challenging and deconstructing the dominant capitalo-centric representation of “the economic”. Moreover because the types of informal coping strategies which are relevant to community self-help are already familiar to many of us, and which we actively participate in, then this become even more accessible to us in terms of envisioning and enacting how these could be harnessed more fully to enact a “post-capitalist” future. Once again I submit the argument that it is not necessary to imagine some more empowered, inclusive and fairer economic mode of production exchange,and consumption. We do not need to build something new out of the ruined shards of capitalism, because the “post-capitalist” non-commodified practices of exchange that we should be looking to turn to are very much in evidence in the present. The focus of attention toward the familiar “everyday” non-capitalist economic practices at the community level is extremely important, and empowering, for other reasons.

Burns et al (2004: 6) for example advocated such practices as a strategy for survival and a model for a better society, because:

•They are the basis upon which communities survive, thrive and evolve

•The moral foundations of society are built upon reciprocity

•The dependency culture is corrosive of society

•The state as a welfare provider is in crisis.

There is certainly much overlap with this emphasis on community self-help,mutuality, non-coercive relationships and anarchist writings on economics (e.g. see Shannon et al, 2012).

As Burns, et al (2004: 7) elaborate:

- “One of the strongest arguments for community self-help in general and mutual aid more particularly, is that reciprocity is fundamental to human development. Whatever the ‘nature’ of people (individualistic, altruistic or otherwise) they undoubtedly live in relationship to each other. They are interdependent and both their survival and their happiness depend on that interdependence.”

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