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Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy: extract from chapter 5

My second extract from Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy discusses the concept of a complex of appropriative practices. It contrasts various applications of the concept with Marxist approaches to capitalism as a mode of production (which are criticised more directly in chapter 3):

The most significant economic forms are not defined by single appropriative practices. Rather, they are interacting complexesof them. Thus, for example, the pursuit of capital accumulation by the employment of wage labour to produce commodities, which I shall call canonical capitalism (due to its role in Marx’s system) is a complex that combines at least three practices: capital accumulation, wage labour and commodity production. 

Canonical capitalism. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Rcragun)

Wage labour alone is not enough to give us canonical capitalism, since people may work for wages in a variety of non-capitalist contexts such as government deparments. Nor is commodity production enough to give us canonical capitalism, since commodities may also be produced by individuals working alone, in family businesses that do not pay wages, or in co-operatives (Gibson-Graham, 2006b, p. 263; Sayer, 1995, p. 181). We may even have both wage labour and commodity production without canonical capitalism, notably in state-run enterprises. Canonical capitalism is thus defined by a certain complex of appropriative practices rather than by any specific appropriative practice.

This concept of a complex of appropriative practices, I argue, has several advantages over competing understandings of economic form. Both the neoclassical orientation to markets as the only significant economic form, and the monolithic conception of a mode of production are inadequate for theorising the range of economic forms in diverse economies. This section will examine some of the ways in which the concept of complexes of appropriative practices allows us to theorise social relations more flexibly.
The first is that there is no difficulty in theorising the coexistence of multiple economic forms. There is no longer a conflict, for example, between the belief that capitalism is an important element of the contemporary economy and the recognition that it governs only a minority of productive processes, and thus there is no longer a need to obscure the significance of the gift economy or indeed of other non-capitalist economic forms that coexist relatively stably alongside capitalism. Given this, we can reject the attempt to reduce all contemporary class relations to capitalist appropriation of the product of wage labour that is characteristic of the most vulgar Marxism, and start to theorise the social relations and practices of appropriation that characterise these other complexes. We need not, for example, ignore the appropriation of caring services by children in households because Marxism implies that this would make children exploiters of their parents, but rather examine the complex of processes in which this occurs as an economic form in its own right. We can escape from the hidebound pigeonholing of all social relations into what Folbre and Hartmann have called ‘a formulaic set of class processes’ (1994, p. 59) – those few patterns that Marxists believe have dominated epochs.
As well as examining the coexistence of multiple complexes of appropriative practices within the economy we now have the tools to examine such coexistence within specific sites or social entities. The fact that commercial firms are the site of capitalist practices is no longer a theoretical obstacle to recognising that they may also be the site of other forms of appropriative practice. Nor is the argument that households are the site of gift-forms of appropriative practice compromised by recognising that they may also be the site of wage labour, whether it is capitalist (e.g. when an agency supplies cleaning staff) or not (e.g. when a self-employed cleaner contracts to provide a service). The household, in this perspective, becomes the site of moments of appropriation that operate within the frames of a variety of different complexes of appropriative practices. It is, we may say, a mixed economy of practices in its own right. Struggles within the household over the division and control of domestic labour may then also be theorised as struggles over the mix, struggles over which complex of appropriative practices is to prevail in which circumstances.
Relaxing the requirement that an economic form must correspond to the dominant form of an epoch also makes it easier to theorise varieties of a form. As I argued in Chapter 3, following Banaji, capitalism is characterised by a central preoccupation with the pursuit of capital accumulation. This in itself is an appropriative practice, but one that can be implemented in many different ways, and each of these is a distinct complex in which the practice of capital accumulation is combined with other appropriative practices. This allows us to postulate varieties of capitalism in which this general form is combined in a more concrete complex with further appropriative practices. Thus, for example, we might distinguish between private capitalism in which the capitalist is an individual, and joint-stock capitalism in which the ultimate rights to control capital and share in its appropriation of profit are distributed across a larger group through the practices of shareholder voting in general meetings and dividend distribution. These two forms of capitalism might have quite different systemic tendencies if, for example, the joint stock form tends to suppress other orientations than capital accumulation more thoroughly than the private form. Or, as was noted earlier, we could distinguish between canonical capitalism, based on wage labour, and plantation capitalism, which combines capital accumulation and commodity production with slavery. Not only would these require very different ethical evaluations, but they might also have different systemic characteristics: plantation capitalism, for example, might be more prone to shortfalls in demand for mass produced commodities.
Marxist thinkers have made some such distinctions already. As Jessop argues, for example, ‘there is no logic of capital but a series of logics with a family resemblance, corresponding to different modes of regulation and accumulation strategies’ (Jessop, 2001, p. 105). We must avoid, however, seeing these different forms of capitalism as being defined by what remnants of previous systems they have carried over (cf. Hodgson, 1999, pp. 148–51). There is no standard form of capitalism, with other forms as corruptions or imperfect realisations of it, but rather many different practices with which the drive to accumulate may be articulated to form a variety of different but equally capitalistic complexes of appropriative practice. As suggested in Chapter 3, then, we can retain the concept of capitalism while replacing the concept of modes of production with a more flexible model of economic form.
Just as capitalism can take many different forms, many of the practices that appear as elements of capitalistic complexes can also appear in non-capitalist complexes  …  Thus, for example, a family that pays wages to a nanny or a gardener, or a university providing free education that pays a salary to lecturers and other staff, does not thereby become a capitalist enterprise: we have wage labour but neither commodity production nor the accumulation of capital.
It may also be useful to think of some complexes of appropriative practices as hybrid forms …  To get hybridity, we need other types of economic form as well as the capitalist type. Although I have questioned whether there are other coherently identifiable modes of production than capitalism, there can still be other types of complex of appropriative practices. One candidate is suggested by the idea of the gift economy: there is a wide variety of complexes of appropriative practice in which voluntary transfers of goods or services are made without any expectation or obligation to make a return transfer. Some complexes are hybrids of both capitalism and the gift economy because they include both the practice of capital accumulation and the practice of making transfers of goods or services as gifts. Such hybrids are decisively capitalist and yet simultaneously the sites of more progressive practices.

[This post reproduces text from pages 106-110 of Elder-Vass, D. (2016) Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge UP.]

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