Toward a more coherent anti-capitalist theory and practice in the Chicago area

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

The contributions collected in this issue, by being placed together under the heading of an opposition to the problems of money (and maybe even to capitalism), give the impression of a coherent political project. Reading this issue casually, it may appear that the underlying wish for a unified left is something actual, and already achieved. But we would argue that important connections between people and their activities remain to be made—or they have only been made virtually. They have been “proposed.”

Our approach to this editorial intervention is to examine this appearance of coherence or unity. Our goal is to point out the critical disconnections, contradictions and incoherencies that expectations of unity tend to efface. By pointing out incoherence where we find it, we also hope to point toward what coherence might look like, and why it might be considered an oppositional value adequate to our time.

To be clear, what we refer to as incoherence is not altogether a bad place to start — for one thing, it indicates the breadth and diversity of the audience for a publication like AREA. But it also suggests something of the current state of disconnectedness on the left. Rather than read this issue of AREA as the representation of a unified project, we should realize that juxtaposition does not make connection, and that hard work of actually building that unified left remains to be done.

Over the course of our lifetimes, the left’s aversion to ideological homogeneity has contributed to discouraging the kind of unity that could make it a force that shapes history, even as most self-identified leftists maintain unity as an abstract goal. We would like to suggest that this aversion to coherence is a reaction to particular features of a specific social form characterized by mass political parties and hierarchical corporations—a form that has since been superseded. This has given birth to the notion of resisting the rigid and coherent edifice of capitalism often in the form of small scale networks—which now echoes the “networked” nature of neoliberal capitalism, to which most contributors are opposed.

Because it would take significant and still incomplete work to realize the tacit desire for a unified left, it is understandable that many articles in this issue simply react to social reality and problems with money, rather than imagining themselves as agents of change. It has become customary to speak in terms of resistance—and increasingly, in these articles, of bare survival—rather than of overcoming. The absence of a coherent left becomes especially visible here, along with our real lack of agency as long as the left remains incoherent. While a barrage of critique and tactic evokes a desire for radical change, it can have the effect of leading us into remarkably ordinary, even nostalgic territory. And there is a visible drift in this issue toward the cozy old institutions of small business and local agrarian community, the early bourgeois nation-state, and even the church. How did we get here?

In a moment where capitalism has reasserted itself as the undeniable locus of social life, contributions to this issue suggest that liberation from capitalism might just as easily be found in the industrious self-employment of the sex worker (Sex Work as Activist Niche), as in the nun’s sisterhood (Economic Nun-Sense). And the incompatibility of such approaches to the politics of the personal is echoed in larger conflicts of political imagination. The difference between a closed national project of productivism and austerity (Redefining the Commonwealth…), and the figure of the immigrant worker as an inherently radical discontinuity in capital flow and human containment (Day Laborer Organizing in the New Economy) may have become too important to gloss over with gestures toward solidarity. In fact, it may do more damage to the concept of solidarity to pretend that such a thing could exist between such diametrically opposed poles.

To be clear, we do not mean to suggest that the issue of incoherence is a simple matter of any one contributor’s incorrect theory or practice; rather, that the inconsistencies between the articles—which are ostensibly written with the same goals, or at least the same targets, in mind—are generated in a social condition that favors fragmentation. The articles share a goal of avoiding or even superseding the money economy; and yet none of us can escape from the need for money to accomplish the goal. It is as if we took it for granted that capitalism is a coherent, nearly unchangeable social system, while anti-capitalisms must remain mutually incoherent, addressing the system in infinite and separate ways. Perhaps, on the contrary, capitalism produces its own form of partial (yet dominant) rationality, which makes coherent critiques of capitalism appear utopian, allowing the logic of the system to mask its more fundamental irrationality.

As all these texts show in their own way, capitalism is a system rife with internal contradictions, a system that generates incoherence in social life and thrives on “creative destruction.” Rather than thinking of our practices as resisting, by their incoherence and disconnection, the rigid and coherent edifice of capitalism, what if we began to recognize the incoherencies of capitalism as our own? What if our many anti-capitalisms united in a call for a more coherent world by demonstrating the fundamental incoherence of capitalism?

