When I was a freshman at the University of Minnesota, I did poorly in an economics course I must have been required to take. All I remember from the class was that it was much too early, in a lecture hall much too big, for me to learn from monologues about a topic that held no interest for me. Macro and micro economics, and how the markets of supply and demand kept society aloft, seemed irrelevant to me as an 18-year-old. I wanted to take journalism classes and work at the campus newspaper.
Now, however, I have three books authored by economists Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, a writing team that formed at a feminist conference in 1992. They wrote under the pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham, and collaborated on a series of books, published by the University of Minnesota Press.
Colorful post-it notes jut out of the pages, teaching me what an inspired economy can be. Part of our storytelling rut, the authors tell me, is that the focus on capitalism as the root of all evil gives too much credit to an economic model that is incomplete. In 1996, Gibson-Graham published “The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It).”
“We are hoping to enable ourselves and others not only to imagine but also to strengthen and build non-capitalist enterprises and spaces,” they wrote. “As we embarked on this collective effort, a comment by Fredric Jameson both spoke to us and provoked us:
Gibson-Graham acknowledged that they were “accused” of being overly optimistic, but preferred to consider their work as a beacon of hope — a showcase for possibility in a worldview. Their goal was to co-create from the existing situation something more desirable: a “becoming.”
I skimmed these three books in the second month of being cocooned in my home during the pandemic. Our small North Minneapolis office space has sat mostly empty as we try to figure out how to create a new normal. The books arrived at my doorstep as I used my newly re-arranged time to contemplate ongoing, deeper Minnesota Women’s Press coverage.
Environmental problems brought on by consumption and unchecked development are creating a world in which the intersection of habitats [see “Silent Spring” from Eco Quaranzine] are becoming more dangerous for everyone — yet the writers offered me reasons for optimism.
In “A Postcapitalist Politics,” the authors outline how feminist activists were beginning to get recognition for unpaid household labor, caregiving, and volunteer work that sustains households and communities. This work is equal to 30-50 percent of economic activity in both rich and poor countries. The interdependence of household, community, and market-based economic activities are rarely explored, they pointed out. In a less capital-centric story, non-wage labor is recognized as essential to livelihoods.
As they depicted in a graphic, a small percentage of the economy is derived from wage labor production in capitalist firms. Schools, neighborhoods, family-based businesses, churches, retirees, gifts, self-employment, government employment, volunteerism, bartering, household labor, and cooperatives are vital to our functioning.
If a vision of capitalism is that it is “the last stronghold of unity and singularity in a world of diversity and plurality,” we are tempted to dismiss the actual fragmentation of our economy.
If we could instead “smash capitalism and see it in a thousand pieces,” we would see its unity as a fantasy.
In other words, when we remind ourselves of the totality of economic players, we realize how much energy and political investment go into an inflated economic system that is only a sliver of how our communities actually work.
As Gibson-Graham write, “The Community Economy is necessarily positioned as the ‘other’ to the so-called ‘real economy’ of international markets, competitive dynamics, and agglomerative tendencies that operate at the global scale.”
The authors also write of “the commons” — land, air, trees, water, and also a public health system, the internet, databases, working roads, communication tools, traditions. The commons are valuable resources that yield the nourishment and support working societies need.
“Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities” (2013) equates a successful economy with a successful community garden. How do we care for the commons? What is produced for survival? How do we work alongside others? How is surplus distributed? How is it invested for the future?
The Community Economy is “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.”
Today, on the other hand, “we consume more than we can replace, use surplus inequitably and unsustainably, destroy our commons, and threaten species survival. It has become obvious that our planet garden can no longer support economic systems that ignore environmental restoration and society care.”
The authors indicate that the reason community economies are not as strong as they could be is because we tend to not see ourselves as significant actors in the economy, let alone shapers of it. “In wealthy countries we are told that we are consumers and are asked to increase our consumption to help grow the economy. People’s overall level of prosperity and ‘worth’ is communicated by their consumption.”
However, there are ways that consumers can and do make change happen. The authors cited the banning of battery cages for egg-laying hens in the European Union. “Over the years, what was once seen as an acceptable and efficient farming practice has been reframed as cruel and unwarranted.”
Norway’s country-wide investment fund, fair trade coffee, and social investments in caregiving, green initiatives, democratically owned companies, and ethical trade are other examples.
As the pandemic today proves, we are significant actors in a functioning society.
On one hand, I think of how our communities today are sustained by those who sew face masks for frontline medical workers and nursing homes, distilleries-turned-sanitizer factories, school districts that distribute technology to students for distance learning, entertainers who stream live performances. I think, always, about the small businesses, donors, and subscribers who support this magazine.
It also is important to remember why we have to support ourselves this way in the first place. I read a New Yorker essay by Jia Tolentino, brought to my attention by our assistant editor, that points out how community needs are the responsibility of funded governments whose rules and policies we should be able to rely on to protect us.
“There’s a certain kind of news story that is presented as heartwarming, but actually evinces the ravages of American inequality under capitalism: the account of an eighth grader who raised money to eliminate his classmates’ lunch debt, or the report on a FedEx employee who walked twelve miles to and from work each day until her co-workers took up a collection to buy her a car. We can be so moved by the way people come together to overcome hardship that we lose sight of the fact that many of these hardships should not exist at all,” Tolentino wrote.
One day each week I use the car to get business mail and buy groceries. I share the road with Amazon trucks who are delivering continuously from warehouses with workers who continue to protest conditions, while its owner amasses what is now a $144 billion net worth — up 25 percent since the pandemic started.
I notice in news stories the desperation of some who seek to get us quickly back to same-old methods of operation.
Over the years, I also have seen the growth Minnesota of community-supported agriculture, including 192 farmer’s markets, in what I consider one of the best examples of the Community Economy at work. We are fortunate to have so many co-operative players involved in a sustainable agricultural movement in Minnesota.
I suspect that if Gibson-Graham were writing together today they would remind us that we can rebuild as both the consumers and the workforce that shape our economy.
The authors bring home the point that we made in Quaranzine #2 “Eco”: “Learning nature’s lesson begins by recognizing that diversity produces resilience. There is no one right answer, there is a diversity of answers.”
Decades after I ignored the lessons of economics in a classroom, I am seeking to learn from and share the storytelling of Community Economies in Minnesota.