System Change Made Simple

Prefiguring the Gift Economy - Part Two

July 21, 2022 Terry Leahy Season 1 Episode 8
System Change Made Simple
Prefiguring the Gift Economy - Part Two
Show Notes Transcript

This podcast continues the discussion of hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism. Three examples are Margaretta’s Belly Dancing school in an Australian town, the Chikukwa project in rural Zimbabwe and IDEP, an Indonesian permaculture organisation. In each case the discussion explains the market and gift economy aspects of the organisation. The tensions that arise when you are trying to operate a gift economy ethics in a market economy context are evident. Hybrids are a worthwhile strategy to move towards a post-capitalist system, but they are never without problems.

9. Prefiguring the gift economy

Terry Leahy 2023


This is the second chapter on hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism. Taken as prefiguring strategies of a transition to the gift economy. I am adding this chapter to give more examples. One reason is to help the reader to understand just how ubiquitous these alternative economic organisations are. To point out that they are not necessarily conceived as ‘political’ or even as ‘alternative’ by the participants. The other is to see how the concept of ‘hybrids’ can be used to make sense of effective aid work in the global South. 


Margaretta’s Middle Eastern dance school


I will begin by outlining the operation of a Middle Eastern dancing school in an Australian city. I participated in this school as a drummer and this account is based on my memory of the school from 1996 to 2016. I will put this in the present tense to give a sense of how I experienced it at the time.


Margaretta is the choreographer and owner of the school. Choreographed performances are accompanied by a track from a Middle Eastern music CD, or with music for drummers that Margaretta composes. There are at least five Middle Eastern dance schools in the city. Some focus on Middle Eastern ‘cabaret’ dancing and some focus on a United States synthetic style called ‘tribal’. Margaretta is keen to promote a more folkloric style with an emphasis on folkloric costumes and choreographed community dances. There are classes of about 12 women sorted into competence grades — beginners, intermediate, advanced. For example, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evening, with a rehearsal on Saturday afternoon for ‘the troupe’, the most competent dancers. The students are of mixed age, from 15 to 70. Performances are at school halls, community fetes, the studio itself. The school is running out of a rented studio, which used to be a squash court. There are two stories, rooms for storage, a kitchen, sewing room, workshop. The most important room in the studio is a large dance room with a wooden floor and with mirrors installed by Margaretta and her partner.  


These are the market aspects of the school. From the economic perspective, the school is a business. Margaretta and her partner are paying a mortgage on their house. They need income from the school, if only to pay the expenses incurred by the school itself. The students are paying customers, learning to dance in this style as a leisure pastime. Consequently, the school is in market competition with other providers of dancing lessons in the city, not just Middle Eastern dancing but also jazz ballet, classical, salsa and so on. The studio was the most recent of Margaretta’s dancing venues and by far the best. It was however very expensive to rent. This is a constant source of stress. Margaretta has to earn an income at least sufficient to cover the rent. Competing dance schools have two strategies that allowed them to keep their fees down. One is to pay much less rent and hire a much smaller and more run-down hall in a more remote suburb, with little security of tenure. This is typical of the other Middle Eastern dance schools. The other is to concentrate the business on teenage and younger children and offer classical, jazz and modern lessons, with preparation for national accreditation. Margaretta eschews both options, preferring her studio, despite the high rent. Security of tenure and sole occupancy allow Margaretta to instal dance training mirrors. She has complete control of her timetable, booking the studio for seven days a week. There is space to use for storage, sewing and a trade workshop. The location allows easy access for a more middle-class clientele living in the inner suburbs. These advantages of the studio allow Margaretta a high level of artistic excellence in performance, but they augment the stress of market competition.


Now let’s look at the ways Margaretta’s school differs from a typical capitalist firm. As a sole owner business, it is not ‘Capitalist’ with a capital ‘C’ — as described in Capital. Margaretta almost never pays anyone as an ‘employee’ of the business, extracting surplus value from their labour. Occasionally, she might pay one of her best dancers to help by running a class for her. This is the exception rather than the rule. For the most part then, the school is a market business but not ‘capitalist’. It is what Marxists call ‘simple commodity production’.


