The Para-Real: Investigating Resilient Economic Subcultures

Series Trailer.

Over the course of 2020, the forces of austerity, privatisation and pandemic have accelerated the middle and lower classes into appalling economic crisis. Millions are out of work, and those who rely almost entirely on platform capitalism for income (artists, musicians, gig workers and other industries) have suffered under a paralysing power structure that extracts value from them with ever-optimizing efficiency whilst fracturing their industries, leaving workers in deeply atomized political circumstances.

By November 2020, driven by the combined threats of platform capitalism and pandemic austerity, urgent debates of how to respond are happening worldwide. While not new, they now transcend traditional class divides. Their urgency is driven by the historically ignored effects of platform capitalism. Now ubiquitously felt, these systems exploit workers, extract value from creative and cultural sectors, surveil students in pursuit of academic integrity, and invade the homes of remote workers.

At the same time, 2020’s hyper-crises has provided a foundational test for key economic solidarity models. When compared against communities of like-minded labour that depend upon centralized platform capital systems, many of these economic solidarity models appear to have passed with flying colours. For example, in the international Furry subculture, the average middle-class Furry spends approximately $1,500 p/year within their community. Furries have, for the most part, weathered the disruptive year better than other creative communities, even though their economic networks traditionally rely on in-person conventions. In 2020, the largest Furry-adjacent platform, Discord, was valued at $7 billion.

Despite the importance of economic ownership extending as far back as the 1900s Black Wall Street, there’s little research into current examples of economic solidarity models beyond those of mutual aid or crowdfunding. However, there exist numerous communities that have cultivated mixtures of governance and creative use of technology and financial platforms to establish equitable economic structures within the broader capitalist system. Fringe Internet subcultures – Furries, Indigenous Technologists, virtual creators, niche art scenes, independent video game developers, European tech coops and deplatformed fascists – have all quietly produced models of resilient economic solidarity. These networks share key common traits of ownership, digital sovereignty and community resilience. Participants have maintained income and privacy through shared platform ownership and a desire to collectively shape a shared economic destiny. Such models have been tested in 2020, and many have provided measurable resilience compared to workers of similar disciplines that rely on centralized platforms.

Experimenting with a new format for documenting expert interviews, The New Design Congress and RECLAIMFUTURES present The Para-Real: Finding the Future in Unexpected Places, a livestream/research series about subcultures building livelihoods in spite of platform exploitation. Over 12 episodes, we document filmmakers who have never met their actors, artists building their own networks of value, documentarians exploring digital identity, and members of resilient subcultures. All of these people share a commonality: they have an innate understanding of the Para-Real, and have seized upon it to better their surroundings.