Interview: Katherine Gibson

Issue 34, Summer 2021
written by
Katherine Gibson with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Steph Dutton
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Your first book, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), was published during what’s been described by David Graeber as the “first cycle of the new global uprising”, a movement based on the “rejection of the idea of seizing state power” in favour of self-determination and democratic self-organisation. More than two decades later, do you think these mobilisations have really remapped the political terrain and how?

We published The End of Capitalism (in 1996) before the first World Social Forum. Our next book, A Postcapitalist Politics, published in 2006, reflected on those events. I saw the 1996 book as a reaction against the Left hanging onto a particular perspective on organisation and revolution. I didn’t necessarily see the mobilisation that Graeber is talking about at that time; I saw an inability to speak back to the idea “there is no alternative”. That was partly why we wrote the book. At the time I wasn’t studying social movements in quite the same way, but engaged in a less descriptive thinking about deindustrialisation and globalisation, a sense of what might be another way forward, apart from still ceding the state or a traditional revolutionary model, which had been recently discredited with the fall of the Soviet Union. 

In the time-frame since then, there’s been an explosion of economic activism outside of the traditional areas that it used to be located in. I guess it’s true that when we were writing we were reflecting back to things like the Greater London Council (GLC) and how it had been involved in incredible economic rethinking, but then subsequently smashed. So there was a sense that even the small alternatives were now being ousted as well, so what should we do?

With the model of seizing the state, like the GLC tried in the 1980s, something went out the window, but there was still a lot of grassroots work. We tapped into that more than ten years later, with A Postcapitalist Politics, exploring the way in which, all over the globe, social movements had taken on economic issues, and post-colonial or other kinds of questions. So I think the terrain has shifted, but whether in some kind of more structural power analysis you could argue that power has shifted, I don’t know. In a way I don’t really pursue that line of analysis because it feels like it’s just too gross; and again coming back to the point that we were just making before, about the specificity of place and struggles, I think you could say in certain places there have been incredible advances and in others there’s been stasis, or maybe even going backwards. 

In some ways I think the practice of taking back the economy has advanced but not necessarily overtaken the discursive power that still is held by a particular economic orthodoxy. There have been a lot of forays into rethinking these economic approaches from feminism, from commoning, from racialised capitalist analysis. It is gaining ground, I think.

The Covid pandemic is an interesting case in point where in that short period of a year, the basic income movement has really gained ground because people actually started getting one for a while. So I think there's a lot of ways in which the debates, and all the new forms of experimentation, are poised to have more of a role within a bigger realm, or a policy realm, or taken on different kinds of states, like Stir to Action is trying to do. So in that sense I think we're in a different place, I think there is a sense in which there are techniques and mechanisms and alternative policies that are floating around that people could start to say, let's try this out at a city level, or a regional level. It's not happening in many places but at least there’s something on the shelf to use. I think there's definitely a shift in some kinds of discourses around the legitimacy of carers being able to claim some kind of income from the state, for instance, or the legitimacy of childcare becoming more affordable (or free). So there's the elements of ‘beyond welfare state’ policies that are coming back into play outside of the traditional social- democratic package. I think they are getting more commonsensical in a way, which is good, but we've still got a long way to go.

In terms of the scale of politics, there's obviously been a shift towards more regional, city-based, local political programmes, such as new municipalism (Fearless Cities movement, and so on.)

Again, it's very particular: I think that's happened in Europe and in the UK. It hasn't really happened in Australia, but again the political structures are such that the state has become very dominant through the Covid crisis. In our situation it's very hard to get cities to have that same kind of strength; they don't have that kind of economic base in the way that tax bases are organised and so on. People are trying to activate a municipalist agenda in Australia and it's not really working that much, so I'm not that familiar with that. Definitely in parts of the US and the UK it's working and it's great, but it's partly tied into that infrastructure of how the financial and taxation base is organised. I think that's one area where our thinking needs to flow towards, looking at how these infrastructures are marshalling wealth in various ways and how it's tied to particular authorities: this is one of the barriers that stands in the way of some of the economic experimentation we would like to see. It would be great to see more work on that side of things, shifting the way that resources are collected and distributed, and who has authority over them. There are, for instance, municipal budgeting initiatives in Latin America now being adopted elsewhere at the city level. In Australia, though, we need to do that at a national level to see why the huge wealth we have doesn't seem to flow back into actual wellbeing for a lot of people in regions and cities. I’m interested in an alternative taxation angle to the work that we do; it would be good to see that happening more.

The stability of the notion of the human subject as a political subject has shifted dramatically with the thinking from environmental philosophy around our connection and interconnection with the more-than-human.