There are numerous other ways that the operation of the school departs from market assumptions. The assumptions that make money, the market and capitalism possible. Margaretta has chosen a career in which she can express her creative passions — rather than making a choice to get the best paid employment. At work she has no boss telling her what to do.  She donates her passion to the community. She is a devotee of Middle Eastern music and can express that through her teaching and performances. A degree of control over production and distribution. She sees her work as political. In the context of Islamophobia, she is promoting a dance form that comes from the Islamic heartland. She goes out of her way to educate her students and audiences about the origins of the styles that she favours. A syncretism of local village traditions, Romany culture, and Middle Eastern popular film and music. She sees this folkloric style as an expression of women’s culture, both in its originating countries and in the global North, a celebration of women’s bodies. She is meticulous in instructing students to perform the dance moves in exactly the way that the tradition requires. In short, she lives her ethical values through her work. A gift to her community.


The students are not just Margaretta’s paying customers – in a totally market relationship with the school. They are also volunteers. Their voluntary work makes the school possible. They volunteer for the public performances staged by the school and commit to the necessary work. The school’s drummers help with the stage set up and bumping out. Of course, these public performances also recruit new students, contributing to the school as a business. These performances are almost always free to the public, a gift to the community. For example, at a school fete, a street fair organized by a council or a Middle Eastern dancing festival. The dancing is being performed as a labour of love by the dancers, who are also volunteering this service to the community. Students also cook and bring food to events, donating their time and ingredients. At end of term performances at the studio, students sell food to help finance the school. The school hosts a network of emotional labour. For example, the students visited Margaretta when she was in hospital. Students constantly talk to each other about their lives and offer each other support and advice. 


Now I will discuss the tensions and limitations involved in trying to run a gift economy hybrid in the context of a capitalist market economy. A key example is that the rent on the studio eats up all almost all the income from the student fees. The market economy in rent drives this hybrid to the margins of viability. Margaretta’s partner Andrew is working a lot of hours of paid work to provide the income the couple needed to live and maintain their commitment to the school. In addition, he is working as unpaid help for the dance school, drumming, fixing things, helping sew the costumes, sourcing necessary machinery, running the sound system, and acting as an unpaid ‘roadie’ for performances. The school cannot get out of these difficulties by increasing fees. It has to compete on price with other dance schools operating in the city. The typical students of this and other competing schools are women, on lower wages than their partners, working only part time to manage young children, or retired single women. In cases where the student is dependent on a male breadwinner, the dance fees can be seen as a burden on the family income. All of this puts a limit on fees. So, Margaretta is doing a very long week of work and just covering the rent on the studio. The structural context for the hybrid is the necessity of earning income in a market economy, and the precarious economic position of women in capitalist patriarchy.


Market competition is implied in the very real risk that Margaretta’s choreographies would be plagiarized by competing schools. Because the music Margaretta used was readily available on CDs, it is possible for one of her students to learn a choreography, leave the school, set up her own dance classes and use Margaretta’s choreographies — competing with Margaretta’s business. This had in fact happened, and Margaretta is always concerned that it might happen again. 


A shifting terrain of competing dance styles is played out in the market competition between schools. A new dance style, ‘American Tribal’ became popular in the city by 2010. It drew on Middle Eastern and other folkloric styles. Some teachers of Middle Eastern dance in the city became enthusiasts and converted their schools to ‘tribal’. New schools teaching ‘tribal’ sprang up. These schools perform at the Middle Eastern dance festivals in the city, competing with Margaretta to attract students. While she could trump this competition by running her own ‘tribal’ classes she refuses to do this — for various political and aesthetic reasons. So, while Margaretta maintains a non-alienated creative expression through her work, the cost is a stressful economic vulnerability.


So, Margaretta is bearing a considerable financial burden to express herself through her work. While the school is performing very well as community art, it is not functioning well as a business. Economically, she would have been much better off with a more conventional option. She is trained as a school art teacher and gave that up to follow her dream. It is likely that she would have ended up as a senior teacher, with permanency, a good income and superannuation. 


