Provocation #81 Toward a positive vision.
What we can do next to rehumanize economics and the economy.
Here is a short essay on how the separation of economics from social science and the humanities such as history and anthropology, came to be and what we can do to reintegrate the economy with the quality of life for all.
Economics (the description of economies) began with Aristotle’s short book, economos, home rules, or better, estate management. Aristotle embraced the whole reality of land and animals, children and wife, slaves and community.
But then what happened to this broader concept? It is important to see that the idea of the economy and word economics are not in use at all from Athens until late middle ages.
A few quotes from Wikipedia to make the point.
The discipline was renamed in the late 19th century primarily due to Alfred Marshall from “political economy” to “economics” as a shorter term for “economic science” at a time when it became more open to rigorous thinking and made increased use of mathematics, which helped support efforts to have it accepted as a science and as a separate discipline outside of political science and other social sciences.
This emphasis on mathematics and science is still active and in need of understanding as to motives.
The first recorded sense of the word “economy” is in the phrase “the management of œconomic affairs”, found in a work possibly composed in a monastery in 1440. “Economy” is later recorded in more general senses, including “thrift” and “administration”.
The most frequently used current sense, denoting “the economic system of a country or an area”, seems not to have developed until the 19th or 20th century.
The idea of the economy as a system implies its independence from society and its analyzability.
The contemporary concept of “the economy” wasn’t popularly known until the American Great Depression in the 1930s.
Feudal estates, developed from the estates of the Greek and Roman empires, were the only producers, mostly of food, and that mostly cattle, but also their own tools, furniture, weavings and architecture.
But life was not simple.The emerging empires were complex social organizations. Athens in 450BC had a herd outside the city of 100,000 head. (See Mcinerney The Cattle of the Sun: cows and culture in the World of the Ancient Greeks).
This reference to cattle in Athens requires a little explanation with a few words about early social life.
Hunter gatherers shared the kill. As tribes became more complex hunting turned to herding. The cattle were killed in a ritualized practice of common sacrifice. The meat from the sacrifice was shared, continuing the ethos of the shared hunt. The word nomos, for the Greeks at the time of Plato, meant man-made law, comes from an earlier greek word anomia meaning equal distribution. The law of equal distribution was a balance against the tendency toward elite ownership. [Hints of equilibrium of forces where the natural is corrected by society] . The modern work capital comes from the latin cap, head as in new head of cattle. In fact breeding was the source of and measure of wealth (along with war trophies). Capital was the fruit of sexual reproduction and grounded economic activity in cattle ranching.
What we have today is a continuation of that system in the urgency for growth and control through ownership. Capital is organic and sexual. And provides some possible ideas for redirecting the economy we have.
Empires broke down into feudalism because of taxation for wars. The breakdown of feudalism under pressures of population and trade, and the breakup of christianity led to a society based more on commerce and property and less on human relationships. It ws becoming a more material society, concerned with its workings and its problems.
The word property has its origin in “what is proper to a man of rank to show his place in society.“ Property thus has its origin as a social sign, not something apart. Private comes from the latin pri-vates, to remove. This origin of “property” provides further clues as to rethinking some of the basics.
By the time of Adam Smith most of what we mean by economics, the concepts and the procedures, had already been developed, much of it in the early empires in Mesopotamia and then Greece and Rome. Society had been understood as a feudal arrangement under god and hosting craft and trade between cities in the mediterranean.
The subtle interplay of population and elites, power, land and wars, led to a social awareness that was reduced from the good of the whole to the good of the emerging commercial trade. The center of gravity so to speak of the understanding of how society worked had been a mixture of religious and commercial, with the commercial increasingly in focus and the religious moving to the background.
Smith’s two books, Moral Sentiments, and twenty years later the Wealth of Nations, can be taken as illustrative of the reduction of the concern for the success of the whole society to the development of the wealth of the leading land and office holders in society.
