The dispossessed are socially fragmented, geographically dispersed, and speak many languages. In order to fight against the capitalist regime of political and economic dispossession, therefore, a concept of alternatives is needed that renders this multiplicity productive, as Agata Lisiak argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism,” exploring a politics of relationality.
“Hegemonies are never completed projects: they are always in contention. There are always cracks and contradictions – and therefore opportunities.” (The Kilburn Manifesto, 2013)
“If we take space seriously as the dimension of multiplicity then it opens up politics to the possibility of alternatives.” (Doreen Massey, 2013)
Announced when the world was fitfully emerging from the not-quite-yet-over pandemic and arriving on what threatens to be the eve of a global food crisis induced by wars and climate disasters, “After Extractivism” is, as the project’s initiators Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki state, an “intervention at a critical juncture.” This choice of words reminds me of an intervention from almost a decade ago: After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto.
Spearheaded by Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, and Michael Rustin, and named after the London neighborhood where they all used to live, the manifesto was the culmination of a series of workshops, articles, talks, and op-eds prompted by the 2007–8 economic crisis. Drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci, the authors saw the global economic collapse as a conjuncture, a historical moment when “different forces come together, conjuncturally, to create the new terrain, on which a different politics must form up.”
Having argued for decades that neoliberalism doesn’t work – or, rather, that it works only for the very few – Hall, Massey, and Rustin now believed to have clear proof that it doesn’t work at all. It was a moment of opportunity, they argued, “a potential moment for changing the terms of debate.” They insisted that it would not be enough to look for ways to reform the economic system that had wreaked havoc across the world: “the neoliberal order itself needs to be called into question, and radical alternatives to its foundational assumptions put forward for discussion.”
Today, Taube and Woznicki likewise urge us to fundamentally question “the dominant economic mode organized around the pursuit of endless growth, energy-hungry profit coercion, and, last but not least, resource-devouring extractivism.”
Simultaneity of spatialized alternatives
I’m mentioning these similarities between “After Extractivism” and “After Neoliberalism?” to consider what points in the latter may be helpful when trying to reimagine and remake the world in the face of the disastrous ecological-economic complex of our times. The neoliberal dogma regurgitated by governments across the world insists, of course, that there is no alternative. Defiantly, and echoing “The Communist Manifesto’s” “all that is solid melts into air” assertion, the Kilburn Manifesto proclaims that “hegemonies, even the neoliberal one, are never totally secure.” So, what is to come after neoliberalism?
There are, in fact, many alternatives: some overlapping, some conflicting, some compatible. Committing to a single one would not only be difficult to accomplish across the globe; it would also most certainly reproduce the power geometries that divide the world into centers and peripheries.
Geographer Doreen Massey rejected the misleading lure of conventional narratives of progress as ‘geographical mythmaking’ that falsely converts coexistent differences between different places into a single linear history. She opposed the “common-sense sequence of ‘underdeveloped – developing – developed’ [that] places ‘developing’ countries behind ‘developed’ ones, in some kind of historical queue.” Instead, she insisted on the simultaneity of various trajectories of development. Without acknowledging that simultaneity, there can be no alternatives to the dominant model of progress.
Massey’s reminder to take place and space seriously is instructive for imagining the world after extractivism because alternatives need to take place somewhere after all. And this somewhere is not a closed-off, self-sufficient place; somewhere is always connected to elsewhere. Or, as Massey liked to quip: you can’t draw a line around place. Opting for one single alternative to extractivism and neoliberalism would thus be shortsighted, as it would deny ‘the multiplicity of space.’
The languages of systemic change
What also matters is how we choose to speak about these spatialized alternatives. Any epochal transformation comes with its own language, as Massey notes in the Kilburn Manifesto installment titled “Vocabularies of the Economy.” It is hardly a secret that the language of neoliberalism now pervades all aspects of our lives, from work through leisure to intimate relationships. So what language – or languages – do we need for the world after extractivism? And can we learn, as Taube and Woznicki suggest, from the experiences of the post-Cold War transition in Eastern Europe?