I think the World Social Forum, that really burgeoned in the 2000s, was a real shift in terms of bringing connections between majority and minority world politics. The recognition of epistemologies of the South, and how white and eurocentric so much of leftist and new economic policies were, has been a major shift. I think the whole Black Lives Matter movement, that's coming out of a racial politics, needs to be threaded back into the economy, and that's happening now. There was always an element of that but it was never in the same way centre stage; and it's similar with First Nations politics. The rise in visibility of the intergenerational effects of dispossession is, certainly in my context, making an impact. Of course the whole environmental crisis is the other thing: the real engagement with the realities of the anthropocene, and the recognition of the role that economic growth has played in the Great Acceleration, has really had to be threaded back into thinking about what we mean by growth from a community economies point of view. How do we include the more-than- human in our thinking of politics? I guess the environmental movement was always parallel to the Leftist economic movement that I was involved in, but they’ve only really become much more closely aligned in the last two decades. The stability of the notion of the human subject as a political subject has shifted dramatically with the thinking from environmental philosophy around our connection and interconnection with the more-than-human, with our other multi- species beings. That movement, which is both a political and environmental movement but also a philosophical movement, has developed a big impact on rethinking what is politics, what would transformation actually entail, and how the division between the economy, society, and environment has to break down in all sorts of ways. How that comes back on the ground is a difficult one, but I think it's something that really has to be embraced when we start to think about community mobilisation: who is our community, and to what extent does it include the non-human? How do we honour that when thinking about our own well-being? 

This is, in a sense, where old Leftist thinking was so prevalent, which is to say that it's all about getting a better survival package for the marginalised and the workers, and that's kind of backfired on the labour movement in terms of the consumption levels that we've been able to sustain at the expense of the planet. For me, that's probably been the most destabilising and revolutionary and therefore inspiring. 

In your work, you describe ‘capitalocentrism’ as an ontological perspective – a discursive hegemony – that makes capitalist economic relations look natural and inevitable. What are the political and economic consequences of this approach?

Based on an ideal of the economy that is established through an analysis of capitalism, and to some extent on both mainstream and leftist economic thinking, is the idea that innovation is tied to the competitive individual and the entrepreneur. Within this logic, the right to private capital based on the wealth that’s generated through that entrepreneurialism is sacrosanct, and it’s claimed that it will then float all boats and be good for everybody. The economic outflow, of thinking of the world as a set of resources that can be mobilised, reduces the environment and people to assets ready to be realised. In some senses it totally delegitimises other lives. The main narrative supporting this economic claim is that only private property relations can ensure the most efficient use of resources and labour, opposing itself to ‘commoning’ that will overuse and mismanage them, as in Garrett Hardin’s vision of the Tragedy of the Commons. The other thing that comes out of a capitalist vision is not just the identity of what a ‘real economy’ is – paid employment, enterprises, commodity exchange, and so on – but it also has a sense of where the dynamism for social change emerges, and it's only located in certain kinds of social and technical relations. So the idea that there might be a form of dynamism that emerges out of reciprocity, or other kinds of economic transactions, is totally demoted or is seen as impossible. So I think there’s a way in which capitalocentrism infiltrates everything in the way that we've been brought up to think of what value is. Even the idea that getting things cheaper and cheaper is good, even when we know that it is actually destroying our ability to live, is very hard to get people to question. 

The capitalocentric vision has infiltrated so much of our being and it is very hard to break from.

The capitalocentric vision has infiltrated so much of our being and it is very hard to break from, even though economic theorists have shown that all the tenets of mainstream economic theory don't necessarily hold, or that most companies don't operate on a totally profit-centred vision. There are all sorts of other flows which might sustain a profitable company. There’s also an ability for a capitalist company to actually operate in a much more sustainable and perhaps even more economically just way, so there's differentiation both in terms of non-capitalism and even within capitalism. Our ‘diverse economy’ idea is really to unpack both sides of that dichotomy, and try to start to theorise other styles of economic dynamics. Once you’ve changed what the identity of an economy is and broken it down, we can also start to rethink what are the things that move, what are the things that change and shift other things. I think the capitalocentric vision – the pure economic one – has been tied too much to its own arena and has not been looking into the other determining features coming from the polity and the environment. I think it’s had a lot of impact in terms of limiting thinking, and it continues to do so.

‘Weak theory’, in many ways, suggests that there is an overestimation of the value of knowledge within political processes, and it privileges the role of social and economic practice. Can you explain what you mean by ‘reading for dominance’ and ‘reading for difference’?

‘Weak theory’ isn't so much saying that knowledge isn't important, but a certain kind of knowledge: knowledge that is always looking for deep-rooted structural causation, a kind of essentialised knowledge. In particular, the knowledge that we were brought up on in terms of economics, always trying to get to the roots of what was causing everything; it was always some kind of economic relationship or economic power relationship, so therefore encouraged a very critical sensibility. The idea that we might start to actually describe and explore connections in a way that unpacked them from this already tied-up bundle, to say that these formats were connected to this kind of business, this kind of trade relations, was anathema to this system of knowledge. There was a narrative that there was no need to do any new research because you always knew that any new change was simply another way of capitalism making a profit. The sense that there might be inconsistencies or things that didn’t line up was impossible within this more structural, essentialised vision of dominance. 