Capitalism and Forms of Anti-Capitalism

The 183 Definitions of Capitalism earlier in this issue confront the reader with a wide breadth of meanings. What they agree on is that capitalism is a form of exploitation; it is the basis of the vast majority of exchanges that mediate our social lives; it has a strong tendency toward unjust distribution of wealth; it transforms all parts of society and nature into a commodity; and it involves the directing and organization of the labor of large swaths of humanity. A second and less prevalent strain focuses on the generative and liberational qualities of capitalism: it is the “solution to abject poverty,” it is “human nature,” it is “the motivational structure of modernity.” One final group focuses on its scope: “a massive and seemingly inescapable system.” The multiplicity definitions suggest that capitalism is a vast set of relations, certainly more vast than “American Finance,” and that while exchange and labor are central to its functioning it shapes social relations far beyond the typical realm of economics departments.

In the articles, many of which understand themselves to be anti-capitalist, or at least desirous of a better form of capitalism, capitalism takes a number of forms. On the one hand, for many writers, capitalism is a bureaucratic, hierarchical system which they rebel against by “doing it themselves”, by finding their unique market niche, generating loose institutional support networks. On the other hand, capitalism, particularly through the market, is seen as an individualizing or isolating force, as breaking apart previous communities or working relationships. This second group of writers then rebels by forming collectivities, unions, and affinity groups to defend, regain, or win this communal existence. Why do these antithetical interpretations of capitalism co-exist? Perhaps capitalism does both. Perhaps capitalism forms oppositions such as these where both sides represent features of capitalism, but understand themselves to be utterly separate. Perhaps this dynamic, complex, generative system we call capitalism could generate two opposed reactions, such as the union at Republic Windows defending their jobs and their working community, and the students producing a play about the economic crisis asserting the particularity of each individual’s experience (Sub-Prime Youth). Despite their differences, what both of these communities share is a sense that something far beyond their power, something abstract, yet formed through practical everyday relations, was coercing them.

Additionally, gathering from these definitions, it seems that capitalism is generative of massive amounts of wealth and can, in fact has, transformed the human world from its former basis in subsistence farming and herding to the vastly complicated society we have before us. The historically specific quality of capitalism, which essentially did not exist before the Renaissance, challenges the claim that capitalism is “human nature” but raises a more important question: why would it appear to be human nature? (Trade existed only at the periphery of pre-capitalist societies, but now it mediates all our means of subsistence.) How could something historically relatively new appear to be inherent in an eternal human nature?

Many of these writings voice a profound desire to regain a lost autonomy, to preserve an existing autonomy, or to achieve a level of autonomy in the face of concrete forms of exploitation (Republic Windows) or more abstract forms of alienation (Sub-Prime Youth). Yet, as we have seen, this pursuit of autonomy often takes the form pitting one dimension of capitalism against another. Does this, then, mean that this desire for autonomy is merely a delusion or that escape from capitalism is impossible? If capitalism is capable of forming our very conception of our nature, then it could well be capable of demarcating a realm of possibilities of thinkable thoughts. Meaning, just cause we call something an “opposition” or “alternative” to capitalism – that doesn’t mean that it automatically gets to reside in a world where there is no capitalism. Again, this is not to suggest that these ideas are delusions, rather, that they are quite real, but they represent one side of reality—an unfulfilled potential or a form of domination—without considering it in relation to the conceptual opposite generated by capitalism. Capitalism generates the possibility of an autonomy, a freedom from: freedom from the economy, freedom from earning a living, from politics beyond our control, and most fundamentally a freedom from labor. However, capitalism systematically also thwarts this potential and recreates conditions of simultaneously universal and individualized domination. Understanding how and why this occurs needs more examination, and liberation from capitalism and realizing its unfulfilled potential requires a politics adequate to its complexity.


