Community Economies Research and Practice
Community Economies research and practice seeks to bring about more sustainable and equitable forms of development by cultivating and acting on new ways of thinking about economies and politics.
Building on J.K. Gibson-Graham’s feminist critique of political economy, this approach challenges three problematic aspects of how “the economy” is understood: seeing it as inevitably capitalist, assuming that it is a determining force rather than a site for politics and transformation, and separating economy from ecology. We understand economy as comprised of diverse practices and as intimately intertwined with planetary ecosystem processes. In a complexly determined world, change can be enacted in multiple ways. We are energized by the possibilities that this framing of economy affords.
Seeking to catalyze social transformation, we are developing a new language of the diverse economy, activating ethical economic subjects, and imagining and enacting collective actions that diversify the economy. For us, these actions comprise a “post-capitalist politics.” We do not place “the economy” at the center of social change since for us there is no privileged “center,” nor one determining dynamic of transformation. We believe in starting where we are, building other worlds with what we have at hand. Our particular focus is on identifying, gathering, and amplifying ethical economic practices that already exist—and that prefigure “the world we want to live in.”
- The Community Economies approach adopts an anti-essentialist thinking approach. Instead of reducing the world to a few key determinants, we understand the world as shaped by multiple and interacting processes, only some of which we can apprehend. This approach helps us recognize the power and efficacy of things that might seem small and insignificant. It also means that we are open to the unexpected and the unknown.
- The Community Economies approach affirms that lives unfold in a “pluriverse” rather than a “universe.” There is a range of solutions and strategies for change and multiple pathways toward more sustainable and equitable worlds.
- Community Economies researchers and practitioners are involved in ongoing processes of learning and “becoming ethical subjects” through negotiation with human and “earth others” (species, ecologies, landscapes and seascapes). We aim for ongoing, courageous, and honest ethical relationships and transformation rather than a utopia. We recognize that there is probably no final or most desirable state of ethical being.
Understandings of Transformation
Our engagements with various political and intellectual traditions (including feminist economic geography, anti-essentialist Marxian political economy, poststructuralist political theory, and substantivist economic anthropology) have led to the following views on transformation:
- Radical transformation is possible. The revolutionary transformation of lives that feminism has wrought in living memory is one source of inspiration for our project—prompting us to look for the range of contributors to change (organized, disorganized, social, technical, contextual).
- How we construct stories or narratives of transformation is important. These narratives have what some social theorists call “performative effects.” In other words, our narratives help to bring into being the worlds they describe. We are aware that the stories we tell can sometimes make the things we're trying to change seem more powerful, and can therefore close off possibilities for change and dampen transformative inspiration. Stories about the power and pervasiveness of capitalism or neoliberalism can have this effect. It is therefore crucial that we cultivate representations of the world that inspire, mobilize, and support change efforts even while recognizing very real challenges.
The term “community economy” often refers to localized business activity. This is not the way that we use it. Our collective project challenges conventional definitions of both “community” and “economy,” generating a different approach to how we understand and engage with ways of living and working.
Community, for us, refers to the active, ongoing negotiation of interdependence with all life forms, human and nonhuman. The outcome of this negotiation cannot be specified in advance, or in any abstract generalized theory. Community is not a fixed identity nor a bounded locality, but is a never-ending process of being together, of struggling over the boundaries and substance of togetherness, and of coproducing this togetherness in complex relations of power. We emphasize process rather than product, struggle and deliberation rather than an image of a predefined collective identity or geographical locality. The key question for us around “community” is whether the dynamics of being together are obscured and made difficult to challenge and change, or whether they are made explicit and opened for collective negotiation and transformation. In other words, is the ongoing making of community a truly democratic process?
In conventional usage, economy often refers to a system of formal commodity production and monetary exchange. Our use of the term is much broader. The “eco” in economy comes from the Greek root oikos, meaning “home” or “habitat”—in other words, that which sustains life. The “nomy” comes from nomos, meaning management. We view economy as referring to all of the practices that allow us to survive and care for each other and the earth. Economy, understood this way, is not separate from ecology, but refers to the ongoing management—and therefore negotiation—of human and nonhuman ecological relations of sustenance. These practices don't all add up to a single system, and they cannot be reduced to one particular logic or rationality (individual utility maximization, for example); rather, they are diverse, complex, and contextually situated, animated by multiple motivations and relational dynamics. We prefer to talk, then, in terms of “economic practices” or “economies” rather than about “the economy” or “the economic system.”
