Book review – Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future

Jeff Shantz and Jose Brendan Macdonald (eds), Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future (New York, NY, London, New Delhi and Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[Note: I accidentally agreed to do this book review before realising the journal, Political Science, isn’t open access. The text is below, and the citation is: Sky Croeser, ‘Book Review: Beyond Capitalism: Building Democratic Alternatives for Today and the Future’ Political Science June 2015 67: 84-86, doi:10.1177/0032318715582131]

beyond capitalismThis volume is a necessary and important contribution to the exploration of economic systems, which centre on human needs and potential, and which put in place limits to growth for environmental and social reasons. It outlines a number of different models for radical change, arguing that alternatives to capitalism are not only possible, but also, in many cases, already exist in nascent forms. In discussing these alternatives, it also emphasises the need for change by outlining the deep crises that societies around the world are already experiencing.


The first part of the book outlines broad models for alternative economic structures and activism, including cooperatives, participatory economics and anarchist organising. Heloisa Primavera’s discussion of social currencies (currencies based on barter or small localities) is notable here, and makes strong connections with extensive literature from those involved in the social currency movement. The second part of the book investigates particular case studies, many of which offer deeper insights into the challenges and benefits of implementing the models introduced in the first section. These case studies primarily focus on Europe and South America, although there are also important examples from Africa (such as the chapter on farmers’ cooperatives), the US and Canada (including discussion of union involvement in the protests). Sadly, this leaves Asia and the Middle East unexplored, apart from brief references to India in Dada Maheshvarananda’s largely theoretical chapter.


While the political and economic perspectives discussed vary significantly, this work is notable for its openness to anarchist perspectives. The foreword argues that attempts at reform have failed because ‘the real problem is party politics, representative democracy, and the domination of politics by professional organizations’ (p. xxv); several chapters explore the tensions between hierarchical organisational forms and those that attempt to build a more open and decentralised structure. This is also visible in the emphasis throughout the book on empowerment and participation: the opening chapters all argue that people need to have more control in the workplace and the broader economy if we are to live in a truly democratic society. Jeff Shantz’s chapters, in particular, focus on anarchist approaches to change and the need to draw together anarchist and labour organising. Shantz joins others in the volume, including Gregor Gall and Peter Ranis, in drawing attention to tactics that fall outside official channels. These tactics include a willingness to engage in illegal factory occupations and unsanctioned strikes, as well as direct action during protests, which might include marching outside assigned routes or resisting arrests and other forms of police violence. This makes the book a welcome and useful addition to a body of literature on globalisation and its alternatives that too often stays within the narrow bounds of institutionalised dissent.


This is not to imply, however, that the state is always positioned in the volume as antagonistic to attempts to build more democratic economies. While the chapter by Albert outlining principles for a participatory economy (within a model labelled ‘Parecon’) argues against central planning, Maheshvarananda’s following chapter sees a federal government as playing an important coordination role. This diversity of approaches is also echoed in the case studies. Many authors point to the state as a repressive force, and specifically note ways in which top-down attempts to implement social economies have failed. For example, Satgar argues that the post-apartheid state in South Africa has implemented a form of afro-neoliberalism that has widened inequality,and that its encouragement of cooperatives has failed due to a lack of commitment to fundamental cooperative principles. In contrast, Monedero’s writing on the social economy in Venezuela positions the Chavez government as playing a vital role in supporting alternative associational forms and shifting away from neoliberalism (with some caveats). The volume holds open, then, the possibility of a state that will support shifts towards democratic alternatives to capitalism, although the case studies do not entirely support this optimism, creating a thought-provoking tension across the contributions.


Considerations of the role of the state are part of a broader dialogue about how democratic alternatives can exist within the current neoliberal system. The need for supporting institutions and movements is, perhaps, most visible through case studies that explore the success of cooperative movements in different parts of the world. Gall argues that the abandonment of the factory-occupation-turned-cooperative tactic as part of the labour movement’s repertoire in Britain is at least partially a result of the lack of a strong cooperative movement able to provide support and share necessary skills. In contrast, Alessandra B. Azevedo and Leda Gitahy’s research on the Mondragon experience highlights the many ways in which a network of research institutions and industrial cooperatives has been developed in order to produce one of the strongest and most long-running cooperative movements in the world. These chapters, and the several others discussing the role of unions (by Macdonald, Gall, Shantz and Ranis), provide an antidote to the current tendency to overlook effective labour organising as a prerequisite for building successful alternatives to capitalism.


