Alternative and Non-capitalist Political Ecologies A Special Track for the 2012 Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting
We live today at the intersection of the two great crises of our time, an economic crisis that has brought severe social dislocation, growing inequalities, and violence, and an ecological crisis that has undermined the natural resources that sustain us and the ecosystems that we call home. These crises scream out for new modes of being in the world, ways of life that move us toward a sustainable and egalitarian future. But how do we get there? How do we create these new modes of being and how do we make them real? The answers are not clear, but they surely do not involve more of the same. We can no longer hope for the benefits of growth to trickle down, nor can we wait for the tidal wave of revolution to sweep over us. We need imagination, critique, and action today. As the activist scholars J.K. Gibson-Graham suggest, we need possibilities for creating revolution “in the here and now.”
With this in mind, we invite you to join us in exploring the alternative and non-capitalist practices that people and communities are already developing as ways of crafting a more sustainable and equitable world. We invite academics, organizers, practicing anthropologists, and community members to help organize and/or submit papers, projects, and activities as part of a special track on Alternative and Non-capitalist Political Ecologies being organized for the 2012 SfAA Annual Meetings in Baltimore. This “track,” or internal theme, will highlight and link together a variety of conventional and unconventional sessions and events. Drawing inspiration from Gibson-Graham, our goal is to investigate, celebrate, and constructively critique the diverse array of alternative modes of being in the world as a means of both politicizing the economy and unsettling the taken-for-grantedness of capitalism. We invite ethnographic accounts, theoretical explorations, films and mixed-media presentations, informal discussions, performance, and practical activities that explore the possibilities and limitations of worker ownership, community owned projects, moral economies, alternative currencies, autonomous political spaces, the commons, alternative markets, freecycling, urban agriculture, barter, WWOOFing, permaculture, and the list goes on. We will also invite you to participate in alternative economic activities that will operate during the meetings.
Context: Crisis The twin crises are not mere abstractions, and they are not crises in faraway lands or far-off times. These crises shape the everyday lives of people around the world, including our neighbors and our own families. We see the crises in the desperate but determined faces of farmers who sit down and light themselves on fire while governments and corporations debate the future of agriculture within five-star bunkers designed to safeguard governance from the influence of the people. We see the crises in the ecological and social devastation brought on by more intensive fossil fuel extraction and use, the difficulties of adapting to a changing climate, and the challenges of managing nuclear energy and waste. We see the crises in the gendered and racialized divisions of labor, uneven distribution of economic benefits and environmental toxins, and, in response, the growth of environmental and economic justice movements. We see them in the fate of the hundreds of thousands of families left homeless by the current financial crisis, families who paid-in to the dream of progress and prosperity and in the process provided capital to the world’s biggest banks. These families unwittingly helped to underwrite the expulsion of people from their ancestral lands for the sake of global mineral exploration, financed the construction of factories to absorb the hordes of rural peasants left landless by the “rational exploitation” of natural resources and the enclosure of the global commons of agricultural diversity, and supported the growth-obsessed speculation that would ultimately return to haunt them.
These crises are not unhappy accidents of a “system” gone awry. They don’t result from inadequate or excessive regulation or the unjust actions of a few bad apples who let greed get the best of them. They are, in fact, the logical results of the social relations within which we live, the economic processes to which we contribute, and the economic vision that we have come to see as natural, inevitable, and commonsensical. The crises are, therefore, also crises of imagination. They challenge the great myths that capitalist production and free-market exchange are viable paths toward social health and wealth.
Beyond Crisis? Radical Possibility But this time of crisis offers a moment of opportunity when we might move beyond the conventional “solutions” of coping, accommodating, managing, and reforming. As economies restructure, new political alliances are forged and new cultural narratives are written; conventional ideas become unfixed, social practices become less certain, and space is created for economic experimentation and new imaginings. In this unsettled terrain, there is more to do than simply fight for more regulation, better wages, and higher taxes on the rich, however useful these reforms might be. We have the opportunity to take a new perspective on the wealth of resources that surround us and identify new economic possibilities, construct alternative cultural logics, and forge new social relations.
How can we begin to build these other worlds? Can we imagine economies without exploitation and commodification as prevailing logics? Can we imagine a world in which a family in the US can pursue their dream of security and well-being without sacrificing the security and well-being of families on the other side of the globe? Can we imagine urban wastelands as community gardens, the unemployed as active contributors to community wealth, the caring economies of the home as a source of rich possibility for collaboration and community? Can we imagine markets built on ethical decision making rather than rational, self-interest, or collective management of production and accumulation?
Engaged researchers can support the construction of more sustainable and equitable economies by examining the tremendously diverse, already-existing experiments with new ways of being in the world. In so doing, they can help us imagine, reveal, and investigate alternatives to the political-economic and cultural forces associated with capitalism that have brought us to the brink and have so thoroughly colonized our imaginations: commodity exchange, production through exploitation, and the construction of economic subjects who understand themselves primarily as self-interested, resource maximizing actors.
Now, as we stand in the midst of these crises, is a time of radical possibility, a time for response rooted in creative, critical, and practical reflection and inspired action.
Our Invitation: Imagination, Analysis, and Action Applied anthropology is perhaps particularly well positioned for this task. Anthropologists have a long history of studying “non-market” economies and denaturalizing capitalism by uncovering a range of economic variation that people exhibit. However, as applied anthropologists charged with promoting social and economic justice, we want to do more than catalogue human diversity or document how people negotiate, accommodate or adapt to market forces. We want to locate, scrutinize and support alternative forms of production and exchange, new economic understandings and desires, and new ways of making the world.
As part of this project, we are planning a special series of events on alternative and non-capitalist political ecologies for the 2012 SfAA Conferences in Baltimore. In addition to traditional academic activity, we hope to spark collaborations with community groups, host an alternative economy at the meetings, tour local alternative economic projects, and engage with local and national media. Our goal is to celebrate, theorize, and amplify non-capitalism and to make visible the range of economic forms that people are already engaged in, not as responses to or amelioration of capitalist forces, but as viable economic relations, processes and subjectivities from which to launch counterhegemonic practices and movements.
We invite you to join us in developing and carrying out any phase of this exciting project!