Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Self-Reliance beyond Neoliberalism: Rethinking Autonomy at the Edges of Empire

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Self-Reliance beyond Neoliberalism: Rethinking Autonomy at the Edges of Empire

Article excerpt

Abstract. Across scholarly and popular accounts, self-reliance is often interpreted as either the embodiment of individual entrepreneurialism, as celebrated by neoliberal designs, or the basis for communitarian localism, increasingly imagined as central to environmental and social sustainability. In both cases, self-reliance is framed as an antidote to the failures of larger state institutions or market economies. This paper offers a different framework for understanding self-reliance by linking insights drawn from agrarian studies to current debates on alternative economies. Through an examination of the social worlds of semisubsistence producers in peripheral zones in the Global North, we show how everyday forms of self-reliance are mutually constituted with states and markets, particularly through interactions with labor institutions and hybrid property regimes linking individual and collective interests. We draw on empirical data from two ethnographic case studies connected by a shared colonial history and continuing local mythologies of frontier self-sufficiency: salmon fisheries in rural Alaska in the US, and agrofood economies in socialist and postsocialist Lithuania. In each site we find that although local expressions of self-reliance diverge in critical respects from neoliberal visions, these forms of everyday autonomy are nevertheless enlisted to promote market liberalization, ultimately threatening the very conditions that have long sustained semisubsistence producers' self-reliance in the first place.

Keywords: self-reliance, neoliberalism, autonomy, sustainability, subsistence, Alaska, Lithuania


In 2007 a resident of Brooklyn, New York, put trends of locavorism to the test by subsisting for a month entirely on food grown and reared in his brand-new backyard farm, subsequently popularizing his struggles in print (Howard, 2010). So, too, a PhD in political philosophy traded in his postdoc for motorcycle repair work and urged others to follow suit (Crawford, 2009), penning an instant bestseller that argues "for a brand of hands-on self-reliance" (Garner, 2009). Widely publicized efforts like these reveal not merely the groundswell of popular media coverage that has accompanied emergent expressions of self-reliance. They also point to how self-reliance is increasingly seen as a path toward a more sustainable future in the context of growing concerns over the economy, environment, and social well-being. Anchored in ideas of independence, self-sufficiency, and, in some cases, survivalism, self-reliance undergirds numerous initiatives currently being formulated by those across the political spectrum.

The rising prominence of such projects has inspired an expanding body of social commentary and scholarly analysis in turn. Whether these accounts interpret self-reliance as a mechanism for instituting neoliberal designs or as a means of building alternative communities through decentralized, grassroots action, diverse approaches tend to portray self-reliance as the answer to problems generated by a more rigid and imperious order: a stultifying state, a ravaging global market, or both.

In this paper we seek to move beyond the understanding of self-reliance in terms of state and market failures. Rather, we examine the formation of actually existing expressions of self-reliance, making a case for the crucial relevance of the study of often poor, small-scale, semisubsistence producers for analyses of contemporary movements animated by notions of self-reliance. These producers, whose practices can be interpreted as constituting a different mode of self-reliance, are conspicuously absent in the current public and scholarly debates surrounding sovereignty, political agency, and sufficiency. We argue that a focus on livelihoods at the margins of global markets sheds light on critical dynamics that are often overlooked in accounts focused on the novelty of recent movements inspired by ideas of autonomy: that is, the tight relationship of many enduring forms of self-reliance to state and market institutions. …

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