Complex of Appropriative Practices

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Like Kojin Karatani, and the P2P Foundation, this author uses a multi-modal approach to analyze society and the economy.

Dave Elder-Vass:

"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.


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." (

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