Katherine Gibson helps to build resilient economies

Interviewer: Courtney Boag
Images: Western Sydney University and Documentary Australia Foundation.

25 July, 2018

“I appreciate values of trust and reciprocity not necessarily because they have the answer to future economic issues, but because they are an important ingredient in rebuilding a better social, cultural and economic future.”

Katherine Gibson

Katherine Gibson is an economic geographer who is passionate about creating innovative research around economic transformations and recognising the potential of alternative economies in creating a more sustainable future. She has over 30 years of experience working with communities to build more resilient economies.  Katherine and her late colleague Julie Graham (Professor of Geography,  University of Massachusetts Amherst) have worked on a number of ground-breaking publications, all revealing the urgency of implementing alternative economic structures, some of which include:  The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It); A Feminist Critique of Political Economy; A Postcapitalist Politics, and Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities, co-authored with Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy.

Katherine’s passion for encouraging people to recognise the importance of underlying economic structures is contagious. Her publications and public lectures are nothing short of thought-provoking and leave the mind churning with constant questions. I wondered how I was ever going to unpack her work in our short chat. However, our discussion surely did plant the seeds of stimulation and inspiration which I feel honoured to share.

Katherine, what inspired you to get involved in researching alternative economies?

Well, I was doing my PhD as an economic human geographer interested in the restructuring of industry and what was known as the internationalisation of capital in the 70’s- which is what people now known as globalisation- but yeah, this notion was becoming an important issue for many academics. Particularly issues around factory’s moving offshore to third world countries and certain kinds of labour movements, such as the migration of contract labour and migration movements all over the world, that kind of thing. I became involved in theorising certain transitions within the capitalist world system and trying to understand how there were forms of competitive capitalism as well as monopoly capitalism and global capital all kind of co-existing, and in a kind of uneven and undeveloped way.

So, I got more and more involved in theorising this kind of approach to economic geography which was an approach influenced by the political economy, particularly Marxism political economy and dependency theory, and the kinds of theories that were influencing understandings of development at the time. With Julie Graham, my colleague, we kind of realised that as we were getting more and more embedded into understanding how capitalism was evolving we became further and further distanced from our political interests which was to try and have a different kind of world where exploitation and domination and imperialism didn’t play a role. So, we made a bit of a radical break from our work in documenting capitalism to begin questioning what was standing in the way of theorising alternative or other kinds of economies.

That’s when we started to get involved in a more anti-essentialist economics- Marxist- economics which was not looking at class as a structure but class as a process in which there are multiple class processes co-existing including capitalist classes, feudal classes, slave classes and sort of independent, underlying classes. Looking at economic structures like this became a way of opening up the economic system to multiplicity and then we got more involved in a feminist approach by looking at all the kinds of economic activities that were not included in mainstream economic thinking. However, we did not want to look at the feminist economy in a kind of Marxian way as an alternative sphere of reproduction supporting a sphere of production, but in terms of the heterogeneity of economic practices. So yeah, that meant moving into what we called the diverse economy research program and from there moving into a kind of more normative intervention around community economies and what they might look like.

What an interesting journey! You talk about this notion of ‘taking back the night, taking back the economy’ in your recent book Take Back the Economy can you tell us more about this?

I guess it is a play on the old ‘take back the night’ claim of feminists but really, it’s about questioning the strategies we can employ to make the economy something that is actually benefiting people and the planet rather than destroying it. It’s about questioning how we can start to reframe economic relationships in terms of things that really matter like, how do we survive well together,  how do we encounter and exchange goods and services with others in ways which will help others to survive well, how do we organise business so that it generates wealth that can be distributed more evenly through surplus distribution, how do we think about property in a way that might lead to commoning rather than un-commoning and allowing property to only benefit a few, and how can we think about investments and finance in terms of ensuring that there is a future for the world.

So, it’s really about trying to come back to questions of work, business, markets, property and finance from this perspective of putting people and the planet first. Each chapter of the book looks at how we might look at a diverse economy around that particular activity, what we can do to focus on the key concerns that might develop a community economy with those kinds of principles of benefiting people and placing people and the planet on the center stage. We also look at the kinds of collective actions that people have pursued historically to try and plan and reshape economies, so each chapter of our book Take Back the Economy has a section demonstrating these sorts of collective actions.

I really like your notion of ‘performative knowledge structures’, in that, in order to improve an economy, we can’t just add in some alternative strategies here and there, because the underlying problems are likely to persist.  Rather, we need to actually re-conceptualise and totally re-shape the whole economy. Can you explain this notion a bit more?