In reality Smith was much of a humanist and our lot has more to do with what later generations did with Smith than what he did. Smith had broad interests. He wrote his first nook on astronomy – his scientific side – and later wrote about, for example, Italian poetry, his humanistic side
Smith’s focus was explicitly on the quality of the production of the whole society for the whole society. “Wealth of Nations” has a broader scope than most economics today with its focus on the economy, not society. It can now be said, “The economy is doing well but the people are doing badly.” Of course it has always been bad for people, in empire and feudalism and ht emerging city state commerce. Smith hoped that nobody would be left behind. Pragmatic and humane, he wanted to avoid monopolization and wanted compensation through state sponsored education and health for workers hurt by working conditions, including damage to soul and mind.
Writers however like Ricardo to Mill reflected the reality of increasing population and extensive overseas trade and colonization. Slavery was much more important to the English economy – and the early United states – than we are taught. The house for example in Downton Abbey was built on he slave profits.The money side of society and its tentacles were digging down into the grass roots. A little imaginative dialog
-We want to sell English grain to France at a higher price than we can get in Markets here in England.
-But what of the people here who were going to eat that grain?
-Look. We can sell for X per lb in France but only .7X here. Its obvious what we should do. The cost of shipping is only ,1X
– But wait!!
– Too late. The boats have left already.
The real situation was worse. Taxes were sent to France to subsidize the buying. The losers were the general tax payers, the beneficiaries were the owners of the land that produced the grain. (see E.P. Thompson Customs in Common)
The human side split off ( Mary Poovey: Modern Fact and Genres of the Credit Economy) into literature from commercial writing. And we get wonderful writers like Balzc, Stendahl, George Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy. Poovey makes clear that as ships came and went out of London, commercial houses printed single sheet lists of ships, their officers and cargo. These started to add narrative to make them more competitive, and the narrative stories becoming popular in the next generation developed out of that. Daniel Defoe was a part of the shift from social accounting to long narratives. The descriptive and felt side of the new novels was moving in parallel but not interactive with economics . Literature became a market of its own.
Another opening in the expanding commercialization came for the sons of rich men who had the leisure to travel, comparing France with England mostly, and to reflect on society. Part of the human side emerged as “Philosophy”, another re-use of a dormant greek concept, with questions: what is man? what is society? This was different from the literary movement and more based on imitating science, swayed by Newton. The high bourgeoise was hungry for ideas that could replace the failed christianity of the time. The importance of Newton and his followers (most of educated society) impacted what most everyone thought. With new faith in material, fact and truth. Thus we get Hobbes , Kant, Hume, Locke, Spinoza and a few dozen more who became famous for their ideas. The ideas were a mix of scientific hope for exactitude and interest in the good of the whole society.
A question: why does modern society depend so heavily on these few thinkers? Hobbes and Locke were limited human beings. Their popularity was based I think on their usefulness to dealings with monarchy, the emerging idea of the republic, and democracy, as well as commerce between countries. They provided the needed story for the times.
So we have three movements: writing about commerce, the economists, writing about human lives, the novelists, and writing about ideas, the philosophers.
Voyages of discovery and the realities of new colonialism forced hard thinking – the spectrum of concerns from anthropology to history. All of thinking Europe was very perplexed by these discoveries and it moved them to a more fundamentalist view of humans. “We are the best, they are barbarians”.The issue of European superiority led to stressing the material side of achievement: goods, luxuries, science as the discovery of immutable truth.
That human split now is represented by two streams, not very interactive with each other: the novels, which turned to romanticism, and philosophy which followed the success of science into post Newtonian thought about humans.
The contradictions in perspectives were unresolvable. The idea of “nothing is in the mind which is not first in the senses” is a serious materialist objective view attribution nothing to human nature. At the same time humans, especially europeans, were the best. In fact the brain in its complexity fuses with the senses to create experience. But the turn towards the “objective” in philosophy turned common thinking toward the mechanical view of society.
It is putting back together the human and the martial that can be the task of a future economics. As I see it, it is the reintegration of the human, the globe and society that is the task. To reintegrate humans into nature and society. It means being cal that the view of the economy as a natural object was based on the idea that it and the solar system were created as part of nature and hence should not be interfered with – the core of the conservative position.
Dehumanization would give us a goal: to develop the economics for an economy which can support the better development of all three: man, society and nature, in a full quality of life so that each person can become much larger in life.