Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid

Living at the Edges of Capitalism: Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid

by Andrej Grubacic, Denis O'Hearn

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Since the earliest development of states, groups of people escaped or were exiled. As capitalism developed, people tried to escape capitalist constraints connected with state control. This powerful book gives voice to three communities living at the edges of capitalism: Cossacks on the Don River in Russia; Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico; and prisoners in long-term isolation since the 1970s. Inspired by their experiences visiting Cossacks, living with the Zapatistas, and developing connections and relationships with prisoners and ex-prisoners, Andrej Grubacic and Denis O’Hearn present a uniquely sweeping, historical, and systematic study of exilic communities engaged in mutual aid. 
Following the tradition of Peter Kropotkin, Pierre Clastres, James Scott, Fernand Braudel and Imanuel Wallerstein, this study examines the full historical and contemporary possibilities for establishing self-governing communities at the edges of the capitalist world-system, considering the historical forces that often militate against those who try to practice mutual aid in the face of state power and capitalist incursion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287303
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/19/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Andrej Grubacic is Professor of Anthropology and Social Change at the California Institute of Integral Studies. He is the author of Wobblies and Zapatistas and Don't Mourn, Balkanize!

Denis O’Hearn is Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the author of Inside the Celtic Tiger: The Irish Economy and the Asian Model; The Atlantic Economy: Britain, the US, and Ireland; and Nothing But an Unfinished Song: Bobby Sands, the Irish Hunger Striker Who Ignited a Generation, among other titles.

Read an Excerpt

Living at the Edges of Capitalism

Adventures in Exile and Mutual Aid

By Andrej Grubacic, Denis O'Hearn


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96248-4




SINCE THE DEVELOPMENT OF STATES, and even under clan society, groups of people have either escaped or been exiled from their places of living. Some joined other clans or moved into other state jurisdictions, but many established or joined self-governed communities outside of state jurisdiction and regulation. As nation-states and capitalism developed, and particularly as new regions were incorporated into the emerging capitalist world-system beginning in the sixteenth century, the problem was not simply how to escape states but also how to escape capitalist relations and processes of accumulation that were bundled up with state control. But people still did it. Well-known historical examples of escape include Russian Cossacks, pirates, and escaped slaves, or maroons. Contemporary examples of territorial escape include the Zapatistas in Mexico, land occupations, and even political prisoners. Structural escape has been identified in urban communities in the heart of Jamaica, in the shack-dwelling areas of African cities, and on the outskirts of large South American cities. Numerous studies exist on each of these examples of exilic spaces and practices, but no study has brought them together in a single analysis. In this book, we examine exilic experiences comparatively, asking what we can learn from them both historically and in contemporary society, and what they can tell us about possible futures.

We build on the recent scholarly attention given to the notion of nonstate spaces, which we chose to call exilic spaces because they are populated by communities that attempt escape from both state regulation (the focus of much anarchist analysis) and capitalist accumulation (the focus of Marxism). Exilic spaces can be defined as those areas of social and economic life where people and groups attempt to escape from capitalist economic processes, whether by territorial escape or by the attempt to build structures that are autonomous of capitalist processes of accumulation and social control.

We will address the following questions: How do people leave the spaces, structures, and/or processes of world-capitalism? Whom do they identify as "the enemy"? Do they practice mutual aid and solidarity in communities or organize mainly on a household basis? Are there rules of entry and exit? How are their practices located geographically and structurally with respect to states, the interstate system, and economic structures, including markets, farms, and corporations? How do their decisions and hierarchies about how they will expend human efforts — for example, between leisure, collective joy, subsistence, and accumulation — differ from spaces that are dominated by capital? What kinds of bargains do exiles make and with whom, and how do such bargains affect their ability to sustain political and economic autonomy? And, finally, how are the outcomes of these questions affected by changes in global capitalism, including economic cycles, the rise of new leading sectors and worldwide divisions of labor, and the changing presence and experiences of antisystemic movements?

We follow Fernand Braudel's proposal that capitalist life consists of three parts or "sectors": the market economy; the anti-market, or monopoly capitalism ("where the great predators roam and the law of the jungle operates"); and material life ("that lowest stratum of the non-economy, the soil into which capitalism thrusts its roots but which it can never really penetrate"). While the market economy and monopoly capital have been exhaustively researched and analyzed, the lowest (and largest) sector of material life is still undertheorized, especially with respect to groups and societies that attempt to "refuse" capitalism, either completely or in certain parts of their lives. After laying out our conceptual approach for studying and understanding exilic spaces and practices, we will closely examine several historical and contemporary examples of exile that we believe provide some characteristic lessons: Cossacks, Zapatistas, and prisoners in solitary confinement. We end by summarizing what we have learned from these cases and give our assessment of what remains to be done in future research.


