alt.economy: Ethnographic Explorations of Alternative Economic Imaginaries

by Journal of Cultural Economy July 21, 2016

In the wake of a unique convening of activists and academics at the University of California, Irvine, Journal of Cultural Economy Reviews Editor Taylor C. Nelms, who also helped to organize the UC Irvine workshop, has reflected on some of the central points of discussion and debate in the pages of the Journal. We are pleased to publish a short extract of that reflection here.


Recent years have seen an upsurge in interest in how financial upheaval, state action, technological change have disrupted economies across the globe and shaken confidence in familiar systems of economic organization. And yet, in the rush to grapple with the implications of highly visible government interventions and mass protests, everyday efforts by a diverse range of expert, state, academic, and public actors seeking to imagine and instantiate new or alternative forms of finance and economy have often been overlooked.

In January 2016, a group of activists, organizers, and academics convened on the campus of the University of California, Irvine to discuss some of these alternatives. The workshop, tentatively called ‘alt.economy: Ethnographic Explorations of Alternative Economic Imaginaries’, sought to foster a dialogue between those developing concrete proposals for financial or economic alternatives with the scholars who are studying and sometimes directly involved in their creations.[1] Those in attendance included organizers from the Debt Collective; Highlander Research and Education Center; Southern Grassroots Economies Project; the Working World; and Robin Hood Minor Asset Management.

Over the course of two intensive days, participants at the workshop identified and debated the shared strategies, common tensions, and recurrent challenges of alternative economic imaginaries. These include:

—The transition from non-cooperation as a form of critique and resistance to the generation of group solidarity and active construction of cooperative institutions as a strategy for the positive creation of alternative forms of economic practice and organization within hegemonic systems;

—Creative attempts to turn the means of existing systems to other ends, ‘parasiting’ off existing infrastructures while ‘tinkering’ with or ‘hacking’ their legal, technological, and institutional ‘nuts and bolts’;

—The danger of overlooking historically embedded, structural logics of inequality—especially race-based forms of discrimination, dispossession, and violence—in embracing this strategy of parasiting;

—The simultaneous importance and challenge of education and the ways organizers can guide others as they seek to incite moments of systemic insight into the operations of power;

—The promises and pitfalls of new technologies, such as the blockchain, a distributed, peer-to-peer software architecture made popular by the cryptocurrency Bitcoin; and

—The place of the university in the work of alternative economic organizing.

These themes are elaborated on in the full conference report and review essay.

While we frequently hear about ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ from London to New York to Silicon Valley, this corporate rhetoric too often occludes radical experiments taking place all the time, all around us. But the creative labor of those who are rethinking and remaking the economy cannot be dismissed. In searching out the alternative, there is never a simple switch to flip, no real ‘alt’ key to press. Alternatives take work: institutional and organizational work, legal and political work, knowledge work, relational and affective work. Alternatives are often risky and short-lived: to experiment with cooperative organization or hazard a proposal to remake finance are gambits, without guarantees. Those actively working to make such projects real in the world must ask not only how to define the alternative, but also how to make it durable. Finally, efforts to imagine and create alternatives often rely on or reproduce their own forms of exclusion. The key question is, as Elandria Williams of the Highlander Center emphasized at the workshop, who gets invited to the table? For the university to offer a space for communities to consider their own economic futures and for diverse participants to confront the strategies, tensions, and challenges of imagining and making real alternative economies, that is our challenge.


Photo credit: Erik Parker. Used under a Creative Commons license.

[1] The gathering was sponsored by JCE, as well as the Dean of the UCI School of Social Sciences Bill Maurer (also a member of the JCE Editorial Board), the Center for Ethnography, and Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion (IMTFI), both also at UCI. It was organized by Maurer, Nelms, Hannah Appel, and Joan Donovan. Daromir Rudnyckyj offered initial inspiration (and our title!) and contributed significantly to the event’s conceptualization.