Weak theory is really stepping back and saying let’s do the rich description, let’s take a more potentially open approach to how things work. For example, rather than painting transnational corporations as always the evil partner, let’s actually look at what they’re doing and what is possible. 

Reading for difference is really a stance, in a way; sometimes I see it as almost a perverse positionality, that as soon as someone makes a dominant statement like “the world’s screwed” or “the state’s always going to take over this”, I feel my hackles rising and say, let's just think through the alternative, or let's look at the things that don't line up. The idea of queering (from queer theory) is an attempt to avoid lining up your biological gender, your sexual orientation, your family relationships, all in one big column, but instead actually starting to see how there's all sorts of different ways in which things mix and match – this was what we started to do for the economy as well. It allows for things that you normally would ignore to have more relevance or more visibility. 

In my work in Asia, for instance, the dominant narrative has been modernisation and the growth of globalisation. So I proposed to explore all of the ways in which there's still a community economy and ecological practices that are sustaining livelihoods in Asia despite the huge urbanisation. And even within the context of urbanisation there are still these kinds of ethical economic transactions and relationships that shape lives, shape bodies, and shape subjectivities. So that gets to that other aspect that you mentioned about knowledge being not all-powerful. I’ve said that there are different kinds of knowledge, but I think you're right and that there's also a recognition of the embodied, the non-cerebral, non-mental, the way in which there is some kind of effectivity and power in embodied practices, in infrastructures, in affordances, and so on, and trying to take note of those through an approach that gives them value. How do you start to give it force?

Your work explores the complex interactions between self and society, recognising that individuals do not only passively reflect historical and present conditions, but actually have the agency to resist their economical, political, and cultural terrain to determine new possibilities. Can you expand on your understanding of the relationship between self-transformation and economic transformation?

I think the big shift for us was to move to the idea of the self as decentred – that there are many different subject positions that one occupies. That kind of articulates with intersectionality too, the idea that any person occupies a role within certain kinds of economic transactions, and those transactions will also be kind of gendered or sexualised, or place-based, or whatever. There is no centred individual and yet the political address to the populus is as a consumer or as a worker. And to some extent it works and sometimes it doesn’t: one of the ways I think global and national politics is confused at the moment is the tendency to tap into aspects of people’s decentred selves and, in many cases, because of fear and other things, it is that selfish “I want the most for my family” element, but any time you talk to people or start to do work with them you know that everybody has these other selves within them, in a way, and the question is how to they get addressed, how do they come to the fore, how do they get mobilised, and, for instance, how does the caring self – which most people have – get supported to be more present? I think our politics and policies don't allow that to happen. 

So once you start to think about the self and the subject as not one thing but many things, then we can start to think of how we address that subject: what are the kinds of ways in which different moments of that subject are coming to the fore, or not? The appeal under capitalism is always going to engage a certain kind of self or a certain kind of need, so we have to think about the other things that might be competing with that need that might be, in some ways, more community-building, rather than community-destroying.

I feel the whole pollster thing is to try to reduce people to a ‘yes/no’: are you supporting Labour or Liberal or Conservative and so on. It reduces people, and simplifies people, and in a way our politics needs to complexify people in order to explore a range of emotions, cares, and contradictions; and how difficult it is to say, yes, I want to care for environment in Australia, but I also want to drive my car, and I have to for my work. How do we have those complex conversations with some kind of faith that people actually do have ethics? That’s partly liberated in some way by the idea of a decentred self, and has been influenced by a psychoanalytic approach thinking about individuals and groups, and how certain kinds of things suppressed and repressed, and others aren’t, and how politics, and obviously advertising, work on that. If we’re trying to think about transformation we need to be careful around those kinds of things too, without expecting that people can jump into an alternative position without any real income or any security. I think the idea of the decentred subject is a really helpful one; it can be brought to bear on any intervention that you’re involved in.

One of the techniques we’ve used a lot in action research is this idea of inventories. It is about reading yourself or your context for difference. Getting people to actually inventory all the different subject positions they occupy, putting them out there, and then starting to talk about some of the contradictions of working ethically within each of those positions, is a helpful way of at least starting to see where the barriers might be for certain kinds of actions. I found it a very liberating kind of move, and I guess that’s what post-structuralism did for me, helped me think that kind of thing through. It means that you don’t have that expectation and disappointment of “why aren’t these people acting in their own interests?”, as if everybody has centralised interests. That’s still happening: everyone said, “why are those 55 million people still supporting Trump when it’s not in their own interests?”

