‘The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy’ by J K Gibson-Graham,’A Postcapitalist Politics’ by J K Gibson-Graham reviewed by Richard Schmitt

A Postcapitalist Politics

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006. 316 pp.
ISBN 9780816648047

Reviewed by Richard Schmitt

About the reviewer

Richard Schmitt, emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Brown University, teaches at Worcester State …


Two women, Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson, are the authors of these books but they have chosen to present themselves as one author, J.K. Gibson-Graham (for an account of that choice see EC xli). She describes herself as both a Marxist and a Feminist. (EC 251) Although she is not the only feminist who considers herself as a Marxist, she draws uncommon lessons from this conjunction of identities. Reading Marxism from the perspective of feminist theory, she rejects the traditional Marxian conception of capitalism. Not surprisingly, she also rejects the corresponding Marxian conceptions of a socialist politics. She provides interesting suggestions for an alternative picture of capitalism and of socialist politics. These criticisms and suggestions for replacing prevailing Marxian ideas flow from epistemological conceptions current in feminist theory, as well as from the experiences of fighting for women’s liberation.

In their resistance to patriarchal theory and practice, feminists confronted not only patriarchal power but a world in which the division of vast areas of experience into the superior male and the less adequate female domains was a matter of common sense, accepted as self-evident by most men and many women. One can try to refute these patriarchal ideas, denying that women are inferior to men, as well as weaker, less intelligent and creative. But second wave feminists – inspired in part by a long line of philosophers such as Hegel, Heidegger, Foucault, Althusser (EC, Chapter 2) and Derrida – understood that the outlook of patriarchy was not a theory one could prove to be false. Instead it is an outlook, a world view, a discourse, an “imaginary” (PP xix) not supported by evidence. Traditional patriarchal views of the world, are not shown to be either true or false; the argument is not between alternative theories of men and women. Instead feminists tried to transform our view of the world – our “paradigm” to use Thomas Kuhn’s term – that undergirds all debates about truth and falsity. These views are anchored in our emotions; how we see the world is of a piece with how we feel about it. (PP Chapter 1)

At the heart of these two books is the distinction between theories about different topics and the world views, or fundamental orientations that underlie all theory construction. Theories rest on evidence but what constitutes “evidence,” for instance, is determined by the underlying world view, by sets of unargued assumptions. Theories of patriarchy and, similarly, ruling conceptions of the economy are not “simply an ideological concept susceptible to intellectual debunking but a materialization that participates in the practices and processes that surround it . . .” (PP xxxiv)

Philosophers have always know that arguments must begin somewhere and that no arguments can be given for the staring points. We gain these starting points, Plato thought, in the direct apprehensions of “Ideas,” Aristotle found the beginnings of science in “first principles,” Kant in synthetic a priori propositions. With Hegel, philosophers begin to entertain the thought that first principles may have non-rational sources in “the spirit of the age,” in language, in “the micro structures of power,” in “discourse.” Gibson-Graham insists on the emotional roots of our starting points. (PP Chapter 1 & 2) Human thinking and theorizing rests on what one accepts as “obvious,” “self-evident, ” or “natural.” It is rooted in how we see the world, for instance men and women, or the economy, “prior to our reflective judgment.” (PP, 128) Thus, for instance, most Americans simply “know” that socialism involves tyranny; that it conflicts with human nature and is, therefore, impossible. Most leftists “know” that only a united working class can replace capitalism with socialism.

Gibson-Graham undertakes a critique of the language we use to speak of the economy and its role in the society as a whole. (EG 13) As she sees it, socialists today are confident that economies are systems, not unlike human bodies, where each part interacts with all the others. Capitalist systems cluster around markets, they seek equilibria in order to maintain themselves; they are the center of any social order. The beliefs and character structures of citizens are reflections of the economic structures. These structures can be known by science; the results of specific economic and political policies are therefore predictable. For Gibson-Graham the pair of concepts “economy-society” is an oversimplifying binary reminiscent of the man/woman binary combated by feminists. She rejects the idea that capitalist economies are tightly organized systems, that determine but are not determined by all the other economic activities in the society. Instead, the economy consists of many different undertakings, only some of which cluster around market transactions. Notably there is the family economy which – pace Tullock (Tullock and McKenzie, 1985) – does not follow market thinking. There is the economy of volunteering, the gift economy, the economy of barter, of theft, etc., etc. (PP Chapter 3) The economy extends much more widely than the market.

