While nowadays, more and more people decide to live in urban areas, resulting in staggering global urbanisation rates, others choose a way of life outside of cities, away from marketised and commodified ways of life. When travelling to Portugal last Spring, I came across a form of non-urban collectives within the cultural industries, and also learned that capitalism, even when attempted, is basically inescapable.


Social protectionism

Many years ago, the British artist Beth Richardson moved to the so called ‘Valley’, near Benfeita, Portugal, where she and her husband Kin, a musician and carpenter, built their own house and are now raising their three young daughters. In this beautiful valley, various people, with alternative lifestyles outside of capitalist conventions, are setting up livelihoods away from the city dictated by fast moneymaking. Here, instead of buying a house on a grossly inflated housing market, they build their own houses from scratch. Rather than sending their children to the top-down and institutionalized school system, they attempt to organise their own schooling that conforms to their anthroposophical beliefs. And food is either grown close to home, or bought at the local organic food market. Neighbours, friends and family, all residing in, or near the valley, together have built a community to collectively undertake these social endeavours, while they are as well partaking in various forms of creative collectivity, whereby people transfer their cultural skills and share their cultural capital through for example drawing and painting lessons, pottery classes and concerts.

In The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi has argued that before societies got embedded in a modern state system and market economy, they were characterised by reciprocal and redistributional ‘economic’ relations and the absence of a maximization mentality, based on the social principles of centrality, symmetry and self-sufficiency. According to Polanyi, the pressures of dominant market institutions have led to the emergence of social protectionism, whereby society safeguards itself from the isomorphic forces of the capitalist market. The people in the Valley live accordingly to Polanyi’s statement that the market society is unsustainable, given its destructive nature towards human mentalities and natural resources. Their way of life, marked by reciprocal social relations and the absence of capitalist market structures seems to relate to a ‘third way’ of allocation, outside of the market and the state.

Global linkages

These social and cultural collective arrangements are taking place between a relatively small group of like-minded people located in the Portuguese foothills and mountains, but they stretch much further than a single visit to the valley might suggest. If you would visit Beth’s website you can find, apart from her stunning paintings, the names and locations of the galleries which display and sell her work. Galleries in London and Milan(the Milan gallery shows her work in America and Asia as well) exhibit and offer Beth’s artwork, thereby generating (capitalist) income. While Beth and her family can live a latitudinarian and creative life between the Portuguese Mountains, gallery owners in first-tier/global cities commodify this creativity and sell it on the global art market.

Many people are attracted by the urban, with its presence of always proximate amenities and energetic ways of life. Others, however, feel chased by a constant focus on profit maximization and wasteful manners of consumerism. Some of these people burn out by the constant pressures of capitalism, while others seek an alternative lifestyle far away from the urban landscape. The people near Benfeita seem successful in having set up livelihoods based on local systems of reciprocal exchange that challenge the ‘conventional’ boundaries of capitalist structures of allocation. However, it still appears that to some extent, capitalism and a relation to the urban and global (art) market is inevitable.