Zines, Queers & Economic Democracy: Vernacular Culture in Social Economy

Originally published in Progressive City (progressivecity.net) Access the article by clicking here.

Zine distro table. Image retrieved from QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK.

What’s a zine?

Those of us who are disenfranchised by dominant economic and cultural systems, and with precarious resource-access, use zines as a vernacular form of communication. Artists and authors the world over make zines to share political and cultural polemics, personal narratives, worthwhile skills, and much more. Zines are self-published, experimental, and transgressive print media. They communicate through images and text, using unrefined and common techniques – like collage, handwriting, sketching, and photocopying – to assert direct messages. Zines are made from limited resources and are printed in small-circulation as to bypass commercial markets.

Popular print media, like zines, emerged via breakthroughs in printing technology. Artists and writers began creating print media en masse since the invention of the moveable type press; the mid-20th century invention of the xerox photocopy machine further democratized print media. As xerography gave novice creators direct access to the means of production, zines arose within subcultures from science-fiction, to punk rock, and militant feminism. Queer zine culture grew from this very lineage – drawing on the DIY approach to address precarity and provoke queer consciousness.

Zines quickly became a tool of queer cultural militancy. Over the late 20th century, zines played an important role in queer communities as we fought back against myriad threats of death: AIDS, policing, war, poverty, bashing, bigotry, the list goes on. The first explicitly queer zines from Toronto, where I live, include J.D.’s, Gender Trash From Hell, Homocore, FILE, and many more. Queer artists and authors today continue to produce zines, often without explicitly queer themes though still transgressive. The zine is a medium in which queer creativity and militancy thrives.

Zines in economic terms

Zines are not only cultural, but economic, objects. Zines require material resources that filter through supply chains the world over (ink, paper, glue, information technology, etc.), but are made in contexts of precarity. When assembled, we appreciate the objects most for their use-value: the ability to convey urgent messages, foster creativity, and connect likeminded people.

We can think of zines as economically democratic objects, too. To start, everyday technology and techniques redistribute access to the means of media production toward amateur and activist creators. Zine fairs, bookshops, distro collectives, militant publishers, and shared printing spaces anchor sites where social relations create materially imaginative outcomes. Zine cultures do economic democracy differently by approaching economic democracy in terms of culture, social relations, and failure.

Queer culture today is more visible, and zines more marketable, but most queers struggle to escape precarity. Capitalist and statist institutions mutate the use-value of zines into exchange-value: zines become commodities, their creators become entrepreneurs, and their audiences become tasteful consumers. The noble idea of rewarding queer artists has relied on an industry of institutions invested in developing queer artists as solo producers and their art as commodity – with little socioeconomic benefit for queer communities.

Cultural capitalism and institutionalization evacuate the transgressive potential of the zine medium, extracting ‘edgy’ aesthetics for no particular use. As INCITE! pieced together in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, subsuming radical practices into dominant structures perpetrates more harm than it reduces. Non-profits, museums, cultural corporations, style magazines, chic developers, and governmental arts councils are all complicit (to varying degrees) in the exploitation of transgressive art for capital accumulation.

Queering the Social Economy

Social Economy’s commitment to economic democracy has an important role in disrupting capitalist exploitation. Economic democracy, as framed by Social Economy, advocates for collective social control of production, distribution, and trade. In many ways, economic democracy mirrors autogestion, or ‘autonomous management,’ wherein a collective of workers decides how they work together to cultivate shared wealth. Economic democracy often takes the form of counter-institutions like unions, trusts, and cooperatives – and through mutual economic relationships like gifting, swapping, pooling, and cohabiting.

Mainstream Social Economy often leaves 2 spirit, queer and trans people out of its vision for an egalitarian society. Social Economy envisions an economically democratic society founded on the idea of democracy as a form of control — albeit a form of social control through counter-institutions and consensus. Social Economy speaks an oppositional, financial, and institutional vocabulary that does not always translate to the queer lexicon of alternatives, culture, and non- and anti-institutions. For queers, for whom vernacular cultures (like zines) facilitate economic self-determination, Social Economy can feel inaccessible.

For Social Economy to reach queers, we (queer and trans folks) are wise to nourish and cultivate the economic democracies we already hold. Queering Social Economy necessitates revealing its culturally-contingent character. Given their democratic quality, zines are an apt entry point into queer Social Economy and only one example of how vernacular culture fosters economic democracy.

Learning from zine cultures, three tendencies will help us triangulate queer economic democracy: rhizomatic structure, cultural approach to democracy, and openness to bad affect and failure.

Rhizomatic structures

Rhizomes are a type of subterranean plant stem that grow roots and shoots from many nodes along their bodies (e.g. turmeric, ginger, lotus, bamboo). In social philosophy, rhizomes are a metaphor for anti-hegemonic forms of mutualism, heterogeneity, horizontality, and multiplicity. The rhizome’s multiple, mutable form allows for optimal survival in an ecosystem.

Like a rhizome, the zine is a site of adaptation, deviation, and difference that can take almost any printed form. Zine cultures place creators in mutual relation to each other, thereby sustaining the craft and creators’ livelihoods. Rhizomatic zines distribute resources, skills, and relationships with no particular need for institutionalization.

