My work as an artist over the past decade has been defined by exploring the effects of financialization and debt on the imagination, in solidarity with anti-debt and anti-capitalist activist projects. I have, for instance, for many years been hypnotizing people to allow them to visualize their debt. This vision often becomes a resource for a ritual of cooperative destruction, often led by angry children. I’ve also smuggled cursed paintings into investment banks, started a peer-to-peer credit rating agency and helped men give birth to a patriarchy-detoxifying cryptocurrency.
Recently, this work has taken a new turn. Since January of 2017 I have been teaching feminist economics by using yoga as a delivery system “to fulfill the necessity for organized collective bodies that can discuss and determine the cause and form of our subjugation and thus the path and strategy of our struggle,” as the Kilombo Women’s Delegation to recently put it. I call this Feminist Economics Yoga.
To be clear, I loathe the faux-spiritual narcissism, competitive individualism, saccharine consumerism and white-supremacist body policing that defines conventional and commercial yoga in North America and Europe. In working with yoga as a social medium for revolutionary collectivity, I am attempting to intervene in the complacent, corporate yoga studio culture and to make use of the way that yoga has become rooted in the lives of many workers across class and race in North America and Europe.
I see yoga as a buzzword, a market landscape and as a space to provide a kind of unwanted or unsought-after political literacy for those who are struggling with what it means to be alive and to witness so many bodies on the ground (due to deadly racial capitalism within the wealthiest societies in history). I wrestle with the use of yoga in this work– because of its colonial history and exclusionary past, and the way it has become a safe place for whiteness, as well as its unknown ancient powers. I don’t want to replicate the pattern of racism and careless cultural appropriation at work here, but I do recognize that these are the very materials I am working with, and we are all dealing with. I aim to reach into the contradiction of what yoga has become, and the white and non-white people who seek self improvement and personal economic survival who I will meet there. I am trying to use the social opportunity of the yoga class to provide structured space for people to begin to overcome what the Kilombo Women’s Delegation recently identified as a ‘social illiteracy’, or the “inability to think, analyze, discuss, and decide TOGETHER what we want for our lives”.
I should point out that I use the terminology of feminism as a direct challenge to liberal, carceral or exclusionary feminisms, as I challenge all feminists to locate their work within an prison abolitionist framework; I want us to admit that we must destroy the systems that make being alive so fucking shitty for MOST PEOPLE.
What is feminist economics?
For me, feminist economics is a potential or virtual practice for producing new ways of organizing society from the babies up. It’s not up to me to define it: it is a set of strategies that are to be experimentally determined collectively. My hope is that the words “feminist economics” can be a generative placeholder for the idea of a future economy that doesn’t use money as its main tool, or maybe more accurately as a distraction from what we actually value.
I rely on social reproduction theory, which posits that all the exploitative, competitive capitalist economy is built on top of a groundwork of (usually unpaid or underpaid) reproductive labor. While this essential labor is chronically and necessarily devalued by capitalism, it is the most valuable thing for the reproduction of life. Can we, by reversing the devaluation of life — the reproduction of the species, of species health, of relationships and political/social cooperation — produce an economy that is actually feminist and that honors the work of social reproduction that is now erased? And in producing new forms of social organization that don’t rely on, or profit off of, this invisibilization, exploitation and abuse, can we begin to erode the systems that reproduce inequality, racism, misogyny and self loathing?
Yoga in the ruins: A new Athena?
I am dedicated to learning what a so-called feminist economy would look like. I strongly believe that this will be a collective work of the oppressed. I can’t and won’t do this alone, because my privileged perspective is also skewed and partial, and because radical change always comes from the revolt of those at the bottom. But I can seek to be a facilitator of the undercommons and recognize my own survival is tied up with that of others.
As an artist, my work is dedicated to setting up situations to support other people to cultivate ideas or bodily feelings of what a potential feminist economy, based on trust and health, would look like. However, cultivating this imagination is nearly impossible as a member of our current capitalist society, and we need new tools to do it. As Cornelius Castoriadis says, “Athenians produce Athens, and not the other way around”. If we use Athens here to represent the people-eating mansplaining cognitive capitalist Empire, then to stop reproducing Athens, or to make a new Athena, is to change the habitual behaviors and thoughts of everyone in the society. We are here wavering between changing our individual behaviors and internalized value systems and adapting as a society.
The tools we currently have available to us to do this, from my perspective, are woefully discursive, cognitive, intellectual, and are rooted in systems of patriarchal and racist power that we need to see as part of Athens, and not part of the future feminist economy. I have been curious if it might be possible to take the ancient social technology of yoga, with all its current popularity (albeit to a largely white middle class), and to use that as an entryway into those people’s lives and bodies, to use their openness and love for yoga but to turn it towards the collective needs of our society. I wonder if the social occasion of a yoga class can be used to produce networks of mutual aid and nexuses of political learning and action, instead of individualistic “healing” and complacent economic participation in a bad society.