Members of the ‘troupe’, the featured dancers in public performances, are often the mothers of young children or students in higher education when they first join the school. In either case, they do not have the pressure of a full-time job and their schedules are somewhat flexible. These options are short term. They might have children and add that workload to their student commitments. They might graduate, get a professional job and be too busy. Their children might start primary school, while they pursue a full-time job. Those who try to stay and do everything are likely to burn out. In all these cases, market necessities encroach on the dance school. Margaretta finds all this very frustrating. She puts years of work into a student dancer, recruits them into the troupe and trains them in all the troupe dances, only to have them drop out. Patriarchy and the market economy combine to pull human resources from the school.  The necessity to maintain a household income adds to gendered inequalities in housework and childcare. 


There is a tension between the publicity needs of the school (as a business) and esteem issues for the dancers. For a public performance, Margaretta makes sure that only the best dancers perform the complicated choreographies. Other performance pieces involve everybody and are not too difficult. Margaretta allocates dancers into different groups based on their performance skills. Some students find it demeaning to be regarded as less skilled and are not happy with Margaretta’s choices. From her perspective, it is necessary to present the school in the best possible way.  


Margaretta has to abandon students who can no longer afford the fees. This happens quite frequently. Often the ones who have to leave are very skilled dancers. She has spent many hours teaching them, with their performances improving year by year. They are a resource, as contributors to her aesthetic project. Yet, running a business, she has to ignore these considerations. 


Dancers would sometimes resent the amount of unpaid labour they are doing for the school. If the school manages to secure a set of performances in a major theatre, there is extra work required. Students can resist this commitment. Their family or work commitments prevent them from participating fully. Margaretta might scold them for their patchy participation — they had signed up for these performances. Margaretta cannot afford a public presentation that is less than perfect. The dancers are limited by their market and family commitments. 


While dancers may have wanted to operate the studio more democratically, Margaretta needs to maintain control of her business. Members of the troupe met to set up a committee to help Margaretta run the studio more effectively, but she blocked this. A typical conflict took place when one of the senior dancers started to advise newer dancers on the way to perform the moves. Margaretta saw this as an interruption to her teaching and a presumptuous attempt at aesthetic control. The conflict ended up with three dancers leaving the school — setting up their own dance collective, a purely voluntary club of friends. 


I have considered this example for several reasons. One is to point out that hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism are an everyday occurrence. In this case, people are expressing their creativity and sociability through a participation that in part expresses the economic logic of the gift economy. Such combinations are prefigurative in training people with the skills necessary to operate a non-market economy. Also, by fostering desires that the market cannot satisfy. We can also see how Margaretta’s studio is constrained by the market economy. It does not float free of market pressures because there is no boss extracting surplus profit. Instead, various difficulties and limitations come from its market context. The constraints that a hybrid faces within a market economy. 


The Chikukwa Project, Zimbabwe


The Chikukwa project, in Zimbabwe is my next example.  I found out about this project while doing research on food security in Southern and South-Eastern African countries, starting in 2003. The field work on Chikukwa was from 2009 to 2014. With my sister I produced The Chikukwa Project documentary, released in 2013.[1]


This is an extremely successful food security and permaculture project. It was started in the early nineties. Participants are the villagers of the Chikukwa clan. There are about 7,000 people living on small farmsteads, linked together as six ‘villages’, extending over 15 kilometres. The villages are neighbourhoods of adjoining small farms, spread out through the landscape, a stretch of valleys, backed by hills, with a river on one edge. It is bound by a border with Mozambique, a national park, and a timber plantation.


By the nineties, factors both internal and external drove the villagers into an impossible situation. The original land of the clan had been cut down to about a quarter of their traditional lands, while their population had expanded. They were living, farming, and grazing their cattle on the hillside slopes. Soil erosion and compaction was severe. With almost all tree cover removed, the water poured down the slope in the rainy season, with silt covering fields and gardens. By the dry season the ground was dry and barren. They were losing topsoil every year. The springs they relied on for their water supply had dried up. They had to trek down to the river and carry water back up to their houses. A domestic labour nightmare. They did not have enough wood for cooking and building needs. Crop yields were woeful. Malnutrition was severe.


