Note: This blog post is the second of a seven-part series called Occupy, Connect, Create! Imagining Life Beyond 'The Economy' that will appear here over the course of the next few weeks. A complete version of the text, including downloadable versions, can be found at Grassroots Economic Organizing.
The Name of the Trap is "The Economy"
At every step in our work for a more just, democratic and ecologically-viable world, we are haunted by this thing called "the economy." We know that "it" doesn't work, that "it" is broken, that "it" has served the interests of the wealthy and powerful for generations, that "it" has systematically undermined the health of life on earth, and that "it" needs to be fundamentally changed. And yet at the same time, we confront this economy as if it were a force of nature, a weather-like system that batters us with its shifting whims. At best, it appears as a massive and complex infrastructure of institutions, primarily owned and ruled by the "1%" and managed by obscure experts running elaborate mathematical computer models. They whisper into politicians' ears behind closed doors while the rest of us are locked out. At worst, it is a hurricane barrelling toward our shores, tracked by satellites and mapped on charts, but beyond mortal control. We board up our windows (if we haven't already lost our homes to foreclosure) and pray.
What is this thing?
First and foremost, it is a story. A story designed to stop politics, to shut down ethics, and to stifle our imaginations. "The economy" is a way of thinking and experiencing the world in which our power and agency is robbed from us. In this story, the economy is portrayed as a massive, unified system, a thing that we're inside of that is animated by specific "laws" and "logics." It is for others to deal with, manage, or fix, and we are to simply follow their commands. We'll vote in the next election for someone to tell us, after consulting with the experts, what we must sacrifice, change, or accept in order for the economy to get growing again. "Democracy" is the name for all the minor tinkering we're allowed to do inside the space in which this economy has us locked.
But there is a dirty secret here that we weren't taught in school or on the news: the whole concept of "the economy" has existed for less than two hundred years! No human beings in history, prior to Europeans in the early 18th century, lived in anything like what we today call "the economy." In order for us to find ourselves inside an "economy," this economy had to be made.i It did not emerge from some "natural" process of inevitable evolution; it was constructed, often violently, by specific groups of people and specific institutions in order to serve their purposes. "The economy" was not a reality that was "discovered" by some brilliant economists: it was a project of the elites from its very origins.
This economy was constructed by processes of enclosure, where people were forcibly separated from their means of subsistence (land, community, tools and skills) and pushed into dependence on wage-jobs and commodity purchases. It was constructed by the legal and military authority of centralized states who sanctioned the private property of elites and enforced their contracts. It was constructed by the specific, politically-enforced organization of wage jobs, in which workers were systematically excluded from democratic ownership and control over the products of their own labor. It was constructed through the outright theft of life, labor, land and resources from people in colonized places around the world. It was constructed in concert with a notion of "nature" that enabled living beings to be turned into exploitable objects, and for ecosystems to become nothing but mines and dumping grounds. It was constructed by the ongoing, violent suppression of social movements seeking to transform all of these relationships.ii
Along the way, there were theorists who wrote about this economy as if it were a fact of nature, the evolution of an inevitable pattern built into the very core of humanity and the world.iii They told stories about how self-interested bartering "savages" evolved markets and became civilized humans. They told stories about the "laws" that could be discovered at the heart of economic dynamics: supply and demand, maximization of gains, the necessity for growth, the harsh yet efficient reality of endless competition, the "productive" accumulation of wealth in the hands of powerful "job creators." And they made these laws seem even more natural and inevitable by developing forms of measurement that "confirmed" them, crafting elaborate graphs and charts to "demonstrate" them, and drawing on mathematics and metaphors from physics to place their theories beyond the reach of politics and society.iv
It was a perfect scenario: the ruling elites could systematically institute this new economy through enclosure and violence, all the while drawing on the theory of the economists to show that this economy was nothing more than the inevitable unfolding of human nature.
Let's be clear, though, to avoid any confusion: humans have always engaged in diverse forms of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. What the concept of "the economy" did, in its specific historical form, was to create a kind of conceptual enclosure around a very particular set of human rationalities, motivations, social activities, and ways of life. Economic theory said: self-interest is the legitimate, and natural, economic motivation. Exclusive, individual private property is the legitimate, and efficient, way to organize access to resources and the means of livelihood. Accumulation of wealth (and the fear of poverty) is the legitimate incentive that will generate human well-being. Wage labor (a world divided into owners and workers) is the way to organize effective and innovative economies. Competition is the dynamic that generates efficiency in production and exchange. Bundle all of these things together, publish books about their necessity and build institutions on their certainty, lock the rest of life's complexity and possibility in a closet (or a jail) and call that … economics.
The physical enclosures that drove people from their common land and forced them into dependence on wage jobs over the course of the 16th to 18th centuries in Europe, and that robbed indigenous peoples of their lives and land, were accompanied and supported by the conceptual enclosures that made the story of "the economy." These are two sides of the same coin. And this process of double enclosure is ongoing. It is called "privatization," "colonialism," "neoliberalism," "development," and "economics 101."v The economy has to be made continually, and it is made by institutions that enforce this story on us, that put us in debt to its dependency-machine, that steal our labor, our ideas and our futures in the name of our own best interests. It is made by convincing us that its story is true, and then punishing us when we fail to act accordingly.
We are occupying public spaces across the globe because we are sick and tired of this story, and we will no longer act "responsibly" according to its dictates: we are taking a new form of responsibility, and we enacting a different story.
There is a vast world of possibility for how we might organize human life and livelihood that lies outside of the enclosure we call "the economy." Every single human being on the planet is already engaged in practices that cannot be contained within its cage, yet are essential to life and well-being. This is the moment in history when we can no longer ask the economists for a different version of their clever invention. This is when we break it open, let the light pour in, and begin to imagine our world anew.
i See, for example: Rene Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx: The Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology. University of Chicago Press, 1977; Also Timothy Mitchell, "Fixing The Economy." Cultural Studies. Vol.12, Issue 8, p. 82-101.
ii For at least some of this story, see Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. Beacon Press, 1971 ; and E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Penguin, 1991.
iii Nothing short-circuits political possibility like an appeal to "nature." More more on this, see Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Harvard University Press, 2004.
iv For some academic work on the role of measurement and graphical representation in the making of "the economy," see Timothy Mitchell, "Fixing The Economy." Cultural Studies. Vol.12, Issue 8, 1998; and Susan Buck-Morss, "Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display," Critical Inquiry. Vol. 21, Issue 2, 1995. For an elaborate argument about the sketchy relationships between economics and physics, see Philip Mirowski, More Heat Than Light: Economics As Social Physics, Physics as Nature's Economics. Cambridge University Press, 1989. For an account of some ways in which early economists such as Adam Smith actively hid the role of enclosures in making the economy they were writing about, see Michael Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation. Duke University Press, 2000.
v For more on contemporary enclosures, see The Commoner, Issue 2, 2001 and Issue 7, 2002 among others, and David Bollier, Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Common Wealth. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Gratitude to Kate Boverman, who inspired this piece and provided crucial ideas and support, and to Michael Johnson, Annie McShiras, Cheyenna Weber, Len Krimerman and Anne O'Brien for their excellent thoughts and edits.