What’s to be done about capitalism? Everyday making and changing the world

Jonathan S. Davies

Jonathan S. Davies

Jonathan S. Davies discusses his article, Just do it differently? Everyday making, Marxism and the struggle against neoliberalism, part of the 40th anniversary special issue of Policy & Politics. The issue is available free online until the 30 November.

Decades of political domination by free marketeers have been very damaging for the left. With partial exceptions in some Latin American and northern European countries, varieties of ‘free market’ fundamentalism are now so ingrained as to be unquestioned, even unquestionable, by political elites. Mainstream social democratic parties have largely accepted the terms of this neoliberal hegemony: all prosperity depends on a healthy market economy, argued Tony Blair. With mass strikes being defeated and membership falling for decades, the trade unions too seem impotent in the face of this market hegemony. Worse still, far from provoking a successful challenge to neoliberal domination, the economic crisis of 2008 and after seems only to have entrenched it. At the sharpest end of the crisis in Greece, heroic struggles on the streets and in the workplaces, have failed to halt the relentless austerity drive. On the contrary, the Greek Labour Party (PASOK) chose to sacrifice its own political base and electoral credibility to drive through an unprecedentedly brutal cuts agenda, in order to save Greece’s membership of the Euro and make the country ‘competitive’.

With the organised left on the sidelines, many thinkers and activists have started looking for other ways of challenging the dominance of markets, corporations and authoritarian ‘austerian’ states. The basic idea of ‘everyday making’ is that despite everything, we have the capacity to do things differently if we choose. If only we stop devoting all our attention on criticising ‘the system’ and focus on our immediate experiences and capabilities, then another world is possible in the here and now. Everyday makers typically focus on practical action at the small-scale: from those in the craft movement trying to recover creative skills lost in mass production, to those wanting to build new economic practices through cooperatives and other forms of mutual endeavour. Everyday making is to build painstakingly in small spaces ignored or vacated by the profit economy.

My article explores the rich variety of approaches to everyday making, arguing that it is a mistake to give-up on challenging capitalism. I draw on the ideas of Karl Marx to argue that capitalism is no illusion, but very real and by its nature profoundly unstable and aggressively expansionary. This is not because capitalists necessarily want to behave like that, but they have to do so to continue making profits in ageing market economies. The governance of European austerity illustrates all too well how, driven by authoritarian states, the market encroaches further and further into public welfare and public space. Nothing is sacrosanct, including the economic alternatives celebrated by everyday makers. Since the crisis, for example, cooperatives have been firing employees and cutting wages just like ordinary businesses. They cannot do otherwise if they want to continue trading in the market economy. This is not to deny the importance of grassroots community campaigning – London Citizens has made a real difference through its fight for a living wage. It is rather to say that sustaining and building on success requires a challenge to market domination. In other words, everyday making itself poses questions about how economy and society as a whole are organised.

At the same time, it is clear that there is a strong, constructive relationship between everyday making and large-scale protest. In Turkey recently, we saw how a small-scale ‘everyday’ protest against the development of Taksim Gezi Park could quickly mushroom and generalise to encompass far more radical political demands. I argue that despite many defeats over the past 30 years, it is these mass demonstrations and strikes that have come closest to defeating austerity – and still have the greatest potential to do so. If so, the question is not whether to give up on system change in favour of everyday making, but rather how to further radicalise the explosive struggles that emerge from everyday life; how, that is, to take that final step from heroic resistance to victory. There are no easy answers to that question and the ideas of everyday makers have much to contribute to our visions of how another world may be possible. But they are not enough on their own.

Jonathan S. Davies

Just do it differently? Everyday making, Marxism and the struggle against neoliberalism is part of the 40th anniversary special issue of Policy & Politics. The issue is available free online until the 30 November.

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