“Community + Economy”
Community economy names the ongoing process of negotiating our interdependence. It is the explicit, democratic co-creation of the diverse ways in which we collectively make our livings, receive our livings from others, and provide for others.
To help make these complex negotiations more clear, the Community Economies approach identifies a cluster of ethical concerns or “coordinates” around which community economies are being (and might be) built. They are:
- SURVIVAL. What do we really need to survive well? How do we balance our own survival needs and well-being with the well-being of others and the planet?
- SURPLUS. What’s left after our survival needs have been met? How do we distribute this surplus to enrich social and environmental health?
- TRANSACTIONS. What is the range of ways we secure things we cannot produce ourselves? How do we conduct ethical encounters with human and non-human others in these transactions?
- CONSUMPTION. What do we really need to consume? How do we consume sustainably and justly?
- COMMONS. What do we share with human and non-human others? How do we maintain, replenish, and grow this natural and cultural commons?
- INVESTMENT. What do we do with stored wealth? How do we invest this wealth so that future generations may live well?
Strategies for Cultivating Community Economies
The Community Economies approach has developed strategies to help cultivate community economies. The first strategy activates a politics of language to describe economic diversity and make existing ethical economic practices visible. The second suite of strategies activate both a politics of the subject (by helping to generate a range of new subject positions) and a politics of collective action. Both sets of strategies aim to broaden the horizon of economic politics so that ethical economic practices might multiply.
Strategy 1: Situating Existing Economic Politics within a Diverse Economy
Our first strategy uses a language of the diverse economy to expand the scope for economic action and legitimate economic politics across a broad front. Textual and visual forms of language play a crucial role in generating new ways of seeing and acting. Currently, the language of economy is dominated by an essentialist vision of capitalism: wage labor, commodity production for markets, and profit-seeking capitalist enterprise are seen as the real economy. Our anti-essentialist and non-deterministic language of economy destabilizes this singularly capitalist representation of the economy.
A vast and varied array of economic practices support lives in the world. We have used the Diverse Economy Iceberg as one way of representing how substantive economic practices are far more diverse than what is captured by mainstream economics. Economies involve a wide range of people, processes, sites, and relationships. What is usually referred to as “the economy” is just the tip of this diverse economy iceberg.
Diverse Economies Iceberg by Community Economies Collective is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The language of the diverse economy allows us to identify actually-existing spaces of negotiation and to demonstrate why saying that we live in a “capitalist world” or a “capitalist system” is to negate the ways that other worlds are already all around us. Within a diverse “more than capitalist” economy, we can discern multiple pathways for building these other possible worlds. We approach these examples not with a judging stance, but with an open stance to the possibilities they contain.
One way we promote a language of economic diversity is through the use of five identifiers related to work, business, markets, property, and finance. Within each identifier, we include a range of economic practices including familiar or mainstream practices (from a Western perspective); those that have some of the characteristics of the mainstream but with a twist (e.g. in-kind labor payments; green capitalist firms); and those that fall well outside of what is usually considered “economic” (e.g., volunteer work, or gifting).
These identifiers serve two purposes. First, they highlight the economic diversity that is already present in this world. They feature practices that by their very nature are imbued with ethical commitment (e.g., cooperatives, fair and direct trade); those that are neutral but could be imbued with an ethical commitment (e.g., household flows, sweat equity); and those that are immoral (e.g., slavery and feudalism). Second, drawing attention to this diversity helps identify economic practices that might serve as building blocks for community economies. Thus, the identifiers are prompts to help us see the possibilities that are all around and are triggers for conversation and discussion. We make no claims to “capture reality” or to be comprehensive or definitive.
Here it is worth noting that the identifiers are “works-in-progress.” Initially, we used the categories of labor, enterprise, and transactions; more recently, we have added property and finance. It is not a matter of getting the categorization right given how fraught with problems the process of categorization can be. We are currently exploring other ways of representing economic diversity that are not “boxed in” but recognize how these practices are messy, fragmented, contradictory, and unstable.