What does it mean to turn towards a view of yoga as an ancient social technology, and to admit the desire to ruin the side of it which that is a profit-driven, recession-proof, exploitative industry? As an artist, my work here is to see this industry, which is horrifying in its ability to thrive and capitalize on economic pain, and try to play in the shrapnel that has been left as the yoga industry has been blown up, and blown apart. Yoga, for many people, offers a necessary reprieve from being alone, working, acting as their own boss, or the growing group of people whose bodies are being eroded by “bullshit jobs ” (ala David Graeber) that they know produce money but not meaning or value, bad healthcare, and tons of anxiety. I try to respond to this set of circumstances as a social possibility, instead of a set of constraints — because if people are coming to yoga, we may be able to assume that they already host desires for a new way of orienting themselves, and perhaps towards organizing society that doesn’t make them feel so sick and guilty.
How it works
In the beginning of a Feminist Economics Yoga class, everyone in the room introduces themselves, and I introduce the idea that we are in a social space that is somewhere between yoga and an activist meeting (sometimes people leave at this point). I ask that everyone in the class is respectful of the individuals in this group, but that they also feel free to practice or sharpen their disobedience skills, by feeling flexible around how to authentically respect or reject my authority as teacher. I usually introduce the practice of Kundalini yoga with a few technical exercises: how to breathe, sit, and keep the eyes closed, and why I see the history, practices and ideas within kundalini yoga as revolutionary and demonstrative of feminist economics.
As we warm up our bodies, I introduce some basic tenets of feminist economics, and I might repeat some of these ideas several times as we do movement and breath exercises. I often invite people to sync their breaths with the room. I push people hard, though I also encourage people to take breaks; and if they rest I invite them to imagine that the work they want to do could also be completed vicariously through others, if they imagine a connection to the people around them.
We often close the warm-up by running in place and punching the air violently as we listen to “500 Ways to Kill a CEO” by The Coup.
There is an overall theme for each practice. These have included: ‘what is privilege’, ‘critical collective wishing’, ‘Why are we sick and what is the care we need?”, “What is the difference between financial and personal risk?”, and “Why do we feel so Guilty all the time?”. One of my favorite early classes was about post-work. Each exercise invited us to see ourselves as a post-work species (dogs): animals who were bred to labor, but who have come to value themselves outside of our economic labor.
I always include moments that come back to feminist economics:
Inhale and hold for 10 seconds
Imagine that 100% our society provided
high quality housing, healthcare, and education
to every person.
Exhale and hold for 10 seconds
What would your life be like?
Inhale and hold for 10 seconds
Think of the most difficult person you know.
Exhale and hold for 10 seconds
Imagine what their life would be like
if they lived in a society that cared for everyone equally.
Unplugging (y)our nervous system from the global economy
I recently produced a yoga video tutorial with a set of exercises called: “unplugging your nervous system from the global economy” (to watch it, go here). As Castoriadis does, I see our world of institutions and accelerated time as coproductions of our bodies and our senses. In Feminist Economics Yoga, and especially in this particular yoga set, we attempt to take our attention back away from the market by dealing with our addiction to social media and to smart phones. In this video, we begin to do some radical accounting for how much time we each spend on social media, and how much that time tacitly contributes to the ballooning financial and social control of a company like Facebook. By stretching our accounting, yoginis are invited to reorient their frustration away from a self antagonism and towards the companies that are making profits off of our failing society of shortened attention spans.
The goal is to unplug from the economy long enough to experience our senses in concert with our minds and bodies and those of others, without abandoning the world and its complexity. The hope that we can make a place and time to produce a new set of social values that are different or safe from those conveyed to us by the market that we call home. Using the ancient social practice of yoga, I hope we can find a quiet place where we can continue to ask the questions we all face, and reach logics and practices that exist beneath the institutions that fill us with distractions while they produce and reproduce oppression.
Ideas of a different future, and hope, are not presently accessible to most people, who are very busy trying to survive in a predatory economy that ultimately profits from our death. It’s so competitive for most North American and many European people to stay alive (let alone everywhere else); we have received so much bad support when we were the most vulnerable (in the form of for-profit healthcare, housing scams of all kinds, and toxic, expensive education systems that reproduce class and race, gender, age and ableist oppression) that it has become very hard to imagine something different than that bad support.
It is easy to make a bullet point list of what this new economy would do — basically everything that the current one doesn’t. In order to actually imagine the experiences of the actual people who would live this economic system into being is a type of work that must necessarily be done by many people together, maybe in yoga pants.
Cassie Thornton is an artist and activist from the US, currently living in Canada. She refers to herself as a feminist economist, a title that frames her work as that of a social scientist actively preparing for the economics of a future society that produces health and life without the tools that reproduce oppression — like money, police or prisons.