A CAPITALIST WORLD?: Imagining, envisioning and enacting futures of work and organisation centred around informal and diverse economies


A meta-narrative that dominates discussions of the character and trajectory of global economies is that varieties of capitalism (see Peck & Theodore, 2007) increasingly dominate the way societies organise, produce, distribute and allocate their goods and services (e.g. Streeck & Thelen, 2009). Indeed, not only has this shift towards a formal market economy seen as largely completed, its ascendancy is also assumed to be inevitable (see Williams, 2005). Crucially, such mainstream economic ideology has been internalised by a political elite, politicians for whom ‘neoliberalism has become a hegemonic signature for “bestpractice” governance’ (Leitner, Sheppard, Sziarto, & Maringanti, 2007, p. 1). This powerful framing of capitalism, which views the ‘formal’ or market-based economy as both totalising and inevitable, has been reified in four short but powerful words: there is no alternative. Such a view has been captured by the continuous appeal for ‘capitalist realism’, which refers to ‘the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that is it now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative to it’ (Fisher, 2009, p. 2; see also Shonkwiler & Berge, 2014).

Two long-standing approaches, namely the modernisation thesis and the marginalisation thesis underpin and animate this capitalist realism. The modernisation thesis suggests those ‘developing’ countries’ economies are becoming increasingly formalised (i.e. more ‘advanced’ or ‘developed’) over time. From this perspective, Work undertaken in the informal economy is both marginal and disappearing. The marginalisation thesis, meanwhile, focuses upon the individuals who engage in the ‘leftover’ informal economy, with the perception that this sector is disproportionately composed of ‘marginalised’ populations excluded from capitalism (Williams & Horodnic, 2015).

However, a large and rapidly growing body of critical economic scholarship has begun to contest and refute these theses, and the capitalocentric readings of ‘the economic’ which they animate. Most prominent are those contributions within ‘heterodox’, ‘alternative’ and ‘diverse’ economics research that have been intent not only on identifying the uneven limits to capitalism, but also on making visible and revalorising non-capitalist forms of work and organisation (see Fickey, 2011; Fickey & Hanrahan, 2014; Gritzas & Kavoulakos, 2016). One of the most influential writers here — J. K. Gibson-Graham — captures a statement of ongoing intent and vision, which many involved in the diverse economies would subscribe to:

this project of deconstructing the hegemony of capitalism and elaborating multiple axes of economic diversity is an emancipatory project of repoliticizing the economy. It refuses to pose economic power as already distributed to capitalist interests and opens up the possibility for non-capitalist practices to be the focus for an invigorated economic politics.

(Gibson-Graham, 2003, pp. 126—127)

This chapter seeks to further advance the theoretical, methodological and epistemological bases of the modernisation and marginalisation theses. To achieve this, the chapter reviews evidence from rich mixed methodological research undertaken in both ‘developing’ and ‘developing’ economies, particularly drawing on evidence from the Household Work Practice Survey undertaken in the UK, and the International Labour Organization surveys of informal employment (see Williams, 2015). This empirical data indicates that, far from seeing a shift from informal to formal economic spheres, what is revealed instead is pervasive — and growing - informal economic geographies. Such a significant finding provokes three important questions insofar as the futures of informal work and organisation are concerned:

  • 1. How should economies be more properly represented and classified, in ways that recognise the dominant and the ascendant trajectory of their informal sector?
  • 2. Why are levels of informal employment so much higher than capitalist realists have assumed?
  • 3. How might future informal employment be ‘transformative’ with regard to capitalistic practices?

In response to the first question, and in a conscious attempt to both move away from capitalocentric readings of economic exchange, and embrace new informal economic imaginaries based on non-capitalism, this chapter looks toward reclassifying economies based on a ‘degrees of informalisation’ approach. This will be achieved principally by focusing attention toward ways in which ‘the economic’ is classified and structured according to the prevalence and character of the informal economy.

Responding to the second question, and offering a direct rebuttal to the marginality thesis, this chapter identifies a range of positive motivations for individuals’ participation in the informal economy. The findings here illustrate the complex engagement with the economic, in the sense that, ‘the geographies of our economic lives are at once deeply saturated with capitalist relations and full of values and practices that go beyond and beneath capitalist exchange’ (Wright, 2010, p. 298). This in turn opens up new transformative possibilities of work and organisation in the future, which will be the focus of discussion in the final section of the chapter.

Addressing the third question, on the transformative potential of informal work practices, a reflective recognition of the complexity of such a proposal is made. Here, the chapter argues that not only is critical reading of both informal and formal work practices necessary, so as not to essentialise or romanticise them, but so too is the rejection of all blueprints or over-determined determined maps to point to the ‘economic’ futures ahead. Instead a transformative shift in policy and top-down thinking is necessary to embrace economic experimentation and encourage more context-based bottom-up initiatives to come to the fore. The chapter will focus on the importance of exploring hitherto ‘hidden’ economic spaces: the household and the community, and reappraising informality as an engine of economic change and growth in its own right. Before doing so, however, it is important to draw attention to some key definitions of the terms that will be used. It is to this task that the chapter now turns its attention.

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