Yeah, well I guess it’s an epistemological position which explains how our representations and engagement in the economy actually function to affect the making of that economic reality, rather than merely reflecting something in that reality which is supposedly already there. Most of the radical economic research perspectives seem to believe that everybody understands the world in a similar matter and that we can pierce the veil to see what is really happening in economics. Their perspective seems to be caught up on getting to the root of economic issues, but how argument towards this thinking is that it is prone to seeing the world in a sort of mono reality.

Whereas our argument is that the ways in which we create knowledge has a performative effect of making some things more real than others, and so if you move to that more post-structuralist kind of perspective on knowledge-making, then it opens up more in terms of what theorists can do, I guess in opening up options for the future.

Your recent work has extended Raymond William’s cultural analysis of keywords to illustrate how ‘keywords’, or indigenous local sayings, are used in regions of Asia to describe aspects of the market and economy. I really like your use of this approach as it not only provides interesting insights into the linguistics and local discourse of economics in these places, but it also shows how people are interacting with these words and economic structures. I was particularly interested in the notion of ‘Arisan’,a saying in Indonesia to describe a rotating savings and credit union. Can you tell us a little bit more about this and whether you think this strategy could be implemented on a larger scale? Or, has it been so successful in Indonesia because it is a localised structure?

Well, the Arisan is a rotating credit system which many communities have. A lot of these types of rotating credit groups are very much a part of the culture in Indonesia and they all have different names. They are essentially a form of financing that operates outside the microfinance system which relies on a trust system that is held by people within the group. The group members trust that everyone will contribute the same amount of money every month, and at the end of each month that money will go to one person to use, then next month another member will be given the savings, then another after that. So eventually everyone in the group will receive the money package at some point. However, while this strategy works really well in some communities, I think it has its bounds in terms of how far those relations of trust can actually extend. Often its more than just the finance as well, these economic structures are very social and cultural also and often involve social events where people share food and catch up.

So yeah, it’s a form of reinforcing community that also has this economic dimension. So, implementing this on a larger scale might be problematic because I think you would run the risk of destroying the cultural and social aspects which make it work, but that’s not to say you can’t have other mechanisms that build on community financing in ways that build on trust. But yeah, I think that this particular model probably does have its limits in terms of group member numbers. Many people argue that the same thing happens for a co-operatively run business, that it becomes very hard to run a company as a co-operative when memberships goes beyond a certain threshold.  You can always have smaller units that can be joined together in a kind of meshwork but the beauty with smaller co-operatives is that there is a sense of knowledge and trust shared between group members, and often there isn’t the same hierarchy of managers and workers that is characteristic in mainstream business.

Lastly, you are working on a film at the moment, could you just tell us a little bit about that?

Yeah, the film is called the Bamboo Bridge and it’s been produced with a whole range of colleagues, but this bridge is 1.5kms which is pretty long for a bridge [laughs]. It’s built across the Mekong River, which is a huge river in Cambodia, and it joins a small island that’s in the middle of the river with Kampong Cham, which is I think the second-largest city in Cambodia. It’s a beautiful ritual really because ever since the ’60s the bridge has been built annually as the waters of the Mekong drop which allows people to cross the river to visit the small island. When, the monsoon comes, and the waters rise it is taken down and the bamboo pieces are stored away, and a ferry takes over that role throughout the wet season. It’s an amazing piece of infrastructure that lives with the rhythm of the river and lives with the rhythm of bamboo production.

Bamboo is grown all along the Mekong and is a very renewable resource in Indonesia, in fact, it actually flourishes as people harvest it in the right proportions. Bamboo is a sort of symbol for the community economy, as the building of the bridge provides many people with meaningful employment which then supplements their other livelihood activities. The bridge is a kind of cultural artefact, moreover, it is an incredibly inventive form of architecture which I think has a lot to teach us for the future.

In 2017 it was built and taken down for the last time and now a concrete bridge has been constructed to join the island to Kampong Cham. Unfortunately, the once quite isolated island, which has historically been used for agriculture is now becoming the object of property speculation and will possibly go under urban development very soon. There are definitely a lot of lessons we can learn from this particular story in regard to thinking about different ways of living in the world and that’s really what I hope the film will put forward. I hope it will particularly speak to young Cambodians and encourage them to value what they have. For other people too, to learn about a different way of living in the world that is more in tune with rhythms and different kinds of rhythms found in nature and in diverse cultural communities.

Amazing! Your work is indeed influential in reconceptualising notions of trust as a strength to economic development rather than a weakness and hindrance to development, which has often been the dominant view.

Yeah, I think I am working to bring these strengths to the forefront of economic development. I appreciate values of trust and reciprocity not necessarily because they have the answer to future economic issues, but because they are an important ingredient in rebuilding a better social, cultural and economic future

Learn more about Katherine’s work by visiting Community Economies. To peruse Katherine’s written work please visit her profile.

Alternatively, visit Bamboo Bridge to learn more about Katherine’s collaboration on her most recent documentary.


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