Strategy 2: Broadening the Horizon of Economic Politics
Our anti-essentialist approach encourages us to broaden the horizon of what constitutes economic politics. For us, transformation can occur over various temporal frames and geographic scales and can stem from actions both organized and disorganized (and even from non-human actions). Just as there are a diversity of economic practices, there are a diversity of political possibilities. In our own work, we have been inspired by the ways that social movements around feminism and sexual identity have remade society. In an astonishingly short period (two and a half generations or so), these movements have transformed the meaning of gendered and sexual identity and thereby transformed how lives are lived (and these movements continue to change lives). These social movements illustrate how thinking and acting differently in discreet locations can have global consequences. They also highlight the value of a form of politics that “connects the dots” between seemingly small and isolated actions and “scales them out” through adaptation, translation, and reinterpretation. These processes inform our second strategy of broadening the horizon of economic politics.
This understanding of change also means we have a distinctive take on more familiar forms of economic politics. When the economy is framed in terms of capitalism, and when capitalism is presented as spreading across the globe, it seems that it has to be matched by an equivalent anti-capitalist struggle organized globally. This diminishes the potential of the local as a site of economic politics. Framing the economy as comprising diverse practices, however, opens up multiple sites as places of economic struggle. It also destabilizes what we mean by global and local. What seems global is actually multiple locals; likewise, what seems local can be globally networked and connected.
Strategies for broadening economic politics build on the first strategy of activating a politics of language to help shed light on diverse and ethical economic practices. Here the aim is to help people recognize themselves as economic agents with the capacity to enact economic change through a politics of collective action. Some of the particular strategies that have been explored and elaborated by Community Economies researchers include:
- ACTION RESEARCH: We use methods of action research for generating alternative economic development pathways in places and regions where mainstream economic growth has faltered. Academic and community researchers, principally local residents, work with other local residents, particularly those most marginalized by capitalist development, to co-produce new social enterprises, community-supported production and marketing, and commons management.
- COLLABORATIVE MAPPING: We work with community researchers using Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping techniques to make visible the number and spatial extent of ethically informed economic activities. This strategy has been used to highlight solidarity economies, urban and marine commons.
- ASSEMBLAGE RESEARCH: Assemblage research acknowledges the role of non-humans and materiality in world-making processes. It also recognizes that the local and global are outcomes of particular networks and associations, not inherent qualities or capacities. We have developed projects that attempt to include the more-than-human as actors and as potential allies in creating community economies. These projects involve tracing and creating connections of association between what is traditionally seen as discrete, isolated, or local with other processes and practices elsewhere.
- DEVELOPING NEW METRICS: Indicators and metrics measure and count “what matters.” But many contemporary indicators reduce social life’s complexity to bare numbers useful to neoliberal governance. To develop the progressive potential of indicators and metrics, we use a grounded approach that generates discussion of lived practices and works with users so that their experiences can be incorporated in new indicators.
- READING FOR DIFFERENCE: In the modern development imaginary, diverse economic practices have been positioned as “traditional,” “rural,” and largely outdated and superseded. By reading against the grain of modernization, Community Economies scholars make diverse economic practices visible, rendering them accessible in a range of sites as an asset that community members, policy makers, and development practitioners can mobilize.
- REFRAMING: Drawing on insights from psychoanalytic practice, we have used reframing techniques that give new meaning and value to people’s lives and might prompt a willingness to explore collective actions.
- LEARNING TO BE AFFECTED: We create connections and encounters that offer new ways of bodily learning, often described as “learning to be affected.” Here we are building on the work of Bruno Latour and others with a post-humanist vision of agency. We describe various encounters with nonhuman others and processes that enable new embodied sensitization to different possibilities of knowledge. Latour uses the example of becoming a “nose” in the perfume industry—a sensitization to smells that trains the nose to detect a wider diversity of scent molecules, and thus increases the capacity to act differently (which is what is meant by “affected” here). This process of co-constitution produces new body-worlds who may be capable of acting in the world differently, more lightly, less exploitatively.
These strategies and others can be found among the many publications, research projects, and resources presented on this site. Further details about the approach described above can be found in our 2017 collective report for the Next Systems Project. We welcome your ideas, inspirations, and engagements!