These books are interesting because they approach a more adequate understanding of capitalism and a more hopeful socialist politics both from the most abstract angles and through very detailed analyses of actual cases which suggest strongly that capitalist economic arrangements are not independent of family structure. A study of the interrelations of patriarchal family patterns, the limited opportunities for unmarried women in company built mining towns in Australia and the social life within and between families shows that economic forces and social forces mutually affect one another. A purely economic analysis would not capture the situations of the miners’ relations to their employers and its interplay with the miners’ family life.(EC 214 ff)

Gibson-Graham, as feminist and Marxist, is not only interested in knowledge but also in political action. The bulk of EG is devoted to casting doubt on the prevailing socialist conceptions of capitalism as a unitary system. The bulk of PP is devoted to developing a politics appropriate to her alternative view of the economy. (PP xxii) The traditional conception of socialism as a unitary system replacing a different economic system, capitalism, leads to a politics of organizing large masses of people to take power under the leadership of a party inspired by correct theory. These parties will gain adherents by persuading ordinary people of the truth of Marxism (Marxism-Leninism, etc. etc.) (PP xxiii)

That has been the reigning socialist politics for 150 years or more. It has not been successful –we are still waiting for the socialist revolution Marx and Engels expected in their life time – and has left us profoundly discouraged. Gibson-Graham adds the important observation that while Marxists with their mass-organization politics marched from failure to failure, second wave feminism has produced profound changes in the world without a central leadership, without a set of clearly formulated goals, without “principles of unity” or Lenin’s “revolutionary theory” as the indispensable precondition for revolutionary action. (PP xxiv)

But once we accept that our idea of the economy is not a theory based on conscious rational evidence, but a world view anchored in emotions we confront a number of difficult questions: what is the emotional source of this system view of the economy? If our beliefs about the economy and about politics do not rest on rational argument and evidence, how can we persuade others to adopt our outlook, for instance, to see the economy as a terribly complex field of many different activities with different rules, goals and outcomes in which markets play only a subsidiary role? How can we change each others’ emotional stance? How shall we proceed to build a socialist society, if we reject the politics of mass-organizations preparing to take power and, with the aid of a socialist state?

According to Gibson-Graham, political change is not produced by rational argument but only if we alter the emotional, pre-reflective roots of our thinking. We must become different persons by changing “whatever enables us to act prior to reflection, the habitual, the embodied knowledge, the ways of being in the world that we almost never think about.” (PP, 128) But how do persons change? Freud tried to answer that question and so from a Left perspective did Wilhelm Reich (Reich 1970) and Herbert Marcuse (Marcuse 1964). Feminists theorists have interesting answers to that question derived from the experience of women liberating themselves. (Scheman 1980) Gibson-Graham set up several “action research” projects in which she explored methods for human change. A Postcapitalist Politics reports on these action research projects.

Conversations with business leaders and development specialists in the Connecticut Valley, begin with agreement on all sides that the poverty in the area can only be alleviated by attracting more industry – i.e. by developing according to capitalist views of “development.” But then worries surface about the social dislocations brought by capitalist affluence and business practices; suggestions for alternative ways for improving life other than through capitalist “development” emerge as the conversations continued. The experiment suggests that it is possible for people to surrender their entrenched attitudes and presuppositions for a while. The unreflective stances of people may change. (PP 131)

An action research project in a formerly prosperous region of Australia, now mired in poverty, discovers that change is frightening. The inhabitants are invested in being victims because as such they are powerless, cannot change their situation and thus do not have to take risks. (PP 140) One of the changes needed, in such situations, is from people seeing themselves as passive victims to seeing themselves as capable of solving some of their problems through collective efforts. One of the techniques used to produce such a change is to make inventories of potential in a given community. That encourages everyone to consider their strengths, to be positive and envisage the possibility of change. (PP 141) The result of a lot of brainstorming was “almost 50 ideas of activities that might be undertaken by newly authorized subjects of the community economy. Once beginning to free themselves of their fear of change, people come up with interesting ideas of how to confront their problems other than by capitalist “development.” (PP 148) “Coming to a new language and new vision of economy turned out to be an affirmation not only of difference but also of economic capacity. The people engaged in our research conversations had a chance to encounter themselves differently — not as waiting for capitalism to give them their places in the economy, but as actively constructing their economic lives, on a daily basis, in a range of non-capitalist practices and institutions.” (PP 152)

These action research projects are tentative beginnings for developing an alternative socialist practice by changing the deep, pre-reflective emotions and habits that have animated socialist politics for so long. Making these changes is not easy. Gibson-Graham herself feels the ambivalence of vacillating between the emotional roots of traditional socialist conceptions — paranoia, discouragement etc.– and the alternative politics of possibility rooted in the feminist experience and theory. (PP 131) Many readers of these books will reject these suggestions out of hand, unable to distance themselves from firmly entrenched attitudes and emotions and unwilling to consider the possibility of a very different left politics from what some of us have practiced for a long time. Others will find themselves uncertain, like Gibson-Graham herself. But like her, we should make a major effort to resist the temptation to remain in the old oppositional but profoundly discouraged attitude of prevailing Marxist orthodoxy. Instead we should cultivate our hopeful energies. We have very little to lose except decades of failure.

6 November 2009


  • Marcuse, Herbert 1964 One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon).
  • Reich, Wilhelm 1970 The Mass Psychology of Fascism (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux).
  • Scheman, Naomi 1993 Anger and the Politics of Naming Engenderings: Constructions of Knowledge, Authority and Privilege (New York: Routledge).
  • Gordon Tullock and Richard McKenzie 1985 The New World of Economics: Explorations into the Human Experience (Homewood, N.J.: Richard Irwin).

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