Overall, this volume argues that alternatives to capitalism are not just a utopian dream: many different initiatives already exist and are demonstrating successes. These initiatives are not perfect. They face challenges in the form of capitalist backlashes, state violence and internal difficulties as those involved attempt to build skills for cooperation and mutual aid that often go against their previous training in the workplace and the broader community. Similarly, this book is not perfect. I found it particularly jarring to see unnecessary sexist [Note: I actually wrote ‘cissexist’ here, but it seems to have fallen victim to an editor] language used (p. 6) and references to indigenous peoples as ‘simple people’ (p. 5). More perspectives from activists and academics that draw on anti-colonial and intersectional analysis may have provided a deeper analysis of the ways in which gender, sexuality, race and other structures of oppression are linked to the problems of capitalism. The editors could also do better than a gender balance of three women authors out of 13. However, as a whole, this is a valuable contribution for authors and activists working towards the structural change we so urgently need.

Anarchist and anti-capitalist approaches to feminism

At the first AdaCamp, I noticed that quite a few participants were talking about a politics of openness, drawing on their experiences of ‘open stuff’ (primarily free and open source software politics), but without necessarily having the background to connect this to other political threads that might be relevant.

This is understandable: not only are a lot of people attending AdaCamp coming from a technical (rather than humanities) background, but even my post-graduate degree in political science frankly did little to connect me to political traditions that felt useful to me, and I’m trying to learn for myself now. People are looking for these traditions, though, and so we need to help each other find them.

Lucy Parsons

Anticapitalist approaches to feminism are vitally important. Capitalism is inherently exploitative. It relies on workers making a profit for others within workplaces in which they often have little control over what they produce or the conditions under which it’s producedand on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of marginalised groups (particularly women, and most especially women of colour). It’s also an economic system which relies on constant and hugely-damaging expansion, which we cannot sustain environmentally.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should condemn everyone working within the capitalist system: there is no ‘outside’ to capitalism. But we should be thinking carefully about the tactics and strategies that we employ in our feminisms. It’s easy to fall for the rhetoric of leaning in: to push for more women CEOs and other highly-valued positions, and individualistic solutions which require women to work alone to push back against sexism in their workplaces.

Instead, we need to be thinking about how to change or build alternatives to existing structures where we can. Co-ops and other worker-run organisations are one approach. We can also think carefully about payscales (what’s the ratio between the pay of the highest and lowest paid worker at your workplace? and what is it if you include work that’s contracted out?), and about building solidarity between people in different roles within an industry. We should recognise the importance of caring work and other forms of unpaid labour, and build structures which distribute this labour more evenly.

IMG_5294We also need to more consciously build the skills that allow us to organise and cooperate. I’ve been seeing ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness‘ by Jo Freeman mentioned quite often, sometimes with the unspoken assumption that the problems Freeman discusses (which are significant) mean horizontal organising is inevitably doomed. But as Freeman says herself in the closing section of her essay, there are specific steps we can take to ensure that horizontally-organised spaces aren’t structureless.

This requires learning new skills, and often building new cultures. One aspect of John Restakis’ work that I found interesting was his discussion of the difference between places with a culture of cooperative work (like Emilia Romagna in Italy and Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain) and places which have rapidly collectivised in response to crisis (he discusses Argentina in particular). It takes time to learn to be patient with long meetings and to interact with others in good faith to build collaboration rather than competition.

We also need to do more, I think, to recognise and help develop the emotional skills necessary for effective organising, which requires active reflection on the invisible work in our spaces: including people’s efforts to smooth conflict and help others feel valued. Anarchism (and specifically anarchafeminism) is one framework for this that I find useful, because it focuses heavily on processes (rather than end goals). It also offers an alternative to the libertarian* approach with its focus entirely on individual freedom, instead understanding individual autonomy as always being embedded within community.

Anarchist feminists have also been dealing with some of the same issues that have affected women in open stuff: how to deal with harassment or abuse in a supposedly-decentralised, supposedly-liberatory community; how to develop processes of self-governance that don’t reinforce existing oppressions; how to build change within (frequently) male-dominated communities. Drawing on these experiences, and the praxis that has come out of them, can help enrich our approaches.

Hopefully that’s provided a useful 101 for people who wanted a little more information after the AdaCamp Montreal session on this. There are a lot of directions for additional reading and discussion, and I’ve linked to a few of them here: feel free to leave helpful links in the comments also. I also highly recommend checking out the report (and more detailed notes) from the Femhack gathering on autonomous feminist infrastructures, which was on just before AdaCamp.

* I use ‘libertarian’ here in the sense it’s used in the US, and particularly in tech communities, to mean an ideology that’s focused on individual freedoms without challenging the market as the main way of organising distribution of resources. In Europe, ‘libertarian’ (and especially ‘libertarian socialist’) often means something different and more in line with anarchism.