To analyze the historical development of world-capitalism, we can follow a well-worn path from Marx to Wallerstein, with diversions through Joseph Schumpeter, Alfred Chandler, Karl Polanyi, and others. Marx is still unsurpassed in his laying out of the processes of accumulation, the hidden abode of labor, class struggle, and the inherent tendencies of crisis and recovery within capitalism. Schumpeter, Chandler, and others explain processes whereby innovations in technology, technique, and organization of capitalism, particularly large corporate capitalism, or monopoly capital, drive outward shifts of productivity and periodic contractions. Finally, approaches to the uneven development of world-capitalism lay out the processes whereby different forms of production and labor are integrated into a singular global division of labor; they seek to identify regularities and variation in how the system changes over time.

Yet these cannot help us much in thinking about cooperation and self-organization from below, either by escape from capitalism or within its interstices. This shouldn't be a surprise. Marx's energy went into his main intellectual project of understanding the organization and development of capitalist commodity production. In Capital, the only real attention to cooperation is an examination of cooperative activities as forms and consequences of factory production, where workers "merely form a particular mode of existence of capital." Here, we want to know how people cooperate in the process of providing their material subsistence but also such very human necessities as shared communications, collective joy, and the formation of solidarity within communal spaces.

Moving forward in time, contemporary analyses of world-capitalism, from Luxemburg and Lenin to Baran and Sweezy to world-systems analysis, have emphasized an unevenly developed world-economy, including the behavior of giant monopolies in the core of the system as well as zones that are not dominated by proletarian commodity production. While the forms of organizing capital and labor relations in these latter zones are not classically capitalist, they are nonetheless capitalist economies insofar as their predominant ways of producing things and the things that they produce are determined by their relationship to world-capitalism. Yet again, however, these approaches have little to say about how cooperation and self-organization emerge either beside or in the interstices of capitalism.

The political economies of place-based exit, of the spaces where cooperation may occur, are usually regarded as exotic but irrelevant to the workings of capitalism. Nonstate territories are spaces of refuge for bandits, criminals, outcasts, and "villains of all nations," where "the worst of the worst" hide from the law. Therefore, much of the real historical experience of these spaces has been lost, often replaced and even debased by the romantic images of Hollywood. Despite the pioneering work of scholars like Linebaugh, Rediker, and Boeck, few people know much about Cossack or pirate life beyond Yul Brynner, Errol Flynn, or Johnny Depp.

Recovering this "waste of experience" requires what de Sousa Santos calls a sociology of absences and emergences. The sociology of absences is research into actually-existing social practices and institutions that have been actively made nonexistent, that is to say, treated as unbelievable alternatives to the status quo. Real historical and contemporary existences are made absent by labeling them ignorant, backward, inferior, local (or particular), and unproductive. The sociology of emergences consists in constructing a future of concrete, utopian, and realist possibilities. The two sociologies are linked because the recovery of what has been made absent provides the raw materials for possible alternative futures to capitalism. "Whereas the sociology of absences amplifies the present by adding to the existing reality what was subtracted from it ... the sociology of emergences enlarges the present by adding to the existing reality the possibilities and future expectations it contains."

In the present volume, we journey to swamps, forests, mountains, and deserts; but also into places within capitalism where people practice cooperation, direct democracy, and mutual aid. The latter includes households, shack dwellings, tenant yards, churches, and prisons. The goal of our journey is to understand the political and economic practices and institutions that develop within exilic spaces, that is, places where groups of people gather in escape or forced exile from state control and the processes of capitalist accumulation in its various forms. By comparing experiences, we hope to locate patterns and regularities about when and under what conditions escape societies develop characteristics that have recently become a popular theme of social sciences in work on "real utopias" and the science of altruism. We explore the dynamics of communities that engage in such social practices in the face of world-systemic processes that militate against them and active attempts to render them nonexistent. And we inquire into the conditions under which hidden everyday practices of real utopias become a vocal, antisystemic protest against the dominant transcript of capitalist modernity. The modern-day Zapatistas are an excellent illustration of a moment when a hidden transcript of exilic politics and economy shoulders its way onto the public stage of the capitalist world-economy.

Such a place-based sociology of state-breaking and self-organization would avoid some of the more rigidly functionalist interpretations of uneven development or world-systems analysis and, at the same time, give a historical and political-economic framework and structure to recent "anarchist" (anti-state) interventions in social theory. We propose that neoliberal globalization makes the study of these spaces and regions not less relevant, but more so. They are system-evading spaces that are inseparable from the system in the sense that they represent a "dark twin" of the world-system, defined by Wallerstein as an "integrated network of economic, political and cultural processes the sum of which hold the system together." They are the parts of Braudel's "material life" into which capitalism has not been able to sink its roots ... at least for now.


