1977. Phases in the history of Economics

Many economists assume that economic history comes in two phases

1. Early and casual up to Adam Smith
2. Commerce and industry, From Adam Smith

What is striking to the broad ranging reader is how much detail and analysis there is before The Wealth of Nations. Instead of two phases, a better match is in four or five. (Each of the following paragraphs could make a long discussion.)

1. Greek “Economy” as estate management. A holistic concept that deals with every activity of production and social life on the estate which was the only social unit inside the greek communities. There was no market in Athens, but the estates were complex, producing the food and crafts. Plato and Aristotle were aware that the well managed estate could produce a surplus, and it should be used for leisure for study for politics and philosophy. In non western societies there is no single concept that contains all of what we mean by economic activity. It is an achievement of classical Athens that still affects economy and economics. It is an open but interesting question if this use of economy and economics helps us evolve in a crisis time, or freezes the current state of thought.

2. The early Christian phase where estate was re-designated as God’d kingdom made for humans, and the management became the us of the estate, the christian community and the monasteries, to create ethical humans oriented towards god and humans activity  to carry out god’s purpose. Key ideas were the Christian community as an economy segmented off from the society as a whole and explicitly called “the economy” as a design project with a clear goal – becoming a better human closer to god, and growth as needed to reach the infinite god. (Good references, Neoliberalism from Jesus to Foucault by Dotan Leshem, and “THE KINGDOM AND THE GLORY: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government” Agamben, Giorgio, Mandarini, Matteo, Chiesa, Lorenzo. Our current understanding, while dropping the specific christian goal, keeps much of the feeling of what an economy is : closed system, competitive, growth, good for humans, and more to be explored.

3. The shift from god domination to nature as the totality of the world. Certainly several generations of economic thinkers (not yet so named) worked to understand local productive activity in nature, the physical organic process, rather than in god’s project for us. The legacy of this period is huge, Best Source is Margaret Schabas The Natural Origins of Economics. I can hardly nudge you enough to read this amazing book. The thinking about blood, water, oil, air, electricity as flows had a major impact.

4. The industrial where value s produced not by land but by human action. Most 19th and 20th century activity in society and hence in economics, now named, elaborated on the mechanical and the industrial. The engineers and the mathematicians play a large role in keeping the focus on the physical stuff of life but away from the agricultural and social.

5. We might add treating digital, informational and the algorithmic as the whole economy. Good source is Manuel Castells Aftermath (the state of the world after institutions – states and corporations) are undermined by the internet).

What is important is the extent to which economics exists within these cultural shifts. The normal assumption, that economics is an ensemble of discrete and stable topics, such as interest, debt, trade, taxes, profit, labor, becomes a very different set of assumptions when we focus on historical and cultural context. Is the future of economics based on rethinking the details, or shifting the culture?

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