There is almost a consensus among the contributors to this issue that capitalism is an all-encompassing system of social organization that is unethical. A quick glance at the 183 Definitions of Capitalism confirms this. It is “An inherently evil economic model with the potential for good.” It is from this standpoint of the potential for good, of the desire to act altruistically or “generously,” that most of the contributors, whether as individuals or organizations, relate to the world around them. Capitalism is seen as a system that generates unethical conditions that can be counter-acted by ethical acts. But the articles reveal significant differences about what acting ethically might mean. Differences which have less to do with what one would like to do and more with what one is able to do, because of labor conditions, social backgrounds, or access to education and resources.

In many of the articles, acting ethically is related to uncompensated or “free” labor—the idea that if one generously donates their labor, they are participating in a more authentic form of human relations. The imperative for the ethical self is to engage in less alienated everyday practices by establishing more direct social relations that are less mediated through capital, a tendency which finds its expression in the notion of being more or less inside or outside the system.

Temporary Services spent a lot of their own money and an “enormous amount” of their “unpaid labor” to realize the “untapped potentials for building economies of generosity” in their art practice. The women who started Backstory Café “contributed upwards of $40,000 in capital and countless labor hours” (we imagine unpaid) to produce “an atmosphere of sustainability through human relationships.” In The New Business of ArtLee Ann Norman explains how, after losing money as a result of the Madoff scandal, Insight Arts asked its staff to halve their wages and turned to “established relationships…to sustain itself through the financial crisis.” That is, instead of competing with other arts organizations for diminishing resources, they looked for ways to squeeze more value out of, or create new value from, existing relationships.

These comments characterize “giving” and “generosity” in human relationships as the grist that can build and sustain an ethical arts collective, café, cultural non-profit…micro-models for a new society. But what is it that sustains the humans in these relationships? Their most basic needs, things like housing, food, mobility, communication, healthcare, childcare, have to be met—if modestly—otherwise how could they donate so much of their labor?

Insight Arts’ ability to “support progressive social change” is directly linked to financial markets through their donors. The same is true of the Crossroads Fund, whose founders “gave up” the wealth they had accumulated (through capital investments one assumes) to re-invest in “communities.” The redistribution of wealth, or the “democratization of giving,” doesn’t address how this wealth is accumulated in the first place. Temporary Services would like to “build an ethical funding model that doesn’t exploit anyone in the chain of exchanges,” and Food Not Bombs would like to completely dismantle “the line between the ‘server’ and the ‘served.’” These kinds of practices may be less directly involved in the capitalist accumulation of wealth. However, if someone with enough accumulated wealth is able to generously donate space to an artist’s collective or to throw perfectly good food in the trash, this doesn’t mean that those on the receiving end are somehow outside capitalist relations; they just occupy a different position in the chain of exchanges. They too operate within the logic of the redistribution of socially-generated wealth, and rather than undermining the cycle of profit and accumulation—the unethical whole—they may have the effect of legitimizing it by carving out an individual ethical space within it.

In the 183 Definitions of Capitalism someone writes that “For those in art-related endeavors there is a disconnect between individuals with family or trust fund money who have the luxury of critiquing capitalism while remaining outside of it and those of us who critique it but are self-supporting and must be a central part of it.” Our precarious conditions, whether as cultural workers or day-laborers, form the edges of an unethical whole. But the thorny issue of class privilege, and by extension racial privilege, that this comment raises, exposes how categories like precarity are qualitatively different for different people and cannot be immediately overcome by claims of “solidarity, not charity” (a saying used by Food Not Bombs and others). Many people already engage in daily practices like dumpster-diving, re-claiming food, or resource sharing and bartering. But they do these things more out of necessity than choice.

The recourse to an ethics of giving can efface the fact that the social system offers different people different opportunities to act ethically. As long as an individual’s ability to act generously remains disembedded from the social conditions that make the act possible, it will be difficult to make generosity into an element of solidarity rather than charity. If an ethical stance toward capitalism—disengaging from money and profit relations—is a privilege, how could this privilege be used to create the conditions in which everyone could act ethically?

