On one hand, Dave Elder-Vass is absolutely right: “we should see our economy not simply as a capitalist market system but as a collection of ‘many distinct but interconnected practices’.”*
As I have explained before, that view of the “iceberg economy”—which has been highlighted in the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham—represents a fundamental challenge to neoclassical economists, for whom
the entire economy is visible and consists of capitalist markets—or unwarranted constraints on capitalist markets, which should be eliminated. According to iceberg economists, capitalist markets are only the tip of the iceberg, and there’s a proliferation of noncapitalist economies below the waterline.
But Elder-Vass also uses it against Marxists who, in his view, see “one central mechanism in the economy: the extraction of surplus from wage labour by capitalists” and leave out ethical issues.
The problem is, while Elder-Vass credits J. K. Gibson-Graham, especially their book The End Of Capitalism (As We Knew It), with the idea that unified, totalizing metaphors of the economy (like a “capitalist market system”) can make it difficult to think outside the box and imagine alternatives, he forgets that Gibson-Graham themselves used the categories of the Marxian tradition—including the idea of class defined in terms of surplus labor—to decenter the economy.**
He also overlooks the fact that Gibson-Graham (as well as others who have worked with and alongside them in the larger Rethinking Marxism tradition) have insisted on the ethical dimensions of the Marxian critique of political economy—which includes, but of course is not limited to, a critique of the social theft associated with capitalist and all other forms of exploitation (that is, areas of the economy—whether capitalist, slave, feudal, and so on—in which those who perform surplus labor are excluded from appropriating their surplus labor).
In fact, according to two of Gibson-Graham’s close associates, Jack Amariglio and Yahya Madra, ethics are central to Marx’s critique of capitalism and mainstream economics.*** But Marx’s commitment to communism is not governed by an actual model or a fixed morality. Rather, they argue,
The ethical is embodied in Marx’s enduring faithfulness to sustaining a critical position toward the existing state of affairs, not in his particular and changing dismissals of capitalism or in his obscure, partial formulations of the shape communism might take. The lesson of Marx is that, facing the abyss of an unknown communism, the ethical is the will to risk a different social organization of surplus.
To put it in terms of the iceberg economy, the ethical is the will both to recognize the noncapitalist forms of economy below the waterline and to risk a different social organization in which capitalist exploitation ceases to be the exclusive or even predominant mode of appropriating and distributing the surplus.
Contrary to Elder-Vass, then, seeing the economy “not simply as a capitalist market system” is consistent with the Marxian critique of political economy, including the ethical stance that is informed by and embodied in that critique.
*I will try to be careful here because I have not yet had a chance to read Elder-Vass’s book, Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy. I am relying, instead, on Daniel Little’s review of the book and Elder-Vass’s response.
**Gibson-Graham also borrowed from other traditions, such as feminism, queer theory, and poststructuralism to create their iceberg economy.
***See their entry on “Karl Marx” in the Handbook of Economics and Ethics, ed. J. Peil and I. van Staveren, 325-32 (Edward Elgar, 2009).