Provocation #132. Economy across languages.
Most science begins with a phenomena and explores it. Economics begins with an economy that has been defined, redefined and refined again, always passing through the ideological filters of the times. The result is that Economy as we develop an economics to understand it is split off from society. The two, economics and society, have dangerously diverged. Over time, the holistic sense of economy as estate management (the original Greek) in all its organic details gave way to an economics of commerce and finance. This is the reason why economics is so destructive, by supporting a view of economic life that tears apart communities, families, individuals and the climate, and why the way the history of economics is written, as the triumph of the wonderful present, is only part, and a misleading part, of the story of economics and its attempts to understand economies..
Th very word economy hints at a coherent self-contained systemic concept of something separable from its context in society. Only those languages derivative from the Greek have the word for economy, such as French economie (which in French means both economy and economics). Other languages without Greek influence have to make up something to fit when translating from the English.
In Chinese two characters (as eco-nomos is also a combination of two words) that have been adapted for translation have very different implications from the western economy. .
The first, jing can mean To manage, to engage, or via, close to the nomos of economy, but also meaning “classical or sacred texts. It is one of the words in the title of Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing The way (forward) and its power (to make things happen). The second, li, means to benefit, to cross a stream, to relieve, to help, to aid, to assist. So In Chinese the words used to translate economy can be read as effort to carry the great past into the future. Not completely different from the western economy which is the effort to make the future (good use of resources for production. Production means to make forward).The difference which may be important is that the Chinese makes it clear that what is carried forward is a great civilization.
This suggests that the West is uniquely burdened by the implication that economy is a coherent object for study and policy, mechanical and separable from society. It really is not a good slice of reality and in practice it has evolved over time from the holistics of estate management to the more limited mechanism of wealth treated as a physical system owned by capital but not by labor.
If we were to take modern society without the word economy or economics I doubt that we would put together the existing ensemble into such a concept.