Our collaborative feminist organisations should be critical of capitalism or they will probably be bullshit

This is a response, kind of, to Amelia Greenhall’s excellent post on Starting your own b(r)and, an incredibly detailed and useful outline of Greenhall’s experience working with Model View Culture. This isn’t meant to be a critique. Greenhall has been generous in sharing her knowledge, and I mostly just want to expand on the first couple of thoughts I had in response:


I’m writing these thoughts not as an expert, but as someone who is still trying to think more and learn more about what it might mean to be a feminist, how to be an effective activist, and how to build alternatives to the very broken system that is currently available to us.

As the title of this post suggests, I’m drawing very tentatively on the important work of women, particularly Flavia Dzodan, in expanding the discussion of intersectionality. Intersectionality, originally developed in parallel by Black feminists Kimberlé Crenshaw and the Combahee River Collective, is a term that’s increasingly used in different feminist communities to discuss the ways in which different forms of oppression overlap.

Dzodan is one of the many writers who are emphasising the role that capitalism plays in these intersecting forms of oppression. In particular it’s useful to read her critique of choice, neoliberal, and libertarian feminism, in which she writes about the problems with seeing a form of feminism which sits easily with capitalism as the default. She argues that this,

“has also led to a sense of “amplified agency”. We are told to “maximize our freedom”, we should “brand ourselves better”, we should “choose our choices” and demand a better distribution of the resources. In the process, we are left with a feminism that imposes on us the moral task of maximizing our own value. This is a feminism of the individual with an inflated sense of the self that is devoted to the creation and administration of individual business opportunities in detriment of systemic change or, at the very least, in detriment of an analytical approach that examines our individual relations as part of a whole and our interactions and participation in a system of inequalities we cannot escape.”

I don’t think that Greenhall’s post neglects the idea of solidarity, or talks only about individual benefits; for example, she writes carefully and thoughtfully about how to ensure that authors are properly paid and retain control of their work.

But I do think that the section on ‘What kind of corporation should you become?’ needs deeper examination. Greenhall opens by noting that, “The first question many people ask is: should I be a for-profit or a non-profit?” As she points out, there are a lot of problems with the non-profit format, including the ways that the need for funding can distort an organisation’s work (outlined in more detail by Sue Gardner). Greenhall cautions that, “You can choose to focus all your energy on selling one thing – a thing that is good, for a profit – and still be a feminist.”

There are two issues I want to raise here. Firstly, like Dzodan, I think it’s important to question what it means to accept that feminism can sit easily within capitalism and to assume that we can focus on simply running companies that sell a ‘good product’ (feminist content). We accept a particular model of workplace in which there are bosses and workers, in which some people control the company and others work for it. We accept that we can fulfill our personal goals through making and selling good products. We accept that we can work against gender inequality (and for diversity in other more nebulous senses) without working against the capitalist system. But capitalism requires inequality and always will. It is build on the unpaid or vastly-underpaid labour of social reproduction, which is usually relegated to women and people of colour.

Secondly, I want to question the idea that our only choice of organisational forms is between for-profit and non-profit models. Both of these, especially in the context of formal US incorporation, are built on the same hierarchical model. They both assume that for an organisation to function properly, there must a division between those who control the direction and those who are merely workers. The non-profit sector doesn’t offer alternative models for organisation, and in many cases it merely means an intensification of the exploitation that workers face.

We need to, at the very least, be considering options beyond the for-profit/non-profit divide. We need to be thinking about organisational forms that create real challenges to the current capitalist system, including cooperatives and collectives. These forms have their own contradictions and problems, but we can learn from them and build on them. There’s a bunch of good writing on this, from the vast body of work on areas with a long history of collectives (including Mondragon and Reggio Emilio); more recent work on how workers in Argentina reclaimed their workplaces; activist zines on feminist collectives; writing reflecting on the experiences of current workers’ cooperatives; and histories of the collective movement in different places (including Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, which I just found out about and really want to read).

This is not to say that I think it’s somehow inexcusable or fundamentally unfeminist to end up deciding to run a for-profit or non-profit organisation. We all make our own uneasy compromises with the system, myself included. In many cases it may not be viable to attempt radical new forms of organisation. But at the very least we need to be thinking carefully about how feminism and capitalism relate to each other, and what the alternatives might be. We should be careful about restricting our vision to a set of possibilities that all exist within the system as it is, and instead be at the very least considering organisational forms that offer us hopes of a more fundamental restructuring of the world.