In conversation with zine artist, Marisa Fulper Estrada, issues arose with institutionalizing vernacular culture. In Fulper Estrada’s words,

“Even an individual thing is part of a complex web of networks. I love publications for their very nature of being more than one image, word, [or] idea. . . as zines have become more popular in the past few years and appropriated by institutions, the waters have gotten muddy. . . Zines arose from the inability to publish through “valid” channels and an inaccessibility of resources. The appropriation of zines by mass culture and institutions is the classic absorption of fringe aesthetics without social change.”

As the artist’s words attest, zine culture’s rhizomatic form is threatened by institutionalization. To be sure, (counter-) institutions can provide vital resources and services within movements. We still need to push past the confines of the institution – cultivating the structural conditions most appropriate for each context, each medium. In the struggle for queer liberation (an economic and anti-capitalist struggle) a queered Social Economy approach may help eradicate precarity while supporting the integrity of vernacular cultures.

Cultural approach to democracy

The zine also engages democracy in terms of cultural production. Cultural production operates as fields (the field of zine culture, for example) where creators converse, collaborate, and conflict. While economic democracy is framed as social control of production and distribution, zine cultures demonstrate an alternative approach to this goal centred on the medium’s usefulness. How do we cultivate and uphold the use-value of cultural products, like zines, while eradicating the precarity that foregrounds the existence of their producers?

QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK (Q.A.W) is a print media centre in Providence, Rhode Island that responds to this very question. Founded by designer, Paul Soulellis, Q.A.W’s mandate is “to support artists and writers with free, open access to space and resources for experimental publishing, with a special focus on queer practices.” Part reading-room, part publishing studio, part social centre, Q.A.W holds space for queer culture to thrive in an otherwise heterosexist world. The organization redistributes the means of cultural production by collectivizing zines, risograph technology, and space for queer uses. Q.A.W elaborates upon the zine medium’s already democratic form – furthering access to those who struggle for the space to create, learn, and publish in precarious socioeconomic conditions.

Q.A.W demonstrates that an alternative democracy of culture lives through everyday practices. As a registered 501(c)(3), the organization queers the norm of non-profit-as-economic-democracy by prioritizing QTBIPOC creators and challenging the organization of straight time. If economic democracy reaches beyond purely economic terms, then zine cultures create space for more capacious, culturally-relevant forms of collectivity. Culture and economy are thus inseparable, integral constituents to any democracy.

Bad affect & failure

A third tendency speaks to zine culture’s queer economic democracy: the capacity to feel bad and fail.

The term “bad affect” comes from Billy-Ray Belcourt, queer Cree writer, who asks us to pay attention to the feelings of “sadness, upset, guilt, etc.” that are a part of love, sex, and desire. For Belcourt, sitting intently with bad feelings grows our capacity to live well together. Within the idea of feeling not-good, Belcourt references Jack Halberstam, who asserts that failure “is something that queers do and have always done exceptionally well.” In The Queer Art of Failure, Halberstam asserts that “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.”

Zine-makers embrace bad affect and failure while building economic democracies. As zines convey visceral emotions, they forgo the common imperative toward good feelings and success prevalent in Social Economy and social movements more broadly. Zines are a medium by which queers support one another while not having to necessarily win or produce good outcomes. Zines, for instance, are often not used to reap large profits. They, instead, generate relations of intimacy and facilitate resource-access directly related to survival.

Ideals of success and goodness are deeply rooted in capitalism and especially inaccessible for Black, Indigenous and queers of colour. Bad affect and failure make queerer economic democracies possible. A look at the affective range of zines catalogued by the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) attests to radical politics of the bad and failed.

Take-aways for practice

Zine cultures exemplify queer economic democracies. Social Economy is a compelling social justice approach with a refined repertoire, and its commitment to economic democracy roots it firmly in the struggle for a more just society. Still, Social Economy practitioners have much to learn from the vernacular cultures and queer communities. Zine cultures pose important questions for a queered Social Economy.

How might we re/disorient Social Economy for the benefit of queer communities? How do we support the integrity of transgressive vernacular cultures while eradicating the precarity from which they originate? How might non-institutionalization, capacious notions of economics, and the celebration of badness and failure reframe Social Economy in service of queer liberation? How do we uphold the culturally-relevant forms of economic democracy already within our communities?

Though belonging to two seemingly disparate realms, zine cultures and Social Economy benefit when in conversation. The repoliticization of zine and related queer vernacular cultures (film, drag, ballroom, nightlife, etc.) through the lens of Social Economy recentres the fight against precarity and poverty in queer communities. As the cultural-industrial complex ceaselessly appropriates transgressive art for capitalist gain, we urgently need spaces for queer economic democracy. By approaching vernacular culture in terms of economic democracy, may we will finally move beyond the conditions of queer precarity and create the conditions to make transgressive art in for generations.

Further Reading:

Belcourt, Billy-Ray. This Wound is a World: Poems. Calgary: Frontenac House Poetry, 2017.

brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Oakland: AK Press, 2017.

Escobar, Arturo. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

Muñoz, Jose Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Queering Anarchism: Addressing and Undressing Power and Desire, edited by C.B. Daring, J. Rogue, Deric Shannon, and Abbey Volcano. Oakland: AK Press, 2012.

Queer Zines, edited by Philips Aarons and AA Bronson. New York: Printed Matter, Inc., 2008.

That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Brooklyn, New York: Soft Skull Press, 2004.

Urgency Reader, edited by Paul Soulellis. Providence, RI: QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK, 2019. Accessed May 2020. https://soulellis.com/work/urgencyreader/index.html.

By Darian Razdar

Writer, researcher, activist. Specializing in urban and cultural planning and action