Their community permaculture project changed all this and is still operating today. I first met representatives from the project at a permaculture convergence in Malawi in 2009. I visited the site first in 2010 and then in 2014. I interviewed participants and saw the photos of the site taken in the nineties. They had completely transformed the landscape. To give some examples, woodlots had been established on the ridges to absorb the rainfall and release it gradually throughout the year. Also providing firewood and building timber. Parties of villagers put in three-meter-wide contour bunds and swales — to trap water coming down the slope. They fenced off the gullies to prevent cattle destroying the creeks, re-establishing the original indigenous species. They put in check dams, slowing the flow of water, and spreading water into the landscape. As the springs returned, they made small dams and laid polypipe to village water tanks, constructed with mortar and local bricks. In turn these tanks piped water to taps in households. 


Households have created permaculture gardens and cropping fields for a diverse diet. Field crops are maize, squash, beans, wheat, sorghum and millet. Surrounding the house will be an orchard with mixed fruit trees, avocadoes and nuts. A patch of bananas receives run off water from the yard. Poultry forage in the banana patch. Providing eggs and animal protein. Households may also keep other small livestock. Below the orchard and in full sun, a vegetable patch grows easy and prolific vegetables, a cabbage variety, amaranth, canola, tomatoes and so on. The small livestock produce manure that is used to make compost. A pit toilet ensures sanitation. A washing up rack in the open makes sure that crockery does not transmit infection. This household system has been massively successful in providing adequate food while maintaining soil quality. 


Working together on all this has cemented social links. For example, parties of village volunteers used picks and spades to build the contour bunds. Families who were first adopters of the various permaculture technologies hosted visits from other villagers — and were paid a small fee by the project to thank them for their help. The project ran classes and workshops to teach these techniques and deal with problems that people were facing. 


The central body of the project is the Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust – CELUCT. The villagers together built the centre which houses CELUCT. Including kitchens, meeting rooms, offices, and accommodation for trainees and visitors. The project works by establishing clubs in each village, like a permaculture club or women's discussion group or people living with HIV aids or a preschool committee. CELUCT refers to each of these aspects of community work as ‘departments’ of their organisation. 


Let us now review the market aspects of the project. 


One market aspect is that the farming land is owned individually by households. In theory, the hereditary chief of the clan owns all the land on behalf of the community. But in practice, each individual family uses their land as private property. CELUCT as a community NGO owns their centre and the land on which it stands. 


CELUCT was initiated on a purely voluntary basis. Some neighbours invited two permaculture experts from the capital to run several workshops. Their ‘Strong Bees’ began transforming the landscape by calling on other villagers to help them. After about five years, they formalized their status as an NGO and accepted donations. With this funding, CELUCT (their new organisation) began paying its officers and recruiting from outside the villages. There is a core of 10 to 15 paid employees who are relying on CELUCT for an income. Including kitchen staff and gardeners from the villages, local professionals, mostly former teachers, trained agriculture and development workers from outside the district, an accountant. CELUCT also pays villagers to host farm visits to demonstrate technologies, such as organic pest control, fishponds or similar.  CELUCT and its manifestations in the villages depend on commodities from the wider market economy. For example, the CELUCT car, polypipe, concrete, fencing mesh. Villagers themselves depend on cash income for some of their needs, it is not a totally self-sufficient economy. For example, mobile phones, small solar panels, cooking utensils, windows. CELUCT also supports villagers with small market enterprises based in their agricultural production. For example, beekeeping and selling honey. So, all these are market aspects of the project.


The non-market aspects of CELUCT are equally essential. CELUCT depends on donations from overseas. Mainly from a German Protestant organization, and a leftist British aid organization. These donations fund the paid employees and the CELUCT equipment. This is a gift from a section of the middle class of the rich countries. Also, a way in which this global North middle class are gaining some control over the means production — steering development away from typical market outcomes.


Mostly, the project is concerned with subsistence (non-market) production. Almost all CELUCT assistance in agriculture is assistance to household food provision. For example, farmer to farmer training in small livestock as part of household food production. On their own farms, villagers are doing unpaid work. They're just growing food for their own family. A non-cash non-market transaction. The project depends on voluntary (non-market) community labour. For example, the voluntary work that constructed the CELUCT centre, built huge contour bunds, planted trees, fenced off the gullies and put in check dams and village water tanks. There is even a volunteer appointed to go around and monitor the use of the water. All this work takes place outside of the market economy. 


