The Economy Doesn’t Exist

Today Possible Futures posted a piece by Jedediah Purdy called “Rediscovering Politics,” the third in a series of articles about the Occupy Movement.  The first two pieces in the series have criticized Occupy for an approach that emphasizes theatrics over meaningful political action and are well worth reading.  Purdy’s piece is a fitting follow-up, noting that, for all its flaws, the Occupy movement revealed two important desires among the political disaffected: the “wish for democracy to be more immediate, engaged, and responsive” and the idea “that economic life has moral and political dimensions that we can’t afford to surrender to market logic.”

There’s more to the piece than these two claims, but I wanted to latch onto the second as particularly important.  It seems to resonate with a bit from this essay, part of a collection published by The Scholar and Feminist Online called “A New Queer Agenda,” which claims the following:

The economy as such does not even exist as a fully concrete and discrete object of analysis. It is a historical invention, falsely abstracted from the operations of culture and politics more broadly.

It’s often noted that the “free market” is a reifying abstraction, but this claim is even more radical.  It may be a bit too strong, but I find it refreshingly plausible.  It clashes with a notion that has grown particularly prominent over the past three or four decades: that the economy is a sphere apart from society and politics, free (ideally) of cultural influences or moral considerations, that operates according to an internal “market” logic of efficiency and profit-maximization.  On this view, such efficiency and the material prosperity are goods in themselves that are supposed to benefit everyone in a society in which such an economy exists.  But as soon as political or sociocultural factors “intrude” on the working of the economy, this efficiency and productivity are compromised.  Such obstacles are often seen as some of the worst ills that could befall a society.

But when you think about what the “economy” is, this view is absurd.  Economic activity is, broadly speaking, about producing and circulating goods and services that people need and desire.  But aren’t those needs and desires socially and culturally conditioned, and aren’t they determined by political situations?  Firms and enterprises aren’t (or shouldn’t be) simply profit-maximizing machines.  To name a few examples: coffee shops are places where people socialize and get work done; real estate agents should help people live in safe, comfortable environments; and lawyers should help maintain the rule of law, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty (to use platitudinous language).  All these activities are social activities, and to refer to them as economic is to look at them from a particular perspective–a legitimate perspective, but one that necessarily limits our understanding of how these activities work and what they’re for.  When talk of “the economy” becomes too dominant, we start to think of “economic” enterprises primarily as means to make money and make our lives more efficient, often at the expense of our other social values and social goals.  Profitability and efficiency are not, after all, intrinsically good; they are valuable only insofar as they advance our progress toward other goals, and when pursued for their own sake tend to erode community, democracy, and other important social structures.

I’m not saying we should abolish economics as a discipline or cease to speak of the economy as such, but I do think we should study the economy not as an isolated system but as a set of practices embedded in political, social, and cultural contexts.  Scholars we remember primarily as economists or social scientists often saw the study of economics and society as inseparable–Adam Smith, for instance, wrote an ethical treatise called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Max Weber’s work on economics is often disregarded because we remember him as a sociologist.  But what these scholars studied is perhaps better understood as political economy, namely, the interrelated political and economic (as well as social, cultural, and other) activities that influence each other and cannot be understood properly in isolation.  The study of political economy has been maintained by some scholars, but it’s time for it to once again become central to studying most, if not all, social activity.*

*A personal note: I’d like to attend grad school in History a couple years down the road, and I personally hope to address some of these very issues in my own study and research.

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