Imagery from Take Back The Economy by Community Economies Collective is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

It’s easy to feel that we don’t have much control over that thing we call ‘the economy’. Especially when it’s described as something complex that requires the oversight of professional economists to keep under control.

Take Back the Economy (J.K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron, and Stephen Healy) is a book that demonstrates how the economy is closer to grasp than we may imagine. The book rests on this premise: the economy is the outcome of the decisions we make and the actions we take. 

‘The economy’ is commonly labelled as capitalist and is said to have become capitalist through a process of economic development and evolution. Within the capitalist economy investors, banks and business entrepreneurs are the major economic actors who make economic decisions and have economic influence. But this only paints some of the picture, as there are non-capitalist economic practices all around us that are taken for granted or are simply ignored in many economic frameworks. Practices like sharing, foraging, lending and borrowing. And organizing methods as seen at community gardens, non-profit organizations, and libraries. These practices can be found in most places – even as we are told we live in a global capitalist economy. 

One of the major concerns of capitalism is that it involves exploitative economic practices. Capitalists employ workers and pay them a wage but take control of the excess value: the
surplus. Capitalists pocket this surplus value as personal profit. Although the workers create the value through their labour, they do not receive control over the use of the surplus.

And in order to take home the biggest profit, capitalists aim to drive down their costs. This includes paying lower wages, acquiring cheaper materials, and setting up manufacturing in
unsafe, low-cost conditions. However, there are also exploitative practices outside of capitalism. So, Take Back the Economy works to overcome exploitative economic practices
inside and outside of capitalism.

Take Back the Economy is motivated to help us take back our economic power as ordinary 
people. It does so by highlighting the more-than-capitalist activity already around us. The book draws on Diverse Economies theory which is born from the works of feminist economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson. Their theory aims to disrupt and ‘queer’ the singular story of the economy as capitalist. And they identify how common ways of talking about the economy are ‘capitalonormative’, whereby capitalism is framed as the dominant, most dynamic, and most efficient economic form.

Similar to how ‘heteronormative’ describes how heterosexuality is assumed to be natural and superior (and therefore central and privileged across various contexts), identifying economic narratives as ‘capitalonormative’ or ‘capitalocentric’ is to acknowledge that capitalism exists and is widely recognised, but isn’t the only kind of economic practice around.  Capitalocentrism works against us the most when we regard non-capitalist practices as imperfect, too small, vulnerable to corruption, or destined to fail. Here a sense of capitalist inevitability looms over us and so it is important from this perspective to speak as much agency and power into these practices as we can. Diverse economies theory emphasizes that we do not live within a singular capitalist economy but interact among a range of economies. Some of which involve capital, and others which do not. From this point of view, ‘the economy’ is broken down into multiple economies that take place all at once. And capitalist acts then become just one of many kinds of economic acts.  For example, within the span of one day I might bike to my local library to borrow some books (zero-emissions transport, free loaning), go shopping for the afternoon in a Westfield mall (capitalist corporation), and use my petrol car to pick up veggies from my local community garden (fossil fuel transport, food grown from communal volunteer labour). When cooking that evening I dispose of the veggie scraps in my at-home compost bin (soil regeneration). And while sitting on the couch I buy a dress for a birthday party made in Vietnam to be shipped to New Zealand via (the largest multinational-capitalist corporation). Throughout this example I still participate in ‘capitalism’, but I also participate in alternative ways of getting what I need (or want) and interacting with the world. If we think of the economy as wholly capitalist, we tend to undervalue and ignore non-capitalist possibilities and practices. And so, capitalism continues to be framed as the governing economic power. 

Why does this matter? 

Well, if we don’t particularly like what capitalism involves or creates, we need to think about how we can collectively design and participate in economies that are different. A beginning point from a Diverse Economies perspective is to look around at what is already performing something different, or even better, something desirable. To achieve widespread change, we need to build our capacity to collectively get what we need without defaulting to a capitalist economy. This can be done through experimenting and learning together, for a bit or for a while, knowing that an economy isn’t a determining force but is created through the decision making of how to get what we need. This could be done through founding a worker cooperative or setting up a time bank, a babysitting collective, or a clothing swap. Or simply working together through the exercises in this book. 

Many scholars and activists have since engaged, critiqued and extended upon Diverse Economies theory, including Māori academics Maria Bargh, Diane Ruwhiu and Amanda
Yates. As a perspective that accounts for multiple economies happening at once, the Diverse Economies perspective takes Māori economies seriously as legitimate and already existing ways of ‘doing economies’. Other economic theories that claim one economic system rules all, or that economies develop into an end point of capitalism tend to label indigenous economies as ‘pre-capitalist’, awaiting their full development. Take Back the Economy is an approachable book that covers 5 economic areas: work, market, finance, property, and business. The book takes inventory of a range of economic practices (capitalist and non-capitalist) within these five areas, and then proposes a range of tools that communities and individuals can use to think through how to take back the economy. The book provides exercises that have been designed to inspire the collective action needed. To navigate this, Take Back the Economy outlines a set of ethical flashpoints that we can collectively negotiate around. The book investigates these concerns:

  • What do we really need to live healthy lives both materially and psychically? How do we take other people and the planet into account when determining what’s necessary for a healthy life? How do we survive well?
  • What do we do with what is left over after we’ve met our survival needs? How do we make decisions about this excess? How do we distribute surplus?
  • What types of relationships do we have with the people and environments that enable us to survive well? How much do we know about those who live in distant places and provide the inputs that we use to meet our needs? How do we encounter others as we seek to survive well?
  • What materials and energy do we use up in the process of surviving well? What do we consume?
  • How do we maintain, restore, and replenish the gifts of nature and intellect that all humans rely on? How do we care for our commons?
  • How do we store and use our surplus and savings so that people and the planet are supported and sustained? How do we invest for the future?

Here are two resources you might be interested in:

March 2023
Written by Lila Laird – PhD Candidate at Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha, University of Canterbury.

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