In my native Poland, the 1990s transformation from a centrally planned economy to neoliberal capitalism alienated entire populations, not only through the socio-economic effects of shock treatment, but also through the newspeak that accompanied those calamitous changes.
The effects of linguistic transformations related to neoliberalism are arguably felt even more strongly in societies where the very language of the hegemonic ideology (and in many places it has been English) is unintelligible to those who are already geographically and economically marginalized. Having said that, the neoliberal logic has since crept into the mainstream Polish language through popular culture, institutional education, and the news, becoming part of what Gramsci referred to as common sense. Inhabiting the language of neoliberalism makes it more difficult to question it and even more difficult to overcome it.
Learning from post-Cold War transitions
When we think about ways out of extractivism, how can we then learn from these post-Cold War transformations to ensure that the new language around emerging alternatives is understood both locally and across geographical contexts, and also remains genuinely relatable and helpful?
Transitions are experienced viscerally across various registers. New regimes of accumulation produce new technologies, new vocabularies, new social relations, new modes of feeling. And each of those can produce a sense of belonging or of alienation. Ensuring meaningful inclusion while developing and implementing new technologies, and economic transformation more broadly, is important not only to gain popular support for this obviously much-needed shift. It is also crucial to understanding how this transition can happen in specific contexts in ways that are just.
One way to facilitate this just transition would be to support forms of communication that acknowledge the politics of interdependence while building on local needs, expertise, and desires.
Participation and decision-making
Massey insisted that “the possibility of different ways of ‘progressing’” is tightly linked to “the question of who gets to decide.” She pointed at the necessity of a kind of participation and a sense of agency that do not operate within a bounded understanding of place, but, rather, enable a politics of place beyond place that recognizes its wider impact.
Massey’s call for a global sense of place invites us to think relationally about place and space. As she argued, only this kind of progressive understanding of place that acknowledges its specificity and its interconnectedness with places elsewhere can yield the openness prerequisite for the possibility of politics.
Her understanding of the politics of space resonates powerfully with the ethics of transnational feminist collaborations. Transnational feminism, embedded in social and climate justice struggles, offers helpful examples of how a politics of interdependence that fully acknowledges difference (and tensions) can inspire solidarity.
So some of the conceptual tools and methods of cooperation needed to build a world after extractivism are already here. Our task is to ensure that they are justly distributed and thoughtfully adapted to accommodate difference, not in a top-down we-tell-you-how-to-do-things kind of way, but in bottom-up, inventive, radical, and inclusive ways that enable alternatives beyond the common sense.
The politics of maintenance and care
Lastly, creating any meaningful alternatives that would get us out of extractivism and neoliberalism necessitates full recognition of the importance of maintenance and care. Mundane practices of maintenance and care tend to be overlooked, not only in the dialectic of development and destruction that has come to be associated with western modernity, but also in projects that seek to overcome it.
Maintenance, as Shannon Mattern argues, provides “a corrective framework” to the dominant narrative of innovation. After all, it is through maintenance and care that the world is put back together.
The Kilburn Manifesto rightly acknowledges the centrality of care and its different dimensions in the struggle against neoliberalism, but it solely focuses on care for humans. For transition justice after extractivism, however, we must think of care more openly as “a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible,” to use Berenice Fisher and Joan Tronto’s influential definition (“Toward a Feminist Theory of Caring,” 1990).
Naturally, that world – our world – includes not just humans, but our environment too. As Massey notes in her book For Space, “the nonhuman has its trajectories also and the event of place demands, no less than with the human, a politics of negotiation” – this realization is crucial if we are to abandon the harmful geographical mythmaking about our planet and embrace space as “open, multiple and relational, unfinished and always becoming,” and thus full of possible alternatives.
Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de