Deconstructing "Capitalism"
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Deconstructing “Capitalism”
J.K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996)

In 1996, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents led an (ultimately unsuccessful) attack on the unique privilege of academic tenure. Even as we fought this encroachment, many of us who taught there reexamined our expectation of lifetime employment in our chosen career. Aren’t other workers—even highly-trained professionals—subject to forced moves and early retirements as a result of corporate “downsizing” and the internationalization of markets? Why should we be any different? It surprised me when it was a Marxist colleague of mine who had no patience for this line of argument. He asserted that we ought not feel guilty about tenure as a selfish privilege but assert it as a site of resistance against market imperatives.

The End of Capitalism develops a theoretical justification for this kind of reasoning. The author, J.K. Gibson-Graham (actually two academics, Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, who write as one voice) argues that those who would transform capitalism have a pressing need to render such sites of economic difference visible, and to understand them—independently of capitalism— as practices of resistance rather than as marginal, anachronistic, or otherwise inferior economic forms. The project started with what used to be called a `Click!’—the author’s recognition that “my feminism reshapes the terrain of my social existence on a daily basis. Why can’t my marxism have as its object something that I am involved in (re)constructing everyday?” (p. 250). She answers that the difference lies not in capitalism but in the way we know it.

The central argument of the book is that our predominant understanding of capitalism as a structure or social totality prevents us from recognizing the quotidian practices in which we are already engaged to transform and to resist it. Capitalism, in short, is a discourse (p. 5). Propositions such as this one inevitably meet with material objections: “But surely you don’t mean to deny that capitalism is real?” “It may be all well and good to change how we speak of capitalism but that won’t make it any less of an institution that enriches a few while exploiting the many.” One of the merits of this lively and clearly-written book is that it exemplifies how to answer these kinds of objections. Gibson-Graham does not claim that we can think our way out of capitalism. Her point, rather, is to demonstrate how Marxists and market economists alike have theorized capitalism in ways that represent “dominance as a natural and inevitable feature of its being” (p. 5).

She delineates three discursive features of capitalism that sustain it as incontestable: unity, singularity, and totality. First, capitalism is understood “as a structural and systemic unity” that is able to “reproduce and expand...according to internal laws,” as if independently of political intervention (p. 256). Second, this systemic cohesiveness and capacity for lawlike self-reproduction render capitalism a “singularity,” a form of social order that is like no other in its capacity to feed on its own crises. By contrast, socialism “was never driven from within by a life force but always from without; it could never reproduce itself but always had to be reproduced, often an arduous if not impossible process” (p. 257). Third, capitalism is a “totality” that absorbs and subsumes all forms of economic activity, constituting us as subjects of capitalism, even when we are not engaged in commodity production for the market (p. 258). Together, these three discursive features work to denigrate and discredit everyday resistance against capitalism by rendering it “a unified system...that can only be defeated and replaced by a mass collective movement” (p. 263).

The dominant conception of capitalism determines, in turn, our understanding of class as a social grouping that is determined “in the last instance” by capitalism. Gibson-Graham proposes to reconceptualize class “as an overdetermined social process,” and, thereby, to lend credibility to noncapitalist economic practice (p. 55). She argues that the class process involves the production and appropriation of surplus labor, and its accompanying distribution. Class...