The AlterEcos project sets out to explore alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing. What, you may wonder, does all this mean? In this inaugural contribution to the AlterEcos blog, we will unpack the elements of the project one by one, beginning with economic organizing.
What is economic organizing?
Economic organizing may refer, variously, to the organization of the economy or a mode of organizing that is economic in nature. The first of these two meanings is, perhaps, the most straightforward as it refers to the structure and functionality of the economy as a system and addresses such issues as: How do societies organize the exchange of goods and services? How are things and ideas valued and priced? In short, how does the economy work?
The second meaning, while somewhat more elusive, is at least as relevant. Moving beyond notions of the economy as a separate part of society, or sub-system with its own functionality, economic organizing may also refer to the ways in which the economy organizes society as a whole. That is, the logic of the economy may be said to infiltrate and impact all aspects of life, infusing everything we do with a certain order or form.
The AlterEcos project initially focuses on the financial sector and, hence, economic organizing in the first of the two senses presented here. However, we seek to understand the organization of the economy in order to be able to trace how this organizational form traverses the porous boundaries between economy and society and makes its mark on all walks of life.
What are the currently dominant forms of economic organizing?
Economic organizing, then, is an order or logic that may begin within ‘the economy’ understood as a separate domain of the social world, but tends to travel into other domains – creating a political economy, a social economy, a cultural economy and so on. In all these instances the original relationship between the adjective (political, social, cultural) and the noun (economy) has somehow been reversed so that it is no longer the economy that is political, social, cultural, but these various spheres of life that are becoming economical or economized – organized along the same lines and following the same logics as the economy itself. The economy, we might say, is an order or a mode of ordering that tends to overtake that with which it comes into contact rather than vice versa. But what, then, are these lines and logics; what are the currently dominant forms of economic organizing?
First, we should note that this is, in part, what AlterEcos sets out to explore, wherefore we can only offer some preliminary answers here. Second, the form of the question is significant; as it speaks of forms in the plural and denotes their temporality and potential malleability by inquiring into the currently dominant. Although we may speak of the economy in rather static and stable terms, as a certain order, this order is not as given and fixed as it may appear. Or put differently: there is nothing natural about the economy; it is a thoroughly social construction – and, as such, it is always susceptible to change.
Speaking in the broadest possible terms, the capitalist growth imperative seems to be at the root of economic organizing in the 21st century. Even so, this principle takes different forms – there are varieties of capitalism that all deserve careful attention. More specifically, capitalism currently seems to be moving further and further away from its material base towards the production and circulation of immaterial assets. This turn to the derivative, to value creation in and through speculation, can generally be labelled financialization. Not only is the world economy increasingly financialized, so is everyday life.
Therefore, AlterEcos begins with an enquiry into the organizational logics of the financial sector; they offer an important entry point to understanding the economic organizing of social life.
What are the alternatives?
Basically, the alternative is anything that is not dominant, not part of the mainstream, not business as usual. As George Cheney notes, however, we need to define the alternative in positive terms if we are to recognize it as anything but an antithesis to the current system. If alternatives are to be implemented, they must, at a minimum, be fleshed out.
In manifesto form, alternative (economic) organizations must hold to three foundational principles: individual autonomy, collective solidarity, and responsibility to the future. Alternative organizations, then, have identifiable ends; they work towards more sustainable modes of production, less unequal distribution of resources, more social inclusio
n at the workplace, etc. However, they also organize themselves in particular ways – and point to new ways of organizing the economy: for instance, co-created, co-operative, shared. Ultimately, they could even question the seemingly inviolable capitalist founding
principle of growth. Maybe a different order, another world, is possible?
How does one explore alternative forms of economic organizing?
Coca-Cola once ran an advertising campaign called ‘Small world machines’, which aimed at bringing Indians and Pakistanis together through the global brand’s vending machines. In the AlterEcos project we have appropriated and repurposed the notion of ‘small world machines’ – ours are not ‘big’ (as in mainstream) machines for making the world smaller, but ‘small’ (as in alternative) machines that may make a world of change.
Thus, we begin by identifying specific alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing that may not seem revolutionary in and of themselves, but could be catalysts for larger change. In doing so, we follow Donald MacKenzie’s dictum that theories are engines, not cameras; if economic theories are co-productive of the currently dominant forms of economic organizing, then organizational theories may help foster the development of alternatives. Thus, we do not merely aim to identify and observe alternative forms of economic organizing, but also to evaluate their viability and desirability, and we seek to promote the ones that offer realistic potentials for positive change. By combining these ‘small machines’, we hope to be able to construct a ‘small world’ – or, with a nod to Fredric Jameson, a small-scale model on which the lines of flight from currently dominant forms of economic organizing can more clearly be read.