From the 1-9 June 2022, I developed my skills in community focussed research by signing up for the Community Economies Summer/Winter School. This year the school was titled “Researching Post-Capitalist Possibilities” https://www.communityeconomies.org/index.php/news/researching-postcapitalist-possibilities-summerwinter-school.
The picture above is my class (I’m top left, our teacher is top centre and the rest are my lovely classmates!).
Until I lived in in a small regional place like Armidale, I had always considered my community-facing practice “live art” or “practice based research”. This is a combination of context and community. The context of living in the city meant what counted as art was expanded, the community that recognised that expanded definition of art practice was larger and the opportunities for community-facing creative practice were more abundant. In other words, on the whole it was easier to justify certain activities as live art, performance or creative-practice research. Or, perhaps, because of the variety of outlets for different activities I did not really have to think about it too hard. The latter is likely the most-true for me since, I was trained in more traditional scholarly disciplines and held jobs in English and Cultural Studies departments. Creative practice was neither a central part of my university education nor teaching employment.
Moving to Armidale and losing that context and community, I started to conceptualise the work I did in community more explicitly as community outreach and information sharing. This was not because I don’t think it can be thought of as art, but that actually this was the way it made sense to the audience or community. It didn’t make as much sense as art, it made more sense as a little stall. I could more easily situate the work as a pop-up info-stall sharing information in the form of both concepts and practical methods. But in all instances (either as art or community outreach), I wasn’t really conceptualising and designing it as research.
After moving to Armidale, I met Dr Nicolette Larder who had affiliations with the Community Economies Research Network (CERN). Nikki told me that my work, especially this project (CoWS), sits almost directly in the conceptual and methodological space of community economies. She insisted that I didn’t have to create a theory to justify my practice as hybrid arts-community work, but I could be part of this expanded network and learn from those already doing it. With the support of Nikki and Dr Declan Kuch (who had also said my work fitted this profile literally years and years ago, but I wasn’t ready to hear it!), I was made a member of CERN in 2020. I had read dribs and drabs of CERN materials, but when I saw the call for the Summer/Winter school falling at the end of a non-teaching term, the timing seemed ripe/right to take up the opportunity to immerse myself in the thinking and the methods of CERN and in particular the work of J.K Gibson-Graham.
Signing up for the Winter School (Southern Hemisphere!) was a bit life changing, but in a way you don’t expect when you’re mid-career and the life change or conceptual expansion happens within your existing life, job and career. That is, what the CE Winter School gave me was a way of thinking about, conceptualising and designing the work of CoWS (as it is and what it could become) in low-key, small-scale, not-for-profit economic terms. It still can be creative practice and research, but it also can be economic activity. But, most importantly, as research work that is participating in the economy, with careful research-design it can be economic activity in a non-gentrifying and anti-capitialist sense as well. That is, as economic activity it can be underpinned by the principles of a different surplus-distribution model that allows for the work to be planned and executed in both economic and anti-capitalist terms, and be legitimately economic and communitarian even on a small scale. This is via understanding the work in the economic theory of J.K. Gibson-Graham that fuses post-structuralist feminism and queer theory with what they call “anti-essentialist marxism”.
What was striking for me that I didn’t fully appreciate before doing this course is that J.K Gibson-Graham are cut from the same cloth as most of my own feminist teachers and influences (working within the traditions of post-structuralist feminism, queer theory, queer affect theory and Buddhism). What they add to this tradition of thinking that is so transformative for my work, is the extensive and rigorous economic theorisation.
I was lucky enough to have the inimitable Dr Jenny Cameron as my teacher. Being in the position of student is such a luxury, one that is sapped a little of its magic by the ever-increasing fee structures in degree programs, but one I nevertheless got to experience again via this school. Jenny is an incredible teacher whose flipped classroom experience made the whole thing hand on, on the job learning. We had hours of the day for reading and we’d come together to talk it through and apply it to activities. All the students were so deeply engaged in their different research, but we all had common interests in practice, or practical solutions but also did yet have the ways to conceptualise it in order to build into a bigger research program or enterprise.
Two of the main ideas that have really stuck with me in the spirit of “researching post-capitalist possibilities” were the idea of “diverse economies” and also “class as a process”. Tying these two concepts together, is the notion that who has control control over the distribution of surplus is a key determinant of the difference between participating in established capitalist norms and practicing post-capitalist possibilities.
The idea of “diverse economies” is important because (for the uninitiated) we tend to think of the economy in monolithic terms it is either one or the other of the big economic systems (either capitalist or communist, for example). And this trap means that small activities that do transform the economy are routinely disregarded and devalued. In practice, multiple diverse economic activities co-exist side by side (even within the same household or community or city, or even in an “over-determined sense” within the same economic activity). That rather than needing to transform the whole via a large-scale revolt, we can take a more incremental approach and practice anti-capitalist economic activity at virtually any moment. The revolution is already here (and, potentially, in progress). It aligns with the maxim “start where you are, use what you have, do what you can” which I learned from the artists who started Milkwood Permaculture, but it is also a quote from Arthur Ashe!
I think this idea is really powerful. I don’t think it should be an excuse to avoid engaging in more large-scale activist activities or agitations, but as a complement to that work it seems vital and grounded and practical.
The idea of “class as a process” is also very powerful: “class is a process of producing, appropriating and distributing surplus labour. Surplus labour is what workers produce above and beyond what they need to survive” (“Framing the essay: the diversity of enterprise” from The Handbook of Diverse Economies, Jenny Cameron, 26). Class only emerges out of this relational practice, once basic subsistence needs have been met. Identifying the diverse forms of control of the distribution of surplus is the key to defining the economic diversity in material and political terms, and materially changing the world. That is, all economic activity is in the first instance about subsistence, and it also all is about surplus. A large supermarket provides food for a town, but the board of directors control the surplus. A community run co-op can produce enough food for the community, but there will usually also be a bit extra and it is who gets to make the decision about what’s done with the extra that matters and defines the style of economy. The real potential lies in the community control of the surplus.
I recently wrote some rules for CoWS as an unincorporated association. The main idea was that the funding for CoWS is redistributed to either whoever does the core work delivering an activity (a performer at a show, a facilitator of a workshop) or for other event related expenses (for a dinner or gathering, room hire, insurance etc). I do not receive any income. I can think about CoWS as an Ancient class process according to this scheme, because at the moment it is income generated by my own research activities and event organising, and I choose to redirect it into this community activities that relate to CoWS mission. As the unincorporated association grows and formalises over the coming year (if it does), CoWS will turn into a facilitator of communal class processes because the collective will decide what we do with the income from events and grants. This doesn’t change the whole economy of Armidale or the world (or even my life) but contributes to the necessary diversity of the economy required to build a fullsome post-capitalist politics.
For more on this work investigate the range of videos available on the Community Economies Insitutute Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCTvkl1J1feq35qPyPywZYJA/videos