Much of this implies community ownership and creation of means of production. Such as the check dams in the creeks and the fencing to protect the gullies. Using gifts from the global North along with their own labour to build their community structures. 


The organisation of CELUCT enables community control. CELUCT management committees include both the professional paid staff, and also elected representatives from the villages. These committees make decisions about how to operate the project and use donor funds. CELUCT receives suggestions from the villages and these suggestions initiate their projects. Each village club is elected on an ‘open day’ by members of the whole village. In turn the local club sends representatives to CELUCT. If villagers have a problem, they approach their relevant village club. The club represents the issue to CELUCT and seeks support. For example, some villagers were worried that owners of a woodlot were overcutting their timber, causing erosion, and spoiling the gardens further down the slope. They approached their village permaculture club which presented the issue to CELUCT. CELUCT agreed to a project and sent a team to meet with villagers at a local household. Mediation began with an improvised dramatization of the problem, with staff playing the roles of the different parties involved. Discussion followed with separate meetings of the participating men and women from the village. They worked out a consensus solution and members of the CELUCT team joined the villagers to begin working on it. A ban on further timber cutting, re-planting, a check dam in the creek. Community processes like this reduced the effective rights of private property — in order to prioritize community control. 


So, this example shows community control of the time and resources of the CELUCT NGO, along with community control of land use on household farms. 


Kindness (the gift of care) was a key value of the project. For example, HIV/AIDS is usually a stigmatized condition in Africa. The project set up self-help groups for people living with HIV, provided education to reduce stigma and organized material support. CELUCT also set up plots of land to grow food for the more marginal members of the community — orphans and people who had lost their partner through HIV. The gift was also implied in CELUCT events. For example, for a village mediation CELUCT representatives arrived in the CELUCT car. At morning tea, the staff handed out drinks of cordial, apples and bread rolls. A ritual of the gift. CELUCT is coming and we are giving you something. 


Let’s look at the limitations of CELUCT as a hybrid. Problems with their cattle project illustrate a conflict between the private market interests of some villagers and community interests. The conflict shows how the project must take these private interests into account to remain successful. The following account is not a critique of CELUCT. This was a temporary glitch, that has since been resolved. But it shows how market forces can interfere with the operation of a hybrid. 


In the Chikukwa villages, individual households might own a small herd of cattle. As in all the community trust lands of this region, only a minority own cattle. All these cattle had access to the community grazing land above the villages. A treeless pasture. Households appointed a young relative to take the cattle up to the community grazing area in the morning, and then bring them back to the household kraal, their cattle enclosure in the village, at night. These young people got bed and board as their payment. An apprenticeship. The effect was to emphasize the individual household ownership of the cattle, despite the common ownership of the grazing lands. Each household had their own relative looking after their own cattle. As these wealthier villagers expanded their herds, their cattle began to destroy the pasture. Overgrazing compacted the soil. The pasture quality suffered. Typical problems of community grazing in this part of Africa. By the time this project started, CELUCT had become an affiliated body of a community NGO that worked in the whole of the Chimanimani district - TSURO. TSURO, decided that in each local area of the district they would set up a cattle project to deal with such issues. On the Chikukwa lands, the project was run out of CELUCT. 


The project used painted stones to mark the boundaries of different paddocks within the community grazing area. For two months, the cattle would be in the first paddock. Then the herders would move the cattle into the second paddock. And so on. Using this method of rotation, they would end up back in the first paddock at the beginning of the following year. This procedure is called ‘holistic grazing management’. The aim is to let the grass recover between one bout of predation and the next, a year later. The method mimics the natural behaviour of herds on the African savannah. The grass gets deeper roots, more rainwater soaks into the soil and the cattle eat better. Improved infiltration on the hill tops means less erosion in the rainy season — and more ground water further down the hill in the dry season.