Previous calls to study spaces and practices of escape have taken two major forms. First, scholars in the Marxist-feminist tradition pointed to the centrality of reproduction and reproductive labor in the constitution of society. They argue that transformation from capitalism requires not a fundamental change in technological innovation but in social relations, whereby the reproduction of our lives is organized as a collective process and no longer subordinated to the valorization of capital.

Second, scholars influenced by Kropotkin's writing on cooperation and voluntary association have recently offered arguments for inventing a new field of study: comparative research of nonstate spaces as geographical expressions of cooperation and concentrated mutual aid that may stand in contradiction to the development of capitalism (or that, in certain cases or to certain degrees, may be subsumed within it). Contemporary scholars such as Scott and Zibechi put forth the possibility of escape zones, or "shatter zones," that either survive capitalist incorporation or develop because of failures of capitalism to meet human needs.

These approaches often assume that nonstate spaces are outside of the capitalist world-system. This produces assumptions (1) that the rules of development of nonstate spaces are independent of world-capitalism and (2) that the actors who populate nonstate spaces are totally outside of capitalism. In our approach, this is at most a hypothesis that requires empirical proof; our working hypothesis (our expectation) is that exilic spaces and actors do interact with world-systemic processes, institutions, and actors and that the interesting research question is how and to what degree this interaction limits their self-activity and how these limits change over time. To return to Braudel's analogy, if utopian groups succeed in fertilizing the soil of material life, they may also attract and nourish the roots of capital and give it reasons and ways to penetrate.

We distinguish between spatial and structural withdrawal. Most of the overt literature on nonstate spaces assumes that they lie geographically outside of capitalism and, for a time at least, live an existence that is largely external to regional- and world-capitalism. Yet nonstate spaces may be structural: although people work, produce, and trade in the capitalist economy, they spend parts of their lives doing activities that are not fully incorporated into the structures of capitalist accumulation. This could include things done in the household, the community, or elsewhere, for self-benefit, for the benefit of others, or simply for enjoyment. Rather than assuming that one lives either within or outside of states or capitalist economies, we propose that it may be more useful to follow the lead of Wright's class theory and assume that most people have contradictory locations with regard to states and formal labor. Some things draw them into world-systemic and state-centered processes and others lead them to withdraw or seek withdrawal from those processes. Some of the things they do for reasons of altruism or mutual aid may be contradictory in the sense that they strengthen aspects of community while they simultaneously cheapen the cost of reproducing labor and thus contribute positively to capitalist accumulation.

We propose, therefore, that the unit of analysis of any understanding of nonstate spaces must be a unitary capitalist world-economy and that the analysis of nonstate spaces or activities must be carried out within that context. If so, the first question that must be posed is how these spaces or activities relate to different levels of the world-economy (local, regional, global) and, in the extreme case that they do not, what the dynamic forces are that may threaten the autonomy of spaces and activities.

Other key strands of analysis may help illuminate organization and activities in exilic spaces and their relationships to capitalism. In chapter 2 we suggest several beginning points, and we will work out their implications in the empirical cases of this book. One is the distinction that Polanyi and Hopkins make between substantive and formal conceptions of economy and economic activities. An initial working hypothesis is that the world of the formal (market) economy is that of capitalism, while nonstate spaces or activities are organized by substantive economic relations like reciprocity and redistribution, householding, and even gifting. Yet this is complicated by the fact that many reciprocal and redistributive activities take place "within" capitalism and may even act to support it (household activities that cheapen the reproduction of labor, state welfare activities that are countercyclical).

Another frame of analysis that may help capture the dynamic interactions between those who seek cooperation and self-organization and those authorities and organizations that represent the interests of capital is Hirschman's work on exit, voice, and loyalty. Those who seek to achieve exit by entering into nonstate or exilic spaces may have to pay a price to keep the wolf from baying at the door, and that may mean exhibiting one or another form of loyalty to the states from which they seek autonomy. As we shall see in the case of Cossacks, the demands of loyalty may weaken the institutions and practices of autonomy.


Excerpted from Living at the Edges of Capitalism by Andrej Grubacic, Denis O'Hearn. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface xi

1 Introduction: Material Life and Exilic Spaces and Practices 1

2 Thinking about and Researching Exit and Recapture 19

3 Cossacks 48

4 Zapatistas 110

5 Forced Exile: Prison Solidarity 177

6 Conclusions: Beginnings 230

Notes 253

References 289

Acknowledgments 305

Index 307

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