While conceding that a small majority of social formation can still be accurately described as capitalism, the Australian academic McKenzie Warks points out that it is nested within other historical modes of production. How does your definition of post-capitalism articulate itself to other economic modes?

I don’t use post-capitalism as a stagist term, and the concept of capitalism or postcapitalism is an example of what I talked about with reading for difference – as soon as I hear a stagist analysis I’m not attracted to it. Now whether I’m just someone who puts their head in the sand or not, I just feel like it’s inherently depoliticising. I suppose with the term ‘post-capitalist’ we were not intending it to be read as a stagist thing because the whole idea of The End of Capitalism was to destage capitalism, to make it small, make it about capitalist relations and enterprise relations and therefore not to have this idea of a mode of production so much as these different kinds of economic activities shored up by different kinds of power relations, including ones not linked to capitalism but all sorts of blatant forms, whether it’s cronyism, or raw power, or whatever. That lining up has had a disabling effect. I guess the same thing happens when we start to see that there are new forms of capital emerging, that it’s now going to be in a new phase and it’s going to be fine, etc. It alerts us to something but it also makes it harder to think of an alternative, if another world is possible. Post-capitalist is really post the idea that you can have that kind of dominant thinking around capitalism; so even from then on, from The End of Capitalism, we really don’t use the term ‘capitalism’, we try to use less ‘isms’ – class relations, capitalist firms, private capitalist family business, etc. – we try to have a language that’s one step below in terms of a level of abstraction than that big thing called capitalism. I guess this is why I was not, in a way, attracted to Hardt and Negri’s work, even though it’s so global; and there’s something exciting coming out of Deleuze and Guattari’s work, the commonwealth and so on. There’s something about that global-level theorising that I find of limited use in terms of thinking about what to do next. When I think about the world outside of New York and London, I think about the majority of the world where there’s so much other stuff going on, and so many other opportunities to take back economies and make it work for people and the planet. One could theorise that Facebook and Google are shaping the world, and then you can go to Papua New Guinea and see different worlds. So that kind of juxtaposition all the time outside of the metropole is what helps challenge me and keep me going – thinking and reading for difference – because it seems to still articulate with people on the ground. How it will build a different future I still don’t really know. I don’t know about doing the lining-up work – which is very compelling, and probably quite inspiring at a certain level, but it’s not that inspiring to me. Maybe that’s a perverse feminism that doesn’t like the male authorial voice or what, and it’s not to say that there’s not a lot of value in it, but being the one that identifies what is the new widget that capitalism is now wielding, that is very important. We have to all coexist and these kinds of things are helpful. The way in which algorithms and digital technologies are shaping the world is hugely important, and how we on the ground start to deal with that is very interesting.

If we can’t use our intellect to make space for possibility, what is it for? What I get hope from is the small stories – the stories of my student Bhavya working in India with a group of Adivasi women who are not educated but are forming a single women’s co-op, reforming the notion of being single as a positive rather than negative thing in that society, and are enacting organic agriculture, trying to educate the other farmers around them of the benefits of bringing back some of the practices from their indigenous experience. That gives me incredible hope that on the ground these things are happening. It’s those kinds of small stories that I get a sense of hopefulness from – the incredible ingenuity of people.

I made a film two years ago with others about a bamboo bridge in Cambodia which was built every year over the Mekong River, and then taken down every year as the flood levels rise, and then reconstructed and built again. It’s been the centre of an interesting community economy that lives with change and flux and weather in a way that is foreign to us westerners. We documented all the incredible work and beauty of that infrastructure. Now, of course, a road has come and a concrete bridge has been built, but it’s the ingenuity that went into that infrastructure and that community work for generations that gives me a sense that there is a different way to live in the world, there is a way to live with flux, without trying to solidify everything and make everything into an asset and at the same time destroy our world. After the bushfires in Australia, just seeing the regeneration of some of the forests, bushland – nature is certainly not bouncing back, there are species which are lost, but there is that life. The force of life is something that keeps me going. Wherever there is life it’s generating something, whether that’s a community enterprise, or even our government suddenly giving people double their unemployment benefits, at least for a year, saying people that lost their jobs actually deserve to live – that gives me hope. Now they’re taking it away of course, but the fact that there could be such a shift, that suddenly homeless people were being housed, it gave me hope that there is something there we could work with, that works against the mean-spiritedness that is present in so much of our public life and policies. From small things big things grow. That philosophy is still helpful, it feeds my interest in being a perverse theorist who wants to undermine the kind of theories that undermine those kinds of realities.

Katherine Gibson is a Professorial Research Fellow at Western Sydney University. She is an economic geographer with an international reputation for research on economic transformation and over 30 years’ experience of working with communities to build resilient economies. She is known for her collaboration with the late Julie Graham under the name J.K. Gibson- Graham.

Issue 34, Summer 2021
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