The plan was that four herders appointed by the CELUCT grazing committee would replace the household herders, the young relatives. They would receive training in holistic grazing management. Donor money paid for a moveable kraal so the herders could stay overnight on the grazing area with all the cattle. A side benefit was that cattle were to be kept out of the villages. A levy from the cattle owners would raise money to pay for the herders. 


This planned strategy began well, with strong community support, but soon ran into severe problems. 


As representatives from CELUCT explained these problems, they began with Paul. Paul had been in CELUCT from its very origins. He was one of the wealthier villagers and owned cattle. He also marketed coffee as a cash crop. CELUCT chose him to take training in holistic management. Paul was funded by CELUCT to spend a year learning this technique. When he came back from the training, he ended up in a dispute with the CELUCT management. He believed that CELUCT should extend his contract and give him a position as their holistic management expert. CELUCT claimed they had no funding for that. According to the CELUCT version, Paul expressed his frustration by sabotaging the project. He encouraged the cattle owners to refuse the levy. Grazing on the community land was their right. The project had in fact received funding to pay the herders. But the CELUCT team had ‘eaten’ the money. The herders CELUCT had appointed were incompetent. They were not looking after the cattle properly. He also encouraged the herders to demand higher wages, and to go on strike. Allowing the cattle to wreak havoc in the villages. 


This sabotage was extremely effective. The only people whose cattle remained in the project were those who could not recruit a young relative to do their herding. There are 91 households that own cattle in the Chikukwa villages. With about 1,000 households in total. In the beginning of the project 54 households joined up. But by 2014, there were only 27 households. Of the 972 cattle in the villages, only 152 were left in the program. Holistic management depends on all the cattle on the community grazing lands moving together from one paddock to the next – relieving the pressure on the pasture till the following year. But of course, this was now impossible. 


What was the perspective of the cattle owners who left the program? I also interviewed some of these owners. They believed the cattle in the program were not getting enough to eat. Up to six had died. At the end of a grazing cycle, the cattle had chewed the grass down to nothing in the working paddock. One reason some cattle had died was that the cattle were being herded together at night — transmitting infection. The CELUCT cattle management team had a different interpretation. They thought that the owners of the cattle were not supervising them when they returned to the village at night. They had eaten plastic waste on the side of the road and gummed up their digestion. 


So CELUCT is trying to intensify the community ownership of resources through taking control of the community grazing area. A gift economy measure to deal with problems in a private market arrangement — by asserting community control. Saving the gardens of villagers, increasing infiltration of water, sustaining the grazing fields as a long-term community resource. The market economy context spoils this plan. Cattle owners worry that their valuable cattle may be in danger. Typically, the few families that own cattle have a background in migrant labour. Men migrate to work in mining, industry, or on commercial farms — when they are young. The women stay in the village, looking after the children and the household farm. The men save some money and buy cattle. A bank in retirement. For weddings and funerals, or emergency medical treatment. The households that own cattle are the lucky few. They don’t want to trust their hard-won resource to community herders and an experimental system of cattle management. They do not want to pay for herding, that they could access without payment in the past. The dispute is kicked off by Paul, whose hopes for a paid job are dashed when he is not granted an extension on his contract. He resents the CELUCT management team. Some on the team began in CELUCT as community volunteers when he was also a young community volunteer. Now this lucky few have a dependable cash income. He persuades the cattle owners that the management team has selfishly appropriated some of the community funds. A likely piece of market behaviour, even though a slander in this case. 


There is also a global context that limits and threatens CELUCT. A project like CELUCT is a very rare thing in these African countries. Almost all projects are devoted to the pipe dream of entrepreneurial success. The idea that food security will come about when these smallholders sell a niche crop — and use that money to buy food and synthetic agricultural inputs. Such projects almost never work, but they express the hegemony of the capitalist cultural machine. The global market context makes a hybrid like CELUCT unusual. The pressure towards entrepreneurial solutions is a constant threat. The danger is that CELUCT will drop household food provision and be diverted to entrepreneurial projects — for the more well-educated families. 


