Provocation # 90
Aristotle, as most economists know, used an existing greek word economy from oiko=house = nomos=rules… By it he and other Greeks meant estate management which we know both by the way the word was used and by the surrounding society which was organized in what we today would see as cattle ranches. Cattle was the chief food for the Greeks, and “sacrifice” as a ritual act honoring the gods while feeding the people, was , to us, shockingly central. Athens at the time of Plato had a herd of 100,000 cattle for those events.(see Mcinerny, The Cattle of the Sun:Cows and culture in the world of the Ancient Greeks and Richard Seaford Money and the Early Greek Mind. The following is a paraphrase of some of Dotan Leshem’s very helpful book The Origins of Neoliberalism)
Plato and Aristotle realized that a well managed estate could produce a surplus. What was that? New thought, because nature did not seem to produce a surplus, using up everything it produced. It was recognized that the surplus could free up time that could be used – and the two key categories for time spending were philosophy and Politics. Note the economy produced the surplus to be used for these social and individually developmental projects.
[Interesting that the three key terms, economics, politics and philosophy – were Athenian in origin.]
The purpose of estate management then was to free up citizens (not slaves or women) for contemplative or political time. There was no sense of using it to further expansion the economy. More leisure could be gained with more surplus by prudent management and the control of desires for spending. These were seen as the source of surplus, not innovation, which was unknown.
Comes along Rome and shift of economy from the encompassing polis to being embedded in empires. The practicality of that raised the stakes for political participation and philosophy fell to the sideNext came early Christianity, much more important than we were taught. The idea was that the surplus created by the economy , used in Greece for philosophy and politics, could now be used, in the community of the faithful, to support prayerful and meditative. time. Since the world was given by god, the economy was the world, the meditation was to be in touch with gods’ plan – economy- (I am not making this up. The greek word, economia – was used widely in this sense .)
Imagine starting with the Garden f Eden, God’s economy, and then passed on… Important to see that we are talking about words and meanings that pervaded whole societies – and changed. These ideas, strange to us, should not be. Foucault and Arendt basically covered this territory up to this point, and made the connections with the modern economy and politics. ). Since economy was about cosmos and materiality and god created the world, gods plan – the word used was economy – also included God’s giving Jesus to humanity as an incarnation of his plan for humanity: this was, fr the time, a coherent understandable project. Remarkable how much current economics can sound the same – growth through economy to meet the limitless expansive needs of society. As society grew more complex and populated, the idea of the economy and the value of surplus moved outside the christian communities of the faithful into the broader society (you could see it happening, and this required new thinking. The INET of the era.) The result is the economy we have now, with its displacement of philosophy and politics as economy became more central to the management of the empire.
As I have been poking around in various literatures I keep finding things we really need to know. If economics could move from being subservient to philosophy and politics to the incarnation of Christ and the community of the faithful and then to society writ large in growth and surplus seeking, not for the use of leisure time for thought and personal development, but for filling the garage with toys and the skies with weapons, then we need to know about this. If economics used to be subservient to politics and philosophy, it certainly is not now. It speaks to the idea that economy can be different and we are freer to choose, if we can bring ourselves to see it. This perspective means new economic thinking at a scale larger than Marginalism, Keynes, even Marx. There is a feast here.
Here from Leshaem is one of the many readings that have helped me clarify.
“None of the world’s top industries would be profitable if they paid for the natural capital they use.”
By David Roberts on Apr 17, 2013
If so are we ecnomists?