Organizing, Community, Movement

Even as they maintain a largely ethical approach, many of the contributions to this issue express an anxiety about the individualism typically assumed in discussions of ethics. Whether it appears in the small-scale “shift from ‘Doing It Yourself’ to ‘Doing It Together’” (InCUBATE) or in calls for labor organizing, there appears a desire to move toward collectivity, both in our social practice and in our understanding of the world. Perhaps it reflects a more general turn away from fragmentation (of post-modernism) and toward a new value placed on communal cohesion. This may also be motivated by the hope that the perspective of collectivity can move us beyond the contradictions inherent in individual ethical action that remains dependent on capitalist conditions.

The move toward small-scale collectivity is at least implicit in the contributions that discuss alternative modes of collectivity, whether they take the form of art/activist collectives (Temporary Services; Food Not Bombs), charitable projects (Crossroads Fund; InCUBATE; Donation Diaspora; interviewees on the Non-Profit Industrial Complex), small business arrangements (Backstory Café; Mucca Pazza), or unconventional labor organizations (All In a Day’s PayDay Laborer Organizing in the New Economy). Together these pieces show that even apparently simple, small-scale projects become complicated when their organizers experiment with organizational form in hopes of building new, freer social relations. The pieces also show, however, the limits of such attempts when made in isolation.

A single organization faces the same challenge as a single individual. Though experimental forms of organization may structure sociality in important ways, each organization remains constrained by the social system around it. And each organization lacks the power, by itself, to fundamentally change the system that constrains it. As a first step toward overcoming these constraints, many progressive organizations have developed new ways of “basing” themselves in social relations that can compel the organizations to remain experimental or alternative—that is, to maintain their structure and approach even in the face of counter-pressure by the dominant social system. An organization based in a “community” will respond to that community’s expressed needs differently than an organization based in the cocktail parties of the philanthropic elite. But another, unstated question hovers over these articles: what exactly is a community?

Under what conditions would it really be true that community control is “contrary the root principles of capitalism” (Crossroads Fund)? And what about “the philanthropic community,” in which capitalists promote activities that do not directly contribute to the accumulation of capital, but which may still play a crucial role in legitimizing capitalism? Although charity might not necessarily legitimize the prevailing social system, it seems clear that charity—including community-based charity—can be part of a neoliberal social contract in which capitalists agree to support and indirectly control non-capitalist activity in exchange for low taxes and a retreat of the state from these spheres of life. Likewise the practices of grant-making and DIY culture can be complicit in a neoliberal project to outsource the labor of social distribution to often-unpaid grant writers and readers, and to unaffiliated individuals who “do it themselves.” Might the entire system of community-based organizing depend on capitalism’s deep-rooted need to separate the world into multiple spheres, allowing capitalists to support autonomous activity in civil society on the condition that this activity never substantively interfere with the spheres of the economy or the state?

None of these reflections mean, of course, that we can ignore the need for autonomous community organizing as a basic part of our efforts to change the world. But we can ask what kinds of community fulfill what specific roles in social transformation, whether by truly subverting the “root principles of capitalism” or, more often, by laying the necessary groundwork for some future subversion. This groundwork might involve basing ourselves not only in already-existing communities, but also in a new community of communities, which it is our task to create: a step from imagined compatibility to practical coherence, a movement that could make even the most benign practice subversive. Then, looking up from our empty pockets, we can begin to ask where our movement should move. And the pages of AREA are as good a place as any to begin.

Let Chicago Political Workshop know your thoughts on this piece via emailing or by making a comment.

Chicago Political Workshop is a reading group interested in developing a critical understanding of contemporary society through the categories of labor, value, and time, as specifically capitalist forms of domination. We seek to develop theories that can adequately grasp the present and contribute to the development of new political forms that will lead to the eventual overcoming of capitalism.

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