An entrepreneurial path is also very attractive to the Chikukwa villagers themselves. Subsistence household production is low status compared to a cash income. By 2014, the next generation (following the initiation of the CELUCT project) had finished high school. They had absorbed the skills their parents had learned from the project. Calculating yields, experimenting with different pest control solutions, cropping techniques, animal husbandry. A form of cultural capital with economic potential. Some young people from the villages seized their opportunity. They re-opened fields owned by their clan that were 15 kilometres from the villages. Growing a crop of potatoes for the nearby town market. They were assisted by agricultural extension officers, advising them on inputs for a commercial crop. Following the logic of college agriculture training. This initiative meant that some of the best local talent was now unavailable to support the household food production solutions that had been the hallmark of CELUCT. These potato growing households maintained their cereal cropping – with purchased inputs. But they neglected the household production of vegetables, fruit, and small livestock. They would buy these extras. In practice these purchased additions were patchy and insufficient. This commercial solution was only open to a minority, leaving the poorer villagers with their subsistence solutions — and without the help of the young shakers and movers.


This market context is also implied in charitable funding. Non-government donors are giving help rather than trying to make a profit. But their help reflects the hegemony of market ideology. They reach for entrepreneurial solutions. Quite often, local leaders also see these as the way forward. Charitable organisation from the global North fund some subsistence projects but rarely make a clear distinction between these ‘household food provision’ projects and entrepreneurial projects — tending to favour the latter. These entrepreneurial projects hardly ever work. This setting was a pressure on CELUCT. Their German church donors (DEE) had provided them with most of their aid funding. After funding household food solutions for more than a decade DEE turned to strategies that seemed closer to their Christian mission. Peace building and conflict resolution. CELUCT certainly had expertise in this field and were able to take up these funding options. DEE initiated a community mediation project for the whole district. This change in emphasis drained funds from the permaculture wing of CELUCT. There was little chance of any other international NGO reaching out to fund CELUCT’s non-market interventions in the villages.


Perspectives on hybrids


This discussion of hybrids is not meant to sideline other transitional strategies. For example, ‘direct action’, interfering with the capitalist machine. Forest blockades, mining blockades, occupations. Also, reformist strategies working through environmentalist or social democratic parties. My view is that it is very hard to predict what is going to work best to advance system change. Where these strategies are concerned, the debate on the left treads a well-worn path. By contrast, ‘hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism’ are not well understood. The misunderstandings come from all parts of the political spectrum.


In the liberal imagination


In the liberal imagination these organisations are ‘civil society’ — a necessary counterbalance to the market. In civil society people are ‘citizens’ and not just ‘employees’ or ‘consumers’. The combination of market capitalism and civil society enables representative democracy, the perfect solution to the world’s problems.[2]


It is true that pure market capitalism is an impossibility. Capitalism always rests on non-market community action. What I reject in liberal analysis is the idea that ‘civil society’ unproblematically supports the market economy. These two chapters have shown how hybrids challenge the market economy. They can be prefiguring institutions that point the way to a post-capitalist system of gift exchange and community ownership. 


Hybrids with rose-coloured spectacles


Environmentalists are likely to see these hybrids as just market organisations. They are ‘alternative market’ institutions because they are governed by ethical commitments. They prefigure a change to an alternative post-capitalist market economy where businesses will operate according to a ‘triple bottom line’. I will call this ‘the rose-coloured view of hybrids’. 


The permaculture movement, following Mollison’s writings describes this strategy as ‘right livelihood’. Mollison writes:


… adoption of an ethical basis to action, to the placement of money and resources, and to the determination to act in accordance with one’s beliefs. All of these can occur independently of political change … when enough people change, then political systems (if they are to survive) may follow.[3]


Within social theory, a similar analysis comes from the geographers Julie and Katherine Gibson-Graham and the sociologist, Erik Olin Wright.[4]


Summarising my analysis in these chapters.


·      Alternative ethical businesses are limited by their market economy context. They may survive these pressures. But they may not — falling by the wayside or becoming just another standard business. 


·      It is misleading to see these businesses as simply ‘market’ businesses. What they do is challenge market logic in one way or another. 


·      The rose-coloured approach ignores the dangers of recuperation. As Anitra Nelson puts it, there is a monetary system out there that can ‘fatally interfere with and damage non-capitalist models that attempt to persist alongside it.’.[5]


·      The rose-coloured viewpoint sees alternative market institutions as first pieces in a post-capitalist market economy. My argument is that on the road to post-capitalism, hybrids will link up and deepen departures from the market. Also, that hybrids are just one part of a total transition strategy.


Leftist purism and hybrids


Finally, there is another leftist approach to these hybrids, a ‘left purist’ critique of hybrids. 


Left purists argue that hybrids cannot be an authentic opposition to the system because they do not challenge the power of the capitalist class. The most useful leftist strategies are direct actions (blocking capitalism) and propaganda for the revolution (the only real solution). As John Jordan puts this view, it is a myth that capitalism can be transformed through the peaceful development of alternatives. We need resistance, ‘confronting and dismantling unjust structures of power to make way for other cultures to flourish’.[6]


Another version of purism argues that real prefigurative institutions reject all participation in the system. Hybrids cannot be counted as alternative. For example, they pay wages or sell commodities. Purist leftists see the writing on the wall when a community organisation starts to pay its executive officers. The slippery slope to recuperation. Next thing you know you will be cutting deals with evil magnates.


My argument against these related views is first that prefigurative cultural change is a necessity for a successful revolution. This can come from hybrids — that often work when a more thoroughly alternative organisation will not. Investigating the gift economy side of these organisations allows us to see what is prefigurative about them. 


The purist attack on hybrids sets a high bar. We will never charge for anything, we will commit our time without payment, everything we use will be ethically sourced. Taken literally, these goals are unattainable. The capitalist class owns the means of production. Almost every useful item has been produced to make money. Almost everyone needs a paying job. You will end up falling short one way or another. Activists tend to gloss over awkward realities, framing their practice in the best possible light. A leading organizer never worries about getting a job — their parents will help out if necessary. The things we use have all been produced at someone’s expense — the phones, laptops, heaters, fridges, electric kettles, amplifiers, and projectors. Our prefiguring alternatives fold up when the volunteers get other commitments. Young people who do not yet have a full-time job do most of the voluntary work. We struggle to pay the rent on our community centres. These issues are hard to raise in the context of purist leftism. Constant self-criticism drains energy. There is always something that we could be doing more correctly. It helps to recognize what we are doing as a hybrid — and to make it a success in its inevitable market context. 


Purist leftists make ‘the revolution’ a measuring rod for current activism. I would be the first to agree that we need system change. But judging one’s actions in relation to that is an open cheque for self-sacrifice. That does not make a lot of sense if we want a post-capitalism based on autonomous sociable creativity. People create hybrids to bring optimism to their lives. Using the market enables that in ways that more purist courses of action foreclose. Margaretta could not have a full-time career in Middle Eastern dance without charging for tuition. 


In the next chapter, I will write about the Zapatistas in Mexico. In some ways, the region organized by the Zapatistas is just the host of yet more hybrids. But it also goes beyond this. An attempt to implement the gift economy on a large scale. An autonomous zone. A revolution. Beginning system change in one province without trying to take over the Mexican state. In doing this the Zapatistas have created a state that is not a state. A form of regional organisation that could be part of a gift economy. 

[1] Leahy, Terry 2019, Food Security for Rural Africa, London, Routledge; The Chikukwa Project 2013, documentary film by Gillian Leahy and Terry Leahy.
[2] For example Putnam, Robert D. 2000, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York, Simon and Schuster; Polanyi, Karl 2001, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Boston, Beacon Press.
[3] Mollison, Bill 1988, Designers’ Manual, Tyalgum, Australia, Tagari Publications, p. 50.
[4] Gibson-Graham, Julie and Katherine, 2006, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press; Gibson-Graham, Julie and Katherine, 2006, Post-Capitalist Politics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press; Olin Wright, Erik, 2010, Envisioning Real Utopias, New York, Verso.
[5] Nelson, Anitra 2022, Beyond Money: A Post-Capitalist Strategy, London, Pluto Press, p. 98.
[6] Jordan, John 2020, ‘Artivism: Injecting Imagination into degrowth’, in Corinna Burkhart, Matthias Schmelzer and Nina Treu (eds), Degrowth in Movement(s):Exploring Pathways for Transformation, London, Zero Press, p. 69.